Originally posted fall 2009.
The first thing to note before we even get into it is that any list of records from the first two decades of the twentieth century is necessarily going to present a distorted picture of the musical activity of the era. Recorded music was not the no-brainer it is now; many people had serious reservations about the legitimacy of the whole concept, reservations which are more or less borne out by the godawful sonic quality of even the best-preserved and highest-fidelity recordings of the period.
Many of the biggest — and nearly all of the most forward-thinking — musical stars of the era refused to record their work, whether out of fear that imitators would be able to steal their stuff or out of a snobbish distaste for the low-rent milieu, in which their pure, artistic, and graceful records would rub shoulders with sniggering blackface acts, broad ethnic “humor,” and treacly pop hits sung by people who had no business attempting the act. Then, too, some people who were electrifying on stage discovered that their voices sounded tinny and shrill after nearly all their dynamic range had been stripped by the primitive Edisonian technology.
So this list is heavy on people with big, blowsy voices that could stand up to the recording process. (Of course, in the days before amplification, a big blowsy voice was a huge asset in any potential live-music situation. So it’s not like there were a lot of Françoise Hardys out there not getting recorded.) It’s also heavy on pop tunes, and noveltyish pop tunes at that. There were a lot of song hits of the era that never made it onto record for one reason or another, and many of those hits — as tabulated by sales of sheet music, which was a much larger market than that of recorded music; everyone had a piano, while only the well-to-do had record players — were much better than anything on this list, in terms of composition, structure, and lyrical felicity.
Finally, and most worryingly, this list is heavy on those same sniggering blackface acts and broad ethnic “humor.” I’m very serious about this: there is some majorly offensive and even downright evil stuff on some of these records, and if you’d rather not expose yourself to it, then don’t. Their inclusion on this list is not to be understood as an endorsement of their contents, but as an examination of their historical importance. It is my firm belief that it is better for us to be familiar with the ugliness of our past than to ignore it or pretend it never happened. Evil should be confronted, not hushed up, and long-dead people should have no power to hurt anyone now living.
Some brief technical information; skip if you already know or it’s boring. The recording industry coalesced around Edison’s phonograph cylinders around 1890; the grooves that stored the sound were cut into hard wax, and while they had better sound than the early disc records that began to compete in 1893, they’ve (obviously) been more likely to degrade in the century since. Anyway disc production had caught up and surpassed Edison by the mid-teens. All these songs are second-hand in the sense that they were recorded from cylinders or discs and converted to digital files. There are large variations in quality; some of these mp3s were mastered and leveled by professionals and issued on CD; some of them were ripped by folks on the Internet who happen to have a copy but don’t give a damn about a bit rate. (Srsly, 64kbps when your file is already that low-fidelity? Just rubbing salt in the wound, dude.) And twenty years is a big gap, especially when record companies were still figuring out how to record for maximal quality, so that 1919 sounds practically modern next to 1900, even though the essential technology hadn’t changed.
This stuff feels impossibly old, shadowy and rusted-over. It’s almost as if the howl of surface noise that sweeps across all these records to a greater or lesser degree is a function of Time itself, insisting that we not pull back the veil of history so far.
Well, up Time’s. I’m a traveler. Who’s with me?
50. John McCormack “Foggy Dew”
Victor 64326 • 1913
The biggest, blowsiest voice going in the first decades of the twentieth century was Irish tenor John McCormack. One of the first concert singers to embrace “canned music,” as John Philip Sousa derisively referred to the nascent recording industry, McCormack reaped the rewards of the early adopter and became one of the biggest stars of the era, selling millions of records, helping to legitimize the medium, and touring all over the world. It helped that he wasn’t particularly choosy about what he sang: he’d bellow out operatic arias and sentimental parlor songs alike, with special attention to patriotic songs of the Emerald Isle. The massive Irish population in the United States appreciated the attention (they were generally represented in popular culture as dialect “comedians,” with no possible begorrah left unlisped), and McCormack, knowing on which side his bread was buttered, eventually became a naturalized U. S. citizen. None of which is to say he wasn’t a great singer; his breath control, the richness of his tone, and his relative disinclination to hog the spotlight made him the vocal partner of choice for every great diva of the age. But with today’s ears it’s perhaps easier to get at McCormack the singer (as opposed to McCormack the institution) through a simple British folk air like this one. The plaintive simplicity of “Foggy Dew” renders all technical prowess unseemly; the only question is, can he make it live? Spoiler alert: he can.
49. Jack Norworth “I Want To Spread A Little Sunshine”
Pathé 20462 • 1919
The Britney and Justin of the nineteen-tens and -teens were Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, who married in 1908 and swiftly became the most sought-after vaudeville team in America. Vaudeville was the premiere pop form of the day, an evening’s worth of entertainment in which act followed act in a highly competitive and ruthless marketplace of entertainment, magicians and acrobats and singers and comedians and sideshow freaks and dancers one after another with a classical piece at the end to clear the room so that the show could start again with a new set of paying customers — or vegetable-throwers. Bayes and Norworth ruled vaudeville for five years together and then for nearly ten more separately; Bayes was the one with the pipes, and thin-voiced Norworth the one who got his name on a good two dozen song hits of the era (you’ll see him pop up in the credits several times.) Here he sings a dopey song imported from a British musical, but which struck a chord as the teens moved into the twenties; around the same time “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” and similar faux-naïve songs were popular on stage and record. It was part of the codified patter of the era’s entertainment: everyone below the level of opera diva spouted pieties about their life’s work being the gift of joy and laughter. Norworth, a trouper to the end, always sounded like he meant it; his ex, as we will see, was cut from more capricious cloth.
48. Williams & Walker “My Little Zulu Babe”
(W. S. Estren, James T. Brymn)
Victor 1086 • 1901
In re: this record, there are two misapprehensions likely to arise in the twenty-first century. The first is that this record is nothing but racist trash, a dehumanizing mockery of African culture and an act of racial treason on the part of the black men who are singing it. Much less important is the objection that they’re off-key throughout; distortions in the disc and the imprecise measurement of recording and playback speeds at the turn of the century account for this. As for the first. Bert Williams and George Walker were the most famous black men in the world, Jack Johnson occasionally excepted, for twenty years, and did more than any other performer, activist, or writer to carve out a space in American culture where black people could be heard in something approximating their own voice. Their stage shows were immensely popular, their comedy groundbreaking and as free from minstrel tropes as they could make it — which wasn’t free enough: America was still a staggeringly racist place, and neither man lived free from the threat of white violence as long as they lived. But by presenting their comic characters as people and asking the audience to sympathize with their troubles and joys, they began the long hard climb that black performers would continue to make for generations, to be seen as full human beings rather than as a colored skin wrapped around a man-shaped object. “My Little Zulu Babe” was one of the hits from their stage show Sons Of Ham (it’s both a Biblical reference and a sly dig at white supremacist ideology), which Walker sings more or less straight while Williams makes weird “jungle” noises behind him, then harmonizes on the last chorus. It sounds like nothing that has ever before been recorded; it’s weird and noisy and primitive and unmusical and everything else that white America would ever call black American music; it’s jazz, and rock & roll, and hip-hop. The strangest, thrillingest century on record begins here.
47. Arthur Pryor’s Band “A Coon Band Contest”
Victor 4069 • 1906
David Wondrich, in his landmark study of pre-jazz American hot music, Stomp And Swerve, makes the case for reclaiming the obsolete racial slur “coon” to refer to the wholly imaginary stereotype of the American imagination in post-minstrel popular culture, the cartoonish big-lipped, razor-totin’, chicken-lovin’, ghost-fearin’, malaproppin’ inhabitant of song and joke, as distinct from any actual flesh-and-blood black man or woman past or present. No human being was ever a Coon; they’re as fictional as fairies, and just as standard a part of the cultural repertoire from 1890 to 1920. This isn’t to say that the Coon isn’t as degrading and hateful an image as possible, or that its primacy in popular culture played a significant role in the long-term institutionalization of racist behavior and attitudes throughout America (though cause and effect are notoriously difficult to suss out in such cases); for God’s sake we don’t want to bring it back. That chapter’s well closed. Point being that white America, by attributing all slippages from conventional morality, manners, and musicality to the Coon, snuck a great deal of unconventional morality, manners, and musicality into the national conversation — a largely unappreciated part of what made the transition from the Victorian Age to the Jazz Age possible. Anyway, about the record. Arthur Pryor was John Philip Sousa’s star trombonist until he struck out on his own and built a marching band to rival Sousa’s. This, one of his biggest hits, is an important predecessor to jazz, by taking the standard march and goosing it with ragtime rhythms and spectacularly nontraditional, farting slides on the trombone, sounds which would get you fired from a Philharmonic orchestra but which, because the word Coon was slapped on the title of the composition, was instead a perfectly unexceptionable record, a burlesque of marching standards, in starched-linen middle-class homes throughout the land.
46. Harry Lauder “I Love A Lassie”
(Harry Lauder, Gerald Grafton)
Edison 19178 • 1907
Alleged humor based on national and racial stereotypes was by no means limited to mockery of African Americans. There was immense pressure, social as well as financial, for everyone working in entertainment to inhabit broad stereotypes and play them as cartoonishly as possible. (Except, of course, for the Standard White American. Though thinking of Jack Norworth, that line could start to seem pretty dull by comparison.) Harry Lauder was the biggest Scottish comedian in the world — far more popular than Billy Connolly, for example, ever would be — and American audiences loved him as much as British. (Like every comedian worthy of the name, he had many different characters and routines; but it was the broad-spoken, tartan-wearing “laird” that everyone wanted to see.) “I Love A Lassie” was his signature song, and in this early recording incorporates a signature bit of business (so popular as to be quoted by P. G. Wodehouse in The Inimitable Jeeves), where he thinks his love is coming round the bend, but “no . . . it’s a rabbut.” In 1907 Lauder was still out of his element before a recording horn, and the record is full of his reflexive, meaningless chuckles, used to space out the performance where audience laughter and cheers would have taken up time on stage. Vaudeville in America (and music hall in the U.K.) was full of comedians like Lauder, whether specifically ethnic or just eccentric, and a good deal of the pop of the era was composed of the songs of such comedians, songs which today are neither particularly funny nor particularly good as songs; but like a lot of pop since, are nevertheless memorable thanks to the energy and idiosyncrasy of the specific performances which delivered them to a mass audience.
