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Bob Michel

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  1. #27, one of my favorite selections from the WWI years, is also that rare commodity: an American soldiers' song of the period written by someone not named Irving Berlin:

     

    http://youtu.be/Iae2VvztGL0

     

    It's associated with Plattsburgh, NY, the site of a voluntary training camp funded by the pro-intervention Preparedness Movement in the years before the United States entered the war (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preparedness_Movement). Whether or not the composer, Emil Breitenfeld, actually served at the camp I've been unable to discover. Breitenfeld is perhaps better known as the father of the jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond (né Paul Emil Breitenfeld), who played with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and composed "Take Five."

     

    This is a curious number, which sounds more like something out of Colm O Lochlainn's "Irish Street Ballads" than a typical American commercial song of its era. The first verse and chorus would be hard to improve on; the second verse is a little disappointing, lapsing as it does into conventional propaganda. Still, I think it's one of the most memorable efforts of the war years. I like it well enough to have recorded it twice; there's another version, with uke and whatnot, at http://youtu.be/etKBX_ksoAc.

     

    I'm a bit bemused by the preoccupation in period lyrics with the ineptness of American women at making socks. Not to dismiss the importance of proper foot care in the infantry, but...how bad can they have been, really? Bunch of ingrates, if you ask me.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  2. A slight cold with a touch of laryngitis prolonged my break, but I'm nearly back to normal, and it's time to start applying myself again. So here is #26 in the series:

     

    http://youtu.be/DwKDkxmqpes

     

    This is another title I originally added to my collection solely on the strength of its cover art:

     

    http://contentdm.baylor.edu/utils/getdownloaditem/collection/el-mst-wwi/id/187/filename/198.pdf/mapsto/pdf

     

    There must be hundreds of blustery numbers in this vein from 1917-18, most of which sound disturbingly like football fight songs, as remote as they could possibly be from the realities the doughboys faced in France. But two considerations set this one apart. First, the hook is so silly that I find it irresistible. Second, for once it isn't actually a product of Tin Pan Alley; it comes from the rival music publishing center of Chicago. I know nothing else of the three collaborators who produced it, and can only picture them sitting around a piano swapping melodic riffs and dreaming up bad puns. I can think of worse ways to make a living.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  3. Tomorrow being the shortest and darkest day of the year for us Northern Hemispherians, I thought I'd finish out 2015 with something suitably upbeat and cheery. So here's #25, not a war-themed song at all, but one of the more familiar Tin Pan Alley hits of 1917, which was introduced on Broadway the following year in "The Passing Show of 1918":

     

    http://youtu.be/jjRg9uPlsIA

     

    Free Reed Content: We were discussing the suitability of the Anglo for song accompaniment in another forum thread last week, and I mentioned that my preferred range of keys when singing with a C/G instrument was from Bb to A. But I did record a WWI song not long ago in Eb, and when this number came along I thought I might keep working round the Circle and have a go in its original key of Ab. It sounded O.K., but I decided it was a silly exercise (counting coup, sort of) and transposed it to G. In either case I find that the more I do this, the simpler I like my arrangements. If I keep it up I imagine I'll eventually follow Freddie Green down the path to two-note "chords."

     

    And I do plan to keep it up, after the New Year. There are lots more themes, genres and sources to explore. But it's time for a holiday breather. Many thanks to all those who've expressed an interest in the project so far and contributed to some enjoyable discussions; I'm learning a lot. I'll close this chapter by wishing you all, in the context of whatever feast you celebrate, the Smiles of the season.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  4. Did any of the pro-war lyricists ever don uniform and experience the reality of it all ?

    Among the American songwriters, Irving Berlin was drafted, though the Army was careful not to put him in harm's way. I'm pretty sure Emil Breitenfeld, who wrote the wonderful marching song "The Last Long Mile," was the real deal (I have a version of this one on YouTube, though not with concertina). And there are surely others I'm forgetting, or haven't encountered yet.

     

    But by and large the War as represented in American period songs is an abstraction, a faraway fantasy. They have much more to say about life "over here" than "over there." The U.S. didn't enter the conflict until April '17; nineteen months later it was over. There was hardly time, you might say, for the grim reality to displace the clichés of Tin Pan Alley. So the songs people sang tend to be remarkably silly--but also, to my way of thinking, remarkably poignant. There's so much that might have been learned, but wasn't.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  5. I think any of the systems can be used very effectively for vocal accompaniment. The Anglo (which I play) certainly has limitations, but limitations can be experienced as opportunities, especially if they encourage you to think about accompaniment in new ways.

