Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Boots and His Buddies, The Goo.
W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys, There'll Be Some Changes Made.
Charles Trenet, J'ai Ta Main.
Maxine Sullivan, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Fred Astaire, (I've Got) Beginner's Luck.
St. Louis Jimmy Oden, The Road to Ruin
The Dixon Brothers, The School House Fire.
Carmen Miranda, Eu Dei.
Original Yellow Jackets, Business After Midnight.
Crystal Springs Ramblers, Fort Worth Stomp.
Chicago Black Swans, Don't Tear My Clothes.
Gene Autry, Dust.
Olivier Messiaen, Oraison.

A few nights ago I spoke to 1,500 women--women who work picking walnuts out of shells. It was one of the most amazing meetings I've ever attended. There were Russians, Armenians, Slavs, Mexicans, etc...The meeting was presided over by a young slip of a girl--president of the union--she was about 19. This was the first meeting these people have ever attended--that is, their first union meeting. You should have been there to feel the thing: the excitement, the tension. And you should have watched some of these women as they got up to their feet and tried to tell about their experiences...

The employers recently took their hammers away from them--they were making "too much money." For the last two months, in their work, they have been cracking walnuts with their fists. Hundreds of them held up their fists to prove it--the lower portion of the fist being calloused, bruised, swollen. They told of the hatred they feel for the miserable stooges who spy upon them, speed up their work, nose into their affairs. They were really wonderful people. You had the feeling that here, unmistakably, was a section of the American people.

Someone complained of working conditions, etc., the fact that the floors were not swept and that they were constantly falling on shells. One woman jumped up, tossed back her skirts and laughingly exhibited a huge bruise well above the knee, and in the general vicinity of her ass. The others howled and poor Mary, the president, had to pound with her hammer to get them back into any kind of order.

Carey McWilliams
to Louis Adamic, letter of 3 October 1937.

If swing was the gospel, and Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb and Count Basie were the prophets and miracle workers, then the territory bands traveling around the country were the apostles: the unknown, tireless bearers of the message.

Boots and His Buddies were based out of San Antonio, working Texas and the plains states, led by the drummer Clifford "Boots" Douglas. At their peak, in the mid-'30s, the band was one of the hottest territory bands in the country, featuring the trumpeters Charles Anderson and L.D. Harris, the pianist A.J. Johnson, the tenor saxophonist Baker Millian and Douglas himself, who also served as arranger.

"The Goo" finds Boots and His Buddies mixing bright discipline with a raucous southwestern vigor, with Anderson, in his glory of a trumpet solo, bobbing and weaving like a middleweight in the ring.

The band recorded a number of singles for Bluebird, in part because of their flexibility (they could do hot jazz and light "society" pop in the same session) but foundered by the end of the decade (their last recordings, from 1938, are dreadful, with out-of-tune sounding instruments). Douglas moved to Los Angeles mid-century and promptly vanished.

"The Goo" was recorded in San Antonio on 17 September 1937 and released as Bluebird 7217 c/w "The Weep" (basically a version of "Willow Weep For Me" which the band retitled to avoid paying royalties); on 1937-1938.

"What, they wanted to know, was this “love-weed”? How did it happen to be in the possession of a college boy?"

W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel
, titular head of the Hillbilly Boys, wasn't a musician--he was a businessman, sales manager for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, which made Light Crust Flour. In the early '30s, Burrus Mill decided it would be good publicity to have their own string band, and so O'Daniel assembled a trio called the Light Crust Doughboys, which included the Western swing geniuses Milton Brown and Bob Wills (this would be as if, in the '80s, Apple Computer had hired Prince and Michael Jackson for their house band). Wills and Brown soon left to form their own outfits, but O'Daniel kept assembling new bands, acting as their announcer and sometimes songwriter, even after he left Burrus Mill to create his own flour company, Hillbilly Flour, for which the Hillbilly Boys were the official band.

So for pure corporate music, "There'll Be Some Changes Made" is pretty fantastic--if anything justifies capitalism, it's a track like this. O'Daniel eventually became the governor of Texas (George Green: "During the Democratic primary campaign in one-party Texas he stressed the Ten Commandments, the virtues of his own Hillbilly Flour, and the need for old-age pensions, tax cuts, and industrialization."), and defeated Lyndon Johnson in the '40s to become a U.S. senator, where O'Daniel served a term so undistinguished that no proposal of his received more than four votes.

