Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


The Pebbles, Who's You Tellin'?
Sadie McKinney, Rock Away.
Bill Brown and His Brownies, Hot Lips.
Annette Hanshaw, Miss Annabelle Lee.
Willard Robison, Deep Elm.
Darby and Tarlton, Birmingham Jail.
Blind Willie McTell, Mama 'Taint Long For Day.
The Giddens Sisters, There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.
Al Bernard with the Goofus Five, Hesitation Blues.
Gus Cannon, My Money Never Runs Out.
Hoagy Carmichael, Washboard Blues.
Luke Jordan, Pick Poor Robin Clean.

As I said in my last letter, I am beginning to raise a question whether or not, with the many substitutes for boredom which civilization is presenting, that is the radio, the moving pictures, the cheap automobile, and a diverting environment--man may not lose his vicious appetite for alcohol and use it as wisely as they do around the Mediterranean where they have become immunized to alcohol. If new conditions have change the relation of man to booze, then of course our legal attitude toward it must change also.

There is no such thing as an essential liberty. Liberty, as I see it, is the largest use of one's personal desires consistent with the common good...Once a man had a right to dispose of his daughter as chattel, a right which he doubtless cherished as sacredly as the bootlegger cherishes his right to sell his liquor, but another element entered in. New conditions make new morals. No liberty, as I see it, is stable. Morals after all are customs.

William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette and advocate of Prohibition, letter to Gabriel Wells, author, 26 February 1927.

1927 is the miracle year of recorded American popular music, and choosing a dozen tracks to represent it is a fool’s errand--it's the year of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers sides, Duke Ellington’s early masterpieces, and Bessie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke at their peak; a year that also held the debuts of Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, as well as hundreds of blues and country musicians, captured on disc for a few minutes by a passing talent scout. The fecundity is such that it seems all the world was suddenly young and singing, although the musicians recorded are often reviving ancient songs--Elizabethan ballads, minstrel tunes, faded Broadway showstoppers, sea shanties, hymns, country blues.

Some of it was just timing: by 1923, record companies finally had realized there were markets for black artists and rural white artists, and so at last began recording blues, country and jazz musicians in substantial numbers; by 1925, the electrical recording process had supplanted the acoustic, giving records far greater fidelity, and, even more importantly, it meant that recording equipment was now portable, allowing producers to range into the wilderness and come back with sound.

So the records of 1927 were the fruit of happy circumstance: it was as though from every hamlet, from every attic and parlor, nightclub and pool hall, people suddenly brought out treasures to be appraised and purchased in the sunlight. There may never be a time like it again, and all one can do is sift through the records from this, the springtide of American popular music, and just be whelmed.

Demuth, My Egypt.

The magnificent, mysterious Pebbles: who were they? There are only a handful of references to them: a pair of blues singers and ukulele players named Baxter White and Alphonsus Agee (or Alphonso Ogee). While they recorded their four sides in Chicago, they likely were from the South, or possibly St. Louis. The historian Allen Lowe ventured The Pebbles were a vaudeville act ("they were the pop/jazz people of their day...a well-rehearsed product of personal and community tastes.") "Who's You Tellin'?" on one listen seems to invoke the Delmore Brothers, on another, the Ink Spots.

Recorded 7 June 1927 and released as Victor 21429 c/w "I Mean, It's Just Too Bad"; on That Devilin' Tune.

And Sadie McKinney, a territory singer from Memphis, made a few riotous sides in the late '20s backed by cornetist Charley Williamson and pianist James Alston. On "Rock Away" she does just that.

Recorded in Memphis on 24 February 1927, released as Victor 20565, c/w "Brownskin Flapper." On Memphis Stomp.

Yet another lost ghost: Bill Brown was a trombonist and bandleader who recorded four sides for Brunswick in 1927 and 1929 (the '29 session was with a different band, leading one to imagine Brown had revamped his group in the hopes of getting a hit. No luck.) He and his band played in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around this time, but the trail ends there--by the end of the '20s, Brown vanishes into the crowd, never to be heard from again.

"Hot Lips," written by Paul Whiteman sideman Henry Busse, was recorded by Brown and the Brownies in New York on St. Patrick's Day 1927; released as Brunswick 7003 c/w "Bill Brown Blues"; on Down in the Basement (where all information on Brown comes from).

