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

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Just for fun: Even more weird Colorado monuments

Howdy! There’s lots of weird stuff in Colorado history, if you only root around in the corners for it. This is an extension of a series I began for Westword, which you can find here, here, here, and here.

The recent unpleasantness has given me a lot of time to go through my files, and I happened upon my old story notes. There are still many, many little-known tidbits from the past still out there, both in plain sight and lost in obscurity. Here are ten more:

Road of Remembrance Gateway
Highway 287 and Arapahoe Rd., Lafayette

Two stone-and-brick pylons bracket Arapahoe Road on the west side of this junction, known as Nine-Mile Corner due to its being nine miles east of Boulder and nine miles south of Longmont. To understand what they’re there for, you have to pull over, get out, and peer around to find a plaque that explains: “In honor of those who served in the World War — Erected by the Lions Club of Boulder 1928.” Natalie Munio reports that the upcoming redevelopment plans for the intersection include preserving and restoring the twin cenotaphs.

Doc Holliday’s Grave
Glenwood Springs

Wait a minute. The final resting place of the Old West gunfighter is a confusing site to see. After a steep but short hike, you find a memorial to John Henry Holliday (1851-1887). And a headstone (evidently the third one, the first two being demolished by vandals/keepsake grabbers) that comments, “He died in bed.” And a disclaimer: “This memorial dedicated to Doc Holliday who is buried someplace in this cemetery.” It seems they lost track of just where they planted him, so be aware that your graveside obsequies might be directed at nothing in particular.

Home of the cheeseburger
2776 N. Speer Blvd., Denver

The Humpty Dumpty Barrel drive-in restaurant (Colorado’s first) was where Louis Ballast made culinary history when he topped a hamburger with a slice of American cheese. Oh sure, others have claimed priority — but Louis copyrighted it. A stone marker sits modestly at the original location.

The empty grave of Robert Ford

Robert Ford was not known for his wise choices. As a child, he aspired to be an outlaw and idolized the infamous outlaw Jesse James. He joined up with James when he reached the age of 20 (older brother Charles was already in the gang). Soon the two brothers decided to betray James for the substantial reward offered for him, dead or alive. On April 3, 1882, while Jesse was turned away from him, Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head.

The Ford brothers then went to the authorities, and found themselves charged with first-degree murder. They were tried, found guilty, sentenced to death — then pardoned two hours later. When the reward money ran out, Bob made money posing for photos, and starring in a stage show in which he had to reenact the murder, time and again.

Finally, Ford starting opening and operating dance halls and saloons. He set up in Creede on May 29, 1892. Six days later, the whole town burned down. Undeterred, Ford reopened in a tent. Three days later, Edward O’Kelley, armed with a shotgun, entered the place, called out to Ford, and gave him both barrels.

Last but not least, Ford’s body was buried in Creede but later exhumed and moved to Richmond, Missouri. His empty grave is still marked, and visited by tourists.

Tribute to a cartoon character
Idaho Springs

Do you remember Steve Canyon? The great cartoonist Milt Caniff created him after ending his popular adventure comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. Canyon was a smart, tough, independent air-transport ace and veteran who rejoined the Air Force during the Korean War. He fought creeping Communist forces and ideas for 40 years.

Hoping for a publicity-induced business boost, the town of Idaho Springs decided to rename Squirrel Gulch, dubbing it Steve Canyon. They even got the federal government to shell out $12,000 to build a nine-foot-tall limestone statue of the new character. The statue’s plaque reads, “This statue is dedicated to all airmen who wore the uniform of the Armed Forces of the United States in time of conflict, and who stand ready in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to fly in defense of their country, should the need arise” and “The United States Treasury salutes Steve Canyon and, through him, all the American Cartoon Characters who served the nation as salesmen in the Independence Savings Bonds Drive May – July 1950.”

Now Steve Canyon is forgotten by all save the last of the Baby Boomers, but he still stands defiantly, Cold Warrior, hands on hips, facing downhill.

The mysterious headstone of Jane Kirkham

A solitary headstone lies along the path of the old stage road from Leadville to Buena Vista, near the present-day intersection of highways 82 and 24. “My wife — Jane Kirkham — Died March 7, 1879 — Aged 38 years, 3 months, 7 days.” Legend has it that the stage was stopped by a robber, who was shot and killed during the holdup. The robber was purportedly revealed to be a woman, the wife of the sheriff or one of his deputies. Supposedly, it was too embarrassing to bury her back in town.

