Friday, January 31, 2020

NRR Project: ‘Adeste Fideles’

‘Adeste Fideles’
Performed by the Associated Glee Clubs of America and audience
Recorded March 31, 1925

This is perhaps the most significant development encountered thus far in my National Recording Registry project, but it’s also the most difficult to explain. Well, that’s never stopped me before.

On March 31, 1925, fifteen “glee clubs” (amateur male singing societies) gathered on the stage of the original Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan. Columbia Records was there as well. It recorded all the participants (850) singing the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles” — “O Come All Ye Faithful," joined in the last chorus by the 4,000-member audience.

What makes the recording so significant is that it was made electrically. Engineers had been working on this development for years; it was made feasible by Western Electric’s H.C. Harrison and Joseph P. Maxfield in 1924.

Before this, you recorded by making sound into a large horn, which funneled the sound down to a sensitive stylus that copied the vibrations into a matrix material, like wax or shellac. Once you had a good “take,” the master disc or cylinder could be replicated numerous times.

The process was crude and limited. Performers had to jam themselves around the recording horn, quiet or sibilant noises got lost, and the masters were notoriously dodgy, easily wearing away and losing their fidelity to the original sound.

Electrical recording changed all that. A microphone, or even multiple microphones, captured the sound, translating it into infinitely more detailed electrical impulses on the receiving disc. I can best explain it through analogy. Acoustic recording was like writing with a broom handle in a bank of snow. Electrical recording was like fine etching on glass.

The difference in quality is easy to distinguish. Listen to “Adeste Fideles” again. There are hundreds, then thousands, of voices singing, and on an acoustic recording this mass of sound would have “blown out” the receiver and come across as just so much noise. The electrical process allows the reception of a wider bandwidth of volume — and of tone as well. The range of frequencies captured widened considerably. The vocal parts are clearly delineated in the recording, despite the size of the chorus.

The result is a new richness and subtlety in recorded music, one that change how music was made. Those who could exploit its new-found intimacy and range would become its new stars.

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 Charleston.


Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music
Michael Chanan

The History of Music Production
Richard James Burgess
Oxford University Press

The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles
Terry Burrows
Thames & Hudson

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Gateway Drug: Me and the Kingston Trio

It had to start somewhere.

On January 26, Bob Shane, the last surviving member of the original Kingston Trio folk-singing group, passed away. The event prompted me to pull out my battered and scratched copy of their debut 1958 album, which I’ve hung onto down the years.

Of course, I never have to play it again. I have it memorized. Every song, both sides of the record, in order. I even sing the skips. “Three Jolly Coachmen,” then “Bay of Mexico,” then “Banua” . . . We played it over and over, all three of us kids growing up. We sang along to it, we acted it out. We still discuss it, and surprise each other with snatches from it, sometimes.

Being the oldest, I was the first one to find it in my parents’ sparse record collection. I was always rooting around in everything, and I read, watched, or listened to everything I could get my hands on. I was the first one to be allowed to Use the Record Player.

This was a huge, heavy stereo console, a real piece of furniture that stood in the living room and held not only a recessed turntable that could play 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm records but an AM/FM radio as well!— the multimedia platform of my childhood. I was tested as to my mechanical competence before being allowed to use it. I placed the record on its stacking spindle (you could play as many as four sides in a row), drew the overarm into place, and ratcheted the start control. Magically, the turntable spun, the record clattered onto it, and the tonearm pivoted into place and dropped. Away we went!

There was a warm, thin smell, now lost, of vacuum tubes heating, of thick wires carrying current, a dash of machine oil. The Kingston Trio’s record company, Capitol, had a fun feature incorporated into their LPs (LP stood for “long-playing”) at the time. The labels of the period had the spectrum printed around their edges — a circle that shaded first red, then yellow, green, blue, purple, red again. As the record spun, the label band formed a rainbow. If you stood directly over the record, you could hypnotize yourself as the colors morphed endlessly, around and around. I’m sure that the sight of 4-year-old me staring fixedly into the stereo while singing loudly and lustily along with Bob Shane, Dave Guard, and Nick Reynolds must have been one of the first, but certainly not one of the last, times that my mother must have worried about me.

