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”
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.

One Thought on “100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #15-11.

  1. mike on May 9, 2008 at 6:17 pm said:

    This has been a terrific series. Much thanks for doing it!

    If you’re still mulling over the choice of #1 Best Record of the 1920s, it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” by Cliff Edwards, but you already know that.

    Mike Schumann

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