Category Archives: 100 Great Records Of The 1920s

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #34.

Fiddlin’ John Carson
34. Fiddlin’ John Carson, “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”
Okeh 4890, 1923 · mp3
And here’s where the story of country music turns ugly. (Wait, turns? Nick Tosches’ book on the subject wasn’t subtitled The Twisted Roots Of Rock & Roll for nothing. But here’s where some ugliness comes to the surface.) Not in this tune, which is as pretty an idyll as a Real Live Hillbilly could scratch onto shellac in 1923, and was in point of fact the first actual country record ever — the first record containing music performed by someone operating within a tradition recognizable as “old-time” or “hillbilly” or “country,” as opposed to some slick Yankee vaudevillian putting on hickface for a quick buck. Fiddlin’ John Carson had also been the first actual country performer on radio, in 1922 (the medium was in its infancy anyway), and was a seven-time winner of Georgia Old-Time Fiddle Championships. Which isn’t to say he didn’t also wear hickface for professional purposes, just as the earliest professional black performers in America wore blackface. He fully embraced the canny, corny old hillbilly stereotypes, helping to establish a tradition which the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw would carry into something like the present. He also wrote a song called “Little Mary Phagan” which he performed on the steps of the state capitol in 1915. Mary Phagan was a thirteen-year-old victim of rape and murder whose death instigated the trial, conviction, and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of the pencil factory where she had worked. Frank was innocent (in a cruel irony, the actual murderer seems to have been a black man), but that didn’t stop a wave of anti-Semitic hatred from taking his life, and incidentally sparking both the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. “Little Mary Phagan” was a mere murder ballad like thousands of folk songs of unknown provenance, but the historical facts surrounding it can’t help but color the fact that man who wrote it (and recorded it in 1925 with his daughter, who went by the stage name of Moonshine Kate, on vocals) was the man who invented country music as a commercial proposition. The twisted roots of rock & roll, indeed.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #35.

King Oliver’s Jazz Band
35. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Workingman’s Blues”
(Joe Oliver)
Okeh 40034, 1923 · mp3
In 1922, Joe Oliver, one of the great bandleaders of New Orleans jazz (he had learned from Buddy Bolden, come to prominence and been given the nickname “King” in Kid Ory’s band, and mentored the young Louis Armstrong), sick of the deep-seated racism permeating the South — he and his band had reputedly been arrested for being black in a room where a fight had broken out — went north to Chicago. This single move may have done more to shape the history and practice of jazz than any other, for it was in Chicago dance rooms that the hot New Orleans style of jazz really began to be noticed by the wider culture. Previously, jazz had been dismissed by that wider culture as the raucuous goofery of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (all white), not a music in its own right that could express an entire world of emotions from ecstasy to heartbreak, all while being danceable and kind of dangerously lewd. The Midwestern school of jazz, as typified by Bix Beiderbecke, originated in young white men sneaking in to hear King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band — featuring Louis Armstrong on second cornet, Lil Hardin on piano, and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. Armstrong himself believed that if it hadn’t been for Oliver, he never would have had the courage to go north; when he left Oliver’s band, he formed the Hot Five in New York, and recorded jazz found its first perfection. Oliver did not fare so well; a succession of managers who ripped him off and his own poor judgement allowed him to be hit hard by the Depression, finally stranding him in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked as a janitor until dying in 1938, just as Louis Armstrong was cementing his position as an American icon. “Workingman’s Blues” is one of the early recordings from those days in Chicago; the style of concerted improvisation between the horn section was hugely influential, but listen especially to the rhythm, which evokes the patient trudge of the title character perfectly.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #36.

Lonnie Johnson & Blind Willie Dunn
36. Lonnie Johnson & Blind Willie Dunn, “A Handful Of Riffs”
(Lonnie Johnson/Eddie Lang)
Okeh 8695, 1929 · mp3
Lonnie Johnson was a New Orleans-born guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer who was one of the greatest, and almost certainly the first great, jazz guitarists of all time. He had a long and astonishing career, beginning in the notorious Storyville district in the 1910s and becoming one of Okeh’s most prolific recording artists as a result of winning a blues contest in St. Louis in 1925. He was never happy with being pigeonholed as a blues artist — but he was one of the great blues songwriters, with lyrics that revealed a smart, sympathetic, and original personality, and a solo picking style that would become the standard for American vernacular music. He would go on to have r&b hits in the 1940s, to become a fixture of the folk revival of the 1960s, and to personally inspire Bob Dylan with a revitalization of his musical style circa 1968. Eddie Lang was a Philadelphia-born Italian-American guitarist, accompanist, and jazz performer who was the greatest white guitarist of the 1920s, the primary forerunner to Django Reinhardt (particularly with his friend, violinist Joe Venuti, who played the Stéphane Grappelli role) and one of the foundational movers of white jazz in the latter half of the decade. Bing Crosby refused to record without him until Lang’s early death in 1933, and he recorded prolifically for every remotely hot white jazz band in New York, including Bix Beiderbecke’s. In 1929, while he was working for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, he recorded a series of duets with Lonnie Johnson under the name Blind Willie Dunn to obscure the fact that it was an interracial session — one of the first in jazz history. “A Handful Of Riffs” is one of the best of these, a sprightly, loose-rhythmed improvisatory number with subtly shifting tempos and brilliant harmonic duetting between the two masters, who were both at the peak of their game. The fact that Johnson would go on to a long and productive career in blues, jazz and r&b while Lang would be dead of complications following a tonsillectomy (for crying out loud) in four years is immaterial while the record plays, with its insistent beat and sparkling runs up the necks of two guitars, black and white, twinned forever.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #37.

