Category Archives: 100 Great Records Of The 1920s

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #20-16.

Hoyt Ming & His Pep-Steppers
20. Hoyt Ming & His Pep-Steppers, “Indian War Whoop”

(Traditional)
Victor 21294, 1928 · mp3
This tune is probably best known to most people today as a brief instrumental on the multimillion-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, where it’s performed by the legendary progressive country fiddler and songwriter John Hartford; in the movie, it plays in the scene where Homer Stokes is being run out of town on a rail. But its history is far older; freak-folk pioneers the Holy Modal Rounders titled their best album after the song in 1967 (it’s a fascinatingly mock-heroic concept album which actually has a lot in common with the Coen Brothers movie) — but even so, they were as much musical archaeologists as hippie pranksters. For here is where the tune had its origin, in the sweltering pines of Tupelo, Mississippi (birthplace of Elvis), from the fiddle of a man named Hoyt whose circular patterns and high lonesome cries at the end of each figure helped foster the illusion — assisted by his exotic-sounding surname, which was really just a corruption of the family name Menge — that this was an actual Native American performance, some kind of war chant or celebration stomp from whatever remnants of the Choctaw or Natchez still lingered in the Delta. But no, Hoyt was a white potato farmer, and his wife Rozelle played the guitar and stomped her feet (thus the “Pep-Steppers”), and brother Troy filled in on the mandolin. The legendary talent scout, engineer, and record producer Ralph S. Peer — the man who had recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson back in 1924, and who had just recently produced the “Bristol Sessions” that introduced Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to the world — brought them up to Memphis to record a handful of tunes. He changed Hoyt’s name to Floyd, and got some other particulars wrong, but he left enough evidence that the Mings were finally tracked down in 1972 and got a second shot at music stardom. None of which takes away any of the power of this, in my estimation the greatest fiddle tune in American music, as much because of its singular detatchment from European norms both folk and classical, as because of its hypnotic, unearthly whine.


Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
19. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Black Bottom Stomp”
(Ferdinand Morton)
Victor 20221A, 1926 · mp3
Why a man who billed himself as the “originator of jazz” should have a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is one of those mysteries that only an appropriately loose definition of genres can hope to solve. Jelly Roll Morton was neither the man who invented jazz nor a rock & roller, but something deeper and greater: one of the two great New Orleans pianists of the first jazz generation (the other was Tony Jackson), a skilled and inventive composer of early jazz melodies, and a raconteur with a flair for self-aggrandizement and a knack for the contours of a good story that makes him the spiritual, if not the musical, godfather to every rock & roller who used a guitar, or a hairstyle, or a vocal tic, to refashion himself into something better, cooler, more in line with the way things should be in a just world — a world that always exists for the space of the song. But while his melodic fingerprints are all over it, you can barely hear Morton on this track, one of his signature tunes and the second biggest dance craze of the 1920s, eclipsing even the Charleston. The Black Bottom was danced in whorehouses, in speakeasies, in nightclubs, at fancy dinner parties, and on stage at George White’s Scandals (Ziegfeld’s closest rival) by the diminutive white dancer Ann Pennington (you can see her teach Felix the Cat the dance here), and theses could be and have been written on the ways the craze demonstrated the power of black sexuality to interest white America during the 1920s. (And before, and after; even well after — doesn’t Mariah Carey singing “Touch My Body” have implications that Madonna singing it wouldn’t?) But as for Jelly Roll himself, he never stopped being a hustler; when his flavor of New Orleans jazz (with a “Spanish tinge” that may owe something to his Creole heritage) began to lose favor later in the decade, he had to skip from nightclub to nightclub after poor management and being involved in knife fights left him unemployable. But his famous conversations with folklorist Alan Lomax, preserved by the Library of Congress, reveal a sly, smart, and canny American original, the antithesis of the wise old jazzman of pop legend, whose appetite for life ended only when his life itself did.


