100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #90-81.

Gertrude Lawrence
90. Gertrude Lawrence, “Do, Do, Do”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Victor 20331, 1926 · mp3
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 Oklahoma! in 1943, musicals are meant to be larger-than-life, often tragic, but certainly chock full of realistic psychology and grand gestures and that enemy of great pop, significance. (Or, these days, an adaptation of a Mel Brooks or Monty Python movie. Musical theater can hardly hold on to any identity post-2000.) But musical comedy, which had its heyday between 1910 and 1940, deserves and rewards closer attention. The form came out of operetta, a lighter, frequently comic version of opera imported from Europe, but was modernized and perfected during the first World War in small, fast-paced, unpretentious shows composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and scripts by Guy Bolton in the tiny Princess Theater off Broadway. Wodehouse and Kern’s brisk, melodic songs and witty, intricately-rhymed lyrics influenced later master songwriters like Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and — yes — the Gershwins profoundly. It can’t be overemphasized that this was a transatlantic phenomenon: Wodehouse and Bolton were both British-born, and Kern shuttled between Broadway and the West End for decades. The stories were never much: a boy, a girl, a complication, a happy ending. It was the snappy patter from the comic actors and the melodic showcases of the singers and dancers that mattered, and more importantly for the purposes of us who weren’t there on opening night, what they were able to do with the songs on records. The reason this song is here, rather than the more longer-lasting hit of the show (“Someone To Watch Over Me”) is the way Lawrence plays with the childlike repetition of Ira’s lyrics towards the end: an aristocratic English actress best known today for originating the I in The King And I, she tries to go blues-mama with it and sounds instead like she’s purring. Musical comedy always resists being taken too seriously.

Sissle & Blake
89. Noble Sissle, “Love Will Find A Way”
(Eubie Blake/Noble Sissle)
Emerson 10604, 1921 · mp3
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.

Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers
88. Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, “Hell’s Broke Loose In Georgia”
(The Skillet Lickers)
Columbia 15516D, 1929 · mp3
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 Bristol recording sessions (Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family) which supposedly birthed modern country music were fiddle-free. The Skillet Lickers did contain two virtuosos, however: the blind guitarist Riley Puckett, and the fiddler Clayton McMichen, who here duets with Tanner in a way that recalls either Duane and Dickie or Thin Lizzy, depending on your 70s guitar-hero preferences. Tanner was a farmer for most of his life, before, during, and after his fairly brief recording celebrity; his true musical home was Georgia fairs and fiddlers’ conventions, where his comic showmanship could trump his limited talent with the violin; the year before he recorded this, he’d won the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers Championship.

Emmett Miller
87. Emmett Miller, “Lovesick Blues”
(Cliff Friend)
Okeh 41062, 1928 · mp3
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.

Sexteto Nacional
86. Sexteto Nacional, “Siboney”
(Ernesto Lecuona)
Columbia 3202-X, 1928 · mp3
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.

Eddie Condon Quartet
85. Eddie Condon Quartet, “Indiana”
(Ballard MacDonald/Jack Hanley)
Columbia 35950, 1928 · mp3
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.

George Gershwin
84. George Gershwin, “Sweet And Low Down”
(George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin)
Columbia, 1926 · mp3
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.

Carolina Tar Heels
83. The Carolina Tar Heels, “Peg And Awl”
Victor 40007, 1928 · mp3
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.

Maurice Chevalier
82. Maurice Chevalier, “Louise”
(Leo Robin/Richard Whiting)
Victor 21918, 1929 · mp3
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.

Helen Morgan
81. Helen Morgan, “Bill”

(Jerome Kern/P. G. Wodehouse/Oscar Hammerstein II)
Victor 21238, 1928 · mp3
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.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #100-91.

