Category Archives: 100 Great Records Of The 1920s

100 Great Records Of The 1920s: Without Whoms

A brief bibliography and discography. Anything interesting, provocative, or true I may have said was said first by someone else (everything dumb or factually incorrect was all mine), and credit must be rendered where credit is due. In order of influence:

Text:

  • David Wondrich, Stomp And Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924
  • Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America
  • Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts
  • Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather
  • Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen
  • Ethan Mordden, Make Believe: The Broadway Musical In The 1920s
  • Wilfrid Sheed, The House That George Built
  • P. G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, Bring On The Girls!
  • Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s
  • Wikipedia.

Music:

  • American Pop, An Audio History From Minstrel To Mojo, ed. Allen Lowe
  • The Anthology Of American Folk Music, ed. Harry Smith
  • Rhapsodies In Black: Music And Words From The Harlem Renaissance, ed. Rhino Records
  • Comprehensive reissue efforts by labels like Document, Yazoo, Archeophone, Pearl, and Classics.
  • Various single-disc songwriter tributes from ASV/Living Era.
  • Soulseek.

And so to bed.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #2-1.

Bessie Smith
2. Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues”
(W. C. Handy)
Columbia 3171D, 1925 · mp3
Nearing the end of the list, it’s time to step back and take a look at music as a whole in the 1920s. Like every other era, music during this decade of Prohibition and Babbitt, of Gertrude Stein and Buster Keaton, was fragmented, polarized, and difficult to get a grasp on as a whole. One significant trend, however, draws our attention in a meaningful way, a trend which can only grow in relevance as the century gathers speed. That is the rise of the vernacular, a fact as important to American music, society, and culture as the increasing influence of vernacular languages in Europe between 1300 and 1600 was to European literature, politics, religion, and philosophy. No Dante, Chanson de Roland, or Chaucer — no Protestant Reformation, French Revolution, or United States of America. No jazz, blues, country, or pop — nothing good, beautiful, interesting, or arresting about American culture in the twentieth century. And one of the problems with this list as a remedial history lesson is that you don’t really get a sense of what it was like before the seas and lands changed; you get the aftereffects, the fallout. But I’ve listened to a lot of the Other: the uptight, the white, the ofay, the respectable, the straightlaced, the adult, the pious, the virginal, the self-satisfied, the faux bon (as Gilbert Seldes calls it). And trust me: it’s nothing. Just . . . nothing. “St. Louis Blues” was the first vernacular piece of music to gain widespread acceptance as more than a novelty in twentieth-century America. Unlike ragtime in the nineties or coon songs in the oughts, it was recognized practically on its publication in 1914 as an intelligent, relatively artistic (within the bounds of popular song, anyway) and worthy piece of authentic musical literature. It inspired the existence of the foxtrot. It created awareness of the musical and aesthetic form of the blues, without which no American vernacular music is possible. It established the credentials of (black, poor) authenticity by which virtually every form of popular music would come to be judged by someone or other, and by the rigors of which “St. Louis Blues” would eventually be rejected as inauthentic by some hardline blues dipshits. It gave black people — real, honest-to-God black people, not a white approximation thereof, or a black imitation of the white approximation — a place at the cultural table which would never again be able entirely to deny them, no matter how hard some folks tried. And when it was recorded for the several hundredth time in 1925 by Bessie Smith (vocal), Louis Armstrong (trumpet) and Fred Longshaw (harmonium), it found, as if carved in the face of a mountain by several tons of dynamite, its permanent, forever form. “St. Louis Blues” spelled the beginning of the end of America’s long struggle to match Europe artistically, with its centuries of symphonies, novels, gallery paintings, cathedrals, and dramas. Instead, America began, without even trying or thinking about it, without thinking about anything but making some cash, to beat Europe artistically — with jazz, pulp fiction, comic strips, skyscrapers, and movies. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.


Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
1. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Black Beauty”
(Duke Ellington)
Victor 21580, 1928 · mp3
I’ve talked a lot on this list about a relatively obscure figure in the music of the decade — obscure today, that is, relative to how much influence she actually had. Florence Mills is forgotten today because she didn’t record, because she never stepped in front of a rolling camera, because she died young on the brink of the Crash and everything she fought for — mainstream acceptance of talented black entertainers, intellectuals, and artists — was forgotten in the general panic and struggle to survive that followed. But she was loved, admired, and reverenced in her day by audiences black and white, critics high and low, and entertainers everywhere, many of whom never had anything good to say about anyone else but her. For some years now, I’ve wanted to write her biography and get it out in front of people who think they know all about the period but don’t know about her . . . a biography that would take in a great deal of the social, cultural, musical, theatrical, and political milieu of her life. (A real, scholarly biography already exists.) I’ve done more research into her life than I’ve ever done for anything else. But for now, this skimpy list, and its logorrheic pronouncements on all things under the sun, will have to do. I bring all this up because in January 1943, when Duke Ellington played a special engagement at Carnegie Hall, he presented a collection of separate pieces as “portraits” of legendary black entertainers. One was of Bert Williams; another of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; both were new works, written explicitly for the occasion. The title of the third piece was given in the program as Portrait of Florence Mills. But it was a scaled-up arrangement of a tune that Duke and his band had been playing for fifteen years — they had first recorded it under the title “Black Beauty” on March 26, 1928, and it was under that title that the song continued to be known for the remainder of the Duke’s career. Florence Mills died November 1, 1927; many scholars believe that “Black Beauty” was always intended to be an homage to her (though admittedly there is no direct evidence of that fact). Regardless, “Black Beauty” has always been one of the most hauntingly beautiful Ellington compositions, and the man probably wrote the most hauntingly beautiful compositions of any composer — jazz, classical, whatever — in the twentieth century. (“Most” in that sentence can be taken either as an intensifier or as an indicator of quantity, as needed.) It’s one of the rare occasions when the Duke himself takes a solo and sounds like he means it, rather than just getting the orchestra from point A to point B — as many others have said before me, he was only an okay pianist; his true instrument was the band itself. The song combines the bluesy swagger and sexy come-ons of jazz with the delicate shadings and sensitive nuances of art music and the open, accessible directness of all truly great pop. It’s my favorite piece of music from the decade, and one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Requiescat in pace, Florence . . . Duke . . . hell, alla y’all, you brave, silly, glamorous, fragile years that happened to fall between December 31st, 1919 and January 1st, 1930. It’s been real.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #3.

Cliff Edwards
3. Cliff Edwards, “Fascinating Rhythm”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Pathé 25126, 1924 · mp3
We’ve mentioned the 1924 George Gershwin show Lady, Be Good! in this space before (#63, for those who’d rather not use search engines). The book of that musical was written by Guy Bolton of the Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern trio of musical fame (#90; try to keep up). It was the show that launched Fred and Adele Astaire to international fame; it was the show that launched George Gershwin as a Broadway composer, as opposed to a guy who wrote good songs that sometimes got into musicals and sometimes sold a lot of sheet music. But then as now, the people who were providing the money never wanted to trust the whole production to untried and untested talent — no matter how well Fred and Adele had done in revues, no matter how much critical praise Gershwin had got for his Rhapsody back in February, Broadway producers, like movie producers today, wanted a couple of safe bets in the show. P. G. Wodehouse’s writing partner and professional punch-up theatre writer Guy Bolton was one of these; the other was a high-voiced, prematurely balding vaudevillian who went by the stage name of “Ukelele Ike.” Ike, or Cliff Edwards, was a big seller on records and a headlining draw at the vaudeville two-a-days, and he used that leverage to get a contract that specified that he wouldn’t have to appear on stage until after 11pm in Lady, Be Good!, as well as limiting the number of songs he had to sing — and he even got to interpolate his own tunes into Gershwin’s score. Bolton and the Gershwins had to write around his prima donna ultimatums — but they did get him to sing this song, a showcase duet with Adele Astaire. Of course, once people left the theater no one was talking about Ukelele Ike, but about those dancing Astaires and that sweetly hummable, faintly jazzy score — but that’s no reason for us to ignore Cliff. He’d been scatting on record for half a decade before Louis Armstrong, and his New York Times obituary would later say he had a “trick voice,” which is as good as any other description for the vocal gymnastics he performs here, sounding like a combination between a muted trumpet, a kazoo, and a qawwali singer. His popularity faded along with that of the ukulele and the introduction of less flamboyant crooners (though he did introduce “Singin’ In The Rain” onscreen), but he had a second career as a voiceover artist, playing Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and the crow in Dumbo who’d never seen an elephant fly. This song would never go on become a standard, but perhaps that’s because nobody ever sang it, or sang around it, so well.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #10-4.

