Thursday, October 31, 2019

Just for Halloween: the scariest old-time radio shows

What scares you the most? Is it watching the latest horror film? Reading a Stephen King novel? For me, it’s listening to old-time radio.

I’ve been listening to vintage radio since I was a kid, ever since my dad snapped on the radio one Saturday and ran across the amazing local broadcasts of radio historian John Dunning. I listened faithfully for years, following John from local station to local station as he spoke about and played comedies, dramas, variety shows, band remotes . . . and thrillers.

Radio as a diverse and engaging dramatic medium only lasted about 30 years in the U.S., though it is still strong and innovative in Britain (BBC Radio 4, anyone? I have it bookmarked). The rise of the podcast has reignited interest in narrative audio, and even triggered new attempts to enact stories on the air. And, the ubiquity of the internet now means that all those old shows I had to make appointments to hear can be dialed up instantly; much of my listening day is still spent exploring the Golden Age of the medium.

Radio is robust. I always prefer it because it allows the listener to create pictures in their mind. In fact, the medium demands active participation. This kind of mental work is particularly helpful to mysteries, thrillers, and horror tales. Even silly and overwrought material can sound convincingly scary if you turn out the lights and huddle close to the speakers.

Horror shows abounded on radio. Early efforts such as “The Witch’s Tale” and “The Hermit’s Cave” were joined by such fare as “The Mysterious Traveler,” “The Strange Dr. Weird,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The Weird Circle.” The most familiar to the general public might be “Inner Sanctum Mysteries,” the opening of which featured the famous sound of a creaking door. Its host was sardonic, cracking wise and spilling puns everywhere in the lead-up to the story of the night. (The humorous horror host was later incorporated into horror comics and into television’s horror anthologies.)

Radio during that period was a family medium and did operate under constraints, and many of the horror shows weren’t really that scary. Many of these shows were deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Some had formulas that dictated that whatever supernatural nonsense was conjured up was explained away logically by the end of the episode.

Every once in a while, though, something genuinely terrifying would make its way onto the airwaves. Here follows my list of shows that scared and continue to scare me despite repeated airings.

Inner Sanctum Mysteries
“The Man Who Couldn’t Die,” Feb. 12, 1946
The best-known of all the old-time horror programs. Richard Widmark stars as a man who achieves immortality — at a terrible price.

Dark Fantasy
"Demon Tree,” Dec. 5, 1941
This excellent show originated from, of all places, Oklahoma City, a bizarre place to find top-notch writers and performers. It’s just as good as any East or West Coast show, and this episode proves it.

Mercury Theater on the Air
“Dracula,” July 11, 1938
The amazing dramatic experiment that Orson Welles and company pioneered set the bar high for narrative radio; no one ever really equaled it. All of these hour-long adaptations are worth a listen, and “Dracula” is a claustrophobic and intense gem.

Murder at Midnight
“The House Where Death Lived,” 1946
This show was ludicrously over the top, but it was so convincing in its execution that it got under your skin. It frequently starred the deliciously evil-sounding Berry Kroeger, who gets into all kind of trouble here.

The Mysterious Traveler
“Behind the Locked Door,” Nov. 6, 1951
Two archaeologists are trapped in a cave that also holds the descendants of a wagon train who’ve adapted to life in complete darkness.

Quiet Please
“The Thing on the Fourble Board,” Aug. 9, 1948
When an engineer drills into earth, he unleashes an unholy monster.

“Escape” was a wonderful show, “designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure.” The program covered many different genres and styles, and its horror was superlative.

“Evening Primrose,” Nov. 5, 1947
A poet decides to quit the rat race, and hide himself in and live in a department store. He discovers that he’s not the first with the idea.

“Country of the Blind,” Nov. 26, 1947
Adapted from an H.G. Wells story, it refutes the idea that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

“Three Skeleton Key,” March 17, 1950
Starring Vincent Price, it’s the tale of three lighthouse keepers who must fight for their lives when their island is invaded by swarms of rats.

“Bloodbath,” June 30, 1950
Vincent Price is here again as an expedition to recover valuable uranium leads men into a jungle nightmare.

“Poison,” July 28, 1950
One of the greatest exercises in the generation of tension in sound, the attempt of a native doctor to save the life of a prejudiced American is unexpectedly moving.