Art Gillham
18. Art Gillham, “Hesitation Blues”
(Billy Smythe/Scott Middleton/Art Gillham)
Columbia 343D, 1925 · mp3
Art Gillham is one of those figures who never made it into the history books despite a reasonable level of success, an undeniable originality in several fields, and a pleasant, mild singing style that only the most contrary ideologue could dislike. He was born in St. Louis, and found himself a low-level journeyman in the Southern music industry of the early 1920s, a tall, soft-spoken song plugger who traveled from town to town playing songs published by his employers, and lucked into a job in the just-emerging field of radio at a time when very few people could afford a set. But his warm, soft voice was ideal for the new medium; rather than bellowing to be picked up by a recording horn, he could sing in a simple, conversational fashion into the microphone. He was among the “down-home” showbiz entertainers who kept the public attention during the first-ever broadcast of election results in real time in 1924, and when Columbia bought the rights to use a brand-new recording technology in 1925, it was Gillham the radio personality and soft-voiced singer they chose to test out the equipment. The new electrical process greatly increased the range of sounds that could be recorded, and subtle inflections could now become part of recorded performance. “Hesitation Blues,” the lyrics of which Gillham had co-written as a young bored traveling salesman between stops, was one of the first electrically-recorded records, and is a charming sample of his intimate, witty style. The tune was a standard one, but his sly, goofy lyrics (the kind that young men make to amuse each other) set it apart from, for example, the dreary moaning that accompanied W. C. Handy’s 1916 publication of the tune. Gillham would continue to host low-key, gently witty radio shows up until the 1950s (the title of one of his shows, “Syncopated Pessimism,” is a miniature poem in its own right), both nationally and in the local Atlanta market, and was even one of the first people to appear on a television screen, in 1939. But there hasn’t been even a single CD collection of his music to date, and I only happened on knowing he ever existed by a stray mention found when I was googling something else entirely.


Gertrude Lawrence
17. Gertrude Lawrence, “Poor Little Rich Girl”
(Noel Coward)
Columbia 513D, 1925 · mp3
The young lady born Gertrude Alexander Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen probably knew something about the tribulations of wealth; more, anyway, than did the song’s writer, Noel Coward, who was from a decidedly middle-class background (though he always overemphasized his plebian origins, apparently in order to make his success more astonishing). He wrote this song, and she sang it, in André Charlot’s Revue of 1925, a West End divertissement that traveled to America and made his, and her, fortune; before her career was over, she would star in (and, essentially, have created for her) the Gershwin show Oh, Kay!, the Cole Porter show Nymph Errant, the definitive Coward play Private Lives, and Moss Hart and Kurt Weill’s groundbreaking psychological musical Lady In The Dark. But (of course) she’s best remembered today for originating the Anna role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s overripe monument to condescending Orientalism The King And I. But back to 1924; “Poor Little Rich Girl” can be considered an early example of the sort of sentimentalism that Coward, in his better-known comic songs, thoroughly eviscerated, but which his ballads always returned to; the lyrics present a giddy young socialite in danger of wrecking her life in a portrait no doubt drawn from the Bright Young Things which Evelyn Waugh satirized in his early novels. It’s a clichéd portrait, perhaps, but for a reason: as rich young idiots like Paris Hilton and Kate Moss have done their best to prove, some things never change. In fact, Suede’s louche, Eurotrashy version of the song on a 1998 AIDs-benefit album of Noël Coward covers is one of the few times that modern sensibilities have understood and incorporated the bright, superficial pop of the 1920s with any kind of intelligence. Whether that says more for Suede or for Coward, I’m not sure; but go ahead; give it a listen.