Harry McClintock
10. Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”

(Harry McClintock?)
Victor 21704, 1928 · mp3
Apparently there have been other recorded versions of this song; I can’t imagine why. From the moment I heard its opening notes over the credits of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which I had dragged my brothers to see simply because the title was a Sullivan’s Travels reference), I knew I was in the presence of a unique and self-sufficient work of American art. McClintock’s voice, humorous but set at a patient, hardwon distance, the simple guitar figure, and the lyrics of the song itself — if he didn’t write it (and there’s no real evidence either way, as naturally there wouldn’t be for a hobo song), somebody with a genius talent for choosing the right image for the meaning at hand did — conspire to create something preternaturally accessible to even a modern audience yet tough enough to withstand repeated exposure to critical ears. I’m told it’s become something of a children’s song over the past several years, but that just irritates, because leaving out the cigarette trees and streams of alcohol (can’t let our children entertain the notion that people enjoy, or even engage in smoking and drinking, the horror) leaves out something crucial in this hobo’s Paradise, and even violates its spirit. The land of Cockaigne can have no restrictions, or it’s not Cockaigne; more to the point, people who have no reason to fear short-handled shovels, railroad bulls, or the turk who invented work don’t deserve to dream of the Mountains. In addition to being a country-music broadcasting pioneer — he’s another early country & western musician who’d spent time as an actual cowboy — McClintock was a labor organizer and prominent member of the Industrial Workers of the World who knew the value of class solidarity and of giving the underdog a chance to speak for himself. (His “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” not to be confused with the Rodgers & Hart-written Al Jolson song of the same name, was in fact a sarcastic working-class response to capitalists’ accusations of laziness and spendthriftiness.) “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” may not exist, but the impulse to build a society where no one is forced to dream of it remains.


Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra
9. Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, “Riverboat Shuffle”
(Hoagy Carmichael/Dick Voynow/Irving Mills)
Okeh 40822, 1927 · mp3
This is the record that made me understand jazz. Partly because its sections and the development of the themes are so obvious that even an ignoramus like me can figure out to what’s going on, but also partly because of the imagination, freedom, and wit of the playing. This was the greatest collection of white jazz players in the early history of the form, and obviously not to take away anything from the black men (and women) who developed, and were still developing, jazz, but it was also one of the most forward-thinking jazz groups in the country, at least for a while. The guy with his name on the session, Trumbauer was one of the most influential saxophone players of his generation, an inspiration to Lester Young among others; you can hear him on the second primary solo playing a C melody saxophone, which is somewhere between the usual alto and tenor saxes. Bix Beiderbecke, his friend and close associate — they’d come up through the same Midwestern white jazz circles and routinely played together on record and in larger orchestras like Whiteman’s — plays cornet and takes the first primary solo, where his delicate phrasing and the way he seems to be playing in a less headlong, more thoughtful song than the rest of the band comes as a stroke of genius among the rest of the hot, caterwauling clatter. Eddie Lang (who else?) is the one taking those guitar breaks up top, and outdoing himself in the process, and Bill Rank is the trombonist who takes a couple of brief spots. The band is rounded out by Irving Riskin on piano, Chauncey Morehouse on drums, and there may possibly be (I can’t quite tell) a clarinet (Don Murray) and/or an alto sax (Doc Ryker) in there as well. A lot of credit goes to Bix, who arranged his buddy Hoagy Carmichael’s tune — very nearly the first thing he’d ever written — with a keen sense of stop-start dynamics and a highly developed sense of space. Jazz was edging into sophistication here, which the big band era would develop more fully, concurrently with the small-combo ethos that would more or less set the tone for the remainder of the music’s history.


