Thursday, January 22, 2009

They All Talk Like Crows: 1912

Apollo Jubilee Quartette, Shout All Over God's Heaven.
Mike Bernard, Everybody Two-Step.
Roy Spangler, Red Onion Rag.
Orchester vom "Palais de Dance" Berlin, Temptation Rag.
Albert C. Campbell and Irving Gillette, Good Night Mr. Moon.

There was a young fellow singing a song, accompanied on the piano by a short, thick-set, dark man. Between each verse he did some dance steps, which brought forth great applause and a shower of small coins at his feet. After the singer had responded to a rousing encore, the stout man at the piano began to run his fingers up and down the keyboard. This he did in a manner which indicated that he was master of a good deal of technique.

Then he began to play; and such playing! I stopped talking to listen. It was music of a kind I had never heard before. It was music that demanded physical response, patting of the feet, drumming of the fingers, or nodding of the head in time with the beat. The barbaric harmonies, the audacious resolutions often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, the intricate rhythms in which the accents fell in the most unexpected places, but in which the beat was never lost, produced a most curious effect...

This was ragtime music, then a novelty in New York, and just growing to be a rage which has not yet subsided. It was originated in the questionable resorts about Memphis and St. Louis by Negro piano players, who knew no more of the theory of music than they did of the theory of the universe, but were guided by natural musical instinct and talent.

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash.

The Apollo Jubilee Quartette is a lost ghost, likely a pure studio concoction from Columbia Records to counter the success of Victor Records' Fisk Jubilee Singers. The evidence of the Quartette's existence is so scant that all sorts of theories have emerged: that the Quartette was the Fisk Singers in disguise, making a quick buck; or, even more afield, that the Quartette was actually a group of white minstrel singers. Tim Brooks, in Lost Sounds, ventures that the Apollo Quartette may have been the work of Roland Hayes, second tenor in the Fisk Singers, who was about to leave the Fisks for a solo career. (Basically, that Hayes took the Fisk arrangements and threw together a "pseudo-Fisk" studio group.)

Whoever they were, the Apollo Quartette cut four tracks for Columbia in early 1912--very close copies of Fisk Singers discs--and, after Columbia's "music committee" rejected two of the tracks, the label released the remaining pair as a single disc. A few years later, Columbia signed the Fisk Singers, had them re-record the Apollo Quartette tracks, upon which Columbia deleted the Apollo tracks from its catalog.

So off into the void the Quartette went, as though it never had existed, its solitary remnant a joyous piece of shellac.

"Shout All Over God's Heaven" was recorded 26 February 1912 and released c/w "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as Columbia A1169; on Lost Sounds.

Watts, 1912

This was the beginning of the ragtime song. Several of these improvisations were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes, of which the Negro originators got only a few dollars. But I have learned that since that time a number of colored men, of not only musical talent, but training, are writing out their own melodies and words and reaping the reward of their work. I have learned also that they have a large number of white imitators and adulterators.

James Weldon Johnson.

A new type of music develops, driven primarily by African-American artists. It becomes popular, its works profitable. Just as the music crosses over to a wider audience, a white man appears, becomes a prolific interpreter, sells out concert halls and moves records, and is soon proclaimed "the king."

Mike Bernard, alleged "Rag Time King of the World," was a white, possibly Jewish pianist who had studied at the Berlin Conservatory and who had little knowledge of ragtime until he, working as the musical director for Tony Pastor's vaudeville theater in New York, heard Ben Harney play in 1896. Four years later, Bernard won top prize (a diamond-studded medal) at a Tammany Hall ragtime contest*.

Goncharova, illustrated page from Igra v adu (Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh).

In turn, contemporary black pianists like Willie "the Lion" Smith thought Bernard was a something of a phony--a glib, showy player who could dash off the intricacies of ragtime playing without any of the soul. Rudi Blesh, in his history They All Played Ragtime, singles out Bernard as being "the antithesis of ragtime" and "the first of an army of pseudo-ragmen, players who brilliantly copied the externals of a native Negro music without capturing its true rhythms or understanding much of its spirit."

There seems to be a slight movement towards refurbishing Bernard's reputation of late, though he is, on the whole, a fundamentally minor figure in popular music, scarcely worth symbolic battles. Still, records like his "Everybody Two-Step" (which David Jasen's Ragtime: An Encyclopedia lists as "the first known ragtime piano recording") survive, still charming, if historically suspect.

Bernard's "Everybody Two-Step," written by Wally Herzer, was recorded 2 December 1912 and released as Columbia 38467; on Rags to Rhythms.

Christening of the USS Sonoma, 11 May 1912

Not all white vaudeville pianists can be written off as hacks or usurpers. Roy Spangler, a generally forgotten figure today, cut some records that, in the words of Allen Lowe, are rendered with "remarkable swing and a sense of idiomatic prophecy." Spangler's wonderful "Red Onion Rag" is arguably one of the first jazz piano recordings: in it, the strictures of ragtime are loosening, with Spangler free with his rhythms--stop-starting, pushing on the off beats, even working a few stiff stride patterns with his left hand.

It's likely that similar, concurrent experiments were being done by the likes of Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, but it would be another half-decade before those players began finally making records.

"Red Onion Rag," composed by Abe Olman, was recorded sometime between fall 1912 and early 1913, and was released as Rex 5026 and 5342; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 1.

Louise Hall and Susan Fitzgerald posting suffragette bills in Cincinnati, 1912

No one who has traveled can question the world-conquering influence of ragtime; and I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that in Europe the United States is popularly known better by ragtime than by anything else it has produced in a generation. In Paris they call it American music.

James Weldon Johnson.

"Temptation Rag," one of the hotter rags cut in the pre-WWI years, was performed not by crack American musicians, but a group of Germans working in the "Palais de Dance" club in Berlin.

The Orchester vom "Palais de Dance" Berlin was led by the conductor Giorgi Vintilescu (known at home as "der König das Ragtime"--lots of aspiring ragtime monarchs in those days), and helped provide the fervid soundtrack to the last years of Wilhemite Germany.

Recorded ca. November 1912 and released on an "anonymous" [?] label as No. 6258; find here.

Klimt, Mäda Primavesi (who lived until the year 2000).

Finally, say good night, Mr. Moon.

Released as Edison Standard Record 10558; find in this archive.

Jim Thorpe, Olympic Games, Stockholm

Our newspapers are a constant wonder to me. They never allude to any thought, past, present or future, and are under a ban in regard to the world outside of Boston. Europe is never mentioned. We agree to ignore all but ourselves, and above all to be gay. The world is gay,--ought to be gay,--must be gay, shall be gay,--damn it, sir, you must be gay! Only, our gaiety is a peculiar species, as you know!...

The gospel, in sum, is that you must all be gay, and teach the young to be happy and go to the foot-ball games. Like you, they cheer with comfort to see their world go to the devil, because it is so much more popular to be gay over the new world to come. In private they all talk like crows, but in the world, optimism is sweet and the Peepul with money like it.

Henry Adams to Bernhard Berenson, letter of 4 September 1912.

* I originally wrote that black performers were banned from this contest--which turns out not to be the case. See the comments.

Next: We Went Canoeing and We've Been a-Wooing

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