Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nailed To the North Pole, 1908-1909

Hubert Latham attempting to fly across the English Channel, July 1909 (he didn't make it; a while later he was killed by a buffalo).


Monet, Twilight, Venice.

Chris Chapman, Dill Pickles Rag.
Arthur Collins, Parson Jones' Three Reasons.
Edward Meeker, I'm a Yiddish Cowboy.
Maurice Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit: Le Gibet.
Banda Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, Atalaya.
Unknown flute players and singers, Music for the Lela Celebration.

Our article is a necessity nothing else can take the place of. Go out in the street and look at the back of every skirt worn and then count and see if nine out of every ten doesn't need an invisible and secure fastener to close the skirt opening. Ask every woman you know and see if she won't agree with you that all her neighbors' skirts are not fastened neatly.

How easy to sell a fastener for the waist which eliminates gaping or opening when on, and wonder of wonders, THE WEARER CAN FASTEN THE BACK OF HER OWN WAIST!

Sell it also to the men: they know what a great need there is for the PLAKO waist fastener. Don't forget that PLAKO is an ideal trousers fastener. This is where the men are interested for their own clothes.

Take the PLAKO we are sending you under separate cover, show it to your friends, and get their opinion of it. You will find that you will have a number of orders to fill even before you have purchased your set of samples.

Send your order in quickly and hustle.

Letter by the NYC-based Clarke Sales Company, 14 October 1908, to Mr. James M. Joyce, of Lewiston, Maine. Clarke was one of the first companies to sell the zipper, in this case the PLAKO model.

Hine, 'Noon hour in an Indianapolis cotton mill,' August 1908

Charles L. Johnson's "Dill Pickles Rag" had a second life in country and bluegrass music, as it was later recorded by Dr. Humphrey Bates and His Possum Hunters and the Swift Jewel Cowboys, along with a heap of others.

This track, likely the first-ever recording of "Dill Pickles," features Chris Chapman on the glass xylophone, an instrument whose bright, clear tone seems designed to transcend the limits of acoustic recording. This is how many people first heard ragtime, back in the day: via xylophones, brass bands or banjos. The idea of "pure" ragtime being a pianist jauntily rolling out something like "The Entertainer" is a bit inaccurate.

Recorded on 15 July 1908 and released as Victor 5560; on Real Ragtime.

Out of the many singers who feverishly recorded during the wax cylinder era, Arthur Collins had emerged, by the end of the aughts, as something of a champion. The more desperate and vulgar white minstrels had begun to fade, while Collins matured into something you might as well call American pop singing.

Take Collins' version of Arthur Longbrake's "Parson Jones' Three Reasons": while Collins is still under the influence of black singers, he's not burlesquing them anymore, either. He's found his own style: his sense of humor is more sly, less blunt; he takes his time on the verses to let the jokes work, breaks the track down in the middle to play out a skit and builds it back again.

Released as Columbia 3208 (not sure--only found one reference); find in this archive.

Vacationers returning to NYC via Grand Central Station, 1908

Much like the African-American songwriters who wrote minstrel songs, Jewish songwriters contributed to their culture's mockery. Jews wrote bits like "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars" for Jews to perform on stage, usually a comedian wearing, as Jody Rosen put it: an "ubiquitous beard and enormous hook nose...oversized shoes, a tattered black overcoat, and a derby cap pulled tightly across his head so that his ears jutted out."

Even Irving Berlin (who Philip Roth, in Operation: Shylock, wrote had achieved the ultimate assimilation goal: turning the Nativity into a celebration of snow, and the Resurrection into a society parade) wrote his share of tenement ballads in his early years. A subconscious, subversive joke: the opening strains of the chorus of Berlin's "God Bless America" are directly lifted from the Jewish vaudeville gag song "Mose With His Nose Leads the Band."

As Rosen wrote, "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy" yanks together two typical scenarios of the period--a ghetto Jew out in the country making a fool of himself (see Roth's just-released Indignation), and the many perils of mixed marriages (think "Abie's Irish Rose"). Written by Al Piantadosi and Leslie Mohr, it's sung here by the dreadful Edward Meeker, who gurns and bleats into the recording horn, playing to the cheap seats. (Meeker was best known as the voice introducing hundreds of Edison records, including this one). You could claim the Billy Crystal movie City Slickers is a sequel to this song.