Al Jolson
100. Al Jolson, “Swanee”
(George Gershwin/Irving Caesar)
Columbia A-2884, 1920 · mp3
The first thing a modern listener has to deal with is the blackface. And I do mean listener: even without the noxious imagery of white men smearing commercial blacking on their faces in order to represent a travesty of African humanity, the racism remains embedded in every word, practically in every note of the song. Which wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to a contemporary of Jolson’s (but then, the racism of our own time goes generally unremarked too) — you have to know minstrel-song conventions from Stephen Foster and beyond to know that the Suwanee River in southern Georgia was mythologized in the nineteenth century as a place of nostalgic longing for blacks displaced (you know, emancipated) by abolitionists and the Civil War. Which is hateful, yes; but the thing about pop is how it collapses boundaries and conflates disparate ideas. The Swanee became a kind of shorthand for any kind of nostalgia in the national immagination: it was Eire for Irish immigrants, Sicily for Italians, Jerusalem for Jews. And the man who wore blackface in order to be more fully a Jew on Broadway, Al Jolson, was the ideal figure to introduce the first noteworthy song by a kid who played jazz in order to be more fully a Jew in the concert hall, George Gershwin. By 1920, Jolson was the undisputed king of popular culture: his foghorn voice and unflagging energy on stage perfectly matched the larger-than-life, tirelessly productive image America had of itself following the First World War. It’s instructive to compare a contemporary performance of Stephen Foster’s lugubrious, stately “Old Folks At Home” (which introduced the Swanee myth in 1851) with Jolson’s “Swanee” — the difference is pure galvanic energy. Sure, journeyman lyricist Caesar’s chorus says he’s going back to Swanee, but he sounds more like he’s just conquered the Great White Way. Even the “I love the old folks at home” line, which quotes Foster’s melody, is goosed into something approaching jazz. It’s the difference between Vic Damone and Jerry Lee Lewis: one is syrupy, sentimental, and ultimately negligible; the other moves like it’s got something to lose.

Elders McIntorsh & Edwards’ Sanctified Singers
99. The Elders McIntorsh & Edwards Sanctified Singers, “Since I Laid My Burden Down”
Okeh 8698, 1928 · mp3
It’s kind of a shame that this is going to be the only real example of gospel music on the list; especially in America, religious feeling has had a profound impact on popular music, from spirituals to Sufjan Stevens. But we’re all trapped in our own history, and pop is as secular a construct as there can be these days. Just remember it wasn’t always that way. This particular song sounds shockingly modern, however: the shouting and hollering isn’t very far removed from the Stax-Volt catalogue, and the sheer forward momentum of the performance, especially the way it picks up ecstatic, fervent speed as it continues, is pert’ damn near garage-rock levels. But funky, too: the way the guitar and tambourine play off the rhythm of the vocal lines leaves open-ended beats that invite the listener to dance as David did before the ark of the Lord. And then there’s the basic, repetitive lyric; it feels closer in some ways to the overwhelming crescendos of Sufi mysticism than to anything that people wear collars and ties to do. This recording, and ones like it that were captured in the Memphis area in the late 20s, represent something new under the sun: black gospel music has moved out from under the staid choir robes of the spiritual and the smothering intensity of the white tradition (though of course Sacred Harp singing has its own unearthly power), and borrows from the work chants and hollers of the field that were always one of the most deeply African things about African-American music. McIntorsh and Edwards, singers and guitarists, were elders of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal African-American denomination, and are accompanied here by Sister Bessie Johnson (the one with the deep, dark growl of a voice) and Melinda Taylor, two Memphis-area gospel belters who also recorded with the Memphis Sanctified singers. The deep ecstasy of their performances, and those of their sisters and brothers all across the South, utterly transformed American singing. Anytime someone is said to sing with passion, it’s because they sound, consciously or not, like a black gospel singer.

Clarence Ashley
98. Clarence Ashley, “The Coo Coo Bird”
Columbia 15489D, 1929 · mp3
“The coo coo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies,” goes one of hundreds of lines that Bob Dylan has lifted from Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. (Some people think Ashley sings “wobbles” — I think they’re nuts.) Smith’s Anthology neither conformed to the leftist ideology of the folk-music revivalists — every 78 he mastered his collection from had been commercially released, which meant (pace Adorno) it had been infected by capitalism’s virus — nor followed the rules of commercial distribution — he certainly didn’t get permission from any of the original record companies to reissue these twenty-year-old discs. Not that the companies cared much (then): by 1952, all these weird, forgotten pockets of ancient rural music had long since been wallpapered over by the New Deal, by World War II, by the Bomb. But then again, the narrative of primitive collectivism that the folkies told each other wasn’t any better. This song’s melody and lyrics may have their own tangled genealogy in British folk songs, sailor’s songs and the songs of the Appalachian hills where Ashley grew up singing and playing in medicine shows, but Ashley makes the song his own, from the purposeful, circular banjo figure that acts as our tour guide through the quiet, fractured imagery of the verses, to the voice that plays it so close to the vest that the cuckoo could just as easily be the winged soul of a dead child as an auspice of doom — or a bird of paradise. Even more importantly, it’s almost impossible to find a version of this song that doesn’t owe something to this recording. That’s because of the cultural capital of Harry Smith’s anthology, to be sure: but Smith’s anthology drew its own cultural capital from unblinking, granite performances like this one.

