100. Al Jolson, “Swanee”
(George Gershwin/Irving Caesar)
Columbia A-2884, 1920 · mp3
The first thing a modern listener has to deal with is the blackface. And I do mean listener: even without the noxious imagery of white men smearing commercial blacking on their faces in order to represent a travesty of African humanity, the racism remains embedded in every word, practically in every note of the song. Which wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to a contemporary of Jolson’s (but then, the racism of our own time goes generally unremarked too) — you have to know minstrel-song conventions from Stephen Foster and beyond to know that the Suwanee River in southern Georgia was mythologized in the nineteenth century as a place of nostalgic longing for blacks displaced (you know, emancipated) by abolitionists and the Civil War. Which is hateful, yes; but the thing about pop is how it collapses boundaries and conflates disparate ideas. The Swanee became a kind of shorthand for any kind of nostalgia in the national immagination: it was Eire for Irish immigrants, Sicily for Italians, Jerusalem for Jews. And the man who wore blackface in order to be more fully a Jew on Broadway, Al Jolson, was the ideal figure to introduce the first noteworthy song by a kid who played jazz in order to be more fully a Jew in the concert hall, George Gershwin. By 1920, Jolson was the undisputed king of popular culture: his foghorn voice and unflagging energy on stage perfectly matched the larger-than-life, tirelessly productive image America had of itself following the First World War. It’s instructive to compare a contemporary performance of Stephen Foster’s lugubrious, stately “Old Folks At Home” (which introduced the Swanee myth in 1851) with Jolson’s “Swanee” — the difference is pure galvanic energy. Sure, journeyman lyricist Caesar’s chorus says he’s going back to Swanee, but he sounds more like he’s just conquered the Great White Way. Even the “I love the old folks at home” line, which quotes Foster’s melody, is goosed into something approaching jazz. It’s the difference between Vic Damone and Jerry Lee Lewis: one is syrupy, sentimental, and ultimately negligible; the other moves like it’s got something to lose.
99. The Elders McIntorsh & Edwards’ Sanctified Singers, “Since I Laid My Burden Down”
Okeh 8698, 1928 · mp3
It’s kind of a shame that this is going to be the only real example of gospel music on the list; especially in America, religious feeling has had a profound impact on popular music, from spirituals to Sufjan Stevens. But we’re all trapped in our own history, and pop is as secular a construct as there can be these days. Just remember it wasn’t always that way. This particular song sounds shockingly modern, however: the shouting and hollering isn’t very far removed from the Stax-Volt catalogue, and the sheer forward momentum of the performance, especially the way it picks up ecstatic, fervent speed as it continues, is pert’ damn near garage-rock levels. But funky, too: the way the guitar and tambourine play off the rhythm of the vocal lines leaves open-ended beats that invite the listener to dance as David did before the ark of the Lord. And then there’s the basic, repetitive lyric; it feels closer in some ways to the overwhelming crescendos of Sufi mysticism than to anything that people wear collars and ties to do. This recording, and ones like it that were captured in the Memphis area in the late 20s, represent something new under the sun: black gospel music has moved out from under the staid choir robes of the spiritual and the smothering intensity of the white tradition (though of course Sacred Harp singing has its own unearthly power), and borrows from the work chants and hollers of the field that were always one of the most deeply African things about African-American music. McIntorsh and Edwards, singers and guitarists, were elders of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal African-American denomination, and are accompanied here by Sister Bessie Johnson (the one with the deep, dark growl of a voice) and Melinda Taylor, two Memphis-area gospel belters who also recorded with the Memphis Sanctified singers. The deep ecstasy of their performances, and those of their sisters and brothers all across the South, utterly transformed American singing. Anytime someone is said to sing with passion, it’s because they sound, consciously or not, like a black gospel singer.
98. Clarence Ashley, “The Coo Coo Bird”
Columbia 15489D, 1929 · mp3
“The coo coo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies,” goes one of hundreds of lines that Bob Dylan has lifted from Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. (Some people think Ashley sings “wobbles” — I think they’re nuts.) Smith’s Anthology neither conformed to the leftist ideology of the folk-music revivalists — every 78 he mastered his collection from had been commercially released, which meant (pace Adorno) it had been infected by capitalism’s virus — nor followed the rules of commercial distribution — he certainly didn’t get permission from any of the original record companies to reissue these twenty-year-old discs. Not that the companies cared much (then): by 1952, all these weird, forgotten pockets of ancient rural music had long since been wallpapered over by the New Deal, by World War II, by the Bomb. But then again, the narrative of primitive collectivism that the folkies told each other wasn’t any better. This song’s melody and lyrics may have their own tangled genealogy in British folk songs, sailor’s songs and the songs of the Appalachian hills where Ashley grew up singing and playing in medicine shows, but Ashley makes the song his own, from the purposeful, circular banjo figure that acts as our tour guide through the quiet, fractured imagery of the verses, to the voice that plays it so close to the vest that the cuckoo could just as easily be the winged soul of a dead child as an auspice of doom — or a bird of paradise. Even more importantly, it’s almost impossible to find a version of this song that doesn’t owe something to this recording. That’s because of the cultural capital of Harry Smith’s anthology, to be sure: but Smith’s anthology drew its own cultural capital from unblinking, granite performances like this one.
