Popular songs

Josse Vachon

A-Reve de NoelPopular Christmas Songs Done in French-Canadian Style


How many recordings—78s to 45s to LPs to CDs—of Christmas/Seasonal songs have I heard in my life? Pop singers likes Bing Crosby and  Dinah Shore, and even opera stars have all given it a try. After a while, they start to blend into a homogenous mixture; and one can only wish for a new approach.

Many years ago , I became acquainted with singer Josee Vachon, who specializes in French-Canadian songs. I tried to get a copy of her unusual Christmas CD title “Reve de Noel” (Dream of Christmas) before the holiday itself, but a stray e-mail did me in. But rather than wait for 51 more weeks and because a good recording is good no matter when heard, I will talk about this album at the start of this new year.

Josee has that voice just right for folksongs and programs like this one. As with secular folk songs, I grew to realize that simplicity is the essence of this musical genre. While the grand approach, such as that of the Morman Tabernacle Choir, sounds majestic, it overpowers what should be the simple message of the story of the Nativity.

With this in mind, Josee has taken a novel approach. Living in Framingham, MA and appealing to a French-Canadian public, she has taken 15 selections, most of which will sound familiar to us all, and used French translations that either change the context of the original lyrics or paraphrase them in a most delightful way. (I still have enough French to follow the printed texts. Alas, there are no English translations.)

For example, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” becomes a hymn of praise to the Christ Child, while “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” is summoned to Heaven. There are fairly straight translations of “White Christmas,” “Jingle bells,” and “Winter Wonderland” (which becomes “Au royaume du Bonhomme Hiver” In the kingdom of Goodman Winter).

Among the old traditional numbers are “The first Noel,” “Little drummer boy,” “Silent night’ and of course “What child is this?” (which goes back to Henry VIII when it was “Greensleeves,” and much later took on a Christmas set of lyrics).

The singer and her guitar is backed up by percussion, bass, organ, and keyboards; and in one selection by the Rhode Island Cajun band Magnolia. So while the tree still stands in the livingroom, keep the spirit still bright with “Reve de Noel.” See for more information about purchasing this and other CDs.





Cy Walter

A-Cy WalterThe Keyboard Artistry of Cy Walter is Celebrated on CDs

Cy Walter (1915-1968) was well known for four decades as a pianist, composer, and arranger on the New York cocktail lounge scene as well as from his recordings and radio appearances. I never would have been much interested in him had not my son Richard by accident met his son Mark and agreed to set up a website to celebrate Cy’s career and artistry.

Therefore the appearance of two CDs on the Harbinger Records label caught my attention: “Sublimities, Cy Walter Centennial Tribute, Volumes 1 and 2.”

The first disc has Cy playing 14 of his arrangements of such classics as “All the things you are,” “Dancing in the dark,” “The way you look tonight,” and “The song is you.” There follow 24 selections played by Cy on several radio shows, included among which are “Tea for two,” “It’s only a paper moon,” “Star dust,” and “Laura.”

Volume 2 is dedicated to selections in which Cy is heard as accompanist and in which he is joined by other pianists. Of great interest are several of his own compositions, some taken from private discs in the family’s collection.

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Cy himself

The program notes in both sets tell us much about Cy’s life and accomplishments. We learn much about him as a person through the eyes of Ruth McGirl (his niece), Mark Walter, and fellow artists such as Michael Feinstein, as well as Richard Behrens, who put together and runs the Cy Walter website.

As Peter Mintun points out in the notes, Cy’s “brilliant recordings have largely remained inaccessible save to devoted fans for more than sixty years.” Since these new CDs hold “recordings from Cy’s earliest, and utterly rarer 78rpm and radio transcription discs and privately held recordings,” they are of great historic as well as artistic interest

Mintun also mentions some of the famous singers for whom Cy was accompanist: Jean Cavall, Greta Keller, Mabel Mercer, Lee Wiley—and even Frank Sinatra. Indeed, I must leave the reader to cull from the copious notes more information and impressions concerning this most interesting artist.

These discs shed all sorts of new light on very familiar American songs and might be used by teachers of the piano to demonstrate to their students what an “arrangement” means. For the rest of us, there is a good deal of fascinating listening in these two excellent compilations that salute a keyboard genius.

As actor, lyricist, author, and producer Chilton Ryan writes in the notes, “I am thrilled that, thanks to Mark, others now will have the chance to know and appreciate the legend that was Cy Walter.”