“Present Tense,” Jan 31, 1950
Vincent Price — again! Here he plays a murderer who gets a second chance at life . . . and then a third . . . and then . . .

“Suspense” was billed as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” and it produced episode after solid episode for years.

“The Hitchhiker,” Sept. 9, 1942
Orson Welles stars in the classic tale of a hitchhiker who keeps appearing to a cross-country driver.

“Sorry, Wrong Number,” May 25, 1943
Agnes Moorehead stars in one of radio’s most iconic shows. She’s a bedridden woman who accidentally overhears a plot to murder her.

“Donovan’s Brain,” May 18 & May 25, 1944
Orson Welles again, in a special two-part adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s great novel about a scientist who preserves the brain of a dead tycoon — and finds it taking over his personality. Part One; Part Two

“August Heat,” May 31, 1945
My personal favorite. Ronald Colman is artist who draws a presentiment of his death, and finds a tombstone carved with his name, date of birth — and that day as the day of his death.

“The House in Cypress Canyon,” Dec. 12, 1946
The new house for rent has only one thing wrong with it — werewolves.

“Dead Ernest,” Aug. 8, 1946
The buried-alive story had been done numerous times before, but here a cataleptic man lies in the morgue, waiting to be autopsied, with no way to let anyone know he’s still alive.

“Ghost Hunt,” June 23, 1949
An annoying disc jockey (Ralph Edwards) spends the night in a haunted house as an on-air stunt. Complications ensue.

Lights Out
This was the scariest of all the classic radio horror shows. They WANTED to frighten the living bejeezus out of you, and they frequently succeeded. And yes, they always did tell you, “if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.” Yikes.

“A Day at the Dentist,” March 10, 1937
Only four minutes of this exists, but it’s a great four minutes.

“The Dark,” Dec. 29, 1937
Again, only an excerpt exits. A horrible black fog turns victims inside out — without killing them.

“Chicken Heart,” Feb. 23, 1938
Bill Cosby’s comedy routine made this famous. A scientist gets a chicken heart to grow . . . and grow and grow and grow.

“Cat Wife,” March 30, 1938
Boris Karloff’s new wife is not what she seems.

“Revolt of the Worms,” Oct. 13, 1942
It’s much the same premise as “Chicken Heart,” but it’s squeam- and scream-inducing.

“Come to the Bank,” Nov. 17, 1942
A man figures out how to penetrate solid matter, but finds himself irrevocably trapped.

“Death Robbery,” July 16, 1947
What happens after death? Boris Karloff plays a scientist who brings his wife back to life, but discovers an essential element is missing — her soul.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: The National Defense Test

What do you know? Live from coast to coast, it’s the military/industrial complex!

National Defense Test
Conducted Sept. 12, 1924

On Sept. 12, 1924, 18 fledgling radio stations shared the same broadcast nationwide, a largely unprecedented feat. Everything you need to know about this unprecedented communications event can be found here in CaryO’Dell’s comprehensive essay at the National Recording Registry; my comments are parenthetical.

The National Defense Test was conducted in concert with something called National Defense Day, a government initiative to promote military preparedness and patriotism. It was deemed valuable to be able to communicate with the entire country simultaneously and instantly in case of national emergency (such as an invasion, though this wasn’t made explicit), and radio provided the ability to do just that.

Military concerns often prompt advances in technology, especially in American history and particularly since the beginning of the last century. The phone company, long a tolerated monopoly as American Telephone & Telegraph, had perfected the ability to transmit sound from station to station using long-distance telephone lines. Under the aegis of the U.S. military, a series of hookups united the stations into a temporary network.

This was not the first coast-to-coast broadcast. On Nov. 11, 1921, speeches from Arlington, Virginia were transmitted to New York City and San Francisco via phone lines. In 1922, two primitive rival networks developed — AT&T’s “WEAF chain” and RCA’s “WJZ chain” — but these were only regional. AT& T’s chief engineer James J. Carty made a speech Feb. 8, 1924 that made its circuitous way across the continent, again through an ad hoc linkage of stations.

The content of September’s 90-minute program, described by O’Dell, was dry and formal. The important thing about it was the possibilities it outlined. Continuous information and entertainment could now reach a mass audience in real time, a bigger cumulative audience than the world had seen before. This meant big business. (New York and Chicago were early broadcast centers; the West Coast wasn’t seen as such until Louella Parsons initiated the Hollywood Hotel radio show in 1934.)