97. Victoria Spivey, “My Handy Man”
Okeh 8615, 1928 · mp3
And we pay our first visit to the blues. Or one variant thereof, anyway; “blues” in the 1920s didn’t necessarily mean twelve-bar, one line repeated twice and followed by a third rhyming line, black-man-and-his-guitar music. It meant many things, though it’s worth remembering that it always meant black. The first blues song (arguably; ain’t nothing not arguable in the history of black music from gullah to crunk) to be published, and therefore the first blues in the historical record, was W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” in 1912. Obviously it was being played for a long while before that; there are descriptions of music that it’s hard to hear as anything but the blues from at least the 1880s, and of course ethnomusicologists have traced roots back to West Africa (as of what have they not?), but our first real contact with it, as a nation at the time and as explorers looking back today, is as show business. Show business that was left to women, for the most part: because the blues didn’t just mean black, it also meant sex (there’s a nasty grind inherent in the music, or you’re playing it wrong), and White America had a real problem with allowing black men to be sexual, up till ’bout James Brown, really. Black women, on the other hand — hell, it’s a double standard, maybe even a quadruple standard, and black women always end up with the shit end of the stick no matter what, so at least goddamn let them sing about it. Victoria Spivey was one of many vaudevillians/blueswomen/early jazz singers/prostitutes (depending on your definition) who ended up with record deals in the 1920s, and here she’s fronting a mixed-race band (the pianist and bandleader, Clarence Williams, was black; the guitarist, Eddie Lang, was white; we’ll meet both of them again) while getting away with a laundry list of euphemisms for the Deed Itself. There’s a sweet quality to her voice (on her first record, she’s listed as V. Spivey, Contralto) that doesn’t jibe with our modern understanding of the blues, but the blues wasn’t quite differentiated from jazz, and jazz wasn’t quite differentiated from regular pop yet either. But ain’t no one being fooled when she simpers about how her man can trim her lawn, churn her butter, fill her icebox, inter alia. While black women were mostly valued by the white male world as cheap labor and sexual objects, a surprising amount of them took the chance to position themselves as the beneficiaries of sexual gratification; the Sexual Revolution may have grabbed headlines in the 60s and 70s, but it really got going here.
96. Frank Crumit, “Mountain Greenery”
(Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)
Victor 20124, 1926 · mp3
The Great American Songbook is both a national treasure and something of an embarrassment. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beautiful, inventively written, sophisticated, and instantly memorable songs are included in it, songs that are as deservedly deathless as any work made by human ingenuity, Shakespeare, Bach and Michelangelo included. But the phrase itself is a mausoleum, manufactured nostalgia for people who aspire to the condition of yuppiehood, and all told maybe a quarter of the songs that deserve to be known are in fact known by anyone but sheet-music obsessives. Case in point. Written in only the second year of the Rodgers/Hart partnership (their first year produced the brow-of-Jupiter perfection “Manhattan,” of which I haven’t been able to find a single vocal recording produced before 1935), this is a sprightly, kicky little composition with a more solid harmonic structure than just about any sprightly, kicky little pop song of the 20s not written by George Gershwin or Cole Porter. Then there’s one of Hart’s least-complicated lyrics (emotionally, anyway; anyone who can find five — count ’em, five — rhymes for “greenery” is a fricking savant), about the joys of a summer home upstate, written merely to be sung by a slim young man and chorus of pretty girls in front of a clever tableau. The slim young man, by the way, was Sterling Holloway, remembered today as the voice of Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh, in the Garrick Gaieties revue of 1926. (Revue: a stage show without a plot, merely an excuse to throw songs, dances, comedians, and bucketloads of pretty girls at an enthusiastic audience and show off one’s costuming and design staff, too. The annual Ziegfeld Follies were the origin and apex of the form; the Garrick Gaieties were on a much less lavish scale, but then Ziegfeld never had a team on the level of Rodgers & Hart writing songs for him.) Frank Crumit was a vaudeville singer and ukulele player (he strums a bit here) who was perhaps ideally suited to sing a song this light and winsome without making it cloying: as befits a ukulele player, he makes it all about rhythm without quite being a jazz singer. That’s okay; not even Ella Fitzgerald managed to pull it off so easily.