45. Art Hickman’s Orchestra “Rose Room”
(Art Hickman, Harry Williams)
Columbia 2858 • 1919
In 1917 a record by an outfit with the initials ODJB became the most revolutionary sonic cocktail in the history of recorded music. We will come to that later; for now, here is one of its fruits. In 1924, Washington bandleader Meyer Davis sponsored a national contest to rename the new, vulgar music sweeping the nation and which was commonly called after a low-class synonym for semen — the winner, by popular acclaim, was Synco-Pep. (Not that it caught on, of course; we still say jazz today.) “Rose Room” is Synco-Pep, even to some degree the ultimate Synco-Pep record although people will go on making those kinds of records for the rest of recorded history. It’s Muzak, easy listening, soft rock, adult contemporary, everything that real rock fans (and jazz fans, and everything fans) hate about the co-optation and commercialization of the Real, Raw Music, scrubbed white and tuxedoed and safe for grandmas everywhere. It’s not jazz — it never was jazz — but its gliding, peppy (there’s no other word for it) rhythms and its use of horn sections with Debussian coloration for dance purposes owe everything to the discoveries made and trails blazed by actual jazz players, and pre-jazz players, some of whom we will meet, many of whom never recorded. It is a brief, dreamy interlude, perfect for the overeducated, anxious, and tentatively romantic generation moving out of the shadow of the war and into the intoxicating, upheaving twenties. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bobbed flappers didn’t dance to actual New Orleans jazz, which was too black and funky and scary for middle-class white kids; they danced to Art Hickman’s Orchestra and Synco-Pep and believed they were the caterpillar’s eyebrows.
44. Elsie Baker & Billy Murray “Play A Simple Melody”
Victor 18051 • 1916
The cultural and social impact made by ragtime beginning in the 1890s and continuing through to the teens is much more difficult for us to gauge here in the age of near-total documentation than the later, more easily identifiable impacts of jazz, rock & roll, and hip-hop. There is no ragtime equivalent of “Crazy Blues” or “Rock Around The Clock” or “Rapper’s Delight” — no record which could be said (however untruly) to have started it all. (Which isn’t to say there wasn’t a song which started it all, but we’ll get to that.) One measure of how diffuse the impact of ragtime on popular culture was — and how diffuse the culture itself was, so that new ideas trickled through several strata of society over periods of decades — is that this song, published on the eve of jazz, is still treating twenty-year-old ragtime like a startling new youth movement displacing good old Proper Music, i.e. parlor song and operetta. (A chronological comparison would be a cabaret singer moaning about rock & roll in 1979; dude, the battle’s long over.) But it’s a tribute to Irving Berlin’s pop-music genius that the parlor song section doesn’t sound maudlin and the ragtime, when it comes in, is respectably punchy and rhythmic, throwing both sides into vivid relief against each other yet uniting them in tempo and harmony so that the join doesn’t show. It’s a trick Berlin would return to again, especially in his stage musicals (think of Annie Get Your Gun), a deceptively simple pattern that paved the way for the jazz — “a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time,” quoth Paul F. Tompkins — to come. Berlin’s talent for making the parlor song and the ragtime song harmonize so exactly should be no surprise; his overarching concern, as befits a lifelong assimilator, was unity.
43. Blanche Ring “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine”
(Fred Fisher, Alfred Bryan)
Victor 60032 • 1910
One of the most quietly heartbreaking genres of pop culture around the turn of the twentieth century was the cartoon sketch of The City Of The Future, a staple of newspaper supplements, comic magazines, and even upscale glossies like Life and the Saturday Evening Post. Everyone could see how much the automobile, not quite two decades old, was in the middle of transforming urban and rural life; they mostly assumed that aviation would quickly do the same, and so prints and drawings full of airships — dirigibles, multiple-decker airplanes, rockets, and conveyances which owe more to the artist’s imagination than to the principles of physics — multiplied, depicting the Traffic Jam of the Future, the Harvard/Yale Race of the Future, the Rubbernecking of the Future, the Woman Driver of the Future . . . . Which is where Blanche Ring comes in. This song was written for a man to sing (or rather for a male-female duet, a popular format in the days of sheet music and parlor pianos), so a woman’s taking it up and making it her own requires a certain elasticity of premise. Is she courting Josephine? Is she her schoolmistress? At one point she seems to address a group of girls; at others she conducts little dialogues, all in a plummy, musical-comedy contralto which speaks well of her career as a popular character actress on stage and later, briefly, in silent films. She follows the swooping lines of the melody and adds her own swoops as well; the effect is rather that of circus music (which only means that circuses as we know them date to the period and haven’t changed much since) than anything we associate with aviation today. But then in 1910 aviation was a great deal more like a circus act — the famous barnstormers were performers, not aeronautics professionals — than it is today. The song is a frivolity, but it knows it’s a frivolity, and no one, performer or listener, is under any deception. Also, nearly a century later, it was apparently in a movie of some kind.
42. George M. Cohan “I Want To Hear A Yankee Doodle Tune”
(George M. Cohan)
Victor 60045 • 1911
If you were interested in American popular song in the first decade of the twentieth century — and there’s no particular reason you would have been; the midcentury valorization of popular songwriters from Gershwin to Dylan is looking more and more like a historical fluke — there were two men who would have demanded your attention above all others. The first we will get to in time; the second was George M. Cohan, a short, energetic, and sincerely patriotic Irishman who had grown up as part of a family act in vaudeville and was the greatest song-and-dance man of an age when to be a song-and-dance man was to be on the cutting edge of popular culture, a dynamo of noisy energy placed in frank opposition to the sober, preindustrial verities of the concert-hall repertoire. It’s that opposition Cohan plays up on one of the few recordings he ever made (records couldn’t show off his dance moves, after all), where he puts himself and John Philip Sousa (and ragtime, for spice) in opposition to the longhaired fustiness of Wagner and Rossini and Gounod, all of whom, it’s worth remembering, were still living memory for most Americans, and stagings of the great operas were massively popular events, even if that popularity was confined to the middle classes. But we can still get a glimpse of the challenge Cohan posed in the opening lines of the song, where his nimble Irish voice hurtles through a dense, rhythmic pattern of intricately-rhymed verbiage. They called this kind of thing a patter song at the time; a century and a great deal of social change hence, people would call it rap.
41. The Van Eps Banjo Orchestra “Sans Souci (Maxixe Brasilienne)”
(Arthur N. Green)
Columbia 1594 • 1914
A little-remarked feature of American music is the periodic incorporation of “exotic” foreign elements. It’s generally ignored or dismissed, since most people who want to talk about American music want to talk about American music, downplaying any evidence which suggests that Emersonian self-reliance tells an at best incomplete story. But the Argentinian tango and the Brazilian maxixe were massively popular dance crazes in the early teens, particularly as exemplified by the celebrity dance team Vernon and Irene Castle. They have no real analogue in later popular culture; not even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were as minutely studied as the Castles, and they didn’t even sing, just danced, and inspired a generation to do the same. The tango and the maxixe, it’s worth noting, were products of African and European cultures colluding in the Americas in precisely the same way that ragtime and jazz were; but being sold to the American public as Latin, they were higher-class than the cakewalk of minstrelsy or the Charleston just now being danced in Southern bordellos. Fred Van Eps was the signature banjoist of the period, the Jimmy Page of banjo players (the Hendrix who had preceded him will show up in the next entry) who, as the banjo was falling out of favor in ragtime circles — Scott Joplin’s piano-based classicism was gaining ground even now — went all-out and formed a group playing nothing but banjos. The resulting sound is more like Harry Partch’s homemade Kitharas or the zither music of Eastern Europe: nothing but percussive strings, taken at a oblique-sounding trot which isn’t quite syncopated but isn’t exactly conventional Western rhythm either. The Sans Souci of the title is a conventional French phrase meaning “without worry” — although meditating on the mulatto origins of the maxixe brings to mind the palace of the same name built by the first black monarch of the Americas, Henri Christophe of Haiti. Blackness will be with us throughout.
40. Arthur Collins & Vess L. Ossman “All Coons Look Alike To Me”
Edison 7317 • 1902
Blackness — or anyway a conception of blackness, one which isn’t entirely white, even if it is entirely false — dominates this record, one of the more skin-crawling to modern sensibilities at first listen. There are three reasons why it remains nevertheless an important historical document, regardless of how offensive it is:
1) It was the biggest song hit by a black songwriter who, in the mid-nineties, had decided that if money was to be made writing coon songs then that money might as well go to him, and along the way he could iron out some of the more hideous stereotypes. The central joke of the lyric is that the standard racist line “all coons (or chinks, or dagos, or redskins, or whatever) look the same” is used here by the narrator’s black lady friend as the dismissive excuse for why she’s hooked up with someone a bit more flash. Which doesn’t excuse the fact of a white man singing it, except….
2) Arthur Collins was one of the premier dialect singers of the first thirty years of recorded music, but he had moved on from the most disgusting, borderline-retarded depictions of black vocalizing that dominated minstrelsy and was by this point trying to sound like an actual black man; as David Wondrich notes, his vocal style here sounds, rarely for the period, normal to ears raised on generations of white men (Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer) trying to sound black.
3) Vess L. Ossman’s banjo accompaniment. Ossman was the Hendrix of ragtime banjo mentioned above, except of course that he was white — any black Hendrices never recorded. And he’s a full duet partner here, using the banjo to comment on, mock, and lend dramatic or ironic color to the official narrative of Collins’ voice. We’ll talk more about Ossman (and the banjo) later; for now, just enjoy his virtuoso runs up the neck of the instrument.
Set against all of this is the undisguised relish with which Collins interpolates the n-word in the chorus (not in Hogan’s original lyrics). Cases can be made that he’s anticipating the transgressive confrontationality (and rhythmic sensibility) of hip-hop; an easier case can be made that like practically every white man of the period, he’s kicking a people when it’s down.
39. Nellie Melba “Mandoline”
(Claude Debussy, Paul Verlaine)
Victor 88456 • 1913
A hundred years ago, the tabloid press and gossip-mongers of the day engaged in the same foreshortening of their subjects that they do today; but where we informally refer to Brad and Jen and Angie, they spoke of the Divine Sarah and the Great Caruso. There was never, however, an adjective for the greatest diva of the age: she was simply Melba, and — like Elvis, like Madonna, like Beyoncé — that was everything. She was not the greatest singer in the world, and no one pretended she was; she was actually a pretty poor actress, insofar as the opera and art song in her repertoire required acting at all; but she was, for forty years, an Event wherever she went. People — ordinary people, the starfuckers, paparazzi, and screaming fanatics of the day — trampled each other in the streets for a glimpse, paid princely sums for concerts, and devoured the reams of gossip and wealth of anecdotes. She shoved singing partners off the stage if she thought they hogged too much of her spotlight, threw tantrums in every fashionable hotel in the civilized world, and had a succession of lovers in plain view of the public and her husband. She was born in Australia, but adopted by both the British and the American publics as one of them, and thought of herself, with some justification, as transcending nationality. So it’s a small irony that she’s represented here not by one of her dazzling operatic showcases, but by a minor setting of a Verlaine poem written by Debussy early in his career to curry favor with his Russian patron Madame von Meck. “Mandoline” is a lightly comic song about the amorous adventures of a courtier, written for a male voice; Melba, characteristically, does whatever she pleases with it.
