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New Project: Songs Of The Wwi Era.


Bob Michel
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Having dallied with Mars, we return to Venus. Entry #12 is a love song from 1915, which happens to sport one of my favorite titles of the decade:

 

http://youtu.be/TSPHFcUhMKU

 

When I started thinking about this project, the first decision I made was to play the songs straight. There's unlimited potential for camp, obviously, but what would be the point of that? The cultural distance doesn't need underlining. The second decision I made was not to focus exclusively on either well-known songs or songs that particularly caught my fancy on first hearing. I want a broader picture than that, and I also want to challenge my own predilections.

 

Having said as much, I have to concede that this one brings us perilously close to Tiny Tim territory. Getting through the (unintentional?) double entendres in the lyrics with a straight face was a non-trivial task. For that matter, the artwork on the cover, which is what drew me to the song in the first place, is more than a bit Freudian:

 

http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/media/jpg/hasm/med/a2262-1.jpg

 

How innocent was all this, anyway? I'm undecided. Subtexts worked very differently a century ago, surely. In the end we're left with the song, which to be fair isn't that bad. Or I assume it wasn't; the fact is that I've never actually heard this one, and my version is at best a plausible reconstruction. It has a nice raggy melody, at any rate. But if I had to pick one period piece on the theme in question, it'd probably be "For Me and My Gal."

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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Well done Bob, another fine performance. You seem to have successfully amassed a very precious collection of old endangered sheet music and you are doing a grand job ensuring its survival. You are the right man for the job. A very attractive song/tune to those of us who love that kind of stuff. I don't suppose it was ever performed so well, nor, of course, recorded so well, and I reckon Branen & Lange would have been delighted with your rendition. In fact I think I hear them applauding from the grave !

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That's uncommonly kind of you, Rod, but I don't have any illusions about being more than a journeyman in this endeavor; I wish I could do the songs better justice. But an old piece of sheet music just begs to be performed, however indifferently, and I've felt vaguely guilty for years about sitting on so many of them without having a go.

 

I have to say, too, that the WWI centennial seems to be flitting by, in this country at least, with less attention than it deserves. For that matter, we just finished observing the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, and that too struck me as a pretty tepid affair--at least compared to the centennial, which made a great impression on me as a boy. So I suppose that the attempt to breathe a little life into a few period songs also has something to do with making amends, in a tiny way, for that neglect.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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Bob, Were all these old tunes always a joint effort between a lyricist and a tunesmith, or were any of them the product of just one individual ? What does your pile of old sheet music reveal ?

Typically there's one composer and one lyricist, though now and then the collaborators shared these roles, Lennon-and-McCartney style. It's not unusual to see a third, or even a fourth name credited. A single name is uncommon, though it happens: Berlin often worked solo, as he did on "Oh! How I Hate To Get Up,.."

 

Collaboration would remain the norm: most of the selections in the so-called Great American Songbook were shared endeavors, with notable exceptions (Cole Porter comes to mind). It would be decades before "songwriter" conjured by default someone equally adept at both tunes and verses--and of course that even more exotic beast, the "singer-songwriter," was practically unheard of, at least in mainstream commercial music (i.e., I'm not counting Woody Guthrie, or any number of rural blues singers). One tends to forget just how unusual John and Paul were when they came along over forty years later--and they, of course, collaborated. Quite possibly I'm overlooking somebody obvious, but the prototype of the Lone-Artist-Who-Does-It-All (and sells millions of records) seems to me to be Bob Dylan.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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Noel Coward? Jacques Brel? Harry Lauder?

There you go. I was hoping for some corrections.

 

I'd thought of both Jacques Brel and Noel Coward, actually; I know Harry Lauder only a little, so am glad to be set straight on that score. Brel I omitted, I suppose, because my focus was narrowly anglophone (actually Georges Brassens strikes me as a more significant omission along those lines). I ought to have mentioned Noel Coward, though (I'm a big Penelope Fitzgerald fan, and just recently read her novel "At Freddie's," which includes a wonderful set piece with a fictionalized Coward). Perhaps I was pigeonholing him as a writer of comical/novelty songs (grotesquely inaccurate and unfair, I know), a genre that's always been more tolerant of composer/interpreters. By the same token I ought to have mentioned Fats Waller.

 

By and large, though, commercial music, in this country at least, long involved a record company A&R man (Mitch Miller was probably the most notorious) matching singer to song. There were exceptions all along, but that was the rule. The arrangement changed in the '60s, when an expectation evolved that a first-rate performer ought to be generating his/her own material (whence the new category of "cover artist" for those who didn't). Lennon, McCartney and Dylan didn't invent the singer/songwriter, but I do think that their advent was the tipping point. That said, it's good to be reminded of the giants on whose shoulders they stood.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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G'day Bob and All,

 

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to lob in a song that's not on your list Bob but here goes. There's an Aussie WW1 song written by a Corporal Neil McBeath who served in the AIF (Aust. Infantry Force) in WW1, not sure if he was near or in the action. The song "I'm Going Back Again to Yarrawonga" was performed in a review by the troops and later published in 1919 and then recorded by Ella Shields. As the title suggests it's one of those heading home songs with Yarrawonga being a country town in southern New South Wales. For so many of those rural youth back then, trapped in poverty on the family farm, six shillings a day and a chance to travel the world was irresistible. Little did they know....

