" . . . 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

Friday, July 22, 2016

NRR Project: Bert Williams and George Walker’s Victor releases

Victor recordings
Bert Williams and George Walker
Oct.-Nov. 1901; 1906
11 of 14 extant
The most masterful overview of the remarkable lives and careers of Bert Wheeler and George Walker can be found here, in a masterful,meticulous, and entertaining three-part examination by Jas Obrecht. For those unwilling to read his great non-fiction, here’s a summary.

The cakewalk was discussed by me previously here; and in thisentry from my National Film Project, I recently touched on the contributions Williams made. The important thing to remember is that these were the first African-American superstars. Their 1903 musical comedy “In Dahomey” was a hit, running for two years, and the first written and performed by African-Americans on Broadway.

Walker and Williams’ relations with the culture are complicated. On one hand, one of their gigs starting off was playing African villagers in animal skins; they were routinely rousted, robbed, and abused by white gangs as they traveled in vaudeville. Williams wore blackface, and both men housed their onstage personas in the racist stereotypes of the day – Williams as Jim Crow, the simpleton/stooge, and Wheeler as Zip Coon, the straight/con man who takes advantage of him.

Williams (left) and Wheeler in character, "In Dahomey."
Their immense popularity eventually gave them the power to move the needle a little bit. They had income and leverage, and they tried different media platforms. Ten of the 11 recordings they made were set down in 1901; four of them are from their hit Broadway show “Sons of Ham” the previous year. (“Pretty Desdamone” was a one-off in April of 1906; Walker didn’t like how his voice recorded and refused to do more.)

Some of the surviving selections are the typical ethnic “coon” or “darkie” songs of the day, sentimental tripe that paints the average African-American as a shambling comic figure. However, little gems such as the comic “(When It’s) All Going Out and Nothing Coming In” and the fanciful “In My Castle on the Nile” are charming and catchy. Despite Walker’s trepidations, his voice comes through cleanly n these recordings. However, Williams has an edge on him; he is much better able to project his persona and attitude through the medium. No wonder Walker took a pass. You can feel the energy and interplay on these discs, and get a sense of how appealing these two performers were.

In 1909, Walker began to suffer from the symptoms of syphilis. Two years later, he was dead, at the age of 38 or 39. Williams went on to even greater fame as a solo act, with song hits such as “Nobody” and “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” He died young himself, at 47, in 1922.

The achievements of Walker and Williams are impressive. Practically forgotten today, they were the first African-American superstars.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Canzone del Porter.'


1.      (When It’s) All Going Out and Nothing Coming In
2.      The Phrenologist Coon (From “Sons of Ham”)
3.      She’s Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day (From “Sons of Ham”)
4.      Good Afternoon, Mr. Jenkins (From “Sons of Ham”)
5.      In My Castle on the Nile
6.      I Don’t Like That Face You Wear
7.      Good Morning Carrie
8.      My Little Zulu Babe (From “Sons of Ham”)
9.      Her Name’s Miss Dinah Fair
10.  Junie

11.  Pretty Desdamone (1906)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Blowing up Grandma; or, the best Fourth ever

It looked something like this.
It wasn’t on purpose. We did not intend to blow her up. We loved Grandma, even though she wasn’t Nice Grandma. (Nice Grandma gave us candy and ice cream and Mountain Dew, the last of which she didn’t know was chock-full of caffeine. She couldn’t understand what was getting us ‘all whipped up.’)

Mean Grandma chain-smoked Pall Malls and pulled recalcitrant snakes that she found in her flower gardens in half with her bare hands. My sister woke up late one morning, and Mean Grandma made her eat pork chops for breakfast, a trauma that took her years from which to recover. Nobody messed with Mean Grandma.

We bloodthirsty devil-children loved fireworks. As soon as the seasonal entertainment-munitions tents were pitched by the roadside, we begged to be hauled to them. There our parents would fume as we ran crazily around the enclosure, evaluating the various Zebras, Black Cats, sparklers, snakes, smoke bombs, ground spinners, and Strobing Comet Candles, both on a per-piece basis and as weighed against the huge combo packages we could go in on together and divvy up later.

The hierarchy of fireworks was proportional to the danger they posed. Sparklers, snakes, and smoke bombs were for babies. Fountains and spinners were more our speed. We longed to dash back and forth from the middle of the street in front of our ranch house, wielding a smoldering punk just like the dads wielded their glowing cigarette butts in the night, lighting fuses and backpedaling, over and over again. Zippers were the best; they lit, spun, and then leaped into the air, increasing the odds of becoming lodged into our foreheads, and consequently more beloved.

The arsenal of choice consisted of masses of crisp, crackly packagings of pop-bottle rockets, so-called as they were cylinders of gunpowder stuck to long, thin sticks that were placed in soda-pop bottles and ignited. These could be launched for weeks before and after July 4; they were used for cross-yard wars, or shot at innocent younger siblings and other helpless animals.

We yearned to be driven north from Denver to nearby Wyoming, where explosives laws were lax and the “good stuff” could be gotten, beckoning just beyond that arbitrary, windswept border. There were the fabled M-80s. When we could get these high-powered explosives, we would use them to shoot coffee and pop cans into the sky, out in the fields and fields of unfinished suburban developments that surrounded us. We muttered darkly of one day blowing the lock on the local A & W and guzzling all the root beer we could.

The ultimate goal was, of course, to get the biggest, most beautiful, longest-lived fountain. We worked out way up to a grand finale, then hiked over the hill to see the city shoot off the big show. The year this happened, I believe I finally had a driver’s license, and had been saving my money from working at Taco Time. One afternoon, we ran up to wicked Cheyenne.