     

    But let's be specific. In a 30-key Anglo you have an instrument that's theoretically chromatic over a two-and-a-half octave range. Some keys are far easier than others, though. And that's for a single melody line; due to the necessity of bellows reversal, some note combinations are difficult or impossible, and some chords simply can't be played.

     

    But the real challenge of the Anglo, I think, is that each key, from the easiest to the most daunting, has its own character, and favors certain effects over others. Patterns aren't movable, and transposition entails reinvention. Is this a disadvantage, though? It depends on what kind of player you are.

     

    As a practical matter, I'm pretty comfortable accompanying a song on a C/G Anglo in keys from Bb to A and their relative minors (I accompany in other keys, too, but less comfortably). That's half the keys--more than adequate for my vocal range, since I can always come within a half-step of the optimum pitch (on any given day) for my voice.

     

    So if I'm singing by myself, I never think of the Anglo as limiting. If I'm playing with other musicians, though, problems may arise. A guitarist can use either movable chords in a closed shape or a capo; an Anglo player has neither option.

     

    So if I were starting out and knew I'd be dealing with a recalcitrant bandmate with a penchant for, say, C#, and if I didn't want to invest in multiple Anglos, then I might be inclined to pick a different system. Otherwise, though, in spite or because of its quirks, I think an Anglo is a great instrument for a singer.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  6. Twenty-four songs into this little series we come at last to a work by the most iconic American songwriter of the First World War, the great vaudevillian George M. Cohan (1878-1942).

     

    http://youtu.be/ctzgTNj7xaw

     

    I'll qualify that estimate: Irving Berlin was surely a more versatile and sophisticated artist, but in 1917 Berlin's best work was still to come. Cohan's patriotic songs of that period, by contrast, are the peak of his achievement. His style (I'll venture) looks backward, not ahead. Along with "You're a Grand Old Flag," "The Yankee Doodle Boy" and a few others, this song needs no introduction to an American audience, at any rate; its chorus--as usual, the verses have gone missing--is as familiar as "Tipperary" or "Mademoiselle from Armentières."

     

    I can't think of a piece that better embodies the naïveté, optimism, swagger and (yes) cluelessness of the pro-war American populace in April 1917. It also embodies, if truth be told, much of what I've always disliked about George M. Cohan. But the more I listen to the music of those years, the more I realize that it's unfair to pigeonhole him as a one-note warmongerer. His big jingoistic hits have proved so enduring that they've all but drowned out the rest of his work. But he was unquestionably a master songwriter. If anyone's ever penned a more effective recruiting jingle than this one, I'd like to hear it.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  7. If a solo instrumental tune is good enough, and if it does not have to blend with a particular voice, it matters very little what key it is played in.

    Very true. Which is why I don't find the Anglo at all limiting as a solo instrument.

     

    As far as song accompaniment goes, I've had occasion to do a bit of thinking over the last year or two. The first question was whether an instrument in the treble range would even work (for me, that is). Curiosity about this is actually one of the bases of the whole project. I'd always done most of my singing with a guitar (or banjo), and I was intrigued by the challenge of switching to concertina and exploring ways of making the two timbres complement each other without that supporting bottom end. (One of these days I'd like to do something similar with my other main instrument, the mandolin.)

     

    The second question was whether the "home keys" of a C/G instrument would be adequate (at least to my vocal range). Here the answer, happily, is No. So far my adaptations have ranged from Eb to (I think) A, or half the keys, and of course each presents its own challenges. Singing in G (e.g., "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"), I can push the limits of my chord vocabulary; singing in Eb ("So Long, Mother"), I have to keep things much more rudimentary (though I hope that will change as my playing improves). But rudimentary is good, too, and putting the Anglo through its paces in more remote keys has encouraged me to think of its chromatic limitations as a feature, not a bug.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  8. From the year 1918, the pens of Edgar Leslie and Harry Ruby, and my personal stash of period sheet music comes this jaunty number--23 in the series--about a young lady who's keen to update her venerable profession with the latest technology:

     

    http://youtu.be/foHP9m9V4Gs

     

    Within my own little repertoire I think of this song as the perfect counterpoint to #19, "He's Had No Lovin' for a Long, Long Time." Americans were at once intensely curious about what the doughboys were up to on leave Over There, and determined not to know in any detail. And Tin Pan Alley was ever inclined to keep things innocent and cheery.