 

Here's my slightly wobbly version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLyUNv6bxPo At the time Mahonga was apparently a well known Australian race horse. There is another verse which I don't do.

 

Cheers Steve

 

PS I think I've finally got my recording balance sorted. A new mic strategically placed seems to work.

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Steve--

 

Fantastic! That really is first-rate in every way. Love the old photos (and the tragic counterpoint they provide to the cheery melody), the vocal delivery (perfect match of style to material), the accompaniment (once in a rare while I hear something that makes me think, "Hmm...was I right, in the end, to choose the Anglo?"), and of course the song itself, with exactly the sort of loopy lyrics and outrageous rhymes that hit my sweet spot. Well done indeed. Gives me something to aim for.

 

Also I must say that it's delightful to have some company in this endeavor. After all I'm just ploughing one tiny corner, over here in Yankee land, of a mighty big field. Yarrawonga's on my map now. Hope there's more to come.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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The last two songs, "America, Here's My Boy" and "When It's Orange Blossom Time in Loveland," were fairly obscure specimens of popular music from the nineteen-teens--some might say deservedly so. #13 in the series brings us back on more familiar ground, and needs no excuses. It has kept its currency in this country's culture; most people probably wouldn't quite recognize it as a song, but people of my generation and older (at least) know it as a proverb:

 

http://youtu.be/5I1ESB1Ebm8

 

The theme of The Doughboy's Lost Innocence is pretty pervasive in the songs of 1918-1920, but this is probably its most famous expression. It's easy to hear this number, too, as a prelude to the Roaring Twenties. It obligingly includes two of the three indispensable clichés in period American songs that mention France: the exclamation "ooh la la" and the imaginary verb "parlez-voo" (in the sense of "to chat up"). The puzzling omission of the third cliché, a quotation from the Marseillaise, is a deficit I found easy to supply.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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A bit off-topic, but I feel the links below could be of interest

 

The Australian War Memorial has a pair of Lachenal anglos which saw WWI service in Gallipoli and France, both of which belonged to a field ambulance sergeant and which he donated in 1924. The bellows papers were signed by soldiers with the places he was stationed.

 

The story is wonderful:

'When we went to France, I still carried the old concertina until about August 1916 when I decided to pension the old instrument off and I sent it back home. I had it autographed by the officers and men of the unit, and also marked the names of the different places where I carried [it].

'The boys of the unit were so used to the old instrument that they made a collection and gave me the money to buy a new concertina, which I had sent from London and which I carried with me and used to good purpose till I left the unit.'

 

No info given about which tunes were played on it Im afraid

 

https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RELAWM07996.001/

https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RELAWM07996.002/

 

Sean

 

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A bit off-topic, but I feel the links below could be of interest

The Australian War Memorial has a pair of Lachenal anglos which saw WWI service in Gallipoli and France, both of which belonged to a field ambulance sergeant and which he donated in 1924. The bellows papers were signed by soldiers with the places he was stationed.

 

The story is wonderful

 

Sean--

 

It is indeed a wonderful story, and it could hardly be more on-topic. I know I've seen that site and those pictures before; whether I followed a link from this forum or just stumbled on them while browsing online for concertina-related stuff, I can't remember. It's entirely possible, in fact, that they planted the seed of this entire project. At the very least they were a contributing factor. Thanks for reminding me of them!

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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With #14 we break some new ground, and meet another of my very favorite American songwriters:

 

http://youtu.be/eFm023F8I8k

 

By 1915 ragtime was old news. Tin Pan Alley was still churning out any number of songs it called "rags," often for no discernible musical reason (there's nothing remotely ragtime about "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Irving Berlin's breakout hit of 1911 and probably the most famous song associated with the style). The sounds that had seemed so exotic and transgressive to white American ears starting around 1899, when Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" introduced them to an entirely new kind of syncopation, were by now mainstream, having done irreparable and salutary damage to the color line in the country's music. And as Al Jolson would famously say on a movie screen a decade later, "you ain't heard nothin' yet."

 

The bandleader, composer, folklorist, cultural ambassador and force of nature that was W.C. Handy called this song a rag when he first published it in 1915. It went nowhere commercially. But Handy had other cards to play. He was already associated with--or, in his own self-promoting account, he had already invented--an African-American style fresher than ragtime, and that was poised to transform the soundscape of this country (and a lot of other countries) beyond recognition. He called that "The Blues."