38. Raymond Hitchcock “So What’s The Use?”
Columbia 5167 • 1910
Raymond Hitchcock is barely remembered today, and if he is it’s as a footnote in histories of vaudeville and early twentieth-century theater; the revue Hitchy-Koo, built around him, was one of the main rivals to the biggest theatrical powerhouse in the teens, Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies. But he sold a lot of tickets in his day, and his comic persona is one of the more relatable across the decades; a forerunner to the beloved-because-they’re-awful-people W. C. Fields and Jack Benny, with a surly croak of a voice and a rumpled, evening’s-dregs appearance, he provided a much-needed counterbalance to the irritatingly bright-eyed and positivist claptrap of Broadway in the teens. But in one thing he outshone nearly all his contemporaries and rivals, until a Jew who called himself Al eclipsed him after the war: he made records. Lots of them. Some terrible, some pretty good, and this one, from his 1910 comedy A Yankee Tourist (featuring a young Wallace Beery) — a minor masterpiece of jaundiced, hungover cynicism. One of the secret themes of early-twentieth-century pop is the desire of average middle-class men to buck the system of conventional piety, family circles, clean living, and sober work — one of the biggest song hits of 1909, for example, was Irving Berlin’s “My Wife’s Gone To The Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!” — and Hitchcock was the bleary-eyed patron sinner to all such temptations, a ringleader of sin and vice on Broadway (Broadway being synonymous with sin and vice however chaste its attractions might seem today), and one of the few cultural figures standing athwart the burgeoning temperance movement crying “Stop!”
37. The Versatile Four “Circus Day In Dixie”
(Albert Gumble, Jack Yellen)
HMV C-645 • 1916
There are very few recordings which get at the primal rock & roll energy of the original minstrel music. This is one of them. Don’t misunderstand me: minstrelsy was an abomination, a cowardly act of cultural rape and ugly mockery used, above all else, to define the black population of the American South as a humanity-free Other, to imprint the image of the carefree, shiftless, ignorant and brutish Coon on every black man and woman. But it was also, as a careful study of the historical record makes clear, a venue for musical expression of a peculiarly American sort: controlled chaos, in which the wild urgency of the Celt was joined to the polyrhythmic complexity of the African, and America, for the first time, had a musical and theatrical language with which to express itself. The self it expressed was by our standards cruel and thoughtless and contemptuous — but it was also ecstatic and anarchic and generous, as in all the best traditions of American vernacular music. This recording is very late in the lifespan of minstrelsy — aside from a few regional circuits in the South, the form had pretty much died out, killed by family-friendly vaudeville and (ironically enough) records like this one — and as such it’s impossible to know exactly how representative of an actual minstrel walkabout it is (not that a fifty-year theatrical tradition, with white troupes and black troupes throughout the land in every configuration under the sun, could have had any single identifiable sound). But it is string music, which is important — black music whether real or imitation was not widely identified with brass sections until after the War, when the influence of New Orleans jazz and military bands like Jim Europe’s combined to create a sea change. And it is rhythmic, astonishingly rhythmic for the period. “How’s that?” crows the interlocutor at the end, sounding mighty pleased with himself. As well he might; the Versatile Four just rocked.
Here’s the kicker: they were black.
36. The Ford Hawaiians “Wiliwili Wai”
Edison 3269 • 1917
We are very sure of ourselves, now that everything is recorded for posterity and illuminated by the light of five hundred million LCD screens. Nobody can tell us nothing. In these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a tiny island nation, swallowed up by America more or less as a footnote to its business interests in the Pacific, having such a thoroughly transformative effect on the music of the mainland that the most definitively American roots sounds turn out to have originated beneath palm-frond roofs. All of which is to say: the opening notes of this song predict not just the steel whine of country music (everyone knows about that already), but the unearthly moan of blues slide. (It is more or less a fact that people were playing the blues in the Delta before the turn of the century, but guitars were hard to come by until the teens and we have no idea what they sounded like until the mid-20s.) Which doesn’t mean that the rest of the song is subordinate to the occasional wisps of slide guitar. It was written by the last queen of Hawai’i — a prolific composer whose songs are still a major part of the Hawaiian cultural tradition — during her brief reign; fascinated by a neighbor’s lawn sprinkler, she wrote an ode to its ceaseless motion. This is transformed by a singing group used to promote Henry Ford’s commercial concerns into a slow, time-suspending drift, with an impassive bass voice taking lead. The implied interstices of commerce, Pacific tradition, imperialism, and musical seeds planted for an unimagined future are too complex and fascinating to ignore; the actual sound of the recording, hymnal and mysterious all at once, demands attention, even in comparison to other Hawaiian records of the period.
35. La Banda De Zapadores De México “La Paloma”
Edison 18734 • 1905
To the first obvious question: the “banda de zapadores” has nothing to do with Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary leader of the era; it’s a military band, zapadores being roughly analogous to the Army Corps of Engineers. (It comes from the same French root as the English “sapper.”) This, then, is a group like Sousa’s band ten years earlier — he was originally a military bandleader — or like Jim Europe’s band ten years later. And like all military bands, they’re playing the standards of their nation. (What military bands are doing in a list of more or less pop records is not a question anyone would have asked a hundred years ago; ordinary life was much more militarized than it is today now that war has become philosophically optional, and marching bands, which originated in and were consistently fed by militaries, were one of the premier pop configurations of the era.) To the song, then. “La Paloma” is far more than just one of the national songs of Mexico; in fact, it wasn’t even Mexican to begin with, but written by a Spaniard influenced by Cuban rhythms, and its rapid spread throughout Latin America and elsewhere predicted the pan-American Latin music and entertainment industry that we know today. The questing, longing melody, married to the strict-time habanera rhythm, is one of the signature musical sounds of global pop, and not only the mariachi and rumba of subsequent Latin waves, but Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” and the tejano pulses underlying Bob Wills’ Western swing are coded in the song’s DNA. The banda takes it at a smart clip, and the pop moment in the second chorus when they pause and then hit the final note in the line, hard, even suggests the forceful impulse behind Latin rock to come.
34. The Victor Military Band “Memphis Blues”
(W. C. Handy)
Victor 17619 • 1914
Whereas this, this is funk and soul and jazz and swerve entering into harmonic forms, for the first time in recorded history. The first recorded blues song, in which an identifiable blues pattern and chord structure (even if it’s not twelve-bar standard) is present in an American song, written by a black man even if everyone in the Victor Military Band (meant as a genre description, not a reflection on the enlisted status of the men playing) was white. And popularized before that by blackface minstrel performers, particularly George “Honey Boy” Evans. Handy himself had been in minstrel troupes before the turn of the century. Then in 1903 he according to his memoirs discovered the blues on a train platform in Mississippi where a man played slide guitar using the flat of a knife. Whether the story is true or not, Handy wrote “Memphis Blues” in 1912, had it picked up by Evans, and then, once Victor and Columbia recorded it with their house bands, the sheet music began to sell. By 1915 the blues were a craze; by 1920, they were part of the fabric of American popular music and would never as long as American music existed be fully leached out of it, the baseline standard for authenticity and truth for generations to come. So it’s fitting that their origins are squarely in the commercial pop matrix of the early teens, their existence as a form prior to Handy’s popularization as irrelevant to what would come as Leif Eriksson’s arrival in America before Columbus. It was Handy who made them stick. Admittedly, it can be difficult for modern ears, accustomed to bent notes and vocal repetition in their blues, to hear the blues in this song. But compare with Pryor’s supposedly Africanized march at #47, and the blues — as well as jazz and funk — pop into immediate relief. The middle-class showbiz stringer Handy no more had the blues in his blood than any white bandleader; but he had enough entrepreneurial sense to guess that the American appetite for cod-black entertainment might well respond to the intermingling of actual Negro stuff. And how.
33. The Victor Light Opera Company “Gems From Naughty Marietta”
(Victor Herbert, Rida Johnson Young)
Victor 31852 • 1911
George M. Cohan, I have said, was one of the two dominant figures in the American pop scene of the first decade of the twentieth century; the other was Victor Herbert. It’s hard to even think of comparable figures from later periods; imagine Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra arriving on the scene at the same time to the same effect, and you might get a taste. But where Cohan was a song-and-dance man, a snappy patterer and all-around entertainer who sent genial raspberries to the longhair establishment, Herbert was a composer who longed for the respect of institutional music, who made a fortune out of frivolous operettas and other Broadway productions, but who wanted to be seen as a peer of Dvorak and Liszt. His serious operas, though, were critical and commercial failures, and only one instrumental piece ever joined the standard repertoire. However, he was in America, and the prime creed of American culture — Money Talks — ensured that he would be regarded fondly and even worshipfully for generations, at least until operetta faded from cultural memory. Naughty Marietta was perhaps his most popular operetta (or anyway second only to Babes In Toyland, which is felt among devotees of the form to not really count, the same way Lewis Carroll isn’t really a Victorian novelist), and it’s probably the most perfect example of the form in America, Herbert’s romantic Viennese upbringing melding with the winking Gilbert & Sullivan comedy which American audiences had loved in the nineteenth century, and all blown up widescreen and surround sound in classic American fashion. “Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life” and “I’m Falling In Love With Someone” even had a life outside the stage, presaging the intertwining of Broadway and pop to come. Recordings like this one are the only real intimation of Herbert’s achievements on record until the Eddy/MacDonald revivalism of the 1930s, and while none of the original stars of the operetta were involved, Victor was able to hire decent ringers for their knockoff medleys, and hints of the fresh, thrilling romanticism of the Broadway hit manage to come through.
(Audiophile note: The mp3 I’m using has been tweaked too much to remove surface noise, so that it has no depth and there’s a glassy digital envelope, but until someone gets around to issuing it properly on CD, it will have to do.)
32. Sergei Rachmaninoff “Prelude In C Sharp Minor”
Edison 82187 • 1919
There are many, many ways in which music-on-record was unrepresentative of actual music in the pre-high-fidelity era; perhaps the most all-encompassing way in which this was true is that pianos were rarely recorded before the 1920s, because if they were with a band they were inaudible and if they were alone they were drowned in surface noise. Recording horns could only take in volumes of sound, and the piano — the signature instrument of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — is one of the most delicate instruments, after the acoustic guitar. Still, by configuring the studio setup as minutely as possible and modulating the playing to a specific dynamic range, it slowly became possible for pianos to appear on record. This record, a massive hit upon its issue in 1919, was as much a triumph of (primitive) audio engineering as of compositional or performative finesse. Rachmaninoff was already feeling the Prelude as an albatross around his neck; it was his first hit as a composer and performer in 1892 at the age of 19, and dogged him in the way early hits do ambitious artists. But with the traditional resignation of an exiled aristocrat — he emigrated to America following the Bolshevik revolution, the last of the Russian Romantics — he submitted to its popularity and closed every concert with it. To modern ears used to thinking of classical piano in terms of Mozart or Liszt, the piece is minimalist, even ambient in its ebb and flow, with plenty of negative space (filled in by surface hiss on this recording), and the chromatic triplets that eventually rise in crescendo take us by thrilling surprise. For several decades, as modernism took hold, Rachmaninoff’s traditional melodicism and late-Romantic gestures would be derided as old-fashioned and insipid; today, with the usual vindication of long-term popularity, he is simply another of the Greats.