It also meant that the powers that were now had a mighty megaphone at their disposal. Mass communication would prove to be a double-edged sword. The medium was neutral; it would accommodate whatever message was sent over it. It’s worth thinking about in an age where dueling propagandas have, temporarily I hope, superseded the search for truth.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: electric recording transforms the industry.

Friday, September 27, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: 'Rhapsody in Blue'

It is difficult to strip away all the preconceptions about a piece mankind is so familiar with that it could probably hum the whole thing its sleep. I refer, of course, to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or should I say Gershwin and Ferde Grofe’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or, really, of Gershwin and Grofe and Paul Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s complicated.

Rhapsody in Blue (abridged)
Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Ferde Grofe
Recorded June 10, 1924
Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra; George Gershwin, piano

The first thing is to get the facts about the piece, laid out admirably here by Jim Farrington for the National Recording Registry. Evidently Gershwin had promised Whiteman a symphonic jazz composition for a big concert, then forgot. When reminded, he blazed into action. He wrote the piano score in three weeks. There was a problem. George had never scored for an orchestra before. The only “serious” scoring he had done had been his Lullabye for string quartet, in 1919. In stepped Whiteman orchestrator Ferde Grofe.
Now, some context. “Symphonic jazz” already existed. James Reese Europe and his orchestra, who played proto-jazz, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1912. Up-and-coming composer/arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Duke Ellington were already hard at work creating jazz for large ensembles.

However, Paul Whiteman, the “King of Jazz,” dominated the scene. Whiteman came from Denver, where his father Wilberforce was the long-time superintendent of music for the public schools. Whiteman’s classical training stood him in good stead, and he arranged thousands of tunes, creating tasteful and restrained renditions suitable for polite dancing. This “sweet” approach was immensely popular. Whiteman was determined to make jazz legit.

Gershwin (l) and Whiteman
As Gershwin completed the score, he passed sections to Ferde Grofe, who could quickly make arrangements designed to maximize Whiteman’s musical resources. (Grofe would be known as a composer for his light-classical tone poems, such as Grand Canyon Suite).

Can we hear it with fresh ears? It’s certainly a different experience if you listen to the original recording. First, there was the limitation of the medium — they had to cram the piece onto two sides of one 78 rpm record. So, they cut a third of it and played the rest as briskly as possible (remember, they were still recording acoustically, so you must imagine the players all crammed around the sound horn).

It’s certainly exuberant. Gershwin’s playing is bravura, and the band’s performance leans into the syncopation with a manic intensity. You can really hear Whiteman’s influence in the unique globular, throbbing tones of his saxophones — their lugubriousness really works against the piece.

But it insists on itself, its melodies are unforgettable, its pace is compulsive. It’s been recorded thousands of times, rescored for all manner of ensembles and occasions. It literally animates Eric Goldberg’s Fantasia 2000 sequence. For me personally, it will always be that day I walked uptown in New York City in 1979 and heard it underneath the beginning of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

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 National Defense Test.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

National Recording Registry Project: Ma Rainey and 'See See Rider'

“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.” August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

“See See Rider Blues”
Composed by Lena Arrant
Ma Rainey, vocalist; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Charlie Dixon, banjo
Recorded October 16, 1924

Gertrude Pridgett started performing in Georgia in 1900, at the age of 14. She sang in minstrel shows, circuses, and vaudeville houses. She was singing the blues as early as 1902, after she heard an anonymous country girl singing a lament for a man who had left her, and learned it from her. She married William ‘Pa’ Rainey in 1904, took his name, and traveled with him for a time before striking out on her own.

As Ma Rainey, she was a powerful and earthy early blues icon.

She was short and squat; some even called her ugly. “With her thick straightened hair sticking out in all directions, gold caps on her huge teeth, a fan of ostrich plumes in her hand, and a long triple necklace of shiny gold coins reflecting the blue spotlight that danced on her black sequined dress, Ma was a sight to behold,” writes Chris Albertson speculatively in Bessie.

And yet her voice poured out of her, and enraptured people. Said pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree, “. . . when she opened her mouth — that was it! You forgot everything.” She is the antithesis of the idea of beauty of her time, and so was the music she made.

