Monday, November 10, 2008

The Life of Violets, 1906-1907

Shinn, Stage Scene


Danny Hoffman, outfielder, Philadelphia Athletics

Billy Murray, You're a Grand Old Rag.
Pryor's Band, A Coon Band Contest.

First of all, I don't think Basini matters one bit. Whether we report him now, or beat him, or torture him half to death just for the pleasure of it. Because I can't imagine such a person having any significance in the wonderful mechanism of the world. He seems to me just to have been created at random, apart from the usual way of things. That is--even he must mean something, but only something vague, like a worm or a stone in our path, which we don't know whether to step on or kick aside.

Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless.

San Francisco, after the Big One

Robert Christgau once called Billy Joel the "George M. Cohan of a self-conscious, neo-primitive age." True to a point, but Joel, while more fluent in melody than Cohan (who basically wrote the same three tunes over and over again), is also something of a pastischist. Joel's best songs (FWIW, for me: "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "Vienna," "Allentown" and "Uptown Girl") were born facing backward; they are self-reverent, tasteful covers of non-existent radio favorites from a few years before.

Cohan, though, is slapdash, vulgar, entirely of the moment. Born in 1878 to a pair of roving vaudeville performers, Cohan was on stage as an infant (used as a prop) and by the turn of the century he was a popular singer, dancer and songwriter, first gaining attention for his songs in the 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones. A dynamo of show production and self-promotion, Cohan pushed American popular theater out of the shadow of European operetta to become what we know as "Broadway."

Cohan's best songs are hot crowd music--their rhythms meant to be kept by stomped feet, their choruses cajoling you to sing them. He scored by giving his audience what they hadn't realized they wanted, though sometimes he'd just flatter or appease them (realizing some had taken offense to his calling the U.S. flag a "grand old rag" he quickly rewrote the lyric to "You're a Grand Old Flag"). Aging into a legend and a trademark, Cohan was still around to see the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy (in which James Cagney immortalized him), which seems about as odd as the idea of Abraham Lincoln screening John Ford's Young Mister Lincoln.

What more can be said about a warhorse like "Grand Old Flag"? Well, you could argue that it is built partially on samples, as there are bits of "Auld Ang Syne," "Dixie" and "Old Folks at Home" (and Cohan's own "Yankee Doodle Boy") sewn into the song. This would be akin to a composer stitching "Hey Jude" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" into a hit song today, and not being sued for it.

It was the first blockbuster hit of the new century, selling over a million copies of the sheet music alone. This version was recorded by Billy Murray on 6 February 1906, the same day "Rag" debuted in the play George Washington, Jr. Murray, one of the first American recording stars (his fame came from his (many) records, not his stage appearances), cut a take of the song for any record company that wanted one--this was released as Edison 9256; find in this archive.

Recess, Tuskegee Institute, 1906

Arthur Pryor, star trombonist of the Sousa Band, had left Sousa in 1903 to form his own orchestra, and in the latter half of the 1900s, he and his players were the vanguard: their records had an actual bass sound, owed to Pryor poaching Sousa's excellent baritone horn player, Simone Mantia, while Pryor's clean, tight arrangements gave the tracks a sense of space, or at least as much as primitive acoustic recording techniques permitted.

Pryor had recorded his own "A Coon Band Contest" (a rag Kaiser Wilhelm loved) when he was with Sousa, but his band's take from 1906 is something else--it starts out with Mantia down on the bottom and someone delivering "clop clop" percussion, and in the rag's third strain (around 1:15) Pryor goes to town, ending each phrase with a nasty, honking trombone smear. It seems headed for a resolution, until the last eight bars, when the band suddenly kicks up the tempo, the percussion returns, Pryor blares on his trombone--it's a jazz chorus, a decade too early.

Recorded 26 May 1906 and released as Victor 4069; on Stomp and Swerve.


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (detail).

May Irwin, Bully of the Town.
Adolphe Bérard, Chargez.
Byron G. Harlan and Frank Stanley, Iola.
Béla Bartók, Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District.

The real world is mostly unpoetical, fiction even in poetry is not totally sincere hence failure of modern poetry. This is to be taken with all reserve, there is always the poet's dream, which makes itself a sort of world. When it is kept a dream is this possible on the stage? I think not. Is the drama--as a beautiful thing a lost art? The drama of swords is. Few of us except soldiers have seen swords in use, to drag them out on stage is babyish. For the present the only possible beauty in drama is peasant drama, for the future we must await the making of life beautiful again before we can have beautiful drama. You cannot gather grapes of chimney pots.

John Millington Synge, draft essay written during the composition of Deirdre of the Sorrows, 18 March 1907.

Mark Twain meets Dorothy Quick

May Irwin's 1907 record "Bully of the Town" is minstrelsy at its most surreal. A century on, the track (an enormous hit for Victor Records at the time) seems an obscene absurdity--a middle-aged white woman singing, in a genteel soprano, "I'm a Tennessee nigger" and going on about fetching her razor and cutting down her rival. It would be as if Bette Midler had covered the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks On Me."

