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
“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
“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
9:10

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
3:16

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.

 SOURCES

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson
New American Library
1981

Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers
Derrick Stewart-Baxter
Stein and Day
1970

Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey
Sandra R. Leib
The University of Massachusetts Press
1981

All the Years of American Popular Music
David Ewen
Prentice-Hall, Inc.
1977




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
2:28

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.’



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The NRR Project: Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music

Johnson's field recordings of music were saved on unstable wax cylinders such as these.
It is tantalizing and frustrating to listen to old, deteriorated recordings. So far in this epic sonic journey I’ve been on, flawed and incomplete reproduction is sometimes the only way to try and get a feel for what these messages from the past have to tell us.

Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music
20 songs, collected 1925-1928

That’s the case with this collection of cylinder recordings found after being mislabeled for 55 years. They are the sound equivalent of field notes, and they are thought to be the earliest field recordings of African-American music.

For information, I turned to the indispensable Brenda Nelson-Strauss, who meticulously analyzes the material in her “Tracking Down a Legend: Guy B.Johnson’s ‘Lost’ Cylinder Recordings” in the April 1989 issue of Resound. She gives as complete a sense of content and context that is possible to do in print.

In a nutshell, Johnson was a research assistant at the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, and worked on several folk-music projects, most notably his John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend in 1929. From 1925 through 1928, he gathered material at a number of locations in the American Southeast. These recordings served a purely non-commercial function, a research tool, something he could play back, study, analyze, and write about. The notes were, literally, his notes.

These were songs sung by ordinary people, primarily spirituals. Better ears than mine can peruse the excerpt posted at the National Recording Registry here and identify the pieces. Out of the underlying haze of scratch comes a call and response sounding like “Jesus on the Mainline,” incomprehensible voices echoing, choruses rising in rudimentary harmony. One brief phrase sounds like a precursor to “Wade in the Water.” 

The casual impressions in the wax are defaced by cracks, mold, and the pressure of use.The songs are trying to rise out of their matrixes, to come back to life. They are fuzzy and distant, but I play themagain and again. I am trying to imagine who was there, and what they really sounded like. 

The last excerpt sounds amazingly like shape-note singing, which is a primarily Caucasian Christian tradition. If anything was capable of permeating the boundary between black and white culture at the time, it was music.

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


Monday, June 24, 2019

The National Recording Registry Project: ‘The Memphis Blues’

Somebody should make a movie about the life of W.C. Handy. Hang on; they did. Allen Reisner directed St. Louis Blues (1958), which featured Nat “King” Cole as William Christopher Handy (1873-1958), the self-acknowledged “Father of the Blues.”

‘The Memphis Blues’
Composed by W.C. Handy
Recorded by the Victor Military Band
July 15, 1914
3:02

Cole’s genius as a singer and pianist did not extend to acting, but he muddles through with the aid of a jazz lover’s dream cast — Ella, Eartha, Cab, and Mahalia, for starters. The music’s great, but the conflict is strictly good girl/bad girl, and Cole vacillates between the saintly Ruby Dee and the earthy Eartha. It all works out, and he ends up belting the title number in white tie and tails, in front of a full symphony orchestra. He is legitimized.

In fact, “Memphis Blues,” Handy’s first hit, his 12-bar big break, didn’t make it into the movie; the studio couldn’t get the rights. The fact that the song was still that valuable 46 years after it was published is a testament to Handy’s influence.

Handy’s father was a minister who thought that musical instruments were the devil’s playthings. Despite intense discouragement, Handy learned enough about music to lead and teach others. He began a pattern of teaching for a while, then working as a traveling musician. All the while he was listening.

Most significantly, he heard Prince McCoy. In 1903, a guitar-wielding, 20-year-old McCoy, backed only by mandolin and bass, was playing a powerful, rudimentary blues at a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi. Handy caught it, and registered the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, who showered the players with coins.

One composition Handy heard was later identified as “I’m a Winding Ball and I Don’t Deny My Name,” which transmogrified into the better-known “Winin’ Boy Blues,” more properly “Winding Ball Blues,” the so-called theme song of Jelly Roll Morton, with an astonishingly unprintable set of original lyrics.

Another tune Handy copied was, in essence, “Memphis Blues.” It was a big hit, and put Handy on the musical map.

Here’s where we sail into the territory of cultural appropriation, authenticity, and plagiarism. Was Handy a plagiarist? Like many another cultural anthropologist, he was the first one to discover a phenomenon and transcribe it. As a working musician, he was obliged to play what people wanted to hear. The blues were hot, and he grabbed the opportunity and made the most of it.

But Handy needed to transform what he heard. By casting it into a reproducible form on staff paper, he defined what the 12-bar blues was — two repeated phrases and a closing couplet, moving from the root note to the fourth, twice, to the fifth to the fourth to the root, that satisfying round of chord changes that sounds so natural it seems to have been around forever.


It was also great dance music. Handy asserted that the dance stars of the day, Vernon and Irene Castle, created the foxtrot after hearing their music director James Reese Europe play “Memphis Blues.” They demonstrated the dance in their hit Broadway show of 1914, Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step, and it caught on. Early jazz, blues, and ragtime were all well-suited to the new dance, which dominated ballrooms until the end of World War II. The blues as motor of motion.

The raw, gutsy heart of the blues was too wild for the mainstream, though. Arranger Edward Cupero had to score the tune for performance by a military band, and conductor Edward T. King was noted for his fussy insistence on sticking precisely to the score as written. The result: on this recording the tune plods along at a relatively steady beat, with just a touch of swing. It’s the blues in white tie and tails.

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



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...