" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Monday, September 11, 2017

NRR Project 38: 'After You've Gone'




‘After You’ve Gone’
Music: Turner Layton
Lyrics: Henry Creamer
Sung by Marion Harris
Recorded: October 18, 1918
3:22

“After You’ve Gone” represents a turning point. Up until it became a hit, “black” and “white” musics stayed in their respective corners. Bluesy music wasn’t even thought to be fit for recording. When it finally was, it was classified as fit only for “race records,” not for right-thinking Caucasians, who were still awash in sentimental ballads and waltz tunes. After it hit, the mainstream move away from the stilted, pallid songs of the day began in earnest, sparking the collective creation of the Great American Songbook.

The tune was composed by African-American vaudeville partners Layton and Creamer, who supplied many shows and revues around Manhattan with material – the Ziegfield Follies, for one. Though civil rights were still abysmal, finally black artists were finding their work valued. It gave them a toehold in the entertainment world that would lead to other opportunities.

The song is definitely built on a blues lament – it’s a classic you’ll-be-sorry-for-leaving-me song. The cadences are long and loping, with a series of descending chords that make the singer feel as though they’ve stepping down into the phrases. Meanwhile, the poignant runs up and down to the “gone” notes actually convey woefulness. Songwriting is starting not to tell but to show, to embody strong and intense emotion in the music itself, in compact unis, all tied together to reinforce an overarching theme. The architecture of pop is under invention.


The lyrics are direct and conversational, and reflect the growing idea in American songwriting that a song is personal, sung to an imaginary individual, instead of just belted out to the crowd. The song tells a story, and conveys a perspective – a two-minute miracle. This, along with a melody that welcomes harmony and variation, resulted in it being one of the most recorded standards ever.



The delivery of Marion Harris in this recording is stiff and polite. It would take the 1927 recordings made by Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Sophie Tucker (covered earlier her in the series) and Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to really give the material the swing and heft it deserves. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times, in all kinds of tempi and arrangements. It’s indestructible.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Tiger Rag. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

NRR Project 37: Early Heifetz recordings

Acoustic recordings
Jascha Heifetz, violin
53 sides recorded between Nov. 9. 1917 and Dec. 19, 1924

What would it be like to be the best ever at something? The epitome, the paragon, the pattern of perfection? It is painful, wonderful? Both? Is the expression of genius-level talent inevitable?

Case in point -- Jascha Heifetz. Born in Lithuania in 1901, he was the son of a violin teacher who noted his responsiveness to his playing in the child’s infancy. Lessons began at age 2, and his status as a prodigy spread quickly. By 1911, he was giving outdoor concerts in Odessa that drew thousands.

The looming Russian Revolution prompted the Heifetzes to flee the hard way – to the East, across Siberia and the Pacific to America. Heifetz’s appearance at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1917 electrified the musical world and led his lifetime recording relationship with Victor Records (later RCA).

The records in this selection were made over 16 sessions, all using the acoustic recording process. This literal analog method of reproduction was best for brass, all right for vocals, piano, and high-register strings – and deadly for many others without a crisp sound that cycled between 250 and 2500 Herz. Heifetz’s strength, speed, accuracy all come through loud and clear.






Heifetz’s preternatural technical skill meant that he could leap over the first and highest hurdle to instrumental mastery. (Yes, he practiced diligently nonetheless.) After a century of so of robust, flamboyant, and sentimental showmanship in violin soloists, Heifetz focused on eliminating all affectation – paring everything back to the notes on the page and how to express them as cleanly as possible. This led to accusations of robotic performances later in his career. However, it’s evident that he was merely locked into a laser-like intensity of focus that precluded excessive gestures.

The pieces recorded here are very much a part of the violin repertory of the time – concert pieces, many considered “light,” lyrical works by Sarasate, Paganini, transcriptions by Fritz Kreisler, the last of whom was the top-dog fiddler of the day. Heifetz subordinates himself to the needs of the piece he is playing rather than imposing a style. His dedication to clarity, clarity, clarity markedly narrowed the gap between the composers’ intents and the listeners’ ears.



The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: After You’ve Gone. 


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

NRR Project 36: 'Over There'

‘Over There’
Written by George M. Cohan
Singer: Nora Bayes
July 13, 1917
2:54

Evangelical interventionism.

This and other songs were part of a massive effort to turn a neutral U.S. population into one willing to send its sons off to die in a foreign war. It birthed the American Century, making the country a full-fledged major power. The repercussions were vast. Let’s break it down:

On November 7, 1916, Woodrow Wilson won his second term as U.S. president, in one of the closest contests in the history of the office. World War I had been raging since the summer of 1914, and Wilson’s campaign platform leaned hard on neutrality. “He kept us out of war” and “America First” were his slogans.

This was in keeping with America’s nominal isolationism. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 famously adjured the country not to involve itself in foreign affairs: "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?" The concept has been permanently misremembered as the “caution against entangling alliances,” but the idea is the same.

He hired George Edward Creel, a muckraking journalist, who founded the Committee on Public Information, a government-sponsored propaganda agency. It issued government press releases, produced "morale-lifting" materials, and enforced press censorship at the behest of the War Department.

The first nationwide effort to influence public opinion was massive and thorough. Instead of being presented as just another geopolitical conflict between yet another combination of nation-stats, entry into the War was portrayed as a new Crusade. It was "the War to End All Wars," the "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy." Through the press, posters, movies, radio, bond drives, public rallies, and songs, the CPI sold the war to the people.

Isolation and peace-mongering were tantamount to treason, and songs such "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" disappeared from the music-store racks.

We've met brash George M. Cohan before in this series (link here). "Over There" was his last and biggest hit, the epitome of his peppy style. Shortly after war was declared, he jotted it down. It's a perfect little marching song -- urgent, repetitious, catchy. The lyrics are a perfect evocation of the (manufactured) spirit of the day:

"Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Take it on the run, on the run,
Here them calling you and me, every son of liberty!
Hurry right away, don't delay, go today,
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line . . . .

Over there! Over there!
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere!
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word  to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back 'til it's over over there!"

It makes you want to sing along, march along, join in. It gives the unwary an image of war as a lark crossed with a divinely ordained mission. Cohan asked singing star Nora Bayes ("Shine On, Harvest Moon") to be the first to record it. He clear, strong, straightforward delivery is perfect.



The number of WWI songs is profuse. "Over There" is only  the best-known; others include gems such as "Hock the Kaiser," "Hello, Central, Give Me No Man's Land," and "If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Good Night Germany!" The mixture of martial ardor and rank sentiment is an appropriate disconnect for a war that was supposed to be fought for noble reasons, but wound up creating a "lost generation" of disabused humanity.

By June 26, 1917, th first U.S. troops arrived in Europe. Eventually, more than four million American men enlisted, and tow million served overseas. The conclusion of the war 18 months left America indisputably an international force.

Thee demonization of Germany and its culture affected many in the U.S. Steinbeck records the shunning his German-American family experienced by suspicious neighbors. My German-American grandfather joined the cavalry, and made it only as far as New York by Armistice Day. He still wound up changing the spelling of his funny-sounding name, and its pronunciation.



In terms of the nation's psyche, the repercussions were even greater. One of the CPI's young propagandists was Edward Bernays. He studied the propaganda efforts and decided that the same techniques could be applied to any situation requiring mass persuasion. He bcame the father of public relations, what he termed "regimenting the public mind." His offspring -- the advertising industry.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the early Heifetz recordings.