The mainstream (aka Caucasian) culture of the time treasured the sentimental ballad, the military march, the novelty song. The blues was different, and manifested itself differently. It rose up into the cultural conversation instead of being imposed on it from above, via the manufacturers of popular entertainment.

When Rainey heard the blues, she heard a song form that was still putting itself together, raised up from a crop of secular “sorrow songs” that stretched back to slavery days, branching off from sacred music and developing a style and features unique to itself. The blues filled a need the public only gradually woke to. In its heartiness, its emotional directness, its sense of authenticity, it delivered a new and powerful art form.

Here were real feelings, real issues, real life. And it wasn’t all about heartbreak. The subjects were far out of the realm of polite conversation, and included such forbidden subjects as sex, drinking, prison, drug abuse, violence, homosexuality, and death. Ma Rainey covered all of them, a transgressive figure to be sure. With her famous necklace and matching earrings made of $20 gold pieces, she registers culturally as a proto-rapper, addicted to bling. (In fact, performers of the time often put their nest eggs into wearable valuables, diamonds and gold, as these were easy to pawn and redeem in hard times.)

These laments were fueled by the alternately dragging and driving rhythms of the blues structure — a few simple, sturdy rhyme schemes and chord progressions could be bent with feeling, which anyone could pick up on and embroider themselves, a people’s music for sure.

The blues began to migrate into white culture around the turn of the 20th century, in the guise of large, earthy white women known as “coon shouters” for their imitation of black vocalists. Singers like Sophie Tucker, Emma Carus, and Julie Gerity could project sanitized sentiments in the strident, up-front blues style and accordingly were thought of as “red hot mamas,” as though proximity to African American style automatically and magically transformed them into sexual beings. In much the same way, white talent (whither Pat Boone?) tried to co-opt neutered black hits at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Mamie Smith beat Ma to the microphone. In 1920, Smith’s rendition of “Crazy Blues” sold more than 75,000 copies. Suddenly, there was a blues rush, and producers scrambled to sign talent — stars such as Ma and Bessie Smith, and a flock of others — Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey. Once Ma started recording, she kept busy, producing 92 recordings between 1923 and 1928, earning the sobriquet “the Mother of the Blues.”

In “See See Rider Blues,” Lena Arrant is credited as the composer; however, she contributed only the opening three couplets. (Lena was a fellow vaudevillian, a pianist who was half a double act with her husband Charles, who played the trombone with his feet). The body of the song is an old, traditional blues that shares some elements with Shelton Brooks’ 1913 “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” a coded sexual lament that has evolved into “C.C. Rider,” “See See Rider,” and many other permutations.

Rainey’s voice is a mezzo-soprano moan, a brass funnel that could cut through the din of a smoky bar, or reach the rafters in the theater. In this recording, she is graced with accompaniment by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, who add just the right touches. Meanwhile Rainey, almost offhandedly, vows

“I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall
Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball
If he don’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all”

With shifting emphases and stresses that “send” the song.

By 1930, the first blues boom was over. Tastes changed; swing was on the horizon. Rainey retired, managed a couple of theaters, and died in good graces with the church. Her rebellious, bawdy legacy didn’t get its due until August Wilson’s 1981 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brought her name back into the conversation. (And for a real treat, listen to LaVern Baker’s 1962 cover. The R & B star encapsulates the renegade energy of the early blues queens.)

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


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson
New American Library

Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers
Derrick Stewart-Baxter
Stein and Day

Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey
Sandra R. Leib
The University of Massachusetts Press

All the Years of American Popular Music
David Ewen
Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The National Recording Registry Project: Oliver, Armstrong, and ‘Canal Street Blues’

Jazz is one of the musics that grew up during the recording era. That makes it a marvel for obsessives. The history of the genre can be played through speakers, savored, analyzed, studied, built on. Every development, each branching, is there. You can eavesdrop onto the creative process, catch the improvisation live as it happened, feel the tone and color of each player’s voice. It’s a fascinating mania.

“Canal Street Blues”

Composed by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong
Recorded April 5, 1923
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: King Oliver, trumpet; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Baby Dodds, drums; Lil Hardin, piano; Bill Johnson, banjo

That’s why, when a jazz broadcaster announces a set, you’ll hear details such as when and where the session was, and who played on it. Each unique combination of people and circumstances makes a difference. Unlike the Western music that came before it, much of which was predicated on the exact replication of written compositions, jazz was free and easy. In jazz, oeuvres are founded in track listings.

