Tuesday, January 13, 2009

So Natural That You Want To Go To War: 1911

Hine, Noon recreation, Danville [Va.] cigarette factory, June 1911 (Shorpy).

Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan, Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Stella Mayhew, That Devilin' Tune.
Béla Bartók, Allegro Barbaro.
Arthur Pryor's Band, Canhanibalmo Rag.
Grupo Bahianinho, El Cavito.
Grupo Bahianinho, Bambino.
Claude Debussy, Preludes: Voiles.
Claude Debussy, Preludes: La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin.

Dear Mr. Editer

i Went down town with my daddy yesterday to see that terrible fire where all the littel girls jumped out of high windows My littel cousin Beatrice and i are sending you five dollars a piece from our savings bank to help them out of trubble plese give it to the right one to use it for somebody whose littel girl jumped out of a window i wouldent like to jump out of a high window myself.

Yours Truly
Morris Butler

Letter of 26 March 1911 to the New York Times by Morris Butler, in reference to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 148 workers, the majority of which were teenage girls. Sixty-two of them died after they jumped out of the factory windows, having no other means of escape.

A few of the Triangle Factory casualties, in coffins

Modern popular music is in great part a confidence game, in which the best songs sell themselves to their audience, singing their listeners into acquiescence: the songs proffer themselves as dreams, dreams of a higher caliber, of a grander embodiment of fantasy, than the dun and dry material we typically dream up, discarded in an eyeblink upon waking.

As Alex wrote recently, many of the early Beatles songs are meant for a particular ideal listener: a 14-year-old girl, the kind the band saw swooning for them at the Cavern. The words on the record sleeves--"Please Please Me," "From Me to You," "Hold Me Tight," "I''ll Get You," "Thank You Girl," "Do You Want to Know a Secret"--are also instructions, communiques, sales pitches.

Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" has the same intentions, if more universal in its aims. Sexless, tireless, it aims solely for you to listen to it, to fall under its spell, to obey its orders.

So "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is the first true 20th Century pop song, and it isn't ragtime at all, of course: it's a standard verse/chorus/verse, as Kurt Cobain would groan many decades later. The "ragtime" that the song promises occurs off stage. We only get the warm up, the come-on. And it's just as compelling as the actual product. Maybe even more compelling. No ragtime composition of 1911 is as good as Berlin's piece, which made him immortal; none remains as fresh as his song, which still sounds as though it's looking for a new angle.

Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead opens with "There is an art to the building up of suspense," which could be the precis of "Alexander's Ragtime Band." The song works best as a duet, as found in the classic Collins and Harlan recording of 1911. Picture two sharps, parked on a street corner in their spats and suits, talking to each other as though they've never met.

Ain't ya goin'? one begins.
Where ya goin'? the other lobs back.
Ain't ya goin'?
Where ya goin'?
To the leader man!
The ragged music man?

By this point, they've drawn a small crowd. One of the sharps pauses. He draws out a handkerchief, delicately mops his brow (it's a summer afternoon), and bends his head towards a young woman who asks what they're talking about. Why only the best band in the land, miss, he says. The verse has been the opening pitch: the chorus is the clincher. The two sharps wheel towards the crowd, and suddenly they've turned carnival barkers:

Come on and HEAR
(I'd like to hear!)
Come on and HEAR
(I'd like to hear!)

They want you out of your house, they want to shuttle you down the street, down to the carnival, into the pool hall, so you can hear the band, so you can buy some booze, so you can buy a lottery ticket that won't pay off, so you can get your pocket picked, blow some money on the girls, or on the boys, get drunk, buy drinks, get sold on some elixirs, some religion. And all the song wants is for you to remember it, to hum it, to buy it and go and play it and plug it yourself--it only wants to perpetuate.

John Lennon once described the essence of the Beatles' music as "be here now," which is the universal pop credo, which is the con man's credo, and that of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and the century of fakers to come. What's this? You haven't heard? Who's that? Wake up! Come out! Join us! Listen to this! This way! Move! It's so natural, the pitchmen say, that you'll want to go to war.

Recorded in Camden, NJ, on 23 May 1911 and released as Victor 16908; find here.

