Monday, January 16, 2023

The NRR Project: 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground'


“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”

Blind Willie Johnson

Recorded Dec. 3, 1927


This music sits at the intersection of blues and gospel, and underlines the impulses lying behind both. With wordless vocals, the singer-songwriter lays open his yearning soul to the powers that be, imploring them for relief. It’s a suffering transformed through the power of music to redemption.

Blinded at the age of seven, Willie Johnson (1897-1945) made his living as a street-corner entertainer and itinerant preacher. His music, 30 sides of which he recorded in all, between 1927 and 1930, leaned heavily into religious songs and themes. He crafted many classic iterations of gospel songs such as “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “If I Had My Way,” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” 

These “holy blues” tunes he treated with a growl of a baritone voice, and a choogling slide guitar that was played with a knife instead of a bottleneck. His playing is nimble, plaintive, and articulate. On “Dark is the Night,” he spins a slow, meditative rhythm that is hypnotic. His vocals soar and swoop above the strumming.

Johnson’s work became known again through the efforts of Reverend Gary Davis in the 1960s, eventually finding his musical selections covered by all kinds of artists. 

The song originated in a 17th-century hymn, “Gethsemane,” which portrayed Christ’s agonies the night before he was crucified. By omitting the lyrics, he turns the melody into an expression of pure, universal feeling.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The NRR Project: Live coverage of Lindbergh's visit to Washington


Charles A. Lindbergh arrival and reception in Washington D.C.

NBC radio broadcast

June 11, 1927

It was a triumph of the imagination. That’s the only way to explain the world’s reaction to Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Such raucous celebrations and wild hero-worship had not been seen before and would not be matched later, even by the reception for the returning Apollo astronauts. Everyone loved Lucky Lindy.

He was not the first to cross the Atlantic in a plane; two men had accomplished that feat eight years earlier. But he was the first to do so as an embodiment of the American hero – young, solo, cocky, with a head for gadgets. He was a typical fresh-faced America boy, no cynical professional but an idealist with a dream, and the means and will to make it happen. He was the new continent go-get-‘em spirit personified.

Lindbergh in his monoplane The Spirit of St. Louis took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20, 1927. He landed at Le Bourget Field outside of Paris 33 hours and 30 minutes later. An excited crowd of 150,000 was present to greet him. Unwieldy crowds flocked to see him in Belgium and Britain. Finally, he sailed back with his plane to Washington, D.C.

There thousands more watched him proceed in a parade from the Navy Yard to the Washington Monument, where President Coolidge made a speech and presented Lindbergh with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

NBC turned the event into one the entire country could witness. The radio network set up microphones at three stages along the route, and excited reporters, chaired by veteran broadcaster Graham McNamee, covered the progress live.

The primary importance of this entry is not in its content, which was not recorded, but in its use of technology. Never before had there been nationwide, real-time coverage of a historical event (manufactured an event as it was). Radio was nimble; it could provide reports from anywhere. It would soon become a dominant medium.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The NRR Project: 'Blue Yodel'


Blue Yodel (T for Texas)

Written and performed by Jimmie Rodgers

Recorded: Nov. 30, 1927


Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” is considered the father of country music. But what does that mean?

Country spawned from folk music and the blues, but it’s more polished, and more versatile. It has a plaintive sound, like a coyote’s howl on the open range. It can plumb emotional depths, but it can be sassy as well. All these things are in Rodgers’ music. His spectacular and abbreviated career set him up as progenitor of an entire genre.

Rodgers was born in or near Meridian, Mississippi on September 8, 1897. He was a precocious performer – he won a talent competition at the age of 13 and tried to run off into show business. His father dragged him back and put him to work on the railroad.

There he worked in a variety of capacities, all the while honing his musical skills. When he developed tuberculosis at the age of 27, it ended his railroad career but gave him the chance to try and make it with his music. He bounced back and forth between the odd railroad job and performing gigs.

He began performing on a weekly radio program in Asheville, North Carolina in1927. Through this he learned of the arrival of Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, in Bristol, Tennessee. There, on August 3, 1927, Rodgers laid down his first tracks, the sentimental “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” Encouraged by their reception, in November Rodgers traveled up to Victor headquarters in New Jersey to record more sides. It was there and then that he set down his “Blue Yodel.”

It was a hit. Finally, he was a touring and recording star. He even made a short musical feature on sound film in 1929. Despite his advancing tuberculosis, he continued to tour and record. Finally, after a prolonged and exhaustion-plagued studio recording session, he died on May 26, 1933 at the age of 35.

