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’.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The NRR Project: 'Fascinating Rhythm'


Fascinating Rhythm

Composed by George and Ira Gershwin

Performed by Fred and Adele Astaire

George Gershwin, piano

Recorded: April 19, 1926

When they first met in 1916, George Gershwin and Fred Astaire were both up-and-comers. Fred was a 17-year-old veteran of the stage, who had been performing as a double dance act with his older sister Adele for years. Gershwin was an 18-year-old song plugger – a lowly demonstrator who played new sheet music for potential buyers, a holdover from the pre-recording era. Eight years later, they would collaborate on a landmark musical that featured this song.

The show they worked on, Lady, Be Good!, opened on Dec. 1, 1924 and ran for ten months on Broadway, then another ten in London’s West End, during which this recording was made. It was the culmination of an annus mirabilis for Gershwin – he composed Rhapsody in Blue earlier in the year. He had finally settled down into a songwriting partnership with his brother Ira, and after writing for topical revues to date, he switched to writing for book musicals (which, unlike the revues, had at least the wisp of a plot). The songs, instead of being free-standing, were to be integrated into the story. Lady, Be Good! was a hit, and “Fascinating Rhythm” was a standout.

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This recording was made in England during the show’s run there. Gershwin’s amazing chops as an accompanist are on jaunty display here. He makes maximum use of the instrument. The Astaires’ flat, reedy voices aren’t musically overwhelming, but they convey the rattling syncopation of the lyrics effectively. The tune is frantically joyful. The idea is that the jazz pulse makes its listeners terminally distracted, but the brisk cheer with which the song declares its conflict belies the complaint. The singer is enthralled by the song.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Tanec Pid Werbamy’.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

NRR Project: 'Black Bottom Stomp'

 Black Bottom Stomp

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers

Jelly Roll Morton, piano; Kid Ory, trombone; Omer Simeon, clarinet; George Mitchell, trumpet; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; John Lindsay, double bass; Andrew Hilaire, drummer

Recorded: Sept. 15, 1926

 Once again, for thoroughness and accuracy in contextualizing this entry I must doff my hat to the National Recording Registry, which features Burton W. Peretti’s expert essay.

 Ferdinand LaMothe started playing piano in New Orleans whorehouses in 1897 at the age of 14. From this salacious beginning, he embarked on a long and checkered career of making music. Along the way he changed his name to “Jelly Roll” Morton (jelly roll being slang for vagina). Along the way, he helped to invent jazz.

Vain ebullient, and ambitious, Morton played all over the country in all manner of venues and shows. He developed his talent, and in 1915 he published “Jelly Roll Blues,” one of the first jazz compositions put to paper. He made his home base Chicago, as that city had become an African-American cultural hub, a lure that drew early jazz musicians up from the South.

“Black Bottom Stomp” is a textbook illustration of what he brought to the genre. Morton was a composer, and he brought seriousness and discipline to jazz. Previously, tunes had been worked out by the musicians in “head arrangements” that were developed in performance and remained in the memory only. Morton committed the work to paper, fleshing it out with arrangements that balanced and contrasted the instruments in the ensemble.

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The tune takes off like a rocket, whizzing through the air at you. This is what was to be described as “hot jazz” (later referred to as Dixieland or trad jazz). At the time this recording was made, Louis Armstrong was making his Hot Five and Seven records, which mark a progression away from fast-paced raucous music-making toward more lyrical efforts. This was the original New Orleans ensemble approach, making up more than the sum of its parts instead of serving as a frame that showcases the talents of a particular soloist. Intense and rhythmically challenging, frantic and madcap, it dares the listener to dance.

Morton’s style was soon passé, and he passed into obscurity. Hot jazz was eclipsed until it returned in the 1950s as a reaction to the complexities of bebop. Recorded interviews with music historian Alan Lomax in the late 1930s helped preserve Morton’s legacy, and something of the man himself.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Fascinating Rhythm.’.





Friday, July 3, 2020

The NRR Project: Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens

Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens
Recorded 1925 - 1928
Louis Armstrong, cornet
Lil Harden Armstrong, piano
Johnny Dodds, clarinet
Johnny St. Cyr, guitar and banjo
Kid Ory, trombone
Pete Briggs, tuba
Baby Dodds, drums
Also: Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Jimmy Noone, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; et al

Comes the revolution.

It’s difficult to overstate how important these recordings are. They mark a dividing line in the history of jazz. In them, the emphasis moves from ensemble playing to featured soloists, from novelty numbers and dance music to a medium that allows individual artists to carve out landscapes, fill them with color, and create new ways of perceiving and thinking about music.

As usual, the National Recording Registry has an exceptional explanatory essay, found here, in place concerning the entry. I can only add my private observations.

Listen first to the recordings that Louis Armstrong played with his mentor King Oliver. The music is squat, tight, busy. The ensemble puts out clusters of sound. Now put on some of the 89 Hot Fives/Hot Sevens compositions. The difference is like night and day. The solos and fills Armstrong provides are full of life, spontaneity. They spark similar outbursts from the rest of the ensemble, creating a patchwork quilt of vibrant melodic lines.

And Armstrong, if he didn’t invent scat singing, surely made it popular with his recording of “Heebie Jeebies.” 

He makes all these innovations look easy, as if they were there all the time, just waiting to be blown into the microphones. (The recent advance to electronic recording made it easier to balance and shade the group’s contributions.) It’s just as fresh today as it was then. That’s the mark of a classic. Listen and marvel.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The solace of old-time radio

There is something immensely comforting for me about old-time radio. During the heyday of American narrative audio broadcasts (approximately 1930-1960), millions tuned in to a wide variety of programs, hundreds of shows ranging from soap operas to science fiction. At present, the massive influx of podcasts has revived interest in audial work, and even the creation of new narrative radio series. For myself and a few fellow fanatics, the old shows are still something we enjoy on a regular basis.

My dad got me hooked on that great first wave of radio programs. I remember working out in the garage with him one weekend in Denver, when I was around the age of 12. He twisted the dial of a battered old Bakelite radio, searching for the sound of sports. Suddenly, he found something different and turned it up. It was Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. The 15-minute juvenile adventure serial was cheesy and ludicrous — and I was hooked immediately.

The local old-time radio show was curated, produced, and hosted locally by the affable and relaxed writer John Dunning. I would follow him around the dial from station to station as his program evolved. Once a week, depending on how much time the station gave him — he was usually blessed with two- to three-hour slots, which gave him plenty of time to schedule a nice variety of shows — he would entrance me. He played every important show (as long as the sound quality held up), and many lesser-known gems, and filled in the context for each show with a comprehensive exactitude that is codified in his immense and deeply enjoyable reference work about the period, On the Air.

What’s the appeal? First and foremost is the idea of compelling the listening audience to collaborate by implementing its imagination. With film and television, the visual is codified and defines how we remember and think about the performance. In radio, you are free (in fact required) to flesh out the story in your imagination. This leeway, this necessity to make the brain work, is exhilarating. When one prominent show came on the air, the announcer proclaimed, “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? We offer you Escape! Designed to free you from the four walls of today . . .” If you give yourself over the process, it’s mighty mind-expanding.

Next, versatility on the cheap. A handful of sound effects, some appropriate music, and solid performances take the listener anywhere you want. You can go to the moon, or sail to a treasure island. You can inhabit the mind of a murderer, or that of a precocious child. It is easier to move into the place of characters via audio than in any other medium.

Then there’s the nostalgia factor. Growing up, I was marinated in the mainstream culture of decades earlier, which turned me into a person of the 1930s. There is something about traveling back in time, into earlier (and, you might say, more primitive) modes of entertainment, which both takes me out of myself and grounds me. Despite the Great Depression and World War II, my parents’ childhood world was a stable one. I identify these old shows with that feeling.

Part of this legacy consists of some very inappropriate racial stereotypes. One of the most popular comedies on the air, Amos ‘n’ Andy, featured white men pretending to be black. The show is well-written, but it leans on and reinforces popular prejudices, rendering it unlistenable today. On the sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly, their Black maid Beulah was played by a white man, Marlin Hurt. Even on the tolerant Jack Benny show, the clever servant Rochester (Eddie Anderson) initially referenced attributes such as a penchant for razors, dice, and gin. There are Asian stereotypes in many shows, most notably Terry and the Pirates and Have Gun, Will Travel. Even Life with Luigi trafficked in obnoxious ethnic types. Replays of these broadcasts require warnings and contextualization. When it came to racial equality in that era, radio was just as behind as everything else.

Finally, the warm glow of sound issuing from the speaker surrounds me and lifts me up. The simple comfort of the human voice, speaking seemingly only to you, confers contentment.

So where do you begin? My list of recommendations follows, grouped by genre. How to find them? It takes a bit of sleuthing to dig up these shows, but the digital revolution has made it much easier. I utilize primarily the Internet Archive’s Old Time Radio pages, as well as the excellent RadioEchoes, which carries classic British as well as American radio. YouTube is also a valuable source.


Vic and Sade

The ultimate use of radio in the comedy format can be found in this series of 15-minute freestanding sketches that took in the “the small house halfway up in the next block” in an anonymous small Midwestern town. For the bulk of the show, it was populated by only three characters: Victor Gook, his wife Sade, and their son Rush. Through their incidental conversations, the listener got to hear about the most bizarre and surreal collection of people (Fred Stembottom, Y.Y. Flirch, et al), places (The Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppe, the Bright Kentucky Hotel) and events put out in any medium. The show was enormously popular during its run from 1932 to 1945. From simple premises such as “40 Pounds of Golf Clubs” and “Grandpa Snyder’s Christmas Cards” came complicated curlicues of contorted nonsense. Most importantly, the players sounded like regular folks, comfortable in their own skins and absorbed in the minutiae and absurdities of everyday life.