Victoria Spivey
97. Victoria Spivey, “My Handy Man”
(Andy Razaf)
Okeh 8615, 1928 · mp3
And we pay our first visit to the blues. Or one variant thereof, anyway; “blues” in the 1920s didn’t necessarily mean twelve-bar, one line repeated twice and followed by a third rhyming line, black-man-and-his-guitar music. It meant many things, though it’s worth remembering that it always meant black. The first blues song (arguably; ain’t nothing not arguable in the history of black music from gullah to crunk) to be published, and therefore the first blues in the historical record, was W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” in 1912. Obviously it was being played for a long while before that; there are descriptions of music that it’s hard to hear as anything but the blues from at least the 1880s, and of course ethnomusicologists have traced roots back to West Africa (as of what have they not?), but our first real contact with it, as a nation at the time and as explorers looking back today, is as show business. Show business that was left to women, for the most part: because the blues didn’t just mean black, it also meant sex (there’s a nasty grind inherent in the music, or you’re playing it wrong), and White America had a real problem with allowing black men to be sexual, up till ’bout James Brown, really. Black women, on the other hand — hell, it’s a double standard, maybe even a quadruple standard, and black women always end up with the shit end of the stick no matter what, so at least goddamn let them sing about it. Victoria Spivey was one of many vaudevillians/blueswomen/early jazz singers/prostitutes (depending on your definition) who ended up with record deals in the 1920s, and here she’s fronting a mixed-race band (the pianist and bandleader, Clarence Williams, was black; the guitarist, Eddie Lang, was white; we’ll meet both of them again) while getting away with a laundry list of euphemisms for the Deed Itself. There’s a sweet quality to her voice (on her first record, she’s listed as V. Spivey, Contralto) that doesn’t jibe with our modern understanding of the blues, but the blues wasn’t quite differentiated from jazz, and jazz wasn’t quite differentiated from regular pop yet either. But ain’t no one being fooled when she simpers about how her man can trim her lawn, churn her butter, fill her icebox, inter alia. While black women were mostly valued by the white male world as cheap labor and sexual objects, a surprising amount of them took the chance to position themselves as the beneficiaries of sexual gratification; the Sexual Revolution may have grabbed headlines in the 60s and 70s, but it really got going here.

Frankie Crumit
96. Frank Crumit, “Mountain Greenery”
(Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)
Victor 20124, 1926 · mp3
The Great American Songbook is both a national treasure and something of an embarrassment. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beautiful, inventively written, sophisticated, and instantly memorable songs are included in it, songs that are as deservedly deathless as any work made by human ingenuity, Shakespeare, Bach and Michelangelo included. But the phrase itself is a mausoleum, manufactured nostalgia for people who aspire to the condition of yuppiehood, and all told maybe a quarter of the songs that deserve to be known are in fact known by anyone but sheet-music obsessives. Case in point. Written in only the second year of the Rodgers/Hart partnership (their first year produced the brow-of-Jupiter perfection “Manhattan,” of which I haven’t been able to find a single vocal recording produced before 1935), this is a sprightly, kicky little composition with a more solid harmonic structure than just about any sprightly, kicky little pop song of the 20s not written by George Gershwin or Cole Porter. Then there’s one of Hart’s least-complicated lyrics (emotionally, anyway; anyone who can find five — count ’em, five — rhymes for “greenery” is a fricking savant), about the joys of a summer home upstate, written merely to be sung by a slim young man and chorus of pretty girls in front of a clever tableau. The slim young man, by the way, was Sterling Holloway, remembered today as the voice of Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh, in the Garrick Gaieties revue of 1926. (Revue: a stage show without a plot, merely an excuse to throw songs, dances, comedians, and bucketloads of pretty girls at an enthusiastic audience and show off one’s costuming and design staff, too. The annual Ziegfeld Follies were the origin and apex of the form; the Garrick Gaieties were on a much less lavish scale, but then Ziegfeld never had a team on the level of Rodgers & Hart writing songs for him.) Frank Crumit was a vaudeville singer and ukulele player (he strums a bit here) who was perhaps ideally suited to sing a song this light and winsome without making it cloying: as befits a ukulele player, he makes it all about rhythm without quite being a jazz singer. That’s okay; not even Ella Fitzgerald managed to pull it off so easily.

