Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

Titus Turner, Sticks and Stones.
Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Clinging To the Thought That She's Coming Back.
The Pretenders, Mystery Achievement.
Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels.
Willie Nelson, Bandera.

Sometime around 2001, for some long-forgotten reason, I made a series of CD mixes that were imaginary soundtracks to John Updike's four Rabbit novels (and the neglected novella). As the Rabbit books are all set at the tail end of a decade, the CDs were basically compilations of 1959, '69, '79, etc. songs. (This is the sort of sad thing I would do before starting "Locust St.")

Included here as a tribute are the last songs on each mix--the songs that my youthful self imagined would best end each novel (say, if each novel had been filmed in a very faithful adaptation). I'm not sure why, in some cases, I chose them, but here they are.

Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little side-street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

Rabbit, Run, 1960; Titus Turner, "Sticks and Stones," ca. 1958 (Soulville.)

Thirty-six years old and he knows less than when he started. With the difference that he knows how little he'll always know. The six o'clock news is all about space, all about emptiness: some bald man plays with little toys to show the docking and undocking maneuvers [of the moon launch], and then a panel talks about the significance of this for the next five hundred years. They keep mentioning Columbus but as far as Rabbit can see it's the exact opposite: Columbus flew blind and hit something, these guys see exactly where they're aiming and it's a big round nothing.

Rabbit Redux, 1971; Junior Walker and the All-Stars, "Clinging to the Thought That She's Coming Back," 1970 (not on CD).

Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won't catch him, not yet, because there isn't a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue. That's all he has to tell the people when they come in. And come in they do, the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending.

Rabbit Is Rich, 1981: The Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement," from Pretenders, 1980.

From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father's direction. "Don't die, Dad, don't!" he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn't leave the question hanging like that, the boy depends on him.

"Well, Nelson," he says, "all I can tell you is, it isn't so bad." Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

Rabbit at Rest, 1990; Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels, 1989.

The blazing beauty dwindled to a shrill spark, a needle of angry discontent lost in these streets lined with row houses and aluminum awnings and little front porches where the patient inhabitants sit and soak in the evening heat and wonder where it all went. The television goes from selling you perfume and designer jeans to selling you Centrum and denture adhesive as used by aged movie stars. It is a mistake to be beautiful when young...

Rabbit Remembered
, 2000; Willie Nelson, Night and Day, 1999.

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First Day

Sarah Vaughan, Great Day.
Jabbo Smith, Till Times Get Better.

I have much confidence that we shall proceed successfully for ages to come, and that...it will be seen that the larger the extent of country, the more firm its republican structure, if founded, not on conquest, but in principles of compact and equality. My hope of its duration is built on...the belief that men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them. With the consolation of this belief in the future result of our labors, I have that of other prophets who foretell distant events, that I shall not live to see it falsified.

My theory has always been, that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair.

Thomas Jefferson to François Barbé-Marbois, 1817.

While attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time much urged to do so...It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren--with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.

Frederick Douglass, last lines of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

We ain’t got a black president, Jefferson, because God ain’t ready for that yet.

Archie Bunker to Henry Jefferson, "All in the Family," ca. 1975.

First African-American president--better be good.

Malia Obama, to her father, in ref. to his inaugural speech, January 2009.

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

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.