Originally posted winter/spring 2008.
Hello and welcome to the newest installment of me running my mouth about music I like. Previous installments have covered the 1970s, the 1950s, and the 1980s; the next installment will probably be a do-over of my increasingly embarrassing 1960s list. Or not. It depends.
But I wanted to note that there will be a difference with this list, or at least with what I say about this list. Even the 1950s are recent enough in pop-music terms to feel relatively normal; anyone raised on rock can get Chuck Berry or Howlin’ Wolf. But the music of the 1920s, unless you’re well-versed in the history of the period, can be like an alien planet. It’s a world where jazz is a signifer not of cerebral adult cool, but of raw, youthful sexuality and the end of the world, where the everyday pulse of popular culture, hip and dumb alike, beats not in television or even radio, but on the stage. The people I’m going to be talking about were mostly born in a Victorian world, a world without an internal combustion engine or electrical wiring; a world without amplification.
All this to say, this is going to be as much an historical inquiry as it will ordinary chatter about significance and cool; this music isn’t necessarily stuff that a modern audience can listen to and get right away. I don’t believe that the music of the 1920s is better than the music of today; nor do I believe it’s worse. It’s just different, though not as different as it might seem on first hearing it. It has different rules, different agendas, and different norms, but it still works the same way: it gives its listeners something to dream about, something to dance to, something to be intrigued by, something to prove how hip they are. It’s only the dreams, the dances, the intrigue, and the hipness that have changed, and that’s what I’ll be talking about. To some extent, anyway; I’m not a professional historian, and I’m certainly no musicologist. I’m just some guy who thinks all music is worth paying attention to on its own terms.
The other reason it can be difficult for modern listeners to appreciate the music of eighty-some years ago is purely sonic. It’s low-fidelity stuff, much of it recorded by the most primitive means possible: literally transcribing sound waves onto a surface. (Electrical recording turns up around the middle of the decade and gives the records somewhat greater dynamic range, but there’s still won’t be anything as pristine as a master tape until the mid-1940s, movies aside.) Surface noise — the snap, crackle, and hiss of worn shellac grooves — is a fact of life here, and smaller sonic details are lost to the ages. But it’s all we have, and to turn our backs on it is to reject where we come from and who we are. Like anything, you can learn to love it if you listen to enough of it.
Because of this moderate difficulty of appreciation, and because of the relative difficulty of getting your hands on this music, I’m including 128kbps mp3s of each song with each writeup, so that you can hear it for yourself. The mp3s will only be available until a week after the entire list is posted; if you really like this stuff, buy it so there will be more of it available.
Finally, almost everything here is popular, as opposed to classical, music. This is not because there wasn’t great concert music being written and performed during the 1920s — much of it among the greatest music of the twentieth century — but because very little of it made its way onto records until thirty years later. In this at least, little has changed. But it does give an unfortunately lopsided impression of the decade.
Anyway. Lemme know what you think, especially once I’ve let you know what I think.
100. Al Jolson, “Swanee”
(George Gershwin/Irving Caesar)
Columbia A-2884, 1920
The first thing a modern listener has to deal with is the blackface. And I do mean listener: even without the noxious imagery of white men smearing commercial blacking on their faces in order to represent a travesty of African humanity, the racism remains embedded in every word, practically in every note of the song. Which wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to a contemporary of Jolson’s (but then, the racism of our own time goes generally unremarked too) — you have to know minstrel-song conventions from Stephen Foster and beyond to know that the Suwanee River in southern Georgia was mythologized in the nineteenth century as a place of nostalgic longing for blacks displaced (you know, emancipated) by abolitionists and the Civil War. Which is hateful, yes; but the thing about pop is how it collapses boundaries and conflates disparate ideas. The Swanee became a kind of shorthand for any kind of nostalgia in the national immagination: it was Eire for Irish immigrants, Sicily for Italians, Jerusalem for Jews. And the man who wore blackface in order to be more fully a Jew on Broadway, Al Jolson, was the ideal figure to introduce the first noteworthy song by a kid who played jazz in order to be more fully a Jew in the concert hall, George Gershwin. By 1920, Jolson was the undisputed king of popular culture: his foghorn voice and unflagging energy on stage perfectly matched the larger-than-life, tirelessly productive image America had of itself following the First World War. It’s instructive to compare a contemporary performance of Stephen Foster’s lugubrious, stately “Old Folks At Home” (which introduced the Swanee myth in 1851) with Jolson’s “Swanee” — the difference is pure galvanic energy. Sure, journeyman lyricist Caesar’s chorus says he’s going back to Swanee, but he sounds more like he’s just conquered the Great White Way. Even the “I love the old folks at home” line, which quotes Foster’s melody, is goosed into something approaching jazz. It’s the difference between Vic Damone and Jerry Lee Lewis: one is syrupy, sentimental, and ultimately negligible; the other moves like it’s got something to lose.
99. The Elders McIntorsh & Edwards’ Sanctified Singers, “Since I Laid My Burden Down”
Okeh 8698, 1928
It’s kind of a shame that this is going to be the only real example of gospel music on the list; especially in America, religious feeling has had a profound impact on popular music, from spirituals to Sufjan Stevens. But we’re all trapped in our own history, and pop is as secular a construct as there can be these days. Just remember it wasn’t always that way. This particular song sounds shockingly modern, however: the shouting and hollering isn’t very far removed from the Stax-Volt catalogue, and the sheer forward momentum of the performance, especially the way it picks up ecstatic, fervent speed as it continues, is pert’ damn near garage-rock levels. But funky, too: the way the guitar and tambourine play off the rhythm of the vocal lines leaves open-ended beats that invite the listener to dance as David did before the ark of the Lord. And then there’s the basic, repetitive lyric; it feels closer in some ways to the overwhelming crescendos of Sufi mysticism than to anything that people wear collars and ties to do. This recording, and ones like it that were captured in the Memphis area in the late 20s, represent something new under the sun: black gospel music has moved out from under the staid choir robes of the spiritual and the smothering intensity of the white tradition (though of course Sacred Harp singing has its own unearthly power), and borrows from the work chants and hollers of the field that were always one of the most deeply African things about African-American music. McIntorsh and Edwards, singers and guitarists, were elders of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal African-American denomination, and are accompanied here by Sister Bessie Johnson (the one with the deep, dark growl of a voice) and Melinda Taylor, two Memphis-area gospel belters who also recorded with the Memphis Sanctified singers. The deep ecstasy of their performances, and those of their sisters and brothers all across the South, utterly transformed American singing. Anytime someone is said to sing with passion, it’s because they sound, consciously or not, like a black gospel singer.
98. Clarence Ashley, “The Coo Coo Bird”
Columbia 15489D, 1929
“The coo coo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies,” goes one of hundreds of lines that Bob Dylan has lifted from Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. (Some people think Ashley sings “wobbles” — I think they’re nuts.) Smith’s Anthology neither conformed to the leftist ideology of the folk-music revivalists — every 78 he mastered his collection from had been commercially released, which meant (pace Adorno) it had been infected by capitalism’s virus — nor followed the rules of commercial distribution — he certainly didn’t get permission from any of the original record companies to reissue these twenty-year-old discs. Not that the companies cared much (then): by 1952, all these weird, forgotten pockets of ancient rural music had long since been wallpapered over by the New Deal, by World War II, by the Bomb. But then again, the narrative of primitive collectivism that the folkies told each other wasn’t any better. This song’s melody and lyrics may have their own tangled genealogy in British folk songs, sailor’s songs and the songs of the Appalachian hills where Ashley grew up singing and playing in medicine shows, but Ashley makes the song his own, from the purposeful, circular banjo figure that acts as our tour guide through the quiet, fractured imagery of the verses, to the voice that plays it so close to the vest that the cuckoo could just as easily be the winged soul of a dead child as an auspice of doom — or a bird of paradise. Even more importantly, it’s almost impossible to find a version of this song that doesn’t owe something to this recording. That’s because of the cultural capital of Harry Smith’s anthology, to be sure: but Smith’s anthology drew its own cultural capital from unblinking, granite performances like this one.
97. Victoria Spivey, “My Handy Man”
Okeh 8615, 1928
And we pay our first visit to the blues. Or one variant thereof, anyway; “blues” in the 1920s didn’t necessarily mean twelve-bar, one line repeated twice and followed by a third rhyming line, black-man-and-his-guitar music. It meant many things, though it’s worth remembering that it always meant black. The first blues song (arguably; ain’t nothing not arguable in the history of black music from gullah to crunk) to be published, and therefore the first blues in the historical record, was W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” in 1912. Obviously it was being played for a long while before that; there are descriptions of music that it’s hard to hear as anything but the blues from at least the 1880s, and of course ethnomusicologists have traced roots back to West Africa (as of what have they not?), but our first real contact with it, as a nation at the time and as explorers looking back today, is as show business. Show business that was left to women, for the most part: because the blues didn’t just mean black, it also meant sex (there’s a nasty grind inherent in the music, or you’re playing it wrong), and White America had a real problem with allowing black men to be sexual, up till ’bout James Brown, really. Black women, on the other hand — hell, it’s a double standard, maybe even a quadruple standard, and black women always end up with the shit end of the stick no matter what, so at least goddamn let them sing about it. Victoria Spivey was one of many vaudevillians/blueswomen/early jazz singers/prostitutes (depending on your definition) who ended up with record deals in the 1920s, and here she’s fronting a mixed-race band (the pianist and bandleader, Clarence Williams, was black; the guitarist, Eddie Lang, was white; we’ll meet both of them again) while getting away with a laundry list of euphemisms for the Deed Itself. There’s a sweet quality to her voice (on her first record, she’s listed as V. Spivey, Contralto) that doesn’t jibe with our modern understanding of the blues, but the blues wasn’t quite differentiated from jazz, and jazz wasn’t quite differentiated from regular pop yet either. But ain’t no one being fooled when she simpers about how her man can trim her lawn, churn her butter, fill her icebox, inter alia. While black women were mostly valued by the white male world as cheap labor and sexual objects, a surprising amount of them took the chance to position themselves as the beneficiaries of sexual gratification; the Sexual Revolution may have grabbed headlines in the 60s and 70s, but it really got going here.
96. Frank Crumit, “Mountain Greenery”
(Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)
Victor 20124, 1926
The Great American Songbook is both a national treasure and something of an embarrassment. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beautiful, inventively written, sophisticated, and instantly memorable songs are included in it, songs that are as deservedly deathless as any work made by human ingenuity, Shakespeare, Bach and Michelangelo included. But the phrase itself is a mausoleum, manufactured nostalgia for people who aspire to the condition of yuppiehood, and all told maybe a quarter of the songs that deserve to be known are in fact known by anyone but sheet-music obsessives. Case in point. Written in only the second year of the Rodgers/Hart partnership (their first year produced the brow-of-Jupiter perfection “Manhattan,” of which I haven’t been able to find a single vocal recording produced before 1935), this is a sprightly, kicky little composition with a more solid harmonic structure than just about any sprightly, kicky little pop song of the 20s not written by George Gershwin or Cole Porter. Then there’s one of Hart’s least-complicated lyrics (emotionally, anyway; anyone who can find five — count ’em, five — rhymes for “greenery” is a fricking savant), about the joys of a summer home upstate, written merely to be sung by a slim young man and chorus of pretty girls in front of a clever tableau. The slim young man, by the way, was Sterling Holloway, remembered today as the voice of Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh, in the Garrick Gaieties revue of 1926. (Revue: a stage show without a plot, merely an excuse to throw songs, dances, comedians, and bucketloads of pretty girls at an enthusiastic audience and show off one’s costuming and design staff, too. The annual Ziegfeld Follies were the origin and apex of the form; the Garrick Gaieties were on a much less lavish scale, but then Ziegfeld never had a team on the level of Rodgers & Hart writing songs for him.) Frank Crumit was a vaudeville singer and ukulele player (he strums a bit here) who was perhaps ideally suited to sing a song this light and winsome without making it cloying: as befits a ukulele player, he makes it all about rhythm without quite being a jazz singer. That’s okay; not even Ella Fitzgerald managed to pull it off so easily.
95. Edith Day, “Alice Blue Gown”
(Harry Tierney/Joseph McCarthy)
Victor 45176, 1920
This is probably the kind of song that’s least easy to get for the average music listener of 2007: a sentimental (but not by the standards of the day!) song about childhood that was written for a musical comedy (but not as we understand the term!) sung in a style which we associate more with classical music than with pop (but they didn’t make that mistake back then!). Maybe you have to be something of a theater nerd — or even an opera nerd, these days — to really appreciate this song on its merits, but here goes: the show Irene was produced in 1919, and at the time was the longest-running show in Broadway history; 675 performances, which is puny by Lloyd Webber, or even Rodgers & Hammerstein, standards. It was a comedy about an ordinary girl thrust into the world of high fashion (yeah, like The Devil Wears Prada, only the Meryl Streep role was played by an, ahem, flamboyant man), and “Alice Blue Gown” is the number where the ordinary girl, Irene a.k.a. Edith Day, tells about the only encounter with fashion she’s ever had: a deeply uncool by 1919 standards dress in a color named for Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s wife), which “wore, and it wore, and it wore/Till it went, and it wore no more.” (Yes, that’s meant for cleverness. You should hear the 1919 competition.) It’s both a fond look back at her childhood, and a moment that reveals how poor her family was — the last lines are “though it wouldn’t fit mother/It made a shirtwaist for brother/My sweet little Alice blue gown.” Since she ends up marrying the son of a fashion tycoon (spoiler!), it’s not a heavy moment or anything, but it’s lighter in mood and in tone than our ears are trained to hear. The stately pace, the plummy soprano, and what you can hear of the orchestration through the fog of 1920 recording technology all scream “lugubrious ballad” to our ears, but it was really the hit of the show, the one people whistled on their way out. Jazz and music inspired by jazz would make this sort of thing obsolete within a half-decade, but this is sort of the last hurrah for “straight” music before syncopation gave Broadway a kind of blackface it would almost never take off again. (For the terminally curious, a 1936 radio adaptation of Irene can be found here.)
94. Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie-Ki-Me-O”
Columbia 15296D, 1928
There isn’t, I’d venture to say, much that Bruce Springsteen and Walt Kelly, one of the three presiding geniuses of midcentury newspaper cartooning*, have in common, but there is this: they’ve both done versions of this song, Springsteen on last year’s Seeger Sessions (as “Froggie Went A-Courtin’), and Kelly in The Pogo Stepmother Goose. Springsteen, following Pete Seeger’s classicist-blues version, merely repeats each line, followed by “uh-huh,” and Kelly mashes it up with a Mother Goose rhyme: “with a Rowley, Powley, Gammon and Spinach/Heigh-ho for Anthony Rowley!” (which he probably borrowed from Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel), but I think I like Parker’s nonsense scatting the best. “King kong kitchie kitchie ki-me-o” may not mean anything, but the appearance of the phrase “king kong” five years before Merian C. Cooper’s godfather of all monster movies is slightly unnerving anyway. Not, I imagine, that WWI aviator and Hollywood bigshot Cooper had a copy of a record by one of the lesser-known regulars on WLS’s “The National Barn Dance” out of Chicago — or even that there was some little-known underground meaning of the nonce word “kong” that happened to surface at these two wildly disparate points. It’s just weird, is all. Parker has all the genial ease of a professional entertainer here — his other big hit was “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” (see a pattern?), but without any of the creepy paternalism of someone like Burl Ives. He doesn’t care if you like his song; he’s just happy to be singing it, and every time he hits the “way down yonder in a holler tree” line, I for one am right there with him. Yeah, that frog’s been going a-courtin’ since at least Shakespeare’s day and probably lots earlier, but I don’t know that I ever cared except when listening to Parker.
*The other two are Al Capp and Milt Caniff, as if you didn’t know.
93. Johnny Dunn, “Johnny Dunn’s Cornet Blues”
Columbia 124D, 1924
Let’s talk about jazz. Not the “origins” of jazz; that old song and dance (New Orleans; Storyville; brass bands; funeral marches yadda yadda) has been sung and danced for everyone who cares to hear and see it by now. But what jazz is. Or at least what it was, way back here in the primordial muck of the stuff. Jazz came out of ragtime, sure as anything came out of anything; without syncopation you’ve got nothing but instrumental muscle, just the ususal old farting around on trumpets that John Phillips Sousa’s boys could have played. And jazz came out of the blues, sure as ears can hear a flatted fifth; without the blues it’s nothing but a white man’s borrowed hustle, something George M. Cohan could set a little patriotic patter to. Blues + ragtime = jazz might be a little simplistic for, say, John Coltrane fans, but for the purposes of getting Johnny Dunn it’ll do just fine. Dunn came up through black vaudeville (segregation meant blacks even had their own vaudeville circuit, the Theater Owners’ Booking Association, or Tough On Black Asses), a jive and patter man who could throw a little swerve into the foxtrot. Maybe the first instrumental star before Louis Armstrong, or at least the first on record (the usual genuflections: Buddy Bolden never recorded, Freddie Keppard not until it was too late). He also organized the first black jazz ensemble to cut a record, which we will be visiting later on in this list. He also co-starred in several revues with a young lady named Florence Mills who we will also be visiting, if more obliquely, later on. And here he makes a curiously minimalist jazz record, at least for 1924. Jazz on record was still in thrall to the Original Dixieland Jass Band — a bunch of white dudes playing a garage-rock version of jazz, the same way every time — or to Paul Whiteman, the supper-club jazz king. Either way, it was big and noisy, something white people can laugh at, or big and mellow, something white people can dance to. But this is spare, lean; you can hear every instrument keeping the groove, and Dunn riffing on top of it. It’s not made for whites at all, and not even really for dancing, though it’s a modified tango. It’s a showcase, and the seeds of jazz past, present, and future are sown.
92. Andrés Segovia, “Recuerdos De La Alhambra”
Like just about every virtuoso since the dawn of time, Segovia was an arrogant and blinkered prima donna: one of his primary goals in life, he said was to “extract the guitar from the noisy and disreputable folkloric amusements.” This was in 1969, folks; he’s talkin’ ’bout “All Along The Watchtower,” “Dazed And Confused,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But then you hear him play, and you hear his point: you don’t need Eddie Van Halen’s tapping machines when you can use the tremolo technique with such jawdropping speed and precision, not to mention passion. Tárrega’s composition “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” is a dense cobweb of notes, a Spanish version of Proust’s madeleines in which memory, longing, elegy, romance, and grace are delineated by the elegance of perfect discipline and a nearly superhuman sensitivity to the emotional currents of the chords. I’ve never wept at instrumental music — that’s just not how I respond — but this is one of the few pieces that I can imagine sobbing over. And the fact that it was captured at all (this is from his first recording session ever, in London) is astonishing to ears used to American pop of the period; British recording equipment and technicians were years ahead of the commercial outfits on the left side of the Atlantic. Segovia is famous as the man who cemented the guitar’s status as a classical instrument, but it’s not his pioneer status that gives him the right to sneer at the uses to which people outside the conservatory put the guitar — it’s his talent.
91. Ruth Etting, “Love Me Or Leave Me”
(Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn)
Columbia 1680D, 1928
It’s like something out of a Damon Runyon story, only not quite as funny when it’s real life: wide-eyed, corn-fed Nebraska girl comes to the big bad city of Chicago, gets a job designing costumes at a nightclub, ends up singing and dancing on stage, marries a guy called (with a straight face) Moe the Gimp, a Jewish gangster with a talent for promotion, who intimidates show business managers into getting her on stage (debuts in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, is The Girl in shows starring Ed Wynn and Eddie Cantor, two of the hottest properties in the back half of the decade), on record (exclusive contract with Columbia), on radio (her own program), and in movies (once sound comes in). Once she’s on top of the world, she leaves him for her pianist, whom Moe the Gimp promptly shoots. The scandal ends her career. A year later, Moe’s back out on the streets. (The pianist survives, she marries him, they live in obscurity for another thirty years. Not a bad life as it turns out, but Runyon’s smarter than to give you that part.) And you kind of have to know all that to appreciate the song, which is otherwise just another two-bit torch song from a nice Midwestern girl playing a New York sophisticate. But with all the history under your belt, and the knowledge that this was her signature song, the title of her biopic (starring – urgh — Doris Day), she’s a tragic figure who sounds remarkably chipper despite it all: maybe the studio band took it too fast, but I like to think that it was Etting who refused to milk the tragedy. Runyon always said he never invented anything, just transcribed, and his stories are comic because the characters see themselves as playing in a comedy, even if they don’t like to let on.
90. Gertrude Lawrence, “Do, Do, Do”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Victor 20331, 1926
The musical comedy form is something that not enough people really understand anymore. In a post-Rodgers & Hammerstein world, musical comedy barely even exists as a separate form; ever since
89. Noble Sissle, “Love Will Find A Way”
(Eubie Blake/Noble Sissle)
Emerson 10604, 1921
In the 1922 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies, Gilda Gray, a Polish-born dancer who had popularized the shimmy, introduced a number called “It’s Getting Very Dark On Old Broadway.” The song wasn’t very good, more memorable for its choreography than for the stupid lyrics about how African-American entertainers were turning the Great White Way “white no more.” But it gives a taste of the sense people at the time had that something had changed. That something was a show called Shuffle Along, which opened at a considerable distance from Broadway in 1921, but was such an enormous hit that it changed the definition of “on Broadway.” The show wasn’t the first Broadway show starring and written by black entertainers — there had been a fad for “real coon shows” around the turn of the century, about which more later. But it was the first Broadway show starring, written by, and entirely financed by blacks. No white folks except the theater owners were making a penny off the show, which was an historic event comparable to the advent of Motown. Eubie Blake, who had been among the first ragtime composers and performers in the 1890s, wrote the music, and Noble Sissle, a veteran of black entertainment who had sung with James Reese Europe’s legendary proto-jazz orchestra, wrote the lyrics. The plot of the show was by modern standards crude and filled with leftover tropes from minstrelsy, but it featured the first non-parodic love story between two black people on the American stage, introduced the ragtime standard “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and featured if not actual jazz, at least music and dancing which were aware of jazz and were light years more exciting and hot-blooded than anything ever before seen on the New York stage. The love song from Shuffle Along is here performed by its composers, with Blake on the piano, and it was another important first: black music that was as sincere and sweet as anything white composers could come up with.
88. Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, “Hell’s Broke Loose In Georgia”
(The Skillet Lickers)
Columbia 15516D, 1929
Fire on the mountain, run boys, run; the devil’s in the house of the rising sun. Maybe it’s a little reductive to draw a straight line from this good-time fiddle tune to the Charlie Daniels Band’s classic-rock staple “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” but only just a little. The title comes, in fact, from “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” a Stephen Vincent Benét poem about a real 1920 fiddling contest featuring someone we’ll be meeting further on down the list, a poem which has been cited as an inspiration for Daniels’ tune, although folk tales about fiddling contests with the devil reach back to the British Isles or earlier (cf. Marsyas v. Apollo). The title may or may not have been Tanner’s idea; he was recording extensively during these years, having discovered that there was a burgeoning demand for what was then called old-time music on record and on radio. Although he was no virtuoso, Gid Tanner, in fact, may be if not single-handedly then among the comparatively few hands responsible for keeping the fiddle in country music; the famous
87. Emmett Miller, “Lovesick Blues”
Okeh 41062, 1928
Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather is a book-length meditation on Emmett Miller’s life, career, and music that I’ll inevitably duplicate here; read it. I chose probably the most offensive image I could of Miller to introduce this song: he was, in many ways, the last blackface musician, and we should always be reminded of the terrible psychic price we had to pay to get this music. For this seems like some echo out of the distant past, the minstrelsy-that-never-was, a combination of jazz instrumentation and honky-tonk vocalization, the foul, incestuous roots of American entertainment spitting up a sweet, birdlike gem. It’s a Bessie Smith number, and the great white jazzmen Tommy Dorsey and Eddie Lang played on it; the song was also one of the primary inspirations for Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard. Most of them, of course, drop the opening Bones-and-Tambo dialogue, in which malapropism is meant for a witty satire of African-American speech, but for me it’s a fascinating glimpse into how the last remnants of minstrelsy tried to assimilate the blues. The big-lipped figure of fun turns, as on a dime, into a man — an everyman — lamenting his lost love, two ideas that minstrelsy could not hold in common without being destroyed. Allowing blacks to have human emotions means, on some level, that you cease to despise them. How much Emmett Miller hated, feared, or avoided blacks we have no idea; we don’t even know if he thought about them at all, or if he blacked up because that was the only entertainment system he knew. But what he sung as a faux-black was almost exactly like what was sung by Jimmie Rodgers as a faux-hillbilly — which only trades one set of stereotypes for another, and the great river of American music has yet another tributary.
86. Sexteto Nacional, “Siboney”
Columbia 3202-X, 1928
It can’t be denied that this list is pretty America-centric. Jazz, blues, country, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway were all having their first golden age, and it’s American music that has been the most thoroughly documented, at least from where I sit (in America), which for someone who didn’t live through the period is all we latecomers have to go on. But of course the rest of the world was changing just as rapidly, and the makers of recording technology didn’t limit its reach to domestic markets. Cuba has long been one of America’s rare parallel cultures; also heavily influenced by African modes of understanding music, particularly rhythm, and given to displays of instrumental virtuosity in vernacular forms roughly analogous to jazz and the blues. Of course, it didn’t start with the Buena Vista Social Club, or even with the rumba invasion of the 30s. The sexteto was one of the key band configurations of early Cuban music, and the Sexteto Nacional was perhaps the greatest of them all. Founded by bassist Ingacio Piñero out of the ashes of the pioneering Sexteto Occidente, they were an all-star group that made killer dance music, as well as introducing pop (and later, jazz) standards like “Siboney,” whose composer, Ernesto Lecuona, was in many ways the George Gershwin of Cuban music, moving easily between vernacular forms for the pop market and Latin-inflected classical music. The harmonies strike a halfway point between barbershop and mariachi until the montuno breakdown, when Abelardo Barroso, who called himself Little Caruso, takes the lead. This isn’t where Latin pop comes from — it has origins all over, with as many different traditions as there are Latin countries — but it’s an example of early Latin pop at its finest.
85. Eddie Condon Quartet, “Indiana”
(Ballard MacDonald/Jack Hanley)
Columbia 35950, 1928
Just about every time my parish priest meets anyone from his home state, he sings the chorus of this song: “Back hooome agaaaaaaiin, in Indiaaaaaaaaaanaaa . . . .” It’s probably best-known to non-Hoosiers as the theme song of the Indy 500, and was published in 1917 by a pair of Tin Pan Alley lifers who were barely notable otherwise — at least from the perspective of modern listeners, picking through the detritus that the various storms of history have allowed to float to the surface. It was a parlor song, one of many back-home nostalgia songs aimed at Southerners and Midwesterners, part of a vague collection of state-centric ditties that was both a celebration of national variety and an erasing of local differences, all written by men in New York and using the same sentiments about everywhere. Eddie Condon (guitar), Frank Teschemacher (clarinet), Joe Sullivan (piano), and Gene Krupa (drums) were all part of the Chicago white-boy school whose imaginations had been fired by the migration of New Orleans musicians up north, and who worked the new music into a less humid form. Early presages of swing can be heard here, as they vamp the old ditty into something both hep and commercial, and Krupa forces the drums into a spotlight rare for the day. The drum kit wasn’t a jazz invention; it came out of vaudeville (think of the ba-dum-chik after an obvious joke), but it was, not for the last time, white guys who banged the noise and fury of the drums — not tribal, or not very, but modern and industrial and swinging — into their understanding of black music. All of them would go on to become Grand Old Men of jazz; all of them except Tesch, who died in a car crash four years later and never got to fulfill his early promise.
84. George Gershwin, “Sweet And Low Down”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
I believe I’ve come across laments that Gershwin never recorded. Some people just don’t look hard enough. It’s true, the vast majority of retail music claiming to be George Gershwin playing is actually piano roll transcriptions. (Star pianists up through the 1920s would play one of their tunes on a special piano, which would mark a piano roll with the proper notes; then a technician would punch holes at the marks so that it would play on a player piano; of course, the technician’s interference would smooth out the result, making it sound, well, mechanical when played back.) But he did cut a handful of honest-to-God solo recordings while in Britain to supervise the London production of Tip Toes, one of his less-well-remembered shows. This was the comedian’s song (a recording by the not-terribly-notable English actor Laddie Cliff is also in my library), a jaunty number that gestures towards the blues while remaining firmly in the Broadway-version-of-jazz camp. The lyrics even encourage white tourism in the black jazz world (a phenomenon that got to be such a big industry that hundreds of clubs in Harlem catered to it between 1920 and 1940 — you’ll have heard of the Cotton Club?), although Gershwin’s playing is far more of a piece with black jazz than his composition was (not that he was, strictly speaking, a jazz pianist). He swings the rhythm gently, shoving his signature descending fills in between musical phrases, and heats up towards the end to approximate the sound of a full band. There are countless stories of Gershwin arriving at a party and practically running to the piano, where he would then play all night, a constant, unending, inventive stream of melody, harmony and rhythm, half-composing as he played. Only a handful of recordings are left to attest to that manic need; this is one of the best.