Chagall, I and the Village

Stella Mayhew's "That Devilin' Tune," obscure where "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is eternal, is an answer to Berlin's song, a buyer's testimonial. The job's done, the marks have left town, the carnival's moved on to the next city, but there's a woman left behind who is no longer the same: she's hooked, bewitched, her life turned upside down. "That Devilin' Tune" is her testimony.

Recorded ca. April 1911 and released ca. August as Edison Amberol 744 (identified as "De Develin' Tune"); in this archive. (It also bequeathed the title to Allen Lowe's four-part, 36-CD box set and book).

modernity hunts down aristocracy, summer 1911

Bela Bartók's Allegro Barbaro for Solo Piano (Sz. 49) is something of his own devilin' tune--it's likely his most famous piano composition, one Bartok often played to close out a recital, or as an encore. In it he took cues from the Hungarian and Romanian folk musics he had been excavating (such as his leaps from Phrygian to Dorian to Lydian modes) and drummed out his interpretations over 200 bars of relentless rhythms. ("Were it not for Bartók's compositional checks and balances, the piece might have degenerated into a machine-like percussion," Halsey Stevens once wrote.) A sister to what Igor Stravinsky would do a few years later in Rite of Spring, Allegro Barbaro is a celebration of the "primitive" as only a post-Romantic European composer could conceive.

"Difficulties include wide octave and chordal leaps, balancing octave melodies over offbeat accompaniments, and endurance." (David Yeomans--my emphasis). Performers often sacrifice the allegro for the barbaro, Yeomans adds, with the result that a sub-par performance of this piece becomes "an avalanche of relentless noise."

This performance, which I believe manages to avoid such a fate, is by György Sándor; find here.

Grantham, "Licking Blocks of Ice on a Hot Day," 6 July 1911

"Canhanibalmo Rag" finds Arthur Pryor's Band out on the tiles, the work of a decade's worth of pushing away from the exacting temporal standards of Pryor's old employer, John Philip Sousa. As Pryor said, "The regulation bands never got over being a little bit embarrassed at syncopating. The stiff-backed old fellows felt it was beneath their dignity." Not so here--the band easily slides between the drive of a field march and the slinkier playing of a dance hall.

This was as far upcountry as Pryor would go: while he seemed to have assembled all the elements of early jazz by the time he cut this track, he never recorded any jazz, although he lived until World War II.

"Canhanibalmo" is likely a play on "cannibal," or, as an artlessly racist 1921 edition of Jacob's Band Monthly put it, in reference to the song's title: "Chow time in Darkest Africa. Wow!"

Recorded in Camden, NJ, on 8 May 1911 and released as Victor 16883; on Real Ragtime.

Grupo Bahianinho, which recorded at least three tracks around 1911, is only mentioned in a few scattered footnotes. They most likely were, as their name suggests, a band based in the Brazilian state of Bahian: two of their extant recordings, "Bambino" and "Destimino" are guitar-mandolin duets, while "El Cavito" is a full-band performance (which makes me wonder if the latter's perhaps been misidentified).

All are on Vol. 1 of That Devilin' Tune.

Mao Zedong at 18, ca. the Xinhai Revolution

Claude Debussy's first book of Preludes for piano were written between 1909 and mid-1910. Debussy didn't intend them to be performed as a whole, and gave each piece a distinct, at times gnomic title. They remain some of the most beautiful, entrancing things crafted in the past century; unknowable, precise, becalmed, eccentric, ghost-music.

"Voiles" ("Veils" or "Sails") is built on the whole-tone scale; "La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin" ("The Girl With the Flaxen Hair") "has a melody of the sort that begs to be whistled in the street" (Alex Ross); "Des Pas Sur La Neige" ("Footprints in the Snow") marks the somber progress of a four-note pattern, assembling and drifting apart--the progress of a cloud, or a coagulating thought (see score below).

These recordings are by the late Paul Jacobs, one of Debussy's finest interpreters. Jacobs was one of the first artists to die of AIDS-related causes in 1983; his version of the complete Preludes is here.

Next: They All Talk Like Crows

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