De Lempicka, Portrait of Margery Perry

Annette Hanshaw is often lumped into the '20s vogue for "flapper" pop singers, but Hanshaw was far more than that--she was one of the best white female jazz singers of the era, a "Prohibition canary, full of jazz inflection and flapper indifference to the ways of day folks" (Lowe). Charming, wry and possessing an early hipster cool, Hanshaw, after a decade or so of fame, quit performing in 1935 and never looked back.

"Miss Annabelle Lee" was recorded in August 1927 and released as Pathé Actuelle 32283/11523. Only available on That Devilin' Tune Vol. 2.

Hanshaw's only filmed appearance, from 1933, in which she gets the introduction: "Watch your husbands, ladies."

Curtis St., Denver

Willard Robison, born in Shelbina, Mo., in 1894, was a bandleader and composer, known today for a handful of standards like “A Cottage For Sale," "Old Folks" and “Don't Smoke in Bed." Robison specialized in quiet etudes on small-town Southern life. His masterpiece “Deep Elm," while it's an ode to Dallas' red-light district, still manages to capture the density and lassitude of a summer afternoon below the Mason-Dixon line. Robison’s vocal is a world apart from the hectoring, hammy vocals of the first two decades of recorded pop music--there's at last a sense of space, of rhythm: of swing, in other words.

Robison started out leading a few territory jazz/pop bands in the early ‘20s and later in the decade he moved to New York, where he led groups like the Levee Loungers and the Deep River Boys. In the words of Alec Wilder, Robison lived "an almost euphoric life...but generally his songs were known only to a few singers and lovers of the off-beat and the non-urban song. He had a special flair for gentleness and childhood, the lost and the religious."

"Deep Elm," sometimes appended with "(You Tell 'Em I'm Blue)", was first recorded by Henry Busse and Busse's Buzzards in 1925; Robison's solo version, essentially a songwriter's demo after the fact, was recorded in October 1927. Not on CD at present.

Bonnard, Fleurs Rouges

Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton's version of "Birmingham Jail" was one of the first versions of the traditional ballad to be recorded. It's dominated by Tarlton's steel guitar and clear, yearning tenor, while Darby offers a crafty finger-picking style on guitar--all of it saturated in the blues, though it also sounds a bit Mexican. Tarlton, a sharecropper's son, started out playing the banjo and eventually switched to guitar, learning to play bottleneck from black fieldhands, and learning steel from a Hawaiian guitarist named Frank Ferera. As a steel bar, Tarlton used a wrist pin he took from an engine block. By the time he met Darby in the mid-'20s, Tarlton had bummed around the country for years, working in cotton fields and oil fields, and even spending time in Birmingham jail. Darby and Tarlton never liked each other--their partnership had been primarily a commercial one--and broke up in 1933.

"Birmingham Jail" was recorded in Atlanta on 10 November 1927, released as Columbia 15212 c/w "Columbus Stockade Blues"--the single sold some 200,000 copies, and Darby & Tarlton got about $75 for it; on a cheap boxed set everyone should own.

Herbert Hoover meets the WWII generation

Blind Willie McTell's "Mama T'ain't Long For Day" begins with a brief rumination on guitar, and then the skies open.

Recorded 18 October 1927 and released as Victor 21474 c/w "Writin' Paper Blues"; on The Classic Years.

Murnau's Sunrise

"There is Fountain Filled With Blood" is a hymn written by the poet William Cowper soon after a suicide attempt in the 1770s. It traveled to America along with the Scots-Irish, evolved into a ballad sung in churches and front parlors, and was put on record in 1927 by the Giddens Sisters, of whom nothing else is known--where they were born, when they died, even their first names.

"Fountain" is relentless in its fervor--there is ecstasy here, of a grim sort.

Recorded 1 June 1927 and released decades later on the Library of Congress LP Folk Music in America, Vol.15, Religious Music.

Al Bernard came to New York City in a traveling minstrel show, just after the end of the First World War, and stayed there, spending the '20s in vaudeville, on the radio and making records (sometimes duets with Ernest Hare, in which Bernard sang like a woman). He was known as "The Boy From Dixie," and while considered an embarrassment for his often racist music by later generations, Bernard proved to be the link between the dying minstrel music and its successors like Western swing.

"Hesitation Blues," a traditional song tuned up by a variety of songwriters, including W.C. Handy, is performed here by Bernard and the Goofus Five, who were a studio group, and who were more than five--Chelsea Quealey (t), Al Philburn (tb), Bobby Davis (alto sax), Al Duffy (violin), Irving Brodsky (p), Tommy Felline (g), Herb Weill (d).

