Monday, October 15, 2007

3rd Anniversary: A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


May Irwin, When You Ain't Got No Money, You Needn't Come Around.
Herbert Clarke, Bride of the Waves.
Scott Joplin, Rose Leaf Rag.
Cantor Gershon Sirota, Veshamru.
Yvette Guilbert, Je Suis Pocharde.
Billy Murray, Budweiser's A Friend of Mine.

Elsie--you will never grow old, will you? You will always be just my little girl, won't you? You must always have pink cheeks and golden hair. To be young is all there is in the world. The rest is nonsense--and cant. They talk so beautifully about work and having a family and a home (and I do sometimes)--but it's all worry and headaches and respectable poverty and forced gushing...By gushing I mean: telling people how nice it is, when, in reality, you would give all of your last thirty years for one of your first thirty. Old people are tremendous frauds. The point is to be young--and to be a little in love, or very much...

Wallace Stevens, to Elsie Moll Kachel, his future wife, 21 March 1907.

Miss Irwin...sings half a dozen or more new songs of her familiar brand, songs that illustrate the unconscious drollery, the lack of moral responsibility, the laziness, the vanity and other striking though reprehensible qualities of a recognizable type of darky.

The best of these, the one that caught the fancy of the audience most surely, was "When Yo' Ain't Got No Money, Yo' Needn't Come Round," but some of the others were talking too, and the spectacle of a plump, good-natured, blonde (or light-haired) woman in evening dress transforming herself, without aid of make-up or accessories, into a wicked colored person of the streets is as startling and, seemingly, as gratifying to the public taste as ever.

New York Times, 8 November 1898.

In 1907, the popular stage performer May Irwin, the first woman to kiss on film, made the only recordings in her long life. It was a valedictory round, Irwin putting on wax essentially her greatest hits, songs audiences had loved her for. And most of those songs were, to be blunt, "coon" songs--racist minstrel tunes or, as the New York Times headline in the article above described them, "New Bad Darky Songs."

There was the outrageous gangster boast "The Bully" (or "Bully of the Town"), written by sports writer Charles Trevathan, who had "cleaned up" a song he had heard black singers playing in Tennessee. And Irwin's "When You Ain't Got No Money" is an ancestor to everything from "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" to "Money Honey."

What's most striking about these records (besides the fact they're wildly offensive) is the power of Irwin's singing--she has far more personality and a more sophisticated rhythmic sense than contemporaries like Ada Jones. Irwin had gained a large measure of freedom through interpreting African-American music: far from the first and certainly not the last white performer to do so.

As the infant record industry had little interest in recording black performers until the '20s, much of what remains from this shadowy antediluvian period are records like these--shameful, still shocking, and without which most American popular music of the past century would be orphaned.

Mark Twain meets British aristocracy, London, July 1907.

Irwin, born Georgina Campbell in Ontario in 1862, was acting and singing by her early teens, first in Buffalo and then New York, where she ruled the stage for two decades. After retiring from performing, Irwin ran a farm on the Thousand Islands (and popularized the Thousand Islands salad dressing) and made a million dollars by selling off a chunk of properties she owned on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

"When You Ain't Got No Money" was written by A. Baldwin Stone and Clarence Brewster. Recorded 21 May 1907 and released as Victor 31648; Irwin's complete recorded works can all be found here.

Feininger, The White Man.

A hundred years ago, jazz began to coalesce from a number of tributary sources, from New Orleans blues to vaudeville to minstrel tunes to "light" classical music. Of the latter, a major influence was the brass virtuoso popular in the wax cylinder era (in part because brass instruments sounded so resonant in acoustic recordings).

Herbert Clarke, cornet player for the John Phillip Sousa band, the Metropolitan Opera and, late in life, the Long Beach Municipal Band, was considered to be one of the finest cornet players in American history. Born just after the Civil War, he lived until the end of World War II. And records like "Bride of the Waves" show where a developing jazz trumpeter could have found sustenance--while Clarke's solo is not improvised, his vigor, showmanship and "the juxtaposition of an articulate soloist with a subservient wind ensemble" (Allen Lowe) presages the likes of Louis Armstrong.

Clarke recorded "Bride of the Waves" five times--this version was recorded 21 December 1907; on Original Recordings.

In the summer of 1907, the composer Scott Joplin moved to New York City in search of new publishers for his songs and financial backing for his opera, Treemonisha, which he had been working on for years. Joplin had had a rough stretch--his wife had died of pneumonia ten weeks after their marriage and he was in poor financial shape--but New York revived his fortunes, setting him off on one of his most productive periods.

"Rose Leaf Rag," which Joplin composed soon after he arrived in New York, shows Joplin's continual innovation--replacing the standard ragtime bass pattern with a more complex figure, for instance--as well as his talent for hooks (the driving, memorable phrase in the rag's last section). On King of the Ragtime Writers.

Bartender letting dog take the air, South Broadway, St. Louis.

Gershon Sirota, the "Jewish Caruso," was a Ukrainian-born cantor who gained world renown (selling out Carnegie Hall on his first visit to the U.S.) via records that he started making in 1907. After singing in Odessa and Vilna, he was named Obercantor in Warsaw's Tlomazke Street Synagogue around the turn of the past century. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Sirota, like many Polish Jews, was trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he and his family were killed during the uprising of 1943.

"Veshamru" ("You Must Observe") was one of Sirota's first recordings; on The Great Cantors.

Finally, a pair of drinking songs:

Yvette Guilbert, born in 1865 to a wretchedly poor Parisian family, rose to become the queen of the Moulin Rouge, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, wearing long black gloves and yellow dresses, captivating audiences with songs of lost love and vice.

"Je Suis Pocharde" (I'm Drunk), in which Guilbert gets so lit on Mo√ęt and Chamdon that she becomes grey (or, in a verse sadly missing from this recording, she feels like "I'm more than a girl, I'm a boy"), was written by Louis Byrec and Louis Laroche; recorded in Paris on 10 December 1907, released as Gramophone GC 33667. On Toulouse-Lautrec.

Teddy Roosevelt talks shop

And Billy Murray's ode to Budweiser, performed here with the Haydn Quartet, is the best advertisement the beer ever had (having debuted in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1907, the song oddly was shoved into a musical version of The Wizard of Oz the following year).

Released as Victor 16049; find all of Murray/Haydn Quartet's works here.

No comments: