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.




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.



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

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.

Music Popular songs

Archeophone Presents the Hits of 1918

 A-ARCH-1918Archeophone Presents the Hits of 1918

   That marvelous series from Archeophone Records, The Phonographic Yearbook, has just grown by one more CD, “1918: ‘Like the sunshine after the rain’.”

I can only hope that the Archeophone people will eventually have one CD for each year from 1900 to 1922; and at this point, they lack a few  years. What an amazing project!

Each CD is accompanied by a booklet packed with information about the times and about each song on the disc, with plenty of photos to make it all the more vivid. The sound, considering the acoustic nature of the technology back then, is surprisingly good; and the tendency of the singers to enunciate (!) each word sets a standard that has been long since ignored.

1918 saw the last days of the war, the armistice, and the deadly flu epidemic. No one, to my knowledge, wrote songs about the latter, but most of the songs recorded in that year had much to do with the war.

downloadThose with direct references to WWI are “Send me away with a smile,” the overly optimistic “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way,” and, as examples of old songs used for new purposes, “The battle hymn of the republic” and “Hail! hail! the gang’s all here.”

In a lighter vein, there are “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning,” “They were all out of step but Jim,” and “I don’t want to get well” (because the wounded soldier has fallen in love with his nurse). “Oh, Frenchy” is about an American nurse attracted to a French casualty.

hellocentralRecycling the sentimental song about the child trying to phone her mother up in heaven, “Hello, central, give me no man’s land” drew many a tear, as did “Just a baby’s prayer at twilight (for her daddy over there).”

The orchestral “Hindustan” brings to mind the some of the exotic places the soldiers were seeing, and “Roses of Picardy” does the same for some of the beautiful places.

To make a fair representation of all sorts of popular songs, “1918” includes “Darktown strutters’ ball,” “Everything is peaches down in Georgia,” “Tiger rag,” “I’m always chasing rainbows,” and “Smiles.”

200px-OverThereBayesVtEduAmong the singers are John McCormack, Arthur Fields, Billy Murray, Al Jolson, Henry Burr, Van and Schenck, and Enrico Caruso. The latter belts out “Over there” in English and then in French in a most impressive way.

What a wonderful way to liven up a history lesson, you teachers out there!

Music Popular songs

Dan W. Quinn

Dan W. Quinn Sings Turn of the (Last) Century Songs

A-ARCH-QuinnMeet Dan W. Quinn (1860-1938). Or at least hear him on a recent Archeophone CD, “Dan W. Quinn Anthology, The King of Comic Singers 1894-1917.” Here is a top recording star of his time who, without a beautiful voice but with great style, turned out about 2500 recordings, 30 of which appear on this disc.

Right away, I must quote from the back cover: “Contains racially derogatory language.” Although these songs, sung mostly by blacks to mock their own race but often enough by whites to vilify the former, are shameful to us today, they do form part of our musical heritage and cannot be ignored. Otherwise we would be like a certain nation that omitted World War II from its history books because it was too dreadful to remember.

392763-0At any rate, the only numbers I find familiar are “A hot time in the old town tonight,” “Ma blushin’ Rosie,” “Bill Bailey, won’t you please come home,” and “On the banks of the Wabash.” Among the catchier titles of unfamiliar songs are “The growler on a string,” “It’s not your nationality, it’s simply you,” and (my favorite) “How could Washington be a married man (and never, never tell a lie?).”

Among the inevitable love songs are “Pretty as a picture,” “My Jersey Lily,” and “Good morning, Carrie.” The rest represent a variety of subjects and moods that suited the tastes of the public during that particular year; and many of them found themselves inserted into then-current shows that had plots so thin that any new song could easily be placed into any situation.

220px-BillBailey1902CoverQuinn’s Irish accent varies from song to song, but it is quite prominent in the protest song “Drill, ye tarriers, drill,” which tells the tale of a dynamite man who tarries a bit too long, is blown sky high, and then finds his pay is docked for the time he was in the air. Well, at least he wasn’t outsourced.

