Thursday, June 13, 2024

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'


‘Gregorio Cortez’

Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez

October 1929


The corrido is a Mexican ballad, often in three-quarter time, that relates a narrative or describes an historical event. It is a genre that inflates mundane realities into legends, and makes heroes of common men. So it is with Gregorio Cortez.

He was born in 1875 in Mexico. When he was 14, his family moved to Texas, and Cortez began working as a cowboy and a farmhand. On June 14, 1901, Sheriff W.T. Morris and his deputy, who served as interpreter, came to interview Cortez and his brother regarding the theft of a horse. Due to mistranslation, the sheriff determined that the Cortezes were lying and declared his intent to arrest them.

Cortez’s brother ran at the sheriff and was shot several times. Cortez responded by shooting the sheriff dead. After taking his brother for medical attention, Cortez began his escape. For ten days, he traveled hundreds of miles by horse and on foot, evading over 300 lawmen deputized to bring him in. Finally captured, he was tried and sentenced for murder, but his sentence was commuted after a relatively short period of time.

This exploit made him a hero among Mexican-Americans, who saw him as a symbol of the fight against prejudice and malfeasance against them by the Anglo community. No fewer than eleven versions of “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” developed, each of them giving a slightly different perspective on his story. One common thread in these songs is the bemoaning of the unequal justice meted out to Mexican Americans.

The version preserved here is performed by a duo with guitar, singing simple harmonies. “Gregorio Cortez said, with his gun in his hand, ’I’m not sorry I killed him,’” they sing. “’I was only thinking of my brother.’”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Lamento Borincano.



Sunday, June 2, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Pony Blues'


‘Pony Blues’

Written and performed by Charley Patton

June 1929


Charley Patton is “the father of Mississippi Delta blues”. What does this mean?

Blues issued forth initially from two regions – the city and the country. Country blues are finger-picked, acoustic performances. Mississippi delta blues are those that originated in the region of east Arkansas and Louisiana, and western Mississippi, adjacent to the Mississippi River. Primary proponents of this style were Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Lead Belly.

Patton, born perhaps in 1891, quickly proved himself adept at the guitar and began performing throughout the region. He started performing around 1908. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he played higher-class locations consistently. He also served as a mentor to many bluesmen, including Robert Johnson.

“Pony Blues” is a typical blues tune – revolving around sexual metaphors and the idea of hooking up with someone. Patton’s growly intonation, syncopated rhythms, and percussive intensity make him a distinct voice in the blues pantheon.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Trovadores Regionales.



Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The NRR Project: Rachmaninoff and Stokowski

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano

Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, conductor

April 1929


The first complete recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 took place 28 years after its composition. The piece, written after a four-year creative drought (he dedicated it to his therapist), is one of the composer’s best-loved numbers. This recording features Rachmaninoff himself on piano, with the venerable Leopold Stokowski on the podium leading the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Rachmaninoff was born to relatively well-off parents in Czarist Russia in 1873, and received an excellent schooling in music. His compositional efforts were at first rebuffed; later, they would be seen as a culmination of Romanticism in the vein of Tchaikovsky. An incredible pianist, Rachmaninoff would turn to a life of primarily performing after his and his family’s escape from the newly formed Soviet Union in 1918.

Stokowski was already earning a reputation as an impressive conductor who specialized in 19th and 20th century music. He was known for conducting without a bat0on, one of the first to do so. He led the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941.

Some critics have called this performance perfunctory, but it is still as close as we will get to hearing a Rachmaninoff composition as he intended it to be heard. With its lyric, flowing style, it is one of the last compositions in the Romantic manner.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Pony Blues.



Wednesday, March 20, 2024

NRR Project: “Light’s Golden Jubilee Celebration”


“Light’s Golden Jubilee Celebration”

NBC Radio

Oct. 21, 1929

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in Menlo Park, New Jersey, changing human history and cementing his legendary status as the ingenious American inventor par excellence.

Fifty years later, the General Electric Company and Westinghouse, always on the look-out for good publicity, decided to observe the anniversary of the discovery by honoring the still-living Edison to an extraordinary degree. The lengthy broadcast from NBC that captured the events of the celebration was preserved, and documents the immense, worshipful attention paid to the event and the character at its center.

The 82-year-old was feted in an elaborate production hosted by his long-time admirer and friend, fellow inventor Henry Ford. Ford eventually wrested control of the event from General Electric, and soon whipped up a spectacle at his newly established Edison Institute of Technology (later to be the Henry Ford Museum) in Dearborn, Michigan, Ford’s headquarters. Ford hired Edward L. Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, to orchestrate a commemorative campaign that would extend throughout the year of 1929 and climax at the ceremony.