31. The Oriental Orchestra “Russian Scissors”
Columbia E3372 • 1917
The word klezmer was not applied to this music except retroactively; if violinist and bandleader Abe Schwartz called it anything, he just called it Yiddish music. Maybe, if he was talking to someone from the old country, the word freilech came up. Regardless, Schwartz was one of the central figures in what we now understand to be klezmer — the ecstatic Jewish music, formed largely in the Bessarabian region of Eastern Europe (covering portions of present-day Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine), which in the United States would become informed by the hard-driving, high-stepping jazz sweeping the larger culture, and which under Naftule Brandwein (a Schwartz disciple; that’s probably him doing all the shrieking and moaning in this recording) would become a showcase for virtuoso clarinet improvisation. It says something about the coherence and purchasing power of the Jewish enclaves in New York that straight-up Yiddish music was being issued by a major label three years before African-American vernacular music, uncut, made it onto record. (Of course, once the dam burst and white people realized they could make money off this stuff, blues and jazz drowned the country. And a good thing, too.) But here in 1917 the recording is still relatively stiff and mannered, though of course gloriously uninhibited in comparison to the whitebread band-and-dance music of its same year; compare this to Schwartz’s re-recording (as “Rusishe Sher”) ten years later, and it’s the difference between the Rolling Stones of “Not Fade Away” and Exile On Main St. (Which isn’t to say the early Stones weren’t revolutionary in their day.) Abe Schwartz’s band weren’t exactly the first Yids on record in the United States; but they were the first unmistakably Jewish ones, and within three years the People would transform American pop utterly.
30. Nora Bayes “Regretful Blues”
(Cliff Hess, Grant Clarke)
Columbia 6038 • 1918
In 2006, Nora Bayes’ recording of George M. Cohan’s World War I anthem “Over There” was added to the National Recording Registry, a self-congratulatory list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” recordings established by Congress in 2000. It’s a fascinating list, but only intermittently useful as a method of actual historical inquiry. Bayes had the hit, but “Over There,” like all massively popular songs in the pre-rock era, belonged to everyone; Bayes is more interesting, because more herself, in her more eccentric, individual recordings. Along with several other Jewish vaudevillians in the teens, she was among the first to pick up the then-new blues as a song form, whetting the public’s appetite for the Real Blues Mamas (Bessie Smith preeminent among them) who would emerge the 1920s. In “Regretful Blues,” which she performed in a patriotic Cohan revue, she’s singing in character as a black woman, but it’s not a wholly illegitimate portrayal of black womanhood; Ethel Waters among others would take cues from her broken-voiced trills. And then, halfway through the song, it switches from being a blues about how the singer’s been busted up in love to an anti-Kaiser polemic. Bayes, like many other precarious minorities in America at the time (the Irish Cohan, the Jewish Berlin, the Italian Durante), was a strident patriot, more than happy to assist in wartime propaganda. But even that goes eccentric, as she throws goofy sound effects into the threat of a German Waterloo, switches vocal styles every other line, and puns on hon (short for “honey”) and Hun (slur for German). She was immensely popular, and because of that she was far less needy of public affection than her ex-husband, and became one of the first pop divas: she would do precisely whatever she meant to do, and the devil take the haters.
29. Joseph Moskowitz “Doina”
Victor 67911 • 1916
Most of the music recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century (and earlier) has a squat, lumbering posture, so that even the fleetest and most excitable ragtime is a little too stiff-backed. Much of that, of course, is due to the narrow sliver of dynamic range available in the old acoustic recording process; subtle colors and resonances are lost in the howl of surface noise, while large ensembles clot into muddy blocks of sound. But a square, unimaginative rhythmic sense is just as culpable — the shifted beats and forward motion of swing and funk has not yet occurred to anyone in a studio. So it’s something of a shock to come across Joseph Moskowitz. A well-regarded Romanian tsimbalist (player of the cymbalom, a sort of East-European dulcimer), he arrived in America in 1908 and immediately began to advertise his concerts on posters in Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian and Romanian in the immigrant communities of New York. His cymbalom, with its large resounding board and complex harmonics, was one of the few instruments able to cut through the fog of early recording techniques and be heard well: and his klezmer-bred rhythmic sense (audible here in the second half of the dreamy “Doina,” although he also recorded rags) makes this one of the earliest precursors to ambient techno, or chillout. “Doina” isn’t really the title of a particular composition; it’s a genre of Turkish-inflected Romanian music, in which slow, free rhythms are juxtaposed against strict-time accompaniment. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also the definition of ragtime; the fact that it doesn’t sound like ragtime is a tribute to the variety of possibility available in the world.
28. Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”
Columbia 1032 • 1911
There’s nothing particularly ragtime about this song; in fact, it’s another coon song, although delivered without the inherent racism of the word. But it’s worth remembering that the use of a classical reference like “Alexander” is meant to be funny in itself: black men, after all, were all supposed to be Sam or Joe, and giving them highfalutin names like Alexander or Octavius was one of the most dependable laugh-getters well into the 30s. And if Byron Harlan’s impersonation of a dance-mad black woman is cringingly horrible, Arthur Collins retains his dependable authoritative tone. This song (not necessarily this recording) would, in later revisionist history, be called “the first ragtime song” or “the apex of ragtime,” but it was really coming along late in the craze’s life, and contains only scraps of ragtime rhythm here and there. It was a massive hit, true, and it established Irving Berlin as America’s songwriter (although the deal Berlin signed with his publisher, in which he was given better publicity than any lowly scribbler — except Cohan or Herbert — had ever received before, was just as instrumental). The song swept the globe, and Berlin settled down to the work of maintaining his position as the most popular songwriter of all time (to date), publishing hundreds of hits before the twenties saw his first real competition emerge in the form of another young Russian-born Jewish piano-tickler from the Lower East Side. But the fact that the song isn’t in ragtime (strictly speaking, it’s a march) doesn’t mean it wasn’t revolutionary. It quotes from Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks At Home,” (as Gershwin would do in his first hit, “Swanee”), establishing the immigrant-arriviste Berlin as heir to America’s greatest tradition of vernacular songwriting, and not incidentally inspiring a generation of young songwriters to live up to it. Jerry Kern, the Gershowitz boys, Dickie Rodgers, and even a couple of Gentiles in Indiana called Cole and Hoagland were listening hard.
27. Al Bernard “The St. Louis Blues”
(W. C. Handy)
Vocalion 12148 • 1918
“It has been called the jazzman’s Hamlet,” the Internet rings mockingly over and over in an obvious lift from Wikipedia, defying every attempt to trace the appellation to its source. (A Google Book attributes it to British historian and liner-notes writer Brian Peerless, but the footnote goes to? Some pages are omitted from this book preview.) Well. From the perspective of 1918, or even of 1925, when Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong cut the definitive reading, he’s not wrong. “St. Louis Blues” is the towering achievement of early jazz composition, which is to say early blues composition (a useful if reductive formula for up to oh say swing is that ragtime+blues=jazz), a strict twelve-bar blues until the middle eight (“St. Louis woman, with her diamond ring”), when it rises, operatically, into a tango rhythm. As I say, Bessie Smith gave the definitive reading; Al Bernard’s is, by comparison, a show-business minstrel performance whose only excuse is that it’s the first American vocal recording of the song (although Ciro’s Coon Club Orchestra, a bunch of expat American blacks in the UK, cut it first, with an all-string arrangement that gives a tantalizing taste of pre-jazz black pop). Bernard includes a spoken-word riff, appalling in its shuffling coon shtick (that’s what the Goofy laughs are supposed to indicate) — but then he gets to a verse which Smith didn’t include, and so is rarely heard today — except that in infinite permutations it’s part of the storehouse of blues lyrics, Big Bill Broonzy, Jim Jackson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Dylan have all sung variations on “a black headed woman make a freight train jump the track.” There are those who sneer at W. C. Handy and the showbiz blues he wrought as “not real blues,” because not sung by shiftless men in the Mississippi Delta with guitars, but those men had record players too, and the stream of influence is never all one way. Everybody’s in show-biz, as Ray Davies said in one of his most perceptive lyrics; Bernard only acknowledges the footlights.
26. Carlos Gardel “Mi Noche Triste”
(Samuel Castriota, Pascual Contursi)
Odeon 18010 • 1917
While a focus on the developments in American music — ragtime, blues, and jazz — during this period is perhaps inevitable, it’s worth remembering that many other places in the world were also experiencing unprecedented explosions in the creative arts, and striking new veins in popular music. Argentina’s tango had spread across the world as a dance music by the time that Carlos Gardel, a handsome Columbian singer popular across South America, recorded this, the first tango with lyrics. It was, as most firsts are, a controversial move. The upper classes in Latin America were only just beginning to accept the tango as dance; Pascual Contursi’s floridly emotional lyrics about the love of a pimp for his favorite girl, filled with disreputable lower-class slang, were adduced as evidence for the downfall of civilization. Gardel’s closest friends warned him against performing it on stage. But the recording smashed all previous Latin American sales records, catapulted Gardel to superstardom, and was the first shot in a Golden Age of tango song and culture which would last until Gardel’s 1935 death in a plane crash. Rarely for Gardel, this record is performed as a solo vocal; he nearly always had a second male voice harmonizing with his sexy baritone, but his then-partner José Razzano, spooked by the potential culture-war implications of the song, had stayed away. Once the money poured in, he came right back, of course. The Tango Era in Latin America is roughly analogous to the Jazz Age in America: an outpouring of Art Deco sophistication and modernist ambition, in which writers like Jorge Borges and Gabriel García Márquez (both of whom have paid literary tribute to Gardel) discovered their art for the first time.