83. The Carolina Tar Heels, “Peg And Awl”
Victor 40007, 1928
The usual narrative of Appalachian folk is that English, Scots, and Irish music migrated to America along with the indentured servants, sentenced prisoners, opportunists, laborers, and idealists that arrived in the first two hundred years of the continent’s European history. Just as a generation of scholars and enthusiasts were beginning to collect and catalogue British folksong, capturing it in amber, an important strain fled West, taking to the dark hills and lush valleys of the Appalachian range. The mountains along the four borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina in particular were rich in song and lore, mostly because nobody else wanted to live there, and both the gentility of the South and the industrialization of the North passed them by. Of course, once there, the songs did not stay frozen in their eighteenth-century forms. People reshaped them, borrowed verses from here, there, and everywhere, and used them to define the texture of their lives and to provide a release from lives which were neither very comfortable nor particularly enjoyable. The Carolina Tar Heels were products of this tradition, but they were also young, ambitious men who knew the ropes of show business. Clarence Ashley, whom we’ve met before, was a seasoned, well-travelled performer who by this time was recording regularly, and his friends Doc Walsh and Garley Foster joined him to form a kind of supergroup of early string bands (though without a fiddle; their banjo/guitar/harmonica lineup was fairly unique) which entertained folks as much with humor as with song. “Peg And Awl,” though, is more traditional: a song that in various forms dates back to the Industrial Revolution in England, when mechanized mass production first began to displace skilled craftsmen (like shoemakers) and to render obsolete their professional tools (like awls). Partly because the theme of machines replacing men had only become more relevant in the years since (as indeed it has today), the song never needed much updating or refashioning; Ned Ludd would recognize it immediately.
82. Maurice Chevalier, “Louise”
(Leo Robin/Richard Whiting)
Victor 21918, 1929
To modern ears, the stagey Gallicism of any Maurice Chevalier performance — almost a French version of minstrelsy — can be off-putting, especially to those who are more accustomed to associate French music with the moody literacy of Jacques Brel or the lush eroticism of Serge Gainsbourg, or even the elegant suavity of Charles Aznavour. It’s worth remembering, though, that Chevalier came out of an older tradition than even the jaunty sentimentality of the 1920s: he had been performing since 1901 at the age of thirteen. He had been wounded and captured in the trenches, and was only released through the agency of King Alfonso of Spain, who was an admirer of Chevalier’s then-lover, Folies-Bergère star Mistinguett. His rise to international fame in the 1920s was due in part to his willingness to be a caricature of France for English-speaking audiences, to play the rakish boulevardier with a heart of gold, to hint at sex without actually being sexy. And he could sing — really sing; his first triumph in Paris was in an opera. He only dabbled with film until sound came in, and then he was, suddenly, one of the biggest stars in the world. Musical after musical (most of them impossibly tedious now) broke box office records throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. “Louise” was from his first Hollywood movie, Innocents In Paris, and became a hit on record, where the standard Hollywood-pop instrumentation kept being broken into by signifiers of Frenchiness. Nobody could mistake this for a musette song, but its airy polish, and Chevalier’s relaxed performance, make it undeniably likable.
81. Helen Morgan, “Bill”
(Jerome Kern/P. G. Wodehouse/Oscar Hammerstein II)
Victor 21238, 1928
Helen Morgan was the ultimate torch singer, at least until Billie Holiday transformed the genre. With a high, vibrato-heavy voice, she still managed to convey worlds of grief and pain — real pain; she suffered a series of unhappy marriages and finally drank herself to death — as she sang draped on her accompanist’s piano. (Yes, she was the first.) She was discovered, more or less, in the chorus of Sally, Jerome Kern’s hit 1920 musical, but her greatest role came in 1927, when she starred as Julie in Kern’s 1927 magnum opus Show Boat, which entirely transformed musicals, eventually. A through-composed show that told a story worth telling (adapted from Edna Ferber’s blood-stirring novel), rather than a bunch of good numbers knitted together into a silly story, Show Boat only really had any descendents in the 1940s, when Oklahoma! added dance and made musicals modern (again). “Bill,” a sweet, comic song about the most average of guys, had ironically been cut from Sally because the Bill in that play wasn’t ordinary enough, and Wodehouse and Kern, knowing it was a great tune, had attempted to fit it into every musical they were involved with throughout the decade. Finally, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kern’s lyricist for Show Boat, rewrote a couple of lines (the “yet to be/upon his knee” bit is his) and turned it into a deserted mulatto’s song about her pimp. (That Hammerstein. Always with the goddamned significance.) It became one of Helen Morgan’s signature songs, along with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man Of Mine” from the same show, and although I prefer Wodehouse’s more effervescent original, the slower, more tragic version that everyone knows is certainly not a bad song. (Hammerstein would have to team up with another composer before he produced that.) This, by the way, is the only appearance of Jerome Kern on this list; which is unfortunate, because he was certainly the composer that nearly every songwriter at the time was trying to emulate, but on the other hand, he spent most of the 20s working on Show Boat, and that aside, his greatest body of work can be found in the music he wrote during the 10s and 30s.
80. Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette, “Oysters And Wine At 2 A.M.”
Broadway 5031, 1928
Minstrelsy was the first American entertainment form. This ain’t exactly arguable, much as we’d like to believe otherwise. Everything else was imported; minstrelsy, in all its ugliness, imbecility, and hatefulness, is ours. Bred en bawn in de briar patch, Brer Fox, bred en bawn in de briar patch. We’re a nation that on some level is still pretending to be either Jim Crow or Zip Coon, dumb hick or flashy outlaw, red state or blue state, country or rap. Yassuh. Which isn’t to say that the whole idea isn’t intolerable: of course it is. But on those squalid, incestuous stages were born ragtime, jazz, country, vaudeville, tap dance, and the movies. (What is the Little Tramp but Chaplin’s version of blacking up, of putting on another person in order to entertain — i.e. to be more completely a performer?) One of the less-noted minstrel outfits was Polk Miller’s; a white veteran of the War of Northern Aggression, he put together a black singing quartet to perform music of the antebellum idylls. Which in its own twisted way was still kind of pioneering: they didn’t black up, and they were almost certainly the first interracial act to record. They first cut this song, an adaptation of something known as “The Laughing Song,” in 1909, and Miller died in 1913. But his Old South Quartette continued to perform and record, and even here, as the very last gasps of minstrelsy were scraping themselves onto a handful of records and guttering out, is a sound eerily unlike everything around it, a dim echo of the forced jollity of the corkburnt stage, where a black vocalist in order to escape sounding like a caricature ends up sounding oddly German, a celebration of going out with the guys and hitting little dives where they serve oysters and wine after midnight. (Don’t tell the wife.) Harmonies that predated and influenced barbershop, a waltz tempo played as though it were still a daring and risqué dance, lyrics that were cobbled together from anywhere to fit a bog-standard tune, anticipating the blues to come, and an atmosphere that recalls the roistering wifelessness of early Hearst comic strips. No, it ain’t pretty, but ain’t that America.
79. Ted Lewis & His Orchestra, “Is Everybody Happy Now?”
(Maurice Rubens/Jack Osterman/Ted Lewis)
Columbia 1207D, 1927
Ah, vaudeville. I’d argue that any real affection for the music of the 1920s is impossible without an understanding of and affection for vaudeville. Which is hard to do, of course: vaudeville is dead, has been dead for nearly eighty years, killed off by the Depression and talkies. Names that are unfamiliar today — Julian Eltinge, Blossom Seeley, Joe Frisco — were major attractions both in the sticks and on the high-class Keith-Albee circuit, names in lights, everything. We’ll be talking more about vaudeville as we head on down the list, but perhaps the best-known representation of its show-biz desperation are the Warner Brothers shorts where Daffy and Bugs try to one-up each other with increasingly impossible acts. (Daffy, having killed himself on stage to riotous applause: “Yeah, but I can only do it once” is an old vaudeville joke in itself.) Ted Lewis came up through vaudeville as a bizarre, riotous clarinet player with a line of snappy patter that included his catchphrase (everyone who was anyone on the road had a catchphrase), “Is everybody happy?” (The large-scale idolization of happiness in general during the decade is another essay in itself; but the irresponsibility of its pursuit is what made the twenties roar.) It turned out that what he was playing was jazz, or analogous to jazz anyway — nobody really looked that closely in those days — and in the 1920s he became the second-biggest white jazz act, and was plenty hotter than the biggest, Paul Whiteman, too. His light, improvisational tenor and undisciplined, birdlike clarinet remain his most attractive features, and though he was as nothing compared to real black jazz, his band made decent pop which was pushed over the edge into great pop by the force of his top-hatted, loose-limbed personality.
78. DeFord Bailey, “Pan American Blues”
Vocalion 5180, 1927
Just as country music was beginning to cohere, fitfully and irascibly as ever, into an idiom, a shared language defined against other kinds of music that weren’t country — pop, or jazz, or the blues, or grand opera — a young Tennessee polio sufferer became one of its biggest stars; and its first-ever black star. (The first, indeed of a number you can count on the fingers of one hand.) He was a harmonica player, and he played astonishingly well, imitating sounds he heard in nature: the hard breathing and galloping terrain of a fox chase, the varied noises of the farm animals his uncle worked with as he was growing up, and this. The Pan American passenger train crossed through Nashville on its nightly run between Cincinnati and New Orleans, and the WSM radio station broadcast its passing whistle every night. The young Bailey, impressing some of the right people, got a regular gig on WSM’s Barn Dance program on Saturday nights. Then one Saturday, following NBC’s stuffy Music Appreciation Hour, the station manager said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present . . . .” Well, anyway, he said it just after the opening number, which was DeFord Bailey playing “The Pan American Blues,” a song — or, rather, a piece — which has nothing to do with the blues in either form or content, but simply replicates, in intimate detail, the sound of a moving train on harmonica. The idea was in the air: in a delicious irony, French composer Arthur Honegger had written a work called Pacific 231 which used an orchestra to achieve the same effect four years earlier. You could call it one of the earliest masterpieces of industrial music, if you were so inclined; you would more or less have to call it a virtuoso performance. But what makes it especially significant is that it was the first thing ever played on the Grand Ole Opry, and it was by a black man. The relationship couldn’t last, of course; by 1942 Bailey was hustling to shine shoes, cut hair, rent rooms. He’s in the Country Hall of Fame, now; but in hindsight, there’s nothing particularly Country about either the harmonica or any of Bailey’s playing. If he’d come up just two or three years later, Nashville would never have so much as glanced at him.
77. Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra, “Copenhagen”
(Charlie Davis/Walter Melrose)
Vocalion 1426B, 1924
Fletcher Henderson’s early band was an important step not only in jazz, but in pop — in the broader sense of non-classical music —as well. A member of the same black middle class as Duke Ellington, he was a member of the pioneering black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and attented Columbia University before going into music about a half-decade earlier than the Duke. His band took after neither the funky, tear-em-up heat of New Orleans jazz combos, nor the sedate, highly orchestrated whiteness of New York dance bands, but a novel and subtle mixture of the two. With arrangements by Boston Conservatory-trained clarinetist Don Redman and a larger brass section than jazz was accustomed to, Henderson experimented with sonic textures in a way that would clearly inspire the young Ellington and set off a chain reaction in arranging and production that would find echoes in Nelson Riddle, Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson all the way through to the pop music of today, which makes its impact through sonic texture quite as much as, or in some genres much more than, through melody. The layering of different textural elements was a common enough idea in classical music, of course — composers like Mahler and Debussy built careers out of it — but it was a novel concept in jazz, which had previously been mostly rhythmic, or even comic, in appeal. (White bands like Paul Whiteman’s had flirted with intricate arrangements, but they mostly served to dampen the jazz, loading the tune up with strings and other non-hot sounds.) Once Redman left his band, Henderson took over the arranging himself, and proved so good at it that he’s best-known today as Benny Goodman’s big-band arranger during Goodman’s reign as the King of Swing; and of course Henderson more or less originated the big-band sound. Though this tune was first cut as a freewheeling caper by Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines, Henderson’s version stomps and dervishes like it means business.
76. Bessie Smith, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
Columbia 3176D, 1929
Bessie Smith was a monster of a woman. I don’t mean she was a paragon of inhuman evil or anything, more in the line of the admiring sportscaster who says “that was a monster of a tackle.” Large in her physical stature, in her appetites, and in every aspect of her performance, she towered over the competition, or rather bulldozed through it with her enormous, world-shaking voice. Not the first of the female blues singers, she quickly became the standard, her bone-rattling moan embodying the spirit of the blues (that is, what people wanted the blues to be, which is all they ever were) much more fully than many of her sweet-voiced contemporaries, who were pop singers or even jazz singers forced into a niche by commercial requirements. Which isn’t to say that Bessie was only a blues singer; she was much more than that. The blues as we understand them today exist because of how Bessie Smith sang. Empress of the Blues, hell; she was the Goddess of the Blues. And like the blues, she was volatile, sexually omnivorous, and possessed of an unearthly, two-fisted dignity that literary academics still recoil from today (cf. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel
75. Frank Stokes, “How Long”
Victor 38512, 1928
74. Eddie Cantor, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)”
(Buddy DeSylva/Joseph Meyer)
Columbia 365D, 1925
Destined to make his entrance in the shadows of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor was a skinny Jewish kid from the
73. James P. Johnson, “Keep Off The Grass”
(James P. Johnson)
Okeh 4495, 1921
If you’ve never sat down in front of a piano and attempted to bash out a tune with both hands, I’m not sure anything I can say could convince you of James P. Johnson’s greatness. But then, if you have, you don’t need telling: just listen and let your jaw drop open in admiration. Johnson was the father of stride piano, a complex, almost Baroque form of ragtime that added blue chords and swing rhythm, and in addition to being danceable was technically formidable; large hands and an unerring sense of timing are required to play stride, as the left hand travels just as much as the right rather than merely keeping rhythm. As such, he was one of the great innovators of jazz piano, a direct influence on Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, and through them just about every jazz pianist since; even Chet Atkins named him as an influence. He was also one of the great composers of the Jazz Age, writing the era-defining “
72. Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, “Society Blues”
(John C. Spikes/Reb Spikes)
Sunshine 3003B, 1922
Jazz no more originated in New Orleans than rap originated in the Bronx; it merely percolated under the surface there for years before splashing to the commercially-recorded surface, while analogous musics were being played all over, trading influences back and forth as work-related immigration saw populations rise and fall like tides on the levee. But when jazz did come to the surface, among the first and best-known of the names that came out of