“Modern Times” Film Score

Chaplin’s Own Music for His Own “Modern Times” 

A-Modern Times   I find some recordings of film scores enjoyable even without the context of what was on the screen while the music was playing. My all-time favorite is Georges Auric’s score for “La Belle et la bete,” followed by Miklos Rozsa’s for “Thief of Bagdad” and “Jungle Book,” and William Walton’s for “Henry V.”

Among the most interesting scores is Charlie Chaplin’s own for his “Modern Times,” and it is now available on a CPO CD with the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Timothy Brock, who also restored the music.

What was left in writing and what is heard in the film itself had many differences, slight and great; and Brock describes the problems he encountered in the excellent program notes. But while the music is of great historic interest both as film music and the work of Chaplin, the question remains as to whether it is worth the hearing for those who have no knowledge of the film “Modern Times.”

Hearing the score, all 79 minutes of it, I was too aware that all sorts of things were happening on the screen of which I could recall little. The track listings give hints such as “Lunchtime—Charlie’s breakdown—Worker’s Rally,” but while I find the music enjoyable in an abstract sense, I feel that viewing the film first is essential to enjoying it completely.

Music Popular songs

1865, a Well Produced Program of Civil War Songs

A-1865A Well Produced Program of Civil War Songs

I love songs from the far past for the beauty of some, the power of others, and the combination of both. Songs written and sung in times of war are particularly moving, all the more so because “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war” (as Othello puts it) are seldom celebrated by the men in the front lines. Songs of the American Civil War (or, as some prefer, the War Between the States) are particularly poignant because the “enemy” consisted of our own young countrymen.

There are many recorded programs of songs of that conflict—I even have a disc of songs sung by the Confederate Navy!—but an especially good one has come to my attention. It is a Harmonia Mundi CD titled “1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War” that features the Anonymous 4,whose names and pictures are cheerfully revealed in the program notes: Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Marsha Gehensky. They are joined by Bruce Molsky, who provides an occasional fifth voice, as well as accompaniment on fiddle, banjo and guitar.

The songs heard here were “originally intended for the stage and parlor” and are “stylized, versified, personal stories prized by so many men and women and children who lived through ‘This Cruel War’.” (From the program notes.) There is a strong feeling of authenticity about the arrangements which the group found  in archives and which they perform in the “old time” style.

Among the familiar selections are “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Tenting on the old camp ground,” “Aura Lee,” “Home, sweet home,” “Abide with me,” “Listen to the mockingbird,” and “Shall we gather at the river.” “Among the not too familiar are “Weeping, sad and lonely,” “Sweet Evelina,” “Brother Green,” and “The true lover’s farewell.”  Notice how many of songs are straight love songs that could be sung in any time of departure throughout history.

The booklet gives all the lyrics and program notes in English, French and German (for comparative linguists!)

Great listening for history majors, Civil War buffs, and lovers of songs from the past that still reflect what we feel today.


Some other CD sets of vocals from the Civil War in my collection may still be available. “The Civil War, Its Music and Its Sounds” (Mercury), “Civil War Naval Songs” (Smithsonian Folkway Recordings), “Songs of the Civil War” (New World Records), and “Civil War Songs with Historical Narration” (WEM Records). The narration makes the latter set the most valuable.

Instrumental and orchestral Music Popular songs

Songs of the Night

A-ARCH-Songs of the NightWhen New Dances Needed a New Band

As the invaluable program notes for the Archeophone release, “Songs of the Night,” tell us, the first decade of the last century saw a change in dance music. Gone were the “innocent” dances of the late 19th century and in their place were the animal steps (fox trot, turkey trot, bear), the one- and two-step, and so on, of the new generation of pleasure seekers.

But this meant that new kinds of bands were needed to play these new sounds. Big brass bands and smaller banjo ensembles lacked the intimacy needed for dance floors—and for recordings. So it was the Victor Talking Machine Company that found at the Plaza Hotel Joseph C. Smith and his ensemble as a possible solution. He was. And the history of dance music took a double turn: a new kind of music and a new kind of band to play it.

The important things to note is that people could dance to these new recordings at home or venues other than dance halls. And we know with the advantage of hindsight that the jukebox was not far in the future!

downloadWith their usual diligence, the Archeophone people have gathered 47 of Smith’s recordings onto two CDs. They are taken from discs made from 1916 to 1925 and the sound is extraordinarily good. Among the familiar titles (well, familiar to those who remember or still play the music of those times) are “Poor butterfly,” “Missouri waltz,” “Smiles,” “Love nest” (theme music for the Burns and Allen shows), “Alice blue gown,” “Three o’clock in the morning,” “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” and “It ain’t gonna rain no mo!”