The evening began with a celebratory banquet, attended by 500 prominent guests, among them President Herbert Hoover, Walter Chrysler, Marie Curie, Will Rogers, and Orville Wright. Afterwards came the painstaking recreation of the moment of Edison’s invention.

Listeners across the country were urged to turn out all their lights and leave them off until the reenactment was complete. Edison was transported to a reconstruction of his Menlo Park lab, along with Ford, Hoover, and his long-time assistant Francis Jehl (the only other surviving participant in the lightbulb’s invention), where he then connected the wires that caused the electric bulb to light up, live on air, “a moment broadcast over the airwaves on as many as 140 stations.” (Extensive movie footage of the events has survived as well.)

The attention then shifted to adulatory speeches. Speakers included a live message over the wireless from Germany – Albert Einstein chiming in with praise. A national event of this kind had never been broadcast before, and it presaged the ability of the media to unite and influence vast numbers of people.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Rachmaninoff plays his Piano Concerto #2.



Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The NRR Project: Cajun-Creole Columbia recordings (1929)



NRR Project: Creole-Cajun Columbia recordings

 Creole-Cajun recordings

Performed by Amede Ardoin and Dennis McGee

Recorded 1929

First of all, what is the difference between Creole and Cajun? These two words are bandied about indiscriminately. Creole refers to a person of mixed white and Black ancestry. Cajun refers to the not-necessarily Creole descendants of of the French-Canadian settlers who were displaced to southern Louisiana in the early 19th century.

Both cultures intersected with and influenced each other. This is most easy to distinguish by indulging in their musics. This selection epitomizes the fusion of styles in this collaboration between a Black accordionist and vocalist, Amede Ardoin, and Cajun violinist and singer Dennis McGee.

The music is vital, throbbing with energy and feeling. The words are sung in the Cajun patois, that evolution of French that took place when its speakers moved south. Their music was meant to be danced to, and they played at farms, houses, bars, and festivals.

Sadly, Amede Ardoion’s life was cut short by an act of racist violence. He asked anyone for a rag to wipe his face during a performance, and a white woman gave him her handkerchief. Two white men then vowed that he would never perform again. They followed him outside after the gig and beat him severely, leaving him brain-damaged and causing his death a few months later. He was only 44 years old.

I could not do better than the explanatory essay penned by Ann Savoy at the National Recording Registry website, which you should read here. I can only add that it is remarkable that, considering the state of race relations at the time, these two men were able to collaborate so freely and beautifully.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Light’s Golden Jubilee Celebration.

Monday, February 5, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Puttin' on the Ritz'


‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’

Composed by Irving Berlin

Performed by Harry Richman with Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore Orchestra

Recorded 1930


Irving Berlin was expanding his horizons. The preeminent American songwriter had already conquered Tin Pan Alley, churning out hits such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), “I Love a Piano” (1915), “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1919), and “What’ll I Do” (1924). Berlin’s music publishing business was making money hand over fist. His Music Box Theater, still in operation at 239 West 45th Street in New York’s theater district, opened in 1921. It served primarily as an outlet for his continuing, prodigious output. Now Berlin wanted to conquer the movies as well.

Berlin, born Israel Beilin in Russia, immigrated to America with his family at the age of 5, in 1893. He grew up in poverty on the Lower East Side, and went to work at age 13 after the death of his father. Self-taught though musically illiterate, he composed obsessively (creating some 1,500 songs over a 60-year career), relying on transcriptionists and orchestrators to get his notes on paper. Through discipline, effort, and sheer force of will, he hammered out hit after hit — cheery comic songs, stirring patriotic songs, sincere ballads — simple, heartfelt, catchy melodies all.

He was there at the very beginning of sound film. Al Jolson sings Berlin’s “Blue Skies” during the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer (1927). Three Berlin songs could be seen and heard in the Marx Brothers’ debut film The Cocoanuts (1929). Now the composer, normally loathe to leave Manhattan, went West to Hollywood to oversee a movie vehicle featuring his music — 1929’s Puttin’ on the Ritz.

The title song was one Berlin wrote three years previously. Long before the digital era’s multiple-platform release strategies sprouted, the music industry was already hip. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” would in rapid succession be featured in a film, released on recordings, and published in sheet music form. The movie was panned and quickly faded; the song endured.

Harry Richman was the first singer to be identified with the song, although he was not the first to commit it to record (that distinction goes to Lew Conrad, who recorded it with Leo Reisman and his Orchestra a few months prior to Richman’s version).