71. Ida Cox, acc. Lovie Austin & Her Blues Serenaders, “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But!”
(Ida Cox/J. Mayo Wiliams)
Paramount 12212, 1924
The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman feelin’ bad. That’s not a description that, say, Stevie Ray Vaughn fans would recognize, but it was true enough in 1924 that when, five years later, a wave of men began to record music inspired by the blues, some not-terribly-attentive critics protested the emasculation of pop music. (True as I’m standing here. They called them the crooners back then; but that’s a story for another time.) Ida Cox hailed from
70. Walter Pidgeon, “What’ll I Do?”
Bb 4896, 1924
The magnitude and influence of Irving Berlin (pictured) on American music can scarcely be overemphasized. Best known today as the writer of sentimental WWII-era favorites like “God Bless
69. Bert Williams, “Brother Low Down”
(Al Bernard/Samuel Briers)
Columbia A-3508, 1921
One of the more bizarre effects of minstrelsy upon the national psyche is that when black people were finally allowed on stage after the Civil War, they had to black up: white audiences could not recognize actual African-American faces as “black” without burnt cork and huge painted-on red lips. Bert Williams, born in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and raised in New York City and California, was an educated, dignified man with a philosophical bent who would have been an engineer except that he was really, really good at comedy. (The notoriously abrasive W. C. Fields stood in awe of him till the day of his own death.) Given the limited options available to him, that meant blackface comedy. He teamed up with the flashy, fast-talking George Walker, and together they barnstormed the 1890s, starring in hit show after hit show on Broadway, and even appearing in a command performance at
68. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, “Heebie Jeebies”
Okeh 8300A, 1925
Enshrined in thousands of hand-me-down histories as the first scatting on record when Louis Armstrong’s sheet music fluttered off the stand and he kept singing anyway, “Heebie Jeebies” is of course nothing of the sort. For one thing, improvisational wordless singing is as old as time; there’s a tradition of it in every culture, from griots to qawwals. But more to the point, skee-diddley-bopping had been done for years on pop, vaudeville, and comedy records: a common vaudeville act was the gentleman (or lady) with the “trick voice,” i.e. people who used their voices like instruments, playing solos with it in the middle of a number. So it’s not scatting that Mr. Armstrong is introducing here; it’s something less easy to define, an approach to the lyrics that can be seen as either being cavalier or having fun, dropping lines, catching up to them, throwing in vocal interjections and asides, ignoring the meter and rhythm on the page. Not only the vocal line then, but even the lyrics are given the air of improvisation — and since Armstrong never sang the same song the same way twice, they were semi-improvised, just like his trumpet solos. It’s the recorded birth of twentieth-century singing: gospel singing, soul singing, rock singing, freestyle rapping . (Not the real birth; that’s lost to the ages, if indeed it ever had a birth and didn’t just exist alongside the stuffed shirts that made it into the history books). Armstrong goosed American vocals, making them loosen up and start to take liberties. It’s the beginning of pop as we know it and the end (an end, anyway) of art song, which is always tied to the page. And as a special indulgence to my particular obsessions, the title comes from a comic strip: Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google invented the phrase.
67. Blind Lemon Jefferson, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”
Paramount 20074, 1928
66. Fats Waller & Morris’ Hot Babies, “Red Hot Dan”
Victor 21127B, 1927
One of the entertainment giants of the Jazz Age — extending that age past the barrier of the Depression into the age which saw jazz as its most natural and exciting pop vernacular — Fats Waller was among a handful of legendary stride pianists before he was eighteen years old, when James P. Johnson secured him his first recording contract. And he recorded lavishly during the 1920s, both as a soloist and accompanying anyone who’d have him, which was nearly everyone who was anyone in hot music. Well-versed in Bach, he was virtually the only person to ever make a pipe organ a jazz instrument — especially difficult when playing accompaniment, as there is a delay of a few seconds between pressing the keys and the sound emerging, not to mention the impossibility of making it swing like a piano. Waller alternated between stride piano and hopped-up organ music on both his solo discs and his accompaniment sessions, and even made a handful of discs playing hot church organ with a jazz band led by Thomas Morris, a
65. Irène Bordoni, “Let’s Misbehave”
This was Cole Porter’s first really big hit, along with “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love),” in 1928. Compared to the other great songwriters of his generation, he got a late start; while Gershwin was plugging songs in department stores and hanging out with Harlem pianists to learn their tricks, Porter was at Yale writing songs for the annual college productions. While Gershwin was writing hit musical after hit musical on Broadway and in
64. Jim Jackson, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues Part 1”
Vocalion 1144, 1927
Another of the great Memphis-area bluesmen and a disciple of Frank Stokes (#75), Jim Jackson was a similar repository of 19th-century popular song as filtered through the rural black sensibility of the segregated South. After making quite a name for himself in local medicine shows, minstrel shows, and jug-band performances — he was even the featured entertainment in a high-class
63. Fred Astaire & Adele Astaire, “I’d Rather Charleston”
(George Gershwin/Desmond Carter)
Columbia UK 3970, 1926
The great and glorious Fred Astaire, the greatest of all American vernacular dancers, first stepped into the national spotlight in
62. Crockett Ward & His Boys, “Sugar Hill”
Okeh 45179, 1926
One of the great truths of American popular music, and one which cannot be stressed enough no matter how much we would like to forget, ignore, or deny it, is that early country music was simply minstrelsy gone feral. With matted beard, dirt under its nails, and twigs in its hair, it had forgotten its show-biz huckster roots, committing Biblical acts with the scraps of British folk songs and Irish reels that had survived in the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the red hills of north Georgia, and simply became Old Time Music, music that without a sense of history seemed simply to always have been. The song “Sugar Hill” can be traced to Christy’s Negro Songster, an 1855 collection of minstrel songs using the name of the most famous blackface performer then alive, George Christy, and is said to have been written as early as 1827 as a description of the dangers and pleasures of “sugaring-off” celebrations, when collecting and boiling sap to make maple sugar devolved into drunken riot. There is a town called Sugar Hill in northern
61. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Black And Tan Fantasy”
(Edward K. Ellington/James Miley)
Okeh 8521, 1927
Anything I could say about how Duke Ellington radically transformed the scope, possibility, and theoretics of jazz would pale to the reality. Put simply, before Ellington jazz was fundamentally a performer’s art; after Ellington, it was just as much, if not more so, a composer’s art. It was because of the ambition and rigor that Ellington brought to the form that jazz became
60. Bix Beiderbecke, “In A Mist”
Okeh 40916, 1927
Bix Beiderbecke was a fascinating individual, a biographer’s dream who lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse, the predecessor to all the tragic “too-young” icons who litter American pop-culture history, from James Dean and Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger. From the opening scenes where as a boy he sits on the Mississippi docks, listening to the music drifting faintly from the riverboat pleasure-palaces (he almost certainly heard Louis Armstrong there) to the tearjerking third-act reveal that every one of the records he had sent back to his disapproving parents was stacked in a closet, unopened and unheard, it’s an unproduced biopic just waiting to happen. But it’s the music he made that’s even greater. He was indisputably the first great white jazz soloist, whose cornet playing derived from the
59. Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, “Prove It On Me Blues”
Paramount 12668, 1928
Ma Rainey was the oldest, and in many ways the rawest, of the classic female blues singers who set the standard for the form in the 1920s. Billing herself the “Mother of the Blues,” and even claiming to have coined the term herself (which is of course nonsense), she had been performing in the style in minstrel shows and vaudeville since 1902. She was an early mentor to Bessie Smith, and like Smith sang in powerfully-lunged contralto, though her voice was a coarser, blunter instrument. Her accompaniment, especially on cuts like this one, fits that coarse image: rather than the crackerjack jazz combos that backed up Smith and other high-class blues singers, a raucous minstrel band complete with banjo and jug fills in the gaps between her good-natured declamations. And the topic of the song is equally unusual; although she was married to William “Pa” Rainey (and her stage name was derived from his), she was openly bisexual, and the good-time lyrics “went out last night with a crowd of my friends/must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men” only drove the point home. (It could even be a reference to a 1925 incident when she was arrested for hosting an all-female “indecent party.”) Bessie Smith shared her proclivites (though no one knows if the relationship between the two women was anything more), and one of the surprising things about researching 1920s blues and cabaret singers is just how many of them were bisexual or lesbian. Even some who were by all accounts happily straight used cross-dressing imagery in their act, and boasted as Rainey does here of acting like men: given the uphill battles any black woman faced in Jim Crow’s America, perhaps it took a certain kind of toughness to make it in the comprehensively rigged entertainment business.
58. Paul Robeson, “Deep River”
Victor 20793A, 1927
I can’t think of a sound on earth more moving than what used to be called Negro spirituals. (To distinguish them from what, precisely? Are there any other kinds of spirituals?) Probably the finest performer of spirituals, as well as the most famous concert bass of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest black Americans who ever lived, Paul Robeson had a voice in which the grace, the dignity, and the patience of a long-suffering, deeply religious people sounded like thunder over a brooding sea. (The fact that this dignified, patient, deeply religious people was a myth that whites in power found it convenient to perpetuate doesn’t alter what his voice sounded like.) An all-American football star in college, a fixture equally on Broadway and the cutting edge of theatre (he nearly sparked riots when, in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, his hand was kissed by a white woman), and later in life a political activist with Communist sympathies which resulted in his being blacklisted from public life for twenty years, Robeson is the sort of man who lived a life outside the scope of this list, which can necessarily only touch the tip of the iceberg. “
57. Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”
Columbia 14303D, 1927
I haven’t been able to track down where precisely the great roots and blues guitarist Ry Cooder called this “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music,” but the quote has been repeated often enough to take on the form of received wisdom about the song. It’s among the relatively few records that have been sent into space by NASA, apparently in the belief that it says something worth knowing about the human race. There are no words; there is barely a melody, simply humming and moaning over spare, bottlenecked chords on a slide guitar, but if you have any feeling for the blues, any understanding of pain and death and grief and fear and longing, this record is mother and father, sister and brother, solace and an ever-fresh wound. Excuse me for a moment.
Willie Johnson was born in east
56. Al Jolson, “April Showers”
(Louis Silvers/Buddy G. DeSylva)
Columbia A-3500, 1921
You can listen to all the musty old 78s (or, more typically, digital transfers of old 78s) you want, but to really understand the appeal and exalted place in the celebrity firmament that Al Jolson held during the first half of the twentieth century, you have to hear him perform live. Which, until rogue physicists work out just how to harness a near-infinite amount of energy in order to perfect time travel, is only possible in one of two ways: look him up on Youtube for his fairly uneven screen work (which rarely presented him at his best, since his natural habitat was the footlights, not a sound stage), or seek out old radio programs where he was a near-constant guest, an idol to nearly everyone on the air, and even had his own show for a bit. (If you’re interested in old-time radio at all, or ever think you might be, bookmark this page, the OTR-nerd’s best friend online. It can be slow, but it’s got everything.) Specifically, hunt up the
55. Henry Thomas, “Fishing Blues”
Vocalion 1249, 1928
This list can be understood (by those not paying attention) as having a split personality unusual in appreciations of popular music. There is a gulf fixed between the music of New York-based showbiz, theatre, and Tin Pan Alley pop produced as mass commodities, and the music of southern and western America, whether white or black, which Harry Smith defined (with a certain amount of willful inaccuracy) as folk. Or at least so adherents of one or the other styles would have us believe. The truth is that any recording musician is a part of showbiz and subject to the indignities of mass commodification, and that folk music — that is, music written, played, sung, and loved by ordinary people — is just as valid coming from a Broadway stage as from a
54. Nick Lucas, “Side By Side”
(Harry M. Woods/Gus Kahn)
Brunswick 3512, 1927
Possibly the ur-1920s singer, with his high, finicky voice and elegant guitar playing, Nick Lucas was popular enough as a singer and guitarist that when he had Gibson custom-build a deep-body guitar for him, they copied the model and named it the Nick Lucas Special. It was immensely popular among jazz players, even though the line ended in 1939; Bob Dylan played one on Bringing It All Back Home. Lucas wasn’t a jazzman as such, but a vaudeville and pop musician whose technical dexterity influenced a great many jazz (Eddie Lang, Joe Pass), country (Merle Travis, Doc Watson), and possibly even blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson’s bass lines sound Lucasian) players. He also did a great deal to popularize the guitar as a pop instrument, relegating the banjo and the ukulele to the status of regional and novelty instruments, and has been credited with discovering how to record a guitar with a band so that it was audible. Later, he’d appear in early soundies (where “Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips” became his signature song), and found a second career in the 1970s providing authentic 1920s music to period pieces like Robert Redford’s The Great Gatsby. “Side By Side” is one of those rare songs that just seem to always have existed, so pinning it down to its origins is a little cognitively dissonant; while musically it fits right in with other cheery songs of the 1927 boom, it seems to have greater relevance to the bust a few years later. In fact, it’s become so emblematic of the Depression that I got a little choked up when Richie Rich’s parents sang it in that terrible Macaulay Culkin movie. (Don’t judge me.) (It was years ago.) Anyway, Lucas sings — and plays — the hell out of it. Listen for the moment when he starts to syncopate and the song snaps into focus: hey, it’s John Pizzarelli!