Jimmie Rodgers
16. Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel No. 1”
(Jimmie Rodgers)
Victor 21142, 1927 · mp3
Forget about the “father of country music” stuff. Sure, he consolidated a bunch of different traditions and more or less created the extravagant vocal template that would define country music for three generations, from Hank Williams to Dwight Yoakam. Forget about the biographical details, the fact that he was slowly dying of tuberculosis even as he auditioned for Ralph Peer and had to make do with just himself and his guitar when his band left him just before the recording session, the fact that he’d been chasing the entertainment pot of gold for most of his young, fragile life and that when at last all his dreams came true (when this song sold half a million copies in two years) and he became the biggest thing in music south of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi bar none, he was thirty years old and had only five years left to live. Forget about the fact that in its chords and structure this is fundamentall a blues, and everything that that means, that country and blues were never much different under the skin, it was just in the interests of the powerful to keep ’em separated and that it didn’t matter, the music would find each other anyways and rock & roll would happen despite the best efforts of marketing departments over the decades to keep the race and hillbilly markets from contaminating each other. Forget even about that sound after every verse, the one that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up if you hear it in the right frame of mind and at the proper volume, what Bob Dylan called “that infamous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind.” Forget all about that. Just listen to those lyrics, man. “Gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I’m tall; gonna shoot poor Thelma just to see her jump and fall.” “Going where the water tastes like cherry wine.” “Rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log, than to be in Atlanta treated like a dirty dog.” Sure, they’re piecemeal and float from song to song like so much debris on the surface of swollen floodwaters, but still. He could have sung anything else but he chose those words. In this kind of music, it’s a man’s editorial skill that makes him a great poet, the first great poet of country music.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #30-21.

Hoagy Carmichael
30. Hoagy Carmichael & The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, “Washboard Blues”

(Hoagy Carmichael/Fred B. Callahan)
Victor 35877-B, 1927 · mp3
Hoagy Carmichael is perhaps the quintessential American songwriter: a songwriter for the entire nation, rather than for the narrow canyons of Manhattan or the overdressed stages of Broadway. See, if you haven’t yet, the movie that first paired Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not, where Hoagy plays a wisecracking pianist; craggily handsome in rumpled shirtsleeves, his fedora pushed back far on his head, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his thin lips, he plays like a wastrel genius and sings in a woodsy croak that sounds better every year: folksy, human, irreversibly American. It’s not the kind of voice you’re used to hearing in the pop pantheon of his Tin Pan Alley confederates; it’s far too lived-in and Midwestern. In another life he could have been Woody Guthrie; in a third, he could have been Atticus Finch — he was practicing law when he heard a song he had written on a record. He packed it in and went to New York, where his college friend Bix Beiderbecke was playing in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman knew talent when he heard it, and arranged a for twelve-inch recording of “Washboard Blues,” where Hoagy played piano and sang for the first time on record. Most 78 records were ten inches, which is why this song is longer than most — the tune takes its time to develop, and turns into a miniature epic around the theme of a hardworking (black, servant-class) woman, and unlike every other white composer of his era (even Gershwin encountered raised eyebrows from real black jazz players like Duke Ellington), he immediately and obviously Gets It, he’s not affecting a damn thing, he knows life is shit and music is there to make it better, he doesn’t try to ennoble anybody (that’s not his place), he just finds his songs and makes a living like the people who were his real confederates, the jazz musicians, black and white, who toiled in the pits and on the bandstands and at after hours nightclubs. He had as many, and fully just as great, hit songs as Gershwin or Porter or Berlin or Kern, but he was never one of them; he was a jazz guy first and foremost, and that’s why he still sounds so good in an era which has all but effaced non-vernacular music from cultural memory.


Vernon Dalhart
29. Vernon Dalhart, “The Prisoner’s Song”

(Guy Massey)
Victor 19427, 1924 · mp3
Record collectors are a curious bunch, and none more so than the rare breed — perhaps no more than a few dozen all told — who more or less single-handedly rescued the great folk, string-band, old-time, early jazz, and related musics from the dustbin of history beginning in the 1950s. The stories they tell of driving through verdant Southern hills and down lonely dirt tracks in search of anyone who might have some old 78s they could buy are like Don Quixote’s tales of knight-errantry to those of us whose experience of the music is entirely digital, but there’s one thing they all agree on: every collection they came across was befouled with dozens, or hundreds, of records of the man they call, with varying degrees of vituperation, “Vernon Shitfart.” No matter what other unheard-of, tiny-issue pressings might lie in those one-room shacks in forgotten hollers, everyone had his records. Vernon Dalhart was the man who convinced the record industry that there was a market for country-style vocals, and despite what the collector-ideologues think, he had as much right to the label as anyone; he was born in Texas and actually worked as a cowboy for a time. But he also went on to study voice at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, sang in productions of Puccini and Gilbert and Sullivan, and he recorded everything under the sun beginning in 1916, from light opera to ethnic-stereotype comedy to this, which by some estimations was the biggest (non-“White Christmas”) seller in the first seventy years of recorded music. Authenticity is a bugbear for damn near every school of musical thought, and Vernon Dalhart gets the blame for being the least authentic country singer even while being the first commercially successful country singer. This song is a standard country lament, heartstring-tuggingly direct in its emotional appeal, and Roy Acuff (whose country credentials no one has ever questioned) would borrow the melody for his landmark gospel-country song “Great Speckled Bird.” Country’s always had a schmaltzy pop moment for every instance of stark beauty: the light opera singer Vernon Dalhart just got there first.