Recorded in New York in July 1908 and released as Edison Gold Moulded Record 9984; on Jewface.

"Mentally Retarded Children in [NYC] East Side Free School for Crippled Children," ca. 1908 (Shorpy).

Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, a three-movement piano composition inspired by the poems of Aloysius Bertrand, is a monster to perform: it is considered one of the more difficult piano pieces in the canon, and Ravel designed it to be so (he said he tried to make the final movement more complex than the already-dense Islamey).

Ravel loved what the poet Rilke called Things: treasured objects to obsess over. So Ravel, who collected wind-up toys, clocks, and tiny glass ornaments, placed at the heart of some of his works an "objet d'juste," what Deborah Mawer defined as "a musical object...a fixed, passive unchanging component of a larger motive or phrase."

In the second movement of Gaspard, "Le Gibet," such an object appears: a continually-repeated (235 times!) B-flat, meant to represent the church bells tolling in a village where a corpse is hanging from a gibbet. The endlessly intoned B-flat, an ancestor to works by everyone from Terry Riley to the Velvet Underground, has wearied some performers: the pianist Charles Rosen once compared it to Chinese water torture.

Composed in 1908 and premiered in Paris on 9 January 1909; performed here by David Korevaar, and the complete recording and score can be found at the Piano Society.

The Banda Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires was one of a host of popular tango orchestras playing in Argentina in the early years of the past century--their rivals included the Federal Police Band, the Pavilion of Roses Band and the Japanese Park Band. Tango, which originated in the slums of Buenos Aires, evolved into its modern form during this period, fueled by a colossal immigration wave hitting the city (Buenos Aires went from 210,000 residents in 1880 to 1.2 million by 1910). By then, Argentine tango orchestras had gone to Europe, creating fads and manias wherever they played.

Some thousand Argentine tango records and cylinders were released between 1903 and 1910--here is one, the Banda Municipal's "Atalaya," which smokes. On the import-only Buenos Aires 1908-1909.

Lela musicians, Cameroon

"Music for the Lela Celebration" was recorded by a German archivist in Bali, a town in northwest Cameroon, in 1908. This is holy music, performed by members of Bali's royal family on lela flutes. Lela festivals began ca. the 18th Century as an annual "new year's" festival for tribesman in the grasslands of what would become northern Cameroon. After Cameroon fell under German (and later British/French) colonial control, lela became something like a festival of arms or a "showcase" for natives; it is now a fairly secularized celebration of unity for the independent Cameroon.

The record itself is haunting, beautiful: a moment snared outside of time. On 100 Years.


"STARS AND STRIPES NAILED TO THE NORTH POLE," cable by Adm. Robert Peary, 9 September 1909.

Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette, Watermelon Party.
Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette, Jerusalem Mournin'.
The Old South Quartette, Oysters and Wine at 2 A.M.
Carroll Clark and Vess Ossman, De Little Old Log Cabin in De Lane.
Arnold Schoenberg, 5 Pieces for Orchestra: Premonitions.
Anton Webern, 6 Pieces for Orchestra: Funeral March.
Vess Ossman, Maple Leaf Rag.
United States Marine Band, Maple Leaf Rag.
Scott Joplin, Solace (A Mexican Serenade).

I begin my flight, steady and sure, towards the Coast of England. I have no apprehensions, no sensations, pas du tout...The moment is supreme, yet I surprise myself by feeling no exultation. Below me is the sea, the surface disturbed by the wind, which is now freshening. The motion of the waves beneath me is not pleasant.

I am amazed. There is nothing to be seen, neither the torpedo-destroyer, nor France, nor England. I am alone, I can see nothing at all--rien du tout! For 10 minutes I am lost. It is a strange position to be alone, unguided, without compass, in the air over the middle of the Channel. I touch nothing. My hands and feet rest lightly on the levers. I let the aeroplane take its own course. I care not whither it goes. For 10 minutes I continue, neither rising nor falling, nor turning. And then, 20 minutes after I have left the French coast, I see the green cliffs of Dover...