American music has always been populated by colorful, enigmatic characters, from Stago Lee and Frankie (and Johnny) to Long Tall Sally and the Mystery Tramp . . . to Mr. Brownstone and Slim Shady. One of the recurring characters in black cabaret music, though, has been one Hannah from
52. Fanny Brice, “My Man”
(Maurice Yvain/Albert Willemetz/Jacques Charles/Channing Pollack)
Victor 21168, 1921
After Ruth Etting and Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice is the third great tragic female singer of the 1920s, unhappy in love and preyed upon by a series of male jackals who used her talent and fortune to line their pockets. But unlike Etting or Morgan, she was something more as well: the greatest female comedian of her age, the equal of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and even Bert Williams as a performer and as a supreme master at the art of saying things funny. (As opposed to saying funny things, which is an entirely separate discipline, if the more highly valued today.) She’s best remembered today by two separate categories of people: by old-time radio buffs, who revere her as the voice and daemonic genius behind Baby Snooks, the enfant terrible of the airwaves of the 1930s and 40s; and by fans of Barbra Streisand, to whom she is the character Babs played in Funny Girl, a dreary biopic that focused on the tragic female at the expense of the brilliant comedian, the skinny, rubber-faced maidel who dragged Yiddish culture and entertainment traditions kicking and screaming into the glare of mainstream culture when she headlined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910. Her early song hits were comic portraits of Lower East Side femininity — like the broadly-accented narrator of “Second Hand Rose,” who’d love to assimilate but can’t escape the stigma of her father’s junk shop, or the title character of “Becky Is Back In The Ballet” (pronounced to rhyme with alley), a hoochie-coocher who’s got her first-generation parents convinced she’s dancing in the ballet. But “My Man,” an English adaptation of the French lament “Mon Homme,” changed all that. She was still painting a portrait of squalid, trapped femininity — but it was one that
51. Wendell Hall, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’”
Genett 5271A, 1923
I don’t necessarily want to belabor the point that the origin of country music was, in David Wondrich’s memorable phrase, “minstrelsy gone feral” — the historical accuracy of the fact is beyond dispute, even if it can be hard to discern burnt cork’s influence on a post-Hank Williams world. (Though not impossible: “A Boy Named Sue” is a shaggy-dog story of the kind that was first popularized by traveling minstrel troupes, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s covers of r&b numbers always had a whiff of blackface to them.) But even if I’ve provided enough examples, the thesis is really incomplete without this shining gem of a song, considered by many experts to be the first “hillbilly” hit record, which was what the industry called country music until the buying power of hillbillies made it politic to call it something else. But more than anything else, it’s the record where you can hear minstrelsy fade into country, two sides of the same tarnished coin. “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’,” especially as it picks up speed, is delivered in a wheezy chortle that was for decades the usual signifier of “black” on record, at least during the decades in which actual black people weren’t recording, which means it was really a signifier for blackface. But that chortle quickly became the standard sound of country music, at least until the high lonesome sound of Jimmie Rodgers (a city slicker) and the Carter Family (ethnomusicologists) set the tone for the next hundred years. Wendell Hall wasn’t actually a hillbilly either; that’s a ukelele he’s playing, not a banjo, and he was a pop and novelty singer not unlike Nick Lucas or Frank Crumit (or a few more we’ll be meeting) — but liberal notions of authenticity didn’t matter to the audience that bought this up in spades, revealing a new market to the recording companies who were only just beginning to exploit the black market. He’s best-remembered today as the designer of a custom series of ukeleles that still go for lots of money on eBay. Well, country music still owes a lot to Hawaiian music, of course: just a different instrument.
50. Paul Whiteman & George Gershwin, “Rhapsody In Blue”
Victor 55225, 1924
In a very real way, the Rhapsody In Blue was to jazz what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was to rock & roll — only, you know, better. It took the sounds, the discourse, and the bravura immediacy of the new pop form and conjured up a work that could stand with the most serious, intelligent, and highly disciplined art music of the day. In the 1920s, that was concert music; by the 1960s, it was jazz. And of course, while both works were highly praised at the time, their reputations have slipped since, as neither one is accepted by critical fascists as “real jazz” or “real rock.” The analogy breaks down after that, because of course Sgt. Pepper’s became the gold standard of album rock for two decades, while the Rhapsody had virtually no effect on jazz outside of Duke Ellington, though it did inspire a wave of jazz-influenced concert music. (Check out Milhaud’s Le Création Du Monde, Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot, Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, Carpenter’s Skyscrapers, and Copland’s Music For The Theatre, all composed and performed, though not recorded, by 1929.) But while Sgt. Pepper’s may have been my first Beatles album, Gershwin has always had precedence. The wavering clarinet which opens the piece can still make my heart jump; I even like the schmaltzy section. Gershwin would go on to write better concert music, music which was tougher-minded while remaining true to the elegance of his jazz-pop roots — an American In Paris is much more sinewy and robust, and Porgy And Bess is indisputably the greatest American opera — but the Rhapsody In Blue was just about the last concert work to ever become truly popular (accepted, celebrated, and loved by the people) in the way Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner had been in the centuries previous. Most people know the 1942 Ferd Grofé orchestration, but the lean, small-orchestra version that Gershwin actually wrote and performed himself, with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in
49. Zez Confrey & His Orchestra, “Kitten On The Keys”
Victor 18900, 1922
One of the more difficult things for a modern listener to grasp is the kind of music that never transcended its time. Zez Confrey, unlike his peers George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and even Vincent Youmans, never had any real impact beyond the decade of his flourishing, the 1920s. Even by the end of the decade he was passé, his knack for what were known as “novelty” piano pieces having little appeal to a generation more interested in dancing to records and the rawer, more vivid sounds of hot jazz. Like Gershwin’s early work, Confrey’s piano novelties were essentially rooted in ragtime, with a technical brio that was a direct challenge to the parlor-piano players who were the 1920s’ version of the long-haired, Sabbath-shirted denizens of Guitar Worlds across the land today. “Kitten On The Keys” sounds like it says on the tin: a work that dances on the edge of atonality, mimicking the sound of a cat romping playfully across the keyboard (unsurprisingly, it would be sampled frequently in Carl Stalling’s scores for Looney Tunes shorts in the decades to come: if you ever see a cat anywhere near a piano in a cartoon, “Kitten On The Keys” is sure to be played). Confrey also wrote “Stumblin’,” another piano novelty that sounds like the title: the notes hesitate, trip, and fall faux-clumsily across the score — and many other less well-known pieces. (Not that these could be considered known today.) This arrangement, with a full studio band, was not Confrey’s first recording of the tune, but it was his biggest hit, the sort of danceable pop that every age uses to define itself from every other.
48. Carl T. Sprague, “When The Work’s All Done This Fall”
Victor 19747A, 1925
It’s an old joke, repeated on signs posted in record stores and as a sample of anti-rural prejudice from people who should know better: We Have Both Kinds Of Music: Country And Western. The joke, however, is on the city slickers who can’t tell the difference. This is not country music as we understand it, born in the deep poverty of the
47. Eubie Blake, “Sounds Of Africa”
Emerson 10434, 1921
I stopped listening to it five hours ago, but the tune still dances in my head, possibly the greatest solo piano cut recorded in the decade, a whirling blend of melody, syncopation and what pop and rock critics are used to calling hooks: those nagging, repeated phrases that define a song for the casual listener. Every movement, every limb of the song has indelible hooks that always sound familiar and always sound new: that rumbling bass line, the prancing notes ascending the scale like gazelles, the sharp attack of the chord changes. Eubie Blake was not the greatest stride pianist of his generation; on a technical level, his playing was not up to the standards of James P. Johnson or Willie “The Lion” Smith, not to mention Fats Waller. But he was the greatest stride composer of his generation, and that almost offhand, in addition to being a pioneering stage composer (see #89), helping to invent the basic sound of jazz with Jim Europe’s Society Orchestra in the years before World War I, and being a fountain of popular song, out of which rivers of melody — light, hummable, catchy melody, written in every conceivable style for the next forty years — poured seemingly without effort. Not that he ever got much out of it: after the 1920s the hits dried up, which didn’t mean he stopped writing: people just stopped listening. At least until the nostalgia wave of the late 60s and 70s, when he got to cut a few more records and play a few more concerts — and there was even a Broadway revue, Eubie! in 1978, where the big centerpiece was, naturally, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (thanks to one President Truman). But Eubie was always more than even his greatest advocates thought: the unheard wealth of the music he wrote between 1930 and 1960 would make any other popular composer swoon with envy. “Sounds Of Africa” may have been more Oriental in its effect than African (but the tendency then was to conflate all non-European cultures — the “dark races,” in Kipling’s idiotic phrase), but in its rhythm, its forward motion, and its amazing harmonic structure, it couldn’t be mistaken for anything but now.
46. Bertolt Brecht, “Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer”
(Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht)
Orchestrola 2131, 1929
“Mack The Knife” is undoubtedly one of the most popular songs of the twentieth century, with definitive interpretations offered by Lotte Lenya, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and Ella Fitzgerald — not to mention the many thousands who have tried their hand at it in every style from cabaret to swing to rock & roll. (I have a particular fondness for Robbie Williams’ raucous version on Swing When You’re Winning. Yeah, that Robbie Williams.) But the first recorded version is this: the song’s original lyricist – and famous Marxist playwright and critic — Bertolt Brecht steps before the recording tube to offer his sardonic, deadpan take on the tale of Mackie Messer (a.k.a. Macheath) (a.k.a. Mack the Knife). It’s in German, but anyone who knows Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 translation gets the gist. Though do seek out Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of Frank McGuiness’s 1993 translation, which retains some of Brecht’s poisonous wit and revolutionary snap. But back to this recording: Kurt Weill’s wheezing cabaret score, sounding trapped in a circular loop like a carousel of death, is far from the fleet-footed swing orchestration we’re used to hearing the song delivered in, but for anyone familiar with latter-day Tom Waits, it’s not too far off. Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), the socialist opera where “Die Moritat Von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad Of Mack The Knife”) first appeared, was not only revolutionary in its political critique of the capitalist system — Macheath is that purest kind of capitalist, a pimp — but in Weill’s use of popular forms and easily-remembered melodies, it struck a blow against German ideas of what stage music was supposed to be. As a German opera that owed nothing to the Romantic Wagner, the tragic Strauss, or even the ultra-modernist Berg, it turned its back on the classical establishment and showed a way forward that could be both challenging and popular. Hitler, naturally, was not a fan, and Weill and Brecht had to flee Nazi Germany within five years.
45. Seger Ellis, “The Song Is Ended, But The Melody Lingers On”
Victor 81770, 1927
To gauge exactly what happened to American popular song in years between 1920 and 1940, it’s instructive to compare this song, a beautiful but staid ballad written by Irving Berlin, who had been writing song hits since before World War I and whose style never essentially changed, with the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” written ten years later, in which Ira Gershwin cleverly referenced Berlin’s hit in the introductory verse: “The song is ended but as the songwriter wrote/The melody lingers on.” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is perhaps the definitive example of America’s great songwriting boom, the kind of song that any collection of standards cannot do without, full of intricate wordplay and surprising harmonic and rhythmic shifts that nevertheless retained the prime directive of popular song and remained entirely hummable. All of which isn’t to say that “The Song Is Ended” is bad, by any standard: it’s just of a different era, an era in which plaintive parlor songs were only just beginning to fade from the popular ear. It was, in fact, something of a throwback even in 1927 — and
44. Furry Lewis, “Kassie Jones”
Victor 21664, 1928
Furry Lewis was another broke-ass
43. Alberta Hunter, “Sugar”
(Maceo Pinkard/Sidney Mitchell/F. Alexander)
Victor 20771, 1927
Alberta Hunter probably had the longest career of any of the women who would later be classified as “classic female blues singers,” but who were really all-round entertainers, as comfortable with parlor pop as with vaudeville whimsy and gutbucket blues. After a notable career in the 1920s, 30s and 40s as an entertainer in both America and Europe, she enrolled in nursing school and spent the 1950s and 60s as a health care professional, and was rediscovered during the nostalgia boom of the 70s, signed to Columbia by John Hammond (who had overlooked her at her peak of popularity three decades before), and became a staple of New York nightclub life until her death in 1984. During that 70s renaissance, she reunited with Lil Hardin (ex-Mrs. Armstrong) and the great Lovie Austin, whom she had known and shared stages with in
42. Noel Coward, “A Room With A View”
There have been so many Noel Cowards (or Noël Cowards; he added the dieresis later in life) that it can be hard to whittle the focus down to the relatively young man who wrote and recorded this song in the springtime of his career as a playwright, actor, popular composer, singer, bon vivant, gay icon, and one of the supreme symbols of the post-colonial British spirit. He had achieved fame or at least notoriety by 1928, with a succession of plays and revues which were dramatic or light, serious or musical, as the season or his mood demanded. He had attracted scandal by hinting at drug abuse and homosexuality in The Vortex in 1923, and he had won the atention of
41. Cow Cow Davenport, “Cow Cow Blues”
Vocalion 1198, 1928
And rock & roll is born. Or born again — or seen in a vision before it was born — for like any hero of myth it has had numerous and contradictory births. But that stomping bass line is familiar to any listener of Fats Domino, and the way it rings changes on blues chords is a stripped-down, elemental version of party jazz, one with a stronger backbeat and less showy than stride or ragtime. It’s hairy, unreconstructed boogie-woogie, which is one of the many fathers of rock & roll (just ask Pete Johnson), fifteen years before lyricists like Johnny Mercer started using “boogie-woogie” to mean ultramodern, hip-to-the-minute music (cf. Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Music Master,” which this song incidentally resembles by underscoring the contrast between the high solemnity of longhair classical and the hep jump of the now, just in its first few seconds). Cow Cow Davenport was an obscure pianist who was best known for accompanying guitarists like Tampa Red, but whose comparatively few solo recordings burn with a fire undreamt of in most understandings of the music of the 1920s. And no — perhaps there’s not much that grabs a modern listener by the lapels without they understand the significance of the date attached, but that’s true, in its way, of all pop music. There’s been some uninformed speculation that the western swing/jump blues standard “Cow Cow Boogie” (the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Ella Mae Morse, and Elvis Presley all recorded versions) may be related in some way to Cow Cow Davenport, but it had purely Hollywood western origins, part of the same tradition that gave us Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” — still, the Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Kow Kow Calqulator” (featuring psychedelic boogie-woogie virtuoso Nicky Hopkins) conflates Cow Cow Davenport and “Cow Cow Boogie,” with the usual rock & roll utopianism.
40. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground”
Okeh 40155, 1928
Maybe the best thing about Bascom Lamar Lunsford is his name — the kind of name that immediately evokes a world far different from ours, a unique combination of English lexical morphemes that have never otherwise been related. No joke, when I first read the name I thought Bascom might be an obscure title, not unlike Deacon or Reverend, which existed only in a little-known Appalachian dialect. It might as well have been — Lunsford is one of the high priests of American folk music, one of the immutable facts one must accept in order to enter into the spirit of the thing. Nearly everything he recorded reverberates spookily throughout American music, from country to blues to rock & roll and even unto hip-hop. “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” has pride of place largely because it was included in the Torah of American folk, Harry Smith’s Anthology. Here we find the railroad men who will drink up your blood like wine (they make a cameo on Blonde on Blonde), an unstable image that has no precedent in folklore or any explanation that reason can find: it’s simply burned into the background of the national psyche, a ghost of a meaningless warning from an age long gone. Here, too, is a man who wishes to be a mole in the ground so he can root a mountain down, and a lizard in the spring so he could hear his darling sing — a darling (equally mysteriously) named Tempe. Or maybe not; one of the reasons that recordings like this one can so easily captivate people is the eerie level of uncertainty about nearly everything; every hearing differs, as surface noise, nonstandard pronunciations, and unfamiliar combinations of words work their unique magic on the individual listening ear, a magic which never works the same way twice. Lifetimes can be lost tracking the grooves of of old, rare 78s.