     

    A couple of quick nonmusical footnotes on this one: it boasts one of my very favorite covers from those years, by the great illustrator Alfred Wilfred Barbelle, which you can see here:

     

    http://www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.100007294.0/?sp=1

     

    And I have to wonder whether this cover inspired that of the better known "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm," published the next year:

     

    http://www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.200201432.0/?sp=1

     

    But enough period minutiae. You can also hear a nice contemporary version (1919) by the Avon Comedy Four at:

     

    http://youtu.be/gmq7IkBB1po

     

    Their version is transposed; mine is in the original key of F, which both suits my voice and sits just fine on a C/G Anglo.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  9. This is just meant to complement ceemonster's and Jim's excellent replies:

     

    I'm not a fiddler--well, barely--but I do play mandolin, which is a very close relation of the violin. So I'll make that the basis of my comparison. I can and do use the same sheet music for that instrument, when I play from written music, as I do for concertina. As long as the melody is within roughly the same range (a mandolin, or fiddle, can be played higher), there's rarely any problem.

     

    But...

     

    On a mandolin, to the extent that you avoid playing open strings (hold that thought), your patterns--scales, arpeggios and chords--are movable. Need to transpose from C to C#? Just move everything--any pattern you need to play--up one fret, or one half step. It will all sound, and feel, more or less the same (apart from pitch, of course). You don't need to relearn--or rethink--a tune, in order to play it in a different key.

     

    That's not true on an Anglo concertina. (Let's assume, in what follows, that we're talking just about a C/G box.) Each key has its own patterns. Moving a tune from C to C# means reimagining it from scratch (and, in this case, making it a whole lot more difficult). Each key has its own personality. Some are dead easy, enabling you to play quite fast with little trouble, and add a rich accompaniment: chords, bass lines, countermelodies, what have you. Others are more challenging, and lend themselves to a sparer, subtler, more considered approach. As you move around the Circle of Fifths, your phrasing will change. *Everything* will change. Yes, you're playing a "chromatic" instrument (within its effective range of about 2 1/2 octaves--about that of a saxophone). But with an asterisk.

     

    Now: within the typical folk repertoire--and certainly the Anglo-Irish-American part of it--the fiddle's specific capabilities have been hugely influential. And folk fiddlers--with lots of exceptions, but never mind--play mostly out of the "first position," and use open strings quite freely and to great effect. Since a fiddle is tuned EADG, this means that a great deal of the folk repertoire is in the fiddle-friendly "sharp" keys of G, D and A (not so much E--that's the highest string, and it doesn't allow as many opportunities for drone harmony--although Scottish fiddlers do play in that key quite a bit). Happily, these are not difficult keys on a C/G Anglo concertina: G can be played up and down the G row (though it accommodates other patterns, too); D, at least as played these days by most Irish-style concertinists, involves a slightly weird cross-row pattern that very quickly becomes second nature. A is a bit trickier--air management is an issue, since you play a great deal on the push--but manageable with practice. So fiddles and concertinas tend to get along quite nicely, at least in the core repertoire of instrumental folk music of the British Isles and its North American counterparts.

     

    The takeaway: if you want to play the typical "fiddle music" of those places, and you have a C/G instrument, you should be fine with written music intended for the violin, and you should seldom if ever need to worry about transposing anything. If you want to venture into other musical traditions, however--or if you're primarily concerned with accompanying the range of a particular voice...well, that's a topic for another discussion!

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  10. Bienvenue au forum, et merci d'avoir partagé les vidéos, qui sont tout à fait charmants.

     

    Je n'ai aucune idée combien de francophones participent ici actuellement, mais une présence plus robuste de joueurs français ne pourrait qu'enrichir nos discussions!

     

    Reste aux modérateurs de décider si la demande justifierait la création d'un groupe spécial pour les non-anglophones. Sinon, je ferai de mon mieux pour répondre à tout commentaire ou question--dans le cas, bien entendu, où j'aurai quelque chose à contribuer. Ça me fera de la pratique!

