Friday, July 31, 2009

Decade: 1 (2000-2001): 2

The Dirtbombs, Cedar Point '76.

Bantam Rooster, Shitlist +1.
The Greenhornes, Stayed Up Last Night.
The White Stripes, Fell In Love With A Girl.
The Wildbunch, She's Guatemala.

Lightning Bolt, Ride The Sky.

Young punks, mainly of Michigan stock: Detroit's The Dirtbombs' pinball lust ode (first released in '99 as a split-side single with the White Stripes' "Hand Springs" and collected on If You Don't Already Have a Look); Lansing's Bantam Rooster (a guitar-drums duo), whose "you're on my shitlist plus one!" should've been a national catch-phrase--on Fuck All Y'All, 2001; Cincinnati's The Greenhornes, from a 2000 7", Italy Records 009.

The White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl"--their finest single (White Blood Cells, 2001); The Wildbunch (soon to be the Electric Six)'s "She's Guatemala" is a b-side of their "Danger! High Voltage!" 7" single, Flying Bomb Records 117, 2001 (of all the gonzo lines, "somebody get me a MAP of Guatemala!" cracks me up the most). Finally, Lightning Bolt's "Ride the Sky:" all is reduced to the riff, which consumes itself (Ride the Skies, 2001).

Sonny Rollins, Salvador.
Wayne Shorter Quartet, Valse Triste.
John Lewis, One of Parker's Moods.

Leonard Cohen, Alexandra Leaving.
Bob Dylan, Floater (Too Much to Ask).

Old lions: Rollins' "Salvador," a thematic sequel to his "St. Thomas" is the opening track on This Is What I Do (recorded 8-9 May 2000, with Clifton Anderson (tb), Stephen Scott (p), Bob Cranshaw (b) and Jack DeJohnette (d)); Shorter's brilliant arrangement of Jean Sibelius' "Valse Triste" was recorded 24 July 2001 at the Jardins Palais Longchamps, in Marseilles (on Footprints Live!)--with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci (b) and Brian Blade (d),

John Lewis, who died in March 2001, made some last recordings at the end of the 20th Century just as his old partner, Milt Jackson, was passing. They were harvest songs from a half-century of performing and composing, like "One of Parker's Moods," where Lewis runs variations on Charlie Parker's 1948 solo on "Parker's Mood." With Howard Alden on guitar and George Mraz on bass. Recorded in Tarrytown, NY, in January 1999; on Evolution II.

Cohen's "Alexandra Leaving," lounge music from purgatory, is from Ten New Songs, 2001; it's difficult to choose the essential track from Dylan's Love and Theft (except "Tweedle Dee," which I've always hated) but the river fantasia and tall tale "Floater" has some of his sharper recent lines, like this quatrain:

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes.

Ipod 1.0, introduced October 2001

Pop: Aaliyah's "Try Again" (prod. Timbaland) was on the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, 2000, later on Aaliyah. Britney Spears' "Oops!...I Did It Again" is to "Baby One More Time" as the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" is to "You Really Got Me" (Oops! the LP, 2000); Maxwell--best R&B falsetto of the decade (best hair, too), shame he really never had the songs. "Lifetime"'s as good as he got. On 2001's Now.

The Strokes, Someday.
The Moldy Peaches, Lazy Confessions.

White Hassle, Life Is Still Sweet.

Hipster nostalgia, premature: "Someday," off Is This It, 2001; there was a whole school of bands inspired entirely by the Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You"--here's one of them. To be eternally known as the Juno group (The Moldy Peaches, 2001); White Hassle's Life Is Still Sweet (2000).

The Mekons, Last Weeks of the War.
The Rolling Stones, Shattered.

Aftermaths: The Mekons' Journey to the End of the Night, 2000; I kept playing "Shattered" all through the fall of '01. I don't think I was the only one.

Top: the Palm Beach County, Fla., "butterfly" ballot.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Decade: 1 (2000-2001): 1

Cultural prophecy is always a mug's game.

Harold Bloom.

Dave Chappelle, Black President.

One night on stage in Washington DC, in June 2000, Dave Chappelle summoned the "first black president," much in the same way as Richard Pryor had done 25 years earlier--offering it as a figure of future myth and, for much of the audience, a scenario so surreal that when they took it as truth for the moment, the world turned on its end. The subsequent jokes were effortless; it was an easy laugh. And today in Washington DC, in July 2009, the first black president can screen Chappelle's Killin' Them Softly in the White House.

All the time goes somewhere. I'm making some decade-end mixes for friends, and so I figured I would put up some potential candidates on occasion throughout the remaining months of the '00s. (We never agreed on what to call them. The Aughts? the Ohs? The Zeroes? Our grandchildren will likely just call it "The Calamity": e.g., "My father was born about three years into The Calamity.")