Some of the lesser known songs are “Songs of the night,” “Money blues,” “Rose room,” “That naughty waltz,” and “Driftwood.” The Archeophone website has the entire list of this set’s contents. Several have vocalists to add to the interest.

The 32-page booklet, as is usual with Archeophone products, gives copious notes about the times, the band, and each selection, along with plenty of photographs.

For those of us who remember the change in the big bands in the 1940s, it is sad to think how much of the swing of that era was played not to accompany the dancers (who could dance to the frenzied beat of that music?) but to show off before the crowds who went up to the podium merely to listen. I wonder what Smith would have thought.

Oh, yes. This set is a Grabbit for those who like the music and/or are interested in the history of popular music.



Film scores Music

Loitering Without Intent



I wonder how many listeners would be interested in a Carl Davis CD titled “Loitering Without Intent.” In the silent movie days, thousands of pianists were in demand to play along with the film in cinemas. Usually they would improvise, sometimes the film would arrive accompanied by a score composed especially for it. Carl Davis is a specialist in restoring that kind of score.

It was decided that screenings and video versions of Charlie Chaplin’s films made at the Mutual studios in 1916 and 1917, for which there were no official scores, would be accompanied by scores composed by Davis and played by a full orchestra. And so, this CD contains selections from these original scores made for 12 Mutual films, among which are “The Floorwalker” and “The Pawnshop.”

But take note that Davis closely studied the music Chaplin did compose for 'The_Pawnshop'several of his later films and he carefully adopted and adapted Chaplin’s musical techniques to make these new scores sound as if Chaplin might have created them himself.

The results are pleasant enough, as played by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and The Wihan Quartet. But yet I wonder, who but film majors and Chaplin devotees would be interested? But the project is a noble one and the disc worth a hearing.


Popular songs

Hits of 1920

The Hits of 1920 Still Give Pleasure

 A-ARCH-1920 It is obviously very well to read books about the old-time songs and those who sang them and quite another actually to hear them being sung. Then twice blessed are the smaller labels that can take chances and issue CDs that are targeted to smaller but appreciative audiences. Such a label is Archeophone with their Phonographic Yearbook series, all of which I have already have reviewed. One of them, “1920: Even Water’s Getting Weaker,” is a special favorite of mine.

Bert Williams, considered by many to be the greatest performer of them all

Here we have 24 tracks of recordings that appeared in 1919 and 1920. You will find such titles as “The love nest” (used by Burns & Allen as their theme), “When my baby smiles at me,” “Swanee,” “Prohibition blues,” “Whispering,” and “Rose of Washington Square.” And you hear Paul Whiteman and his Ambassador Orchestra, Art Hickman’s Orchestra, Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Edith Day, and Eddie Cantor, among others. Space limitations make it impossible for me to list them all—but they all are wonderful.

Note: The Archeophone website gives the complete tracking liss of all their products.

The booklet gives you a good background of the times, notes on each selection, and some wonderful photos of exploding beer barrels and the singers that drank from those that got away. Yes, there will be offensive racial references; but we cannot ignore the shameful part of our history without doing an Orwellian 1984-type rewrite on it.

Grab this one and the others in the series. You can order from Archeophone by e-mail:, or from their website

Instrumental and orchestral Music

Great Comedy Overtures

A-Great Comedy OverturesGREAT COMEDY OVERTURES   How tired some librarians or reviewers must get at  being asked, “What’s a good book for me?” or “What recording has enjoyable music?” or inane questions like that. But in answer to that “enjoyable music,” I have many recommendations, one of which is a brand new Naxos CD titled “Great Comedy Overtures.”

Of the countless operas and operettas that enjoyed glorious  reputations and are done no more, many of them have left their overtures to be played at “pops” concerts and as fillers for LP and then CD collections, such as this one. With few exceptions, none of the 11 works on this disc are revived at all outside of their countries. But each one is a gem of tuneful delights.

The overtures in this program are from “Zampa” (Herold), “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (Nicolai), “Il segreto di Susanna” (Wolf-Ferrari), “Mignon” (Thomas), “Donna Diana” (Reznicek), “Martha” (Flowtow), “Fra Diavolo” (Auber), “Zar und Zimmerman” (Lortzing), “Il matrimonio segreto” (Cimarosa), “Si j’etais roi” (Adam), and “Der Barbier von Bagdad” (Cornelius).

The famous overture with the opera attached

Yes, people of a certain age or a collector of old-time radio broadcasts on CDs will recognize the “Donna Diana” overture as the open theme music of “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” The fact that the “Zampa” overture was played at my Junior High School graduation is neither here nor there.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is led by Lance Friedel. Have fun.