Edith Day
95. Edith Day, “Alice Blue Gown”
(Harry Tierney/Joseph McCarthy)
Victor 45176, 1920 · mp3
This is probably the kind of song that’s least easy to get for the average music listener of 2007: a sentimental (but not by the standards of the day!) song about childhood that was written for a musical comedy (but not as we understand the term!) sung in a style which we associate more with classical music than with pop (but they didn’t make that mistake back then!). Maybe you have to be something of a theater nerd — or even an opera nerd, these days — to really appreciate this song on its merits, but here goes: the show Irene was produced in 1919, and at the time was the longest-running show in Broadway history; 675 performances, which is puny by Lloyd Webber, or even Rodgers & Hammerstein, standards. It was a comedy about an ordinary girl thrust into the world of high fashion (yeah, like The Devil Wears Prada, only the Meryl Streep role was played by an, ahem, flamboyant man), and “Alice Blue Gown” is the number where the ordinary girl, Irene a.k.a. Edith Day, tells about the only encounter with fashion she’s ever had: a deeply uncool by 1919 standards dress in a color named for Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s wife), which “wore, and it wore, and it wore/Till it went, and it wore no more.” (Yes, that’s meant for cleverness. You should hear the 1919 competition.) It’s both a fond look back at her childhood, and a moment that reveals how poor her family was — the last lines are “though it wouldn’t fit mother/It made a shirtwaist for brother/My sweet little Alice blue gown.” Since she ends up marrying the son of a fashion tycoon (spoiler!), it’s not a heavy moment or anything, but it’s lighter in mood and in tone than our ears are trained to hear. The stately pace, the plummy soprano, and what you can hear of the orchestration through the fog of 1920 recording technology all scream “lugubrious ballad” to our ears, but it was really the hit of the show, the one people whistled on their way out. Jazz and music inspired by jazz would make this sort of thing obsolete within a half-decade, but this is sort of the last hurrah for “straight” music before syncopation gave Broadway a kind of blackface it would almost never take off again. (For the terminally curious, a 1936 radio adaptation of Irene can be found here.)

Chubby Parker
94. Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie-Ki-Me-O”
Columbia 15296D, 1928 · mp3
There isn’t, I’d venture to say, much that Bruce Springsteen and Walt Kelly, one of the three presiding geniuses of midcentury newspaper cartooning*, have in common, but there is this: they’ve both done versions of this song, Springsteen on last year’s Seeger Sessions (as “Froggie Went A-Courtin’), and Kelly in The Pogo Stepmother Goose. Springsteen, following Pete Seeger’s classicist-blues version, merely repeats each line, followed by “uh-huh,” and Kelly mashes it up with a Mother Goose rhyme: “with a Rowley, Powley, Gammon and Spinach/Heigh-ho for Anthony Rowley!” (which he probably borrowed from Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel), but I think I like Parker’s nonsense scatting the best. “King kong kitchie kitchie ki-me-o” may not mean anything, but the appearance of the phrase “king kong” five years before Merian C. Cooper’s godfather of all monster movies is slightly unnerving anyway. Not, I imagine, that WWI aviator and Hollywood bigshot Cooper had a copy of a record by one of the lesser-known regulars on WLS’s “The National Barn Dance” out of Chicago — or even that there was some little-known underground meaning of the nonce word “kong” that happened to surface at these two wildly disparate points. It’s just weird, is all. Parker has all the genial ease of a professional entertainer here — his other big hit was “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” (see a pattern?), but without any of the creepy paternalism of someone like Burl Ives. He doesn’t care if you like his song; he’s just happy to be singing it, and every time he hits the “way down yonder in a holler tree” line, I for one am right there with him. Yeah, that frog’s been going a-courtin’ since at least Shakespeare’s day and probably lots earlier, but I don’t know that I ever cared except when listening to Parker.

*The other two are Al Capp and Milt Caniff, as if you didn’t know.