“Blue Yodel” is immediate, honest, and raw. The construction of the song is simple and sturdy, the kind of song it would easy to pick up and repeat. It speaks to love and loss, albeit with a wry grin on its face. It’s about the blues, and about getting over them.

With this and more than 100 other songs, Rodgers cemented his reputation as an engaging performer, and an enduring songwriter.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

My new book 'Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film' is now available!

In addition to my ongoing projects, I completed and sold a non-fiction narrative about the history of the horror film around the world. You can read all about it here: . 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The NRR Project: 'Black Snake Moan'/'Match Box Blues'


Black Snake Moan/Match Box Blues

Written and performed by Blind Lemon Jefferson

Recorded: March 13/14, 1927

Blind Lemon Jefferson was an early star among country bluesmen. He was born south of Dallas, Texas, in 1893, and learned the guitar growing up. Soon he was performing on the street – initially near his hometown, then in Dallas itself. His high, keening voice and intricate guitar work distinguished him from his rivals, and in 1926 he went to Chicago to start recording “sides”. This he did until his untimely death in 1929.

The recording cited in this entry was taken from his work for OKeh Records, a break from his initial commitment to Paramount Records. Of the eight sides he recorded for OKeh, only these two made it to the public – Paramount’s complaints about OKeh poaching him led to the other recordings being suppressed.

So what are these songs about? “Match Box Blues” is somewhat mystifying:

“How far to the river, mama, walk down by the sea

How far to the river, walk down by the sea

I got those tadpoles and minnows all in over me”

No idea. Blues singers used coded language to broach intimate or unsavory topics. Presumably, the lines above are a metaphor for something sexual. In “Black Snake Moan,” the reptile of the title is really a penis.

“Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room

Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room

Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The NRR Project: Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti/Sacco e Vanzetti


Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti/Sacco e Vanzetti

Written by Frank Amodio/Lyrics by Ranzo Vampo, music by F. Pensiero

Performed by Compagnia Columbia/Raoul Romito

Recorded: 1927

The tragedy of Sacco and Vanzetti is dimly remembered and scarcely understood today. This unique recording commemorates their internationally protested imprisonment and sentencing to death for a crime they may or may not have committed.

The superb explanatory essay at the National RecordingRegistry by Joseph Sciorra does a detailed job of explication and analysis.

On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, Slater and Morrill Shoe Company paymaster Frederick Parmenter and security guard Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed during the course of a $15,000 payroll robbery. Two Italian immigrant working men who also happened to be anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were later arrested for the crime.

The two were convicted and sentenced to execution on July 14, 1921. From that time on, numerous unsuccessful appeals for retrial were rejected, even as popular opinion rose in support of the two men. It was broadly thought by liberals that the men were innocent and were being persecuted for their immigrant status and for their political orientation. Protests for Sacco and Vanzetti grew and became worldwide.

This recording dates from 1927, towards the end of the two’s imprisonment. It was enacted by the “Compagnia Columba,” an Italian-language dramatic group. Evidently spoken-language records concerning the events of the day were not unusual at the time. Here the action replicates a rally on Sacco and Vanzetti’s behalf. On the record’s other side is a sung ballad supporting them.

Despite the scope of protest in their favor, the two were executed on August 23, 1927. A preponderance of historical analysis suggests that Sacco was guilty but that Vanzetti was not. Still, their prosecution marks a huge symbolic uproar in America about prejudice against immigrant Americans and left-wing thinking.

This recording demonstrates a unique and little-known usage of the recording industry. The spreading of popular opinion using the media percolates up into society in a variety of ways.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The NRR Project: 'Tanec Pid Werbamy'/'Dance Under the Willows'


Tanec Pid Werbamy (‘Dance Under the Willows’)

Performed by Pawlo Humeniuk

Recorded: 1926

Once again, I must defer to the National Recording Registry for its excellent explanatory essay on this piece by Maria Sonevytky.

The violinist Pawlo Humeniuk migrated from Ukraine to America when he was 18, in 1902. There he worked with his brother at their instrument-making and -repair shop. He played his fiddle at social functions for immigrants from Eastern Europe. This medley contains a typical number of dance melodies known and loved by his expatriate audience.

At the time of this recording, large amounts of ethnic music were recorded and purchased in America. Though America was the land of opportunity, it also left many feeling stranded, bereft of the cultural milieu in which they matured. Records such as this brought the sounds of the “old country” to life. Humeniuk played for decades, achieving renown as the “king of Ukranian fiddlers.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti’.

The NRR Project: 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground'

  “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” Blind Willie Johnson Recorded Dec. 3, 1927 3:18 This music sits at the intersection of blues and...