39. Willard Robison, “Deep Elm”
Pathé 32308, 1927
Deep Ellum, a Dallas neighborhood, was well-known in the 1920s and 30s as a sort of Texas Harlem: a hip and happening zone where black people had formed an oasis of outlaw culture — jazz, blues, liquor, reefer, cocaine, prostitution, and similar evils — in the heart of conservative, buttoned-down White America. Not that you’d necessarily be able to tell all that from this song, a serenely bucolic slice of hometown nostalgia; though do check the introductory verse, where Robison evokes Memphis’s Beale Street and Manhattan’s Broadway as points of comparison. None of them were places that good little boys and girls should have been after dark. Willard Robison was a Missouri-born singer, pianist, and songwriter, whose easygoing, pastoral compositions tapped the vein of cozy, small-town Americana that Hoagy Carmichael (usually with lyricist Johnny Mercer) would mine to much greater acclaim and riches in a decade or so. His warm tenor and sophisticated rhythmic sense on the keys made him a superior example of a phenomenon that wouldn’t really be acknowledged as a thing for another several decades: the pop balladeer who sings and plays his own compositions. (I have a box set of Hoagy titled The First Of The Singer-Songwriters. As if.) But listen to the solo he takes about halfway through the song: he’s a jazz player at heart, a close friend of Jack Teagarden and an early signpost of the downtempo direction that jazz would take in the following decades, as the rhythmic punch of swing took over for the dance needs of young people. There’s a twilight mood to this song, as in much of Robison’s work: a gentle loveliness that speaks of purple, honeysuckled shades without forgoing the lilting syncopation that all 1920s pop required for eternal cool.
38. Marion Harris, “The Man I Love”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Victor 21116B, 1927
For those who grew up hearing the great standards of the American songbook sung by the jazz-inflected vocalists of the 50s, 60s, and beyond, hearing the earliest recordings can take away some of the unearthly melodicism and exquisite timing that has accrued to them over decades of jazz interpretation. Marion Harris had been singing between reels in movie houses and on the vaudeville stage since the early 1910s, and while several authorities believe that she recorded one of the earliest jazz songs in 1917 (“When I Hear That Jazz Band Play”), she was always more of a ragtime mama than a jazz baby. Still, her close-cropped blonde hair and her facility with the blues songs which were becoming all the rage in the late 1910s (she even jumped labels at one point because Victor wouldn’t let her record “St. Louis Blues”) made her one of the biggest stars of the flapper era; if there was a song hit anywhere in the 1920s, it was an almost certain bet that Marion Harris had recorded a version of it, and frequently outsold the originator. Her star was fading by the end of the decade, though, and it wasn’t she, but nightclub chanteuse Helen Morgan, who turned “The Man I Love” into a hit after it had been cut from three different Gershwin shows in four years. Still, Harris’s recording gets the edge because of the wordless humming, the white person’s version of scatting, that turns the record from a take into a song. The Jewish roots of Gershwin’s melodic sense were rarely more evident than on the violin counterpointing this song, but you can also hear the stiff piano player stumbling over the unusually arty chord changes that are so familiar to latter-day listeners on the transition between the chorus and the bridge. It’s one of his best ballads, and the simplicity of Ira’s lyrics have kept it fresh where a smarter, trickier lyric might sound dated . . . sorry. Just something in my eye, is all.
37. Josephine Baker & Le Jacob’s Jazz, “Bye Bye Blackbird”
(Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon)
Odèon 166.033, 1927
She is one of the indelible figures of the age: the lithe, coffee-colored woman in a banana skirt, her hair closely cropped and slicked on her head like a cartoon. She is (probably) the most famous black female performer of the decade, and my use of the present tense is deliberate — in
36. Lonnie Johnson & Blind Willie Dunn, “A Handful Of Riffs”
(Lonnie Johnson/Eddie Lang)
Okeh 8695, 1929
Lonnie Johnson was a New Orleans-born guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer who was one of the greatest, and almost certainly the first great, jazz guitarists of all time. He had a long and astonishing career, beginning in the notorious Storyville district in the 1910s and becoming one of Okeh’s most prolific recording artists as a result of winning a blues contest in
35. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Workingman’s Blues”
Okeh 40034, 1923
In 1922, Joe Oliver, one of the great bandleaders of New Orleans jazz (he had learned from Buddy Bolden, come to prominence and been given the nickname “King” in Kid Ory’s band, and mentored the young Louis Armstrong), sick of the deep-seated racism permeating the South — he and his band had reputedly been arrested for being black in a room where a fight had broken out — went north to Chicago. This single move may have done more to shape the history and practice of jazz than any other, for it was in
34. Fiddlin’ John Carson, “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”
Okeh 4890, 1923
And here’s where the story of country music turns ugly. (Wait, turns? Nick Tosches’ book on the subject wasn’t subtitled The Twisted Roots Of Rock & Roll for nothing. But here’s where some ugliness comes to the surface.) Not in this tune, which is as pretty an idyll as a Real Live Hillbilly could scratch onto shellac in 1923, and was in point of fact the first actual country record ever — the first record containing music performed by someone operating within a tradition recognizable as “old-time” or “hillbilly” or “country,” as opposed to some slick Yankee vaudevillian putting on hickface for a quick buck. Fiddlin’ John Carson had also been the first actual country performer on radio, in 1922 (the medium was in its infancy anyway), and was a seven-time winner of Georgia Old-Time Fiddle Championships. Which isn’t to say he didn’t also wear hickface for professional purposes, just as the earliest professional black performers in
33. Rube Bloom, “Silhouette”
Okeh 40901, 1927
Halfway between Confreyesque piano novelty and real jazz virtuosity as represented in a figure like Art Tatum, this intriguingly chorded piano solo hangs as if caught between beauty and flash, its facile trickles never quite preparing you for its emotional undercurrents. It’s one of the few solo records Rube Bloom made — better known as a journeyman songwriter (he had hits with various lyricists including Johnny Mercer and Ted Koehler into the 50s) and occasionally as a bandleader in the late 20s and early 30s when nearly everyone was a bandleader, he shows himself here to be a superb pianist and an intelligent, sensitive composer. Not, perhaps, at the level of immortals like Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, and Kern, but one of the points I’ve been trying to make with this list is that the smaller fry also deserve recognition, perhaps even more than the masters whose name everyone knows. And even while recognizing that titles generally have less than nothing to do with the content of the instrumentals they demarcate, I can’t help thinking in terms of silhouette imagery here, high-contrast elegance with eighteenth-century ornamentation — an association only strengthened by flipping through contemporary magazines, where advertising images were full of eighteenth-century costume and the Regency (1811-1820) was frequently used as an historical point of comparison, as a period of relative anarchy in a highly civilized country; the high-contrast Louise Brooks image I’ve used as an illustration was an attempt to draw out those associations.
32. Annette Hanshaw, “Lovable And Sweet”
(Oscar Levant/Sidney Clare)
Okeh 41292, 1929
Annette Hanshaw may not have been the first white female jazz singer, but she was certainly the first great one. With fluffy good looks (at twenty-four she could and did pass for sixteen) and an ingenuous personality, she may as well have been the personification of the late 20s ideal of all-American femininity, the girl on countless magazine covers sprung to life and singing in a laid-back style about idealized romance with just the barest hint of sex — a hint so bare, in fact, that it can be completely inaudible to modern listeners. But it’s all in how natural she sounds; the vast majority of contemporary ingénues (including one we’ll be visiting later) either used cartoonish baby voices or assumed a blues-mama holler that was just as unrealistic on the other end. She was a major recording star for a little over a decade, retiring in the late 30s as hotter and hepper sounds overtook her lively flapper bounce — sounds that included those for whom she was a primary influence, like Anita O’Day, Peggy Lee, and even Ella Fitzgerald. “Lovable And Sweet” not only captures the essence of her individual appeal, but is a great song in its own right, with a scat written into the vocal line right at the beginning. Its composer, Oscar Levant, would later be better known as one of the great concert pianists, Hollywood composers, and personalities of the age, a bon vivant and Algonquin-associated wit whose books, film appearances (he’s Gene Kelly’s roommate in An American In Paris), and role as a panelist on one of the all-time great radio shows, Information Please (start here) are among the treasures of the midcentury American aesthetic.
31. Ethel Waters, “Am I Blue?”
(Harry Akst/Grant Clarke)
Columbia 1837-D, 1929
It can be difficult to find things to say about Ethel Waters, partly because she’s already said it all before you get a chance, in His Eye Is On The Sparrow, one of the great twentieth-century autobiographies. If you want to know what life was like for just about every female black jazz, blues, and pop artist of the early twentieth century, read it. She was born to a thirteen-year-old victim of rape, and her life more or less goes downhill from there — save, of course, for artistic triumph. She was probably the greatest black pop (as opposed to strictly blues) singer of her generation — which made her, more or less by default, the greatest female jazz singer of her generation. The next generation, the Billie Holidays and Ella Fitzgeralds, would soon surpass her while staking out territory that veered well away from that of black pop singers like Lena Horne — whose hot-to-trot role opposite Waters in the 1943 movie Cabin In The Sky was apparently the first thing to make her feel her age. Here she sings one of several signature songs, one that was specially written for her by Broadway knockabout and Irving Berlin disciple Harry Akst (who also wrote “Dinah” for Waters, back in 1925; it was a toss-up as to which one I’d include), and became something of a standard which Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and even Bette Midler would later take at a slower, more extravagantly emotional pace, as though the only way to answer the question was to make the listener feel blue too. But Water’s full, slightly plummy voice, and the jaunty tempo at which the band takes the song, imply that the answer to the rhetorical question in the title is more along the lines of “who, me?” This record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame last year, apparently on the basis that it was Ethel Waters’ signature song and Ethel Waters deserved more recognition. While normally I agree with the producers of the Simpsons that a Grammy isn’t an award at all, this they did get right, even if for all the wrong reasons.
30. Hoagy Carmichael & The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, “Washboard Blues”
(Hoagy Carmichael/Fred B. Callahan)
Victor 35877-B, 1927
29. Vernon Dalhart, “The Prisoner’s Song”
Victor 19427, 1924
Record collectors are a curious bunch, and none more so than the rare breed — perhaps no more than a few dozen all told — who more or less single-handedly rescued the great folk, string-band, old-time, early jazz, and related musics from the dustbin of history beginning in the 1950s. The stories they tell of driving through verdant Southern hills and down lonely dirt tracks in search of anyone who might have some old 78s they could buy are like Don Quixote’s tales of knight-errantry to those of us whose experience of the music is entirely digital, but there’s one thing they all agree on: every collection they came across was befouled with dozens, or hundreds, of records of the man they call, with varying degrees of vituperation, “Vernon Shitfart.” No matter what other unheard-of, tiny-issue pressings might lie in those one-room shacks in forgotten hollers, everyone had his records. Vernon Dalhart was the man who convinced the record industry that there was a market for country-style vocals, and despite what the collector-ideologues think, he had as much right to the label as anyone; he was born in
28. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “Cake Walking Babies From Home”
(Clarence Williams/Chris Smith/Henry Troy)
Okeh 40321-A, 1925
If you don’t know the musicological, cultural, and racial history, this is just a fun, raggedy tune with a sharp tempo and delightful performances from Eva Taylor (vocals), Louis Armstrong (cornet), and Sidney Bechet (soprano sax, sort of). But if you do, it’s the sort of epoch-making, foundational moment that can take your breath away when heard in the right frame of mind. I think of it — I can’t not think of it — as the ultimate hot jazz song, the summation of a hundred years of back-and-forth dialogue between black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, Celtic and African, blackface and black pride, gullah and waltz, walkabout and breakdown, ragtime and marching band, blues and foxtrot, jazz and jism. (Forgive; there’re linguistic corellations.) Stomp and swerve, sweet and hot, eternal cool, unbridled frenzy without a hangover the next morning making you wish you were dead. Bliss. But about the cakewalk. Its origins are obscure, but more or less it was a dance where slaves imitated (and mocked; why not?) the stately dances of their owners, with a little African improvisation thrown in to make things interesting. Minstrel shows always ended with a walkabout: basically a glorified cakewalk, with as many levels of mockery, hatred, or sincerest flattery as are available in any human activity, blacked-up whites imitating blacks imitating whites. But black minstrels did the walkabout too, only better, and the cakewalk remained and developed as a black form. Bert Williams and George Walker brought Clorindy, Or The Origins Of The Cakewalk to the Broadway stage in 1898, and set off a genuine craze; cakewalks became once more all the rage in high fashion, in the 500 families that made up New York society, and in Buckingham Palace. So, whites imitating blacks imitating whites imitating blacks imitating whites. This is (part of) the history to listen to Clarence Williams with. Another part is the African swerve of the brass set against the Celtic stomp of the banjo; the BPM are at drill ’n’ bass levels here. A third is the “birth of jazz” theme here; Williams had come up in Storyville hustling for piano gigs and sheet-music sales, worked with just about every early jazz great, and talent scouted most of them for Okeh records, and New Orleans boys and girls cut this record in New York in the same way, and for the same reasons, that early Christianity left Jerusalem for Rome. The center of civilization is the only place where you can change the world.