Johnny Dunn
93. Johnny Dunn, “Johnny Dunn’s Cornet Blues”
(Johnny Dunn)
Columbia 124D, 1924 · mp3
Let’s talk about jazz. Not the “origins” of jazz; that old song and dance (New Orleans; Storyville; brass bands; funeral marches yadda yadda) has been sung and danced for everyone who cares to hear and see it by now. But what jazz is. Or at least what it was, way back here in the primordial muck of the stuff. Jazz came out of ragtime, sure as anything came out of anything; without syncopation you’ve got nothing but instrumental muscle, just the ususal old farting around on trumpets that John Phillips Sousa’s boys could have played. And jazz came out of the blues, sure as ears can hear a flatted fifth; without the blues it’s nothing but a white man’s borrowed hustle, something George M. Cohan could set a little patriotic patter to. Blues + ragtime = jazz might be a little simplistic for, say, John Coltrane fans, but for the purposes of getting Johnny Dunn it’ll do just fine. Dunn came up through black vaudeville (segregation meant blacks even had their own vaudeville circuit, the Theater Owners’ Booking Association, or Tough On Black Asses), a jive and patter man who could throw a little swerve into the foxtrot. Maybe the first instrumental star before Louis Armstrong, or at least the first on record (the usual genuflections: Buddy Bolden never recorded, Freddie Keppard not until it was too late). He also organized the first black jazz ensemble to cut a record, which we will be visiting later on in this list. He also co-starred in several revues with a young lady named Florence Mills who we will also be visiting, if more obliquely, later on. And here he makes a curiously minimalist jazz record, at least for 1924. Jazz on record was still in thrall to the Original Dixieland Jass Band — a bunch of white dudes playing a garage-rock version of jazz, the same way every time — or to Paul Whiteman, the supper-club jazz king. Either way, it was big and noisy, something white people can laugh at, or big and mellow, something white people can dance to. But this is spare, lean; you can hear every instrument keeping the groove, and Dunn riffing on top of it. It’s not made for whites at all, and not even really for dancing, though it’s a modified tango. It’s a showcase, and the seeds of jazz past, present, and future are sown.

Andrés Segovia
92. Andrés Segovia, “Recuerdos De La Alhambra”
(Francisco Tárrega)
HMV, 1927 · mp3
Like just about every virtuoso since the dawn of time, Segovia was an arrogant and blinkered prima donna: one of his primary goals in life, he said was to “extract the guitar from the noisy and disreputable folkloric amusements.” This was in 1969, folks; he’s talkin’ ’bout “All Along The Watchtower,” “Dazed And Confused,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But then you hear him play, and you hear his point: you don’t need Eddie Van Halen’s tapping machines when you can use the tremolo technique with such jawdropping speed and precision, not to mention passion. Tárrega’s composition “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” is a dense cobweb of notes, a Spanish version of Proust’s madeleines in which memory, longing, elegy, romance, and grace are delineated by the elegance of perfect discipline and a nearly superhuman sensitivity to the emotional currents of the chords. I’ve never wept at instrumental music — that’s just not how I respond — but this is one of the few pieces that I can imagine sobbing over. And the fact that it was captured at all (this is from his first recording session ever, in London) is astonishing to ears used to American pop of the period; British recording equipment and technicians were years ahead of the commercial outfits on the left side of the Atlantic. Segovia is famous as the man who cemented the guitar’s status as a classical instrument, but it’s not his pioneer status that gives him the right to sneer at the uses to which people outside the conservatory put the guitar — it’s his talent.

Ruth Etting
91. Ruth Etting, “Love Me Or Leave Me”
(Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn)
Columbia 1680D, 1928 · mp3
It’s like something out of a Damon Runyon story, only not quite as funny when it’s real life: wide-eyed, corn-fed Nebraska girl comes to the big bad city of Chicago, gets a job designing costumes at a nightclub, ends up singing and dancing on stage, marries a guy called (with a straight face) Moe the Gimp, a Jewish gangster with a talent for promotion, who intimidates show business managers into getting her on stage (debuts in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, is The Girl in shows starring Ed Wynn and Eddie Cantor, two of the hottest properties in the back half of the decade), on record (exclusive contract with Columbia), on radio (her own program), and in movies (once sound comes in). Once she’s on top of the world, she leaves him for her pianist, whom Moe the Gimp promptly shoots. The scandal ends her career. A year later, Moe’s back out on the streets. (The pianist survives, she marries him, they live in obscurity for another thirty years. Not a bad life as it turns out, but Runyon’s smarter than to give you that part.) And you kind of have to know all that to appreciate the song, which is otherwise just another two-bit torch song from a nice Midwestern girl playing a New York sophisticate. But with all the history under your belt, and the knowledge that this was her signature song, the title of her biopic (starring – urgh — Doris Day), she’s a tragic figure who sounds remarkably chipper despite it all: maybe the studio band took it too fast, but I like to think that it was Etting who refused to milk the tragedy. Runyon always said he never invented anything, just transcribed, and his stories are comic because the characters see themselves as playing in a comedy, even if they don’t like to let on.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, Prologue.

(I know I said there would be something else first, but it’s taking longer than I figured on, and I compiled this list relatively quickly.)

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.


Nothing here as of yet. My blog, such as it was, has died a natural death, and my comic strip is in a holding pattern until I can figure out if I ever want anyone to see it or not.

Still, stay tunedish.