Now, I don’t remember seeing the words “mortar,” “aerial shell,” or “artillery” on the suspiciously large piece de resistance we splurged on. We set it out in line with the other pyrotechnical treats, all curated and choreographed to a nonce.

Grandma was none too sprightly by then. She was going on 80, and her reptile-dismembering day were behind her. Still, we exercised a respect tinged with fear. She insisted on being seating in a lawn chair at the end of the driveway, nearest the street, to not miss a second of the festivities.

The show progressed to the Big Finish. We set the monster out on the asphalt, and I lit the fuse. We stepped back briskly and lightly.

Then the most amazing bass CHUFF came out of the device, like it had just shat out a locomotive at top speed; like it was the Kaiser’s Paris Gun, flinging a quarter-ton into the air.

“RUN!” I yelled, and we turned as one, bolting up the driveway. Halfway to the front door, a deafening explosion rattled the area, a fantastic electric-blue burst that froze everything forever for that one second, us, the trees, the cars, our shadows that burst into life in front of us. Haloed in cobalt.

Only 50 feet above, like an enormous azure time-lapse dandelion, the obviously commercial-grade pineapple bloomed. The sparks lashed down at the surrounding roofs and ricocheted back into the sky.

The neighborhood was very quiet, save for the hysterical dogs. We peered nervously through the front door’s tiny diamond-shaped window. Then --

“Where’s Grandma?”

It would be great to pretend that she was sitting there, face comically smudged and smoke ascending from her hair. No. She was still sitting precisely as as she when we had abandoned her. She was just pissed.

She didn’t go with us to see the big fireworks display that year, either. She said she was tired.

Friday, July 1, 2016

NRR Project: Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls

Ragtime piano rolls
Scott Joplin
Seven recordings
One of the most cumbersome, expensive, and unique playback systems invented was the player piano. The idea of a full-sized instrument that could reproduce the playing of a human was in the air for decades, but remained unperfected until 1895. After that, it became enormously popular for a time, creating an industry that would last until the advent of electrical audio recordings in the mid-1920s improved sound playback on disc enormously, at a far more cost-effective rate.

The player piano works pneumatically; that is, through compressed air. Holes poked in a roll of paper correspond to notes played on the piano. When a hole is “read” by the mechanism, it shoots a burst of compressed air at the lever action that forces the proper key to be struck. Sounds complicated? It only took about 20 years to iron out the problems inherent in the technology.

A typical piano roll.
Once the technical aspects were figured out, the player piano became a familiar part of the culture of the period. Whether buying new rolls for the home machine, or plunking nickels into machines set up in bars and restaurants, customers spent freely on the device. Commercial customers found that, after the initial capital outlay for the machine, the cost of buying new rolls and maintaining the player were cheaper than hiring live performers – no doubt causing a wave of technology-related unemployment.

The novelty of the player piano, with its magically moving keys pressed as though by invisible fingers, was a draw, as was its consistency. (Some prominent players who grew during this 30-year span, 1895-1925, describe learning how to play by slowing down the mechanism’s action and aping the keystrokes, just as English blues players of the 1960s learned by slowing down American records and working out the chord changes.)

A short list of noted performers who “cut” piano-transcriptions includes Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Percy Granger, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson. These invaluable records teach us much about the players’ techniques. One of the most prominent names to record piano rolls was, of course, the greatest ragtime music composer, Scott Joplin.

 Joplin was an African-American Texan, born in the wake of the Civil War. He quickly mastered the parameters of the ragtime song (see my earlier entry on ragtime here), and by 1899 had his first hit, the familiar “Maple Leaf Rag.” Joplin gave the wild, upbeat, syncopated genre dignity by introducing complex chording and the symmetries of classical compositions. Joplin was not shooting sorely for popularity; he was a serious composer who produced more lyrical pieces such as the sublime “Solitude” and the opera Treemonisha, which went unproduced until 1975.

Joplin’s day in the sun was short-lived. He faced the typical bias against African-Americans at the time; it was fine for them to serve as entertainers and figures of fun, but white society did not accept their expressions of higher aspirations. Joplin was famous, but solely because of his rags. Joplin probably consented to record these seven rolls he did in 1916 just to make some quick cash.

Joplin’s name on these rolls was a draw for the public. Unfortunately, only one of the seven piano rolls, his second take on “Maple Leaf Rag,” seems to reflect his genuine playing, a stuttering, uncoordinated effort that speaks to his advanced stage of suffering from tertiary syphilis. The other six were edited and “corrected” by the staff arranger at the recording company, William Axtmann. Joplin would die the following year from his condition, at the age of 49.

The Joplin revival began in 1971, when Joshua Rifkin recorded a selection of his work, which received a Grammy nomination. Prominent musicologist Gunther Schuller orchestrated and produced Joplin’s Red Back Book for a 12-piece ensemble in 1973, and won a Grammy doing it. Then, of course, Marvin Hamlisch’s use of Joplin in his soundtrack for the film The Sting the same year opened the floodgates for Joplin’s rediscovery.

The player piano remained significant for only one other American composer – the amazing and still under-regarded Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). An expatriate in Mexico due to his left-wing leanings, Nancarrow was fascinated by the possibilities the player piano gave an ambitious composer. Eventually, he purchased the equipment needed to make rolls himself, and did so from 1947 on.

Nancarrow cutting a roll.
Nancarrow recognized that the player piano could reproduce compositions impossible for one or even two keyboardists to perform. He could pile line after melodic line on top of each other, as well as multiple independent rhythms. The results, fortunately preserved, are exciting explosions of color, harmonics, and sound patterns.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Williams and Walker’s Victor recordings.