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New Project: Songs Of The Wwi Era.


Bob Michel
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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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'Adaptations', 'Transpositions' .....call them what you will. I have uncomfortable memories of, on mercifully rare occasions, being handed sheet music shortly before the band struck up, with the words " Here you are, this is all we can find, you will have to transpose ". Not my idea of fun !

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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

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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

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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

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  • 4 weeks later...

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

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Bob, Tap into ' Lieut Joseph Foley, machine gun corps ' and you may have the bloke to whom your three mystery songsmiths dedicated this tune. The Machine Gun Corps, founded 1915, was a forerunner of what was eventually to become our Royal Tank Regiment....... ( If I have got my facts correct ! )

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#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

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