Irwin's record, though, is just one ripple in a pool of imagery and song that appeared after Reconstruction. In the 1880s and 1890s, when Jim Crow laws were established in the South and lynchings were at their all-time peak (a time when a grocery store in Coweta County, Georgia, put the severed knuckles of a lynched man, Sam Hose, on display in its front window), a new brand of popular song emerged, which featured as its leading man a charismatic, dangerous black thug. As David Wondrich wrote of the newcomer:

He was a coke-sniffer. Crap-shooter. Razor-toter. Chicken-stealer. Trick procurer. Cop-dodger. Cop-killer. He was wise. He was the bully of the town. He was Stack O'Lee, he was Railroad Bill, you best not fuck with him.

Versions of "Bully of the Town," also known as "Looking for the Bully," "The Bully Song," and "The New Bully" were circulating in the Midwest by the 1880s. The song most likely came out of St. Louis, where W.C. Handy claimed to have first heard it. Mama Lou, the main attraction at a St. Louis brothel called the Castle Club (on stage, the "short and belligerent" Mama Lou wore a gingham apron and a head bandanna, and "nine-tenths of her songs were obscene," wrote Douglas Gilbert), was singing a version of "The Bully Song" in the mid-1890s, when a few songwriters began publishing versions of it.

One was the sportswriter Charles Trevathan, who filched a version of "The Bully" he had heard some Tennessee musicians singing, rewrote the lyrics, and copyrighted it in 1895. May Irwin began performing Trevathan's song the same year, in her show The Widow Jones, in which she pretended to wield the razor as she bellowed the lyrics. Irwin's 1907 recording (from the only studio session she ever did) of the song was meant in part as a commemorative, as Irwin's career was in decline by that point.

Kasebier, Rose O'Neill

After Irwin, "Bully of the Town" followed two paths. The Trevathan song became a standard country fiddling tune in the 1920s, and it also transmuted into a Western number, with the lyrics cleaned up so that the singer is now "a Tennessee rounder" who's looking to take out some local outlaw.

The image of the razor-wielding bully, however, escaped into the next generation of blues and jazz songs. The writer Paul Oliver, tracing the history of the song, turned up a long line of descendants. One "Razor Jim" shows up in Mamie Smith's 1921 "The Jazzbo Ball," a song that evolved, a few years later, into "The Razor Ball," sung by the likes of Blind Willie McTell and Sara Martin. Louisiana Johnny offered "Razor Cuttin' Man" in 1935, while Frankie Half-Pint Jaxon's version of "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer" seems to be channeling the bully, with boasts that the singer's going to "cut you up and down your ear" and "put you six feet under."

And Howlin' Wolf, in his "Wang Dang Doodle," sings:

Tell Automatic Slim, tell Razor-Totin' Jim,
Tell Butcher-Knife-Totin' Annie, tell Fast-Talkin' Freddie,
We're gonna pitch a ball down at the Union Hall...

Irwin's "Bully" (which, to stress once again, is as offensive as it gets) was recorded 20 May 1907 and released as Victor 31642; all of Irwin's recordings are here.

Pure pop for then people:

Adolphe Bérard was the beloved chanteur of Third Republic France, despite being short, partially lame and having a squint. He was a failed opera singer who in 1899 began performing at a Parisian cafe called the Eldorado, where his voice was loud enough to fill the room--his material ranged from the maudlin to the patriotic, with "Chargez" an example of the latter. Like a sad figure in a Verlaine poem, Bérard died in 1946, alone, in Paris, surrounded by birds.

"Chargez" was released as Cylindres Edison Moulés Sur Or 17782; find here.

And "Iola" was composed by Charles L. Johnson, one of the more prolific ragtime writers of the early 20th Century. "Iola" isn't much of a rag, though, but the team of Harlan and Stanley make decent work of it.

Recorded 23 January 1907 and released as Victor 5022.

Anshutz, A Rose.

Béla Bartók, at age four, could play forty Hungarian folk songs with one finger on the piano. The son of a rural schoolteacher who died young and a mother who gave piano lessons, Bartók had entered the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest at the turn of the century, and, inspired by the stories of Maxim Gorky and his own childhood memories of the Hungarian countryside, he began writing compositions based on a variety of folk musics.

In 1907, Bartók went to Transylvania, to the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, looking for songs to borrow from the locals. He brought with him an Edison recording apparatus to etch choice material on cylinder, and spent months listening. Alex Ross:

[Bartók] observed the flexible tempo of sung phrases, how they would accelerate in ornamental passages and taper off at the a beat or two might be added or subtracted. He savored "bent" notes...and "wrong" notes that added flavor and bite. He understood how decorative figures could evolve into fresh themes...Yet he also realized that folk musicians could play in absolutely strict tempo when the occasion demanded it. He came to understand rural music as a kind of archaic avant garde.

"The Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District" piece for solo piano is Bartók's first effort to incorporate what he had heard into his own compositions. Soon enough, he would convert what he had derived from folk songs into far more radical works.

Performed here by György Sándor, on this excellent set.

Mr Verloc, in a soft and conjugal tone, was now expressing his firm belief that there were yet a good few years of quiet life before them both. He did not go into the question of means. A quiet life it must be and, as it were, nestling in the shade, concealed among men whose flesh is grass; modest, like the life of violets.

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent.

Sources: Paul Oliver, "Lookin' For the Bully," essay in Nobody Knows Where The Blues Come From; Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve; Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise.

Next: Modern Songsters (an occasional series).

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