Thursday, April 30, 2009

Songmasonry: After You've Gone

Marion Harris (1918).
The Versatile Four (1919).
Bessie Smith (1927).
Sophie Tucker (1927).
The Charleston Chasers (1927).
The California Ramblers (1927).
Johnny Dodds' Black Bottom Stompers (1927).
Red Nichols and His Five Pennies (with Jack Teagarden) (1930).
Alphonse Trent Orchestra (1930).
Fats Waller (1930).
Benny Goodman Trio (1935).
Roy Eldridge Orchestra (1937).
Judy Garland (1941).
Cassino Simpson (ca. 1944).
Teddy Wilson Sextet (1944).
Jess Stacy (1944).
Charlie Parker, Lester Young, et al (1946).
Blue Lu Barker (1947).
Al Jolson (1949).
Sonny Stitt (1950).
Sonny Criss (1956).
Dinah Washington (1958).
Jaki Byard (1965).
Nina Simone (1969).
Ray Brown-Herb Ellis Sextet (1974).
Wild Bill Davis (1976).
Count Basie-Oscar Peterson Quartet (1978).
Ralph Sutton (1993).
Andrew Bird (1999).
Fiona Apple (2005).

If by this time I haven't conveyed to you by illustration and citation what I mean by an American-sounding song, "After You've Gone" should tell you.

Alec Wilder, American Popular Song.

Posterity was a vaudeville joke audible only to those with front-row seats.

Roberto Bolaño, 2666.

"After You've Gone," like George M. Cohan and knock-knock jokes, was born on the stage, and a trace of greasepaint is found in its lack of shame, or simply in the way the song opens. The singer walks out to center stage, entreating her departing lover (her arms spread wide, or maybe her hands are clasped), and, beyond him, her audience. She begins: "Now listen, honey, while I say."

Now listen. It's a concise command that belies the sentiment of the rest of the song, which quickly veers from desperation to delusion. Quincy Jones once called this type of song a "beg," and said you had to throw in one per album. But as it proceeds, the song goes from a beg to a hopeful, desperate curse. The singer, despite her pleas, realizes in her heart that it's over. Beyond the last wave of self-deceptions, the failed mustered attempts at pride, lies despair and invective: one day you will hurt as much as I do now.

"After You've Gone" is close to a century old and still seems young. Or rather we, as listeners, perhaps at some point age beyond it, consigned to our various measures of contentment or heartache, while it remains whole and unblemished, a hymn of false solace, a pearl of desperate love.


Turner Layton, ca. 1925

Henry Creamer, a black Virginian (and later New Yorker) born soon after the death of Reconstruction, began working in the theater around 1900, first as an usher, stage manager and "eccentric dancer," later as a songwriter. Creamer, a lyricist, had a number of songwriting partners but only middling success.

In 1916, Creamer met Turner Layton, a pianist fifteen years his younger. Layton, like Jim Europe and Duke Ellington, was a product of the black middle class of Washington DC (Ellington as a kid saw Layton play). He was ambitious and full of melody but had no publishing credits, while Creamer was a wary old pro who had never hit the big time. They had hits as soon as they began collaborating, placing a few songs with Bert Williams.

Sometime in 1917, Creamer and Layton wrote "After You've Gone" for an ailing road show called So Long, Letty. The show failed but the song had hooked audiences. A year later, around the time Al Jolson began to work the song into his shows, Creamer and Layton copyrighted and published it.

The first-ever recording of "After You've Gone" was likely by its composers. Tim Brooks, in his Lost Sounds, discovered that the pair cut a now-lost trial record for Columbia in April 1918, although the title of the song wasn't listed. However, while Columbia rejected the Creamer/Layton disc, it produced the first surviving recording of "After You've Gone" eleven days later, with regular session singers Albert Campbell and Henry Burr (suggesting that Columbia used the Creamer/Layton recording, if it was "After You've Gone," as a template). The Campbell/Burr track, which Brooks accurately describes as being a dreary, late-in-the-day minstrel record, was released in September 1918, and was a decent-sized hit later that year.

The first masterful recording of "After You've Gone" came in October 1918, when the precocious white blues singer Marion Harris took it on. The move to a solo vocal defined the song, gave it heft: "After You've Gone" can become a dreadful hokey comedy when sung as a duet (e.g., take this dire 1919 duet, a performance that maims Creamer's lyric).

