Monday, January 05, 2009

The Suffragette That Knew Jiu-Jitsu: 1910

Sophie Tucker, That Lovin' Rag.
Stella Mayhew, That Beautiful Rag.
Nora Bayes, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?
Ada Jones, Before I Go and Marry I Will Have a Talk With You.

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disreputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910 human character changed.

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910...

In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one's cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.

Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change? Read the Agamemnon and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra. Or consider the married lives of the Carlyles, and bewail the waste, the futility, for him and for her, of the horrible domestic tradition which made it seemly for a woman of genius to spend her time chasing beetles, scouring saucepans, instead of writing books.

Virginia Woolf, "Character in Fiction" (1924).

It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910!
King Edward's on the throne: It's the age of men!
I'm the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege.
I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife with a firm but gentle hand, noblesse oblige.

Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins (1964).

We're clearly soldiers in petticoats,
and dauntless crusaders for women's votes.
Though we adore men individually,
we agree that as a group, they're rather stupid.
Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters' daughters will adore us,
and they'll sing in grateful chorus:
Well done! Sister suffragette!

Mrs. Banks, Mary Poppins.

Fay Hubbard, 19-year-old suffragette, making a convert in NYC, 1910

So far this survey has been almost entirely dominated by men, for reasons cultural (few women recorded in the 1900s), aesthetic (those who did record were often woeful) and personal (I didn't do that much research--I mean, no one pays me for this nonsense). Here are small amends: four records by women made in the first year of George V.

Sophie Tucker, born Sonia Kalish-Abuza in 1884 to a Jewish family fleeing Tsarist Russia, wound up in Hartford, Connecticut, where she started out singing in restaurants. By 1905, she was in vaudeville and burlesque theaters, often wearing blackface, and belting numbers like "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love." A few years later, she had made the Ziegfeld Follies, had ditched the burnt cork, and was cutting records.

One of her earliest recordings, and her first hit, is "That Lovin' Rag." The composition itself isn't much--it's a slight thing, a couple of dull verses and a basic chorus; the recording is something far more volatile, more liberating. Tucker starts by playing tricks with the rhythm: stressing different beats than the lyric suggests, breaking words up, yanking them together. When she hits the chorus, there's no decorum, no coyness--there is just pure, riotous spectacle. "Come on, get outta my waaaaaaaaay!" she hollers. "I want a brass band PLAYIN' for me." If the band won't play for her, she's going to scatter them with her fists. (When she first heard it played back, she cringed. "My God! I sound like a foghorn!")

Tucker soon became famous, rich ("I've been rich and I've been poor--believe me honey, rich is better" she said), and an institution: the original Yiddish Mama, a glorious bawd. She lasted so long that the Beatles could make a joke about her on stage.

Written by Victor H. Smalley and Bernard Adler; recorded ca. April 1910, and released as Edison Standard Record 10360 (in this archive).

Fanny McNeil, leading member of the Newfoundland suffragist movement (and one of the first Canadian women to run for public office), with her family, ca. 1910.

Stella Mayhew, born in 1874, seems a shadow version of Sophie Tucker. She too was a Broadway and vaudeville star, she also sang "humorous" songs about her weight, and she blacked up on stage. Tucker remains a revered name, however, while Mayhew has been almost entirely forgotten.

Why? Mayhew seemed to lack Tucker's survival instincts. Long after Tucker stopped wearing blackface, Mayhew was performing as "a colored chorus girl," and Mayhew, to my knowledge, cut few, if any, jazz or blues records. By the late '20s, she was washed up, and fate dealt with her cruelly--she lost all of her savings in the market crash, and in 1934, she collapsed in the Times Square subway station, due to a case of septicemia which soon killed her. "Stella Mayhew, Penniless and Alone, Dying," the headline in the New York Times read.

