" . . . 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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

NRR Project 27: 'Some of These Days'

‘Some of These Days’
Sophie Tucker
Recorded 1911
2:05
  
She was a shouter, a moaner, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Sophie Tucker marketed herself as a force of nature, a ribald female Falstaff, whose belted sass, sex, and schmaltz paved the way for Mae West, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and others.

She was Elvis before Elvis – a white singer who cribbed her style from African American culture. Her transformation from an Orthodox Jewish shtetl girl to a grand, big-hearted, bedecked pop idol is more extreme than Bob Dylan’s.

First she was Sonya Kalish, born on the run from Poland to America in the dead of winter, January 1887. A natural belter, she started singing in her family’s restaurant in Hartford as a kid. She eloped when she was 16, had her only child at 19, left her husband entirely and her son with her sister and began singing and telling jokes in New York wherever she could.


 Up until this time, lady singers were refined things, more suited to the parlor than the barroom. Women did not own up to sexual impulses unless they were fallen, or in the process of falling. Tucker really didn't give a damn about societal norms, and took her cue from the raw, bluesy kind of music that white culture wasn’t hip to yet. The minstrel show was still supreme, and she began as a blackface singer, as no one thought the crowd would buy her as anything but a novelty act. One night, she dropped the makeup and the Southern shtick, sang as herself, and began to catch on, singing rags, blues, novelty numbers, and ballads. (“Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki,” anyone?)

Tucker’s voice and temperament were perfectly suited to the new, lowdown boldness in music. In the pre-electric era, singers had to project over an orchestra into a house of indifferent acoustics. Vaudeville houses averaged 1,500 seats, so enunciation, tone, and sheer volume won the day. Singers such as Al Jolson and Nora Bayes were just loud. Tucker “got over” using a technique she learned from fellow performer Clarice Vance, another former “coon singer” turned popular performer. Vance’s half-talked, draggy style fed Tucker’s bantering, flirtatious persona. Tucker later befriended and learned from contemporary singers such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters -- two of the earliest popular black female recording artists.

More importantly, Tucker could transmit energy; she could “sell” any song. She didn’t hold back emotionally – she demanded your attention and got in your face. Her other surefire hit was the tearjerker “My Yiddishe Mama.” If she couldn’t get you with suggestiveness, she’d get you with the sentiment.

This, her signature song, was written by Shelton Brooks, the black composer who also penned “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” and many others. In the wake of W.C. Handy, Brooks and others were figuring out how to wrangle the new rhythms and harmonies of blues and proto-jazz into the more genteel, verse-chorus-verse conventions of the ballads of the period.

The version chosen for the Registry is her first recording of the work, although her best-remembered recording of it comes from 1926, backed by Ted Lewis and his orchestra. The 1926 version is more confident, and by this time she's strongly rooted in her stage persona. In contrast, the 1911 is a bit stiffer, but also more emotionally naked. Over a century later, there is still something undeniably sexy and powerful about the way she throws in a plaintive "ummm" before singing "You know honey/I let you have your way . . . "



The song is straightforward and effective, a simple blues lament. As delivered, it's also cathartic, the way that blues are meant to be sung, and a triumphal crow, the celebration of getting over something bad. It’s conceivable that somewhere, someone has sung it slowly and quietly, in the spirit of the hit “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” of the previous year – but the song and Tucker’s hip-shaking, scarf-waving seismic delivery are for me inseparable. She came back to it repeatedly throughout her career, as she changed from being regarded as a transgressor to an innovator to a star to a beloved, nostalgic figure.


 The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Lillian Russell and ‘Come Down Ma’ Evenin’ Star.’ 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

NRR Project 26: Cylinder recordings of Ishi

Cylinder recordings of Ishi
Recorded September 1911 – April 1914
148 cylinders; 5 hours, 41 minutes
  
These recordings represent, depending on your orientation, a) an astonishing, nearly textbook effort to preserve and extrapolate a vanishing culture in the form of a single individual or b) a pathetic tragedy in which the “last wild Indian” was discovered, brought to civilization, studied and recorded, kept on display in a museum, and dismembered after death for the sake of science.

Or both.

On August 19, 1911, a starving Ishi entered civilization, near Oroville, California, hard by the Lassen Peak wilderness. There Ishi had lived for 50 years, mostly alone, the last member of the Yahi tribe. His people had been hunted by whites, seen their food sources dwindle, succumbed to new diseases brought in by the immigrants.

