(Pictured: sheet music for one of the popular songs of World War I.)
The rise of jazz, which began in earnest shortly after World War I, is responsible for our modern conception of rhythm and how pop music should sound. Critic Gary Giddins is blunt: he credits Louis Armstrong, who first rose to fame in the 1920s, with inventing “modern time.” After Armstrong arrives, popular music of every style, not just jazz, relaxes and feels more “natural”—at least to our ears, which can’t remember a time when music didn’t have that feeling. But practically everything that precedes Armstrong’s innovations sounds bizarre to us: stiff and mannered performances, painfully sentimental lyrics and arrangements, and in the case of the “coon songs,” idiotically racist content. Add to that the primitive tech of the times, acoustic recordings reproduced on Edison cylinders, and the music of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording (pre-1920) sounds like it came from another planet.
That said, however, people of a century ago were about as interested in pop music as we are now, even without radio and other modern mass media to proliferate it. Popular songs would be born in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley and make their way to vaudeville stages in New York, and from there to vaudeville stages in smaller cities. By the time a hit song reached a purchaser, it was often in the form of sheet music, which was cheaper than cylinders. And 100 years ago, the song was more important than the performance anyhow. You’d play it yourself, on your zither or your spinet or your parlor organ or whatever you had.
I’m reading a book right now called The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. Beginning in 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview as many surviving World War I veterans as he could find, and he found dozens, ranging in age from 101 to 113. His book tells their stories and recreates their world. One early chapter talks about the music of World War I, and how quickly Tin Pan Alley responded once the war in Europe began. Tin Pan Alley was good at that, according to Rubin. Popular songs 100 years ago were a form of news media. If something significant happened, from a political assassination to a natural disaster, songs about it would hit the stores almost immediately.
So songs about the war were plentiful. In 1914 and 1915, there was a certain ambivalence about it, expressed in songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but after 1916, and especially after the United States formally entered the war in 1917, popular songs about the war were universally supportive of it. There were songs that promised to smash the Germans, like “When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne” and “It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.” There were songs that promised support for France, like “France, We’ll Rebuild Your Towns for You.” There were love songs made topical by referring to the war, such as “While You’re Over There in No Man’s Land, I’m Over Here in Lonesome Land.” And there were maudlin numbers like “When a Boy Says Goodbye to His Mother (And She Gives Him to Uncle Sam)” and “He Sleeps Beneath the Soil of France.” Not to mention George M. Cohan’s famous “Over There,” and the English songs “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a marching song actually written in 1912, before the war began) and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” And dozens of others, many with the bizarrely long titles so fashionable back then.
Just as the First World War is overshadowed in 20th century history by World War II, the cultural history of First World War pop has been overshadowed by other, later events. Archeophone Records, which has as its mission excavating and retelling the history of the Pioneer Era, is just out with a series called The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy, collecting popular songs from the World War I era. The companion website is a fabulous work of scholarship, describing the propaganda value of the songs, revealing how the American public thought—and how they were being encouraged to think—of the war in Europe, the enemy, and their fellow citizens on the homefront. It describes an era that is both quite different from and significantly similar to our own.
When I was student teaching in 1997, I kept a journal. Poking through it recently, I found this bit, about the experience of chaperoning a winter dance known as “Morp,” which was a sort of anti-prom, for “morp” is “prom” spelled backwards. The essay needs more editing than I’m going to give it, although it got a little. It’s both off-topic for this blog, and quite squarely on it.
I had no idea what to expect. Would I be responsible for keeping daylight between slow-dancing students? Would I be watching for beer bottles or cigarettes? Would I have to break up fights in the restroom?
I ended up helping at the concession stand. . . . Our vantage point was fairly isolated. Most of the action was taking place on the other end of the cafeteria, so I could watch like the amateur sociologist I occasionally fancy myself to be. And I noticed several things.
(Pictured: tools of a hockey PA announcer’s trade–mike, mike switch, and line charts.)
(Late edit: link added at the bottom.)
I’m an occasional public-address voice for the University of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, and I had games last Thursday and Friday. Yesterday I did a fill-in gig for the women’s basketball team. Here’s what the job is like from the inside.