These aren't "best-of"s by any means, as I'm not hip enough to make such claims. These are simply tracks I liked at the time, or came to like later on, or liked then, disliked for a while, then liked again. They're grouped by rough affinity.

The last Sunday Peanuts strip, February 2000.

Mystikal, Family.
Afroman, Hush.
Blackalicious, A To G.

Roger Scruton, philosopher and fox hunter, recently lamented that wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature...Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. (itals mine.)

Three rap invasions: a celebration of the extended family and the virtues of place and community (Mystikal's Let's Get Ready, 2000); a religious vision, though Afroman admits the herb might've had something to do with it, that ends with the image of an old man planting in his garden and humming gospel tunes (The Good Times, 2001); and the musical equivalent to Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa (Blackalicious' Nia, 2000).

It's hard to be a bird in a flying house

David S. Ware Quartet, Sweet Georgia Bright.
Matthew Shipp, New Orbit.
William Parker Trio, Foundation #1.

At the turn of the century, the jazz musicians orbiting the saxophonist David S. Ware were the most talented group assembled since, pick your argument, Miles Davis' second quartet, or Air, or the World Saxophone Quartet: the pianist Matthew Shipp, the drummers/percussionists Susie Ibarra and Guillermo E. Brown, and the bassist William Parker, a worthy heir to Charles Mingus.

When Ware's quartet (Parker and Shipp are the constants, while the drummer's seat has rotated) cut two records for Columbia at the end of the '90s, it seemed something was happening at last: that avant-garde and neo-traditional jazz had reached an accord; that rock and electronic music had been integrated into the jazz canon; that, as Phil Freeman wrote in a book of the era, New York Is Now!

"Sweet Georgia Bright" is from the second and last of Ware's Columbia LPs, Surrendered (rec. November 1999, released May 2000). The tune was written by the tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd in the late '60s, and Ware, in an interview at the time of Surrendered's release, said he chose it in part because he wanted to honor Lloyd's generation--Cecil Taylor opening for the Yardbirds, or Miles Davis playing the Fillmore East. Ware, who had opened for Sonic Youth (and whose drummer Ibarra would play with Yo La Tengo in the '00s), saw the need for a new synthesis. "I would love to open that box again. The energy, the potential--it's just there going to waste."

His sidemen's records were just as strong. Shipp's New Orbit (recorded 14 September 2000) featured a title composition in four incarnations--the first, included here, is an ensemble piece in which Shipp's repeated minimalist piano phrase underpins Wadada Leo Smith's warm trumpet; the other versions are solos for Shipp, Parker and a final Shipp/Parker duet (Gerald Cleaver is on drums).

And Parker's trio record Painter's Spring (2 April 2000) featured Daniel Carter on various horns and Hamid Drake on drums, the latter doing his best to rival Tony Williams in terms of propulsion on the opener "Foundation #1."

The White Stripes, Lord, Send Me an Angel.
Airport 5, Remain Lodging (at Airport 5).
Destroyer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Sea of Tears).

In their callow youth, from January 1999 to December 2001, The White Stripes released three LPs, a Captain Beefheart covers 7" and seven other singles, while Jack White also put out the Upholsterers single and guest-starred on the Wildbunch's "Danger! High Voltage!" Jack and Meg White also divorced (amicably, it seems) in the midst of it all.

The Stripes' cover of Blind Willie McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel," whose setting White relocates to Detroit, was issued as a 7" single (Sympathy for the Record Industry 645) in October 2000 c/w "You're Pretty Good Looking For a Girl (Trendy American Remix)". Still unreleased on CD.

Other ministers of production: Robert Pollard, who in between annual Guided By Voices LPs put out some 10,000 other records. "Remain Lodging (at Airport 5)" is from his reunion with former GBV'er Tobin Sprout, 2001's Tower in the Fountain of Sparks. And Dan Bejar, a deliberately minor artist or a neglected master (it was the sort of decade in which you could be both). His "Farrar, Straus & Giroux" is from Streethawk: A Seduction (2001).

Goldsworthy, The Neuberger Cairn, 2001.

The Handsome Family, In the Air.
Beachwood Sparks, This Is What It Feels Like.
Badly Drawn Boy, Camping Next To Water.

Pastoral music, of a sort: a man who can't cross bridges, a camper cooking fish and some cowboy hippies strung out on peyote. The Handsome Family (from In the Air); Beachwood Sparks (on their self-titled debut), a band that didn't do as much as I hoped (they essentially split in 2002, though they reunite on occasion), and Damon Gough, who goes by the silly name Badly Drawn Boy, from his The Hour of Bewilderbeast. All from 2000.