A word about the musical archeology of my family. On my father’s side, it was conservatism and solid upper-middle-class values, reflected in a love of Bach, Vivaldi, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, the slick syrupy sounds of Mantovani, Hugo Winterhalter, Percy Faith et al, and selected musicals, centered on a titanic affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mom’s heritage was more complex. She grew up on gospel and country and western music, which gave her a solid base in Americana.

But she was a closet subversive. She hankered for the simple folk tunes peddled by the likes of Burl Ives, and the politically charged acoustic music of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Woody Guthrie. She was a naturally bred fan for the mid-century folk revival, and she and we sang about Darlin’ Corey, and the House of the Rising Sun, that old freight train’s whistle, hard times. Poverty and struggle were romanticized. We were on the side of the have-nots. Our house rang to the sounds of Paul Robeson, Odetta, Peter Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte . . . and of course the Kingston Trio.

Now this is not to say that we were receiving the pure, authentic, and unvarnished folk gospel. This was cultural colonialism, not just appropriation but pretty much a strip-mining of folk culture. These were not escapees from a prison farm, nor representatives of the underclass. The Kingston Trio and its competitors of the period referred to by Martin Mull as the Great Folk Music Scare — the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, the New Christy Minstrels, the Highwaymen, the Rooftop Singers, and the Serendipity Singers — were white. Incredibly white. There was a veneer of Caucasian cheesiness that inevitably bleached out the product.

At this time, nightclubs still thrived in profusion, and this was folk arranged, tooled, and produced for middle-class nightclub audiences. It was a fad. For purists, it was revolting. There is casual racism and stereotyping in some of the songs of the Trio and of others. It was a club act. The Trio’s first five albums (we had them all) included show tunes (“They Call the Wind Mariah”) and jazzy ballads (the classic “Scotch and Soda” could easily be a Sinatra song). The nervous and earnest patter between songs that can be heard on their early live albums is obviously the inspiration for the Smothers Brothers’ initial burst of cripplingly funny folk-satire. (Christopher Guest’s 2003 parodic film A Mighty Wind also covers this territory without mercy.)

The whitewashing of vernacular music was common from early days. Minstrel shows were distorted appropriations of black culture. The first jazz ensemble to record, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all-white. R & B and early rock hits were Caucasian-ized by the likes of Pat Boone. And thus with the folk songbook. Whereas bards and balladeers such as Guthrie and Seeger made music out of a desire to educate and galvanize, this was merely an impulse to divert, to entertain. The record industry snapped up the folk impulse and homogenized it.

But the music of the Kingston Trio was a gateway drug. It led me on to the real deal — Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and from thence on to the rest of the musical universe. It taught us that music was participatory and open to everyone. You didn't need a concert hall, or professional musicians even. All you had to do was sing.

It also taught me to work my way back through musical history, to find those overlooked original creators of these real and powerful sounds and give them their due, get them on my magical turntable as well. Then, to understand their contexts you begin to read more history, go deeper, and on it goes, keeping the mind humming with music, music all day long. In this way, I think, the commercial folk groups of the era paid penance for their sins of appropriation. I was a white kid stuck in a white town in the very middle of white continent, but this music reached all the way in through and found me and led me out.

And, whether deliberately or not, this inundation radicalized us. In the midst of the Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement, most of the songs we grew up hearing (until the British Invasion at least) were either true folk songs, or protest songs, and often both. They were stirring, and their energy swept us up in a wave of optimism. We could sing, and march, and change things for the better, in that magic time before the killings of Kennedys and Kings.

So I slap the records on my turntable again, and sing along with “Tom Dooley” and “Wreck of the ‘John B’” and “South Coast.” Hypnotized again, but this time by the beauty of those voices tumbling over each other, that cascade of beautiful song. And I sing louder.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Just for Halloween: the scariest old-time radio shows

What scares you the most? Is it watching the latest horror film? Reading a Stephen King novel? For me, it’s listening to old-time radio.