All Kinds of Weather

In fact many would consider "After You've Gone"...the first truly modern popular song because of the way its lyrics focused on personalized emotions rather than abiding by the conventional ballad technique of relating a mini-story.

Wiley Lee Umphlett, The Visual Focus of American Media Culture in the Twentieth Century.

While [Jean] Shepherd would only show his distress in private at the time his marriage was disintegrating, veiled references may have surfaced on his broadcasts. During this period he would sometimes sing on-air an ironic, mock-melodramatic version of "After You've Gone."

Eugene B. Bergmann, Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.

There's nothing extravagant or novel to "After You've Gone"'s construction: it's a 16-bar verse leading to a 20-bar chorus. The verse often gets dropped, so that many people only know "After You've Gone" as one long repeated chorus with instrumental breaks.

Losing the verse weakens the song, I find: the verse is the preamble, the chorus the constitution. The verses set the stage--the singer tries to make herself heard, uses memories as ransom, begs for another chance, builds up to her declaration. Which is the chorus: an invective, an augury, a wish, a fantasy. Anyone who's heard it once will remember it.

Creamer's lyric has no clever rhyming ("me cryin'/denyin'" is as intricate as it gets), no wordplay. It's how it should be--a more elaborate rhyme structure, a string of metaphors, would ring false. The language is clean and timeless, with the only "period" line being "you'll miss the bestest pal you've ever had" (changed within a decade to "greatest pal").

It's also an early secular gospel song, a pop tune thieving from the hymnal. The chorus is basically a call-and-response, a structure popularized in African-American church services, except here the singer takes both parts:

'Leader': After you've gone
'Chorus': (And left me cryin'!)
'Leader': After you've gone
'Chorus': (There's no denyin'!)

You can hear a preacher's cadences in the vocal line as well, and it wouldn't take much to turn the song back into a gospel tune. Just replace the vagrant lover with a forgiving (or vengeful, depending on your parish) God, and you're halfway there.

Back Where We Started

On Saturday night she and Bill Knowles came to the country club. They were very handsome together and once more I felt envious and sad. As they danced out on the floor the three-piece orchestra was playing After You've Gone, in a poignant incomplete way that I can hear yet, as if each bar were trickling off a precious minute of that time. I knew then that I had grown to love Tarleton, and I glanced about half in panic to see if some face wouldn't come in for me out of that warm, singing, outer darkness that yielded up couple after couple in organdie and olive drab. It was a time of youth and war, and there was never so much love around.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Last of the Belles."

As for the music, Layton's writing is both catchy and quite intricate for the period, particularly in the chorus.

The chorus breaks down into sections: four bars of A (from the first "after you've gone" to "there's no denyin'"), four bars of B ("you'll feel blue" to "you've ever had"), four more of A ("there'll come a time" to "you'll regret it"), the yearning four bars of C ("some-day" to "want me only") and then the coda, four final bars of a truncated A (the last repeat of "after you've gone").

There is a new chord in almost each bar, sometimes two, so it's a rich seam for an improviser to mine. You can hear Charlie Parker, performing "After You've Gone" with Lester Young in 1946, feast on it. The longest static stretch is the seventh and eighth bars in the home key of C ("you'll miss the bestest pal/you've ever had"), which serve as a miniature break: sometimes the band will drop out during it, giving the singer extra power (watch the Fiona Apple performance, for instance--the crowd eats it up). (I'm using The Bessie Smith Songbook as a guide here.)

The song was originally in C major, and the first bar of the chorus is in F, the subdominant, which quickly establishes a sense of yearning impermanence that carries through the rest of the chorus. The poignant heart of the chorus--the C section--is also its most intricate, as it goes Dm/A7/Dm/Dm7-5/C/E7/Am/D7.

After its travels, the chorus comes home again in the last three bars ("after you've gone...after you've gone a-waaay"), which are C/G7/C, suggesting both a resolution and a resignation. He's really going away. Billy Crystal once talked about the time Billie Holiday babysat him. They were watching the end of Shane, and when the boy Crystal called out "come back, Shane!", Holiday just shook her head. "Honey, he ain't ever comin' back."