This entry is a perfect illustration of that. In it, we hear the top jazz showman in the country at the time, the great cornetist Joe “King” Oliver and his Chicago ensemble, featuring a new arrival in town, a rustic but compelling young brass player named Louis Armstrong.

Oliver developed as a musician between 1908 and 1917 in New Orleans There were three primary gigs for professional musicians there — in marching bands, dance halls, and whorehouses. Oliver’s forceful melodic line, allied to his mastery of mutes, made him the undisputed master of hot music in town, and his band with trombonist Kid Ory played everywhere. Meanwhile, Oliver kept an ear out for his rivals, and for up-and-comers. He identified Louis Armstrong’s ability early and took him under his wing.

Then things changed. The red-light district of New Orleans, Storyville, was closed down when America entered World War I in 1917. At the same time, the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North was swelling. Oliver moved to Chicago and put together a jazz ensemble there, becoming just as prominent as he was in his old home town. To Ory in New Orleans, he recommended that Armstrong take his place.

In early August 1922, Oliver sent for Armstrong, and the lineup of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was set. They were the hit of the region, with a home base at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens. For two years, the outfit swung together, creating a few dozen recordings along the way.

It is devilishly hard to recapture what the impact of this music was. No one had heard anything like it before. It was sassy and energetic, rowdy and raucous, urgent, full of life. (To detractors, it was frantic chaos.) It made you want to dance, and that’s primarily what it was for — at this point in jazz history, only devotees and aspiring players actually sat still and listened to the intricacies of the music, trying to decode its slashing polyphonies.

At this point, all jazz was in the style what would later be termed Dixieland. Over a percussive thump of bass (in this case, banjo), drums (here the drummer was reduced to woodblocks), and piano, a “front line” of winds and brass played. A primary front-line instrument played the melody, as the other musicians improvise harmonically around the melodic line at the same time. Here Oliver and Armstrong trade phrases while clarinetist Johnny Dodds expertly weaves a countermelody through them. The result is hot jazz, what Armstrong termed a “gassuh.”

Armstrong would play with Oliver for two years. During that time, he divorced his first wife and married the female member of Oliver’s band, the accomplished and ambitious pianist Lil Hardin. It was her who convinced him to leave Oliver and strike out for New York in 1924, where he would find world-wide fame as jazz’s first great soloist.

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.’

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The NRR Project: Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music

Johnson's field recordings of music were saved on unstable wax cylinders such as these.
It is tantalizing and frustrating to listen to old, deteriorated recordings. So far in this epic sonic journey I’ve been on, flawed and incomplete reproduction is sometimes the only way to try and get a feel for what these messages from the past have to tell us.

Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music
20 songs, collected 1925-1928

That’s the case with this collection of cylinder recordings found after being mislabeled for 55 years. They are the sound equivalent of field notes, and they are thought to be the earliest field recordings of African-American music.

For information, I turned to the indispensable Brenda Nelson-Strauss, who meticulously analyzes the material in her “Tracking Down a Legend: Guy B.Johnson’s ‘Lost’ Cylinder Recordings” in the April 1989 issue of Resound. She gives as complete a sense of content and context that is possible to do in print.

In a nutshell, Johnson was a research assistant at the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, and worked on several folk-music projects, most notably his John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend in 1929. From 1925 through 1928, he gathered material at a number of locations in the American Southeast. These recordings served a purely non-commercial function, a research tool, something he could play back, study, analyze, and write about. The notes were, literally, his notes.

These were songs sung by ordinary people, primarily spirituals. Better ears than mine can peruse the excerpt posted at the National Recording Registry here and identify the pieces. Out of the underlying haze of scratch comes a call and response sounding like “Jesus on the Mainline,” incomprehensible voices echoing, choruses rising in rudimentary harmony. One brief phrase sounds like a precursor to “Wade in the Water.” 

The casual impressions in the wax are defaced by cracks, mold, and the pressure of use.The songs are trying to rise out of their matrixes, to come back to life. They are fuzzy and distant, but I play themagain and again. I am trying to imagine who was there, and what they really sounded like. 

The last excerpt sounds amazingly like shape-note singing, which is a primarily Caucasian Christian tradition. If anything was capable of permeating the boundary between black and white culture at the time, it was music.

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

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.’

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...