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

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.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The National Recording Registry Project: Dream Melody Intermezzo from ‘Naughty Marietta’

Like it or not, this is music that got your great-grandparents all horny. Yeeeeeeikes!

Though its music remains famous only as a punch line, the operetta Naughty Marietta was the biggest hit of Victor Herman’s career. We discussed “Gypsy Love Song” from his1898 show The Fortune Teller,centering on an assessment of operetta’s place in American culture, previouslyhere.

Dream Melody Intermezzo from ‘Naughty Marietta’
Composed by Victor Herbert
Recorded by Victor Herbert and His Orchestra

Victor Herbert was the perfect person to transmit the spirit of operetta, as he was a Viennese immigrant with prolific talent and ambition. An operetta is understood as being a short opera, sung in the language of the audience, light or humorous in inclination, using spoken dialogue. (Did you know that Bizet’s Carmen is that rarity, a tragic operetta? Its popularity bumped it up to operatic status, and prompted some to change its spoken dialogue to sung recitatif.) Though developed primarily by France’s Jacques Offenbach in the 1850s, operetta was perfected in Vienna, springing from the pens of composers such as Johann Strauss II (Die Fledermaus), von Suppe, Kalman, and Lehar. Herbert was steeped in the form.

Herbert sailed over to America to assume the post of principal cellist for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. (His wife Therese Forster was the Met’s first Aida.) He soon climbed into a series of conductorships, and composed frantically. During all this, he made time to found the rights group ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

What was racy and satirical in Offenbach’s hands became wholesome and sentimental in the hands of the Viennese. Operetta became the rage of the bourgeoisie, and in America, Herbert was its muse. Operetta companies, founded on revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan and foreign hits, yearned for an influx of original material. Between 1894 and 1920, Herbert wrote 43 operettas. Though he longed for a more respectable reputation, he only composed two operas, neither a success.

Naughty Marietta is set in 1780 New Orleans, and involves a French countess disguised as an Italian girl disguised as an Italian boy, pirates, and such like. The “Dream Melody Intermezzo” highlighted here covers a scene change in Act II of the show. It reprises the show’s signature song, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,” after an exquisite violin cadenza. The specific recording here is vastly clearer and more “true” than earlier recordings — a sign that recording was incrementally but inexorably improving its fidelity.

In the grip of Mel Brooks, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” became one of the funniest laugh lines of all time. His Young Frankenstein (1974) used the melody as a metaphor for the sexual ecstasy the Monster gives to Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancĂ©e. Woody Allen used the show, too, in his 1971 Bananas, in which the cast album is used to torture political prisoners.

At any rate, the next time you hear the song, you might be able to cast your mind back to a time when it was a serious and stirring experience.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The National Recording Registry Project: The Lambert Yiddish Cylinders, 1901-1905

There are many reasons why sounds were initially preserved. Edison first thought of the recording process strictly as a business application. Anthropologists and other scientists gathered speech and music from displaced and vanishing indigenous peoples. Recording was a novelty, not an entertainment industry.

Yiddish Cylinders from the Standard Phonograph Company of New York and the Thomas Lambert Company

20 songs; recorded c. 1901-1905
Vocalists: William Nemrell, Sam Rubin, Dave Franklin, Solomon Smulewitz, Kalman Juvelier, Joseph Natus
Total time: 48:51

When it exploded into a profitable form of commerce, production centered on what the neophyte music producers of the day thought would sell. Popular songs, marches, hymns, classical selections, comedy routines, and the like. Four million records were sold in 1900; by 1910, that yearly number increased to 30 million. The audience was overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and urban-dwelling. There was as yet no “country” music, and even African American music wouldn’t be distributed until “race records” came along in the 1920s.

One under-regarded audience was that for ethnic music. Most immigrants were not interested in their musical past. After all, they traveled thousands of miles to become Americans, and were eager to assimilate.