A mixture of reasons prevented inbuilt dislike of cold murder, the feeling that this was not the predestined moment...these, combined with the softness of the night and the fact that the 'Sound System' was now playing a good recording of one of his favorites, "After You've Gone," and that cicadas were singing...said 'No.'

Ian Fleming, The Man With the Golden Gun.

There is a substantial gap between the initial 1918-19 recordings of "After You've Gone," and the burst of interpretations in 1927, after which the song rarely went out of fashion. It's not as though the public had forgotten about "After You've Gone" in the early and mid-'20s--it continued to be performed on stage and was sewn into various medleys. But it wasn't considered a hot property either.

Perhaps a new generation discovered an older model and fell in love with its charms. Or it was simply two women, Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker, who recorded "After You've Gone" within about a month of each other, and whose discs defined how the piece should be sung. It's arguable that many subsequent interpretations (most obviously Dinah Washington, who did hers on a Bessie Smith tribute album) take their cues from these recordings. If there is a "standard" "After You've Gone," it's here.

With Smith and Tucker's versions as a template, is it fair to say "After You've Gone" is a woman's song at heart? Its male interpreters range from the timid (mousy-voiced Gene Austin in 1930) to joyful braggarts (Al Jolson's self-celebration in 1949), with Jack Teagarden's sly, lazy vocal--in which Teagarden smooths out Layton's melody to better fit his range--as the most charming.

The song's finest interpreters--Harris, Smith, Tucker, Judy Garland, Blue Lu Barker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Fiona Apple--all convey the song's power and grace, its measures of rancor and heartache, its futile delusions and its hidden strengths. Each of these records has its own treasures: Garland's frantic attempt at exuberance; Apple's show of determined petulance; Simone's slow boil (she opens the verse almost sleepily, as though she's still letting the blow sink in). "After You've Gone" lends itself to such spectacle and performance: after all, it is the last will and testament of a failed marriage, a desperate coda to a breakup.

True For Many Years

Jack switched to "After You've Gone," doing it loud, tapping a foot. It got so trumpety that, in the middle of putting a hairline on the Y, Roy, afraid his hand might shake, turned and stared burningly at Jack's spine.

John Updike, "The Kid's Whistling."

Jazz players took hold of "After You've Gone" in 1927 (with a prelude in the fascinating, primitive Versatile Four disc from 1919) and have toyed with it ever since. There generally has been some respect granted to "After You've Gone"'s structure: musicians rarely strip it down and refit it in the way they do something like "I Got Rhythm."

The first jazz records from 1927--Johnny Dodds' New Orleans stomp, the society swing of the Charleston Chasers--still include the verse (sometimes after the chorus opens the piece). But soon, by the early '30s, the more harmonically-rich chorus comes to encompass the whole of the song.

Peanuts Holland, opening trumpet solo transcription, Alphonse Trent's "After You've Gone."

Picking a favorite version is impossible: the staggering array of talent in the Red Nichols track, with Teagarden as clown prince; the obscure, brilliant regional bandleader Alphonse Trent, whose "After You've Gone," cut for Gennett Records in Indiana in 1930, opens with a firecracker of a trumpet solo by "Peanuts" Holland, followed by a fine, brassy vocal by Stuff Smith. Or the legendary Benny Goodman Trio track, in which Goodman and Teddy Wilson engage in a battle of wits, while Gene Krupa crashes around behind them.

"After You've Gone" inspired reverence and restraint in some (Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, while Art Tatum kept coming back to it over decades), raw exuberance in others (in Roy Eldridge's 1937 recording with his octet, over one four-bar break, Eldridge careers from a high F down to a low G in the space of a few seconds). The song is essentially as old as jazz is, and after a time, it came to be seen as one of the music's founding documents, playing it one of a jazzman's unalienable rights.

Postwar recordings keep to the fairly traditional--there are no truly avant-garde versions of "After You've Gone" that I've found (the wildest version here is by Jaki Byard, who churns "After You've Gone" into a mix with "Strolling Along" during a 1965 concert, going full-tilt, as if a projectionist has cranked a film at three times its normal speed).

In some of the '70s recordings included here, by journeyman players like Wild Bill Davis and Ray Brown and the ageless Count Basie (still fleet at age 74), there's a sense of rediscovery, of sustenance, as though the older "After You've Gone" grows, the more it has to give: it's a replenishing morsel, fit to console us when we are shattered, meant to invigorate us when we are withered.

