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 (www.archeophone.com) list all of their available discs but it even supplies the track listing for many of them.

The Critic Criticized, or The Books Should Balance

Jolson

The Critic Criticized, or The Books Should Balance

When I write about musical CDs and DVDs, I really balk at calling myself a critic, since that word tends to have all sorts of negative baggage. I don’t even like the word “reviewer” and try to use the word “reporter,” which has a more neutral connotation. However, when one writes a column, a conflict arises.

A reporter is expected to give only the facts. A columnist is expected to give an opinion based on those facts. Therefore, the writer runs the risk of being attacked for his opinions more than for the way he presents the facts. A few examples will suffice.

When I reviewed musical recordings for Amazon.com, I once stated that the symphonies of Shostakovich were less than masterpieces, mostly because he had to please the Soviet government and could not speak in his own musical voice. I know now that I should inserted “in my opinion,” but that would not have helped. The result was an e-mail filled with obscenities from a male with a Russian name. I answered as tactfully as I could (my mistake) and received only a familiar two-word command in return.

Again. I was never a fan of a certain tenor, whose voice struck me as unpleasantly constricted. Countless critics have been equally unkind to him—although many say he is better in French operas than in Italian ones. When he was booed at La Scala for his “Celeste Aida,” his reaction was to walk off in a huff after only a few minutes into the 3-hour work.

Well, I should have known better than to give an adverse opinion about this divo and got an angry letter of the “how could I think so” variety from a female who quoted other critics with favorable words about this man. Again, I should have known ahead of time to have included in my review a comment that my opinion is my opinion and others are entitled to theirs. But I didn’t, suffered the consequences, and still wince whenever I hear that tenor’s name mentioned.

In another article, I took a certain pianist to task for changing some of what a great composer had written in a particular piece. I also brought up a general question of when “stylistic variations” become vandalism. That brought an explosion of negative reaction. One writer let me know that it was this very pianist who had led him to love the music of that composer.

Of course, since then I have thought better of it. The pianist in question is an eccentric personality of undoubted genius, and I can understand why his playing is so loved by so many. I realize now that I should have said so in the article. In short, my comments lacked balance.

Most recently, I was taken to task for not liking the old Al Jolson films. The first e-mail was merely a pair of insults. When I replied, the writer gave two reasons for his reaction: (1) Many people he knew also disagreed with the article and (2) he found the films antique but charming in their antiquity.

As for the first comment, of course many people can be polled and found to disagree with any opinion. (One person can’t understand how I can stand eating spinach. I cannot understand why some people play music at deafening volumes.) As for the second, I had to confess that he was absolutely correct. The very aspects of the six films in question that I found annoying were the ones that he found charming. Add to all that the fact that I can’t stand Jolson as a personality—and many of his contemporaries could not stand him for even more reasons. Nevertheless, I could still admire what he did to the art of singing popular music. But I did not say so in my column. I will try to be more careful in the future.

Of course, there will always be professional carpists. I recall a news columnist using the verb “gyp” and incurring the wrath of a literate reader who objected to the “slur” on all Gypsies, who (he must have felt) did not deserve their reputation for “gypping” the public. A local politician not long ago used the word “niggardly” in a speech and was attacked as a racist by illiterates who thought the word meant something quite different from its actual meaning.

As any person in the public eye must realize one fact: If you are going to stand out there, someone is bound to use you as a target. One can only hope the shots include reasons designed not to hurt but to convince.

Musical Tales for April Fool-la-la

Kiss Me KateMusical Tales for April Fool-la-la

Back in 2006, I did an April Fool article about an imaginary composer named Parifollo. I thought that it was silly enough for people to know it was a spoof and even that some readers would readily see that the name consisted of an anagram for “April fool.”  I received two letters asking for more information about this person; and I had to give the embarrassing reply that it was a joke. A joke on me, it would seem.

Which leads me to think of other unexpected twists the world of music has to offer. Of course, one must in these matters remember the Italian saying, “Se non e vero, e ben trovato” (If it isn’t true, at least it’s well made up).

Sony BMG musician Joshua Bell performs at a Sony media event at the 2007 International CES in Las Vegas, Nevada January 7, 2007. REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES)
Would you recognize this man?

Very often in the wacky world of the theatre, a great joke backfires on the joker.

Although I already told this one in an article some time ago, it is worth a retelling to show how a joke can turn back on the perpetrator. When “Kiss Me Kate” was in rehearsals, the actor playing Bill, Harold Lang, was pestering Cole Porter for a song in Act II that would let him show the audience what he could do as a soloist. As an act of meanness, Porter deliberately wrote him a lousy number called “Bianca.” Lang brought down the house every night. Porter’s reaction is not recorded, as far as I can find in my research.

220px-SingingFoolAnother joke-is-on-the-joker is the one three songsmiths tried to play on Al Jolson when the superstar asked for another song to sing in the 1928 film “The Singing Fool.” The songwriting team decided to give him the most clichéd lyrics ever in the setting of the most banal tune they could devise. Jolson loved it and made it a smash hit. “Sonny Boy” is the item in question.

Here is an instance when no joke was intended; but, as Cyrano says, “How fate loves a jest.”

This tale was told to me by a person who attended one of my Elderhostel talks at Pilgrim Pines in New Hampshire. It was back in 1943 when a friend of hers phoned her from Boston to rave about a show she had just seen that was due to open in New York shortly after. She told her to get tickets for “Away We Go!” the day they went on sale, because they would be very hard to get once it opened.

215px-Okla_bway_1943The New York woman checked the papers every day for the announcement that “Away We Go!” tickets were on sale, but it never came. This is what happened. The original version of the musical was supposed to open with a hoedown in which the words, “away we go” were prominent. The creators then felt they wanted a novel beginning. So they did away with the chorus, had the curtain open on a single woman on a porch while a man’s voice was heard off-stage (mind you) singing a hymn to the new day and to the corn crop. The title had been changed to reflect the rewrite. It was called “Oklahoma!” when it came to New York, and tickets went like platinum  hotcakes, all the while the poor woman was waiting for “Away We Go” to be announced.

Here is another case in which there was no joke intended but one of the parties involved made it into one. When Gilbert was rehearsing a love scene for his latest collaboration with Sullivan, he found that his tenor was feeling the Grand Emotion a little too much and was delivering the word “rapture” with too much force. “No, no,” Gilbert commanded, “modified rapture.” Being something of a literalist, the tenor read the phrase “Modified rapture!” with equal force. Gilbert was delighted and the line has been read thus ever since. (And they say that tenors…. Well, never mind.)

If more examples come to mind, I will gladly add them.