Friday, February 24, 2023

The NRR Project: Hoagy Carmichael and 'Stardust'


Stardust (originally Star Dust)

Hoagy Carmichael and His Pals

Music: Hoagy Carmichael

Lyrics: Mitchell Parish (lyrics added 1929)

Recorded Oct. 31, 1927


It’s the perfect song.

This extraordinary composition sprang from the mind of pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael, an Indiana boy who became a national figure in songwriting, recording, and film. The lanky, drawling Hoosier was a prolific creator, and he crafted many jazz standards, including such tunes as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “The Nearness of You,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Heart and Soul.”

He learned the piano at a young age from his mother, and from that point on was largely self-taught. He played intensively at college, where he met and befriended the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. His first recorded song, “Riverboat Shuffle,” was written with Beiderbecke in mind, in 1924.

Carmichael owes a huge debt to Black culture. His early music is redolent of the showboat and the minstrel show, a habit of the mainstream culture at the time. Yes, there are “Negro dialect” songs in his catalog. It reads as racist and condescending today, but was not considered as such then. In fact, Hoagy and few other white performers such as Bing Crosby were considered hip to this otherwise disparaged way of processing reality.

In 1927, he was inspired to write “Stardust,” his first really mature work, whistling the opening passage and then working steadily to augment and complete it. The result is a melody whimsical and dreamy, instantly memorable. Interestingly, this first recorded version moves at a relatively fast tempo, and exists purely as an instrumental.

The story of how this tune became a song is more involved. Mills Music published the song, and an arranger at the company suggested that the song be played at a slower tempo, with sentimental feeling. Mills agreed, and assigned Mitchell Parish to write lyrics for it. They are beautiful, and well worth citing. In them, Parish has captured in words the yearning and regret imbedded in the music.

 “And now the purple dusk of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by

Sometimes I wonder how I spend
The lonely night
Dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you

When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
And now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song

Besides the garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairytale
A paradise where roses grew

Though I dream in vain
In my heart, it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love's refrain”

The slower tempo and the addition of lyrics turns this into a song about song, about its comforting properties in the face of heartbreak. It’s like a lyrical version of a blues song – it mourns, but it affirms at the same time.

The best version is one Hoagy himself later did, a simple presentation with piano and a little quiet percussion and his idiosyncratic voice, playing freely with the harmonies and bumping the song along with lazy facility, breaking off for a lovely whistled passage that expresses its creator’s insouciance.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor).’


Sunday, February 19, 2023

The NRR Project: Bix Beiderbecke and 'Singin' the Blues'


Singin’ the Blues

Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke

Music: Con Conrad, J. Russell Robinson

Lyrics: Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young

Recorded Feb. 4, 1927


Everybody knows about Louis Armstrong. Few, however, are familiar with the other great jazz horn genius of the day, Bix Beiderbecke.

Part of this has to do with Beiderbecke’s short life, and resulting skimpy body of work. What is there is impressively powerful. Whereas Armstrong lived on to be an elder statesman of the music, Beiderbecke was dead by the age of 28, in 1931. But he also produced a different sound from Armstrong – subdued, pure-toned, introspective. It was a sound decades ahead of its time.

Bix was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903. He was an indifferent student, an enthusiastic and self-taught musician, and a dedicated drinker. The last quality would doom him to an early death. He worked his way up from local band to regional touring group to the big time with popular jazz impresario Paul Whiteman. This mainstream work didn’t take advantage of his unique artistry, and he rarely got to show what he could do.

Beiderbecke was a fan of “hot jazz,” the livelier and more adventurous alternative to the staid, unchallenging “sweet jazz” of the day, the kind Whiteman was the epitome of. “Singin’ the Blues” is a prime example of what kind of music he could make if he was allowed.

The swingy, jaunty proceedings are launched by Trumbauer on sax, then passed over to Bix, bounce to the ensemble, jump to Jimmy Dorsey on the clarinet, get a lick from Bix again, then all finish together. The cornetist exuberantly swings around the edges of tune’s harmonics, not riding the melody like Armstrong did. He plays with rhythm and time in a restrained, precise manner. This approach is seen as a precursor to the jazz ballad style, in which no lyrics are referenced and the tune is interrogated thoroughly. It has even been cited as a primitive ancestor of the cool jazz movement of the post-WWII years.

On cuts like this, and “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Clarinet Marmalade” and “In a Mist,” Beiderbecke stretched the boundaries of what jazz could be deemed to do.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Hoagy Carmichael and Stardust.’

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

New book, 'Horror Unmasked,' comes out in September!


Howdy! I just wanted to let you know that my new book, Horror Unmasked: A History of Terror from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘Nope’, will be published on Sept. 5.You can pre-order it here. It’s derived from my earlier Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film, but it is revised, expanded, and richly illustrated. It was a treat to get to update the text and make it current for a new set of readers.

First, I had the great pleasure of publishing Lost in the Dark through the University of Mississippi Press. In matters of getting published, I can only state that persistence is everything. It took 100 queries on my part, 100 individual and detailed pitches, before I succeeded. Since then, it’s been markedly easier.

The nice folks at Quarto Group read my book, and proposed a revision/expansion, and the addition of dozens of photographs and illustrations. Sold! I got to work on it right away, and the the result you see here. My thanks to the editors and proofreaders – they caught a number of tiny details, imperfections that our now expunged and will provide as definitive a text as is possible.

Here’s their very excellent summation of the work: “From the silent-film era to the blockbusters of today, Horror Unmasked is a fun-filled, highly illustrated dive into the past influences and present popularity of the horror film genre.

“The horror film’s pop-culture importance is undeniable, from its early influences to today’s most significant and exciting developments in the genre. Since 1990, the production of horror films has risen exponentially worldwide, and in 2021, horror films earned an estimated $580 million in ticket sales, not to mention how the genre has expanded into books, fashion, music, and other media throughout the world.

“Horror has long been the most popular film genre, and more horror movies have been made than any other kind. We need them. We need to be scared, to test ourselves, laugh inappropriately, scream, and flinch. We need to get through them and come out, blinking, still in one piece.

 “This comprehensive guide features:

·         A thorough discussion on monster movies and B-movies (The ThingIt Came from Outer SpaceThe Blob)

·         The destruction of the American censorship system (Blood FeastThe Night of the Living DeadThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre)

·         International horror, zombies, horror comedies, and horror in the new millennium (MatangoSuspiriaGhostbusters)

·         A dissection of the critical reception of modern horror (Neon DemonPan’s LabyrinthFunny Games)

·         Stunning movie posters and film stills, plus fan-made tributes to some of the most lauded horror franchises in the world (Aliens; The Evil DeadThe Hills Have EyesScream)

“A perfect reference and informational book for horror fans and those interested in its cultural influence worldwide, Horror Unmasked provides a general introduction to the genre, serves as a guidebook to its film highlights, and celebrates its practitioners, trends, and stories.”


NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...