"Hesitation Blues" was recorded in New York on 14 November 1927 and released as OKeh 40962; on Country Swingtime. Some of Bernard's earlier tracks are compiled here.

Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors--Ford Plant

"My Money Never Runs Out" was originally called "My Money Never Gives Out," a minstrel song written by Irving Jones, a 19th Century African-American comedian and songwriter. Like Bert Williams' "Nobody," "My Money Never Runs Out" is a comic riff that conceals a sharp blade--it's a fantasy of high, free living performed by a singer who has had to scrape by since birth.

Gus Cannon, born in 1883 in Memphis, the son of slaves, made his first banjo from a bread pan and a severed guitar neck. As Nick Tosches wrote in Where Dead Voices Gather, Cannon's work, along with other early bluesmen like Papa Charlie Jackson, is where "the interminglings of latter-day minstrelsy, the Tin Pan Alley coon song, the black songster tradition and the early blues are most pronounced."

"My Money Never Runs Out" was recorded by Cannon under the name Banjo Joe sometime in November 1927 and released as Paramount 12604; on Walk Right In.

In listening to Hoagy Carmichael's "Washboard Blues," what is first apparent, besides the quality and relaxed tone of Carmichael's singing, is how much empathy there is--Carmichael sings in the voice of a black washerwoman, and there isn't a trace of condescension, of mockery, but rather the overall sense is of dignity, of an aspect of the human condition appraised and captured, for a moment. Take the way Carmichael murmurs "hurry...hurry day," in the voice of someone who knows well how long the workday can endure.

"Washboard Blues" is also a phenomenal piece of music--rather than a verse-chorus-verse structure, it's more one long, meandering melodic line (Alec Wilder), so that it parallels the river the singer spends her days beside. The composition is stacked with time shifts, sudden octave-wide leaps, and wild changes in instrumentation (in the midst of a lament, there's suddenly a hot jazz break, hushed by a cymbal), so that even though the song is only four and a quarter minutes long, it seems to travel the distance of a weary lifetime.

Recorded 18 November 1927 with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and released as Victor 35877; on Riverboat Shuffle.

Watching the Mississippi River flood Caernarvon Crevasse, south of New Orleans

In 1962, for an article for the Saturday Review, Ralph Ellison told how Charlie Parker had gotten the nickname "Bird," a line of thought that, expanding, ventured into various types of symbolic birds, myth and ritual, until Ellison had reached a memory of the Blue Devils Orchestra, the precursor of Count Basie's band, which Ellison had known as a kid. Ellison recalled the Blue Devils, in the '30s, playing a song called "They Picked Poor Robin," which he described as a jazz community joke, "played to satirize some betrayal of faith or loss of love observed from the bandstand." It was often played at funerals, serving as the signal for the mourners to shake off the blues and dance.

Poor robin was picked again and again, and his pluckers were ever unnamed and mysterious. Yet the tune was inevitably productive of laughter even when we ourselves were its object. For each of us recognized that his fate was somehow our own. Our defeats and failures, even our final defeat by death, were loaded upon his back and given ironic significance and thus made more bearable.

Luke Jordan, a black guitarist from the Virginia piedmont, recorded a version of that song in 1927, called "Pick Poor Robin Clean," whose depths cannot be sounded; its lyrics are simple, yet unknowable, and Jordan betrays none of its secrets, offering menace and levity in one breath, his guitar forever on the move. You could sing a child to sleep with "Poor Robin," yet it's also terrifying.

Now if you have that
gal o'mine
Gonna have your ma,
Your sister two,
your auntie three.
If your great-grandmammy do shivaree I'm gonna have her four,
I'm satisfied keepin' up the family.

Recorded 16 August 1927 and released as Victor 20957 (it sold exactly 5,973 copies); on Before the Blues Vol. 3.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Eddie Cantor, That's the Kind of Baby For Me.
Herbert Payne, Smoke Clouds.
Earl Fuller's Famous Jass Band, Slippery Hank.
Gene Greene, Riff Johnson's Harmony Band.
Frank Banta and Howard Kopp, Calico Rag.
Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, St. Louis Blues.
Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1: Moderato.

At long last there's butter, flour and chocolate in the house. But not much of it: only two small squares of chocolate each! It has been so long, it brings back memories of breakfasts before the war. We are having a hard time. It is very cold, which increases your appetite. My older brothers go to work in thick boots to keep their feet warm. But we have faith in France and God, and comfort ourselves with the thought that over in Germany they are almost as unhappy as we are. There is famine in all the big cities: Berlin, Dresden and Bavaria; I hope they all die!