Avoiding the red buildings on my right, I attempt a landing; but the wind catches me and whirls me round two or three times. At once I stop my motor, and instantly the machine falls straight upon the land from a height of 20 metres. Soldiers in khaki run up, and a policeman. Two of my compatriots are on the spot. They kiss my cheeks.

Louis Blériot, "An Account of the First Cross-Channel Flight," Daily Mail, 26 July 1909.

The Courtin Family, London, 1909.

Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette was the finest American vocal group to record in the first two decades of the past century. To indulge in further hyperbole, their seven records, cut in 1909, are the great suspension bridge, the link between antebellum music and the many variants of 20th Century American popular song. You can hear in these records a universe waiting to be born: Captain Beefheart, Uncle Dave Macon, Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers, Harmonica Frank Floyd, the Coasters, the "5" Royales, the Unholy Modal Rounders.

Miller was born in Virginia in 1844. His father owned a plantation in Prince Edward County, as well as over 200 slaves, with whom Miller spent his childhood. Miller joined the Confederate Army, surrendered with Lee at Appomattox, and, after the war, became a druggist (mainly dog medicines) in Richmond. Around the time he turned 50, Miller gave up his job to become a musician, and toured as a performer of "plantation melodies," recounting stories and songs from slaves he had known as a child. He didn't wear blackface, but for his audience, he was the most authentic "plantation" singer of them all. General Fitzhugh Lee, the legendary Confederate calvary leader, said of Miller: "When I hear him and don't see him, I cannot be persuaded that he is not a genuine negro talking."

Polk Miller and his translator

Indeed, I wouldn't tell anybody that I even 'knowed how' to play the banjo, because it was looked upon as a 'nigger insterment,' and beneath the notice of the 'cultivated.' For years I longed for the time when it would 'come in fashion' and I could play on my favorite musical instrument without disgracing myself in the eyes of my city friends.

Polk Miller.

Around 1900, Miller added to his act a black vocal quartet that he had recruited from a tobacco factory in Richmond. This was the first integrated professional musical group in U.S. history, and they performed everywhere from Madison Square Garden (Mark Twain introduced him) to Confederate soldier reunions to African-American churches, until Miller died in 1913. Miller wrote of his difficulties in touring with his quartet, of having to hire police protection against hooligans and receiving letters from Northern cities asking Miller to come up without "his negroes".

Why did a slaveowner's son, someone who had fought for the Confederacy, decide late in life to dedicate himself to black music, to reincarnate slave quarters culture in his own person, to risk his neck touring with black men? You could argue that by recreating the music of his plantation childhood, Miller was indulging in the same sort of "Lost Cause" nostalgia that the entire South was steeped in by 1900. And creating cartoon images of "happy darkies" working on a plantation served as a corrective, for the Southern ruling elite, to the new generation of free black Southerners, many of whom couldn't wait to go North.

But there's more than bigotry and delusion behind these records--the joy, the hard respect, the seriousness that Miller brought to his task suggests a reverence for the culture, suggests that Miller had spent his days at his desk with the songs dancing in his head, until at last something broke in him and he went out to call the songs into being.

"Watermelon Party," which is one of the loopiest, loosest records ever cut (Twain called it a "musical earthquake"), was originally released as Edison Amberol 392. The song's composer likely was the bass singer of the quartet, James Stamper, though Edison, in its promotional material, claimed the song had no author: "like Topsy, it 'just grew'". (Cue Ishmael Reed.) "Jerusalem Mournin'" finds Miller calling out his lines like a trumpeter, answered by his quartet like a gathering army (Edison 10334).

After Miller died, various incarnations of Original Quartette kept on, playing around New York for decades. And then, as though they suddenly realized they had unfinished business, they went into a studio in Long Island City in the autumn of 1928 and remade some of the old Miller records. "Oysters and Wine at 2 AM," a remake of Miller's "The Laughing Song," is the masterpiece of that session, released in 1928 as Broadway 5031.