The ski troopers
Vail and Breckenridge

During World War II, the U.S. Army trained soldiers to fight in high altitudes and frozen conditions. Camp Hale near Leadville housed 15,000 men, all trained to ski, climb, and survive and fight in winter. The recruitment and gathering of like-minded soldiers inadvertently led to the explosion of the ski industry directly after the war. Ski-trooper vet Pete Siebert founded Vail, and others followed suit, creating the Colorado ski industry. The statue in Vail is more imposing — 13 feet tall and solemn; in comparison to Breck’s life-size, more dynamic piece.

Solid Muldoon buried here

This spot marks the last resting place of a masterful prank. The prankster, George Hull, was a tobacconist from New York. He had experience at fooling people. He had dreamed up the infamous “Cardiff Giant” of 1869, the faked discovery of a carved simulacrum of a petrified prehistoric man. Hull’s trick gulled a lot of folks; P.T. Barnum then made his own Cardiff Giant and declared it to be the real deal, not Hull’s.

Hull wanted to try his trick again. This time, he made a plaster-of-Paris mold instead of a sculpture, bought a real skeleton, and imbedded it, covering it with his creation. The fake was seven feet, six inches tall and featured a small tail, grafted on in attempt to tout it as a missing link. This time Barnum was in on it, fronting Hull $2,000 for 75 percent of the take. Choosing a random Colorado hill, Hull and his cohorts buried the object and a few months later, on September 16, 1877, a shill “discovered” it. Unfortunately, the once-burned public didn’t take to the new hoax, and the Solid Muldoon (dubbed in honor of a contemporary song lyric) soon vanished from sight.

In 1976, commemorants created a replica of the Muldoon and displayed it for a few years. On July 22, 1984, the replica was buried beside the road, near the hill in which the original was interred.

The Manassa Mauler

If you’ve ever heard of Manassa, Colorado, it’s because Jack Dempsey was born there (or you’re into covering the yearly migration of sandhill cranes). The champion heavyweight boxer held the title from 1919 to 1926, and was one of the iconic athletes of the era. He started out at the bottom, choosing fights in barrooms and winning them. His boyhood cabin now serves a museum dedicated to his memory; only it and a dynamic statue commemorate this pugilistically talented Coloradan.

Cockeyed Liz’s grave
Buena Vista

Elizabeth Spurgeon (1857-1929) was forced into a life of prostitution at the age of 13 (her nicknamed stemmed from her appearance after a childhood accident). Sixteen years later, she bought a property in Buena Vista, the Palace Manor, and turned it into a whorehouse. In 1897, she married the town plumber and gave up her profession. Their graves were originally bordered by plumber’s pipes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

NRR Project: The first transatlantic radio broadcast

First transatlantic radio broadcast
March 14, 1925

For one of the few times so far in this survey, I find myself stymied. Fortunately, no one could write a better explanatory essay on this entry than Cary O’Dell’s,which you can find here. The recording in question is not readily available, and most of it is of abysmal sound quality.

As O’Dell states, this was not the first transatlantic communication, but it was the first airing of a transatlantic broadcast intended for the public. It was a signal that was passed through a variety of long- and short-wave conduits on its way to home receivers, and that signal deteriorated with every step of the process. It’s not surprising that the end result was not much to brag about.

It was a necessary first stage, however. There was not much of a push from commercial interests to import foreign broadcasts. However the transmission of information, specifically news, from Europe would grow in importance as the Second World War loomed. This provided important perspective to millions of listeners from the first generation of broadcast journalists such as William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Sevareid.

Two years later, Lindbergh would be the first to fly across the Atlantic. The world was shrinking.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.

Monday, April 20, 2020

NRR Project: ‘The Charleston’

‘The Charleston’
Performed by the Golden Gate Orchestra
Recorded April 2, 1925

There is little I can add to Robert Rawlins’ excellent essay concerning the iconic song and dance on the National Recording Registry website. In clear detail, he outlines its origin and the stories of its originators. He goes on to outline the multitude of talent found on the recording — including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and others.

Rawlins goes on to outline the advantages of the “Diamond Disc” recording approach utilized by the Edison Company. The technological advance allowed for better sound quality, as well as a longer recording time — four and one half minutes on a side as opposed to the standard three.

But what made the Charleston such a hit? If ever we think back to that era, we see that herky-jerky solo dance, usually executed by a flapper in a beaded, short-hemmed dress and headband. What WAS the Charleston, anyway?

