Monday, October 09, 2006

2nd Anniversary: 100 Years (in Ten Jumps)

On a stretch of pavement, with a bit of chalk, draw a straight line from curb to stoop. Take a long step forward and draw a smaller, parallel line; repeat this act nine more times, making the last line as long as the first. Then find a child, or a sprightly adult, and ask her to leap from line to line. It's an act that, properly executed, will take about ten seconds.

Orchard Street, NYC, 1906.

Imagine the first line is 1906, that the last is the present year, and that each of the lines between is a ten-year mark, so that in effect you have made a time-ruler. Upon a yard or two of concrete is inscribed the lives of nearly everyone alive on this planet, as perhaps seen by some celestial being who looks in on the nursery from time to time. Two leaps takes you from the womb to a battlefield; four leaps is Buddy Bolden to Charlie Parker, or Buster Keaton to Monty Python; eight leaps, more often than not, "starts with a birthstone and ends with a tombstone" as the Go-Betweens once sang.

Orchard Street, NYC, 2006.

So to celebrate Locust St.'s second anniversary, off we go:


Bert Williams, Nobody.
Ossman-Dudley Trio, Dixie Girl.
Orquesta Pablo Valenzuela, La Patti Negra.
Charles Ives, Central Park in the Dark.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6, "Tragic": Scherzo.

But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting. For, though they are dreams to you, and I cant express them at all adequately, these things are perfectly real to me...

I wonder if you understand my priggish and immature mind at all? The things I sent you were mere experiments; and I shall never try to put them forward as my finished work...But I am very glad that you were so frank; because I have had so very little criticism upon my work that I really dont know what kind of impression I make. But do please remember, that if I am heartless when I write, I am very sentimental really, only I dont know how to express it, and devoted to you and the babies; and I only want to be treated like a nice child.

Virginia Stephen (Woolf), letter to Madge Vaughan, June 1906.

Cezanne, Mt. St. Victoire

Let's begin with Bert Williams.

Williams was a light-skinned black man who, one night in Detroit, in 1896, blacked himself up before going on stage. He and his partner George Walker had long refused to wear blackface, but that night in Detroit, tired and desperate, Williams at last conceded, and was rewarded with applause and laughter. It was a devil's bargain, and it brought Williams astounding success: first major black recording artist, star of the first successful black Broadway play (Dahomey), the first (and only) black artist to headline the Ziegfeld Follies, the first black musician to star in a film, 1914's Darktown Jubilee.

And through it all he continued to perform in blackface, embellished by giant lips painted over the cork, an ill-fitting suit, a preternaturally unhurried style of locomotion, and a cringing “Uh-huh, boss” lazy drawl. According to another Follies colleague, W. C. Fields, Williams onstage was the funniest man he ever saw, and offstage was the saddest. Claudia Roth Pierpoint.

Mohandas Gandhi in his dashing youth

What Williams attempted, however, was to turn his stage caricature into a sympathetic human being, to force white audiences to empathize with a black man on stage. "Nobody," recorded in 1906, and a standard of his Ziegfeld performances, is ostensibly a comic song, a gag piece, in which the 'hapless darkie' bemoans cruel fate. But listen to the artistry of Williams' singing, to the cold snap in his voice as he recounts the charity he never received, the way he starts the chorus mimicking the trombone that has entered a beat before him, and, in the final verse, the way his jester's smile fades, for a moment, when he says "nobody" and "not a soul."

Find on The Early Years (where I believe the sound quality is far superior).

What's the use of having pretty shoes and then having your dress so long nobody can see them? It is quite proper to have the skirt of a white summer dress as high as six inches from the ground. The short skirts must be full, of course, and they must have underneath them a plain petticoat of hair cloth flounce.

Miss Elizabeth White, president of the Dressmaker's Association, New York City, March 1, 1906.

San Francisco, the day after

The banjo player Vess L. Ossman, born in 1868, was one of the most recorded musicians of the early 20th Century, playing anything from 'plantation melodies' to ballads to ragtime. Ossman's popularity was owed in part to the earliest record companies favoring the banjo, which, along with the trumpet, was one of the few instruments whose sound could be reproduced half-decently via an acoustic recording horn.