Certain ethnic populations, however, were more coherent than others. Judaism in particular, with its strict behavioral codes, ancient liturgical language, and elaborate and pervasive rituals, had for thousands of years preserved its cultural integrity. For Jews who could afford to buy music, there was a yearning for the sound of “the old country.” The Lambert Yiddish recordings captured living tradition and helped maintain its continuity. These are also the first recordings of Yiddish in history.

Though the recordings were made by one New York company and finally issued by a different, Chicago-based company, the feeling that these sides filled a need is strong. At the time, the Yiddish-speaking population of New York City and other Eastern cities and large urban centers was a huge potential source of revenue. Between 1890 and 1940, more than 200 Yiddish theatre companies plied their trade. The Jewish hunger for culture proved as pressing as that for bread and safety.

The selections range from the religious to the comic. “El Mole Rachamim” and “Der Kaddish” are prayers for the dead; the lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins with Almonds”) is here, too. “Vayzuso” is a song from Abraham Goldfaden’s operetta Akheshverus. There are a few humorous numbers as well, some by Dave Franklin, “the king of the comic singers.” Of the six singers (all male), at least William Nemrell, Kalman Juvelier, and Joseph Natus all had cantorial training and operatic experience, while Solomon Smulewitz aka Solomon Small was one of the busiest composers and musicians of his day.

One song in the collection seems sorely out of place. It’s Natus singing “The Honeysuckle and the Bee,” a typical and forgettable popular song of the day. It provides a perfect contrast to the rest of the selections in the collection — it’s bright, chipper, and glib, demanding a ripe, crisp elocution of the kind needed to project in the days before audio amplification. Its sentimental disposability has no gravitas, whereas the other 19 tracks have . . . well . . . soul, weight, deep feeling, a rough and ready “realness” which was to become the overwhelming tone of folk music, authentic or not, even as it later mutated into more popular forms. I guess you’d call it chutzpah.

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

Friday, April 26, 2019

The NRR Project #2: The first recording of a live performance

The great inventor Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, invented the phonograph in 1877, and patented it the following year. It was a fragile assembly. It consisted in its original form of a horn attached to a pointed stylus. The stylus touched a revolving cylinder coated in tinfoil. The vibrations created by the sound moved the stylus, which inscribed those vibrations as waves onto the tinfoil. To play back the sound, the cylinder was started up again, the stylus placed in the groove made originally — and out came an extremely crude reproduction of the original sound.

Excerpts from Handel’s Israel in Egypt oratorio
Crystal Palace orchestra and chorus conducted by August Manns
Recorded June 29, 1888

Then Edison got busy with the electric light bulb and forgot about it. Edison the inventor was extremely attuned to the marketing potential of his inventions, and he saw the phonograph as a conceptual dead-end. (His fight against the superior competing alternating current created by Nicolai Tesla included electrocuting an elephant on film.) Until Edison’s competitors had improved the phonograph to the point which it became a commodity, he could see no use for it.

Once he could, however, he got busy. First, as the new technology as expensive, he had to figure out how to market it to consumers with sufficient capital — that is, the rich. He needed to introduce his potential customers to the item, and he had to make them want to buy it. In addition, he need to collect sounds that people would want to buy.

To kill two birds with one stone, he enlisted his agent in England. Col. George Gouraud was a Civil War veteran and Medal of Honor winner who represented Edison’s commercial interests in Britain. Gouraud lived in a mansion in south London outfitted with all the latest Edison contraptions; as such, it was dubbed “little Menlo.” Once he’d received a shipment of equipment, Gouraud began hosting “phonograph parties” — dinners after which Gouraud would demonstrate the machine.

Of course, Gouraud invited only the cream of society, and so the wealthy and the titled were the first in England to speak into the horn and to hear their recorded voices. The novelty inspired many of the affluent to buy this new toy, and word literally got around. Gouraud created a desire that drove demand. Gouraud made sure to invite the celebrated to record as well — poets Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson, actor Sir Henry Irving, Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, and composer Arthur Sullivan.