The Hillbilly Boys, as of this session, were Mike O'Daniel and Kitty Williamson (fiddles), Hal O'Daniel (banjo), Kermit Whalen (steel), Leon Huff (vocals and rhythm guitar), Walt Griffin (b) . Recorded in Dallas on 10 June 1937 and released as Vocalion 03902 c/w "Yes Suh"; on OKeh Western Swing.

The Mitford sisters take a holiday in Nuremberg

Charles Trenet, in "J'ai Ta Main" (literally "I Have Your Hand," but you take liberties and translate it as "I Want to Hold Your Hand") offers almost a spoof of a French chanson--Trenet's orchestrated a summer evening fading into clear night, birds singing in the trees, hushed talk about Trenet and his girl being nature's children. Still, I bet it worked wonders.

Released as Omnia 25107 c/w "Les Oiseaux de Paris"; on Boum!

George and Ira Gershwin wrote "Nice Work If You Can Get It" for the Fred Astaire movie A Damsel in Distress (Astaire's attempt to distance himself from the Ginger Rogers partnership, more below) and, as George Gershwin died of a brain tumor during filming, "Nice Work" (and "A Foggy Day," the other standard debuted in the film) was among the brothers' final compositions.

Astaire, naturally, recorded the song first, but later the same year a young African-American singer named Maxine Sullivan, making her first records, cut a version that matched Astaire in class, while also having an intimate bluesy feel. Sullivan starts with the chorus, ditching the opening verse, with its restless rhythms and word-packed lyric.

Sullivan had been discovered by an acquaintance of the bandleader Claude Thornhill, and by '37 was making records backed by Thornhill's band while headlining the Onyx Club in New York. Due to the early success of her version of "Loch Lomond," Sullivan tended to be offered more "folk" pop songs than actual jazz compositions, and she periodically retired from performing--working as a nurse for much of the '60s, for example.

Recorded 21 September 1937 and released as Vocalion 21936 c/w "Easy to Love"; on It's Wonderful.

And the Gershwins' "(I've Got) Beginner's Luck" is from Shall We Dance, the last great Astaire/Rogers musical (Astaire, who had begun to chafe at being tied in a partnership, was pushing for more solo movies): the Gerswhins' songs also included "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Astaire, while a god on his feet, was mortal as a singer and "Beginner's Luck" is perfectly tailored for his charming, modest voice (no one else could've pulled off a line like "Gosh, I'm fortunate").

Recorded on 19 March 1937, and released as Brunswick 7855 c/w "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; on Let's Face the Music and Dance.

Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

St. Louis Jimmy Oden was a bluesman who earned his name from an apprenticeship spent playing piano in St. Louis. But it was in Chicago where Oden developed his mature style--a slow, husky type of crooning; a dense but able piano style; and a sharp, urban-tinged sense of observation in his lyrics. In "Road to Ruin," he tells his woman her drinking and cavorting are going to kill her one day, but he already sounds resigned to fate.

Recorded 29 October 1937; on 1932-1948.

Stanwyck declares victory

The Dixon Brothers' "School House Fire" is about a blaze that engulfed the Cleveland School, near Camden, South Carolina, in 1923 and killed 29 adults and 45 children. "School House Fire" offers basic reportage--noting it was springtime, and why the parents and children were gathered together (to see a graduation play)--then rather pitilessly describes how the fire began and, in some unbelievably grim lines, the deaths of the screaming children. The unspoken moral is a harsh brand of Christian stoicism--in the midst of happy life, we are in death.

The Dixons were Dorsey, who sang lead and played guitar ("School House Fire" was his first composition) and his brother Howard, on slide guitar, whose playing was indebted to Jimmie Tarlton's technique. The Dixons were cotton mill workers, and never quit their day jobs, though they recorded 55 sides for Bluebird in the late '30s, ranging from jokes like "The Intoxicated Rat" to spiritual numbers like "I'm Not Turning Backward" to hard moral tales like "Wreck on the Highway." Howard died on the job in 1961; Dorsey retired, and, spent out, died soon afterward.

Recorded 18 February 1937 in Charlotte, NC and released as Bluebird 7020 c/w "Darling, Do You Miss Me?"; on Down In the Basement.

