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’.

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.’.





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,”...