95. Edith Day, “Alice Blue Gown”
(Harry Tierney/Joseph McCarthy)
Victor 45176, 1920 · mp3
This is probably the kind of song that’s least easy to get for the average music listener of 2007: a sentimental (but not by the standards of the day!) song about childhood that was written for a musical comedy (but not as we understand the term!) sung in a style which we associate more with classical music than with pop (but they didn’t make that mistake back then!). Maybe you have to be something of a theater nerd — or even an opera nerd, these days — to really appreciate this song on its merits, but here goes: the show Irene was produced in 1919, and at the time was the longest-running show in Broadway history; 675 performances, which is puny by Lloyd Webber, or even Rodgers & Hammerstein, standards. It was a comedy about an ordinary girl thrust into the world of high fashion (yeah, like The Devil Wears Prada, only the Meryl Streep role was played by an, ahem, flamboyant man), and “Alice Blue Gown” is the number where the ordinary girl, Irene a.k.a. Edith Day, tells about the only encounter with fashion she’s ever had: a deeply uncool by 1919 standards dress in a color named for Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s wife), which “wore, and it wore, and it wore/Till it went, and it wore no more.” (Yes, that’s meant for cleverness. You should hear the 1919 competition.) It’s both a fond look back at her childhood, and a moment that reveals how poor her family was — the last lines are “though it wouldn’t fit mother/It made a shirtwaist for brother/My sweet little Alice blue gown.” Since she ends up marrying the son of a fashion tycoon (spoiler!), it’s not a heavy moment or anything, but it’s lighter in mood and in tone than our ears are trained to hear. The stately pace, the plummy soprano, and what you can hear of the orchestration through the fog of 1920 recording technology all scream “lugubrious ballad” to our ears, but it was really the hit of the show, the one people whistled on their way out. Jazz and music inspired by jazz would make this sort of thing obsolete within a half-decade, but this is sort of the last hurrah for “straight” music before syncopation gave Broadway a kind of blackface it would almost never take off again. (For the terminally curious, a 1936 radio adaptation of Irene can be found here.)
94. Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie-Ki-Me-O”
Columbia 15296D, 1928 · mp3
There isn’t, I’d venture to say, much that Bruce Springsteen and Walt Kelly, one of the three presiding geniuses of midcentury newspaper cartooning*, have in common, but there is this: they’ve both done versions of this song, Springsteen on last year’s Seeger Sessions (as “Froggie Went A-Courtin’), and Kelly in The Pogo Stepmother Goose. Springsteen, following Pete Seeger’s classicist-blues version, merely repeats each line, followed by “uh-huh,” and Kelly mashes it up with a Mother Goose rhyme: “with a Rowley, Powley, Gammon and Spinach/Heigh-ho for Anthony Rowley!” (which he probably borrowed from Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel), but I think I like Parker’s nonsense scatting the best. “King kong kitchie kitchie ki-me-o” may not mean anything, but the appearance of the phrase “king kong” five years before Merian C. Cooper’s godfather of all monster movies is slightly unnerving anyway. Not, I imagine, that WWI aviator and Hollywood bigshot Cooper had a copy of a record by one of the lesser-known regulars on WLS’s “The National Barn Dance” out of Chicago — or even that there was some little-known underground meaning of the nonce word “kong” that happened to surface at these two wildly disparate points. It’s just weird, is all. Parker has all the genial ease of a professional entertainer here — his other big hit was “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” (see a pattern?), but without any of the creepy paternalism of someone like Burl Ives. He doesn’t care if you like his song; he’s just happy to be singing it, and every time he hits the “way down yonder in a holler tree” line, I for one am right there with him. Yeah, that frog’s been going a-courtin’ since at least Shakespeare’s day and probably lots earlier, but I don’t know that I ever cared except when listening to Parker.
*The other two are Al Capp and Milt Caniff, as if you didn’t know.