At Mayhew's 1910-1912 peak, though, she could rival anyone: she's precise, shameless, vulgar and sings the hell out of trifles like "That Beautiful Rag." It's from the Broadway show The Jolly Bachelors, and was written by Irving Berlin (in collaboration with Ted Snyder; it was an awkward two-year songwriting partnership that Berlin killed the moment one of his own songs became a hit). Mayhew sings it with her stage partner, Billie Taylor, who wisely shuts up until the track's nearly wound out.

Cut ca. July 1910 and released as Edison National Phonograph Co. Cylinder 10438; find in this archive.

Suffragettes v. police, Parliament Square, London, November 1910

Nora Bayes does much of the work and contributes a large share of the fun.

Review of The Jolly Bachelors, New York Times, 7 January 1910.

There is a wonderful photograph of Nora Bayes, songwriter, singer and performer, from about 1912. In it, she looks rangy, spry, hungry, avaricious, goofy: a true kook. She's quite beautiful, though she also seems lupine; it could be a photograph of a grifter, a Red, a palmist about to offer an appealing lie about your future.

Bayes, born Leonora Goldberg ca. 1880*, was the finest pre-jazz female singer in American popular music. She had a voice seemingly crafted to transcend the limits of acoustic recording, and was a singer of supple intelligence, whether as a comedienne (she could muster up a host of accents--besotted Irishwoman, high society snoot, Bronx yawper--to fit whatever piece she took on) or as a serious interpreter of early blues compositions.

She married five times, sang everything from "Over There" to "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," played cowgirls and Chinese maidens on stage; she was her own manager and built her own theater, which she named after herself, in New York. The only thing that could stop her was cancer, which killed her at age 48. Two decades later, Ann Sheridan played her in a scrubbed-up Hollywood biopic of her and her ex-husband (and songwriting partner) Jack Norworth.

"Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly," composed by C.W. Murphy and Will Letters, is also originally from The Jolly Bachelors. It was Bayes' first major hit for Victor: the sound of coarse immigrant humor crystallizing into modern pop music.

Recorded 7 March 1910 and released as Victor 60013; in this Bayes archive.

Christabel Pankhurst, ca. 1910

Ada Jones didn't have the raw lungpower of Tucker or Mayhew, nor the wit, skill and sharpness of Bayes, but she may have been more beloved by audiences of the day. The best of the second-rate shouldn't be discounted. Not everyone is cut out to be an innovator, and a world solely composed of such would be a wearying one.

She was born in Lancashire, England, in 1873, her family emigrating to Pennsylvania a few years later. She was a professional singer by age ten, billed as "Little Ada Jones," and in a twist on the typical progression, she made records (in this case, early Edison brown wax cylinders) before she had much success on stage. By the late aughts, she was as prolific as Vess Ossman or Billy Murray, in terms of churning out cylinders. She was heavy on duets--singing with Len Spencer, Henry Burr and, most of all, Murray, with whom she became defined: the pair performing, most notably, Bayes and Norworth's "Shine on Harvest Moon."

Here's Jones on "Before I Go and Marry I Will Have a Talk With You," another mediocre Berlin/Snyder composition, which offers a taste of her dotty appeal. The lyric is a bit odd: it sounds like the guy is running an early version of Game on the poor girl who's singing.

Released as Edison Standard Record 10339; find here

"The Suffragette That Knew Jiu-Jitsu," Punch, 6 July 1910

* No one knows what Nora Bayes' real name was, or where she was born (maybe in Joliet, Illinois), or how old she was. She's been identified in some reference books as originally named "Leonora Goldberg" or "Dora Goldberg" but there's no concrete proof, and in fact there is some indication that she fed a false "real" name to biographers. She never said who her parents were, or where she came from, in part because she seemed to have had an awful childhood, with parents convinced that the theater was the seat of "low damnation" and vice. Bayes got married at age 17 in part to escape them, and soon afterward vaulted on stage. So you could call her an entirely self-created being, and as such, an ideal American. (From Tim Gracyk's article on Bayes.)

Next: So Natural That You Want to Go To War.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, could you tell me the source for the jujitsu suffragette picture? I am researching this subject and looking for various archives. Great blog! Thanks, C