The Gentle Waves, Falling From Grace.
The Clientele, Bicycles.
Françoiz Breut, L'Origine du Monde.
Broadcast, Come On Let's Go.

We represent the lullaby league: The Gentle Waves is Isobel Campbell, the Scottish Jean Seberg lookalike and Belle and Sebastian alumna--"Falling from Grace" is on Swansong for You; The Clientele's "Bicycles" is from the EP A Fading Summer; Françoiz Breut is a Gallic illustrator and singer: "L'Origine du Monde" is from her LP Vingt à Trente Mille Jours (the average human lifespan). And Broadcast's "Come On Let's Go," which would've topped the pop charts in Godard's Alphaville, is from The Noise Made By People. All from 2000.

Keifer, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, 2000.

Ted Nash and Odeon, Sidewalk Meeting.
Radiohead, Treefingers.
Gillian Welch, April the 14th (Pt. 1).
The Go-Betweens, He Lives My Life.

Ted Nash is a New York-based clarinet/saxophone player who leads the group Odeon. The title track of their first LP Sidewalk Meeting (rec. 23-24 October 2000; out of print) opens with a plunger-happy trombone cadenza by Wycliffe Gordon that's marvel enough, but stay until you hear Nash's melody--one of the loveliest of the decade, carried by Gordon and Nash, later joined by the violinist Miri Ben-Ari. And Radiohead's "Treefingers" is from Kid A, 2000.

Gillian Welch dubbed the 14th of April--the day of Lincoln's assassination, the Titanic sinking and the worst Dust Bowl storm--"Ruination Day," and ruminated on it over two songs on her 2001 album Time (The Revelator). It's the day of consecrated disaster, though Welch considers it indirectly, wheeling around the signs and portents. A girl watches a scraggly, stoned rock band pull into her small town; they play to an absent crowd and leave the same night; the kitchen staff and janitors bag up the mess. Far beyond the town, the skies redden, icebergs melt, trains collide, death comes in spirals. It's a black-hearted mother of a song, with a melody that feels like remembered pain, and sewn through with lines like "God moves on the water/like Casey Jones." The record was released six weeks before 9/11/01, which it seems on the verge of predicting.

The Go-Betweens' 2000 reunion album The Friends of Rachel Worth, in which Sleater-Kinney was the backing band, is the record of two friends resuming a conversation interrupted a decade earlier. For sentimental reasons, I had assumed I'd choose a Grant McLennan song from this LP, but Robert Forster's material has aged better: the goofy "Surfing Magazines," the happy exile song "German Farmhouse" and, most of all, the gorgeous, unknowable "He Lives My Life," in which Forster considers a lost future, or spies on the man who married his ex-wife.

Top: view of lower Manhattan from Governor's Island, 10 September 2001.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Songmasonry: There'll Be Some Changes Made

Ethel Waters (1921).
Marion Harris (1924).
Josie Miles (1924).
Edith Wilson and "Doc" Straine (1925).
Chicago Rhythm Kings (1928).
Eddie Lang (1928).
The Boswell Sisters (1932).
Fats Waller (1935).
Roy Newman and His Boys (1935).
W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys (1937).
Ocie Stockard and the Wanderers (1937).
Pee Wee Russell (1938).
Bunny Berigan (1939).
Mildred Bailey (1939).
Eddie Condon (1939).
Una Mae Carlisle (1941).
Art Tatum and Chocolate Williams (1941).
Lucky Millinder (1944).
Peggy Lee (1947).
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (1949).
Oscar Peterson Trio (1953).
Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band (1955).
Billie Holiday (1959).
The Collins Kids (1959).
Helen Humes (1961).
Ann-Margret (1962).
Butterbeans and Susie (1962).
Dave McKenna Quartet, with Zoot Sims (1974).
Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler (1990).

"There'll Be Some Changes Made" is barely a standard. It's not cut from the same timber as "After You've Gone" or "Body and Soul": it's a trifle, a period piece, a Saturday lark, an album track, a throwaway.

Alec Wilder: It's only eighteen measures long; it attempts nothing special; indeed, its attractiveness lies in its seeming not to have tried, to have simply happened at a time and place when everything was conducive to noodling around until a happy idea unfolded and before the noodler knew it, he had a song. It has none of that Tin Pan Alley, "let's write a hit today" quality about it...It's so relaxed and honest that, as far as I'm concerned, it could do, and did, anything it had a mind to.

Yet there is something compelling about this little trickster of a song. A seeming lightweight, it's actually an intricate composition whose harmonic structure subtly comments on its lyric. You get taken in by its bravado and brassy style, although the song's interpreters often suggest it's a false front.