I show up about an hour before the game and get a credential at the media gate. If the game is in the Kohl Center (the big arena on the UW campus), I can hang my coat in the media room downstairs, then grab a soda and the rosters for the game before heading to my post. If the game is at the smaller La Bahn Arena next door (where the women’s hockey team plays), the accommodations are less plush—there, we’re paying $5 for a soda like the fans do—and I have to go up to the second level to get the rosters.
This is the point at which I also get my script for the day. Everything that happens is scripted right down to the minute. (That’s why the scoreboard clock is already counting down when you get to the game, and why it runs during intermissions.) All of the promotional announcements I read sync up with the video board. There’s a representative of the UW game-management department in my ear giving me cues, either on a headset from upstairs (for hockey) or right next to me (for basketball).
For hockey, I sit on the ice between the official who keeps the score sheet and one of the penalty boxes. It’s not unusual for players to slam into the glass right in front of us. The ice is cooled to 22 degrees, so I generally wear long johns and multiple shirts for my hockey gigs. The basketball PA announcer has a Spike Lee seat, at courtside, between the game-management guy and the video replay guy. It’s cold there, too, because in a multi-purpose arena the basketball floor is laid directly over the ice, although it’s not nearly so extreme.
Once game action starts, I’m off the script, except for stoppages when there’s something I have to read. For hockey, my job is to announce goals, assists, and penalties, and I may go for several minutes without saying anything. Basketball has more scoring to announce, and we also announce substitutions, which is impractical to do for hockey. You can impose a bit of personal style doing this stuff, as you can when introducing the team mascot before the game, or when you’re doing fan contests between periods. But whatever you do behind the big mike, you can’t go overboard. Wisconsin, one of the most profitable athletic programs in the country and a seriously big-time operation, requires a professional image that may not be so important to Directional State College. Precision is expected, if not perfection: I once accidentally mispronounced a Badger player’s name and heard about it in my headphones instantly. On hockey, I have to relay information on goals and assists to the game-management person so it can get on the video board with my announcement, and if I make a mistake on it, I hear about that, too. And justifiably so.
Fans may be surprised to learn that all during hockey games, the off-ice officials—the scorer, the scoreboard operator, the penalty timer, the auxiliary timer, and the penalty box attendants—carry on conversations that may have nothing to do with the game on the ice. All of the people I work with are certified on-ice officials and lifers in the game. Often, they have just come from officiating one game and may be rushing off to preside over another one after our game is over, and much of what they do is automatic to them. And because the hockey world is remarkably small, the officials sometimes know the players, and will talk to them as they sit in the penalty box.
Almost every hockey arena has a big horn that blows when the home team scores a goal. At Wisconsin hockey games, it’s the PA guy’s job to smack that big red button. The fans will tell you when a goal has been scored, but only when I see the referee point at the goal is it time to blow. And that might be the best part of the job.
I’d like to do more of this work than I get, because I’m strictly a backup guy. But for right now, I enjoy my opportunities when they come my way, and we’ll see what happens in the future.
(For another experience I had doing PA for Badger women’s hockey, click here.)
(If you stare at this long enough, it becomes 1973 again.)
Around the turn of the 1970s, a band from Mt. Vernon, New York, called Gun Hill Road played the Bitter End in New York City. The club’s owner, Paul Colby, was sufficiently impressed by them to become their manager. They got a record deal at Mercury and made an album called First Stop in 1971. It got a bit of radio airplay in a few places (and the song “42nd Street” was apparently big in New York City), but the album was nothing like a hit. It had done well enough, however, for Buddah Records to take them on for another one, to be released on the Kama Sutra label. It would be produced by Kenny Rogers, recently of the First Edition. The album, Gunhill Road (reflecting a slight change in the band’s name), came out early in 1973.
Buddah impresario Neil Bogart heard something in Gunhill Road’s brand of folkish pop music, particularly in the song “Back When My Hair Was Short.” But he knew that in the radio environment of 1973, “Back When My Hair Was Short” would never fly as it originally appeared, with its references to reading Screw magazine, using LSD, and dealing pot. So Bogart brought in producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who would later produce the first two albums by KISS, to rework some of the songs, including “Back When My Hair Was Short.”(You can compare the lyrics of the two versions here.)