I’ve been listening to vintage radio since I was a kid, ever since my dad snapped on the radio one Saturday and ran across the amazing local broadcasts of radio historian John Dunning. I listened faithfully for years, following John from local station to local station as he spoke about and played comedies, dramas, variety shows, band remotes . . . and thrillers.

Radio as a diverse and engaging dramatic medium only lasted about 30 years in the U.S., though it is still strong and innovative in Britain (BBC Radio 4, anyone? I have it bookmarked). The rise of the podcast has reignited interest in narrative audio, and even triggered new attempts to enact stories on the air. And, the ubiquity of the internet now means that all those old shows I had to make appointments to hear can be dialed up instantly; much of my listening day is still spent exploring the Golden Age of the medium.

Radio is robust. I always prefer it because it allows the listener to create pictures in their mind. In fact, the medium demands active participation. This kind of mental work is particularly helpful to mysteries, thrillers, and horror tales. Even silly and overwrought material can sound convincingly scary if you turn out the lights and huddle close to the speakers.

Horror shows abounded on radio. Early efforts such as “The Witch’s Tale” and “The Hermit’s Cave” were joined by such fare as “The Mysterious Traveler,” “The Strange Dr. Weird,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The Weird Circle.” The most familiar to the general public might be “Inner Sanctum Mysteries,” the opening of which featured the famous sound of a creaking door. Its host was sardonic, cracking wise and spilling puns everywhere in the lead-up to the story of the night. (The humorous horror host was later incorporated into horror comics and into television’s horror anthologies.)

Radio during that period was a family medium and did operate under constraints, and many of the horror shows weren’t really that scary. Many of these shows were deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Some had formulas that dictated that whatever supernatural nonsense was conjured up was explained away logically by the end of the episode.

Every once in a while, though, something genuinely terrifying would make its way onto the airwaves. Here follows my list of shows that scared and continue to scare me despite repeated airings.

Inner Sanctum Mysteries
“The Man Who Couldn’t Die,” Feb. 12, 1946
The best-known of all the old-time horror programs. Richard Widmark stars as a man who achieves immortality — at a terrible price.

Dark Fantasy
"Demon Tree,” Dec. 5, 1941
This excellent show originated from, of all places, Oklahoma City, a bizarre place to find top-notch writers and performers. It’s just as good as any East or West Coast show, and this episode proves it.

Mercury Theater on the Air
“Dracula,” July 11, 1938
The amazing dramatic experiment that Orson Welles and company pioneered set the bar high for narrative radio; no one ever really equaled it. All of these hour-long adaptations are worth a listen, and “Dracula” is a claustrophobic and intense gem.

Murder at Midnight
“The House Where Death Lived,” 1946
This show was ludicrously over the top, but it was so convincing in its execution that it got under your skin. It frequently starred the deliciously evil-sounding Berry Kroeger, who gets into all kind of trouble here.

The Mysterious Traveler
“Behind the Locked Door,” Nov. 6, 1951
Two archaeologists are trapped in a cave that also holds the descendants of a wagon train who’ve adapted to life in complete darkness.

Quiet Please
“The Thing on the Fourble Board,” Aug. 9, 1948
When an engineer drills into earth, he unleashes an unholy monster.

“Escape” was a wonderful show, “designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure.” The program covered many different genres and styles, and its horror was superlative.

“Evening Primrose,” Nov. 5, 1947
A poet decides to quit the rat race, and hide himself in and live in a department store. He discovers that he’s not the first with the idea.

“Country of the Blind,” Nov. 26, 1947
Adapted from an H.G. Wells story, it refutes the idea that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

“Three Skeleton Key,” March 17, 1950
Starring Vincent Price, it’s the tale of three lighthouse keepers who must fight for their lives when their island is invaded by swarms of rats.