As always, Archeophone provides fabulous program notes, this time 50 pages of them, that are worth the price of the CD set alone. There is much about the life and times of Quinn, lots of illustrations, and details about each song heard on the disc. There is even an account of a (then) notorious dinner at which Little Egypt did her thing and Quinn had to testify that nothing indecent had happened.

Again, I urge teachers of history and sociology to bring some educational delight into their classrooms by using Archeophone discs to shed some extraordinary light on what life was like before all those dull textbooks were written!

Popular songs

Billy Murray, a Top Vocalist of a Century Ago, Sings Again

A-ARCH-Billy MurrayBilly Murray, a Top Vocalist of a Century Ago, Sings Again

Many of my readers will instantly recall such popular music vocalists as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Rudy Vallee, and Al Jolson. But what about Billy Murray? If that strikes no bell, read on.

Among my most treasured recordings are those released by the fantastic Archeophone Records. On them are hundreds of recordings transferred from the earliest cylinders up to the acoustic 78 rpms of the late 1920s onto CDs. In the compilations that make up the Phonographic Yearbook series, there are several selections sung by a certain Billy Murray, who sang exclusively for recordings and whose career spans 1903-1940.

Just why his name is practically unknown to the general public is explained in the copious program notes that Archeophone has included with “Billy Murray Anthology: The Denver Nightingale. Recordings, 1903-1940.” Perhaps the designation does not quite fit Murray’s light comic voice, but his enunciation is perfect and his approach to the lyrics impeccable.

835Among the 30 examples of his legacy on this disc, the more familiar include “Meet me in St. Louis,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give my regards to Broadway,” “In my merry Oldsmobile,” “Harrigan,” “Shine on, harvest moon,” “By the light of the silvery moon,” “K-k-k Katy,” and “Charley, my boy.” The less familiar are even more fascinating, being first hearings for most listeners: “The way to kiss a girl,” “Come take a trip in my air-ship,” “He’s a devil in his own home town,” and the bitingly satiric “He goes to church on Sunday.”

Sheet music with altered title and lyrics

Notice especially the references to (then) modern inventions like the automobile and airplane. His recording of George M. Cohan’s “The grand old rag” keeps the original noun that Cohan had to change when audiences reacted unfavorably. In a few numbers, he is accompanied by vocalists Ada Jones, Aileen Stanley, Ed Smolle, Walter Scanlan, and the Haydn Quartet. As soloist or as part of a duet, Murray never fails to please.

Some other Archeophone discs feature vocal stars of the past are ‘Irving Kaufman Anthology,” “Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth,” “Marion Harris,” “Van and Schenck,” “Henry Burr Anthology,” and three sets devoted to “Bert Williams.”

My favorites of all are the CDs in the Phonographic Yearbook series, each holding nearly two dozen hits from specific years. They all contain thick booklets that alone are worth the price of the sets. It is like going back in a musical time machine.

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Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

A-ARCH-1911Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

Let us say you are a history teacher (Junior High to College) and are teaching American History for (say) 1911. That is the year in which the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down with most of its workers, a woman was the first to fly across the English Channel, the big books included G.K. Chesterton’s  “The Innocence of Father Brown,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made Irving Berlin famous, and the first effective electric self-starter for cars was developed.

I could just see how much of this would be ho-hum time for the students. As I have been stating for years, perhaps songs of the period, tied into the events and temper of the time, would begin to rouse the interest of some of the tweeters. Even if they laugh at them, that would be a step in the right direction.

Well, Archeophone has just released two more CDs in their incredible “Phonographic Yearbook” series, one of which happens to be “1911, ‘Up a Little Bit Higher’.” Here are 25 vintage recordings released that year, each of which connects with life in that period of history, each of which has a bounce designed to please people of all ages, or a lovely melody which just might get through the indifference of some students.

ComeJosephineBrownieCarrollCoverA woman aviator? “Come, Josephine, in my flying machine” is an “invention” song, as is “The Oceana roll.” A growing sense of national superiority? “Under the yum yum tree” and “King of the Bungaloos” are part of the call to exotic places. An increasing wave of the Irish into the  country? “Mother Machree” is the tear jerker of the first water. A desire for musical comedy?  “Italian street song” from “Naughty Marietta” and other Herbert operettas is just the ticket.