"There'll Be Some Changes Made" is a transfer ticket redeemable nearly anywhere in the 20th Century. Written by two African-American vaudevillians, its debut recording issued by the first black-owned record label, "Changes Made" became a favorite of blues singers and underwent the typical mutations at the hands of jazz players. By the mid-'30s, it was a hot Western swing number, played by everyone from Bob Wills to Milton Brown to the Ozark Ramblers, and it kept in motion after the war, played by Chet Atkins and Tennessee Ernie Ford even as the song became part of the Dixieland jazz revival scene. Billie Holiday and the rockabilly Collins Kids cut the track around the same time; one of its last good recordings was a bit of glorious fluff by Ann-Margret.

"Changes Made" at last fell out of fashion sometime in the '60s, and it has been brought out on only a few occasions since (the Atkins/Mark Knopfler 1990 version, refitted with new, self-mocking lyrics about getting old, is a fine epitaph). Still, why had it lasted so long? What did it keep telling us?

The Showmen

Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet were African-American theater pros of the first decades of the past century. Neither crossed over to white audiences except through this song, their surviving ambassador.

Higgins, born William Weldon Higgins in 1888 in Columbia, South Carolina, was a singer and a blackface comedian. He started out working as a machinist while singing at private concerts, and was a WWI veteran. By the late '10s, he was the top performer in a string of vaudeville shows, traveling troupes and burlesque revues that toured the circuit of black theaters, North and South, and while Higgins didn't have the success of his contemporary Bert Williams, he starred in two hit '20s shows--the 1924 revue Cotton Land (where he shared the stage with James P. Johnson) and the 1929-30 Hot Chocolates. He died around 1940.

If Higgins was the talent, William Benton Overstreet was the organization. A pianist, composer and bandleader who Langston Hughes ranked along with W.C. Handy as one of the "better poets of jazz," Overstreet's near-total obscurity today is the reverse of how prominent he was during the WWI era.

By the mid-1910s, Overstreet was directing the Lyric Theater Orchestra of Kansas City while also running a group backing the "Rag Shouter" Estelle Harris at the Grand Theatre in Chicago (Overstreet allegedly was using the term "jass" to describe his music by this point). He also collaborated with James "Slap Rags" White to compose music for a vaudeville show called "Moonlight on the Levee," which featured such players as Princess Wee Wee (a midget performer who danced to "Walking the Dog").

While Wilder calls Overstreet a "one-shot writer," Overstreet was quite prolific for a time. The Library of Congress lists a number of Overstreet copyrights in the 1915-1920 span, ranging from "The Jazz Dance" and "That Jazz Melody" (with Carrie Grainger) to wartime chaff like "To the Front for the Good Old U.S.A" and "When the Boys of Uncle Sam Come Home From the War." He was still cutting records (mainly as a piano accompanist) as late as the '30s. Overstreet remains a mysterious figure: when was he born? where was he from? when did he die? No one seems to know. He's crying out for a good biographer.

It's unclear how his songwriting partnership with Higgins began, but one guess is that since Overstreet routinely collaborated with performers he backed (as he did with Estelle Harris), he may have started out writing music for some of Higgins' stage routines. There's no recording of the two of them performing "Changes Made," though it appears the song was already a stage hit by the time Ethel Waters recorded it in the summer of 1921. (Higgins and Overstreet wrote few memorable songs besides "Changes"--the only other notable ones are "Georgia Blues," which Waters also recorded, and "Early Every Mornin' I Want My Lovin'", cut by Josephine Beatty (with Louis Armstrong in the backing band) in 1924.)

The Circle Game

The verse of "There'll Be Some Changes Made" (usually discarded after the first few recorded versions, though Una Mae Carlisle revived it in the '40s) is dreary stuff, and it serves mainly as contrast to the ebullient chorus: 16 bars with a two-bar extension, repeated once, and built around the core harmonic concept of the "circle of fifths".

Being barely musically literate and quite inept at explaining any music theory concepts, I will ask you to peruse that link (and the following one) to learn more about such things, should you feel the need. But basically, circle progression means that a composer regulates the chord changes of a song in a predictable, "clockwise" pattern. And almost all of the chords in "Changes Made" are dominant sevenths, so that "each therefore pull[s] to the next" (Richard Middleton). Consider the harmonic result the equivalent of a spinning second hand on a clock dial--the song moves at a steady, smooth, foreseeable fashion, so that the chorus could be repeated indefinitely.

So if the key of the chorus of "Changes Made" is in F, it goes: D7 (4 bars)/G7(4)/A7(2)/D7(2)/G7(2)/C7(2)/D7(4)(the start of the chorus repeat, with the lines "gonna change my way of livin'")/G7(4)/A7(2)/D7(2)/G7(1)/C7(1)/F(1)--the tonic key at last, on the words "made to-day"/G7(1). Then the two-bar extension, the last iteration of "there'll be some chan-ges maaaaaade" which goes: G7/C7/F/F.