“Bloodbath,” June 30, 1950
Vincent Price is here again as an expedition to recover valuable uranium leads men into a jungle nightmare.

“Poison,” July 28, 1950
One of the greatest exercises in the generation of tension in sound, the attempt of a native doctor to save the life of a prejudiced American is unexpectedly moving.

“Present Tense,” Jan 31, 1950
Vincent Price — again! Here he plays a murderer who gets a second chance at life . . . and then a third . . . and then . . .

“Suspense” was billed as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” and it produced episode after solid episode for years.

“The Hitchhiker,” Sept. 9, 1942
Orson Welles stars in the classic tale of a hitchhiker who keeps appearing to a cross-country driver.

“Sorry, Wrong Number,” May 25, 1943
Agnes Moorehead stars in one of radio’s most iconic shows. She’s a bedridden woman who accidentally overhears a plot to murder her.

“Donovan’s Brain,” May 18 & May 25, 1944
Orson Welles again, in a special two-part adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s great novel about a scientist who preserves the brain of a dead tycoon — and finds it taking over his personality. Part One; Part Two

“August Heat,” May 31, 1945
My personal favorite. Ronald Colman is artist who draws a presentiment of his death, and finds a tombstone carved with his name, date of birth — and that day as the day of his death.

“The House in Cypress Canyon,” Dec. 12, 1946
The new house for rent has only one thing wrong with it — werewolves.

“Dead Ernest,” Aug. 8, 1946
The buried-alive story had been done numerous times before, but here a cataleptic man lies in the morgue, waiting to be autopsied, with no way to let anyone know he’s still alive.

“Ghost Hunt,” June 23, 1949
An annoying disc jockey (Ralph Edwards) spends the night in a haunted house as an on-air stunt. Complications ensue.

Lights Out
This was the scariest of all the classic radio horror shows. They WANTED to frighten the living bejeezus out of you, and they frequently succeeded. And yes, they always did tell you, “if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.” Yikes.

“A Day at the Dentist,” March 10, 1937
Only four minutes of this exists, but it’s a great four minutes.

“The Dark,” Dec. 29, 1937
Again, only an excerpt exits. A horrible black fog turns victims inside out — without killing them.

“Chicken Heart,” Feb. 23, 1938
Bill Cosby’s comedy routine made this famous. A scientist gets a chicken heart to grow . . . and grow and grow and grow.

“Cat Wife,” March 30, 1938
Boris Karloff’s new wife is not what she seems.

“Revolt of the Worms,” Oct. 13, 1942
It’s much the same premise as “Chicken Heart,” but it’s squeam- and scream-inducing.

“Come to the Bank,” Nov. 17, 1942
A man figures out how to penetrate solid matter, but finds himself irrevocably trapped.

“Death Robbery,” July 16, 1947
What happens after death? Boris Karloff plays a scientist who brings his wife back to life, but discovers an essential element is missing — her soul.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: The National Defense Test

What do you know? Live from coast to coast, it’s the military/industrial complex!

National Defense Test
Conducted Sept. 12, 1924

On Sept. 12, 1924, 18 fledgling radio stations shared the same broadcast nationwide, a largely unprecedented feat. Everything you need to know about this unprecedented communications event can be found here in CaryO’Dell’s comprehensive essay at the National Recording Registry; my comments are parenthetical.

The National Defense Test was conducted in concert with something called National Defense Day, a government initiative to promote military preparedness and patriotism. It was deemed valuable to be able to communicate with the entire country simultaneously and instantly in case of national emergency (such as an invasion, though this wasn’t made explicit), and radio provided the ability to do just that.

Military concerns often prompt advances in technology, especially in American history and particularly since the beginning of the last century. The phone company, long a tolerated monopoly as American Telephone & Telegraph, had perfected the ability to transmit sound from station to station using long-distance telephone lines. Under the aegis of the U.S. military, a series of hookups united the stations into a temporary network.