Clarence Williams’ Blue Five
28. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “Cake Walking Babies From Home”
(Clarence Williams/Chris Smith/Henry Troy)
Okeh 40321-A, 1925 · mp3
If you don’t know the musicological, cultural, and racial history, this is just a fun, raggedy tune with a sharp tempo and delightful performances from Eva Taylor (vocals), Louis Armstrong (cornet), and Sidney Bechet (soprano sax, sort of). But if you do, it’s the sort of epoch-making, foundational moment that can take your breath away when heard in the right frame of mind. I think of it — I can’t not think of it — as the ultimate hot jazz song, the summation of a hundred years of back-and-forth dialogue between black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, Celtic and African, blackface and black pride, gullah and waltz, walkabout and breakdown, ragtime and marching band, blues and foxtrot, jazz and jism. (Forgive; there’re linguistic corellations.) Stomp and swerve, sweet and hot, eternal cool, unbridled frenzy without a hangover the next morning making you wish you were dead. Bliss. But about the cakewalk. Its origins are obscure, but more or less it was a dance where slaves imitated (and mocked; why not?) the stately dances of their owners, with a little African improvisation thrown in to make things interesting. Minstrel shows always ended with a walkabout: basically a glorified cakewalk, with as many levels of mockery, hatred, or sincerest flattery as are available in any human activity, blacked-up whites imitating blacks imitating whites. But black minstrels did the walkabout too, only better, and the cakewalk remained and developed as a black form. Bert Williams and George Walker brought Clorindy, Or The Origins Of The Cakewalk to the Broadway stage in 1898, and set off a genuine craze; cakewalks became once more all the rage in high fashion, in the 500 families that made up New York society, and in Buckingham Palace. So, whites imitating blacks imitating whites imitating blacks imitating whites. This is (part of) the history to listen to Clarence Williams with. Another part is the African swerve of the brass set against the Celtic stomp of the banjo; the BPM are at drill ’n’ bass levels here. A third is the “birth of jazz” theme here; Williams had come up in Storyville hustling for piano gigs and sheet-music sales, worked with just about every early jazz great, and talent scouted most of them for Okeh records, and New Orleans boys and girls cut this record in New York in the same way, and for the same reasons, that early Christianity left Jerusalem for Rome. The center of civilization is the only place where you can change the world.


Helen Kane
27. Helen Kane, “I Wanna Be Loved By You”
(Herbert Stothart/Harry Ruby/Bert Kalmar)
Victor 21684, 1928 · mp3
Two cultural associations which have (somehow) survived the ravages of history are probably the best entry point into this song and to Helen Kane in general (that is, if any are needed: like most great pop it stands on its own and needs to make no apology to the losers who can’t get it): Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. Marilyn first: she sang this song in Some Like It Hot, in the role of a 1920s singer who incidentally would never have been looked at twice in the real twenties; womanly curves were decidedly passé in the era of the flat-chested, sleek-headed flapper (with the exception of Mae West, but she was never so much a sex symbol as a genius marketer who made sex a symbol for Mae West). It’s one of the few tolerable performances of Monroe’s highly undistinguished singing career (exhaling is not a substitute for vocalizing), and works mostly because of the cultural memory of Kane’s all-conquering hit. And now to La Boop. The cartoon character was created as a parody of Helen Kane, with Fleischer standby Mae Questel (she also played Olive Oyl) doing a pitch-perfect imitation of Kane’s girlish Bronx-accented chirp. When Betty Boop proved to be more successful than Kane — a night at the movies was cheaper than a performance by one of the biggest names in show biz as the Depression got underway — Kane sued the moguls for wrongful appropriation and lost, with the result that Betty Boop is a pop icon and her inspiration is forgotten except by historical obssessives like me. But “boop-oop-a-doop” remains fixed in cultural memory as a signature sound of the Roaring Twenties, a sort of virginal white scatting for an era which found its ultimate expression in nonsense and language play, whether Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, George Herriman and Billy DeBeck, or “twenty-three skidoo” and “vo-de-o-do.”