At the same time, the vocal melody strains against the cold precision of the song structure--it's the spanner in the works. Middleton: The melody focuses around the most yearning dissonant notes--A (the ninth over the G chord) and D (the ninth over the C chord), creating plentiful opportunities to singers to smear the pitch. These notes "happen" in the seventh and third of the key--that is, those notes most commonly smeared in blues: pools of potential bitter-sweetness tempering the bright-eyed bounce of the rhythm and the ever-onward cycling of the harmonies.

Viewed against this backdrop, the jaunty lyric gains more depth. The cycling of the harmonies underneath the singer parallels the natural cycles that she depicts--the changes in the weather and the tides, or the unalterable cycle of age ("nobody wants you when you're old and grey"). At the same time, the high "bittersweet" notes she sings suggest the pain and futility of her claim that she's going to break the cycle at last.

The lyric's bold (delusive) statements are purely American: one day you're going to wake up, move uptown and dress, walk and talk differently--and then the world will treat you differently. You'll make your own luck. You can be someone else. And once in a while, it works--Robert Zimmerman, Minnesotan Jew, becomes Bob Dylan, Okie folkster. It happens all the time in fiction: Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper, Jay Gatz becomes Jay Gatsby. But most of the time the lie fails, because even the liar doesn't believe in it enough.

Gonna Change the Way I Sing The Blues

Once "There'll Be Some Changes Made" got out into the world, however, it became an emblem, a banner to be waved, as the world into which it embarked began changing radically and rapidly.

It's a cliche to say that the 1920s are the first draft of the 1960s, but there's a lot of parallels--money to be made all over the place; a horde of bored, restless young people; idealism and cynicism abounding in equal measures; a taste for the illegal; lots of good music; lots of sex and drugs; the emergence of a mass media (radio/popular magazines in the '20s, TV in the '60s); the sense of living in the public, that life was being performed on stage. So something like "There'll Be Some Changes Made" became revolutionary by default, sung by flappers, played by jazz bands at speakeasies.

That said, its debut recording truly was revolutionary. Black Swan Records was the first black-owned record label (W.E.B. DuBois was on the board of directors), and its first star (and cash cow) was the young Ethel Waters. Her initial sides like "Oh Daddy" sold so well that they got the label out of debt and earning more than $200,000 a year (inflation-adjusted).

Waters' debut recording of "Changes Made," backed by a Fletcher Henderson-led group, is sung, as all Waters tracks are, with impeccable diction, though there's still something unsettling to it: take the way Waters will sometimes jump before the beat. But the record's mere existence--a black-written song performed by a brilliant black female singer (who doesn't have a trace of minstrelsy in her performance) on a black-owned record label--would have been inconceivable even five years before. Black Swan could have had added a subscript to the label: "'There'll Be Some Changes Made' and here's one of them."

And yet, as the years went on, the song could seem reactionary at times. The jazz modernists had no interest in it, while the Dixieland players often returned to the song, taking refuge in its solid harmonies and having a ball with its increasingly creaky sentiments. A sense of desperation set in. Billie Holiday's take is from her last-ever recording session, four months before she died in 1959, and the track's slow tempo and Holiday's unaltering register (though she's trying, sadly, to sound spry) suggests that the song, in its very bones, is a lie. Nothing is changing, nothing will ever change. (Middleton also hears in Glenn Miller's soporific big-band version the wish "that nothing must be allowed to change" in the midst of a world war.)

It's apt that "Changes Made" faded at last in the mid-'60s, when the bohemian promise of the '20s erupted into the now-familiar revolts. Or perhaps it's simply that the song, true to its lyric, just got old and grey and nobody wanted it any more. For all we know, its time may come around again.

A slight discography

Ethel Waters (ca. August 1921; Black Swan 2021); An Introduction.

Marion Harris (ca. June 1924; Brunswick 2651-B); on Archive of American Popular Music.

Josie Miles, backed by the Choo Choo Jazzers (ca. December 1924; Ajax 17087); on Josie Miles Vol. 2.

Edith Wilson (6 March 1925; Columbia 14066) was one of Mamie Smith's biggest rivals, and she trades barbs here with "Doc" Straine--this track is a throwback to turn-of-the-century black vaudeville and seems to be conjuring Ike and Tina Turner into being as well; on Edith and Lena Wilson Vol. 2.

The Chicago Rhythm Kings (6 April 1928; Brunswick 4001) were one of the many jazz supergroups kicking around at the time, with Mezz Mezzrow on tenor sax, Gene Krupa on drums, Eddie Condon on banjo and vox, and Frank Teschemacher on clarinet; on Jazz From the Windy City.