Here's to its upcoming centennial. Raise a glass to Creamer and Layton, and the dozens upon dozens of geniuses who thankfully have followed their roadmap.

A selected discography:

Pioneers: Marion Harris (18 October 1918; Victor 18509; archive); The Versatile Four (September 1919; Edison Bell Winner 3379; Black String Bands Vol. 3) were Gus Haston (C melody sax, vox, banjoline), Anthony Tuck (banjoline), Charlie Mills (p) and Gordon Stretton (d, perc.).

Canon: Bessie Smith (2 March 1927; Columbia 14197-D; Empress of the Blues Vol. 2); Sophie Tucker (with Miff Mole on trombone) (11 April 1927; OKeh 40837;Last of the Red Hot Mamas).

First jazz discs: The Charleston Chasers (27 January 1927; Columbia 861-D; Vol. 1 1925-1930); The California Ramblers (also went by the name Golden Gate Orchestra) (24 June 1927; Pathe Actuelle 36653); Johnny Dodds' Black Bottom Stompers cut two versions on 8 October 1927 (Brunswick 3568; Definitive Dodds).

Master jazz: Red Nichols and His Five Pennies (2 Feb 1930; Brunswick 4839; 1929-1930): a mind-blowing supergroup, with Jack Teagarden (vox, tb), Charlie Teagarden, Nichols, Tommy Thunen (cornet), Glenn Miller (tb), Benny Goodman (cl), Jimmy Dorsey (cl/altos), Manny Klein (tpt), Babe Russin (t/sx), Adrian Rollini (bs/sx), Jack Russin (p), Weston Vaughan (g), Jack Hansen (b), and Gene Krupa (d)!

Alphonse Trent (5 March 1930; Gennett 7161; Richmond Rarities), with Herbert “Peanuts” Holland, Chester Clark, Irving Randolph, George Hudson (t), Leo “Snub” Mosely (tb), James Jeter, Charles Pillars, Lee Hilliard (as), Hayes Pillars (ts, bars), Leroy “Stuff” Smith (v, vox), Eugene Crooke (bjo, gtr), Robert “Eppie” Jackson(b), A.G. Godley (d).

More mastery: Fats Waller (21 March 1930; Victor 22371; Compete Victor Piano Solos); The Goodman Trio (Goodman, Krupa, Wilson)'s first-ever studio recording (13 July 1935; Victor 25115;Complete Small Groups) was two takes of "After You've Gone"--here's the second.

Roy Eldridge's Orchestra (28 January 1937; Vocalion 3458; Little Jazz): Scoops Carry, Joe Eldridge (alts); Dave Young (tens); Teddy Cole (p); John Collins (g); Truck Parham (b); Zutty Singleton (d); Gladys Palmer (vox); Judy Garland's standard version is from the 1941 MGM film Ziegfeld Girl.

Unknown soldiers: Cassino Simpson's take, ca. 1942-1944, was likely taped during his stay at Elgin Mental Hospital--released as a limited "gift" 78 record (UP 102) in 1947; Jess Stacy's piano/drums duet with Specs Powell was recorded for Commodore on 25 November 1944 but not released until decades later (1944-1950).

Bop era versions: Teddy Wilson's Sextet (c. Nov 1944; Standard Q208; After You've Gone): Red Norvo vibes, Charlie Shavers (tp), Remo Palmieri (g), Al Hall (b), Specs Powell again (d); Parker and Young' s JATP concert also featured Willie Smith (altos), Killian Howard McGhee (t), Arnold Ross (p), Billy Hadnott (b) and Lee Young (d). (28 January 1946; released in two parts as Mercury 11041; Jazz at the Philharmonic 1946.)

Blue Lu Barker's take was recorded live 31 May 1947, by Rudi Blesh (Jazzin' the Blues Vol. 5); Jolson's 1949 "After You've Gone" was released as the soundtrack to Jolson Sings Again, the dud sequel to The Jolson Story (Decca 9-24683; later on The Singing Detective).

