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.

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

  1. Hi, I’m the Bill Egan whose Florence Mills book you mention somewhere. You have wonderfully eclectic site, which I have only dipped into but find very much in line with my own tastes.

    Good luck with it. If you ever get round to writing another Florence Mills book I’ll read it with interest. As the late Richard Newman, who had a book on her close to completion when he died, said to me many years before, “There’s room for more than one book on her.” I have 5 on Josephine, 4 on Lena 🙂
    best wishes

  2. Thanks, Bill. It probably wouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that I really only became fascinated by Florence because of the website you’ve maintained and the information you’ve generously shared with the public through it.

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