Eddie Lang (17 November 1928; OKeh 8633). Issued under the name "Blind Willie Dunn" in a bald attempt to fool black record buyers. The pianist is either Frank Signorelli or Justin Ring; on 1927-1932.

The Boswell Sisters (21 March 1932; Brunswick 6291), with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. One of the best versions of "Changes Made" ever cut, and my favorite. The sisters start the song in close harmony at a brisk tempo, and then essentially throw Overstreet's melody out the window--going into three 12-bar choruses of slow blues (sung gorgeously by Connee Boswell), followed by one last breakneck-paced group vocal chorus. Just masterful. On Boswell Sisters.

Fats Waller and His Rhythm (24 June 1935; Bluebird 10322): Rudy Powell's clarinet here is the link between straight jazz and Western swing--it sounds like a fiddle; on If You Got to Ask You Ain't Got It.

Roy Newman and His Boys (1 October 1935; Vocalion 03325). Transferred and uploaded by some generous soul on this wonderful Western Swing website.

W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys (10 June 1937; Vocalion 03902); on Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys.

Ocie Stockard and the Wanderers (11 Sept 1937; Bluebird 7570)--Stockard was Milton Brown's banjo player, leading his own outfit here; on Western Cowboy Classics.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (ca. 1949; Presto radio transcription). It's a shame Wills didn't cut it a decade earlier, but this is still pretty hot. (Bonus: here's video of Wills' electric guitarist Eldon Shamblin doing "Changes Made" in 1986.)

There also are Western swing versions by Ambrose Haley and His Ozark Ramblers (1937), the Nite Owls (1939), the Hoosier Hot Shots (1941) and Milton Brown and His Brownies (1936) which I haven't heard, and would love to.

Pee Wee Russell's Rhythmakers, with James P. Johnson on piano (31 August 1938; Hot Record Society 1001); on this collection of Russell and Jack Teagarden's Hot Record Society sides.

Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra (15 March 1939; Victor 26244)--jazz as smooth as a silk shirt; on Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra.

Mildred Bailey and Her Oxford Greys (16 March 1939; Vocalion 5268); on 1939.

Eddie Condon's Chicagoans (11 August 1939; Decca 18041). Condon, already cementing into a jazz traditionalist, revisited the tune a decade after the Chicago Rhythm Kings, and Pee Wee Russell took another crack too, as he's on clarinet here; on Blue Jazz.

Una Mae Carlisle (10 March 1941; Bluebird 11096), with Lester Young and Shad Collins; on 1938-1941.

Art Tatum and the bassist Chocolate Williams, with the unknown but sweet Ollie Porter singing (ca. July 1941; from a Jerry Newman acetate); on God Is In The House.

Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra (ca. 1944; radio broadcast); on The Uncollected.

Peggy Lee, with Frank DeVol's Orchestra (14 August 1947; Capitol 15001); on Miss Peggy Lee.

Oscar Peterson Trio, with Barney Kessel (g) and Ray Brown (d) (6 December 1953; unreleased); on the Complete Clef/Mercury Recordings.

Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band (22-25 November 1955; Good Time Jazz LP 12016 The Legendary Kid).

Billie Holiday (11 March 1959; MGM LP E3764 Last Recording), with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, including Al Cohn (ts) and Sweets Edison (tp), who duet as the track fades. It was an eerily valedictory last session, as Holiday recorded four standards, including "'Deed I Do", she never had cut before; on Complete Billie Holiday on Verve.

The Collins Kids (16 November 1959; unreleased until the '80s), with regular Nashville pros Hank Garland, Grady Martin and Floyd Cramer; on Hop, Skip and Jump.

Helen Humes (27-29 July 1961; Contemporary LP 3598 Swingin' With Humes), with Joe Gordon (tp), Teddy Edwards (ts) Wynton Kelly (p), Al Viola (g), Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Frank Butler (d). The line about "even Jack Benny is changing his jokes" had been used for a while, as early as Benny Goodman's '40s version.

Butterbeans and Susie (1962; Festival 7000 LP Butterbeans and Susie). They were a husband-and-wife comedy, song and dance act who cut their first record in 1922--this self-titled album was their last. Butterbeans (whose real name was Jodie Edwards) died of a heart attack a few years later while on stage.

Ann-Margret (1962; RCA LP 2551 The Vivacious One); collected on Let Me Entertain You.

Dave McKenna Quartet with Zoot Sims (October-November 1974; Chiaroscuro LP 136 Dave McKenna Quartet with Zoot Sims); on Featuring Zoot Sims.

Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler (1990; Neck and Neck).

