Thursday, December 31, 2009

Before country, vol. 3 : 1910-1915

Harry Lauder - Roamin' in the Gloamin'(1912)

Bert Williams - Nobody (1913)

Morton Harvey - I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier (1915)

This is the third part of my explorations of pre-country music. Here is one more little compilation I've made of various songs and tunes from the first half of the 1910s. Musically speaking, ragtime is still very popular, and the arrival of Afro American syncopated music is related by Tin Pan Alley or vaudeville singers ("Alexander's Ragtime Band). The "first" blues song to be published, "Memphis Blues" by WC Handy, is from 1912 (I included Harlan & Collins' rendition). And in 1910 John Lomax published "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", first big scholar work on Western music.

Like the two others, this selection features popular "hits", some of them sentimental ballads ("Will The Roses Bloom In Heaven ?" later recorded by the Carter Family), vaudeville and blackface numbers like "Some Of These Days" by Sophie Tucker, a Russian born entertainer that influenced the first "classic blues singers" like Mamie Smith or Ma Rainey, and of course the great Bert Williams (see picture above), maybe the best Afro American entertainer of the early 20th century, with his signature tune "Nobody" (great Johnny Cash version with Rick Rubin in 2000).

There are the usual oddities, like this beautiful Brasilian tune played by F. Van Eps on the banjo, fiddler and comedian Charles Ross Taggart and one of the most famous singers of the era, Sir Harry Lauder with the delighful "Roamin' in the gloamin'", that shows if need be, the strong musical links between Celtic and country music.

The last two songs are World War I related, especially the one by Morton Harvey, which is a good example of the debate on America's preparation and taking part in the conflict. See this short article about the songs and its context.

Here's what you get as a new year's eve present. I don't have the time to go through every song like I did last time, but don't hesitate to comment or ask details about the songs if you like.

1. Henry Burr - Old Folks At Home (1910)
2. Will Oakland - I'll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers (1911)
3. Bill Murray - Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911)
4. Arthur Clough & Brunswick Quartet - Down By The Old Mill Stream (1911)
5. Henry Burr - Will The Roses Bloom in Heaven ? (1911)
6. Sophie Tucker - Some Of These Days (1911)
7. Byron Harlan - They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog Around (1912)
8. International Association Quartette - The Church In The Wildwood (1912)
9. Bob Roberts - Ragtime Cowboy Joe (1912)
10. Harry Lauder - Roamin' in the Gloamin' (1912)
11. Edna Brown & James F. Harrison - The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine (1913)
12. Collins & Harlan - When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam' (1913)
13. Bert Williams - Nobody (1913)
14. Charles Ross Taggart - Old Country Fiddler in New York (1914)
15. Fred Van Eps - Sans souci (Maxixe brésilienne) (1914)
16. Billy Murray & American Quartet - When You Wore A Tulip (1914)
17. Morton Harvey - In The Hills Of Old Kentucky (1915)
18. Collins & Harlan - Memphis Blues (1915)
19. Morton Harvey - I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier (1915)
20. Peerless Quartet - Is There Still Room For Me Neath The Old Apple Tree (1915)


... and enjoy the music !

Monday, December 21, 2009

Joyeux Noël

Leadbelly - On A Christmas Day (buy) (1944)

Georges Brassens - Le Père Noël et la petite fille (buy) (1960)

Have a nice Xmas dear readers !!

You'll find more great christmas music and pics at the Big rock candy mountain

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blues Standards : Ain't Nobody's Business

Bessie Smith - T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do (buy) (1923)

Jimmy Witherspoon - Ain't Nobody's Business (buy) (1947)

Here's one of these blues standards that was sung by almost everybody.

If you think it's by Eric Clapton, you're wrong (again)...

The theme of this song is universal and holds in the title : it's a song of freedom. Freedom from the universal "what will the neighbors say ?".
That's the reason why it became so popular among the public but also among the artists, whose private lives are so often threatened and scrutinized.

According to French scholar Gerard Herzhaft's Encyclopédie du blues, the song has a blackface/vaudeville origin and the first influential version was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1923, and composed by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins. It seems that a few other "classic blues" lady singers waxed it around 1922-23 (Sara Martin and Alberta Hunter).

According to the Traditional Ballad Index, this song dates back to 1911 and shouldn't be confused with another one that was recorded by African American Black entertainer Bert Williams in 1919, and which is about a preacher trying to protect his own private life. The lyrics of William's version are different, but the subject is the same.

But "Nobody's Business" was really made famous by Jimmy Witherspoon when he recorded it with Jay McShann orchestra in late 1947. The song was a #1 hit for Spoon in 1949 and became one of his signature tunes, that he recorded many times. I posted the original version (parts 1 & 2), but there's a Chess recording from 1958 that is excellent too.
Spoon's rendition became the reference for a lot of covers in the 1950s and afterwards (Billie Holiday, BB and Freddie King, Ike and Tina Turner among others).

