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
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.
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
87. Emmett Miller, “Lovesick Blues”
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.
86. Sexteto Nacional, “Siboney”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.