Sources: Richard Middleton's analysis of "There'll Be Some Changes Made" in his Voicing the Popular was invaluable for this article; the chord structure of "Changes" is in Jazzology, edited by Robert Rawlins, et al; Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's Ragged But Right shed light on Benton Overstreet; Henry T. Sampson's Blacks in Blackface is the reference for Higgins' birth date, real name and location.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Normalcy, 1921

Southern Negro Quartette, I'll Be Good But I'll Be Lonesome.
Al Bernard, Frankie and Johnny.
Luigi and Antonio Russolo, Corale.
"Anonymous Jazz Band," Muscle Shoals Blues.
Sissle's Sizzling Syncopaters, Long Gone.
Lanin's Southern Serenaders, Shake It and Break It.
Ladd's Black Aces, Aunt Hagar's Children's Blues.
Mary Stafford, Strut Miss Lizzie.
Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds (with Johnny Dunn), Old Time Blues.

...[W]e must strive for normalcy to reach stability. All the penalties will not be light, nor evenly distributed. There is no way of making them so. There is no instant step from disorder to order. We must face a condition of grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh. It is the oldest lesson of civilization. I would like government to do all it can to mitigate; then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved. No altered system will work a miracle. Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.

President Warren G. Harding, inaugural address, 4 March 1921.

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

H.L. Mencken, on Warren G. Harding's inaugural address.

The King and Carter Jazzing Orchestra, Houston, January 1921.

The Southern Negro Quartette's "I'll Be Good But I'll Be Lonesome" is a head-on collision of styles. Nick Tosches aptly described the "stylistic schizophrenia" of the Quartette's 1921 records: call it a looser type of barbershop quartet singing, or early scatting, or a group burlesque of Al Jolson, or an ancestor to the Mills Brothers and The Coasters, or a taste of the hybrid that barely was: black country music.

Recorded ca. July 1921 and released as Columbia 3489 c/w "He Took It Away From Me"; on The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 3 (an excellent compilation, which includes most of the Quartette's best tracks, like "Anticipatin' Blues" and "Sweet Mama.")

Dali, Voyeur.

While the folk ballad "Frankie and Johnny"(or "Frankie and Albert") dates to the 1890s or earlier, the first American recording of the song was the minstrel singer Al Bernard's 1921 Brunswick disc.

Much of the "canonized" lyric of "Frankie and Johnny" is based on an 1899 St. Louis murder case in which a 22-year-old African-American dancer named Frankie Baker killed her lover/pimp Albert (or Allen) Britt, allegedly over Britt's cheating. Bill Edwards:"When the stabbing was changed in legend to shooting is unclear, but early versions of the lyrics changed Al Britt to Albert, an easily explainable modification. However by 1912, with "Johnny" doing this and that in so many songs of that time (and possibly in some way related to the use of the term john as a prostitute's customer), Albert became Johnny, and both he and Frankie soon became legendary."

Frankie Baker was acquitted of all murder charges. She was working as a domestic in Omaha when Bernard's record came out; she subsequently moved to Portland, Oregon, and over the years she tried, in vain, to prevent films based on the case from being made (like She Done Him Wrong, with Mae West), while countless jazz, country and blues recordings of "Frankie" circulated. She died in a mental institution in 1952, unwillingly immortalized.

Recorded ca. May 1921 and released as Brunswick 2107 c/w "Memphis Blues"; on the now out-of-print That Devilin' Tune Vol. 1.

The Bohemian life: Charles Seeger, Constance de Clyver Edson and their children (2-year-old Pete is in Charles' lap), May 1921.

The Futurist Movement was heavy on painters and theoreticians and light on musicians. So the Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo said he would create Futurist music himself, using intonarumori--essentially, primitive white noise machines. There even were specific types: uluatori (howling machines), rombatori (rumbling machines), sibilatori (hissing machines), etc. None of them survived World War II. (From Daniel Albright's Modernism and Music.)

There is, however, one extant recording of the intonarumori, "Corale," composed in 1921 by Antonio Russolo, Luigi's brother, and recorded three years later. It is a piece of conventional orchestral music under which the intonarumori burble, groan and hiss: the result mainly conveys the sense of hearing a radio broadcast suffering from interference.

For Italy, the future was about to arrive at last. The leader of the Italian Futurists, Marinetti, had founded the Futurist Political Party in 1918, and a year later merged it with another new party--Benito Mussolini's Partito Nazionale Fascista; on Musica Futurista.

Detail from Stettheimer's Spring Sale at Bendel's.

In late 1921, Chicago's Marsh Laboratories, which would be the first American studio to produce electrical recordings, issued a test pressing on its own Autograph label. This was a jazz band recording of George W. Thomas' "Muscle Shoals Blues," credited to no one.