Yves Congar, 13, living under German occupation in Sedan, northeast France; diary entry of 21 December 1917.

Eddie Cantor made his Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, wearing blackface (he sometimes would black up to play the son of Bert Williams), and for the next fifty years was never out of show business, almost relentless in his ability to entertain. He made records, movies, starred in musicals; he made a million dollars, lost it all in the stock market crash, and made some of it back by writing a book called Caught Short! Later on in life, he hosted radio programs and television talk shows like The Colgate Comedy Hour, where he once terrified sponsors by wiping Sammy Davis Jr.'s forehead with a handkerchief.

Born Edward Israel Iskowitz in 1892, the son of Russian Jews, Cantor was a spiritual patriarch of modern Jewish humor--his voice is found in everyone from Mel Brooks to the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis to Larry David. "That's the Kind of Baby For Me," one of Cantor's first records, showcases Cantor as the most shameless golddigger imaginable, delivering in his classic New York accent lines like:

The other evening in a cabaret we spent
And when I saw the check I thought it was the rent
But when the waiter came
She simply signed her name
That's the kind of a baby for me!

Recorded 12 July 1917 and released as Victor 18342; on Makin' Whoopee with 'Banjo Eyes'.

British labor delegation to Russia during the revolution

Among the benefactors of the First World War were fascism, Soviet communism, Dadaism, as well as wristwatch and cigarette manufacturers.

Before the war, smoking generally had meant cigars and pipes, but as months and then years of trench warfare ground on, soldiers began being issued cigarettes in bulk (this was the heyday of Woodbine Willie, the Anglican priest who would distribute unfiltered Woodbine cigarettes to soldiers he visited). The result was, unsurprisingly, the making of the cigarette industry (war was good for smoking--the Second World War would create the greatest generation of smokers in the history of the world).

Herbert Payne’s “Smoke Clouds” is an ode to the fleeting pleasure a cigarette provided a soldier in Ypres or the Somme. Released as Zonophone 1889; find here.

Grosz, Metropolis

"Slippery Hank": jazz about five minutes after its birth, kicking and wailing like all hell. The drummer offers machine gun fire, the trombonist lows, the clarinet player howls above the rest.

Writing of Earl Fuller's Famous Jass Band in his Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller, while disparaging the band's "ricky-tick rhythms" and monotonous arrangements, conceded that the band's records still have "a crude form of excitement."

Earl Fuller's Jass Band came about because Victor Records, having lost the popular Original Dixieland Jazz Band, were desperately looking for a rival "jazz" recording act. So Victor contacted Fuller, who had been leading a dance band at Rector's Restaurant in New York, and he brought together Walter Kahn on cornet, Harry Raderman (trombone), John Lucas (drums) and future bandleader and clarinet player Ted Lewis.

"Slippery Hank" was the band's first track, recorded 4 June 1917 and released in September as Victor 18321 c/w "Yah-De-Dah". On Ragtime to Jazz.

Gene Greene's “Riff Johnson’s Harmony Band” is similar to Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in that both songs, while not technically either jazz or ragtime, still catch enough of a taste of the music that they stand out from the more staid popular compositions of the day. And the average person's first taste of the new music likely came in this form.

Greene, born in 1877, was known in vaudeville as "The Ragtime King" and was famous for his 1911 record "King of the Bungaloos," at the end of which he even scatted a chorus. Greene's vocal on "Riff Johnson" is a bit grating and corny, but you can't deny his enthusiasm--jazz needed such ambassadors.

Recorded 9 March 1917 and released as Victor 18266; on Real Ragtime.

Picabia, Novia

“Calico Rag”: an odd bird, this--a duet between the drummer Howard Kopp and pianist Frank Banta, in which Kopp, due to the limitations of acoustic recording, sonically dominates the performance with a series of runs on woodblocks, bells and snare that could serve as incidental music to any Essanay silent comedy. More interesting is Banta’s piano playing, a hybrid of ragtime and emerging jazz styles, where Banta "understands the idea of swing [and] the need to alternate exertion with relaxation, to let the music reach its own conclusions" (Allen Lowe).

Banta, son of a New York Metropolitan Opera conductor, was a virtuoso session pianist who played on hundreds of records throughout the '10s and ‘20s, backing Arthur Fields, Fred van Eps, Aileen Stanley and possibly even Mamie Smith, as well as his own performances, including the first-ever recording of “Ain’t She Sweet." Kopp also was a regular session player until the mid-'20s.