These artifacts were instant commodities. To date, mankind had foxed the limitations of time and space only with books, written music, and other tangible forms of art. With the phonograph, photography, and motion pictures now anyone and everyone could, theoretically, both “live” forever and be seen and/or heard by anyone and everyone on Earth. Gouraud was building up the world’s first audio catalog.

In this instance, Gouraud visited the big Handel festival at London’s Crystal Palace that summer and brought his phonograph with him. Handel’s 1739 oratorio Israel in Egypt was on the bill, featuring an orchestra of 500 and a chorus of 4,000. Sitting in the press gallery 100 yards away, Gouraud gathered the sounds as best he could.

The results are almost impossible to make out, unfortunately; the wax medium used to capture the vibrations was basically candle wax. Later, firmer and more resilient materials would come into play. However, the diligent auditor can identify the passages with careful listening. The most important thing to mark here is that this was the first time a live performance was recorded – the beginning of a quest to get the sounds of the world down for posterity.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The NRR Project #59: Wilson's bitter Armistice Day speech

Was Woodrow Wilson a prophetic martyr, or a self-destructive jerk? The little pendulum of historical regard swings back and forth. He is often lionized as a visionary who dreamed of world peace and international cooperation. In his own time, and long after, he was judged to be a delusional interventionist.

Armistice Day radio broadcast
Recorded: November 10, 1923
Speaker: Woodrow Wilson

Wilson was narrowly elected to a second term in November, 1916. His slogan was “He Kept Us Out of War.” On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. When the war ended on November 11, 1918 he was obsessed with creating a lasting peace, and he took personal command, going to the Paris Peace Conference and acting in what many considered a high-handed, unilateral, condescending manner. In no time at all, he alienated both his foreign allies and those in Congress he needed in order to see his peace plan succeed.

He barnstormed across the country, trying to drum up popular support for his plan. Exhausted, a stroke disabled him in Pueblo, Colorado on October 2, 1919. The plan failed.

The best material on the speech itself and the context in which it was delivered can be found here at the National Recording Registrywebsite — Richard Striner’s essay is impeccable.

The recording is historic in other ways. It’s the first surviving recording of a radio broadcast. More importantly, it’s the earliest surviving electrical recording. Until this time, performers recorded and played back mechanically, on the same phonographic device. Speakers were expected to half-yell into a recording horn attached to a stylus, which inscribed their vocal patterns.

Electric recording brought in the microphone. Suddenly and forever, the dynamics of performing changed. A microphone could gather a wider range of frequencies. It could make small voices bigger, and vice versa. Performers no longer had to project to the back of an auditorium. They could snuggle up to the microphone and address the listener in a much more informal and intimate way. The Age of the Crooner was nigh.

As for Wilson, the judgment of history may flutter this way and that. He had the best intentions and sabotaged them repeatedly. On this recording, five years after Armistice Day, he sounds sad, bitter, and disapproving, almost peevish. In less than three months, he would be dead.

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.’

Friday, March 1, 2019

The NRR Project #57: 'Wild Cat Blues' - the debut of Sidney Bechet (1923)

“Wild Cat Blues”
Composed by Clarence Williams and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller
Recorded: July 30, 1923
Performers: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax
Clarence Williams, piano
Thomas Morrison, cornet
John Mayfield, trombonist (possible)
Buddy Christian, banjo (possible)

This recording contains a few firsts — it’s Thomas 'Fats' Waller’s first recorded composition, and it marks the initial appearance on record of the masterful soprano saxophonist, Sidney Bechet.

The absolute best source of information on the recording is found here, in the essay Thomas L. Morgan wrote on the piece for the National Recording Registry. In it, he makes a firm case for the importance of pianist, composer, music publisher, and talent manager Clarence Williams in the history of jazz. Williams did it all, and he understood how to make and market great music. (His grandson, the prominent actor, is his namesake, Clarence Williams III.)