But there's another version, more rural, less urban, that was recorded many times in the 1920's and after by both black and white artists, with a different melody.
Here are the Earl Johnson (hillbilly fiddler from Georgia)and Frank Stokes (Memphis bluesman) versions :

Earl Johnson - Ain't Nobody's Business (buy) (1927)

Frank Stokes - 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do (buy) (1928)

This different, folky version was also sung by Mississippi John Hurt (before Stokes, in february 1928), country singer Riley Puckett (several recordings between 1935 and 1941), and by Piedmont blues singer John Jackson in 1965. Taj Mahal recorded a similar version in 1976.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Before country : 1893-1909 (2)

Dear readers,

I'm both excited and worried. Excited, because I've discovered a new field, a musical virgin land for me : pre-1920 recordings.
Worried because , as always, there is so much music and so little time. I just wanted to post a couple of songs the other week to illustrate the pre-hillbilly era, but now I'm hooked on this music and I want to go much farther.

I know this is just the beginning but as I did last time, I have posted a playlist I want to share with you (see link at the end of this post) of pre-country recordings (and more will follow), covering the same period as last time, from 1890 to 1910.

As you will hear, lots of different styles are featured there : Tin Pan Alley songs, some in the over sentimental fashion of these days, more comic tunes ore sketches from the minstrel tradition, gospel songs, banjo tunes, and some sadly famous "coon songs".

So here's the list (with my comments) :

George J. Gaskin - After The Ball (1893)
: Gaskin, an Irish tenor, was one of the most famous singers from the 1890s. This song is typical of the sentimental style : the brother/sister misunderstanding episode can be found in numerous songs like "The Tragic Romance" (Doc Watson).

Cousins & De Moss - Poor Mourner (1898) : This is one of the most ancient forms of Afro American pre-blues music I've ever heard. It's fascinating. This banjo duet plays a call and response gospel in a pure rocking style. I HAVE to get more from them (and I will).

Steve Porter - In The Baggage Coach Ahead (1899) : This is the song that Mellencamp's grandma sings on JCM's Scarecrow album from 1984. It was covered by Vernon Dalhart in 1925.

Vess L. Ossman - Whistling Rufus (1899) : Vess Ossman was a very famous banjoist who recorded a lot in the turn of the century. Here he plays an instrumental version of the famous coon song "Whistling Rufus".

Dan W. Quinn - Ain't Dat A Shame (1901) : another recording star of the era, in another coon song.
I decided to include a few of these songs, because they were very popular at the time and that most of the time the music is excellent and shows a lot of African american influences. I am conscious that the lyrics are very offensive today, and needless to say I was disgusted by their outspoken racism, but they are very representative of the era. As Patrick Featser at his wonderful site Phonozoic says, "The coon song coupled the catchiest tunes of the age with words marking a low point in crude racial stereotyping and insensitivity. This genre of popular song shaped and reinforced racist assumptions to a degree that should not be underestimated". You can find an excellent article on coon songs here at Parlor Songs.

George W. Johnson - The Laughing Song (1901)

George W. Johnson was the first Afro American artist to record. A famous whistler and singer from Virginia, he started recording in 1890. From 1890 to 1895, the total sales of his records was 25 000 to 50 000, each one recorded individually by Johnson !! (every single record was a master by then). This is a re-recording of one of his most famous songs, carrying the stereotype of the big-mouth, loud laughing "darkey". Coon songs were not sung by white men only...

Silas Leachman - Fortune Telling Man (1901) : Silas Leachman was also known as George Walker, part of the Walker and Williams duo with Bert Williams, one of the first and the most prominent acts of Black comedy.

Arthur Collins & Vess L. Ossman - All Coons Look Alike To Me (1902) /
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan - Old Black Joe (1902):
These are two of the most famous coon songs. Arthur Collins was a popular minstrel singer, who often paired with tenor Byron Harlan. The banjo accompaniment on these two songs is very interesting and probably derived from Afro American music. "All Coons Look Alike" was written bu a Black composer ! Sad...

J.W. Myers - I Stood On The Bridge At Midnight (1902) : a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Byron G. Harlan - Always In The Way (1903) /
Byron G. Harlan - When The Harvest Days Are Over (1902) : As a solo artist, Harlan specialized in sentimental ballads like "Hello Central Give Me Heaven" (see previous post) or "Harvest Days", later sung by Uncle Dave Macon

Harry Macdonough - Stay In Your Own Backyard (1904) : another typical sentimental song, often advertised as a "plaintive coon song" (sic). Although showing compassion for a little coloured boy who his rejected by his white neighbors, the title and the conclusion of the song are more than ambiguous and justify segregation in the end.