Miller has had a few modern advocates. One is the writer/historian Doug Seroff (father of Tofu Hut proprietor John), whose 1988 article in 78 Quarterly introduced Miller to a new generation. Another is Ken Flaherty Jr., who collected, compiled and restored the Miller/Quartet recordings and released them, first as a privately-pressed CD, and now as an issue by Tompkins Square Records. $15 for 14 fantastic sides--it's not a bad trade. Some Miller tracks are also found here.

Wolf Robe, chief of the Southern Cheyenne, 1909

"De Little Old Log Cabin in De Lane" was an early country music standard, one every hillbilly singer in the '20s and '30s took a crack at. It encapsulated what would be one of the genre's major themes: sentimental reverence for a dear, departed country home, often sung by someone lost in the modern world.

Composed around 1871 by Will S. Hayes, a Civil War-era songwriter (he played both sides of the fence, writing pro-Union and anti-Union songs), "Log Cabin" had a resurgence in popularity when the minstrel Len Spencer recorded it for Victor in 1902.

This version, however, is by one of the more enigmatic figures of early recorded popular music: the African-American singer Carroll Clark, who many listeners never knew was black.

Clarence Carroll Clark, born in Indiana in 1885, trained as a baritone singer and made his debut at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in October 1908. Soon after his concert, Columbia Phonograph contacted him. As Tim Brooks writes, "Why Columbia wanted a young black artist to sing standard southern selections for them is uncertain, when they had numerous white vocalists on call," and speculates that Columbia may simply have liked his clear, well-projected voice and his ability to do convincing dialects.

Columbia never identified Clark as black in their promotional materials, however, nor did they distribute any photographs of him. It's unclear why. As Brooks writes, it's not that Columbia had an animus against black artists--they were the label of Bert Williams, after all. One guess is that the label believed the primary audience for the sentimental "plantation song" record was older, conservative whites, who Columbia feared wouldn't buy a record by a black man.

Clark grew frustrated that Columbia wanted nothing but weepy old plantation hymns, especially as he had had scant luck attracting notice for his classical singing. At last in the early '20s, he broke out--recording for the first black-owned label, Black Swan, and cutting a number of spirituals. And then, around 1929, he vanished. Some writers have guessed he had a twilight career of singing in restaurants and church halls, others believe he may have died in the early '30s. No one knows what became of him.

It's tempting to call Clark's version of "Little Ole Log Cabin in De Lane," which he cut in 1909, an early example of country music, but something is off--Clarke's sonorous baritone is better suited for the concert hall, while the ever-present Vess Ossman, on banjo, is more restrained than the pickers of the next generation. So call it an elegant blueprint.

Recorded ca. May 1909 and released in July as Columbia 696 (c/w Harlan and Stanley's version of "Dixie"); it would be Clark's biggest-selling record.

Kirchner, Marcella.

Many years ago I took a classical music appreciation class, which was audited by a number of wonderful elderly ladies from Boston. They attended concerts weekly, and each had her own vibrant tastes and prejudices (one truly hated Wagner, if I recall). I soon got the sense they knew far more than the instructor did, but kept quiet out of courtesy. For the Second Viennese School, however, there was utter, communal resistance. The first time the instructor uttered the word "Schoenberg," one of the dowagers, a fearsome woman who looked as though she was descended from the Borgias, icily stared and said, none too quietly, "PAH."

The music of Arnold Schoenberg, and his disciples and apostles, remains a source of trouble--where Cubist paintings and Ulysses have long lost their power to disturb or shock, atonal music continues to set listeners on edge. Some believe Schoenberg & Co.'s works essentially ruined classical music, leaving in their wake a school of theoreticians and cranks who produced music utterly inaccessible to casual listeners; others find them prophets whose messages have only begun to resonate a century later.