Hard bop: Sonny Stitt Septet (8 November 1950; Prestige 727; later on Stitt's Bits): Bill Massey (tp), Matthew Gee (tb), Stitt (ts), Gene Ammons (bars), Junior Mance (p), Gene Wright (b) ,Wes Landers (d); Sonny Criss Quartet (31 July 1956, LA; Imperial 9020; Go Man!): Criss (altos), Sonny Clark (p), Leroy Vinnegar(b) and Lawrence Marable (d).

Freedom: Jaki Byard Quartet (15 April 1965, rec. at "Lennie's On The Turnpike" in West Peabody, MA; The Last From Lennie's): Joe Farrell (ts, ss, fl, d), Byard (p), George Tucker (b) and Alan Dawson (d, vib) .

Later divas: Dinah Washington (7 January 1958, Chicago; Dinah Sings Bessie Smith, MG 36130) with Fortunatus Fip Richard (tp), Julian Priester (tb), Eddie Chamblee (ts), Charles Davis (bars), Jack Wilson (p), Robert Lee Wilson (b), James Slaughter (d), arr. by Robare Edmonson; Nina Simone, rec. live ca. 1969, on a few odd compilations like Gin House Blues.

Revivals: Ray Brown-Herb Ellis Sextet (August 1974, Concord Jazz Festival, CA; After You've Gone (Concord Jazz 6006), later on Concord Jazz Heritage Series): with Ellis (g), Brown (b), Harry "Sweets" Edison (t), Plas Johnson (tenors), George Duke (p) and Jake Hanna (d); Wild Bill Davis (21-22 January 1976, Paris; All Right, OK, You Win) with Billy Butler, Oliver Jackson and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.

Count Basie-Oscar Peterson Quartet, (21-22 February 1978; Count Basie Meets Oscar Peterson--the Timekeepers), with John Heard (b) and Louis Bellson (d); Ralph Sutton (Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, 1993).

New kids: Andrew Bird (live in Austin, TX, 19 March 1999; complete show here). And Fiona Apple's performance, from the now-deceased Virgin Megastore in NYC, Sept. 2005, shows that she needs to do an album of standards, stat.

Next: Armistice (war is over if you want it)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Day of the Women's Death Battalion: 1917

Al and Monroe Jockers, The Dixie Volunteers.
Erik Satie, Parade: Petite Fille Americaine.
Eubie Blake, Charleston Rag.
Harry Kandel's Orchestra, Freylekhs Fun Der Khupe.
Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band, A Coon Band Contest.
Frisco Jass Band, Johnson's Jass Blues.
Handy's Orchestra of Memphis, Fuzzy Wuzzy Rag.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Ostrich Walk.

The great Russian revolution has realized women's boldest dreams. The first Provisional Government has acknowledged the civil and political equality of the women of Russia. This equality, which as yet has been realized nowhere in the world on such a scale, lays upon the Russian woman a huge responsibility. Corresponding to equal rights with men there must be equal obligations. Recognizing this, the Union of Women's Democratic Organizations and the All-Russian Union of Women have introduced for review by the Provisional Government a bill on drafting women for obligatory service.

Commission chair O. A. Nekrasova, provisional Russian government, 16 June 1917.


In this terrible hour, when the dark storm clouds of anarchy, defeat and economic collapse are gathering over our motherland, when death is foretold for her, we, women citizens with equal rights, are obliged to raise our voices, are obliged to unite and strain every nerve to come forward...

Imperative responsibility and civic duty call upon the Russian woman to support our army's unity of will, to strengthen the falling spirit of our troops [and], having entered into their ranks as volunteers, to transform the passive, standing front into an active, aggressive one.

Maria Bochkareva
, May 1917.

Sworn to never surrender (hence the term "Legion of Death") it was published in the press that each woman soldier carried a ration of potassium cyanide to be used to commit suicide in the event of capture. This grim fact was also reflected in their shoulder straps, which were trimmed in black with a skull and crossbones insignia.

Christopher Eger, "The Russian Women's Legion of Death."

26th July 1917: Yasha [Maria] Bochkareva, a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour. When she knew the soldiers were deserting in large numbers, she made her way to Moscow and Petrograd to start recruiting for a Woman's Battalion. It is reported that she had said, "If the men refuse to fight for their country, we will show them what the women can do!" So this woman warrior, Yasha Bochkareva, began her campaign; it was said that it had met with singular success. Young women, some of aristocratic families, rallied to her side; they were given rifles and uniforms and drilled and marched vigorously. We Sisters were of course thrilled to the core.