93. Johnny Dunn, “Johnny Dunn’s Cornet Blues”
Columbia 124D, 1924 · mp3
Let’s talk about jazz. Not the “origins” of jazz; that old song and dance (New Orleans; Storyville; brass bands; funeral marches yadda yadda) has been sung and danced for everyone who cares to hear and see it by now. But what jazz is. Or at least what it was, way back here in the primordial muck of the stuff. Jazz came out of ragtime, sure as anything came out of anything; without syncopation you’ve got nothing but instrumental muscle, just the ususal old farting around on trumpets that John Phillips Sousa’s boys could have played. And jazz came out of the blues, sure as ears can hear a flatted fifth; without the blues it’s nothing but a white man’s borrowed hustle, something George M. Cohan could set a little patriotic patter to. Blues + ragtime = jazz might be a little simplistic for, say, John Coltrane fans, but for the purposes of getting Johnny Dunn it’ll do just fine. Dunn came up through black vaudeville (segregation meant blacks even had their own vaudeville circuit, the Theater Owners’ Booking Association, or Tough On Black Asses), a jive and patter man who could throw a little swerve into the foxtrot. Maybe the first instrumental star before Louis Armstrong, or at least the first on record (the usual genuflections: Buddy Bolden never recorded, Freddie Keppard not until it was too late). He also organized the first black jazz ensemble to cut a record, which we will be visiting later on in this list. He also co-starred in several revues with a young lady named Florence Mills who we will also be visiting, if more obliquely, later on. And here he makes a curiously minimalist jazz record, at least for 1924. Jazz on record was still in thrall to the Original Dixieland Jass Band — a bunch of white dudes playing a garage-rock version of jazz, the same way every time — or to Paul Whiteman, the supper-club jazz king. Either way, it was big and noisy, something white people can laugh at, or big and mellow, something white people can dance to. But this is spare, lean; you can hear every instrument keeping the groove, and Dunn riffing on top of it. It’s not made for whites at all, and not even really for dancing, though it’s a modified tango. It’s a showcase, and the seeds of jazz past, present, and future are sown.
92. Andrés Segovia, “Recuerdos De La Alhambra”
HMV, 1927 · mp3
Like just about every virtuoso since the dawn of time, Segovia was an arrogant and blinkered prima donna: one of his primary goals in life, he said was to “extract the guitar from the noisy and disreputable folkloric amusements.” This was in 1969, folks; he’s talkin’ ’bout “All Along The Watchtower,” “Dazed And Confused,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But then you hear him play, and you hear his point: you don’t need Eddie Van Halen’s tapping machines when you can use the tremolo technique with such jawdropping speed and precision, not to mention passion. Tárrega’s composition “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” is a dense cobweb of notes, a Spanish version of Proust’s madeleines in which memory, longing, elegy, romance, and grace are delineated by the elegance of perfect discipline and a nearly superhuman sensitivity to the emotional currents of the chords. I’ve never wept at instrumental music — that’s just not how I respond — but this is one of the few pieces that I can imagine sobbing over. And the fact that it was captured at all (this is from his first recording session ever, in London) is astonishing to ears used to American pop of the period; British recording equipment and technicians were years ahead of the commercial outfits on the left side of the Atlantic. Segovia is famous as the man who cemented the guitar’s status as a classical instrument, but it’s not his pioneer status that gives him the right to sneer at the uses to which people outside the conservatory put the guitar — it’s his talent.
91. Ruth Etting, “Love Me Or Leave Me”
(Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn)
Columbia 1680D, 1928 · mp3
It’s like something out of a Damon Runyon story, only not quite as funny when it’s real life: wide-eyed, corn-fed Nebraska girl comes to the big bad city of Chicago, gets a job designing costumes at a nightclub, ends up singing and dancing on stage, marries a guy called (with a straight face) Moe the Gimp, a Jewish gangster with a talent for promotion, who intimidates show business managers into getting her on stage (debuts in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, is The Girl in shows starring Ed Wynn and Eddie Cantor, two of the hottest properties in the back half of the decade), on record (exclusive contract with Columbia), on radio (her own program), and in movies (once sound comes in). Once she’s on top of the world, she leaves him for her pianist, whom Moe the Gimp promptly shoots. The scandal ends her career. A year later, Moe’s back out on the streets. (The pianist survives, she marries him, they live in obscurity for another thirty years. Not a bad life as it turns out, but Runyon’s smarter than to give you that part.) And you kind of have to know all that to appreciate the song, which is otherwise just another two-bit torch song from a nice Midwestern girl playing a New York sophisticate. But with all the history under your belt, and the knowledge that this was her signature song, the title of her biopic (starring – urgh — Doris Day), she’s a tragic figure who sounds remarkably chipper despite it all: maybe the studio band took it too fast, but I like to think that it was Etting who refused to milk the tragedy. Runyon always said he never invented anything, just transcribed, and his stories are comic because the characters see themselves as playing in a comedy, even if they don’t like to let on.