It’s said to have evolved from competitive dancing among the dockworkers of Charleston, South Carolina. Physically, it’s simple. A step forward, tap, step back, tap, arms akimbo. Anyone could do it without the practice or the partner that was needed for ballroom dancing. It’s best remembered now as a solo dance, although a partnered version soon developed. Compared to the smooth, graceful, floating kind of dance done before, this was sharp, frantic, and emphatic. It also left plenty of room for individual variation.

It captured the energy of the day, the high-flying optimism of America in the afterglow of World War I. Hedonistic and heedless, wild. It meshed well with the hot jazz of the day, spread to night clubs and dancehalls across the country. Though its heyday lasted only from 1925 to 1930, it remained a vivid memory. Now its sits on the shelf of collective thinking about the Roaring Twenties, alongside Prohibition, jazz, radio, and gangsters.

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 first transatlantic radio broadcast.

Friday, January 31, 2020

NRR Project: ‘Adeste Fideles’

‘Adeste Fideles’
Performed by the Associated Glee Clubs of America and audience
Recorded March 31, 1925

This is perhaps the most significant development encountered thus far in my National Recording Registry project, but it’s also the most difficult to explain. Well, that’s never stopped me before.

On March 31, 1925, fifteen “glee clubs” (amateur male singing societies) gathered on the stage of the original Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan. Columbia Records was there as well. It recorded all the participants (850) singing the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles” — “O Come All Ye Faithful," joined in the last chorus by the 4,000-member audience.

What makes the recording so significant is that it was made electrically. Engineers had been working on this development for years; it was made feasible by Western Electric’s H.C. Harrison and Joseph P. Maxfield in 1924.

Before this, you recorded by making sound into a large horn, which funneled the sound down to a sensitive stylus that copied the vibrations into a matrix material, like wax or shellac. Once you had a good “take,” the master disc or cylinder could be replicated numerous times.

The process was crude and limited. Performers had to jam themselves around the recording horn, quiet or sibilant noises got lost, and the masters were notoriously dodgy, easily wearing away and losing their fidelity to the original sound.

Electrical recording changed all that. A microphone, or even multiple microphones, captured the sound, translating it into infinitely more detailed electrical impulses on the receiving disc. I can best explain it through analogy. Acoustic recording was like writing with a broom handle in a bank of snow. Electrical recording was like fine etching on glass.

The difference in quality is easy to distinguish. Listen to “Adeste Fideles” again. There are hundreds, then thousands, of voices singing, and on an acoustic recording this mass of sound would have “blown out” the receiver and come across as just so much noise. The electrical process allows the reception of a wider bandwidth of volume — and of tone as well. The range of frequencies captured widened considerably. The vocal parts are clearly delineated in the recording, despite the size of the chorus.

The result is a new richness and subtlety in recorded music, one that change how music was made. Those who could exploit its new-found intimacy and range would become its new stars.

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 Charleston.


Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music
Michael Chanan

The History of Music Production
Richard James Burgess
Oxford University Press

The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles
Terry Burrows
Thames & Hudson

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Gateway Drug: Me and the Kingston Trio

It had to start somewhere.

On January 26, Bob Shane, the last surviving member of the original Kingston Trio folk-singing group, passed away. The event prompted me to pull out my battered and scratched copy of their debut 1958 album, which I’ve hung onto down the years.

Of course, I never have to play it again. I have it memorized. Every song, both sides of the record, in order. I even sing the skips. “Three Jolly Coachmen,” then “Bay of Mexico,” then “Banua” . . . We played it over and over, all three of us kids growing up. We sang along to it, we acted it out. We still discuss it, and surprise each other with snatches from it, sometimes.

Being the oldest, I was the first one to find it in my parents’ sparse record collection. I was always rooting around in everything, and I read, watched, or listened to everything I could get my hands on. I was the first one to be allowed to Use the Record Player.

This was a huge, heavy stereo console, a real piece of furniture that stood in the living room and held not only a recessed turntable that could play 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm records but an AM/FM radio as well!— the multimedia platform of my childhood. I was tested as to my mechanical competence before being allowed to use it. I placed the record on its stacking spindle (you could play as many as four sides in a row), drew the overarm into place, and ratcheted the start control. Magically, the turntable spun, the record clattered onto it, and the tonearm pivoted into place and dropped. Away we went!