13th August 1917: At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bochkareva had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2,000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go "over the top". But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear.

Diary of Florence Farmborough, nurse working in Russia during the Revolution of 1917. The Women's Death Battalions were dissolved in November 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power; Maria Bochkareva later fled to the United States.

In which the United States joins the big parade.

"The Dixie Volunteers" is by the brother act of Al and Monroe Jockers: The Jockers Brothers (Al, violin; Monroe, piano) had led a New York society orchestra earlier in the decade and Monroe, at least, cut records well into the '30s.

Recorded ca. November 1917 and released as Little Wonder 829; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

Parade, debuting in Paris on 18 May 1917, is a modernist all-star production: music by Erik Satie, sets and costumes by Picasso, libretto by Jean Cocteau, choreography by Léonide Massine for the Ballets Russes, and program notes by Apollinaire (who coined the word "surrealism" in them).

The plot of Parade, such as it is, deals with relevance: how can an older art form, such as classical music or ballet, still draw an audience in the age of pop music, the cinema, and the gramophone? (Alex Ross.) Managers of a traveling show attempt to entice passersby via a number of sideshows, including a dancing "Little American Girl" (think Annie Oakley). Ross: The side acts prove so entertaining that the audience refuses to go inside. Low culture thus becomes the main attraction.

One movement, "Petite Fille Americaine," includes Satie's homage to/theft from Irving Berlin's "That Mysterious Rag." Performed here by Maurice de Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

Henri Bendel, Sketch HB 24-03.

In the early '70s, Michael Montgomery asked Eubie Blake to listen to some of Blake's oldest surviving piano rolls, which were being archived and recorded for a new LP. Blake was 90, and hadn't heard most of the rolls for over fifty years. Montgomery played him "Charleston Rag," a roll Blake had made ca. fall 1917.

Montgomery: Does that roll sound familiar, Eubie?
Blake: Yeah, but I do more tricks in it now then I did in those days.

The roll (Ampico 54174-E) was played on a 1910 Steinway 65/88 note player and recorded on 8 July 1972, in Detroit. Blake approved the tempo. (On Biograph's LP Eubie Blake 1917-1921, Blues and Ragtime Vol. 1; later on Greatest Ragtime of the Century).

Matisse, The Artist and His Model.

Carry on the war to win the peace--there's a formula that should certainly fulfill the wish of [Pope] Benedict XV.

Monsignor François-Marie-Anatole de Rovérié de Cabrières, cardinal and bishop of Montpellier, 28 August 1917.

Harry Kandel, born in Galicia in 1885, studied music in Odessa, played in the Czar's army band, and left for the United States around the time of the 1905 Revolution. He played vaudeville, worked in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and in John Philip Sousa's orchestra. In his spare time, he helped invent modern klezmer.

In the recordings Kandel made as a bandleader, Kandel's clarinet often supplants the violin, the traditional leading instrument in klezmer, making the records something like second cousins to jazz (a link formalized when Benny Goodman remade Kandel's "Der Shtiler Bulgar" as "And the Angels Sing.")

Recorded in New York on 14 November 1917; on Victor 72475B (listed as "A freilachs von der chuppe") c/w "Oddessar Bulgarish"; on Klezmer 1910-1942.

(You can hear a possible (inadvertent?) klezmer influence in Ted Lewis' clarinet, on Earl Fuller's Jazz Band's "Coon Band Contest," recorded September of the same year--Victor 18394-B; in this archive.)

Duchamp, Fountain.

Jazz, before it was anything else, was a pop music fad. Here are three attempts to cash in:

The Frisco Jass Band was essentially Edison Records' (the stodgiest of the major labels) attempt to get a piece of jazz mania. The New York-based band was put together in early 1917 by Rudy Wiedoft, its name a bit of a misnomer, though a few members originally had come from California.

"Johnson's 'Jass' Blues" (named after its composer, the Frisco's band's pianist) was recorded 10 May 1917 in New York and released as Edison 50470 (and Blue Amberol 3254); find here.