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  11. For the twenty-second entry in the series we return to Berlin--Irving, that is--and a song that dates from the very first weeks of the conflict, with which it has nothing whatsoever to do:

     

    http://youtu.be/MDCmel85vSY

     

    Berlin was riding high on his first wave of popularity after his breakthrough hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), which this piece resembles a bit melodically. No one wrote better jaunty vaudeville songs, and he'd probably be in the hall of fame if he'd never progressed beyond that rather formulaic style. But of course he did; American popular music was about to increase its range, depth and sophistication enormously (jazz was on the doorstep), and Berlin would be in the thick of that process for the next several decades.

     

    Another remarkable figure associated with this song is the wildly successful singer Billy Murray (1877-1954), a fellow Philadelphian who also made recordings of several other songs in this series. Murray's voice, style and repertoire define his period as succinctly as would those of, say, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley in their respective eras. I use his slightly altered lyrics in the chorus, which are an improvement over the ones in the original sheet music.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  12. Intersting project! Funny thing is, your song list contains none of the songs that spring to my mind when I think of the Great War: Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning, Pack all your troubles in your old kitbag, Mademoiselle from Armentiers ... I suppose that's the differnce between the US and UK perspective.

    Those songs were popular in the U.S. too, and as it happens I've recorded the first two you mention (scroll up to the start of this thread), and may yet get around to the others. But it's true that I've been concentrating mainly on Tin Pan Alley songs from those years--especially some of the less familiar ones--whether they deal directly with the War or not.

     

    It's also true that the cultural impact of the War was vastly different in this country, though in the long run it was probably as profound. Suffice it to say that most of the American war-related songs sound as though they were indeed written a very long way from the front. I know few bona fide soldiers' songs of American origin from that period. The doughboys were all too happy to avail themselves of the wonderful ones from the U.K.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  13. I'll add my thanks to Jim and to all the folks who made TOTM so much fun. I enjoyed the regular discipline of trying something that was usually outside my comfort zone.

     

    On the other hand, the Concertina Videos & Music subforum is a place where any one of us can post a Tune or Theme Challenge, without the formality of a poll or the intercession of a beleaguered moderator. I'll look forward to a less formal version of the old monthly exchange.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  14. One thing I don't understand about the 30 button layout is that the lowest button of the G-row doesn't play the fundamental of the G chord on the push nor the fundamental of the D chord on the pull. It kind of works, because it still plays a note from the chord, but not the fundamental.

    That's a nifty arrangement, and some lovely playing!

     

    The lack of the low fundamental on the last button of the left-hand G row came up in a different thread here the other day. My sense of the arrangement is that, while you already have a very accessible push-low-G nearby (fourth button on the C row), the push-B is a useful note (especially for bass runs) that you don't have elsewhere. So you're not sacrificing anything (other than perfect consistency), and you're gaining some fingering possibilities you wouldn't have otherwise.

     

    As for the pull-note on that button, many if not most Anglos do have a (redundant) D there, though one of my two instruments has a low A instead. I much prefer the A. It allows me to vamp a D chord on the draw with an alternating 1/5 bass. Again, it's less logical, but (to me, anyway) more useful.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  15. I'll second Daria's suggestion: if it's within your budget, you can't go wrong with a Morse. It's my personal favorite of the hybrid concertinas, though the other makes I've tried (Herrington, Tedrow, Edgley and Marcus come to mind) were also excellent instruments; someone else might prefer one of those. Short of trying one of each, videos like the ones at the Button Box site (and on YouTube, etc.) are invaluable for picking the sound you want.

     

    As for clicking and clacking, some concertinas are noisier than others. All other things being equal, a riveted action will be quieter than the hook-and-lever kind, though the latter can be much improved by a good set-up, including new bushings.

     

    A bit of noise doesn't have to be a deal-breaker, though. Of my two Anglos, one (a Wheatstone) has a smoother, quieter action and plays with a lighter touch. But I enjoy playing the other (a Lachenal) at least as much, in spite or because of its quirks. Yes, it's noisier, but in some ways I also find it more expressive.

     

    It really does come down to the individual instrument, and to your own preferences as a player--which are bound to evolve the more you play.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  16. Well, you do after all have that push G on the C row. So you don't lack anything to play the oom-pah pattern with an alternating bass in the key of G; it just involves using one note from a different row (push that D on the G row rather than pulling it on the C row). This quickly becomes second nature.

