(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.
(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.
(Pictured: Taylor Swift at the Grammys. There’s a plausible argument that she’s about to be as transformative in her time as Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles were in theirs.)
Time for another collection of worthwhile links I’ve recently noted on the Twitter machine:
—There’s a new vintage WLS aircheck from 1973 at Airchexx.com featuring Charlie Van Dyke, Fred Winston, John Landecker, J. J. Jeffrey, and Bill Bailey. It’s a style of radio nobody does anymore and most modern listeners wouldn’t like much, I don’t think—it’s fast and frantic and often pretty silly. If your ears are sharp, you’ll hear some oldies that may surprise you.
—Jim Booth, author of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, reviews Rod Stewart’s autobiography and finds both more and less than he expected.
—Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 represents a cultural earthquake of the kind that just doesn’t happen with music anymore. Saving Country Music posted an extensive review and commentary that will take you a while to get through and even longer to unpack, but it’s worth it.
—Between last week and this week, dozens of radio stations across the country have gone all-Christmas. Before this year’s blizzard began, the New York Times wrote about the phenomenon, in which stations beat the hell out of a 300-cut library for two solid months—and watch their ratings go through the roof.
—After Philadelphia’s WXPN counted down its top 885 songs of all time recently, it counted down its listeners’ picks of the 88 worst songs of all time. In Billboard, Sean Ross pondered just what “worst” means to people when the subject is music.
—In the fall of 1964, after seven months of raging Beatlemania, Playboy magazine sent author and radio host Jean Shepherd (famed now for A Christmas Story) to interview the Beatles. Why this isn’t a more famous piece of writing about the Beatles I cannot imagine.
And now, some additional notes: First, this blog has a companion Tumblr site, and I’m going to keep flogging it until you go there. I put up some fabulous pictures on it just this morning.
Second, this week marks the 10th anniversary of Funky16Corners, the funk and soul blog maintained by Larry Grogan. I am mildly surprised to learn that Larry’s site is a bit younger than mine, although he ran it as a fanzine for a while before that. Larry is a living encyclopedia of funk and soul (and of garage rock too, at Iron Leg) and he has been über-generous in sharing both music and knowledge, on his blog and in private communication, year in and year out. My bucket list doesn’t have much on it, but it includes being in the club someday when Larry is working the wheels of steel from his collection.
Third, Q106, the country station for which I toil, ranked #1 in persons 12-plus for the summer ratings period here in Madison. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, given that few people would characterize Madison as a country-music kind of town. But great things happen when a station has a clear vision and a plan for achieving it, and people with the focus and commitment to execute the plan. It’s my good fortune to be part of the team at Q106, and at Magic 98, which has also topped Madison in persons 12-plus within the last year. We’re proving that live, local radio still matters—and that it will beat the pants off the canned, out-of-market variety almost every time. Q is not touting its success on the air, however. As we frequently remind ourselves, what we do is not about us: the listener is the star.
(Pictured: the Osmonds rock the hell out at the Rainbow in London during a 1972 tour. Could this have been the night a famous rock drummer met the band backstage?)
Here’s another list of things I wish I had written that have turned up on my Twitter feed over the last couple of weeks:
—It’s worth noting that only a small fraction of all the music ever recorded has been released on CD or otherwise preserved digitally. The vast majority was/is on physical media such as records, tapes, and cylinders, and physical media is subject to physical deterioration. (As are we all.) Vox discussed the work of sound archivists and their efforts to save important cultural history before it vanishes.
—You may not know Jim Marshall’s name, but you’ve seen his work, including the iconic photograph of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera. A new book of his photographs of the Haight Ashbury scene deserves a place on any coffee table.
—It’s occasionally noted that Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” all by himself, and that John Lennon and Paul McCartney created some of the world’s most enduring music sitting on hotel beds by themselves, but the glorified rhythm tracks that become hit songs today often credit six or seven authors. It turns out there’s a reason for the proliferating credits, one both derived from and contributing to the fact that every pop record seems to sound the same as every other one.
—As part of its fascinating Steely Dan Sunday series, Something Else! Reviews has collected several outtakes and alternates and organized them into what would be a highly worthwhile new Steely Dan album, if Walt and Don were inclined to release it. Incline yourselves, Walt and Don.
—Glen Campbell is slipping away with Alzheimer’s Disease, but he’s managed to record a magnificent farewell called “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Unlike many singers of his age, Campbell has retained much of his range and still sounds very much like the singer he was 40 years ago—which makes his impending adios all the sadder.
—The new WKRP in Cincinnati complete series box set comes out at the end of the month. Shout! Factory has done heroic work trying to clear the original music, but they weren’t able to get permission for all of it. Thus the new set will contain some substitutions—and some other changes that run the gamut from understandable to bizarre. An intrepid poster at Home Theater Forum ran down the list of changes, which is fascinating. If you were already inclined to buy the set, do the changes have any effect on your decision?
—One of the highlights of the Ken Burns documentary Jazz is the segment on Coleman Hawkins’ recording of “Body and Soul,” a magnificent improvisation that represents a turning point in jazz history between big bands and bebop, was the first straight jazz recording to become a hit single, and is beautiful besides. It was recorded 75 years ago this month, and you should go and listen to it right now.
—You’d never guess that the Osmonds and Led Zeppelin had a mutual admiration thing going on, but they did. Read about “the secret history of Mormon heavy metal” here.