25. Carroll C. Clark & Vess Ossman “De Little Old Log Cabin In De Lane”
(Will S. Hays)
Oxford 4103 • 1907
A strong case could be made that this is the first country recording in history. Points against that case would include: the performers are urban Northerners, the vocalist is a black man trained as a concert singer, and the song itself is a showbiz concoction written in the late nineteenth century as a fantasy of the faithful black retainer pining for the good old days of slavery. In the strict sense of country being the music of rural white Southerners, it isn’t country: but in the sliding scale on which country music is measured as part of the larger fabric of the American vernacular, it’s hard to hear much difference between this and the 1923 recording of the same song by Fiddlin’ John Carson which is often called the first real country recording. Sure, Carson was an actual Georgia hillbilly; but Ossman’s percussive banjo has more in common with the old-time country that would emerge in the late 20s and early 30s than Carson’s atonal scraping, and Clark’s measured reading of the lyrics is a foretaste of the burnished baritones of Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, and George Jones to come. Not for the first time, it’s becoming apparent that much of what we are used to thinking of traditional music has roots in show-business pop factory systems that differ from our current ones only in technology. American Idol is not, in this reading, particularly different from the traveling spectacles like those Will Hays managed in the 1880s; it’s just that television allows people not to leave the house to participate in the complex mechanisms of admiration, schadenfreude, desire, and superiority that used to be tied more explicitly (but by no means exclusively) to race.
24. Fritz Kreisler “Poor Butterfly”
Victor 64655 • 1917
If it’s important to recognize the ways in which the pop market of the early twentieth century can find analogues in our own era, it’s just as important to recognize the ways in which it was fundamentally different. And there is no larger gap between then and now than the one opened up by the existence of the superstar classical instrumentalist. Yes, of course today we have Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman — but they, while extremely popular by classical standards, are nevertheless stars in an extremely niche genre; the popularity of violinists like Kreisler, Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz in the first half of the twentieth century (not to mention pianists like Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz) was on a different order of magnitude, closer to the adulation received by superstar guitarists in the past forty years (or MCs in the past twenty) than to the mild, owlish NPR/PBS respectability of today’s concert instrumentalists. With the result that a record like this would today be derided as crossover pabulum: a pop song written by a jobbing Tin Pan Alleycat, based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, for a spectacle at the Hippodrome (then New York’s largest venue, used for circuses as well as stage shows), recorded by Kreisler not as a bid for mainstream popularity (he already had that) but because he could do something interesting with the tune. (Jazz would adopt the same position twenty years later.) In addition to being one of the most popular instrumentalists of his day, Kreisler was a composer and arranger whose transcriptions of piano compositions for violin are still much played by cat-gutters today. His “Poor Butterfly” falls victim to some of the same cod-Orientalisms that Puccini (and Hubbell) did, but it’s a light, charming performance, exactly what the average middle-class music lover of the age would put on to relax. Which makes it not so different from Yo-Yo Ma after all.
23. Lovey’s Trinidad String Band “Mango Vert”
Columbia L23 • 1912
By 1910, phonograph technology had spread, if not round the entire world, then round the “civilized” portions of same: those red spots on the map where the British Empire never set. (Or something.) And record companies, finding that they could make more money selling dark peoples’ music back to them than just limiting themselves to a white audience (the domestic market, sadly, took far longer to come to this conclusion), began to record popular acts all around the world. We’ve run across Hawaiians, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans; but these could all be described as records from civilized nations; Lovey’s String Band, on the other hand, is strictly colonial island music; the first native Caribbean record, the progenitor of all calypso, mento, ska, reggae, soca, dancehall, and dub to come. Although the record was issued by Columbia’s British wing, the group was recorded in New York (as Delta bluesmen would be fifteen years later, traveling up to cut odes to their hometown in Manhattan towers), where (among other things) they recorded this dance instrumental, some of the first genuine black vernacular music on record, with an insistent syncopated pulse that American blacks wouldn’t get on record for a while yet. In its fiddly whine, it anticipates not just the fleet calypso of the thirties and forties (the golden age of calypso, when it was to world music what reggae would be in the 60s and 70s), but the vernacular fiddle music of the Southern U.S., which wouldn’t get on record for another ten to fifteen years. Gid Tanner, Hoyt Ming, and Dennis McGee; there’s more continuity in the music of the Gulf than is generally acknowledged.
22. Antonina Nezhdanova “Hymn To The Sun”
(Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vladimir Belsky)
Gramophone 2-23483 • 1910
Musical modernism is, in the shorthand common to historical survey, generally held to begin with the famous 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps, after which the Second Viennese School, the Italian Futurists, Les Six in France, and Americans like Antheil, Ornstein, and Gershwin, all arrive, as if only waiting for Stravinsky to lead the way. The more boring but accurate story — of gradual experimentation, in a wide variety of settings and traditions, with harmonics, tones, and forms, in which the Sacre is an important marker but hardly without precedent — allows us to hear this piece of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1909 opera Le Coq D’Or — a mordant fable inspired by the foreign adventurism, economic mismanagement, and slaughter of protesters carried out by the tsarist regime in the first decade of the twentieth century — as gesturing towards the expressionistic harmonies in (e.g.) Wozzeck that would attempt to describe the horror of the war to come. But it is, after all, a hymn — and Antonina Nezhdanova, the purest-voiced soprano of her generation, perhaps of all time, delivers a radiant performance, turning the seeds of dissonance into polished, solitary beauty. Le Coq D’Or would become a central text in twentieth-century Russian opera, its anti-tsarist sentiment and symbolist staging attractive to Soviet-era composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich; but even as one of the foundational operas of modernism, its powerfully affective beauty makes it approachable even for the musically illiterate.
21. Eddie Cantor “That’s The Kind Of Baby For Me”
(J. C. Egan, Alfred Harriman)
Victor 18342 • 1917
Towards the end of the teens, the kind of pop song that would hold sway for the next fifty years emerged: comfortable, domestic, lively, middle-class. Before World War I, American pop had been (mostly) split between sentimental, dirgey parlor songs for the middle classes and rowdy, disreputable saloon songs for the lower, of which the coon song was only the most vile example. (The upper classes were assumed to care only for art song, but were more often merely amusical.) But as family-friendly vaudeville asserted its dominance in the entertainment sphere over males-only burlesque, as Broadway sought and got artistic respectability in the productions of David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld, and as the gathered forces of middle-class respectability pushed the country over the ludicrous brink represented by the Eighteenth Amendment, the nexus of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and New York publishing became a centrifuge from which the new mass media emerged: Hollywood, radio, and eventually television would all march to the drumbeat established by men and women in the late teens, one of whom — Eddie Cantor — would become one of the most beloved figures in all entertainment. In 1917, he was twenty-six and had reached the highest peak then imaginable for an entertainer, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies with the legendary Bert Williams, who had lost his partner George Walker to tuberculosis six years earlier. Still scrawny, Cantor played Williams’ punk kid in blackface, and out of blackface played punk kids nevertheless — put-upon, nervous, cowardly and supremely funny. On record he was a somewhat brasher presence, though the braggadocio in the lyrics are always undercut by the clumsy nervousness of his cut-rate-Jolson voice, a performance style he mastered early and which only made him more loveable. This song, in which he (subversively) sings the praises of a rich divorcée playing sugar mommy to his low-rent hustler, was a hit in the Follies and on record, and helped establish his persona: the nice Jewish kid who got luckier than he deserved. He would inhabit it the rest of his life.
20. Harry T. Burleigh “Go Down Moses”
Broome 51 • 1919
There was an interesting tension around the singing of Negro spirituals in this period. On the one hand it was the only American vernacular music officially recognized by institutional America as acceptable (thanks largely to Europeans like Antonín Dvorak who championed the form first), and on the other hand it wasn’t particularly beloved of the new black generation, the first generation that didn’t remember slavery, and regarded the old spirituals with a mixture of embarrassment at (what most educated people perceived as) their naïve, crude musicality and resentment at the fact that they were just about all whites would allow blacks to sing for mass audiences. Black sopranos and tenors with unparalleled richness of tone and expression couldn’t make any headway on the concert circuit and had to resort to singing songs about De Lawd and His Chillun; insane as it sounds today, nobody would publish spirituals except in the obnoxious dialect which meant Negro. All the great black universities — Howard, Fisk, Tuskegee, — raised funds by tours of spiritual concerts; the first recognized black composers and arrangers were those who put spirituals into a concert format, with four-part harmony and regularized rhythms. Harry T. Burleigh was one of these, a man acclaimed by Dvorak in the 1880s and a star singer at St. George’s Episcopal in Manhattan, very nearly the premiere church in the country. His dignified baritone recording of this, one of the most explicitly political of all spirituals, can be difficult to listen to for those with a keen historical sense; in the middle of the racial — and racist — horsing around that makes up much of the rest of this list, it’s a moment of supreme clarity.
19. The Eubie Blake Trio “Jazzing Around”
Pathé 1181 • 1917
A lot of nonsense has been talked about Eubie Blake, as will happen about anyone born in the nineteenth century who survived into the 1980s, had two hit Broadway shows — one in the 1920s, another in the 1970s — and nevertheless remains a little-known figure on the edges of most official histories. He encouraged much of the nonsense, claiming to have been born four years earlier than he was (so that he died at 100 years old, instead of 96), claiming to have composed the melody of “The Charleston” (at least ten other people have made the same claim), and remaining musically active without having much in the way of hits, or even recordings, throughout most of his life. His earliest recordings were in the late teens, with a trio that represented a transitional space between ragtime and jazz, both of which would later claim Eubie as one of their own. But he was late in the development of ragtime and early in the development of stride; though a fantastic piano player he was never fully a jazzman, stuck in the high-energy, narrow-harmonics style of the 1910s all his life. (Which is as much a count against him as the fact that Bach never wrote a symphony is against him; being the best of your era is enough for any reasonable person.) On this record, he’s taking a New York society-dance leader’s song — Art Hickman with a grin and a wink — and adding a shot of rhythm, and not just in the trapezing, barrel-rolling drums. Blake’s keyboard sounds like two different pianos, the left and right hand working as independently as any ragtime theorist could wish, and the third member of the trio adds some comedy horn blasts and bleats. The effect is of the swiftest, dancingest piano yet on record, a hurdy-gurdy of a song anticipating Nicky Hopkins or even Conlon Nancarrow; the funky pulse of the drumbeats, off-center and wiggly throughout, a mere sop to the dancefloor in comparison.