     

    On the other hand, a push B can come in very handy. It allows you to play bass runs in either C or G without changing bellows direction. Given the choice between a completely redundant fingering (low G on the push) and one that isn't available elsewhere on the instrument (low B on the push), I'll go with the latter every time.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  17. One more quick entry--#21, if you're counting--before the American Thanksgiving holiday consumes the rest of my week.

     

    http://youtu.be/eRb9iXHkBqc

     

    Of the countless farewell songs Tin Pan Alley churned out in 1917-18, I chose this one for two reasons. The first is that I happen to own the sheet music, though I have no idea where I picked it up. "Al. Jolson's Mother Song," the cover proclaims, with a picture of the vaudeville star, whose successful singing career was already fifteen years old, but whose greatest triumphs (including "The Jazz Singer") were still years in the future.

     

    The second reason is that this song--slight and silly though it may be--sits intriguingly on the cusp of two musical generations. Its composer, Egbert Van Alstyne (!), was a ragtime era veteran nearing the end of his run. Unless you're particularly drawn to the music of that period, the one song of his you're likely to have heard is "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" (1905), a barbershop favorite in a style that was already pretty well past its shelf life by 1917.

     

    The lyricists, though, are another matter. Raymond Egan was a journeyman rhymer who would have a hand in quite a few standards of the '20s, including "Ain't We Got Fun" and "Sleepy Time Gal." And his collaborator was none other than the Jazz Age master Gus Kahn, who would go on to pen...well, how many shall we cite? "Toot, Toot, Tootsie." "I'll See You in My Dreams." "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." "Ukulele Lady." "Dream a Little Dream of Me." And, of course, "Makin' Whoopie."

     

    The 30-year-old Mr. Kahn was clearly not yet at the height of his powers as a lyricist when he contributed to this maudlin little ditty. It has a catchy tune, though--due credit to Egbert Van Alstyne, who knew his craft pretty thoroughly. And it evokes the eager, jingoistic mood of that year in the U.S. very effectively--plus there's that Al Jolson connection.

     

    Concertina content: I was dithering about whether to transpose to C or D when I decided, just for variety, to have a go in its original key of Eb. You could manage it just fine in that key on a C/G Anglo with the standard 30 buttons, though I do appreciate the alternative voicings for the Ab chord that 40 buttons provide.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  18. Entry #20 being something of a milestone in this little series, I've chosen one of the most familiar songs of the era:

     

    http://youtu.be/qPXuPlcVvoQ

     

    It was a major hit on the vaudeville stage in 1918, the year after its publication, and it's been a standard ever since. It bears the distinction of being possibly the best-known number in the American songbook with a melody matter-of-factly stolen from a classical composer (Chopin, in this case). It's also the second-best-known song referencing the meteorological phenomenon mentioned in its title.

     

    Joseph McCarthy, the lyricist, also wrote the words to "You Made Me Love You" and "They Go Wild, Simply Wild over Me," the latter of which I recorded earlier in the series. As for Harry Carroll, he composed the music to "By the Beautiful Sea" and "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," proving that he could also produce a hit without blatant plagiarism when the need arose.

     

    So: twenty down, and who knows how many more to go? In the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie, "I'm not tired. Or proud."

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  19. I am sometimes curious to know whether a tune was created to match a lyric or a lyric was created to match a tune. Which came first, the chicken or the egg. The tune is what matters to me. I can always turn a deaf ear to a lyric but of course a 'song' has to be a combination of both.

    In the immortal words of Paul McCartney, "There's no rules": sometimes the lyrics are all in place before the tune is dreamed of; sometimes it's t'other way round; often the "hook" of a particular melodized phrase is the first step, and the rest follows.

     

    But I agree with you (having done this quite a lot, for whatever that's worth) about the primacy of the music. If you're writing songs but shortchanging the tunes in favor of clever lyrics, you've probably chosen the wrong medium.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

  20. If an accompanying tune is good enough, questionable lyrics can always creep in by the back door !

    Oh, yes. They can, and usually do.

     

    One unlooked-for outcome of my engagement with songs from this period is that I no longer think that any of the double entendre in the lyrics was accidental, or passed unnoticed.

     

    Bob Michel

    Near Philly

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