Gene Austin
8. Gene Austin, “My Blue Heaven”
(Walter Donaldson/George Whiting)
Victor 20964A, 1927 · mp3
I can no longer remember where I read the postulation that “My Blue Heaven” is not a song about conventional domestic bliss, but about a ménage à trois (it requires a frankly peculiar reading of “just Molly and me, and Baby makes three”), but now I can’t get it out of my head whenever I listen to the song. The one positive effect it has is that it turns Gene Austin’s somewhat drippy delivery into something effortlessly sly; he now has the sound of a guy getting away with something. But. Anyway. This recording of “My Blue Heaven” was the biggest-selling pop smash of its era, selling over twenty million copies by some estimates (though as ever, others disagree). The Texas-born Austin, who ran away to join vaudeville in his teens and whose light, clear tenor was credited by (among others) Bing Crosby with beginning the crooner revolution, found himself suddenly rich. He bought a custom-built yacht, named it the My Blue Heaven, and promptly got caught up in a hurricane on its maiden voyage; the press reports of his death in the the storm sent the sales of his latest hit skyrocketing. They didn’t slow down when he returned, only slightly the worse for wear, after having listened to several hours of his obituary on the ship’s radio while drinking steadily and trying to keep his pregnant wife out of hysterics. (God, I love a good anecdote.) But for our purposes, neither his personal drama nor any after-the-fact imputations about the song really matter: what does matter is the wordless warble he takes in the middle of the song, and we can see now how deeply jazz had soaked into the collective unconscious of popular entertainment. Gene Austin was the stuffiest, squarest popular singer around (unless you count holdovers from the wax-cylinder era like the ubiquitous and godawful Billy Murray, or Classical Voices like John McCormack), and even he couldn’t help throwing a little swerve — a tad unimaginative perhaps, but serviceable — into his delivery of a standard-issue Tin Pan Alley bit of fluff. And then the producers go ahead and overdo it by tacking on a bit of fake birdsong onto the last chorus, which sure, it points to the future of artificial sound in pop music, Joe Meek and Jack Nietzsche and Timbaland passim. It’s the biggest pop song of the decade, and the rules of pop it follows are already clearly recognizable even today.


The Masked Marvel
7. The Masked Marvel, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”
(Charley Patton)
Paramount 12805B, 1929 · mp3
Charley Patton (I’m going with record-label convention on this, though apparently he spelt it “Charlie”) was about two generations too late to be the first bluesman, but he’s closer to our modern conception of the bluesman than anyone else who’s appeared on this list so far: a poor black man from the Mississippi Delta who developed a method of slide guitar that is as much about piercing attack as about mournful grace — the flip side of this record was called “Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues.” It’s no longer the showbiz blues of St. Louis or Memphis or New York: it’s the down-and-dirty, mud-under-your-fingernails and a-mixture-of-anguish-and-rage-in-your-throat Delta blues. Patton mentored John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf, played with Son House, and crossed paths with Robert Johnson, placing him firmly in the rock-canonical line of thunderous influence (hell, John Fogerty paid for his headstone), but unlike the bluesman of rock & roll legend, he wasn’t an itinerant musician hopping from town to town and playing for whoever would listen; he was a Southern black institution, playing at plantations and taverns with plenty of publicity and packed audiences everywhere. He was also a canny, theatrical showman, playing his guitar behind his head and on his knees, and bellowing his lyrics with a powerful voice whose gritty roar was a seminal influence on the young sharecropper Chester Burnett. He was 38 by the time he cut his initial records, and would only live another five years before heart disease took him in northern Mississippi. “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues” was issued under the name “The Masked Marvel” as a promotional stunt for Paramount; people who bought the record were supposed to write in with their guesses of who the marvel was (of course, to figure it out you’d have to have heard Paramount’s other Patton recordings — ka-ching) and if correct, they’d get a free Paramount record of their choice. Whether anyone actually won anything has failed to come down to us, but ain’t that the American way: a song about the economic devastation and masive black poverty caused by the boll weevil destroying cotton crops (which played a role in inspiring black migration to the north, among the results of which was the Harlem Renaissance itself) is used to make a crass buck for a record company; because no matter what sales figures have been lost to time, I can guarantee that Patton never saw a dime.


Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds
6. Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, “Crazy Blues”
(Perry Bradford)
Okeh 4169, 1920 · mp3
You’re not gonna believe this, but at one point in American history it was widely considered more appropriate for white women to pretend to be black and sing blues songs on record than for black women to sing them. The reasoning behind this is entirely unrecoverable today; apparently it had something to do with white women simply being better at singing, which just sounds stupid in a post-Ella, post-Aretha, post-Mariah world, but the Jim Crow atmosphere of the day was so thick with nonsense, lies and double-talk that it’s impossible to know what white people really believed versus what they just said because they held all the cards and didn’t have to think about it. Anyway, a hefty Jewish woman who called herself Sophie Tucker was by far the most popular of what they called “coon shouters” in the teens, a vaudeville headliner and sex symbol — or symbol of female sexuality, which isn’t really the same thing — whose size and broadly exaggerated style of showmanship could be safely laughed at. She had had a massive hit with a song by an African-American gentleman named Shelton Brooks, “Some Of These Days,” and her recording company was eager to have her repeat the success; they scheduled studio time for her and another young black songwriter, Perry Bradford, who had had a moderately successful Harlem musical and might be on the cusp of breaking big. But Tucker had to cancel at the last minute, and Bradford convinced the boys up top to give a young black woman who had wowed ’em in the Harlem musical a shot instead. She did okay, and the records did okay, and they booked her for a follow-up. Now, Mamie Smith was not a blues singer; she was a vaudevillian just like Tucker who sang blues songs and embryonic stage jazz as part of an overall act, but she was an good Cincinnati Ohio girl, and an entertainer to boot. But she was game, and Brooks had a song called “Crazy Blues” that had some good lines, and had a bunch of musicians that had come up in Jim Europe’s military band (the proto-jazz combo of the teens), and they recorded it in August of 1920, and wow! David Wondrich calls it “the most riveting recording of American music the recording industry had yet produced,” and it is, the players all over the place like real jazz cats should be, not lurching along in some European approximation of timekeeping, but stomping, swerving, and leaving Mamie plenty of space to belt out lyrics like “gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop; get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop” — holy shit folks, this is the real deal. The genie was out of the bottle and suddenly record companies discovered that there was a black market to sell this stuff to, and the floodgates were opened. After Mamie Smith, anyone could record, and did. And the face of American culture has never been the same. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a good song in its own right. I often find myself humming “there’s a change in the weather, change in the deep blue sea,” a lyric with Biblical overtones. But yeah, historical importance too.)


Mississippi John Hurt
5. Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon Blues”
(John Hurt)
Okeh 8759, 1928 · mp3
I don’t think there is, or can be, a vernacular musician as beloved, or as lovable, as John Hurt. His placid, thoughtful songs, with an amazingly sophisticated and lyrical fingerpicking style and gentle, unhurried singing, are among the treasures of American music, not to mention the blues. He chanced into recording in 1928, when a friend he sometimes played with recommended him to a talent scout for Okeh records. He recorded eight sides, only two of which were issued, but apparently did well enough to make a trip to New York to record another dozen songs, including this one. But after that there was nothing, and he went back to working as a hired hand and a tenement farmer in Avalon, Mississippi, where he would have been forgotten entirely. But then Harry Smith included his versions of the two most popular folk songs of all time, “Frankie” and “Stack O’ Lee,” on his Anthology Of American Folk Music, and folk revivalists hunted around and found his early recordings and were staggered by them, as well they should have been, because they’re peculiar monuments of grace in a field and region that very infrequently has any time for it. One of these revivalists, a musicologist named Tom Hoskins, used the clues in this song, a gorgeous blues ballad about being homesick while in New York, to track down Hurt at his farm in Avalon and bring him to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where he was a sensation. Hurt, a mild, self-effacing man, was astonished to discover that there was such a huge, appreciative audience for his music after seventy years of anonymity spent playing merely to please himself, and his gratitude and delight were infectious. He played festivals, he played stadiums, he played Carson. He passed away peacefully in 1966, and there’s a monument to him in Avalon near where he grew up. And he’s the main reason why I have no time for the idea that the blues are supposed to be synonymous with being badass. The blues are a vehicle for self-expression; sure, some badasses have played the blues, but so did Mississippi John Hurt. And he pwned them all.


Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five
4. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, “West End Blues”
(Joe Oliver/Louis Armstrong/Clarence Williams)
Okeh 8579, 1928 · mp3
And jazz enters the thirties. Armstrong achieves the next step in the music’s evolution simply by slowing down the tempo of King Oliver’s original composition named for the West End of New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain, where dance pavilions, lake resorts and seafood restaurants had employed many an early jazz musician in the summer months, and then playing in a relaxed, nuanced fashion that on that last solo can take your breath away with its clarity and sensitivity. Though most of the attention given to the song tends to focus on the opening solo, an unpredictable volley of notes halfway between a cavalry bugle and a boot-scootin’ boogie, and which gave the first faint echo of jazz players’ willingness to depart not only from the original melody of a song (that is jazz) but even from its harmonic foundation. Without that solo, there’s no Charlie Parker, no John Coltrane, no Ornette Coleman, no Miles Davis; in other words, no jazz at all in the way we’ve come to understand the word. But it’s the closer-to-home innovations that interest me more: the light, airy touch of the main piece itself, the thoughtful, considered playing. It’s worlds away from the all-velocity, all-noise hot jazz that made Armstrong’s name, and the name of jazz itself even before that, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer hot. It’s a slow, sexy grind rather than a wham bam thank you ma’am, and it can get under your skin even more. This was the second version of the Hot Five that Louis Armstrong had put together (I used a picture of the first), with Earl Hines on piano delivering a wise, impressionistic solo and Jimmy Strong pacing Armstrong’s soft scatting with a dark liquid clarinet in the second chorus. Drummer Zutty Singleton’s woodblocks get the last word on the song and leaven it througout with an impish humor, and Mancy Carr’s banjo and Fred Robinson’s trombone do most of the rhythmic work, Robinson actually functioning as the bassist would in decades to come. Really, about half this list could have been Armstrong performances, and I’m not entirely comfortable with having this and “Heebie Jeebies” as the only ones with him as a leader — he’s frankly the most important figure in twentieth-century music, bar none — but then again I’m primarily a pop listener, not primarily a jazz listener, and I’m swimming in waters slightly too deep for me as it is.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #15-11.

The Broadway Nitelites
15. The Broadway Nitelites, “Thou Swell”
(Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)
Columbia 1187D, 1928 · mp3
The Broadway Nitelites were one of several aliases for the band led by second-generation Russian immigrant Ben Selvin, by some counts the most recorded bandleader of the 78rpm era, and one of the most influential men in the industry for most of the century. In the late teens, Paul Whiteman sponsored a contest (which was more about publicity than reality) to find a new, better, whiter name for the crass, ugly, black “jazz” (or “jass”). The resulting list of newly-minted nomenclature is an artifact of hilarity, but probably the best representative, both for period flavor and to give some idea of what the vast majority of people wanted jazz to be, is “Synco-Pep.” (Idea stolen, as is much else in this list, from David Wondrich.) Selvin’s band was a pretty lousy jazz band, but they were a pretty great Synco-Pep band, with a string of mildly exciting dance hits that borrowed a certain velocity and rhythmic focus from jazz, if nothing more. “Thou Swell” is one of the great Rodgers & Hart love songs, a giddy rush of cod-archaisms laced with “modern” slang that had me convinced for a while that “thou swell, thou witty” must have been a steal from Shakspeare, possibly in the dialogue between Beatrice and Benedick; finding entirely sensible rhymes for “lollapalooza” and “kitchen” are among the least of its charms. The song was the crowning glory of a musical adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (it’s not in the pretty shitty movie version), but its greatest interpretation would come some thirty years later, when Joe Williams sang a furiously-rocking version with the Count Basie band. But this one is okay, too, with the vocal refrain delivered by Franklyn Baur, a moderately popular tenor of the period who retired in 1930 when he failed to cut it as a concert vocalist before even reaching thirty himself. But listen for the handclaps; even with the recording limitations of the era, you can tell the difference between when the hands hit their mark and when they were just a little bit off. If you can’t find those kind of flaws endearing, maybe listening to this stuff isn’t for you. Wait, how did you even get here?