Carmen Miranda was a Brazilian samba singer best known for wearing towers of fruit on her head. Dancing on Jimmy Durante's TV show in 1955, Miranda suffered a mild heart attack, staggered off set while waving to the TV audience and was dead by the following morning. Ary Barroso was a Brazilian composer best known for "Aqualera do Brasil": he rejected a Hollywood career because it would take him too far away from his favorite soccer team.

Here is one of their collaborations, Miranda's glorious take on Barroso's "Eu Dei" ("I Gave"), which was recorded 29 September 1937 and released as Odeon 11540 c/w "Quando Eu Penso na Bahia"; on 100 Anos.

Soyer, Employment Agency.

The Crystal Springs Ramblers took their name from a club in Fort Worth that was a regular hangout of Bonnie and Clyde. "Fort Worth Stomp" is the type of music the band played there--fast, brutal, and meant to accompany a night of dancing, fighting and drinking.

The Ramblers, as of this recording, were Earl Driver (tenor sax), Joe Holley (fiddle), Link Davis (vocals, fiddle), Lauren Mitchell (p), Morris Deacon (banjo, g), JB Brinkley (g), Jimmy Makado (b) and Homer Kinnaird (d).

Recorded 19 June 1937 in Dallas and released as Vocalion 03648 c/w "Swinging to Glory"; on Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys.

The Chicago Black Swans were one of several groups that the jobbing musician Big Bill Broonzy played with (and recorded with) in the '30s, along with the Hokum Boys and the Chicago Sanctified Singers. The Black Swans were an attempt to ape the success of the Harlem Hamfats--a Chicago studio-only "supergroup" concoction, featuring "Kansas" Joe McCoy and Herb Morand, that managed to have a few hits, like "Oh Red!"

The Black Swans, who only recorded four sides (two takes of two songs), were Broonzy on guitar and vocal, Alfred "Mr. Sheiks" Bell (tp), Arnett Nelson (or Odell Rand) (cl) Black Bob (p) and some unknown players providing the rhythm section.

Recorded in Chicago on 26 January 1937 and released c/w "You Drink Too Much"; on Essential Big Bill Broonzy.

The end of the GM sitdown strike

The Original Yellow Jackets were a territory jazz band from Arkansas, its style "a model of provincial innocence" (Allen Lowe). In March 1937, some American Record Co. producers went down to Hot Springs for a quick round-up of local talent, recording the likes of the Range Riders, Three Fifteen and His Squares, Fats Smith and His Rhythm Kings as well as the Yellow Jackets, whose six sides are the only records the band ever made.

The Yellow Jackets were a swing orchestra clarified down to the basic elements--five hornmen (Aubrey Yancey (t), Earl Watkins (t), Monroe Fingers (cl,as), Clifton Jones (as), William Pate (ts)), a pianist, Durant Allen, and the rhythm section of Jesse “Brownie” Saville (g), Wiley Fuller (string bass), Theodore Saville (d). "Business After Midnight" shows the band at its breakneck finest, a track that boils over with Fingers' clarinet solo.

Recorded in Hot Springs on 5 March 1937; released as Perfect 7-05-71 c/w "The Hour of Parting." On Arkansas Shout.

Gene Autry is remembered today as a genial singing cowboy or the balladeer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but in his early years, he had some darkness in him: "Dust" is a cowboy song out of the Old Testament, with the elements at war against man, driving him down into the depths. "Dust" centers upon the way Autry keeps repeating the title, over and over again--the word fills his mouth, he spits it out, but he can't be rid of it. It's a claustrophobic masterpiece, filled with details like the image of cattle and sheep lying down to await death, or the rising steel guitar, offering only false hope.

"Dust," written by Autry and Johnny Marvin, is one of Autry's more obscure tracks, recorded sometime in 1937. On Singing Cowboys. I don't think Autry performed it on screen, but it was sung by Roy Rogers in his debut film Under Western Stars.

Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

Finally, Olivier Messiaen's "Oraison" was part of a piece titled “FĂȘte des Belles Eaux,” and was written for six Ondes Martenots, one of the first electronic instruments.

"FĂȘte" was commissioned for the Paris Exposition of 1937, where, according to Nigele Simeone, women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes while fireworks soared and fountains jetted: all of which sounds like an Art Deco version of heaven. Messiaen reworked much of "Oraison" and turned it into the "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" section of his Quartet for the End of Time, first performed in a POW camp in Germany during WWII.

"Oraison," a staggeringly beautiful composition in its own right, is performed here by the Ensemble d'Ondes de Montreal. On Ohm.

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