"Dixie Girl," which Ossman performs here with a man known only as Dudley on mandolin, and Roy Butin on harp guitar, was recorded in New York on January 24, 1906. Find on Rags to Rhythms. More Ossman here.

"La Patti Negra" is likely the first commercial musical recording from Cuba, recorded on wax cylinder in Havana sometime in 1906 by the Orquesta Pablo Valenzuela. It's also an early example of the Cuban danzón, which had evolved in the late 19th Century, "becoming a distinctive creole blend of African rhythms with melodic elements drawn from the European country dance, or contredanse."

Find on Arhoolie's The Cuban Danzón-Before There Was Jazz: 1906-1929.

In April 1906, Maxim Gorky came to the United States to arouse sympathies for the Russian revolutionaries. Gorky, though well received upon his arrival, soon fell out of favor with the press when it was revealed that the woman traveling with him (the actress Maria Andreyeva, shown with Gorky above) was not his wife. Engagements were cancelled, and Gorky retreated to the Adirondacks until quietly leaving the U.S. seven months later. The Savannah News wrote "Maxim Gorky has left us, unwept, unhonored and, fortunately for him, unhung."

For his revenge, Gorky later predicted, in a book called In America, that the poor of New York City would one day "like rapacious marauders, reduce all to dust and ashes--gold and serf-flesh, the unwashed and the idiots, the churches, the dirt-poisoned hotels, the subtle 20-story skyscrapers...reduce the city to a pool of stench and human blood, into the original chaos whereout it came." In 1936, Stalin and Molotov, who may have ordered Gorky killed, helped carry his coffin.

Derain, The Turning Road, L'Estaque

During the time Gorky was hiding in the Adirondacks, the insurance actuary/composer Charles Ives began writing what he titled "A Contemplation of Nothing Serious." The work, which he ultimately called Central Park in the Dark, was composed between July and December 1906, and was written for piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, two pianos and strings.

Central Park was meant to be an aural recollection of the sound of New York City, around the turn of the century, "before the combustion engine and the radio monopolized the earth and air," Ives later said (Ives thankfully died before the advent of the car alarm).

The listener, Ives said, should imagine he is sitting on a park bench, on a warm summer night in Central Park. The strings, at first barely audible, represent nature and peace--darkness, summer quiet. Then the rest of the orchestra enters, playing a host of parts: street singers coming up from Columbus Circle; newsboys hawking papers; drunks teetering home from alehouses, singing the latest Broadway hits ("Hello My Baby" is squealed out by the clarinet); fire engines wailing in the distance; "pianolas having a 'ragtime war' in the apartment house 'over the garden wall", as Ives wrote. "A cab horse runs away, lands over the fence and out, the wayfarers shout--again the darkness is heard--an echo over the pond--and we walk home."

"Central Park" was first officially performed in 1946. However, Ives, soon after composing it, convinced a theatre orchestra to play it through for him. On their break, in between acts, the band attempted it. It was, by Ives' account, a bit of a mess--the exasperated pianist stopped playing in the middle and kicked the bass drum in frustration. This less-chaotic performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, from 1976. Find here.

Physicians recommend beer

Gustav Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony from 1903 to 1905, but, dissatisfied, he rewrote it substantially in 1906, before and after the symphony's premiere in Essen, on May 27. Unlike many of Mahler's symphonies, the Sixth is fairly traditional in its four-movement structure; like many of Mahler's other symphonies, it's bone-wearyingly long (the final movement alone is half an hour).

The second (or third--there's some confusion, for more see link above) movement, the Scherzo, is a sunlit patch of an otherwise somber, brooding work. It is said to invoke childhood games--Alma Mahler claimed the music was meant to represent the Mahler children at play.

While Mahler wrote the symphony during one of the happiest times in his life, he seemed to etch his grim future into the music. Soon after the Sixth was offered to the public, Mahler's eldest daughter died, he lost his post at the Vienna Court Opera due in part to anti-Semitic attacks in the newspapers; and his own demise (and that of the culture in which he was raised--Austria-Hungary) was only a handful of years away.

This performance is by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, recorded on May 2 & 6, 1967. Find here. (Caveat--due to its length, the piece had to be imported at a low bit rate, and hence sounds pretty lousy.)

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