This was not the first coast-to-coast broadcast. On Nov. 11, 1921, speeches from Arlington, Virginia were transmitted to New York City and San Francisco via phone lines. In 1922, two primitive rival networks developed — AT&T’s “WEAF chain” and RCA’s “WJZ chain” — but these were only regional. AT& T’s chief engineer James J. Carty made a speech Feb. 8, 1924 that made its circuitous way across the continent, again through an ad hoc linkage of stations.

The content of September’s 90-minute program, described by O’Dell, was dry and formal. The important thing about it was the possibilities it outlined. Continuous information and entertainment could now reach a mass audience in real time, a bigger cumulative audience than the world had seen before. This meant big business. (New York and Chicago were early broadcast centers; the West Coast wasn’t seen as such until Louella Parsons initiated the Hollywood Hotel radio show in 1934.)

It also meant that the powers that were now had a mighty megaphone at their disposal. Mass communication would prove to be a double-edged sword. The medium was neutral; it would accommodate whatever message was sent over it. It’s worth thinking about in an age where dueling propagandas have, temporarily I hope, superseded the search for truth.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: electric recording transforms the industry.

Friday, September 27, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: 'Rhapsody in Blue'

It is difficult to strip away all the preconceptions about a piece mankind is so familiar with that it could probably hum the whole thing its sleep. I refer, of course, to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or should I say Gershwin and Ferde Grofe’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or, really, of Gershwin and Grofe and Paul Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s complicated.

Rhapsody in Blue (abridged)
Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Ferde Grofe
Recorded June 10, 1924
Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra; George Gershwin, piano

The first thing is to get the facts about the piece, laid out admirably here by Jim Farrington for the National Recording Registry. Evidently Gershwin had promised Whiteman a symphonic jazz composition for a big concert, then forgot. When reminded, he blazed into action. He wrote the piano score in three weeks. There was a problem. George had never scored for an orchestra before. The only “serious” scoring he had done had been his Lullabye for string quartet, in 1919. In stepped Whiteman orchestrator Ferde Grofe.
Now, some context. “Symphonic jazz” already existed. James Reese Europe and his orchestra, who played proto-jazz, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1912. Up-and-coming composer/arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Duke Ellington were already hard at work creating jazz for large ensembles.

However, Paul Whiteman, the “King of Jazz,” dominated the scene. Whiteman came from Denver, where his father Wilberforce was the long-time superintendent of music for the public schools. Whiteman’s classical training stood him in good stead, and he arranged thousands of tunes, creating tasteful and restrained renditions suitable for polite dancing. This “sweet” approach was immensely popular. Whiteman was determined to make jazz legit.

Gershwin (l) and Whiteman
As Gershwin completed the score, he passed sections to Ferde Grofe, who could quickly make arrangements designed to maximize Whiteman’s musical resources. (Grofe would be known as a composer for his light-classical tone poems, such as Grand Canyon Suite).

Can we hear it with fresh ears? It’s certainly a different experience if you listen to the original recording. First, there was the limitation of the medium — they had to cram the piece onto two sides of one 78 rpm record. So, they cut a third of it and played the rest as briskly as possible (remember, they were still recording acoustically, so you must imagine the players all crammed around the sound horn).

It’s certainly exuberant. Gershwin’s playing is bravura, and the band’s performance leans into the syncopation with a manic intensity. You can really hear Whiteman’s influence in the unique globular, throbbing tones of his saxophones — their lugubriousness really works against the piece.

But it insists on itself, its melodies are unforgettable, its pace is compulsive. It’s been recorded thousands of times, rescored for all manner of ensembles and occasions. It literally animates Eric Goldberg’s Fantasia 2000 sequence. For me personally, it will always be that day I walked uptown in New York City in 1979 and heard it underneath the beginning of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

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 National Defense Test.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: Ma Rainey and 'See See Rider'

“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.” August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

“See See Rider Blues”
Composed by Lena Arrant
Ma Rainey, vocalist; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Charlie Dixon, banjo
Recorded October 16, 1924

Gertrude Pridgett started performing in Georgia in 1900, at the age of 14. She sang in minstrel shows, circuses, and vaudeville houses. She was singing the blues as early as 1902, after she heard an anonymous country girl singing a lament for a man who had left her, and learned it from her. She married William ‘Pa’ Rainey in 1904, took his name, and traveled with him for a time before striking out on her own.