Of course, the majority of the songs deals with Love. (No surprise.)

1919“1919, ‘Jazzin’ Around and Paintin’ the Town’” has 25 selections of recordings from that year in which soldiers returning from the Great War demanded a better deal and formed unions to get it. I have several older CDs filled with “protest songs,” but this Archeophone collection is of a wider range. Only the plaintive voice of Bert Williams in his “It’s nobody’s business but my own” and “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” represents the underdog. But people were more interested in the fact that “A pretty girl is like a melody” or “A good man is hard to find.”

a0081-1-72dpiEven the non-Irish could praise “That wonderful mother of mine” while those who moved to the cities could still yearn for “Beautiful Ohio.” On the other hand, “How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm? (after they’ve seen Paree).” The two selections that directly refer to the war are “Oui, oui, Marie” and  “The Rose of No Man’s Land.” (I suppose that “Make love, not war” is the implication here.) Among the happier sort is “Ja-da (ja da, ja da, jing jing!)” [and they say our lyrics today are sappy!] and the rest are love songs as one would expect.

Among the voices heard on these two sets are Marion Harris, Nora Bayes, Henry Burr, Billy Murray, Al Jolson, John McCormack, Ada Jones, Blanche Ring, and the instantly recognizable Sophie Tucker.

It is apparent that these stars knew how to project and to enunciate. First of all, the size of the vaudeville houses in which they performed demanded both skills. Also, not all vocal performers had voices suited to the then state-of-the-art recording techniques. Students today might laugh, as I said, at these singers; but a good teacher could elicit from them just why they had to sing that way. (What! make students think?)

Another plus is the excellent booklets included with each Phonographic Yearbook. They are loaded with information about the events of the year being featured, facts about each recording, and lots of photos of the times and of the singers. Oh, for those not in the teaching profession, you will enjoy these discs for many reasons other than educational. For my age group, that means “nostalgia.”

Kudos, Archeophone!

Not only does the Archeophone website ( list all of their available discs but it even supplies the track listing for many of them.

Popular songs

Sophie Tucker

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas Radiates AgainA-ARCH-Sophie Tucker

What can be done with Archeophone Records, which releases one superior CD after another? I have reviewed so many of their discs that I have run out of adjectives to say how good they are. And then they came out some time ago with a blockbuster called “Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama, 1910-1922”! The NY Times gave it a full page spread in their Sunday edition when it first appeared. With less space to command, I will give the bare facts.

Born sometime in the late 1880s and passing away in 1966, she was an original—like Mae West and Al Jolson—who developed a public image that was magnetic. Growing up when Ragtime was beginning to catch on and was developing into jazz, Sophie had a tough-as-nails but with a heart-of-gold persona that wowed audiences. Her powerful voice was just right for the acoustic recording machines of the day.

Not only was it powerful with regard to the recordings, but it was dramatic in a fun-loving way that sold the songs in a way that only Al Jolson, Nora Bayes and (in his own way) Eddie Cantor could do.  In short, she sounded as if she meant every word of it. With her, “red hot” meant more than just “ready for action.” She had many imitators but no peers.

The Archeophone disc holds 24 of her early recordings, including “That lovin’ rag,” “Phoebe Jane,” “Please don’t take my harem away,” and “Don’t put a tax on the beautiful girls.” Not one of them became a classic and that is what makes this collection even more interesting and valuable. There is the usual warning against “racially derogatory language,” but Archeophone argues that we can’t censor history to present a nicer but false picture of the past.

Archeophone has always included thick booklets that were worth the price of the album alone, filled as they were with information and vintage pictures. In this case, they have put the 60-page booklet and disc between hard covers; and this format is just right. (The older paperback booklets would hardly fit into the jewel cases of the earlier releases.)

To those who remember “the last of the red hot mamas” and to those who will love getting to know her, this Archeophone set will be a real treasure.