Recorded 7 March 1917 and released as Columbia A2241 c/w “Money Blues”; on the amazing collection That Devilin’ Tune Vol. 1 (where many of the 1917 tunes featured here can be found).

Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, a West Indian/African-American string band that was the house band of Ciro’s Club, London, during WWI (the horrific name was likely suggested by the club owners), was one of the first black bands to make records, one of which was an early interpretation of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” The earliest recorded version of Handy’s blues is said to be Prince’s Orchestra’s instrumental recording from 1915, but the Ciro’s Club disc is the first to use Handy’s lyrics.

The Ciro's Club orchestra was led by Jamaican-born pianist and bandleader Dan Kildare, who had worked with James Reese Europe and who, like Europe, recognized the importance of making recordings. For all their modern leanings, however, the Ciro's Club Orchestra is also a throwback to earlier black musical styles, as rather than brass, its emphasis is on string instruments like banjo, banjoline and cello.

Recorded September 1917 and released as UK Columbia 699; on That Devilin' Tune (and Emusic/Napster).

In October 1917, when the Bolsheviks began their campaign to seize control of Russia, a young Ukrainian-born composer was hiking in the Caucasus Mountains, having recently finished a number of works, including his first symphony and first violin concerto. The violin concerto was supposed to premiere in November but the Revolution intervened (the concerto wouldn't debut until 1923).

Soon afterward Sergei Prokofiev left Russia and spent the next fifteen years of his life on the move, first Japan, then America, France and Germany, until Prokofiev finally returned to Russia at the height of the Stalinist terror.

After 1938, Prokofiev spent the rest of his life in the USSR, sometimes a few steps away from the gulag, which claimed his friends and even his ex-wife--his work, and unsurprisingly his health, declined. He and Stalin would die within hours of each other in 1953; the demands of Stalin’s grandiose warlord funeral wiped out the stocks of Moscow florists, leaving Prokofiev’s handful of mourners (including Shostakovich) to make do with paper flowers.

Here is the gorgeous last movement of Prokofiev's first violin concerto in D major, Op. 19, (moderato--allegro moderato--moderato--piu tranquillo); it is youth and beauty existing apart from the weariness of politics, time and history. (This performance, by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn, features the soloist Gil Shaham and can be found here; some details on Prokofiev from Alex Ross' new book.)

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 Moët 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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Rocketing

Tom Baker, Ode to Homo Sapiens.
Elton John, Rocket Man.
Sun Ra, We Travel the Spaceways.
Television, The Rocket.
Lee Harvey Oswald Band, Rocket 69.
Destroyer, The Space Race.
Jerry Engler, Sputnik (Satellite Girl).
The Divine Comedy, Laika's Theme.
The Five Du-Tones, The Chicken Astronaut.
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, Moonshot.
David Bowie, Space Oddity (demo).
Peter Schilling, Major Tom (Coming Home).
The Rolling Stones, 2000 Light Years from Home.
Devo, Space Girl Blues.
Sheila and B. Devotion, Spacer.
Klaatu, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.
Bill Murray, Star Wars Theme.
Culture, Black Starliner Must Come.

Some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket; they start building a bomb shelter. I don't think it's ridiculous to assume that we're looking for other planets because this one will end.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Mad Men.

1975: Stuart Roosa, command module pilot for Apollo 14, and his wife Joan are in Nepal on a goodwill mission for the State Department, during which Roosa gives a talk at a school. After his speech, one child asks who Roosa had seen on the moon. Roosa says he saw no one, to gasps and murmurs. The students keep pressing Roosa, asking over and over whether he had seen anyone on the moon. Roosa, baffled, finally snaps: "There is no one there. There is nothing there. Not even wind. There is nothing."

A State Department official later tells Roosa that many Nepalese believe the spirits of their ancestors live on the moon. So Roosa basically had told the children that there was no heaven.

1976: The Roosas are now in Egypt, and they visit a granite quarry near Aswan, where there is a ruined obelisk from roughly 3500 B.C. Had it been completed, the obelisk would have stood some 140 feet high, but at some point it had been abandoned by its builders and now lies in pieces, barely discernible from the rocks of the quarry.

The sight reminds Roosa of the defunct Apollo program. "It's like we started building this beautiful thing and we quit," he says years later. "History will not be kind to us, because we were stupid."