As Ma Rainey, she was a powerful and earthy early blues icon.

She was short and squat; some even called her ugly. “With her thick straightened hair sticking out in all directions, gold caps on her huge teeth, a fan of ostrich plumes in her hand, and a long triple necklace of shiny gold coins reflecting the blue spotlight that danced on her black sequined dress, Ma was a sight to behold,” writes Chris Albertson speculatively in Bessie.

And yet her voice poured out of her, and enraptured people. Said pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree, “. . . when she opened her mouth — that was it! You forgot everything.” She is the antithesis of the idea of beauty of her time, and so was the music she made.

The mainstream (aka Caucasian) culture of the time treasured the sentimental ballad, the military march, the novelty song. The blues was different, and manifested itself differently. It rose up into the cultural conversation instead of being imposed on it from above, via the manufacturers of popular entertainment.

When Rainey heard the blues, she heard a song form that was still putting itself together, raised up from a crop of secular “sorrow songs” that stretched back to slavery days, branching off from sacred music and developing a style and features unique to itself. The blues filled a need the public only gradually woke to. In its heartiness, its emotional directness, its sense of authenticity, it delivered a new and powerful art form.

Here were real feelings, real issues, real life. And it wasn’t all about heartbreak. The subjects were far out of the realm of polite conversation, and included such forbidden subjects as sex, drinking, prison, drug abuse, violence, homosexuality, and death. Ma Rainey covered all of them, a transgressive figure to be sure. With her famous necklace and matching earrings made of $20 gold pieces, she registers culturally as a proto-rapper, addicted to bling. (In fact, performers of the time often put their nest eggs into wearable valuables, diamonds and gold, as these were easy to pawn and redeem in hard times.)

These laments were fueled by the alternately dragging and driving rhythms of the blues structure — a few simple, sturdy rhyme schemes and chord progressions could be bent with feeling, which anyone could pick up on and embroider themselves, a people’s music for sure.

The blues began to migrate into white culture around the turn of the 20th century, in the guise of large, earthy white women known as “coon shouters” for their imitation of black vocalists. Singers like Sophie Tucker, Emma Carus, and Julie Gerity could project sanitized sentiments in the strident, up-front blues style and accordingly were thought of as “red hot mamas,” as though proximity to African American style automatically and magically transformed them into sexual beings. In much the same way, white talent (whither Pat Boone?) tried to co-opt neutered black hits at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Mamie Smith beat Ma to the microphone. In 1920, Smith’s rendition of “Crazy Blues” sold more than 75,000 copies. Suddenly, there was a blues rush, and producers scrambled to sign talent — stars such as Ma and Bessie Smith, and a flock of others — Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey. Once Ma started recording, she kept busy, producing 92 recordings between 1923 and 1928, earning the sobriquet “the Mother of the Blues.”

In “See See Rider Blues,” Lena Arrant is credited as the composer; however, she contributed only the opening three couplets. (Lena was a fellow vaudevillian, a pianist who was half a double act with her husband Charles, who played the trombone with his feet). The body of the song is an old, traditional blues that shares some elements with Shelton Brooks’ 1913 “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” a coded sexual lament that has evolved into “C.C. Rider,” “See See Rider,” and many other permutations.

Rainey’s voice is a mezzo-soprano moan, a brass funnel that could cut through the din of a smoky bar, or reach the rafters in the theater. In this recording, she is graced with accompaniment by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, who add just the right touches. Meanwhile Rainey, almost offhandedly, vows

“I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall
Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball
If he don’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all”

With shifting emphases and stresses that “send” the song.