Adelaide Hall
26. Adelaide Hall with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, “The Blues I Love To Sing”
(Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley)
Victor 21490, 1927 · mp3
In November 1927, Adelaide Hall was one of the chief mourners at the funeral of Florence Mills, a cabaret and revue singer, dancer, and comedienne who was arguably the first black female superstar and who had done much towards legitimizing the field of jazz song and dance in the eyes of the theatre-going New Yorkers who constituted the guardians of fashionable taste in the 1920s. Florence had died just a few months after returning from a year-long tour in Britain, where she had been acclaimed and fêted to a remarkable degree — she even makes an appearance as period flavor in Brideshead Revisited — and her death was keenly felt as the loss of the most famous, talented, and skilful black performer of her age. One of her many talents, as the critic Gilbert Seldes put it in his landmark study of popular culture The Seven Lively Arts, was to reverse the common jazz trope of making the saxophone imitate the human voice — she sang as though her voice were an instrument untethered by words or sense, though full of meaning. Her high, sweet soprano did not record well on the acoustic instruments of the day, but her friend and protégé Adelaide’s richer alto did, and Duke Ellington took advantage of the fact to make a pair of legendary records with her not a year after Florence’s death. “Creole Love Call” is perhaps the better known, an entirely wordless jazzing-up of Rudolf Friml’s hit “Indian Love Call” from the 1924 operetta Rose-Marie turned into an eerie, haunting piece that evokes the humid, mysterious voudou Louisiana of popular imagination. But “The Blues I Love To Sing,” in which the title phrase are the only lyrics in an otherwise fully improvised piece (asides like “oh, you’re killin’ me!” to Bubber Miles as he thrills through a muted-trumpet solo don’t count), is a funkier, looser number, built on the rhythmic foundation of a booming upright bass, slapping and thumping its way to a slow, sexy grind which Adelaide’s growling, knowing trills and gurgles of nonsense syllables heat up to just this side of explicit. Florence, when she was done blushing, would have been proud.


Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang
25. Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang, “Wild Cat”
(Eddie Lang/Joe Venuti)
Okeh 40762-A, 1928 · mp3
For a few seconds it sounds like we’re in the wild backwoods of Appalachia, and we’re about to witness another great fiddle stomp from an obscure country musician — but then the guitarist plays a jazz progression, and we’re in New York, in the heart of sophisticated jazz-pop, and the inventive harmonic and rhythmic ideas flow fast and furious. Guiseppe Venuti and Salvatore Massaro were Philly boys who had grown up taking the same classical music lessons that every other musically inclined Italian kid did; they were destined to play backup for Caruso, or whoever the next Caruso was. Except they both caught the jazz bug, and forget that old-fogey respectable sheet-music stuff, this is where it’s at. Except of course that they remembered enough about those lessons to never just ring the same old blues changes; they were harmonically adventurous in ways that jazz as a whole wouldn’t start to be for some years yet, without forsaking the Prime Directive of pop music, which is that the punters can dance to it. They recorded prolifically with whoever would have ’em — Lang in particular souped up many an otherwise-forgettable jazz-pop number with his fluid, harmonically intricate guitar playing — and it was while both were in residence with the (self-titled) King of Jazz Paul Whiteman that they recorded a handful of numbers that would have reverberations in the world (and I do mean world) of jazz in the centuries to come. For a young Roma kid in France named Django was listening hard, and his buddy Stéphane too, and thereafter jazz would never be an exclusively American (though always essentially American; I mean come on) form. Lang died in 1932 following complications from a (sigh) tonsillectomy, and Venuti found that his moment had also sort of passed along with his friend, although a revival in the 1960s and 70s helped pay an old man’s bills. Sure, without Eddie Lang there would be no jazz guitar, and without Joe Venuti there would be no jazz violin — and western swing might not have happened either, come to think of it, and no one wants to live in that kind of world. But way back here in the far-flung present of 1928 they were young men only intent on burning up this patch of space and time, which by the grace of Thomas Edison and legions of nameless technicians was hooked onto a passing chunk of shellac that rises, bobbing, to the top of the current in this patch of space and time, and we too get to delight.


Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers
24. Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers, “He Rambled”
(Traditional)
Columbia 15407D, 1929 · mp3
This man right here is country music ground zero. Forget the commercial heroes and the ones who were first on wax and the ones who have monuments to them in Nashville and Bristol. Charlie Poole invented bluegrass and honky-tonk both, and didn’t particularly care that he had done it either. A hard-living, hard-drinking man who only managed to die after a thirteen-week bender (hell, Hank Williams took just one night to do it), his taut, insistent banjo style and uninflected songs of riotous living, howling sin and resigned damnation predicted not just an entire school of country music but the rock & roll that jumped snarling from its loins. A baseball injury as a child had left his picking hand malformed, and when he bought his first banjo with the proceeds from an illegal moonshine still, he had to develop his own unique style of picking, less virtuosic than full of character and purpose. His North Carolina Ramblers were a banjo-guitar-violin combo whose membership turned over regularly, but Poole was the center of gravity and the one who set the agenda for the music, less a bandleader than a rock star (but think Lou Reed, not Mick Jagger.) “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” was his first recording and biggest hit, but my favorite of many intensely great songs is this one, a sardonically gleeful tale of a two-fisted fighter, drinker, jailbird and casual murderer who “rambled till the butchers [or possibly vultures] cut him down.” It wasn’t necessarily autobiographical — Poole’s songs were mostly drawn from traditional sources, not written by himself or anyone he knew — but the music pops with a joie de vivre which can’t be faked, and the wry satisfaction in his otherwise emotionless voice is hard to miss. Poole was by no means a singular figure; the era and the country were both littered with similar “folk” “old-time” “hillbilly” musicians (all of which are hopelessly inadequate to describe him or his music) who together pushed the old, shaggy, miscegenated music of the hills and the rivers into the modern world of telephones and automobiles, carving a future out of the past, and making with the instruments of antiquity (or what passes for antiquity in America, i.e. thirty years ago) a raucous noise that the children of the space-age sixties and beyond would find speaking to the very depths of what for lack of a better word we might as well call their souls.


Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra
23. Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, “I’m Coming, Virginia”
(Donald Heywood/William Marion Cook)
Victor 20751B, 1927 · mp3
Will Marion Cook may be the saddest story in the multi-volume set of sad stories which is the history of American music. At least it’s one of the saddest we know. (How many thousand stories of unfulfilled potential and thwarted ambition go down unrecorded?) Cook was an absurdly talented and ambitious composer in the latter half of the nineteenth century, probably the first person to ever have a realistic shot at inventing an American classical music that could stand up to the national classical musics of Europe; he studied with Dvorak in Europe and had ambitions to produce an opera cycle that would stand up to the majestic creations of Wagner. Only problem: he was black, and in America black people didn’t have ambitions and if they knew anything about music it was all instinctive because they were such a jolly, simple people. No one wanted him. (To be fair, Cook was also a pretty arrogant, abrasive fellow in his own right; but that never hurt, say, Schoenberg.) Cook was forced to the indignity of being a musical director for black Broadway shows. Groundbreaking, historic black Broadway shows starring Williams and Walker (the aforementioned Clorindy featured a Cook score), true, but still; no living for a genius. (Or so he thought; NAACP anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” is nothing to be ashamed of. For a fairly recent reappraisal of Cook’s theater music, have a listen to this public radio show.) Cook ended his career writing a lyric for this happy-go-lucky jazz tune firmly in the silly “Swanee” tradition of blacks pining for the good old South; Ethel Waters made the first recording with a band conducted by the master himself. But here it’s sung by a young Irish fellow out of the Pacific Northwest with a voice tailor-made for the novel nuances of the microphone and the barrier-breaking intimacy of radio, backed by the stylish heat of Paul Whiteman’s band with Eddie Lang sitting in on guitar. Bing Crosby was the first white jazz singer (testosterone division), and his laid-back sense of hep would set the cultural agenda for the next thirty years or so, long past the point that he was anything approaching hep himself. But back here, he was stone solid, man, a total cat.