Bob Roberts & Vess L. Ossman- - The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane (1904)

Now a bluegrass standard, this song was written in 1871 for the minstrel trade. The song itself was popular, but the melody was even more widely used, finding itself adapted to a variety of other songs: "The Little Old Sod Shanty On The Claim" , "Little Red Caboose Behind The Train"; and even hymns, "The Lily Of The Valley".Fiddlin' John Carson's version of 1923 is famous for being the first commercial recording by a white rural musician.

Edison Male Quartet - When The Bees Are In The Hive (1905) : A pastoral sentimental Tin Pan Alley song later recorded by Bill Monroe.

Arthur Collins - The Preacher and the Bear (1905) :
Collins' greatest hit and signature tune, a great comic song and a convinving bear imitation.

Irving Gillette (Henry Burr) - In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905)

Billy Murray - Parody on In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905): Henry Burr(photo below), born in Canada, was one of the most prolific artists of the era. This song was so sentimental that Billy Murray recorded this parody.

Osman Dudley Trio - St. Louis Tickle (1906) : a ragtime piece for banjo celebrating the 1904 St Louis Exposition.

Len Spencer & Alf Holt - A Barnyard Serenade (1906) : this vaudeville comic duo performs a series of animal imitations.

Arthur Collins - Moving Day (1906) : another "coon song" that Charlie Poole would record later.

May Irwin - The Bully (1907) : May Irvin, a vaudeville Canadian actress and singer with her signature tune, the famous "Bully Of The Town" (in country, the Stankey brothers covered it). Her act around 1900 was known as "Coon Shouting" in which she performed African American influenced songs. watch out : the lyrics are particularly racist, but as they say at Parlor's song, it's important to know that such things existed. The Golden years were not good for every one....

Frederick Potter - Red Wing (1907) : Red Wing ("an Indian fable") was a popular Tin Pan Alley Song that became a very famous fiddle tune and a barn dances favorite.

Arthur Collins - All In, Down and Out (1907) : this vaudeville classic was later recorded by Uncle Dave Macon. The song title and line "If I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I'm gonna hold on to it" were used in the famous classic "Nobody Knows You When You're down and Out" (Bessie Smith)

Fisk University Jubilee Singers - Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1909) : the famous a cappella ensemble was organized in 1871 to raise funds for the African American Fisk university in Tennessee and toured all over the world. This is one of their first recordings (of course it was not the origninal line-up). Fisk Jubilee singers still perform today.

Polk Miller & The Old South Quartet - Watermelon Party (1909)
Last but not least, a pure gem. It's from 1909 and it sounds like blues, 20 years before the fist country bluesmen were recorded ! It is one of the rare recordings from the era featuring a guitar, and the playing, singing are just plain authentic. And there's more to it : Polk Miller (see photo below), a white pharmacist and musician from Virginia, performed with a quartet of African American singers : one of the earliest mixed groups ever recorded ! According to various sources, they played material going back to the days before the Civil War. Mark Twain considered Miller as "the only thing this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American". One can understand why. Document records issued more songs by them and they're on my immediate wish list !


... and enjoy the music !

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Henry Thomas, Texas songster

Henry Thomas - Bull Doze Blues (buy) (1928)

Henry Thomas - Fishin' Blues (buy) (1928)

Henry Thomas, aka "Ragtime Texas" was one of the oldest Black folk musicians to ever record. Born in Big Sandy, Tx, in 1874, he recorded in 1928-89 when he was in his fifties. The 23 songs he left us (available on the Yazoo compilation Texas Worried Blues) are a great document on the music that was there before the blues. Henry was the archetypal songster, capable of playing any kind of popular music to entertain his audience and earn his life.
If you want to know more about the man please read this excellent article in The Handbook of Texas Online.

In fact Ragtime Texas only waxed a handfull of "bona fide" blues, and the rest was of various origins : rags, reels and other country dances, vaudeville and minstrel songs, with floating verses taken from many different popular songs.
His lively guitar playing, his use of the quills (see previous post), make him a very original figure of a great influence. His music was re-discovered thanks to the Harry Smith anthology in 1952, that featured a couple of his tunes, including "Fishin' Blues". In the 60's, great old-time music lovers like Dylan ("Honey Aloow Me One More Chance"), Canned Heat ("Bull Doze Blues" becoming "Goin' Up The Country"), Grateful Dead or Taj Mahal covered his songs.

And most of all, Ragtime Texas sang about the itinerant life of the hobo-musician like nobody else, especially in the following song :

Henry Thomas - Railroadin' Some (buy) (1928)

I leave you with this beautiful tribute made by Norman Blake 70 years after Henry Thomas recorded.

Norman Blake - Ragtime Texas (buy) (1998)