Braque, Chateau de la Roche-Guyon.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, grew up immersed in music (his mother had come from a family of cantorial singers) and by the turn of the century was a leading young composer and a charismatic, at times unbearable presence in Vienna coffeehouses and concert halls. The two German-Austrian heavyweights of the time--Mahler and Strauss--found Schoenberg fascinating, repellent (Mahler once called Schoenberg "a conceited puppy") and a possible sign of their obsolescence.

Schoenberg's early compositions, while far from traditional, were recognizably in the German-Austrian tradition. Then, in 1907 and 1908, as his personal life foundered, his work mutated, veering towards atonality. Schoenberg's wife Mathilde deserted him for a time to have a rather public affair with a suicidal Expressionist painter. Schoenberg thought of killing himself, but instead churned into a creative ferment, as though his miseries served as kindling. In 1908 he wrote a string quartet whose last two movements are marked with dissonance and broken chords, and in the following year, he wrote his early atonal masterpieces: the Three Pieces for Piano, the Five Pieces for Orchestra and Erwartung.

Here is the first of the orchestral pieces, "Premonitions," a disparate collection of orchestral colors and dreamsounds (Alex Ross: "two note patterns dripping like blood on marble, a spitting, snarling quintet of flutter-tongued trombones and tuba"). It is music as inchoate sensation, seemingly lacking any touchstones, but it is designed as intricately as a watch--the cellos in the first three bars state the main theme, which spikes up again and again throughout the piece, all while bassoons and trombones play a continual droning chord.

Schiele, Gerti Schiele.

In 1904, Schoenberg placed a classified ad in a Vienna newspaper, in which he sought pupils for composition lessons. Two of the respondents were Alban Berg and Anton Webern. (This would be as if D.W. Griffith had taken out an ad for film direction lessons in Variety, and John Ford and Howard Hawks had responded.)

Webern was the austere, wintry miniaturist of the trio. While his early compositions were marked by grand Romantic gestures and elaborate orchestration, as he matured under Schoenberg's guidance, he pared his works to essentials--he rubbed them down until they held mere scraps and scrapes of sound, with movements sometimes lasting less then a minute, consisting of only a few dozen notes.

The Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, written in the summer of 1909, is blighted by Webern's mourning for his mother, who had died three years earlier. The fourth piece represents a funeral procession: as though viewed at first from afar, a thin line of mourners and brass band members wend through a town's streets. They come nearer and, in waves, the mourners set about wailing and moaning--the horns blare, the winds shriek, the drums and percussion detonate in a horrific maelstrom of sound. Then, silence--death, in its asperity, sweeps them all off the board.

The Six Pieces did not premiere until 31 March 1913, in a performance that ended in a near-riot. Performed by James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic (as is the Schoenberg); on this essential recording.

Scott Joplin started the decade in Sedalia and ended it in New York, where his ambitions had been restored. He had endured a few desperate years--his wife had died, he had parted from his longtime publisher John Stark--and his work had suffered. Now he was writing an opera and supporting himself by composing a series of new rags.

Joplin's greatest hit, "Maple Leaf Rag," remained popular a decade after its composition (included here are two fine late-aughts versions: Vess Ossman's 1907 take, which is one of Ossman's best performances--it's proto-rockabilly at times--and the United States Marine Band's 1909 disc). Joplin, however, was writing more subtle and complex works. "Wall Street Rag" attempts a musical narrative, "Stoptime Rag," as its name suggests, is built around stop-time passages, while "Solace (a Mexican Serenade)," one of Joplin's most beautiful pieces, opens with a habanera bass figure.

Ossman's "Maple Leaf Rag," recorded ca. March 1907 and credited to "Vess L. Ossman's Banjo Orchestra," was released as Columbia 228 (here); the United States Marine Band's version, recorded on 18 February 1909 in Washington DC, was released as Victor 16792 (here). "Solace" is performed here by Roy Eaton; on the out-of-print Joplin Rags.

16th St., Denver, ca. 1909

Sources: Jody Rosen, liner notes to Jewface; Bryan Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg; Deborah Mawer, The Cambridge Companion to Ravel; David Burnett James, Ravel; Tim Gracyk, Recording Industry Pioneers; Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds.

Next: Winter songs.

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