Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The NRR Project #37: 'They Didn't Believe Me' (1914)

Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian premiered 'They Didn't Believe Me' on August 14, 1914. World War I was 10 days old.
‘They Didn’t Believe Me’
Music: Jerome Kern
Lyrics: Herbert Reynolds
Performed by Harry Macdonough and Alice Green
Recorded Sept. 8, 1915

It sounds like it was written yesterday. That’s the key to what makes one still refer to Jerome Kern in the present tense. His songs are very much alive.

At last. In this marathon effort, I feel for the first time contact with modernity. Up to now, what had popular American music been? Hymns and gospel songs, Stephen Foster, marches, sentimental ballads, minstrel-show hits, George M. Cohan, operetta, bawdy “extravaganza” songs, and ragtime. Even the first great contributor to the Great American Songbook, Irving Berlin, dwelt in the peppy, razz-mah-tazz mode of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) for many years.

By 1914, the precocious Kern, who took the piano very seriously and studied for years in New York and Heidelberg, had been in show business for nine years. He began as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway and song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley, and worked his way up in both New York and London.

When a London producer brought an English show, “The Girl from Utah,” to Broadway in 1914, the first act needed punching up. (The story goes that first acts in English theater could be indifferent, as the audience always showed up late; but Americans were prompt and restless. They wanted a complete evening of entertainment, dammit.) Kern and Herbert Reynolds threw five new numbers into the show, and “They Didn’t Believe Me” was one of them.

Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian premiered it on August 14, 1914, and it quickly became a national hit. Five weeks later, Victor Talking Machine Co.’s house tenor and gifted administrator Harry Macdonough recorded it with Alice Green, aka Olive Kline. Kline was a substitute singer in a church quartet Macdonough sang in, and one Sunday he sent her a note during the sermon asking her to make a test record. She became a popular member of the Victor stale of singers.

As sung here, the song is delivered in a very stiff, 19th-century style. The introductory verse has a bit of hurdy-gurdy feel to it, but when Macdonough hits the chorus, even his essential whiteness can’t prevent the song from sounding vernacular, conversational. The melody is almost non-schematic – it seems to wander about, but it exists strictly to illuminate the meaning of the words, pared-down and essential. (Access that recording here.)

For the first time in American music, someone is singing TO someone rather than at someone. The rhythm is a sauntering 4/4, conducive to the foxtrot that was taking over American dance halls. It tells a story, and words and music serve each other in lovely symbiosis. Most importantly, there is an emotional current running through the piece. It has a pulse, it can be inhabited emotionally, which confers and augments the interpretive power of its performers. Here’s the beginning of the sensitive, insightful, witty, and vital catalogue of “standards” that will remain current, and keep feeding imaginations, for a long time to come.

Kern would go on to create six key “Princess Theatre” musicals after this, experiments in small-scale, believable musical comedies that charmed everyone, moving up step by step, churning out a musical a year, partnering fatefully with Oscar Hammerstein II, creating the legendary vernacular opera Show Boat, and moving on through Broadway and Hollywood.

He wound up writing more than 700 songs, among them “All the Things You Are,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Who?”, “A Fine Romance” – and on and on. And they all still sound fresh. “They Didn’t Believe Me” is a great place to start exploring his work.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the great John McCormack sings ’Il mio tesoro.’ 

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