Tom Baker's ode to the feats of homo sapiens is from the great Doctor Who serial "The Ark in Space" from 1974, in which the Doctor marvels (in the way we would marvel at an extravagant ant colony) at the sight of a group of humans in suspended animation, having escaped a catastrophe that left Earth lifeless.

The Last Launch

1972: On the evening of December 6, when a newly re-elected Richard Nixon is in Washington, when Harry Truman lies dying in a Kansas City hospital, the last manned lunar mission, Apollo 17, lifts off from Florida and enters space.

There is a general, if unspoken sense that this is the end: the last moon launch many will see in their lifetimes. In the stands watching the launch at Cape Kennedy, there is an odd assortment of people: Tom Wolfe, covering the launch for Rolling Stone; Charlie Smith, a 130-year-old man believed to be the oldest living American; and Ahmet Ertegun, who plays backgammon in the grass.

Playing on a transistor radio is the previous summer's hit, Elton John's "Rocket Man," in which space travel has become just another long commute. It's a song inspired by a Ray Bradbury story, or it's about drugs, or maybe about being a parent. The most telling lines, though, come in the chorus: I think it's going to be a long, long time...

(Not heard on the radio, but playing somewhere in America is Sun Ra's "We Travel the Spaceways." One can imagine Sun Ra watching the moon launch on television, and scoffing. On We Travel the Spaceways, from 1961.)

The crew of Apollo 17 is Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt. Five hours after launch, Schmitt takes a photograph of the departing earth that later is known as "The Blue Marble." On December 11, Cernan and Schmitt become the last human beings to walk on the moon, bringing a Czechoslovakian flag (Cernan's parents were a Czech and a Slovak) and leaving a plaque on the surface, signed by the astronauts and Richard Nixon: "Here Man completed his first explorations of the moon, December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

Harrison Schmitt on the moon

On the ride back to Earth, the crew hears Nixon speaking from the Oval Office: "This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon, but space exploration will continue." The astronauts are incredulous--the last time this century? It is only 1972. Schmitt actually weeps. But Nixon knows the truth.

The Moon is a white strange world, great, white, soft-seeming globe in the night sky, and what she actually communicates to me across space I shall never fully know. But the Moon that pulls the tides, and the Moon that controls the menstrual periods of women, and the Moon that touches the lunatics, she is not the mere dead lump of the astronomist...When we describe the Moon as dead, we are describing the deadness in ourselves. When we find space so hideously void, we are describing our own unbearable emptiness.

D.H. Lawrence, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, 1930.

Swords to Plowshares

Wernher von Braun and his children

1929: Fritz Lang, while making the film Frau Im Mond, invents the concept of the numerical countdown to a rocket launch, throwing it into the launch scene simply to heighten suspense. When the Nazi rocket program begins in earnest in the mid-1930s, the rocket models used in Lang's film are destroyed, and Frau Im Mond is withdrawn from release, for national security reasons.

1945: Bavaria, early May, the last days of the war. An American private guarding an access road is hailed by a small group of battered Germans. He aims his rifle at them as they approach him with arms raised. One, in broken English, says: "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender."

The von Brauns and the rest of the German Rocket Team, fearing the advance of the Red Army, have fled their laboratory at Peenemünde, buried 13 years worth of paperwork in an abandoned mine shaft, and have made their way across the collapsing Reich to cast their lot with the Americans.

Rockets under construction, Mittelwerk, 1945 (more images here).

A month before, American soldiers, on a drive to Nordhausen, had stumbled upon the Mittelwerk. They discovered a gutted, hollowed mountain, whose caverns are filled with enormous rockets stacked in rows, emaciated half-dead slaves abandoned by their masters, and stacks upon stacks of corpses. It's like an outpost of hell. As soon as the U.S. Army hears of the discovery, they order everything of value to be hauled out and shipped overseas, ultimately to New Mexico. The surrendering Rocket Team, having been given immediate amnesty, follows their rockets to the U.S.

Around the same time, the Red Army captures some 6,000 German rocket scientists and hauls them off to the Russian steppes to be put to work. And so the space age begins, owed in great part to the Nazis.

Television's "The Rocket" is from their reunion LP from 1992, available only as an import.

And "Rocket 69" is from the Lee Harvey Oswald Band's 1996 Blastronaut.

The Space Race

1957: In the autumn, across the world, around dusk, people walk out into the streets, go out into their backyards, and stare up at the skies to wait for Sputnik. An Air Force sergeant in Fresno sees a bright ball, moving at a fast clip; a nun teaching second grade at a parochial school in New Jersey tells her students to pray, because the communists have put another moon in the sky.