Eighty-eight years later, we still have no idea who played on this record. The most likely candidates are some members of Bennie Moten's Orchestra, but there is no conclusive evidence and there likely never will be. In our perpetual Google search of an era, when seemingly everything is known about anyone under the sun, it is a fine thing to have a record that still remains a mystery.

Recorded ca. fall 1921 and cut as Autograph 30, a test pressing (never released); on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 2.

The Red Army takes Kronstadt, March 1921.

Noble Sissle, James Reese Europe's singer during Europe's 1919 tour, had inherited much of the band after Europe's murder. Sissle soon downsized, assembling a small group dubbed "Sissle's Sizzling Syncopators" that consisted mainly of Europe band veterans, including trumpet player Frank de Droite. Sissle's longtime collaborator Eubie Blake played piano.

The eight sides the sextet cut for Emerson in early 1921 were a showcase for contemporary black composers--along with Blake/Sissle originals like "Boll Weevil Blues," the Syncopators took on Spencer Williams, Clarence Williams and W.C. Handy (including what may be the first recording of Handy's "Careless Love" as well as his "Long Gone," the latter featured here).

Emerson signed Sissle to an exclusive contract just as Sissle and Blake started work on their revolutionary show Shuffle Along, which would be the first African-American-composed Broadway musical. So the Syncopators, whose records hint at the type of jazz chamber music later perfected by the likes of Duke Ellington, were left in the realm of the potential.

Recorded 18 March 1921 and released as Emerson 10365 c/w "Low Down Blues."

Sheeler and Strand, Manhatta.

Jimmy Durante, remembered today as a TV personality and the narrator of Frosty the Snowman, began as a jazz pianist. Durante was of the first generation of musicians to make a living out of playing jazz, in part by shuttling between NYC studios, playing the same piece three times in a day for three different labels.

Much of this hustle was due to the Russian-born bandleader Sam Lanin, who had become the intermediary between record labels and the growing pool of studio jazz players. So if a label wanted someone to record a new Broadway hit, they would call Lanin, who would quickly throw together a studio group and get the track cut in a couple days. And he'd being doing the same thing for another label at the same time.

So a session player like Durante was working in dozens of "jazz groups" simultaneously. Take the sextet "Lanin's Southern Serenaders," which featured Durante on piano and Phil Napoleon on trumpet, and "Ladd's Black Aces," which was pretty much the same group. Both Lanin's and Ladd's groups cut the exact same tracks, in nearly identical versions, within a few days in August 1921 for a series of different labels.

Lanin's Southern Serenaders' "Shake It and Break It" was released as Regal 9134/Emerson 10439, while Ladd's Black Aces' "Aunt Hagar's Children's Blues" was released as Gennett 4762/Star 9150. Or you could listen to Ladd's "Shake It and Break It" and Lanin's' "Aunt Hagar" and split the difference.; on Stomp and Swerve and Complete Ladd's Black Aces.

Munch, The Wave.

Mamie Smith's success led record labels to look for copycats or comparable singers, but since almost no label had any access to the Southern blues circuit (and singers like the young Bessie Smith), they first nabbed any black vaudeville singers they could find. One of these was Mary Stafford, whose first record was a take of "Crazy Blues" that's nearly as strong as Smith's hit version. The legend is that a Columbia Records exec heard Stafford singing "Crazy Blues" in a New York cabaret one night, and got her into the studio to sing it the following morning.

Overall, Stafford drew a poor hand in her career, only cutting only 14 sides in her life (including the debut recording of "Royal Garden Blues"). Columbia seemed disappointed in her, dropping her contract after six records, and Stafford's engineers and producers don't appear to have quite known what they wanted--some of her records are hot jazz band recordings in which Stafford's voice is a drowned-out afterthought, while others are thin, vocal-heavy stage weepies poorly translated to disc.

Here's one of the better ones: her version of Creamer and Layton's "Strut Miss Lizzie," recorded ca. May 1921 and released as Columbia 3418; on Document's exhaustive (and exhausting) multi-disc compilation of female blues singers in alphabetical order--this is from Volume 13, "R-S."

Johnny Dunn's first spotlit moment came in his performance on Smith's "Crazy Blues"--a moaning, wailing counterpart to Smith's vocal. Soon enough Dunn was getting work on his own, leading various editions of Smith's "Jazz Hounds" in 1921. Their records provide a decent snapshot of where jazz stood in the days just before Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to head north.

Dunn's "Old Time Blues" was cut on 1 February 1921 and released as OKeh 4296 c/w "That Thing Called Love"; on From Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 3.

Top photo: Miss Mary Eurana Ward christens the SS Eurana, which she sponsored, on 16 July 1921, Camden, NJ.

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