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.
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: email@example.com, or from their website www.archeophone.com.
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.
Judging 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.”
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 (www.archeophone.com) to see their amazing full catalogue of what I call “audio time machine” recordings.
Dan W. Quinn Sings Turn of the (Last) Century Songs
Meet 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.
At 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.
Quinn’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!
JUST FOR THE RECORD: RCA VICTOR OPERA RECORDINGS IN 1921
When Volume 1 of “Opera on Record” (Harper) came out in 1979, there were listed 26 complete recordings of “La Boheme” (including one in French, one in Russian and two in German). Since then, I have simply lost track of how many others have been issued, mostly to feature some current media-hyped star. Since the advent of CDs, many of the older sets are available again; and so Bohemephiles have more than an embarrassment of riches from which to choose their favorite versions.
Not too long ago, I stumbled across a copy of the 1921 edition of “The Victrola Book of the Opera” and recently took a look at what was available back for those who craved a recording of “Boheme.” The pickings were slim indeed.
For starters, there were no complete recordings available in the US. If you wanted to hear Rudolfo’s Act I aria, you could choose from the renditions of Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, John McCormack, Orville Harrold–in Italian–and Evan Williams, in English. Each was on a single-faced 12″ disc selling at $1.75. If you wanted to hear it in French, there was a double-facer for $1.50 with Leon Campagnola, with his “Vesti la giubba” (also in French) on the second side.
Mimi’s aria was available with Geraldine Ferrar, Nellie Melba, Lucrezia Bori, and Frances Alda at $1.75 per 12″ single-faced disc. The love duet was rendered by Caruso and Melba ($2.50), Alda and Martinelli ($2.00), and Bori and McCormack ($1.50 on a 10″).
Musetta’s Waltz came in only one version, with Alma Gluck for $1.25 on a 10″. And that is all you could have gotten from Act II. That is unless you wanted a “whistling solo” version of the Waltz on a double-facer with “Carmen” selections for xylophone on the second side for $.85! (If anyone out there has a copy, could you please send me a taping?)
Act III fared much better. There was the Marcello-Mimi scene with Farrar and Antonio Scotti ($2.00); Mimi’s “Addio” with Farrar, Melba, and Gluck ($1.75, $1.75 and $1.25 respectively); and the concluding quartet with Farrar, Gina C. Viapora, Caruso, and Scotti ($3.00). [I find the price variations fascinating and wonder on what they were based.] On a double-facer, you could get the Marcello-Rudolfo-Mimi scene with the Soldiers’ Chorus from “Il Trovatore” on the other side for $1.35.
Act IV was represented by the opening duet (Caruso and Scotti, for $2.00), Colline’s Farewell to his coat (Marcel Journet for $1.25), and the death scene in German (Claire Dux and Karl Jorn) on a double-facer for $1.50.
The only other items listed in the Victrola book are some band selections. Several years would have to pass before an American opera lover could purchase a complete “Boheme” from La Scala on the RCA Victor label.
Considering that “La Boheme” is one of the most beloved operas, what was one to do if one wanted to hear (say) “The Flying Dutchman, ” a work not very high on most people’s list of super-favorites? You had a choice of three double-faced discs. There is the Dutchman’s opening monologue sung by Fritz Feinhals ($1.35), the Spinning Chorus in English (backed up by the Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin”, $1.35), and Erik’s aria by Karl Jorn ($1.00). And so on.
All of this research brought back memories of when I cherished my little Gilbert & Sullivan excerpt albums long before I finally owned my first complete “Mikado.” (Some of you MUST remember those Nelson Eddy sets of the Patter Songs!) Each hearing was a rare treat, both wonderful and frustrating: I loved what I had and yearned for more. Today I have in my collection about ten “Mikado” sets (only one of which has the dialogue) and four video versions. But somehow all of this completeness never quite compensates for that sense of wonder I experienced in the past. I am sure that when someone back in 1921 put on their brand new Caruso or Melba or Scotti disc, the reverse side shiny, black and empty, there was a thrill when the first notes filled the room through whatever megaphone the set was designed to hold. Today we have supercalifragilistic surround digital heaven-knows-what that is simply ho-hum because we are so jaded.
No, darn it, I could never bring myself to give up my collection of seven complete “Bohemes” and about as many “Aidas” for some scratchy collection of excerpts. But I would like to go into some attic and find a wind-up phonograph with a good Cactus needle and a pile of those “Boheme” discs I listed up above; and spend a few hours of low-fi delight with those joys we have lost in the name of Progress.
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.