18. Ada Jones & Billy Murray “Shine On Harvest Moon”
(Jack Norworth, Nora Bayes)
Edison 10134 • 1908
Probably the greatest coon song qua song, i.e. in its natural form, as sheet music. Bayes and Norworth, uninterested in reciting hateful stereotypes, as much because to do so limits your paying audience as because of Bayes’ own (Jewish) experience of popular animus, wrote a song which can apply to any spooning couple (NB: to “spoon” in those days merely meant to make out, not the full-body activity we know today), with a healthy dollop of wiseguy ruralist sentiment that later songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer would exploit to fun and profit. Unfortunately, Ada Jones and Billy Murray — the premier dialect duo of the era, to our lasting sorrow — shove the coon aspect down our throats, particularly in the nauseating spoken-word section in place of a second verse. (Their blackface characters are cowards, sexual opportunists, and borderline imbecilic; horrifyingly, this is mild by coon-song standards.) However, the speaker-exploding harmonies on the chorus remain as charming as ever, and the hint you get of the piano-duet song this should have been, with two ignorant and innocent white Midwestern kids in Ma’s parlor taking the two parts, is enough to rescue the song if not the performance from oblivion. Leon Redbone’s 1976 cover gets at the naive-sentimental praxis of the Norworth-Bayes composition much better; but by 1976 the urgent pop impulse in the Jones-Murray recording had long since faded, and all that was left was nostalgia.
17. Arthur Fields “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning”
Victor 18489 • 1918
The profound historical disjuncture that is World War I is difficult to approach even at the distance of nearly a century. If it was, as many sober-minded textbook writers have claimed in countless introductions and prefaces, the true beginning of the twentieth century (which subsequently ended on September 10, 2001), it was also, in the way of things, one damn thing after another, days full to the brim of twenty-four hours and hours waiting precisely sixty minutes before turning over — from the perspective of popular music, things went on much as they had always done, and if jazz first got onto record during the war years it’s more coincidence than troubling portent, though it’s that too. The most popular American song in response to the war was George M. Cohan’s aforementioned “Over There,” and imports like “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary,” “Keep The Home Fires Burning,” and “Mademoiselle From Armentières” also did a roaring trade in shopboy’s whistles and idle humming. Irving Berlin, the most popular songwriter in the land, was drafted in 1918, and never one to miss an opportunity to fit a song to an occasion, wrote “Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” for a fundraising revue put on by the boys in his training camp. The trademark Berlin move of the 1910s, a cheeky quotation in the melody, was grafted onto a smart rhyme scheme (“Amputate his reveille/And step upon it heavily” suggests he’d been listening to P. G. Wodehouse’s lyrics for the Princess shows, about which more later), and Victor coon-song stringer Arthur Fields’ hit recording applied the soothing balderdash at which pop has always excelled to the horrors of war. It helped that Berlin was never deployed, and in fact the war would be over before the year was out — but the song lasted through World War II, and I still hum it grumpily in the shower of mornings. It’s a wonder there are so many love songs; if there was ever a universal sentiment, surely this is it.
16. The Original Dixieland Jass Band “Livery Stable Blues”
(Ray Lopez, Alcide Nunez)
Victor 18255 • 1917
Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches now towards Bethlehem. But jazz is stillborn here on its first record, the product of five white men of Italian descent who are playing what has been the New Orleans sound for nearly two decades and calling it after a variant of jism, and — here’s the unforgivable thing, the thing even more than the dudes’ whiteness and cocky insistence that jazz was always a white man’s music makes all who write about, listen to, and love The Music turn their faces away — they’re playing it for laughs. As Wikipedia notes in its deceptively bland way, “The third theme consists of the trombone, clarinet and cornet imitating various barnyard animals; the clarinet a rooster, the cornet a horse, and the trombone a cow.” You know what fuck these guys, says eighty years of dignity and class and serious-mindedness, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and various Marsalises. The first jazz record — the first record in which a twelve-bar blues is played by a small brass-and-winds-and-percussion combo, all playing different things at the same time in defiance of all that is sacred and right about music here in the white man’s 1917 — and it’s a joke, and not even a funny one at that. But if there’s anything the preceding thirty-four songs should have prepared us for, it’s hearing this as the pipe bomb it was, an explosion of anarchic delight in the middle of the fox-trots and cakewalks that represented the outer limits of conventional middle-class music. The shrill, shrieking clarinet; the low-down dragging trombone; the impudent cornet, the jangling piano and garage-stomp drums: all these might have been heard one by one, in strictly delimited confines, in other recordings, but together they sounded like Pandemonium, and not just the loose metaphorical sense that means “a riotous noise,” but the capital-letter thing, the capital of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was the end of the world, as sure as the corpses in the trenches at the Somme, and worse than that, because it was in those middle-class homes, being played over and over again by the goggle-eared boys and shiny-kneed girls who were supposed to have been the representatives of muscular Christianity in this depraved world — lipstick and bathtub gin and motorcars and free love and back-alley abortions and powdered cocaine and cocktails and stock market crashes and the atom bomb and everything that would mean the twentieth century loomed on the horizon, and the defenders of traditional values were properly horrified, as they have been ever since, and the noise just kept coming and coming and even cries from the pulpit, denunciations from the bench, and the short sharp smash of brittle shellac over the knee couldn’t stop it. The Generation got good and Lost here, and never would be found again.
15. Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette “Watermelon Party”
(James L. Stamper)
Edison 2178 • 1910
Oh, we’re not done with the coon songs yet. In some ways the cooniest of coon songs, in some ways weirdly respectable, this is the first interracial group (that we know of) on record. Polk Miller was a drugstore owner and Civil War veteran (on the Confederate side) whose veterinary products are still sold today; his Old South Quartette was four black men. Miller billed himself as “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro,” but never blacked up. He played the banjo (as he had been taught by slaves in his youth), and sang lead in a sort of medicine show which he, owning the patents on the medicines, received all profit from. (After his death in 1913, the Old South Quartette kept it up, performing and recording into the 1920s, as detailed elsewhere on this site.) “Watermelon Party,” being the product of such ancien regime Southerners, is perhaps the closest intimation we’ll ever get as to what the music of minstrelsy actually sounded like. And it’s damn lively, the (inevitable) Coon-isms like a tremendous appetite for watermelon, chicken, and ’possum expressed in forward-thrusting, massed-vocal lines, with a black voice shouting out, preacher-like, “Everybody!” as the chorus comes round again. Miller’s banjo is even slip-rhythmed, not quite syncopation but close enough for a stiff-assed white boogie. The lyrics, a simple-minded catalog of good eatin’s, are (knee-jerk racial slurs aside) as much a vision of paradise as the famously detailed feasts in the Narnia books or indeed as Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food” some ninety years later: as a thousand comedians have noted from stage, who doesn’t like watermelon? That shit’s delicious!
14. Harvey Hindermeyer “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”
(Albert Von Tilzer, Jack Norworth)
Standard 586 • 1908
Regardless of how much money the NBA makes, how many regular Joes watch Monday Night Football, or how many traitors to God and country give a shit about about soccer, baseball will always be the Great American Sport. Thanks to a combination of historical accident and the self-conscious mythologizing that ran through every cultural institution at the turn of the twentieth century, it’s unique among American sports in its rich history, and unapologetic nostalgia — it’s the only sport that has its own theme song, sung at every game at precisely the same point. The Cracker Jack snack food owes its continued existence to the song (the stuff is tasteless and gross if eaten anywhere outside of a ballpark), and not even Irving Berlin’s elephantine “God Bless America” was able to drive it out of the seventh-inning stretch after 9/11. And it is just and proper that such a richly evocative piece of Americana had its beginning in the squalid tenements of the commercial pop scam: Jack Norworth, fresh off his “Harvest Moon” success, was on the subway one day, saw a poster for a game, and had an idea for a song lyric. He’d never been to a game — baseball, with its unruly crowds and low-class players (thus the Irish twang to the verses; low-class popularity basically meant Irishness), wasn’t the sort of thing people who fancied themselves gentlemen were interested in — but he knew an untapped market when he saw it. Like aeronautics (#43), ragtime (#28), and bicycles-built-for-two and telephones (see below), baseball was another fad you could make a quick buck off of, a song which would be whistled everywhere for a year and then forgotten forever — unless of course it got caught up in the whirlwind of history.
13. The Afro-American Folk Singers “Swing Along”
(Will Marion Cook)
Columbia 1538 • 1914
One of the most representative African-American stories of the turn of the century is that of composer, writer, and blowhard Will Marion Cook. Educated at Oberlin Conservatory with ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Antonín Dvorak, he was frustrated at every turn by the unwillingness of the American classical establishment to even look at a black man regardless of his talent and credentials. Considering it well beneath his dignity, he drifted into composing for popular theater; his 1898 collaboration with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar Clorindy, Or The Origins Of The Cakewalk established a fad for all-black Broadway shows and launched the careers of Bert Williams and George Walker. Cook became the musical director for the subsequent Williams-and-Walker stage shows, including Sons Of Ham (1901), In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908). Walker’s death and Williams’ ascension to the Ziegfeld plane of existence ended the era; Cook turned to collaborations with younger, more forward-thinking men like James Reese Europe (who he sneered at, not terribly privately, for being less formally educated than himself), and organized concerts of his old material, attempting to prove that in its incorporation of African-American folk materials and compositional and performative strength it was the equal of anything being performed on the concert circuit. The Afro-American Folk Singers was one outgrowth of these concerts; they made one double-sided record in 1914, recordings which unless you know the songs well already are almost impossible to understand; the church-choir size of the group and insensitive recording techniques leaves a muddy, indistinct sound. “Swing Along” was from In Dahomey; the B-side, “The Rain Song,” was from Bandanna Land. Both deserve to be heard; but you can get a better idea of “Swing Along” by listening to this NPR show starting at 2:27. (I recommend listening to the whole show, which is about Cook’s life and work, but you’re busy people.) The line “white folks jealous when you walk in two by two” is just about the most perceptive and even the most politically explosive lyric in a pop song in the decade; or even the half-century. The rest of pop history would be white people and black people both figuring out how to deal with that envy.
12. The Flonzaley Quartet “Molly On The Shore”
Victor 74580 • 1918
The life, eccentricity, and musical genius of Percy Grainger cannot be done justice in this short space; just go read the Wikipedia page. He wrote “Molly On The Shore” in 1907 for his mother, with whom he had a complex, Freudian (if not actually incestuous) relationship; it’s a combination of two different traditional Irish tunes, in irregular rhythm, and its short melodic phrases and repeating patterns, easily mistakable for cell composition, sounds like a Philip Glass or Steve Reich string piece sixty years early. The Flonzaley Quartet was the early-twentieth-century version of the Kronos folks, both immensely respected and quite popular, continually interested in new music and pushing the boundaries of the string quartet as well as performing the classics to great acclaim; they commissioned work from Stravinsky at the peak of his controversy. While their recording of “Molly On The Shore” quickly became the definitive reading of the work, the limitations of the acoustic recording process are even more evident here than usual; the surface noise crowds out the delicate string sounds, and the result is something Tom Waits at his grungy-beauty noisiest might be proud of.