Dock Boggs
22. Dock Boggs, “Sugar Baby”
(Traditional)
Brunswick 118, 1927 · mp3
Greil Marcus wrote Invisible Republic (later retitled The Old, Weird America), a study of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes sessions with the Band in the summer of 1968 because, as he admitted later, he’d wanted to write about Dock Boggs and that was the only way he could get a book deal out of it. Boggs was a Virginia native who had been picking the banjo since about the same time he’d gone to work in the mines — at twelve years old. His guitar-like fingerpicking style, developed independently of current Appalachian banjo tradition, was both innovative and unadaptable to modern music, much like Boggs himself, who had learned just as much from the black miners who played the blues as from local and family country musicians. But his style was his own: unsuitable for dance bands or the jazzy innovations of bluegrass in the decades to come, it could only function as accompaniment to his voice-of-death narratives of loss, murder, and indifferent terror. (This, as Marcus notes, is one of the greatest flaws in the naïvely pious idea promulgated by left-leaning folk revivalists, that folk music was somehow created by The People as an undifferentiated mass. Boggs was an original, just like everyone else.) His 1927 recordings for Brunswick, which he had hoped could start him on a music career, did nothing, and he went back to the mines until retiring in 1952, when he was tracked down by left-leaning folk revivalist Mike Seeger thanks to his inclusion — twice — on Harry Smith’s Anthology. He got to tell his story, play festivals, and even record again, though he never sounded any older than he does here, when he was twenty-nine years old and sounded like the voice of American fate. Compare this record with Dylan’s 2001 “Sugar Baby” on Love And Theft; Dylan sounds like some sentimental moon-June-spoon crooner in comparison, even with all his apocalyptic imagery and crisp put-downs. Boggs is the real deal.


Fred & Adele Astaire
21. Fred Astaire & Adele Astaire, “The Babbitt And The Bromide”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Columbia UK, 1928 · mp3
One of the great American pastimes, on a level with baseball, moving pictures, and handgun violence, has always been making fun of the squares. This was the pop understanding of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (and just think about that for a second; we’re talking about a period in our national history when people had pop understandings of a serious literary book) — and “babbitt” became part of American vocabulary, a sort of Middle American strawman without an aesthetic, political, or intellectual idea in his head, just a mania for commerce and a conscience drugged by religion and barbiturates. It was (and remains; think Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) a potent figure of satire and of revolutionary antipathy. The Gershwins were New York sophisticates by 1928, having been collossally successful showmen for four years and the center of a literary, social, and cultural whirl that included everyone from hyperliterary European sophisticates to jazz cats and puzzled boxers who could at least relate to George Gershwin as an athelete. They wrote “The Babbitt And The Bromide” with no particular agenda in mind (though they would prove themselves adept at actual political satire three years later with the Pulitzer-winning Of Thee I Sing), just a comedy number for their stars Fred and Adele to sing and dance. (The babbitt’s acquaintance the bromide wouldn’t exactly have been valued by New York sophisticates either, who were always on the lookout for a novel epigram rather than a piece of conventional wisdom.) Astaire would reprise the number with Gene Kelly in the package musical Ziegfeld Follies; its inclusion in the That’s Entertainment! anthology of MGM musical numbers means that it’s never really gone entirely out of the public consciousness. But I much prefer Fred’s performance with his sister Adele, whose comic, mugging performance refuses to take the pretty weak satire at all seriously, and turns it into a showcase for that other great American pastime, goofing off.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #31.

Ethel Waters
31. Ethel Waters, “Am I Blue?”