W. C. Handy was 43 when he finally made records. Although the man had essentially laid the groundwork for jazz and blues, Handy had trouble keeping up with the latest convulsions, while Columbia's engineers did a poor job capturing the nuances of his proto-big band. Still in tracks like "Fuzzy Wuzzy Rag" you can hear "a gentle, wistful funk" (David Wondrich).

Recorded 21 September 1917 and released as Columbia A2421/Columbia 2910; find here.

A mere $1.50 gets you eccentric dancers, one of the first jazz bands in history, and dinner in the Futurist Room

Finally, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the 1917 equivalent of the Sex Pistols, or Elvis, or the Beatles--pick your analogy. The opening massed horn blast of "Ostrich Walk" sounds as if it was intended for electric guitars.

Recorded 24 November 1917 and released as Aeolian Vocalion A 1206 (the band had cut another version, slightly less manic, for Victor in February).

Next: Songmasonry (an occasional series)

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Troglodyte World: 1916

French woman working at munitions factory, ca. 1915-1916

Nora Bayes, Homesickness Blues.
Marion Harris, Paradise Blues.
The Versatile Four, Circus Day In Dixie.
Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, I Can Dance With Everybody Except My Wife.
Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck, L’Amiral Cherche Une Maison à Louer.

I see men arising and walking forward and I go forward with them, in a glassy delirium wherein some seem to pause, with bowed heads, and sink carefully to their knees, and roll slowly over, and lie still. Others roll and roll, and scream and grip my legs in uttermost fear, and I have to struggle to break away, while the dust and earth on my tunic changes from grey to red...

And I go on with aching feet up and down across ground like a huge ruined honeycomb, and my wave melts away, and the second wave comes up and also melts away, and then the third wave merges into the ruins of the first and second, and after a while the fourth blunders into the remnants of the others, and we begin to run forward to catch up with the barrage, gasping and sweating, in bunches, anyhow, every bit of the months of drill and rehearsal forgotten, for who could have imagined that the "Big Push" was going to be this?

Henry Williamson, recalling 1 July 1916 on the Somme.

The length of this horrible war is most depressing. I really think it gets worse the longer it lasts.

Queen Mary, letter to Lady Mount Stephen, November 1916.

Nora Bayes' "Homesickness Blues" is her finest record, and while it's not a 'proper' 12-bar blues, everything about it--the weary melody the winds and brass play in the opening bars (and which recurs as a motif), the quiet melancholy flavor of Bayes' vocal, the relaxed beat, the lack of minstrel buffoonery--marks it as a truly modern record, a face card shuffled ahead in the deck.

Allen Lowe: [Bayes'] 1916 recording pre-dates the accepted classic era of blues and jazz recordings, but it tells us that the sound of it was already well circulated by the time record companies caught up with the fact of its general, bi-racial popularity...'Homesickness Blues' has no straining for effect, silly slurring or shallow posturing. What it does have is a vocal with powerful presence and confident technique, including a beautifully executed glissando of the type that later jazz singers would turn into a cliche, and which Bayes executes without vanity.

Recorded 4 May 1916 and released as Victor 45100; in this archive. Cliff Hess, who wrote the song, started out by playing piano on Mississippi riverboats and in the '10s worked as Irving Berlin's secretary.

Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, July 1916

Honey don't play me no opera
play me some blue melodies
I don't care nothing 'bout 'Carmen'
when I hear those harmonies

Marion Harris' "Paradise Blues" finds a 20-year-old first-edition flapper singing a blues anthem by the bard of Basin Street, Spencer Williams, and going to town with it.

Harris is one of the first white female singers to effectively convey a blues and jazz sensibility on record, and she would only get more inspired over the next decade. She left Victor Records in 1920 because they wouldn't let her cut "St. Louis Blues," which she could deliver impressively--"She sang blues so well that people sometimes thought that the singer was colored," W.C. Handy said of Harris.

Spencer Williams was born in New Orleans in 1889 and grew up in the town's red light district, living for a time as the ward of the madam Lulu White, who ran the Mahogany Hall brothel (Williams later would write "Mahogany Hall Stomp" (watch this, seriously) in tribute). By the late '00s Williams was in Chicago, working as a Pullman porter and playing piano in nightclubs, where he met the song publisher Clarence Williams (no relation). They formed a partnership and moved to New York in 1918. By then, Spencer had already struck gold with our Miss Harris, who had made his "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Paradise Blues" hits.