11. May Irwin “The Bully”
(Charles E. Trevathan)
Victor 31642 • 1907
This is, before anything else, an astonishing record. Imagine Bernadette Peters covering N.W.A. and you’ll get a hint of the way its violent, charged atmosphere contrasts with the Broadway respectability of its performer. May Irwin was one of the Belles of the Nineties, the first woman to participate in an onscreen kiss in Thomas A. Edison’s 47-second actuality “The Kiss,” and by 1907 was a rich forty-mumble-year old, reprising her old 1896 hit for Victor with a plummy vigor that ain’t nothin ta fuck wit. Yes, of course the song is outsized racist: if its crude, n-word-filled lyrics about a blood feud between two violent black thugs is reminiscent of the glory years of 90s hip-hop, it can only be coincidence; yet its cheerful bloody-mindedness recalls not only the tall tales of Scarface, Dre, and the Wu, but the Johnny Cash who shot a man in Reno and kicked and gouged in the mud and the blood and the beer. There’s a significant literary tradition of outsized comic violence in America, from the Western tales of Mark Twain and Stephen Crane to the ditto of Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy; the way “The Bully” (like Melville) adds race to the brew would be recognized by no less an authority than D. H. Lawrence as America’s signal contribution to world literature. It’s a coon song, written by a white asshole with no interest in black reality — but it’s also a blues song, a rock & roll song, and a gangsta track. And history folds in on itself.
10. Enrico Caruso “Vesti La Giubba”
Victor 88061 • 1907
One of the results of the high-low dichotomy in the arts — so that those interested in jazz, popular song, and folk are generally incurious about establishment concert music, and vice versa — is that the genre divide too often becomes a chronological divide. Opera is thought of as the music of the generations before Tin Pan Alley, but at the turn of the century it was easily the most popular, successful, and profitable form of music, pop music in the strictest financial sense. This recording was by some reckonings the first million-seller in all of recorded music, the first genuine pop smash, a glimpse of the biggest star in the world at the height of his powers. The song itself, a showcase from Leoncavello’s one-act 1892 verismo opera Pagliacci, is the turning point in the play, in which the titular clown, though broken-hearted, forces himself to go on capering for the crowd — Caruso’s spine-chilling, utterly mirthless laugh at 0:26 conveys worlds of bleak, despairing interiority, even as he otherwise keeps strictly to the score. It is in a sense the first great pop moment of the new century, a flash of otherness, of sui generis brilliance in the middle of a regimented and formalized music, comparable with the orgasmic whoop in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” which brings the beat to life — or with the inexplicable “tin roof rusted” line in “Love Shack.” Caruso’s coarse, barrel-chested Neapolitan style was deeply unfashionable when he got his start in the 1890s, but the sheer power of his impossibly rich voice and the plain fact of his unquenchable popularity had long since won over all but the most dedicated snobs by the time he died, not yet fifty, in 1921.
9. Al Jolson “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”
(Jean Schwartz, Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young)
Columbia 2560 • 1918
None of which is to suggest that there wasn’t a real demarcation between the old-style concert music and the new Broadway-bound pop. Al Jolson was the century’s second great male voice, after Caruso, and placing them as it were cheek-to-jowl like this illustrates Jolson’s achievement better than any verbal description could do. Here goes, anyway: Jolson, a bullet-headed, homely Jew born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, was the first great improvisational singer on record. Not a jazz singer, regardless of what movie history says — but his on-bended-knee interpolations, the flutters and swerves he threw into his foghorn of a voice, and his facility with ragtime-based rhythmic variation which ocean liners like Caruso’s voice could never have managed were wildly original, at least on record, which is all we have left to judge. But beyond the recordings, he also comes to life in contemporary accounts of his startling, magnetic stage presence, which overwhelmed the trashy, treacly material he performed and grasped the essential quality of American civilization: its seemingly inexhaustible, unpredictable, and immigrant-fueled energy. This song, a nominally blackface song (Jolson had his first success in blackface and would not be convinced of its unnecessariness until the 1930s), is also part of a wave of raggy, uptempo music that would eventually coalesce under the broad heading of “show music” — while it is sung to a Mammy, its breezy unsentimentality and the coincidence of the word “rock” in the title would give it an unexpected resonance some forty years on; Aretha Franklin recorded it as one of her early singles.
8. Vess L. Ossman “Maple Leaf Rag”
Columbia 228 • 1907
It is a commonplace that ragtime was to the 1890s as jazz was to the 1920s, rock & roll to the 1950s, and hip-hop to the 1980s (which should make the upcoming decade interesting for those with ears to hear), but unlike the other movements, ragtime went mostly unrecorded in audio form until much later. The modern conception of ragtime as a strictly piano music, while traceable to comments made by Scott Joplin, is a product of the music’s revival in the 1970s (The anachronistic Sting, etc.) — during its heyday it was played by anything that came to hand. The banjo was a particularly apt instrument for the music — not only was it historically associated with black music, being a slave-era adaptation from the West African “banshaw,” but its percussive, resonant qualities were easily adaptable to a music which was more about rhythm than harmony; and as a bonus, it recorded well, far better than pianos or even than the military orchestras which were the first to record rags in the 1890s. “Maple Leaf Rag” was Scott Joplin’s first sheet-music hit in 1899, and (after “The Entertainer,” thx ice cream trucks) is still his most recognizable composition, a lively and surprisingly sophisticated composition that can stand being worked over in nearly any context, and not just the unimaginative cakewalks to which it was put in the first ten years of its life. Vess L. Ossman we’ve already met (as the to-be-unforgivably-simplistic Hendrix of banjoists); here he’s unaccompanied by vocal garnish and can stretch out and show his stuff properly. The tinny, flat-sounding orchestra behind him can barely keep up; which is kind of the point.
7. Billy Murray “Give My Regards To Broadway”
(George M. Cohan)
Columbia 3165 • 1905
Much digital ink has been spilled lamenting — or celebrating — or anyway proclaiming and examining — the end of twentieth-century “monoculture,” the midcentury sense of consensus which arose around radio, television, studio Hollywood, and mass-circulation journalism. Less attention has been given to its rise. “Give My Regards To Broadway” has come to stand in for Broadway’s midcentury dominance of popular culture, an ode to the Great White Way on which dreams are born and die ruthlessly, the seed from which Lady, Be Good! and Oklahoma! and Guys And Dolls and West Side Story and A Chorus Line and Rent would be born, written by the doyen of turn-of-the-century Broadway for the first great American musical comedy, Little Johnny Jones. Except . . . it’s not about Broadway. At least not about Broadway the theatrical institution. It’s the Broadway of O. Henry, of the young Damon Runyon, the street populated by wise guys, touts, hustlers, press agents and ladies of the night, who are far more interested in the restaurants and saloons on the street than the theaters. It’s about America as remembered by a sentimental smartass in England, and its real importance is not as an anthem of Broadway, but as one of the earliest pop-culture staples to identify New York as the true capital of America. Broadway, Herald Square, Forty-Second Street, Coney Island, and the old Waldorf-Astoria (now the site of the Empire State Building) are all namechecked as places where the generic Yankee should wax nostalgic about; Bostonians, Chicagoans, Philadelphians, and Washingtonians (not to mention the South and West) can all go hang. It’s New York, then as now, that matters like nowhere else. Billy Murray is already a familiar name on this list, and to anyone interested in the history of American popular song, especially on record, he’s inescapable: a sharp-voiced, genial Irish comedian, he plugged away into the 1930s, but never really outgrew the music of the oughts and teens.
6. Europe’s Society Orchestra “Down Home Rag”
Victor 35359 • 1913
James Reese Europe was the most important black musician of the pre-jazz era, bar none. In fact, it’s probably incorrect to call him pre-jazz; it’s just that nobody recognized what he was doing as jazz until well after the fact. He was the most popular bandleader in the country for several years, a fact due less to his own brilliance as an arranger and composer (which is indisputable fact) as to the fact that he was the bandleader for dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. It’s worth taking some time to explain this: the Castles occupied a space in popular culture which no longer exists, the influential and massively popular dance couple, Astaire and Rogers only transformative instead of reinforcing an already-present culture. They brought the foxtrot into the mainstream, they got society matrons and dudes in monocles dancing black dances, they hired James Reese Europe because he was the best bandleader in the country race be damned, and their reign at the top of the pop-culture pyramid ended abruptly when Vernon, a British citizen and RAF pilot, died in maneuvers during World War I. Europe followed only a year later, stabbed in the neck by a drummer in a dispute over pay. In the meantime, he had transformed dance music, and as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry (an African-American regiment nicknamed the “Hellfighters” for their physical courage and refusal to give an inch) organized the most advanced military band on the planet, playing a disciplined version of what would become jazz in the new decade. But here, back in 1913 with the Castles, he recorded a number by Wilbur Sweatman, a black Midwestern ragtime composer and intimate of Scott Joplin’s, and took it as far forward as 1913 could imagine. This recording, with its pulsing strings, insistent drums and giddy, raucous shouts, is as raw an example of black pre-jazz string music as exists on record. Sweatman’s original rag is barely distinguishable in the cacophony; it’s rock and roll four decades early.
5. The Haydn Quartet “Sweet Adeline”
(Harry Armstrong, Richard H. Gerard)
Victor 2934 • 1904
Probably the most common popular signifier of music from the first two decades of the twentieth century is the barbershop quartet. But the historical-minded investigator approaches the topic with some caution; after all, the preponderance of barbershop recordings are from a much later period, explicit nostalgia rather than living pop. It may seem strange, but true barbershop recordings — four-part male harmony, unaccompanied or at least unobtrusively accompanied, singing songs of sentiment and jollity outside the vulgar coon-ragtime nexus — are nearly as unusual as undiluted black recordings from the period. While every recording company had at least one quartet and often more on retainer, they were as likely to perform minstrel or vaudeville shtick as to break into the stratified and somewhat simplistic harmonies associated with the barbershop form. The Haydn Quartet was perhaps the best of these (when they recorded for Edison, they were, naturally, the Edison Quartet), generally sticking to harmony records and leaving the shtick to others. “Sweet Adeline” is the signature barbershop song, a minor ballad in tribute to the immensely-popular Italian opera star Adelina Patti (then going into retirement) which took on a life of its own once the quartets got their hands on it. The careful precision with which the Haydns (pronounced Hay-den, not like the composer) run through the standard barbershop variations on the chorus indicates just how stylized it had already become; the song had only been published in 1903. Seeds of all harmony groups to come — the Merry Macs, the Four Freshmen, the Everlys, the Beach Boys, Fleet Foxes — can be discerned here; although that small list obscures the origin and true legacy of barbershop. Like everything else good in American music, it was originally a black form.