Once their revised song hit the radio, Gunhill Road (a trio: Glenn Leopold, Steve Goldrich, and Gil Roman) played American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and shared bills with acts including Jim Croce, Poco, Harry Chapin, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Charlie Daniels. They also opened for an impressive list of comics, including Robert Klein, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Martin Mull, and Andy Kaufman. Sometime during this period, Roman, who had sung lead on “Back When My Hair Was Short,”was replaced by Paul Reisch.
“Back When My Hair Was Short” peaked at #40 on the Hot 100 for the week of June 2, 1973, although it ranked higher in both Cash Box and Record World. Billboard noted that it was “top 10 in more different markets at more different times than any other record that year,” so its diffuse chart action kept it from rising higher on the national chart. ARSA only shows a few top 10s, however: at KUDL in Kansas City in March (where it looks to have stayed for two solid months) and at WIXY in Cleveland in May before it reached its Hot 100 peak, and at KOMA in Oklahoma City toward the end of July.
But when no second hit materialized and the touring opportunities dried up, the young men of Gunhill Road got on with separate lives. Glenn Leopold wrote scripts and music for dozens of kids’ TV shows. Goldrich and Reisch went into business and left professional music careers behind. And Gunhill Road was remembered, if they were remembered at all, as a one-hit wonder. Their song appeared on one of the volumes of Rhino’s Have a Nice Day series of 70s hits, and it got some play on oldies stations, including the Sirius/XM 70s channels.
In 2011, their eponymous second album got a CD release, and about the same time, they were invited to play at a benefit for Paul Colby. The older men of Gunhill Road enjoyed the experience so much that they started talking about making a third album. In the fall of 2013, Leopold, Goldrich, and Reisch went back into the studio and recorded 19 songs, some of which had been in the can since the early 70s. Those songs are now out on an album called Every Forty Years.
It’s one of the more unlikely comebacks ever. It has some nice moments, especially “Everything Passes,” “Selling Apples” (being pushed as a single), and “Bridgeport Monochrome.” Nineteen songs might be more Gunhill Road than we need at this point, but their enjoyment at playing together again is easy to hear. You can listen to the band members talk about their history, their band’s rebirth, and their new album here. Listen to some of the new tracks at the band’s website, which is here.
(Pictured: England’s North Yorkshire Moors National Park at sunrise. The picture is probably going to be the best part of this post, which is another collection of fragments from my draft pile.)
A bit of trivia from American Top 40:
Casey answered a listener question about the group with the largest number of members to hit the Top 40 in the rock era. His answer was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with 375 members, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” hit #13 in 1959. He didn’t go beyond the rock era, but I will. In 1925, Columbia released a recording of “Adeste Fideles” backed with a traditional British song called “John Peel” under the name Associated Glee Clubs of America. According to Joel Whitburn, it was also the first electric recording to become a significant hit. Electric recording, in which microphones and amplifiers replaced the old process of cutting soundwaves directly into some physical medium via a recording horn, greatly improved fidelity and brought an end to the Pioneer Era of Recording. Greatly improved fidelity was required for the recording; the Associated Glee Clubs of America had 850 members, and the 4,000 members of the audience at the performance where the recording was made joined in the singing for a total of over 4,800 voices.
Not every post idea about a 70s icon turns into anything:
How come, in a media landscape that continually plunders its past for material even when it’s a terrible idea to do so, nobody has tried to reboot Match Game? By “nobody,” I mean “nobody in the United States,” because there is/was apparently a Match Game reboot on Canadian TV. You’d think that Game Show Network, at the very least, would have revisited the concept. Yet apart from the ill-fated Match Game/Hollywood Squares show in the late 90s, it’s never been tried. Perhaps it’s because Match Game outside the 1970s would not, could not, be Match Game at all. From the garish orange shag-carpeted set to the synth-and-wah-wah-heavy theme music to its particular sort of TV celebrity on the panel, Match Game was as much a product of its era as any show ever made.