27. Helen Kane, “I Wanna Be Loved By You”
(Herbert Stothart/Harry Ruby/Bert Kalmar)
Victor 21684, 1928
Two cultural associations which have (somehow) survived the ravages of history are probably the best entry point into this song and to Helen Kane in general (that is, if any are needed: like most great pop it stands on its own and needs to make no apology to the losers who can’t get it): Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. Marilyn first: she sang this song in Some Like It Hot, in the role of a 1920s singer who incidentally would never have been looked at twice in the real twenties; womanly curves were decidedly passé in the era of the flat-chested, sleek-headed flapper (with the exception of Mae West, but she was never so much a sex symbol as a genius marketer who made sex a symbol for Mae West). It’s one of the few tolerable performances of
26. Adelaide Hall with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, “The Blues I Love To Sing”
(Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley)
Victor 21490, 1927
In November 1927, Adelaide Hall was one of the chief mourners at the funeral of Florence Mills, a cabaret and revue singer, dancer, and comedienne who was arguably the first black female superstar and who had done much towards legitimizing the field of jazz song and dance in the eyes of the theatre-going New Yorkers who constituted the guardians of fashionable taste in the 1920s. Florence had died just a few months after returning from a year-long tour in Britain, where she had been acclaimed and fêted to a remarkable degree — she even makes an appearance as period flavor in Brideshead Revisited — and her death was keenly felt as the loss of the most famous, talented, and skilful black performer of her age. One of her many talents, as the critic Gilbert Seldes put it in his landmark study of popular culture The Seven Lively Arts, was to reverse the common jazz trope of making the saxophone imitate the human voice — she sang as though her voice were an instrument untethered by words or sense, though full of meaning. Her high, sweet soprano did not record well on the acoustic instruments of the day, but her friend and protégé Adelaide’s richer alto did, and Duke Ellington took advantage of the fact to make a pair of legendary records with her not a year after Florence’s death. “Creole Love Call” is perhaps the better known, an entirely wordless jazzing-up of Rudolf Friml’s hit “Indian Love Call” from the 1924 operetta Rose-Marie turned into an eerie, haunting piece that evokes the humid, mysterious voudou
25. Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang, “Wild Cat”
(Eddie Lang/Joe Venuti)
Okeh 40762-A, 1928
For a few seconds it sounds like we’re in the wild backwoods of Appalachia, and we’re about to witness another great fiddle stomp from an obscure country musician — but then the guitarist plays a jazz progression, and we’re in New York, in the heart of sophisticated jazz-pop, and the inventive harmonic and rhythmic ideas flow fast and furious. Guiseppe Venuti and Salvatore Massaro were Philly boys who had grown up taking the same classical music lessons that every other musically inclined Italian kid did; they were destined to play backup for Caruso, or whoever the next Caruso was. Except they both caught the jazz bug, and forget that old-fogey respectable sheet-music stuff, this is where it’s at. Except of course that they remembered enough about those lessons to never just ring the same old blues changes; they were harmonically adventurous in ways that jazz as a whole wouldn’t start to be for some years yet, without forsaking the Prime Directive of pop music, which is that the punters can dance to it. They recorded prolifically with whoever would have ’em — Lang in particular souped up many an otherwise-forgettable jazz-pop number with his fluid, harmonically intricate guitar playing — and it was while both were in residence with the (self-titled) King of Jazz Paul Whiteman that they recorded a handful of numbers that would have reverberations in the world (and I do mean world) of jazz in the centuries to come. For a young Roma kid in France named Django was listening hard, and his buddy Stéphane too, and thereafter jazz would never be an exclusively American (though always essentially American; I mean come on) form. Lang died in 1932 following complications from a (sigh) tonsillectomy, and Venuti found that his moment had also sort of passed along with his friend, although a revival in the 1960s and 70s helped pay an old man’s bills. Sure, without Eddie Lang there would be no jazz guitar, and without Joe Venuti there would be no jazz violin — and western swing might not have happened either, come to think of it, and no one wants to live in that kind of world. But way back here in the far-flung present of 1928 they were young men only intent on burning up this patch of space and time, which by the grace of Thomas Edison and legions of nameless technicians was hooked onto a passing chunk of shellac that rises, bobbing, to the top of the current in this patch of space and time, and we too get to delight.
24. Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers, “He Rambled”
Columbia 15407D, 1929
This man right here is country music ground zero. Forget the commercial heroes and the ones who were first on wax and the ones who have monuments to them in
23. Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, “I’m Coming, Virginia”
(Donald Heywood/William Marion Cook)
Victor 20751B, 1927
Will Marion Cook may be the saddest story in the multi-volume set of sad stories which is the history of American music. At least it’s one of the saddest we know. (How many thousand stories of unfulfilled potential and thwarted ambition go down unrecorded?) Cook was an absurdly talented and ambitious composer in the latter half of the nineteenth century, probably the first person to ever have a realistic shot at inventing an American classical music that could stand up to the national classical musics of Europe; he studied with Dvorak in Europe and had ambitions to produce an opera cycle that would stand up to the majestic creations of Wagner. Only problem: he was black, and in
22. Dock Boggs, “Sugar Baby”
Brunswick 118, 1927
Greil Marcus wrote Invisible Republic (later retitled The Old, Weird America), a study of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes sessions with the Band in the summer of 1968 because, as he admitted later, he’d wanted to write about Dock Boggs and that was the only way he could get a book deal out of it. Boggs was a Virginia native who had been picking the banjo since about the same time he’d gone to work in the mines — at twelve years old. His guitar-like fingerpicking style, developed independently of current Appalachian banjo tradition, was both innovative and unadaptable to modern music, much like Boggs himself, who had learned just as much from the black miners who played the blues as from local and family country musicians. But his style was his own: unsuitable for dance bands or the jazzy innovations of bluegrass in the decades to come, it could only function as accompaniment to his voice-of-death narratives of loss, murder, and indifferent terror. (This, as Marcus notes, is one of the greatest flaws in the naïvely pious idea promulgated by left-leaning folk revivalists, that folk music was somehow created by The People as an undifferentiated mass. Boggs was an original, just like everyone else.) His 1927 recordings for Brunswick, which he had hoped could start him on a music career, did nothing, and he went back to the mines until retiring in 1952, when he was tracked down by left-leaning folk revivalist Mike Seeger thanks to his inclusion — twice — on Harry Smith’s Anthology. He got to tell his story, play festivals, and even record again, though he never sounded any older than he does here, when he was twenty-nine years old and sounded like the voice of American fate. Compare this record with Dylan’s 2001 “Sugar Baby” on Love And Theft; Dylan sounds like some sentimental moon-June-spoon crooner in comparison, even with all his apocalyptic imagery and crisp put-downs. Boggs is the real deal.
21. Fred Astaire & Adele Astaire, “The Babbitt And The Bromide”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Columbia UK, 1928
One of the great American pastimes, on a level with baseball, moving pictures, and handgun violence, has always been making fun of the squares. This was the pop understanding of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (and just think about that for a second; we’re talking about a period in our national history when people had pop understandings of a serious literary book) — and “babbitt” became part of American vocabulary, a sort of Middle American strawman without an aesthetic, political, or intellectual idea in his head, just a mania for commerce and a conscience drugged by religion and barbiturates. It was (and remains; think Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) a potent figure of satire and of revolutionary antipathy. The Gershwins were
20. Hoyt Ming & His Pep-Steppers, “Indian War Whoop”
Victor 21294, 1928
This tune is probably best known to most people today as a brief instrumental on the multimillion-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, where it’s performed by the legendary progressive country fiddler and songwriter John Hartford; in the movie, it plays in the scene where Homer Stokes is being run out of town on a rail. But its history is far older; freak-folk pioneers the Holy Modal Rounders titled their best album after the song in 1967 (it’s a fascinatingly mock-heroic concept album which actually has a lot in common with the Coen Brothers movie) — but even so, they were as much musical archaeologists as hippie pranksters. For here is where the tune had its origin, in the sweltering pines of Tupelo, Mississippi (birthplace of Elvis), from the fiddle of a man named Hoyt whose circular patterns and high lonesome cries at the end of each figure helped foster the illusion — assisted by his exotic-sounding surname, which was really just a corruption of the family name Menge — that this was an actual Native American performance, some kind of war chant or celebration stomp from whatever remnants of the Choctaw or Natchez still lingered in the Delta. But no, Hoyt was a white potato farmer, and his wife Rozelle played the guitar and stomped her feet (thus the “Pep-Steppers”), and brother
19. Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Black Bottom Stomp”
Victor 20221A, 1926
Why a man who billed himself as the “originator of jazz” should have a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is one of those mysteries that only an appropriately loose definition of genres can hope to solve. Jelly Roll Morton was neither the man who invented jazz nor a rock & roller, but something deeper and greater: one of the two great New Orleans pianists of the first jazz generation (the other was Tony Jackson), a skilled and inventive composer of early jazz melodies, and a raconteur with a flair for self-aggrandizement and a knack for the contours of a good story that makes him the spiritual, if not the musical, godfather to every rock & roller who used a guitar, or a hairstyle, or a vocal tic, to refashion himself into something better, cooler, more in line with the way things should be in a just world — a world that always exists for the space of the song. But while his melodic fingerprints are all over it, you can barely hear Morton on this track, one of his signature tunes and the second biggest dance craze of the 1920s, eclipsing even the
18. Art Gillham, “Hesitation Blues”
(Billy Smythe/Scott Middleton/Art Gillham)
Columbia 343D, 1925
Art Gillham is one of those figures who never made it into the history books despite a reasonable level of success, an undeniable originality in several fields, and a pleasant, mild singing style that only the most contrary ideologue could dislike. He was born in
17. Gertrude Lawrence, “Poor Little Rich Girl”
Columbia 513D, 1925
The young lady born Gertrude Alexander Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen probably knew something about the tribulations of wealth; more, anyway, than did the song’s writer, Noel Coward, who was from a decidedly middle-class background (though he always overemphasized his plebian origins, apparently in order to make his success more astonishing). He wrote this song, and she sang it, in André Charlot’s Revue of 1925, a West End divertissement that traveled to America and made his, and her, fortune; before her career was over, she would star in (and, essentially, have created for her) the Gershwin show Oh, Kay!, the Cole Porter show Nymph Errant, the definitive Coward play Private Lives, and Moss Hart and Kurt Weill’s groundbreaking psychological musical Lady In The Dark. But (of course) she’s best remembered today for originating the Anna role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s overripe monument to condescending Orientalism The King And I. But back to 1924; “Poor Little Rich Girl” can be considered an early example of the sort of sentimentalism that Coward, in his better-known comic songs, thoroughly eviscerated, but which his ballads always returned to; the lyrics present a giddy young socialite in danger of wrecking her life in a portrait no doubt drawn from the Bright Young Things which Evelyn Waugh satirized in his early novels. It’s a clichéd portrait, perhaps, but for a reason: as rich young idiots like Paris Hilton and Kate Moss have done their best to prove, some things never change. In fact, Suede’s louche, Eurotrashy version of the song on a 1998 AIDs-benefit album of Noël Coward covers is one of the few times that modern sensibilities have understood and incorporated the bright, superficial pop of the 1920s with any kind of intelligence. Whether that says more for Suede or for Coward, I’m not sure; but go ahead; give it a listen.
16. Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel No. 1”
Victor 21142, 1927
Forget about the “father of country music” stuff. Sure, he consolidated a bunch of different traditions and more or less created the extravagant vocal template that would define country music for three generations, from Hank Williams to Dwight Yoakam. Forget about the biographical details, the fact that he was slowly dying of tuberculosis even as he auditioned for Ralph Peer and had to make do with just himself and his guitar when his band left him just before the recording session, the fact that he’d been chasing the entertainment pot of gold for most of his young, fragile life and that when at last all his dreams came true (when this song sold half a million copies in two years) and he became the biggest thing in music south of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi bar none, he was thirty years old and had only five years left to live. Forget about the fact that in its chords and structure this is fundamentall a blues, and everything that that means, that country and blues were never much different under the skin, it was just in the interests of the powerful to keep ’em separated and that it didn’t matter, the music would find each other anyways and rock & roll would happen despite the best efforts of marketing departments over the decades to keep the race and hillbilly markets from contaminating each other. Forget even about that sound after every verse, the one that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up if you hear it in the right frame of mind and at the proper volume, what Bob Dylan called “that infamous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind.” Forget all about that. Just listen to those lyrics, man. “Gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I’m tall; gonna shoot poor Thelma just to see her jump and fall.” “Going where the water tastes like cherry wine.” “Rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log, than to be in
15. The Broadway Nitelites, “Thou Swell”
(Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)
Columbia 1187D, 1928
The Broadway Nitelites were one of several aliases for the band led by second-generation Russian immigrant Ben Selvin, by some counts the most recorded bandleader of the 78rpm era, and one of the most influential men in the industry for most of the century. In the late teens, Paul Whiteman sponsored a contest (which was more about publicity than reality) to find a new, better, whiter name for the crass, ugly, black “jazz” (or “jass”). The resulting list of newly-minted nomenclature is an artifact of hilarity, but probably the best representative, both for period flavor and to give some idea of what the vast majority of people wanted jazz to be, is “Synco-Pep.” (Idea stolen, as is much else in this list, from David Wondrich.) Selvin’s band was a pretty lousy jazz band, but they were a pretty great Synco-Pep band, with a string of mildly exciting dance hits that borrowed a certain velocity and rhythmic focus from jazz, if nothing more. “Thou Swell” is one of the great Rodgers & Hart love songs, a giddy rush of cod-archaisms laced with “modern” slang that had me convinced for a while that “thou swell, thou witty” must have been a steal from Shakspeare, possibly in the dialogue between Beatrice and Benedick; finding entirely sensible rhymes for “lollapalooza” and “kitchen” are among the least of its charms. The song was the crowning glory of a musical adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (it’s not in the pretty shitty movie version), but its greatest interpretation would come some thirty years later, when Joe Williams sang a furiously-rocking version with the Count Basie band. But this one is okay, too, with the vocal refrain delivered by Franklyn Baur, a moderately popular tenor of the period who retired in 1930 when he failed to cut it as a concert vocalist before even reaching thirty himself. But listen for the handclaps; even with the recording limitations of the era, you can tell the difference between when the hands hit their mark and when they were just a little bit off. If you can’t find those kind of flaws endearing, maybe listening to this stuff isn’t for you. Wait, how did you even get here?
14. Uncle Dave Macon, “Old Dan Tucker”
Vocalion 5061, 1925
1843 is as good as any year for the invention of rock & roll, and better than some. That was the year that the Virginia Minstrels — Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower — gave their first performance on a stage in
13. Pinetop Smith, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie”
Vocalion 1245, 1928
“Don’t move a peg!” Barking orders like he’s at a noisy rent party in the south side of Chicago, and then just letting the notes trickle and fall out of the piano, with that steady, pumping left-hand rhythm rocking and rolling till doomsday, Clarence “Pinetop” Smith ushers in the modern world, or a piece of it. No, he wasn’t the first to play boogie woogie, or maybe he was, God only knows and the dull, argumentative years when every step of everything would be recorded for all posterity were not yet foreseeable — there’s not even an extant photo of the man, those are Pinetop Perkins’ hands — but he named it, and he played it like a demon, and you can hear Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and even a silly synth-pop song like Daniel Amos’s “Dance Stop” in it. Boogie-woogie, for those who can’t imagine anything being interesting before the distortion pedal, was a souped-up style of blues piano playing that relied on a steady, rocking beat in the bass hand while a lively counterpoint was played with the right; unlike stride, it was never so much a technical showcase as a dance music. Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson are generally recognized as the greatest boogie-woogie players, but only because Pinetop was (probably accidentally) shot dead in a bar fight before he could record his second session. (I mean, what the fuck, people?) The style gained national prominence slowly; but by the late 30s it was all the rage, and the big bands of World War II were as likely to be playing a brassy, orchestrated version of boogie-woogie as anything else. It didn’t so much fade in popularity as become transmuted into rock & roll via the aforementioned Charles, Lewis, John Lee Hooker and a cast of thousands, but that’s a story for another time. Right now, the girl with the red dress on is about to shake that thing, and this, you gotta see.