4. Sophie Tucker “Some Of These Days”
Edison 4M-691 • 1911
There are multiple ways of understanding the Coon pop-cultural phenomenon of the 1880s-1910s as something distinct from but necessarily informed by minstrelsy. The most absolute, and in many ways the easiest, response is simply to damn everyone involved as an unrepentant, irredeemable racist, wash our hands of them, and consign the entire period to oblivion. A more sensitive and indeed tempting interpretation is that naïve white performers, enchanted by the black bodies, languages, and musicalities they observed, attempted to emulate them, and that only the racism of the surrounding culture kept them from giving the originals their due. The truth, of course, is multiple; both are true. Sophie Tucker, another Russian-born Jew who found fame and fortune on the disreputable boards of vaudeville, was undeniably fascinated by black culture and did much to imitate it in her act, wearing blackface for much of her career and going so far as to hire black songwriters and dance instructors to help her be more black onstage. Shelton Brooks, who wrote her signature song — and (returning the favor) based it on the Jewish melodies he heard in the tenements of the East Side — was one of these, a young and savvy song-and-dance man who also did well out of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and his own performances. But Tucker, like Jolson and every other white performer who got rich jiving black, was also by today’s standards a massive racist; not only the blackface, but the outright theft of the blues-mama persona developed by Ma Rainey and a host of more anonymous performers in the first two decades of the twentieth century, make her more complicated a figure than the jolly Jewish patron of the black arts she wished to cast herself as. She billed herself “The Last Of The Red-Hot Mamas,” but in reality she was closer to the first, at least as far as recording goes. The beautiful, coffee-colored vaudevillian Mamie Smith would score a 1920 hit with a song in frank emulation of the Tucker standard, après quoi la déluge. Nevertheless. This record, if a minor blip in the canon of African-American achievement, is massively important in the canon of Jewish-American entertainment, the first hit song in which anything approaching actual Jewishness was heard. The Yiddicization of all entertainment had begun.
3. Anna Wheaton & James Harrod “Till The Clouds Roll By”
(Jerome Kern, P. G. Wodehouse)
Columbia 2261 • 1917
Dorothy Parker declared Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern her favorite indoor sport. George S. Kaufman called them “better than anyone else you can name,” and songwriters from George Gershwin to Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim fingered the music in those light, easy, and utterly transformative musicals as the beginning of the great flowering of American song which dominated the first half of the twentieth century. Guy Bolton, their wiseacre librettist, we can skip; but Jerry Kern and Plum Wodehouse share the distinction of being most famous for their later work when they could both have died in 1920 and remained legendary in theatrical histories forever. Kern was the first to work out how to compose theater songs in a plain American style, free from European precedent, without resorting to “folk” (i.e. Negro) idioms but still harmonically and structurally interesting. Wodehouse, carrying on the tradition of light verse from the nineteenth century (e.g. W. S. Gilbert), wrote snappy, unsentimental, and intricately-rhymed lyrics, inspiring everyone from Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart to Johnny Mercer and Yip Harburg. (Listen to every other song in this list, with their single-syllable rhymes in basic couplet after basic couplet, and Wodehouse’s triple, internal, and polysyllabic rhymes are jawdropping.) Their shows were staged on a shoestring budget in the tiny Princess theater during the war years and sold out for years in advance. They were comic and domestic and romantic, a repudiation of the grand opera and giddy operetta that had been in fashion for so long, rejecting both spectacle and diva-like showboating and focusing with austere precision on the three poles of comedy, music, and dance: the foundation of the entertainment industry to come. The third show, Oh, Boy! (1917) was the most successful, running for a massive 463 performances. Wheaton was the soubrette and Harrod subs for the male lead; the scenario is that they have to pretend to be married for some stupid reason, which means that she has to stay in his apartment while he (nobly) goes out into the rain to find a place to crash. And now you’re all caught up.
2. Marion Harris “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much”
(Spencer Williams, Roger Graham)
Victor 18133 • 1916
A 1958 Jack Cole Playboy cartoon features a Marilyn Monroe type making doll eyes at the reader and singing, plaintively, “I ain’t got no bod-eee…” The joke, of course, is that she’s got plenty bod-eee — and that she could have any other for the asking. That was usually the unspoken subtext of the song; it’s a vampy blues ballad, an early torch song, and the woman singing it was made sexually desirable by the very act. (To clear up any confusion, the name of the song is “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” This, its first recording, had “Much” tacked onto the label — though it’s not on the recording — for reasons which are lost to history.) It was written by a jobbing black composer from New Orleans, and as such is one of the earliest actual jazz songs we have. Singer Marion Harris, blonde and ultramodern, was one of the first flappers, bobbing her hair and wearing her skirts short well before it was the vogue to do so; the difference between her appropriation of black music and that of Sophie Tucker is a generational one. Tucker sang black initially for comedy, and then for anthropological interest; Harris’s generation sang black because singing white was no longer an option, as it has not been for nearly a century. W. C. Handy claimed that not even black folks could tell Harris was white on record; that’s as may be, but she was certainly the first modern female singer, the first to sound as though she was made of the same flesh as Annette Hanshaw or Billie Holiday.
1. Bert Williams “Nobody”
(Bert Williams, Alex Rogers)
Columbia 3423 • 1906
“Yassuh, I knows my place. Goin’ there now — Dressing Room One!”
That, according to W. C. Fields, was Bert Williams’ reply to a guy backstage at the Ziegfeld Follies who mentioned in Williams’ hearing that he was “a good nigger; he knows his place.”
Williams was the star of the Follies, the one about whom Florenz Ziegfeld declared in 1910, when the white performers, shocked that they were expected to share the stage with a black man, threatened to strike, “I can replace every one of you but him.” He was the biggest black star in the world — and in the usual way of things (cf. Jack Johnson), in order to be recognized as good at all, he had to be better than any white guy. He was; easily. (Who else was there? Jolson? Cohan? Caruso? Don’t make me laugh.)
He was born Egbert Austin Williams on the Caribbean island of Antigua, and grew up in California; a handsome, intelligent, cultivated man who dreamed of being a civil engineer but found work making people laugh instead. He teamed with George Walker in one of the classic comedy teams of the age, ringing a variation on the Jim Crow and Zip Coon types except that in the universe posited by their shows, the entire world was black; there were no white people to laugh at them except in the audience, where the laughter did not sting. He wore blackface because his natural skin color was too light to be accepted as black by Coon convention; he played the slow, shuffling bumpkin to Walker’s fast-talking dandy, and audiences around the country and overseas loved them. Walker died (of syphilis, typecast to the end); but Williams went on. He conquered Broadway, as seen above; he made record after record after record, every one of which was so uniquely stamped with his personality and performance style that there were almost never any competing cover versions; he even made a short film, a masterpiece of slow-burn comic mime.
And like any black man with the barest hint of brains in the era, he deeply felt the injustice of his position as a second-class citizen upon whom violence could be visited at any time without reason or recompense. But rather than turn to political action, as W. E. B. Du Bois urged, or call for wholesale separatism, as Marcus Garvey wheedled, he chose to go through the pain and turn it into laughter. His signature catchphrase, the line with which he opened every show, was “Is we all good niggers here?” The answer, unspoken but unmistakable, was Yes. We are all niggers together, at least for the space of this performance; and after? Once a nigger, always a nigger; ain’t nobody gets out spotless.
“Nobody” was his signature song; eventually an albatross, as signature songs always become, but so perfectly an encapsulation of his philosophy of inclusion into the world of suffering and exclusion that no other could possibly take its place. It’s a nihilistic — if very funny regardless — song on its face; but there is, buried in the chorus, a spark of hope. Someday, perhaps, he may get somethin from somebody. What the world might look like then, he hasn’t a clue.
Do we today?
Ain’t no party like a phonograph party ’cause a phonograph party don’t stop.Ten records cut before the turn of the twentieth century. The barest of threads connects them and us.
10. The Edison Concert Band “The Liberty Bell March”
(John Philip Sousa)
Edison 41 • 1896
That’s right, it’s the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If you can listen to this without seeing a giant foot coming out of the clouds to squash everything, you’ve wasted your life.
9. Edward M. Favor “Daisy Bell”
North American 1058 • 1894
My favorite thing about this recording is the way the surface noise just gets worse and worse throughout, until a little tiny guy at the far end of a tunnel of Merzbowesque squall is hollering and plinking a piano. And it’s a great song. Just ask HAL.
8. Billy Golden “Turkey In De Straw”
Berliner 726 • 1897
If you need convincing that the roots of American country are in minstrelsy, give a listen to this. He’s supposed to be doing blackface, but it sounds so much like hickface that when he drops the n-bomb you’re like wait, what?
7. Vess L. Ossman “Whistling Rufus”
Consolidated ? • 1899
Minstrel tune gets ragged by the premiere banjoist of the first couple-three decades of recorded history. Utterly forgotten by history because, hey, who cares about the banjo?
6. The Edison Quartet “My Old Kentucky Home”
Edison 2223 • 1898
Another country standard with minstrel roots. This was frequently used in (and possibly inspired by) the Uncle Tom’s Cabin stage play, which was the most popular American theatrical attraction of all time. Yes, even bigger than Cats.
5. George W. Johnson “The Laughing Song”
(George W. Johnson)
Edison 4004 • 1898
Chris Ware has a muted and terribly sad strip (as per us.) in which he delves into the life of Johnson, the first black man to sing on a hit record. This is that record, or one of its versions — back in the day, you could only cut so many phonographs off one master before it wore out and you had to record it again.
4. Len Spencer & Vess Ossman “A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight”
(Theodore A. Metz, Joe Hayden)
Columbia 7266 • 1897
This too is a minstrel song, though in its pop-culture afterlife it’s usually been transposed to an Old West setting: it’s the song that every piano plunker is plunking right before the fight breaks out in the saloon.
3. Sousa’s Band “The Stars And Stripes Forever”
(John Philip Sousa)
Berliner 61 • 1897
The biggest pop star of the era banging out his biggest hit. Seriously, Sousa’s outfit was the Led Zeppelin of marching bands, only those giant Marshall stacks are composed of raw lungpower.
2. The Unique Quartette “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy”
Edison 694 • 1893
Soul music starts here, if by soul music we mean the black religious tradition (gospel) reappropriated to sing on secular topics. It sounds like it’s gonna be a spiritual, but it’s got more in common with Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.”
1. Arthur Collins “Hello Ma Baby”
(Joseph E. Howard, Ida Emerson)
Edison 5470 • 1899
Again: minstrel song. Or anyway coon song. Also, the first ringtone jam, to be deliberately misleading. (It contains the sound of a ringing telephone, and the alleged humor is supposed to arise from the idea of a black couple using that brand-new technology.) Of course, Mel Blanc, copping Jolson’s moves, would do it better.
- David Wondrich, Stomp And Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924
- Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds: Blacks And The Birth Of The Recording Industry, 1890, 1919
- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather
- Alec Wilder, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
- Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century
And special thanks to slskr throbgrist, without whose expansive bitrates and generous collections I wouldn’t have known about any of the non-English-language stuff.