He was taken in by UC-Berkeley professors, housed and employed by them as they studied him, sometimes demonstrating his woodcraft to touring schoolchildren. Ishi was perhaps the last Stone Age man on the continent, still making tools and weapons by hand. He communicated all he could of his Yahi language and culture. Susceptible to European diseases, he succumbed to tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.

Despite the efforts of his friends, Ishi was autopsied and cremated – save for his brain which was placed in a jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Meanwhile, write-ups of Ishi’s life, both fictional and non-fictional, by the widow of the museum director who studied him, made the case popular in the early 1960s. Other books, and films and even a play, have followed.

Ironically, Ishi turned out not to be the “last of his tribe,’ as he was branded; eventually his brain was found and repatriated to his closest living relatives, the Yana. The recordings, of use to specialists, are housed at Berkeley. A 22-second excerpt of Ishi chanting can be found here.

The contact with Ishi undoubtedly extended his life as much as it endangered it. And who wouldn’t, if he or she were the last person in their left, try to set down everything about it that they could? Was it worth that to become a museum exhibit? He was asked thousands of questions about his people; I don’t see any evidence of anyone ever asking him what he thought of us.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Sophie Tucker and ‘Some of These Days.’ 

Monday, December 5, 2016

NRR Project 25: 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart'

‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’
Columbia Quartette (The Peerless Quartet)
Recorded July 28, 1911
2:37
  
American popular song became a going concern around the turn of last century, thanks to music publishers. Before recordings and radio came along, everyone had to make their own music, or listen to others make it live, and for that you needed the sheet music.

The only modes of transmission were social – you heard a new song at the minstrel show, vaudeville, via church or by word of mouth. Ethnic and alternative musics stayed firmly lodged inside their isolated groups of origin. Every home had a piano, organ, and/or a guitar; a jumble of instruments and music sheets took up the front room, or sitting room, or parlor, whatever it was termed.

A song had to be memorable, relatively easy to learn, and family-friendly. America was living in the shadow of the Victorian period culturally. Opera and operetta were the accepted models of singing and composition, and the sentimental ballads popular in the post-Civil War era reflect that. From the 1890s through the end of World War I, Tin Pan Alley in lower central Manhattan cranked out songs for popular consumption – songs that dealt almost entirely with sentiment, melodrama, nostalgia, the novelties of the day, or patriotism. The tone was optimistic – genteel, cheery, and decorous.


 These were all songs I learned growing up. My great-grandmother’s house still held a hulking old piano, and she played, expertly licking her right fingers and flipping the pages of the score just at the last moment, as we all stood around and sang. This was also the heyday of Sing Along with Mitch on television, and we gaily chirped with the Singalong Gang as they plowed in close harmony through the hits of the pre-WWI period.

The closest existing manifestation of this music is found in the barbershop quartet tradition, and most of the songs in the genre’s unofficial canon date from this period – “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” “Sweet Adeline,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” and so on.

“Barbershop” singing of course has become a hoary cliché. The nightmare image of four men approaching in straw boaters and garish vests, bellowing close-harmony vocals, is enough to put the fear of God into any person. But there is thrill to be had in singing and hearing this kind of music, an emphasis on technique and showmanship that overrules other considerations. Since its 1940s revival, barbershop has grown and diversified into men’s and women’s ensembles and choruses, and remains a wholesome niche art.

“Let Me Call You Sweetheart” is a classic sentimental waltz, but like many of the era’s hit compositions, it’s an assembly-line job. Frequently, music publishers amassed reams of verses and lyrics and farmed them out of songwriters, hoping someone would set a hit or two. Beth Slater Whitson’s lyrics were set to music by Leo Friedman without the two ever meeting.


It was recorded by the Peerless Quartet, billed here as the Columbia Quartette. This group was arguably the most popular of its time, cutting hundreds of discs in various lineups for nearly 30 years. Their most successful incarnation was led by the prolific Henry Burr, whose clear nasal tenor would become the clichéd sound of the era.

Meanwhile, the sounds and jazz and blues were in development, and would soon percolate into pop music as well. For a while, though, America's music was easygoing, familiar, and bright, and it still sparkles sometimes when a hurdy-gurdy plays or a carousel goes around.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: recordings of Ishim the ‘last of his tribe.’