After a Sunday morning on the couch with an old movie:
Despite its reputation as one of the premiere chick flicks of all time, the 1939 Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights is one I like a lot, the story of Catherine and Heathcliff and their doomed love, set among the Yorkshire moors, a love that survives beyond the grave. And although I joke about the syrupy music and how old movie heroines always get more beautiful while dying, the ending remains profoundly moving every time I see it. But it’s an earlier scene that sticks with me.
Catherine: Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change, and you and I never change.
Heathcliff: The moors and I will never change. Don’t you, Cathy.
Catherine: I can’t. I can’t. No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me, now, standing on this hill with you. This is me forever.
“No matter what I ever do or say, this is me, now . . . This is me forever.” From the planet Tralfamadore, the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut nods in agreement.
And finally, a single sentence that pleases me, from a post I wrote but you’re not going to see:
One of those cherished old songs instantly gutted me like some sorry fish, and I couldn’t get the radio off fast enough.
(Pictured: Skip James, who recorded a handful of blues records in the early 30s and then slipped back into obscurity until he was rediscovered by young blues fans in the 1960s.)
Right now, you can go over to iTunes and pay 99 cents for an mp3 of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, one of the most famous performances in acoustic Delta blues. But what if you want a physical object? You could buy any one of the compilations on which “Devil Got My Woman” has appeared. (I saw it alongside “Monster Mash” on a cheap disc of “Halloween hits” at the drug store not long ago.) Or you could get it on the album of the same name that James recorded in 1967, when he was 64 years old. But what if you want an original 78 RPM copy of the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman,” recorded in the unlikely location of Grafton, Wisconsin, for the Paramount label? There are only four of those in the world, all in the hands of collectors. (That mp3 you can buy is likely to have been sourced from one of them.)
The pursuit of the physical object is the subject of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, a new book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich. She introduces readers to some of the big names in the world of 78 collecting, past and present, and tries to plumb the depths of their obsession.
Petrusich observes that 78 collectors do not preserve and chronicle a single true “history” as much as they create a particular narrative. The records they value the most are the rarest and hardest to find in the wild—which sparks interest in obscure artists who made only a handful of recordings before vanishing into the void from whence they came. Fascination with James, Robert Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, Blind Blake, and other Delta figures makes it seem like the only music from the 30s that matters is their brand of acoustic blues. A collector will dismiss a trove of non-rare recordings as unimportant—but the very fact of the recordings’ not-rare-ness is due to so many copies having survived for so long, which indicates that more of them were made in the first place, which indicates in turn that they were fairly popular in their time. Certainly more so than a recording for which only four copies have survived. (Petrusich mentions one veteran collector who has a weirdly vehement dislike for country singer Vernon Dalhart, a star of the 1920s who is credited with the first million-seller, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It’s not clear what the man has against Dalhart, although being tired of tripping over “The Prisoner’s Song” on buying excursions might have something to do with it.)
That’s not to say that the rare recordings the collectors want most aren’t good strictly as music; they are, and the fact that the collectors have saved them from oblivion is commendable. But in his excellent book Escaping the Delta, Elijah Ward observes that even in the 30s, what got recorded by Paramount and others was what would they knew they could sell—and there was a market for original Delta blues numbers. When he played juke joints, Robert Johnson probably sang hymns and pop tunes his audience would have known from the radio, but nobody wanted to record those. So the world of popular music evoked by the prewar blues collectors is only tangent to the reality of that world.
(I have a particular fascination with Paramount’s story, the odd circumstance by which a furniture company based in Wisconsin brought black blues players from the Deep South to a makeshift studio on the banks of the Milwaukee River, to record 78s to sell along with its line of record players. To me, the best part of the book involves three chapters in which Petrusich chases down the history of Paramount. The story is told that when demand for particular Paramount recordings slackened, company employees frisbeed the surplus copies into the river, and that later, even metal masters were dumped there. So Petrusich went scuba-diving in the river, but to find out what she came up with, you’ll have to read the book.)
Some of the collectors in Do Not Sell at Any Price would not make good dinner companions, but if you wanted to know everything knowable about prewar blues, you couldn’t do better. And if you’re a crate-digger yourself, you might even recognize yourself in their personalities, and their stories.