There was a warm, thin smell, now lost, of vacuum tubes heating, of thick wires carrying current, a dash of machine oil. The Kingston Trio’s record company, Capitol, had a fun feature incorporated into their LPs (LP stood for “long-playing”) at the time. The labels of the period had the spectrum printed around their edges — a circle that shaded first red, then yellow, green, blue, purple, red again. As the record spun, the label band formed a rainbow. If you stood directly over the record, you could hypnotize yourself as the colors morphed endlessly, around and around. I’m sure that the sight of 4-year-old me staring fixedly into the stereo while singing loudly and lustily along with Bob Shane, Dave Guard, and Nick Reynolds must have been one of the first, but certainly not one of the last, times that my mother must have worried about me.

A word about the musical archeology of my family. On my father’s side, it was conservatism and solid upper-middle-class values, reflected in a love of Bach, Vivaldi, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, the slick syrupy sounds of Mantovani, Hugo Winterhalter, Percy Faith et al, and selected musicals, centered on a titanic affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mom’s heritage was more complex. She grew up on gospel and country and western music, which gave her a solid base in Americana.

But she was a closet subversive. She hankered for the simple folk tunes peddled by the likes of Burl Ives, and the politically charged acoustic music of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Woody Guthrie. She was a naturally bred fan for the mid-century folk revival, and she and we sang about Darlin’ Corey, and the House of the Rising Sun, that old freight train’s whistle, hard times. Poverty and struggle were romanticized. We were on the side of the have-nots. Our house rang to the sounds of Paul Robeson, Odetta, Peter Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte . . . and of course the Kingston Trio.

Now this is not to say that we were receiving the pure, authentic, and unvarnished folk gospel. This was cultural colonialism, not just appropriation but pretty much a strip-mining of folk culture. These were not escapees from a prison farm, nor representatives of the underclass. The Kingston Trio and its competitors of the period referred to by Martin Mull as the Great Folk Music Scare — the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, the New Christy Minstrels, the Highwaymen, the Rooftop Singers, and the Serendipity Singers — were white. Incredibly white. There was a veneer of Caucasian cheesiness that inevitably bleached out the product.

At this time, nightclubs still thrived in profusion, and this was folk arranged, tooled, and produced for middle-class nightclub audiences. It was a fad. For purists, it was revolting. There is casual racism and stereotyping in some of the songs of the Trio and of others. It was a club act. The Trio’s first five albums (we had them all) included show tunes (“They Call the Wind Mariah”) and jazzy ballads (the classic “Scotch and Soda” could easily be a Sinatra song). The nervous and earnest patter between songs that can be heard on their early live albums is obviously the inspiration for the Smothers Brothers’ initial burst of cripplingly funny folk-satire. (Christopher Guest’s 2003 parodic film A Mighty Wind also covers this territory without mercy.)

The whitewashing of vernacular music was common from early days. Minstrel shows were distorted appropriations of black culture. The first jazz ensemble to record, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all-white. R & B and early rock hits were Caucasian-ized by the likes of Pat Boone. And thus with the folk songbook. Whereas bards and balladeers such as Guthrie and Seeger made music out of a desire to educate and galvanize, this was merely an impulse to divert, to entertain. The record industry snapped up the folk impulse and homogenized it.

But the music of the Kingston Trio was a gateway drug. It led me on to the real deal — Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and from thence on to the rest of the musical universe. It taught us that music was participatory and open to everyone. You didn't need a concert hall, or professional musicians even. All you had to do was sing.

It also taught me to work my way back through musical history, to find those overlooked original creators of these real and powerful sounds and give them their due, get them on my magical turntable as well. Then, to understand their contexts you begin to read more history, go deeper, and on it goes, keeping the mind humming with music, music all day long. In this way, I think, the commercial folk groups of the era paid penance for their sins of appropriation. I was a white kid stuck in a white town in the very middle of white continent, but this music reached all the way in through and found me and led me out.

And, whether deliberately or not, this inundation radicalized us. In the midst of the Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement, most of the songs we grew up hearing (until the British Invasion at least) were either true folk songs, or protest songs, and often both. They were stirring, and their energy swept us up in a wave of optimism. We could sing, and march, and change things for the better, in that magic time before the killings of Kennedys and Kings.

So I slap the records on my turntable again, and sing along with “Tom Dooley” and “Wreck of the ‘John B’” and “South Coast.” Hypnotized again, but this time by the beauty of those voices tumbling over each other, that cascade of beautiful song. And I sing louder.

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