Josephine Baker
37. Josephine Baker & Le Jacob’s Jazz, “Bye Bye Blackbird”
(Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon)
Odèon 166.033, 1927 · mp3
She is one of the indelible figures of the age: the lithe, coffee-colored woman in a banana skirt, her hair closely cropped and slicked on her head like a cartoon. She is (probably) the most famous black female performer of the decade, and my use of the present tense is deliberate — in America and England, Florence Mills was far more famous at the time, and Bessie Smith was the leading choice of the hip black-culture cognoscenti. It was Baker’s long residency and immense popularity in France that turned her into an icon — the beginning of her stay there coincided with the famous Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925, and she’s been a staple of Art Deco iconography ever since. It was in Paris that she starred in (a handful of) movies, made (not particularly distinguished) records, and most importantly, was a theatrical sensation on a level that no black performer could even dream of in America, the toast of the Champs-Élysées and later the star of the Folie Bergères. Let’s be clear about one thing, though: while France was frequently a blessed relief from the remorseless prejudice of American audiences, and black performers visited and often moved there for good throughout the 1920s and subsequent decades, it was (and is) not free from racial prejudice (ask any Algerian). Baker was an image of eroticized colonialism for her French audiences, a petite sauvage against whose loose-limbed antics the sophisticated artistry of Mills and the earthy dignity of Smith were unacceptable to French critics as not being black enough. Certainly, Baker played up to that image, walking her pet cheetah in public, but she was also canny enough to demand princely salaries — that cheetah wore a diamond collar. And her later legacy of heroism as an agent in the Resistance of the 1940s and as a civil rights activist in the 1950s is pretty unimpeachable. But to the song: “Bye Bye Blackbird” was one of the massive hits of the later 1920s, a peppy “things are getting better” number that lent itself to jazzing up as easily as to parloring down, and anyone who was anyone recorded it. Baker’s version, recorded in Paris with a French band, is a good indicator of both the Continental style of le jazz that was beginning to circulate (those strings and piano runs are especially interesting), and of Baker’s infectious enthusiasm in performance. She flubs a lyric, she doesn’t stay on key particularly well, and there’s not much beauty to her voice, but by golly does she sell the number.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #38.

Marion Harris
38. Marion Harris, “The Man I Love”

(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Victor 21116B, 1927 · mp3
For those who grew up hearing the great standards of the American songbook sung by the jazz-inflected vocalists of the 50s, 60s, and beyond, hearing the earliest recordings can take away some of the unearthly melodicism and exquisite timing that has accrued to them over decades of jazz interpretation. Marion Harris had been singing between reels in movie houses and on the vaudeville stage since the early 1910s, and while several authorities believe that she recorded one of the earliest jazz songs in 1917 (“When I Hear That Jazz Band Play”), she was always more of a ragtime mama than a jazz baby. Still, her close-cropped blonde hair and her facility with the blues songs which were becoming all the rage in the late 1910s (she even jumped labels at one point because Victor wouldn’t let her record “St. Louis Blues”) made her one of the biggest stars of the flapper era; if there was a song hit anywhere in the 1920s, it was an almost certain bet that Marion Harris had recorded a version of it, and frequently outsold the originator. Her star was fading by the end of the decade, though, and it wasn’t she, but nightclub chanteuse Helen Morgan, who turned “The Man I Love” into a hit after it had been cut from three different Gershwin shows in four years. Still, Harris’s recording gets the edge because of the wordless humming, the white person’s version of scatting, that turns the record from a take into a song. The Jewish roots of Gershwin’s melodic sense were rarely more evident than on the violin counterpointing this song, but you can also hear the stiff piano player stumbling over the unusually arty chord changes that are so familiar to latter-day listeners on the transition between the chorus and the bridge. It’s one of his best ballads, and the simplicity of Ira’s lyrics have kept it fresh where a smarter, trickier lyric might sound dated . . . sorry. Just something in my eye, is all.