Others: The Jack Benny Program, The Fred Allen Show, Abbott and Costello, Baby Snooks, Bob Hope, Bob and Ray, Burns and Allen, Duffy’s Tavern, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Lum and Abner, Our Miss Brooks, Phil Harris-Alive Faye Show, The Red Skelton Show


Inner Sanctum Mysteries

The home of the infamous squeaking door, Inner Sanctum (1941-1952) led its listeners down gloomy and improbable corridors. Each week, it delivered completely over-the-top melodrama larded down with gore, it was something you wanted to listen to with the lights on. The creepy organ soundtrack and the show’s sardonic, punning host only made it better. Sometimes the plots were so absurd that you end up laughing — but it was still entertaining.

Others: Lights Out, The Whistler, Murder at Midnight, Dark Fantasy


One Man’s Family

I am not a fan of these daily/weekly weepies, but radio started the soap opera genre (so named because soap companies, trying to reach the housewife, were often sponsors of these shows), and it ran strongly on the airwaves from beginning to end of the era. Some series even successfully transferred to television. The gold standard for the long, involved, and slow-moving intertwined narratives was this show (1932-1959), scripted by the prolific and talented Carlton E. Morse, who also created the excellent serial adventure I Love a Mystery. In Family, four generations of the Barbour family lived, loved, laughed, and lost together in weekly nuggets of conversation and consternation.

Richard Diamond Private Detective

Not the first wisecracking detective but certainly one of the best (1949-1953). Former crooner Dick Powell played Diamond (his name a nod to Sam Spade), a cocky, bemused private eye who sometimes burst into song to cap an episode. He good-naturedly jousted with his pal the police lieutenant and solved crimes and other mysteries with one eyebrow cocked.

Others: Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Boston Blackie, Dragnet, Gang Busters, The Saint, The Shadow, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Candy Matson

Escape and Suspense

You can tell from the list of other shows below that most adventure radio was geared toward kids. Escape (1947-1954) and Suspense (1942-1962) were different. They were for grown-up listeners, featured top-notch production values, and rarely proved tedious. Escape stuck mainly to adventure and action; Suspense trafficked in mystery and crime, often featuring big Hollywood names in the cast. These two shows drew talented people into their making, and remain memorable.

Others: Green Hornet, Superman, Buck Rogers, Challenge of the Yukon, Terry and the Pirates, Chandu the Magician, I Love a Mystery, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen


The Lone Ranger

The Masked Rider of the Plains was created specifically for radio, and remains its most iconic figure. He was a Texas Ranger who was left for dead by outlaws, but who survived and disguised his identity so that he could wreak havoc against badmen everywhere in the Old West. From 1933 to 1956, he fought for justice with his faithful Indian companion, Tonto. This was kid stuff, but later Western series adopted a much more mature approach, especially Gunsmoke. It’s difficult to realize now that, at least until the 1960s, the Western genre was the nation’s most popular.

Others: The Cisco Kid, Fort Laramie, Frontier Gentleman, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Hopalong Cassidy, The Roy Rogers Show


Information Please

Most quiz shows were dopey giveaways, but Information Please (1938-1948) was different. In it, listeners sent in questions in an effort to stump four brainy panelists, a team usually anchored by columnist Franklin P. Adams, sportswriter John Kieran, and pianist Oscar Levant. It was a funny, freewheeling show and for a time was wildly popular. It is still fun to listen in and play along. (Its mirror opposite It Pays to Be Ignorant lined up three comics who gloriously biffed on questions such as “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”, getting confused, going off on tangents, and generally abusing the show’s long-suffering host Tom Howard. Of course, in You Bet Your Life, the format was given another twist as host Groucho Marx teased the contestants unmercifully.

Others: Doctor I.Q., It Pays to Be Ignorant, You Bet Your Life


Dimension X

Science fiction was a late comer to radio, and again was thought of primarily as kid stuff. However, many interesting ideas and sardonic observations were unfolded through the genre, and Dimension X (1950-1951) was a strong contender. It was reborn (and scripts were reused) as X Minus One (1955-1958). Both shows took some of the best work of the most skilled sci-fi writers of the day.

Others: X Minus One

Mercury Theatre on the Air

“Straight” drama was a surprisingly weak genre on radio. The need for family-friendly content meant that many topics were off-limits. The first show to demonstrate the amazing power of radio was the infamous Mercury show of Oct. 30, 1938 — Mercury’s adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” The production was so realistic that the entire nation panicked. The series was the brainchild of Orson Welles and John Houseman, who first made a splash on the air with an epic three-and-a-half hour adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” The Mercury had confidence in the listener’s ability to absorb complex material, and its mature and intelligent approach made it the most engaging of dramatic offerings on the air.

Others: Columbia Workshop, Columbia Presents Corwin, Lux Radio Theatre, NBC University Theatre

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 wa...