12. The Carter Family, “Wildwood Flower”
(Joseph Philbrick Webster/Maud Irving)
Victor 40000, 1928
Of course, not all country music came out of the dirty, disgusting, disreputable hackwork of minstrelsy or the uncouth, ushaven, untutored inspiration of folk music; a major strain of it came from exactly the sort of middle-class parlor songs and genteel Christian sentiments that everything else in American life, everything that’s made American music throb with such potency and kick with such orneriness, did its best to thumb its nose at. “Wildwood Flower” was written in 1860 by a pair of virtuous, stiff-collared, stiff-corseted and stiff-moralled Sunday School teachers to warn fair young maidens about the treacherous seas of manhood. (Okay, it’s slightly better than that, or no one anywhere would ever have sung it past 1903 or so. And Webster was actually a pretty decent melodist; several hymns he composed are still sung today.) And of course, by the time it got to the Carters it had been folkified somewhat: several of the purpler passages had been reanalyzed to fit the straitened circumstances of the Appalachian hills, where Sara Dougherty and Maybelle Addington learned it. Sara eventually married a low-level salesman and all-purpose scavenger of songs, A. P. Carter, whose brother Ezra married Maybelle, and A. P., always on the lookout for a good hustle, had the inspiration to form a musical group, the Carter Family, with Sara singing in a plainspoken alto that could break into silvery tones of unspeakable beauty at a moment’s notice, Maybelle playing guitar in a purposeful, self-taught fashion, and himself providing the material and occasional harmonies. They recorded for Ralph Peer at the same
11. Eva Taylor with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “I’m A Little Blackbird (Looking For A Bluebird)”
(George Meyer/Arthur Johnston/Grant Clarke/Roy Turk)
Okeh 40260A, 1924
10. Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Victor 21704, 1928
Apparently there have been other recorded versions of this song; I can’t imagine why. From the moment I heard its opening notes over the credits of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which I had dragged my brothers to see simply because the title was a Sullivan’s Travels reference), I knew I was in the presence of a unique and self-sufficient work of American art. McClintock’s voice, humorous but set at a patient, hardwon distance, the simple guitar figure, and the lyrics of the song itself — if he didn’t write it (and there’s no real evidence either way, as naturally there wouldn’t be for a hobo song), somebody with a genius talent for choosing the right image for the meaning at hand did — conspire to create something preternaturally accessible to even a modern audience yet tough enough to withstand repeated exposure to critical ears. I’m told it’s become something of a children’s song over the past several years, but that just irritates, because leaving out the cigarette trees and streams of alcohol (can’t let our children entertain the notion that people enjoy, or even engage in smoking and drinking, the horror) leaves out something crucial in this hobo’s Paradise, and even violates its spirit. The
9. Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra, “Riverboat Shuffle”
(Hoagy Carmichael/Dick Voynow/Irving Mills)
Okeh 40822, 1927
This is the record that made me understand jazz. Partly because its sections and the development of the themes are so obvious that even an ignoramus like me can figure out to what’s going on, but also partly because of the imagination, freedom, and wit of the playing. This was the greatest collection of white jazz players in the early history of the form, and obviously not to take away anything from the black men (and women) who developed, and were still developing, jazz, but it was also one of the most forward-thinking jazz groups in the country, at least for a while. The guy with his name on the session, Trumbauer was one of the most influential saxophone players of his generation, an inspiration to Lester Young among others; you can hear him on the second primary solo playing a C melody saxophone, which is somewhere between the usual alto and tenor saxes. Bix Beiderbecke, his friend and close associate — they’d come up through the same Midwestern white jazz circles and routinely played together on record and in larger orchestras like Whiteman’s — plays cornet and takes the first primary solo, where his delicate phrasing and the way he seems to be playing in a less headlong, more thoughtful song than the rest of the band comes as a stroke of genius among the rest of the hot, caterwauling clatter. Eddie Lang (who else?) is the one taking those guitar breaks up top, and outdoing himself in the process, and Bill Rank is the trombonist who takes a couple of brief spots. The band is rounded out by Irving Riskin on piano, Chauncey Morehouse on drums, and there may possibly be (I can’t quite tell) a clarinet (Don Murray) and/or an alto sax (Doc Ryker) in there as well. A lot of credit goes to Bix, who arranged his buddy Hoagy Carmichael’s tune — very nearly the first thing he’d ever written — with a keen sense of stop-start dynamics and a highly developed sense of space. Jazz was edging into sophistication here, which the big band era would develop more fully, concurrently with the small-combo ethos that would more or less set the tone for the remainder of the music’s history.
8. Gene Austin, “My Blue Heaven”
(Walter Donaldson/George Whiting)
Victor 20964A, 1927
I can no longer remember where I read the postulation that “My Blue Heaven” is not a song about conventional domestic bliss, but about a ménage à trois (it requires a frankly peculiar reading of “just Molly and me, and Baby makes three”), but now I can’t get it out of my head whenever I listen to the song. The one positive effect it has is that it turns Gene Austin’s somewhat drippy delivery into something effortlessly sly; he now has the sound of a guy getting away with something. But. Anyway. This recording of “My Blue Heaven” was the biggest-selling pop smash of its era, selling over twenty million copies by some estimates (though as ever, others disagree). The Texas-born Austin, who ran away to join vaudeville in his teens and whose light, clear tenor was credited by (among others) Bing Crosby with beginning the crooner revolution, found himself suddenly rich. He bought a custom-built yacht, named it the My Blue Heaven, and promptly got caught up in a hurricane on its maiden voyage; the press reports of his death in the the storm sent the sales of his latest hit skyrocketing. They didn’t slow down when he returned, only slightly the worse for wear, after having listened to several hours of his obituary on the ship’s radio while drinking steadily and trying to keep his pregnant wife out of hysterics. (God, I love a good anecdote.) But for our purposes, neither his personal drama nor any after-the-fact imputations about the song really matter: what does matter is the wordless warble he takes in the middle of the song, and we can see now how deeply jazz had soaked into the collective unconscious of popular entertainment. Gene Austin was the stuffiest, squarest popular singer around (unless you count holdovers from the wax-cylinder era like the ubiquitous and godawful Billy Murray, or Classical Voices like John McCormack), and even he couldn’t help throwing a little swerve — a tad unimaginative perhaps, but serviceable — into his delivery of a standard-issue Tin Pan Alley bit of fluff. And then the producers go ahead and overdo it by tacking on a bit of fake birdsong onto the last chorus, which sure, it points to the future of artificial sound in pop music, Joe Meek and Jack Nietzsche and Timbaland passim. It’s the biggest pop song of the decade, and the rules of pop it follows are already clearly recognizable even today.
7. The Masked Marvel, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”
Paramount 12805B, 1929
Charley Patton (I’m going with record-label convention on this, though apparently he spelt it “Charlie”) was about two generations too late to be the first bluesman, but he’s closer to our modern conception of the bluesman than anyone else who’s appeared on this list so far: a poor black man from the Mississippi Delta who developed a method of slide guitar that is as much about piercing attack as about mournful grace — the flip side of this record was called “Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues.” It’s no longer the showbiz blues of
6. Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, “Crazy Blues”
Okeh 4169, 1920
You’re not gonna believe this, but at one point in American history it was widely considered more appropriate for white women to pretend to be black and sing blues songs on record than for black women to sing them. The reasoning behind this is entirely unrecoverable today; apparently it had something to do with white women simply being better at singing, which just sounds stupid in a post-Ella, post-Aretha, post-Mariah world, but the Jim Crow atmosphere of the day was so thick with nonsense, lies and double-talk that it’s impossible to know what white people really believed versus what they just said because they held all the cards and didn’t have to think about it. Anyway, a hefty Jewish woman who called herself Sophie Tucker was by far the most popular of what they called “coon shouters” in the teens, a vaudeville headliner and sex symbol — or symbol of female sexuality, which isn’t really the same thing — whose size and broadly exaggerated style of showmanship could be safely laughed at. She had had a massive hit with a song by an African-American gentleman named Shelton Brooks, “Some Of These Days,” and her recording company was eager to have her repeat the success; they scheduled studio time for her and another young black songwriter, Perry Bradford, who had had a moderately successful Harlem musical and might be on the cusp of breaking big. But Tucker had to cancel at the last minute, and
5. Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon Blues”
Okeh 8759, 1928
I don’t think there is, or can be, a vernacular musician as beloved, or as lovable, as John Hurt. His placid, thoughtful songs, with an amazingly sophisticated and lyrical fingerpicking style and gentle, unhurried singing, are among the treasures of American music, not to mention the blues. He chanced into recording in 1928, when a friend he sometimes played with recommended him to a talent scout for Okeh records. He recorded eight sides, only two of which were issued, but apparently did well enough to make a trip to
4. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, “West End Blues”
(Joe Oliver/Louis Armstrong/Clarence Williams)
Okeh 8579, 1928
And jazz enters the thirties. Armstrong achieves the next step in the music’s evolution simply by slowing down the tempo of King Oliver’s original composition named for the West End of New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain, where dance pavilions, lake resorts and seafood restaurants had employed many an early jazz musician in the summer months, and then playing in a relaxed, nuanced fashion that on that last solo can take your breath away with its clarity and sensitivity. Though most of the attention given to the song tends to focus on the opening solo, an unpredictable volley of notes halfway between a cavalry bugle and a boot-scootin’ boogie, and which gave the first faint echo of jazz players’ willingness to depart not only from the original melody of a song (that is jazz) but even from its harmonic foundation. Without that solo, there’s no Charlie Parker, no John Coltrane, no Ornette Coleman, no Miles Davis; in other words, no jazz at all in the way we’ve come to understand the word. But it’s the closer-to-home innovations that interest me more: the light, airy touch of the main piece itself, the thoughtful, considered playing. It’s worlds away from the all-velocity, all-noise hot jazz that made Armstrong’s name, and the name of jazz itself even before that, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer hot. It’s a slow, sexy grind rather than a wham bam thank you ma’am, and it can get under your skin even more. This was the second version of the Hot Five that Louis Armstrong had put together (I used a picture of the first), with Earl Hines on piano delivering a wise, impressionistic solo and Jimmy Strong pacing Armstrong’s soft scatting with a dark liquid clarinet in the second chorus. Drummer Zutty Singleton’s woodblocks get the last word on the song and leaven it througout with an impish humor, and Mancy Carr’s banjo and Fred Robinson’s trombone do most of the rhythmic work, Robinson actually functioning as the bassist would in decades to come. Really, about half this list could have been Armstrong performances, and I’m not entirely comfortable with having this and “Heebie Jeebies” as the only ones with him as a leader — he’s frankly the most important figure in twentieth-century music, bar none — but then again I’m primarily a pop listener, not primarily a jazz listener, and I’m swimming in waters slightly too deep for me as it is.
3. Cliff Edwards, “Fascinating Rhythm”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Pathé 25126, 1924
We’ve mentioned the 1924 George Gershwin show Lady, Be Good! in this space before (#63, for those who’d rather not use search engines). The book of that musical was written by Guy Bolton of the
2. Bessie Smith, “St. Louis Blues”
(W. C. Handy)
Columbia 3171D, 1925
Nearing the end of the list, it’s time to step back and take a look at music as a whole in the 1920s. Like every other era, music during this decade of Prohibition and Babbitt, of Gertrude Stein and Buster Keaton, was fragmented, polarized, and difficult to get a grasp on as a whole. One significant trend, however, draws our attention in a meaningful way, a trend which can only grow in relevance as the century gathers speed. That is the rise of the vernacular, a fact as important to American music, society, and culture as the increasing influence of vernacular languages in
1. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Black Beauty”
Victor 21580, 1928
I’ve talked a lot on this list about a relatively obscure figure in the music of the decade — obscure today, that is, relative to how much influence she actually had. Florence Mills is forgotten today because she didn’t record, because she never stepped in front of a rolling camera, because she died young on the brink of the Crash and everything she fought for — mainstream acceptance of talented black entertainers, intellectuals, and artists — was forgotten in the general panic and struggle to survive that followed. But she was loved, admired, and reverenced in her day by audiences black and white, critics high and low, and entertainers everywhere, many of whom never had anything good to say about anyone else but her. For some years now, I’ve wanted to write her biography and get it out in front of people who think they know all about the period but don’t know about her . . . a biography that would take in a great deal of the social, cultural, musical, theatrical, and political milieu of her life. (A real, scholarly biography already exists.) I’ve done more research into her life than I’ve ever done for anything else. But for now, this skimpy list, and its logorrheic pronouncements on all things under the sun, will have to do. I bring all this up because in January 1943, when Duke Ellington played a special engagement at Carnegie Hall, he presented a collection of separate pieces as “portraits” of legendary black entertainers. One was of Bert Williams; another of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; both were new works, written explicitly for the occasion. The title of the third piece was given in the program as Portrait of Florence Mills. But it was a scaled-up arrangement of a tune that Duke and his band had been playing for fifteen years — they had first recorded it under the title “Black Beauty” on
A brief bibliography and discography. Anything interesting, provocative, or true I may have said was said first by someone else (everything dumb or factually incorrect was all mine), and credit must be rendered where credit is due. In order of influence:
- David Wondrich, Stomp And Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924
- Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird
- Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts
- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather
- Bill Egan,
Mills: Florence HarlemJazz Queen
- Ethan Mordden, Make Believe: The Broadway Musical In The 1920s
- Wilfrid Sheed, The House That George Built
- P. G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, Bring On The Girls!
- Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel
In The 1920s Manhattan
- American Pop, An Audio History From Minstrel To Mojo, ed. Allen Lowe
- The Anthology Of American Folk Music, ed. Harry Smith
- Rhapsodies In Black: Music And Words From The
HarlemRenaissance, ed. Rhino Records
- Comprehensive reissue efforts by labels like Document,
Yazoo, Archeophone, , and Classics. Pearl
- Various single-disc songwriter tributes from ASV/Living Era.
And so to bed.