Like Berlin, Richman was another assimilated Jewish American and musical autodidact. Born Henry Reichman Jr. in Cincinnati in 1895, he started working at age 10, playing piano in a saloon with a screen around him to hide how young he was. Heading to New York, he got his big break as an accompanist for established stars such as Mae West and Nora Bayes. He became a valued singer on radio, and served as prominent master of ceremonies at New York stages and nightclubs. The apogee of his career was introducing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to the public.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a snappy, upbeat number, with a propulsive stutter-step beat. The title phrase, a synonym for dressing up and going out on the town, is taken from the reputation of the hotel chain of the same name, founded in Paris in 1898, noted for its rich d├ęcor and its service to high-end customers in Europe and America.

It’s possible to watch faded copies of the film, and in the “Ritz” number Richman embodies the perfect style for the song. He’s in black tie, top hat, and tails, with brilliantined hair, sporting a nasal, fruity baritone topped by a slight lisp. His delivery is corny – broad, jaunty but stiff, almost italicized. He’s Mr. Monopoly’s rakehell nephew. Richman was one of the last generation of pre-amplification popular singers like Jolson and Eddie Cantor, someone who was used to making themselves heard and understood all the way to the back row. All would have to learn how to resize their performances to fit the more intimate dynamics of radio and electric recording.

The moviemakers were proud to let it be known that the title sequence in Puttin’ on the Ritz was the first in film to feature both blacks and whites onstage; sadly, a close examination of the sequence shows that while there is a white chorus and a black chorus, the two never share the stage at the same time — on-set segregation.

Likewise, the original lyrics for the song are highly problematic, as they are those of what was termed a “coon song.” These tunes cast African Americans as stereotyped and denigrated sources of amusement, and were popular in white American culture from the 1880s through the 1930s. The song’s lyrics imagine impoverished, pretentious African Americans literally “aping” their supposed betters:

“Have you seen the well-to-do

Up on Lenox Avenue

On that famous thoroughfare

With their noses in the air

High hats and arrowed collars

White spats and fifteen dollars

Spending every dime

On a wonderful time

If you're blue and you don't know where to go to

Why don't you go where Harlem flits

Puttin' on the Ritz

Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns

From down the levee, all misfits

Puttin' on the Ritz

That's where each and every Lulu Bell goes

Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus

Rubbing elbows

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee

And see them spend their last two bits

Puttin' on the Ritz”

This set of lyrics stayed with the song until 1946 (Clark Gable delivers a brave but awful performance of it, complete with straw boater, cane, and chorus girls, in the 1939 film Idiot’s Delight). By then, the cultural climate no longer tolerated such words, and Berlin rewrote them for Fred Astaire, who delivered the new version in the film Blue Skies.

“Have you seen the well-to-do

Up and down Park Avenue?

On that famous thoroughfare

With their noses in the air

High hats and arrow collars,

White spats and lots of dollars,

Spending every dime

For a wonderful time.

If you're blue and you don't where to go to

Why don't you go where fashion sits?

Puttin' on the Ritz.

Different types who wear a day coat

Pants with stripes and cut-a-way coats,

Perfect fits . . .

Puttin' on the Ritz.

Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper

Tryin’ hard to look like Gary Cooper

Super duper!

Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or um-ber-ellas

In their mitts . . .

Puttin' on the Ritz”

With the new lyrics, the song enjoyed a revival, dozens of new cover versions, and a niche in the culture it still occupies. Whether as a memorable punch line in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) or as an unlikely synth-pop hit for Taco in 1982, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: the Cajun-Creole Columbia releases.




Monday, January 29, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Ain't Misbehavin''

‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

Music: Fats Waller Lyrics: Andy Razaf

Fats Waller, piano

Recorded Aug. 2, 1929


If Ellington is our Beethoven, then Waller is our Mozart.

His was a spirit of life and joy. Anyone who listens to even part of his prolific output can really feel uplifted by his gregarious spirit and musical inventiveness. His constant joking and muttered asides on his recordings mark him as a clown prince of jazz, but they conceal his very real musicianship.

Thomas Waller was born in 1904 in New York City. He started playing the piano at age 6. At the age of 10, he added playing the organ to his talents, performing first in his father’s church, and later as a theater organist. He began composing, and studied under the great stride pianist James P. Johnson – and managed to study composition at Juilliard as well. Soon he was performing and recording without let or hinder.

This recording of one of his most famous compositions is instrumental only – Waller made a much more familiar recording with him singing and playing the song years later. It’s upbeat, inventive, and full of energy, a perfect expression of its composer.

It was written for the show Hot Chocolates, which moved to Broadway in June of 1929. There, Louis Armstrong, director of the orchestra, gained immediate fame by playing the tune on his trumpet onstage. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times by all sorts of artists.

Despite his impressive musical chops, some say Waller wasted his talent by recordings reams of inferior songs for quick cash. But even the corniest of tunes, given the Waller treatment, comes off as a playful tour de force. Those who have examined his entire catalog find much comfort in his giddy presence.

Any time you feel low, put on a little Fats.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: ‘Puttin on the Ritz.’

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...