Recorded 17 November 1916 and released as Victor 18152; find in this extensive Harris archive.

In September 1916 James Reese Europe joined the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. By this point, many in the United States knew they were entering the war: it was simply a matter of when (of course, this was just as Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for re-election under the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War").

Europe, like many African-Americans, hoped the war could serve as a catalyst--a way for professional advancement, a chance to demonstrate bravery, dignity and competence to a racist society. Nothing would be the same after the war, the thought went. It was true--but only after the Second World War. After the First, nothing much changed except the KKK revived.

Before Europe went overseas, his former bandmates, his arrangements and his influence served as advance guards. Veterans of Europe's old Clef Club Orchestra had flooded into London, finding a ready audience of soldiers on leave and bored/lonely young women ready to hear hot music.(Also, many London-based German musicians had been thrown out of work.) One group was the Versatile Four, who played at Murray's Club on Beak Street in Soho.

(Murray's Club has a storied history--it was here during WWI that British military officials met to develop their new weapon, the tank, and Christine Keeler worked as a hostess at a later incarnation of the club in the early '60s.)

"Circus Day in Dixie" was one of the Four's first (and only) recordings, a piece dominated by Charlie Johnson's drum kit. With Gus Haston on banjo and also hollering a vocal, Tony Tuck (banjo) and Charlie Mills (piano). "Enjoy yourself!" Haston yells at one point, but the track is so fine no one needed his encouragement. Recorded 3 February 1916 in Hayes, Middlesex, UK, and released as HMV C-645; on Stomp and Swerve or in this archive.

Former slaves reunion, 1916 (Shorpy)

I don't know what one would do to keep one's spirits if it weren't for the theatres and restaurants, and the little dances, with Ciro's band to bang away till breakfast time. The coon music, by the way, isn't getting depressed at all--in fact, it's madder than ever.

Gossip columnist in the Tatler, September 1916.

Another expat was Dan Kildare, who we last met working for Joan Sawyer as her bandleader at the Persian Garden in New York. From 1915 to 1917, Kildare and his band played in London at Ciro's Restaurant, a swank Orange Street club that was decorated in Louis XIV style and featured a sliding roof and a dance floor on springs. Kildare's group also played society gigs, including a garden party at Grosvenor House attended by Winston Churchill and Lord Asquith. (From Tim Brooks' Lost Sounds.)

The British branch of Columbia Records soon signed Kildare and christened his band with the gruesome name "Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra." The first sessions, in August 1916, were cuts of popular show tunes, including Raymond Hitchcock's "I Can Dance With Everybody Except My Wife," included here--the tracks, possibly due to poor engineering, are overwhelmed by the banjo players, so that Kildare's piano is barely audible and the drums sound like they're in another room.

The Orchestra, on this track, was Kildare (p), Walter Kildare (vox), Vance Lowry (banjo), Ferdinand Allen (banjoline), Sumner "King" Edwards (b) and Hugh Pollard (d); recorded in London and released as Columbia 2703; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

Hugo Ball, 1916


On Saturday night, the 5th of February 1916, in Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire opened.

Dada has been mixed up with an art movement though it has nothing to present as an art movement if you think of Cubism, of Impressionism, or whatever, these are all problems of form, of color, of something that is shown or devised or has the aim of being a work of art; now this we didn't have at all. We had practically nothing except what we were.

Richard Huelsenbeck, 1971.

The Cabaret Voltaire was a six-piece band. Each played his instrument, i.e., himself.

Hans Richter
, 1964.

Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos and the miaowing of medieval Bruitists. [Tristan] Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer, [Marcel] Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame [Emmy] Hemmings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop at the great drum, with [Hugo] Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a plaster dummy.

Hans Arp, describing lost Janco painting of the Cabaret Voltaire, 1948.

This recording of Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's "simultaneous poem" "L’amiral cherche une maison à louer"("the admiral looks for a house to rent") demonstrates how the piece was performed on stage on its debut in March 1916. It's a poem that can only exist as a performance, as being three separate verses delivered at once, it's impossible to read on the page. Performed by the Italian trio Excoco (Hanna Aurbacher, Theophil Maier and Ewald Liska); on Futurism and Dada Reviewed.

Next: The Day of the Women's Death Battalion