Brave Laika

Destroyer's "The Space Race" is from 1998's City of Daughters.

Odes to the golden age of Soviet space exploration: Jerry Engler and the Four Ekkos' "Sputnik Girl" was rushed out weeks after the Sputnik launch in 1957 (on That'll Flat Git It! Vol. 6), while "Laika's Theme" is off The Divine Comedy's Absent Friends, from 2004.

And the fantastic "The Chicken Astronaut" is by the Five Du-Tones, from 1963. On The Five Du-Tones. (Thanks to Moistworks).

We Wish You Bon Voyage

1969: In Cureglia,Switzerland, Vladimir Nabokov rents a television set to watch the first moon landing. He is completely elated. A few years later, in Strong Opinions, he writes of the landing: Oh, "impressed" is not the right word! Treading the soil of the moon gives one, I imagine (or rather my projected self imagines), the most remarkable romantic thrill ever experienced in the history of discovery.

In Paris, Pablo Picasso is asked what he thinks. "It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don't care."

1973: Edgar Mitchell, having walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission, founds the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which seeks to study "unscientific" practices such as telepathy, telekinesis and psychic healing. Later, Mitchell says he performed ESP experiments during the moonshot. Wernher von Braun, intrigued, allegedly considers setting up a NASA installation to conduct further ESP tests.

James Irwin, having walked on the moon as part of Apollo 15, leaves NASA to found the High Flight Foundation, an evangelical Christian group. Irwin tells audiences that walking on the moon's surface was a spiritual epiphany, and that he "felt the power of God as never before." Irwin later leads two expeditions to Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark.

Buffy St. Marie's "Moonshot" is the spiritual world's reaction to the marvels of government science, or the colonized's rebuttal to the colonizer, who, having done with the earth, is moving on to the heavens. Dean and Britta's version is from 2003's L'Avventura.

After an initial burst of Sputnik/flying saucer novelty songs in the '50s, there is a vogue for "space" songs from the late '60s through the late '70s. Space travel is first aligned with psychedelia and chemical trips ("Insterstellar Overdrive," or the Stones' ominous "2000 Light Years from Home," from Their Satanic Majesties Request), and later with vague New Age philosophies (see Buffy St. Marie). But after the end of the moon launches, and with the popularity of Star Wars and Close Encounters, there is a move towards the campy, the sentimental and the ridiculous.

So you have Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," which is covered almost note-for-note by the Carpenters, who begin their version with aliens calling a radio station to make a request (on Klaatu/Hope, from 1976); or the French model/singer Sheila and the unfortunately-named "Black Devotion" (her group of backing singers--someone finally got a clue and altered the name), who somehow landed Chic--Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson and Nile Rodgers at the peak of their powers--for 1979's "Spacer", which, as it happens, is one of the best grooves Chic ever recorded. (On The Disco Years, Vol. 4.)

The Endless Loop

1984: Virginia. In my bedroom hangs a mounted photograph of the Space Shuttle Columbia, signed and dedicated to me by the first Shuttle pilot, Robert Crippen. A friend, looking at the photo one day, asks me if I know that Major Tom was a real astronaut. We have been listening to the Peter Schilling song, a sequel to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." My friend recounts a story that has been redacted from rumors, half-remembered news broadcasts, movies and lies: there was a top-secret Soviet outer-space spy mission in the '70s, in which Major Tom, while spacewalking, was accidentally severed from his ship and flew out into space; he is still sailing outward now, maybe having reached Jupiter. "The Russians just let him go--they don't care. They don't care if you live or die, 'cos they're all godless, right." My friend comes from a devout Baptist family.

"But in the song, it says he's coming home," I say. It's the right answer, and he beams at me. "That's right! He's coming back, just like Jesus did. And I bet he's going to tell the Russians a few things." Two years later, the same friend tells me in the school hallway that the Challenger had just exploded.

I looked and looked but I didn't see God.

Yuri Gagarin, April 1961.

(Bowie's 1969 demo is on Sound and Vision; Schilling's 1983 sequel is on Best of '80s Pop.)

there was never a more honest advertisement

2002: Locust St. For a birthday party, I set up an Atari 2600 system so that friends can play vintage games. One game that I've bought on Ebay is Space Shuttle, from 1983, which might be the dullest video game ever made. The object, as far as anyone can determine, is to guide the space shuttle like an airplane down a runway, slowly take off, orbit and land. You don't go anywhere, you don't do anything. After playing a few times, nearly everyone walks away, bored or confused.