The tune is credited to both Waller and Williams; however, it was standard industry practice for the music publisher to get a co-credit, for the sake of revenue distribution. Williams is also credited with writing or co-writing other classics such as “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “Shout, Sister, Shout.” He understood and knew how to work the connections between live performance, recordings, and sheet music to maximize profits.

Waller had just made his first recordings the year before. A preacher’s son, he was a wunderkind on the organ, quitting school at 15 to play accompaniment in movie houses. Soon he would be one of the most popular and prolific performers and songwriters in 20th century music.

At the time of the recording, all the principals involved were young — Williams was 25, Waller was only 19. Soloist Sidney Bechet was a relatively old 26. Like Williams, Bechet had migrated north from New Orleans to where the work was, after years of training playing live.

The approach here is based on the New Orleans style — simultaneous improvisations and embroideries done as an ensemble. Here, Bechet breaks out for good from that template. Jazz solos were largely ornamental or gimmicky up to this point. Bechet maintains the internal logic of the composition, but he puts his own cocky, whimsical “voice” into the mix. The idea that a jazz solo could express an individual is revolutionary. Before, jazzmen were talented if replaceable musicians; after, they were distinctive artists.

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.’

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The NRR Project #55: 'Life Ev'ry Voice and Sing,' the "Black National Anthem"

More than 100 years after its composition, 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' still has the power to provoke.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”
Words by James Weldon Johnson/Music by John Rosamond Johnson
Composed: 1905

First Recorded: April 1923
Performers: Manhattan Harmony Four

Recorded: 1990
Lead Performer: Melba Moore

(Recorded: 2011
Vocalist: Rene Marie

This song, long known informally as “the Black National Anthem,” resonates so strongly in the African-American part of our culture that it merits examination through the lens of three different performances. (The first two here are referenced in the Registry citation, but the third is for me most compelling, emotionally and historically.)

It started as a poem, written by James Weldon Johnson, in 1900, recited on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1900, by 500 schoolchildren in greeting to a visiting Booker T. Washington. Five years later, his brother set the words to a ringing, stately melody. By 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted it as the “Negro National Anthem.”

The lyrics merit examination:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land. 

Now this is an anthem! (In fact, Johnson himself referred to it as a hymn, as he thought the descriptor “anthem” was too divisive.) Phrased in King James style, it states the plain, bitter truth about everything African-Americans suffered. In fact, many times the second verse, with its mentions of the “chastening rod,” “hope unborn,” and “the blood of the slaughtered,” is omitted. It’s not just a prayer, but a dialogue with God, and in that bears resemblance to Jewish prayer. It implies an active and dynamic relationship with the powers above. Its frankness commands attention.

The original recording by the Manhattan Harmony Four is robust and stately. The second version referenced by the Registry is a vastly more dynamic and sweeping version, led by Melba Moore, but including over a dozen prominent R & B and gospel singers. (This was the age of charity/advocacy songs recorded by roving gangs of celebrities.)

The third version is for me the most affecting. It’s a simple, straightforward approach by jazz great Rene Marie, accompanied only by piano and drum set, and she sets Johnson’s words to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is what she did on July 1, 2008, to open Denver’s mayor’s annual State of the City address. By imposing the lyrics on a national anthem so familiar we sometimes take it for granted, Marie recontextualized the words of Johnson’s poem and made listeners think, pointing out the cognitive dissonance of “Banner”s message about “the land of the free” that necessitated the concept of a second, black national anthem in the first place.

Many were offended by Marie’s performance, and her unapologetic attitude about it. Few like to have their awareness ruffled unless they are prepared for it. The singer defended herself ably, reminding interviewers that Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the National Anthem, was a slave-owner and abolitionist-fighting lawyer. “As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist,” she wrote.

And, in the midst of my research, I found myself standing and singing the song with the crowd at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. For better and for worse, its words are just as current as they were when they were coined more than 100 years ago

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five plays ‘Wild Cat Blues.’

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 fea...