Uncle Dave Macon
14. Uncle Dave Macon, “Old Dan Tucker”
(Traditional)
Vocalion 5061, 1925 · mp3
1843 is as good as any year for the invention of rock & roll, and better than some. That was the year that the Virginia Minstrels — Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower — gave their first performance on a stage in Brooklyn. Their instruments were the tambourine, the fiddle, the banjo, and the “bones” — three percussion instruments and the most expressive string instrument of the era, and contemporary descriptions of the physical frenzy they got into when they played their dirty-ass, low-class, irremediably vulgar, black-imitating (but filtered through a youthful, ignorant white sensibility) music sound like nothing else this side of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols. They sang “Old Dan Tucker” that night — Emmett claimed he wrote it, but nobody knows for sure — and they were a sensation. They were barely together for a year before falling out and each setting up their own minstrel troupes, consolidating the form that would dominate American entertainment for the next sixty years or so, but they were the first musical act to forge the link between mass popularity, socially threatening content, and an exciting new vernacular kind of music that has been the dominant ethos of American popular music ever since, from ragtime to jazz to swing to rock to hip-hop and whatever grown-up people are busy hating today. Dave Macon was born only thirty years after the Virginia Minstrels played their last concert; he was fifty before he got into the entertainment business full-time in 1918, and was as conversant with the widespread forms and traditions of oral entertainment as a curious, sociable man who grew up in a well-liked inn and later owned a hauling business in the Appalachian heartland could be. This record, one of the first he laid down in a recording, radio, and screen career that lasted into the years when rock & roll is usually considered to have been invented, has him playing a chorus of folk song “Casey Jones” before he gets down to business on the old minstrel showcase “Old Dan Tucker.” Listen to it carefully, and notice how naturally syncopated the tune is; the many so-called experts who say syncopation started with jazz or ragtime are talking through their unlearned asses. Then listen to how he delivers the lyric: sung-spoke, with a far greater emphasis on the rhythmic delivery of the words than on any particular melody. Folks, we’re halfway to rap and in the world of the song, Abraham Lincoln is still alive.


Pinetop Smith
13. Pinetop Smith, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie”
(Pinetop Smith)
Vocalion 1245, 1928 · mp3
“Don’t move a peg!” Barking orders like he’s at a noisy rent party in the south side of Chicago, and then just letting the notes trickle and fall out of the piano, with that steady, pumping left-hand rhythm rocking and rolling till doomsday, Clarence “Pinetop” Smith ushers in the modern world, or a piece of it. No, he wasn’t the first to play boogie woogie, or maybe he was, God only knows and the dull, argumentative years when every step of everything would be recorded for all posterity were not yet foreseeable — there’s not even an extant photo of the man, those are Pinetop Perkins’ hands — but he named it, and he played it like a demon, and you can hear Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and even a silly synth-pop song like Daniel Amos’s “Dance Stop” in it. Boogie-woogie, for those who can’t imagine anything being interesting before the distortion pedal, was a souped-up style of blues piano playing that relied on a steady, rocking beat in the bass hand while a lively counterpoint was played with the right; unlike stride, it was never so much a technical showcase as a dance music. Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson are generally recognized as the greatest boogie-woogie players, but only because Pinetop was (probably accidentally) shot dead in a bar fight before he could record his second session. (I mean, what the fuck, people?) The style gained national prominence slowly; but by the late 30s it was all the rage, and the big bands of World War II were as likely to be playing a brassy, orchestrated version of boogie-woogie as anything else. It didn’t so much fade in popularity as become transmuted into rock & roll via the aforementioned Charles, Lewis, John Lee Hooker and a cast of thousands, but that’s a story for another time. Right now, the girl with the red dress on is about to shake that thing, and this, you gotta see.