: One frigid Saturday morning, I turn on the computer to see that the Columbia had disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere over Texas. Like the majority of Americans, my first thought is: "They had launched the Space Shuttle?" Somewhere in my parents' garage, warped and rain-chewed, is that signed photograph.

Back Again

1961: John Kennedy addresses a special joint session of Congress: "Now it is time to take longer strides--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth...we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule...Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

: In the midst of a violent, chaotic Jamaican election, some hope for liberation to come from the stars. (Two Sevens Clash.)

2001: The Fox network airs one of the most reprehensible programs in its history: "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" which purports to show evidence that NASA faked the moon landings. The program claims that 20% of Americans do not believe astronauts landed on the moon, a finding thankfully determined later to be inaccurate.

2007: Virgin Galactic is offering $200,000 tickets for private spaceship travel, possibly by decade's end; NASA claims the US will be back on the moon by 2018. My money's on Richard Branson to get there first.

Some Last Words

In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch!"

Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. "What do I see?" I replied. "Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small."

Vitali Sevastyanov, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

If somebody'd said before the flight, "Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?" I would have said, "No, no way." But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.

Alan Shepard, Apollo 14.

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic.

Aleksei Leonov, Voshkod 2.

Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits which invigorate men's minds, the strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline which deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings, as well as the causes of the other phenomena in the sky, and which, in short, explains its whole appearance.

What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty?...On account of heaven's transcendent perfection most philosophers have called it a visible god.

Nicolas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, 1543.

Sources: Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles and Men in Space; Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon (source of most of the great astronaut stories); Walter A. McDougall, ...the Heavens and the Earth.

For Ada and Alice, who are hopefully part of the first Martian generation.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Interlude 6, Helicopters

Gambell Village Eskimo Singers, Rise Up Helicopter, Like a Bird.
XTC, Helicopter.
Kumiko Ishizaka (Pink Capsule), Helicopter.
John Holt, Police in Helicopter.
The Handsome Family, When That Helicopter Comes.
Swell Maps, The Helicopter Spies.
Deep Blue, The Helicopter Tune.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Isle of View (Music For Helicopter Pilots).

An Army helicopter
came nosing around and in.
He could see two men inside it,
but they never spotted him.

Elizabeth Bishop, "The Burglar of Babylon."

Extra credit question (20 points).

A helicopter is to an airplane as:

a) a motorcycle is to a car.
b) a catamaran is to a steamship.
c) John the Baptist is to St. Basil.
d) a steamroller is to a Zamboni.
e) the Shim Sham Shimmy is to the Maxie Ford.
f) John Tyler is to Georgy Malenkov.
g) The 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates are to the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.
h) bankruptcy is to death.

The helicopter in song:

"Rise Up Helicopter, Like a Bird" is an Eskimo song, found on the 1966 Folkways LP Eskimo Songs from Alaska. The village of Gambell is on the northwestern tip of St. Lawrence Island, and is close enough to Russia that one could take a helicopter to go visit whichever poor souls are exiled in places like Anadyr. "Rise Up Helicopter" was recorded in Gambell in August 1961.

Helicopter joys: XTC's "Helicopter" is off 1979's Drums and Wires, while Pink Capsule (a Japanese studio band consisting of the singer Kumiko Ishizaka and the guitarist Asaki, and which primarily does video-game soundtracks, I believe) recorded their "Helicopter" in 2003--an utterly incomprehensible video is here.

Helicopter paranoia: John Holt's threat to burn the cane fields if the cops don't stop spying on his herb planting is from 1983, and is on Definitive Collection; Swell Maps' "Helicopter Spies" is from 1980's Jane From Occupied Europe; and The Handsome Family's helicopter forebodings can be found on In the Air, from 2000.

Helicopter serenity: Deep Blue's "Helicopter Tune" was released in 1993, on several compilations including Jungle Rewind; and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's music for helicopter pilots (who desperately need their own music) is from 1984's Broadcasting From Home.

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For any readers in Western Massachusetts who happen to be writers/editors/researchers etc., and who also happen to be in need of a quiet space to work, come check out The Writers' Mill, in Northampton, MA. I can attest to the Mill's charms, as I work there regularly.

An open house is on Saturday 13 October, from 2 pm to 6 pm. Feel free to stop by.