Broadway and British Musicals Music

Show Boat


An American Masterpiece Gets a Full Production in San Francisco

A-Show BoatIf you are to purchase only one more DVD this year, make it “Show Boat” on the EuroArts label! Having seen but forgotten the details of the telecast of this monumental musical by the Paper Mill Playhouse many years ago, I had only the two film versions to go by and the complete EMI recording on CDs.

It is said that when the opening night performance ended in 1927, the audience was stunned. But after reading the reviews, the public lined up to see this totally new concept in musicals that had a serious plot, race relations, racial epithets never spoken in a Broadway musical before, and even a hero who deserts his family.

IMG_20150726_0001_NEWBut now the San Francisco Opera has videoed its recent production of “Show Boat,” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Jerome Kern. This is the video closest to the original 1927 version, except for some (welcome) cutting in the dialogue. As conductor John DeMain explains in a brief interview, the original dialogue revealed too much of what the following song would do. And he reinstated two songs that I have never heard except on the CD set.

Yes, most of us can name “Ol’ man river,” “Bill,” “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine,” “You are love,” “Make believe,” and even “Life upon the wicked stage.” But you will be as surprised as I was with the songs that are never included in “highlight” recordings nor done in the films.

Patricia Racette as Julie, the role created by Helen Morgan

The cast is a strong one with Heidi Stober (Magnolia), Michael Todd Simpson (Gaylord), Bill Irwin (Captain Andy), Morris Robinson (Joe), Angela Renee (Queenie), Kirsten Wyatt (Ellie May), and John Bolton (Frank). A special treat is Patricia Racette, seen on the Metropolitan Opera Stage, as Julie. Harriet Harris, in the speaking part of Parthy, is too shrill in her dialogue; and Wyatt’s squeaky voice becomes tiresome at times.

The scenery is not meant to be realistic and this helps the many scene changes considerably. The choreography under Michele Lynch is fabulous, the chorus work under Ian Robertson is excellent, and the entire production is a credit to director Francesca Zambello. My only real complaint is that Gaylord does not get a single gray hair over all the years. Oh, well.

raw_file_urlGood for EuroArts for giving subtitles to both lyrics and dialogue. The entire 144 minutes of the production are on a single DVD, while a second disc holds a tiny 33 minutes of interviews. But for once, they are worthwhile. After all, “Show Boat” is not your run of the mill musical.






Music Popular songs

Van and Schenck

A-ARCH-Van and Schenck

I first heard the team of Van and Schenck on a very old recording of “Mandy.” Then I saw them again on a DVD devoted to short films made by vaudeville stars. And now Archeophone Records, those marvelous restorers of vintage recordings to CDs, has hit gold again with “Van and Schenck: Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland, Breakthrough Recordings, 1916-1918.”

Among the hundreds of “two-man piano acts” in Vaudeville, this duo was at the top, “not far behind Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor” (as the customary full Archeophone program notes put it). The high tenor voice of Schenck was a good selling point for the act, to which Variety gave high praise. Their full names, by the way, are Gus Van and Joe Schenck. It is, also by the way, Joe at the piano.

dlc_victor_18443_02_b21298_02_160Judging from the 28 selections (3 of which are longer versions of the piece on the previous track), we can see that the team specialized in comic songs, some of which had nonsense lyrics, such as “Yaddie kaddie kiddie kaddie koo” and “In the land o’ Yamo Yamo.” In fact, the only titles that were familiar to me were Irving Berlin’s “Dance and grow thin,” which I have on another CD, and “For me and my gal.”

A closer look at the duo

So to name a few more of the songs, we have “That’s how you can tell they’re Irish,” “Mother, may I go in to swim?” “I don’t think I need a job that bad,” “Southern gals” and “Beans beans beans.” There is a strong influence of the great Bert Williams in “I wasn’t skeered but I thought I’d better go,” which is sung-spoken by Van in a minstrel show “black” voice.

Many of the songs reflect the times, some (like “Me and my gal”) have universal themes. Many more are parodies, such as “I miss the old folks now,” in which the rosy recollections of Van are contradicted by the not-so-rosy ones of Schenck.

This is all, of course, living history. Having contemporary singers reproduce these songs is of little value when we can hear them sung in the style of the times in which they were written by the very artists who often helped in creating the songs. Add to this the sound of the old acoustic discs, and there is nothing to beat these Archeophone restorations. And please look at their website ( to see their amazing full catalogue of what I call “audio time machine” recordings.