By 1930, the first blues boom was over. Tastes changed; swing was on the horizon. Rainey retired, managed a couple of theaters, and died in good graces with the church. Her rebellious, bawdy legacy didn’t get its due until August Wilson’s 1981 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brought her name back into the conversation. (And for a real treat, listen to LaVern Baker’s 1962 cover. The R & B star encapsulates the renegade energy of the early blues queens.)

The National Recording Registry Project follows one intrepid writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry, in chronological order.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson
New American Library

Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers
Derrick Stewart-Baxter
Stein and Day

Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey
Sandra R. Leib
The University of Massachusetts Press

All the Years of American Popular Music
David Ewen
Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The National Recording Registry Project: Oliver, Armstrong, and ‘Canal Street Blues’

Jazz is one of the musics that grew up during the recording era. That makes it a marvel for obsessives. The history of the genre can be played through speakers, savored, analyzed, studied, built on. Every development, each branching, is there. You can eavesdrop onto the creative process, catch the improvisation live as it happened, feel the tone and color of each player’s voice. It’s a fascinating mania.

“Canal Street Blues”

Composed by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong
Recorded April 5, 1923
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: King Oliver, trumpet; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Baby Dodds, drums; Lil Hardin, piano; Bill Johnson, banjo

That’s why, when a jazz broadcaster announces a set, you’ll hear details such as when and where the session was, and who played on it. Each unique combination of people and circumstances makes a difference. Unlike the Western music that came before it, much of which was predicated on the exact replication of written compositions, jazz was free and easy. In jazz, oeuvres are founded in track listings.

This entry is a perfect illustration of that. In it, we hear the top jazz showman in the country at the time, the great cornetist Joe “King” Oliver and his Chicago ensemble, featuring a new arrival in town, a rustic but compelling young brass player named Louis Armstrong.

Oliver developed as a musician between 1908 and 1917 in New Orleans There were three primary gigs for professional musicians there — in marching bands, dance halls, and whorehouses. Oliver’s forceful melodic line, allied to his mastery of mutes, made him the undisputed master of hot music in town, and his band with trombonist Kid Ory played everywhere. Meanwhile, Oliver kept an ear out for his rivals, and for up-and-comers. He identified Louis Armstrong’s ability early and took him under his wing.

Then things changed. The red-light district of New Orleans, Storyville, was closed down when America entered World War I in 1917. At the same time, the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North was swelling. Oliver moved to Chicago and put together a jazz ensemble there, becoming just as prominent as he was in his old home town. To Ory in New Orleans, he recommended that Armstrong take his place.

In early August 1922, Oliver sent for Armstrong, and the lineup of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was set. They were the hit of the region, with a home base at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens. For two years, the outfit swung together, creating a few dozen recordings along the way.

It is devilishly hard to recapture what the impact of this music was. No one had heard anything like it before. It was sassy and energetic, rowdy and raucous, urgent, full of life. (To detractors, it was frantic chaos.) It made you want to dance, and that’s primarily what it was for — at this point in jazz history, only devotees and aspiring players actually sat still and listened to the intricacies of the music, trying to decode its slashing polyphonies.

At this point, all jazz was in the style what would later be termed Dixieland. Over a percussive thump of bass (in this case, banjo), drums (here the drummer was reduced to woodblocks), and piano, a “front line” of winds and brass played. A primary front-line instrument played the melody, as the other musicians improvise harmonically around the melodic line at the same time. Here Oliver and Armstrong trade phrases while clarinetist Johnny Dodds expertly weaves a countermelody through them. The result is hot jazz, what Armstrong termed a “gassuh.”

Armstrong would play with Oliver for two years. During that time, he divorced his first wife and married the female member of Oliver’s band, the accomplished and ambitious pianist Lil Hardin. It was her who convinced him to leave Oliver and strike out for New York in 1924, where he would find world-wide fame as jazz’s first great soloist.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Ma Rainey sings ‘See See Rider Blues.’

NRR Project: ‘Adeste Fideles’

‘Adeste Fideles’ Performed by the Associated Glee Clubs of America and audience Recorded March 31, 1925 2:33 This is perhaps ...