(Harry Akst/Grant Clarke)
Columbia 1837-D, 1929 · mp3
It can be difficult to find things to say about Ethel Waters, partly because she’s already said it all before you get a chance, in His Eye Is On The Sparrow, one of the great twentieth-century autobiographies. If you want to know what life was like for just about every female black jazz, blues, and pop artist of the early twentieth century, read it. She was born to a thirteen-year-old victim of rape, and her life more or less goes downhill from there — save, of course, for artistic triumph. She was probably the greatest black pop (as opposed to strictly blues) singer of her generation — which made her, more or less by default, the greatest female jazz singer of her generation. The next generation, the Billie Holidays and Ella Fitzgeralds, would soon surpass her while staking out territory that veered well away from that of black pop singers like Lena Horne — whose hot-to-trot role opposite Waters in the 1943 movie Cabin In The Sky was apparently the first thing to make her feel her age. Here she sings one of several signature songs, one that was specially written for her by Broadway knockabout and Irving Berlin disciple Harry Akst (who also wrote “Dinah” for Waters, back in 1925; it was a toss-up as to which one I’d include), and became something of a standard which Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and even Bette Midler would later take at a slower, more extravagantly emotional pace, as though the only way to answer the question was to make the listener feel blue too. But Water’s full, slightly plummy voice, and the jaunty tempo at which the band takes the song, imply that the answer to the rhetorical question in the title is more along the lines of “who, me?” This record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame last year, apparently on the basis that it was Ethel Waters’ signature song and Ethel Waters deserved more recognition. While normally I agree with the producers of the Simpsons that a Grammy isn’t an award at all, this they did get right, even if for all the wrong reasons.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #32.

Annette Hanshaw
32. Annette Hanshaw, “Lovable And Sweet”
(Oscar Levant/Sidney Clare)
Okeh 41292, 1929 · mp3
Annette Hanshaw may not have been the first white female jazz singer, but she was certainly the first great one. With fluffy good looks (at twenty-four she could and did pass for sixteen) and an ingenuous personality, she may as well have been the personification of the late 20s ideal of all-American femininity, the girl on countless magazine covers sprung to life and singing in a laid-back style about idealized romance with just the barest hint of sex — a hint so bare, in fact, that it can be completely inaudible to modern listeners. But it’s all in how natural she sounds; the vast majority of contemporary ingénues (including one we’ll be visiting later) either used cartoonish baby voices or assumed a blues-mama holler that was just as unrealistic on the other end. She was a major recording star for a little over a decade, retiring in the late 30s as hotter and hepper sounds overtook her lively flapper bounce — sounds that included those for whom she was a primary influence, like Anita O’Day, Peggy Lee, and even Ella Fitzgerald. “Lovable And Sweet” not only captures the essence of her individual appeal, but is a great song in its own right, with a scat written into the vocal line right at the beginning. Its composer, Oscar Levant, would later be better known as one of the great concert pianists, Hollywood composers, and personalities of the age, a bon vivant and Algonquin-associated wit whose books, film appearances (he’s Gene Kelly’s roommate in An American In Paris), and role as a panelist on one of the all-time great radio shows, Information Please (start here) are among the treasures of the midcentury American aesthetic.

100 Great Records of The 1920s, #33.

Rube Bloom
33. Rube Bloom, “Silhouette”
(Rube Bloom)
Okeh 40901, 1927 · mp3
Halfway between Confreyesque piano novelty and real jazz virtuosity as represented in a figure like Art Tatum, this intriguingly chorded piano solo hangs as if caught between beauty and flash, its facile trickles never quite preparing you for its emotional undercurrents. It’s one of the few solo records Rube Bloom made — better known as a journeyman songwriter (he had hits with various lyricists including Johnny Mercer and Ted Koehler into the 50s) and occasionally as a bandleader in the late 20s and early 30s when nearly everyone was a bandleader, he shows himself here to be a superb pianist and an intelligent, sensitive composer. Not, perhaps, at the level of immortals like Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, and Kern, but one of the points I’ve been trying to make with this list is that the smaller fry also deserve recognition, perhaps even more than the masters whose name everyone knows. And even while recognizing that titles generally have less than nothing to do with the content of the instrumentals they demarcate, I can’t help thinking in terms of silhouette imagery here, high-contrast elegance with eighteenth-century ornamentation — an association only strengthened by flipping through contemporary magazines, where advertising images were full of eighteenth-century costume and the Regency (1811-1820) was frequently used as an historical point of comparison, as a period of relative anarchy in a highly civilized country; the high-contrast Louise Brooks image I’ve used as an illustration was an attempt to draw out those associations.