 

He wasn't the only blues artist on the scene. He wasn't the first, either (for all Handy's self-aggrandizing claims, he was always scrupulous about giving due credit--if not royalties--to his folk sources). But beginning with his "Memphis Blues" in 1908, and proceeding to the most famous blues song of all, his "St. Louis Blues" of 1914, he took what had been a traditional, regional form and turned it into a national sensation. The time was ripe: rebranded as a "blues," his flop of 1915 sold well when it was rereleased in 1919. That's the version I sing here.

 

Handy's blues were formal, sophisticated compositions: art songs, not folk songs. A few of them (including this one) have been jazz and/or pop standards for a century, but later versions tend to abridge and simplify his originals. His songs, as he wrote them, are at once very familiar and quite odd. These aren't your father's Blues. Depending on your age, they might be your great-grandfather's Blues.

 

I doubt that any other song in this sampling will have had lyrics half as cryptic as these are. Partly this has to do with local in-jokes and argot, in which Handy delighted (there are at least a couple lines here that escape me). Partly it's a matter of this being an Answer Song: it plays off the lyrics of Shelton Brooks's "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone" (1913). The one indispensable footnote involves the title, which is an allusion to the Yazoo Delta Railroad.

 

Handy sought, and achieved, nationwide recognition; this is a commercial production, another Tin Pan Alley song, if you will. But we're a long way from Manhattan. Welcome to Memphis.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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Bob

 

I enjoyed that very much and thank you for the history lesson.

 

I never really registered W C Handy before - just a misty name back in time. By contrast with your other songs of the time, his lyrics are really modern. I shall pay more attention.

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Bob

I enjoyed that very much and thank you for the history lesson.

I never really registered W C Handy before - just a misty name back in time.

Thanks, Don; I'm glad you enjoyed it. My history lessons do tend to go on a bit, but I really like this stuff, and sometimes have a hard time containing my enthusiasm. A lot of it is new to me, too.

 

I'd had a vague sense of Handy's role in the musical ferment of that decade, but only recently have I started going back to primary sources, as they say. I've long owned the sheet music for "Yellow Dog Blues" (a lucky find in an antique store), but when I finally sat down and learned it this past year, it was from the Dover reprint of the 1949 edition of Handy's "Blues: An Anthology," which is a wonderful book altogether, and a real revelation to me.

 

I've performed it more conventionally, using guitar, but it's fun trying to translate the accompaniment to the Anglo (which is after all just a souped-up harmonica). There's a lot left to learn about doing this effectively, but there's at least one more Handy song in the pipeline.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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Entry #15, an early hit for Al Jolson in 1918, is one of the more interesting American songs of the war years.

 

http://youtu.be/WWumQJTQ7ko

 

My interest in the songs of the nineteen-teens didn't begin as a musical enthusiasm at all. Back in the mid-'90s I used to frequent a wonderful restaurant in Philadelphia (long gone, alas) called The Water Wheel. It was an old-school glatt kosher deli, and its walls were covered with framed sheet music covers, mostly from the heyday of vaudeville. I already owned a few similar pieces that had been given to me as gifts, but it was while eating sandwiches on Sansom Street that I started to develop an eye for the different styles and illustrators of the period.

 

My favorite of these commercial artists was, and is, Albert Wilfred Barbelle (1887-1957), who in addition to his prolific output for the music publishing house of Watson, Berlin and Snyder later (1930) produced the illustrations for the first Mickey Mouse book. Barbelle's covers are among the cleverest and liveliest of the period. Here's a selection (including, as it happens, one for October's TOTM, "Red Wing"):

 

http://ragpiano.com/artists/barbelle.shtml

 

The current selection's cover can be seen at:

 

http://irishsheetmusicarchives.com/Sheet-Music-Catalog/Hello-Central-Give-Me-No-Mans-Land-IF-SL-01-331.htm

 

So it was the Barbelle artwork (which now hangs framed on my wall) that led me to today's song. Only much later did I have a look at the contents, and a listen to Al Jolson's recording, as well as some others. Its structure and harmony are a bit more sophisticated (and challenging) than a typical Tin Pan Alley song from 1918; I wonder whether Jean Schwarz, the composer, wasn't something of a Puccini buff. Still more strikingly, though it's heavy on sentiment in the style of the day, this piece is far from pro-war. The relative complexity of the music does more justice than usual (I think) to the emotional situation it evokes, and the fate of the absent father is pretty deftly implied.

 

I confess I didn't much care for this one when I first heard it, but it's grown on me (and I enjoyed working it out on concertina). It almost seems to belong to a later decade of American popular music, and while you wouldn't mistake it for a classic by Gershwin or Kern (or Berlin), it points in that direction. Despite the slightly maudlin lyrics there's a refreshing maturity to it. The War was changing things at home.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

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