The Carter Family
12. The Carter Family, “Wildwood Flower”
(Joseph Philbrick Webster/Maud Irving)
Victor 40000, 1928 · mp3
Of course, not all country music came out of the dirty, disgusting, disreputable hackwork of minstrelsy or the uncouth, ushaven, untutored inspiration of folk music; a major strain of it came from exactly the sort of middle-class parlor songs and genteel Christian sentiments that everything else in American life, everything that’s made American music throb with such potency and kick with such orneriness, did its best to thumb its nose at. “Wildwood Flower” was written in 1860 by a pair of virtuous, stiff-collared, stiff-corseted and stiff-moralled Sunday School teachers to warn fair young maidens about the treacherous seas of manhood. (Okay, it’s slightly better than that, or no one anywhere would ever have sung it past 1903 or so. And Webster was actually a pretty decent melodist; several hymns he composed are still sung today.) And of course, by the time it got to the Carters it had been folkified somewhat: several of the purpler passages had been reanalyzed to fit the straitened circumstances of the Appalachian hills, where Sara Dougherty and Maybelle Addington learned it. Sara eventually married a low-level salesman and all-purpose scavenger of songs, A. P. Carter, whose brother Ezra married Maybelle, and A. P., always on the lookout for a good hustle, had the inspiration to form a musical group, the Carter Family, with Sara singing in a plainspoken alto that could break into silvery tones of unspeakable beauty at a moment’s notice, Maybelle playing guitar in a purposeful, self-taught fashion, and himself providing the material and occasional harmonies. They recorded for Ralph Peer at the same Bristol, Tennessee sessions as Jimmie Rodgers, and were immediate sensations in a quieter, but longer-lasting way: they survived long enough to become a venerable institution of country music. Sara and A. P. divorced eventually, and Maybelle struck out on her own with her daughters, one of whom fell in love with a handsome badass from Arkansas with an earthshaking baritone, but this isn’t about June and Johnny, this is about a song, remember? “Wildwood Flower” stands as one of the Carters’ best-loved recordings not because it’s particularly representative of them, their music, or country music as a whole, but because of the bewitching and original power all its own.


Florence Mills
11. Eva Taylor with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “I’m A Little Blackbird (Looking For A Bluebird)”
(George Meyer/Arthur Johnston/Grant Clarke/Roy Turk)
Okeh 40260A, 1924 · mp3
On December 12th, 1924, the biggest black star in the world, Florence Mills, entered a New York recording studio to make some test recordings for Victor. She had become a sensation on Broadway in the past several months, with the most influential and intelligent critics raving about her original, beautiful, and improvisatory singing. But the results were unsatisfactory; her voice was too soft and high to be captured with any fidelity by the acoustic recording process; it came out sounding tinny and screechy. By the time electrical recording had become standard in the industry, she was too busy to take a break; she would be dead of overwork and exhaustion in three years, having worked herself to the bone as though in an attempt to drag her entire race into prominence and awed acclaim by her own magnificent efforts. No trace of the tests remain. But her friend (everyone, it seemed, was her friend) Eva Taylor recorded her signature song “I’m A Little Blackbird” five days after her own attempts failed, in a session masterminded by her husband Clarence Williams and featuring a pair of young New Orleans-by-way-of-Chicago musicians on cornet and “clarionet” (soprano saxophone) named Armstrong and Bechet, respectively. Eva’s voice was thick and booming; she was a blues shouter, not a Broadway pixie, but this is the closest we have to having any idea what Florence Mills might have sounded like singing the song that reportedly left jaded Manhattan first-nighters in tears when she sang it alone before the footlights. It was written by a quartet of white Tin Pan Alley hacks, and it shows: from obnoxious racial epithets like “hoodoo” to the trite rhymes, it’s not much of a song on paper (though the second verse, unheard here, scores points with me for namechecking Maurice Maeterlinck, whose symbolist play The Blue Bird had been all the rage for a couple of decades). But while Eva can only do so much with it, Armstrong and even more so Bechet give a much better idea of Florence’s appeal, playing against, under, and around each other over the simple ditty, their instruments sounding like the titular birds given wing and chasing each other all over the score. Bechet’s closing, crowing notes are among the most triumphant in early jazz: the blackbird (all oppressed black people) has found its bluebird (acceptance, dignity, financial reward, whatever metaphor you like) in the music itself.