The Very First Hundred Years Late Radio Feature

That’s not just a picture, it’s an embedded player from Bandcamp, so you can listen right now…

I read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and The Brain by Oliver Sacks when it came out in 2007. This book outlined through a number of case studies the effects that music has on the brain and how these effects can be harnessed to provide effective therapeutic treatment for people suffering from a range of neurological conditions, from Tourette’s Syndrome to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s a fascinating subject, one I touched upon in previous entries, and I highly recommend the book (and anything by Oliver Sacks generally).

I was approached by the organisers of a crowdfunded indiegogo project called ‘Music for Memories’, whose objective is to bring mp3 players and access to music to sufferers of Alzheimers and dementia in several retirement homes. When I heard about it, I wanted to help, and they suggested I record a podcast for inclusion in their program. I always find it very interesting to go through all the different versions of a song down through the years, and I had already conducted a lot of research for my 1914 album and found some interesting vintage recordings that I could include. I would love to do a more thorough feature on each song, but I am limited to using recordings that are in the public domain.

I had been preparing to write a blog post about ‘Old Folks At Home’, so I made it a podcast instead. This being Hundred Years Late, I’ve called it a ‘Radio Feature’ instead of a podcast. Thanks to the people behind Music For Memories for asking me to make this. I quite enjoyed it, so I might make some more podcasts if people like listening to this one. Below are links to where I found the recordings used in the podcast.

Felix Arndt – Old Folks At Home (1914) downloaded from home2b.nl.
The Manhansett Quartet (c. 1895) from The Internet Archive
George J. Gaskin (1899) from The Internet Archive
Henry Burr (1910) from The Internet Archive
Alma Gluck & Efrem Zimbalist (1914) from The Internet Archive
Stanton High School (1955) from Florida Memory
Hundred Years Late (2014) from the album Some Popular Songs from 1914 Arranged for Modern Sensibilities & Recorded Using Modern Methods

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You Broke My Heart To Pass The Time Away

For this blog entry, I decided to try something a little different. I absolutely love this song, and I’m very proud of the recording that I made with James Eliot Taylor. Rather than just write about the song and include embedded audio, I added the text to a video and made an informational video blog entry to complement the song. Beneath the video are some links to further information about the people who performed it a hundred years ago, with embedded audio of the Manuel Romain version from 1914. Enjoy!

You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away
performed by Manuel Romain in 1914

It was difficult to find details of Manuel Romain’s life. But the description on this YouTube video provides quite an in-depth biography. The video features audio of Manuel Romain singing ‘Curse Of An Aching Heart’. Henry Burr, who also sang ‘You Broke My Heart To Pass The Time Away’ in 1914, was the subject of another blog post.

Many thanks again to Paul Moore for his violin playing, Tom Edwards for his saxophony, and James Eliot Taylor for singing the song, playing the drums, and having me round to record most of it in his house. Good times.

I did sneak some advertising into the video… maybe you didn’t notice. You can stream the Hundred Years Late album at hundredyearslate.bandcamp.com.

The Press Release

Hundred Years Late
Presenting
SOME POPULAR SONGS from 1914
Arranged for Modern Sensibilities
& Recorded Using Modern Methods

Album out DECEMBER 15th on Bandcamp
The Slumber Boat video now on YouTube.

This unique album features twelve modern reinterpretations of songs which were written, published, recorded, or released in 1914.

Musician and songwriter David Nelligan began this ‘music archive revival project’ Hundred Years Late last year as part of his masters research, and has been encouraging modern musicians to delve into the archives and put their own spin on the songs they discover there. The idea is to celebrate the musicians and songwriters of the past, and encourage modern musicians and songwriters to engage with archival resources and participate in a kind of inter-generational cultural cross-pollination. Throughout the year, David has been curating his own favourite songs from the archives and enlisting some of his favourite musicians to help him record them, while writing a blog highlighting some wonderful songs from 1914 and the stories of the people behind them.

The somewhat formal style of the time, the lack of a modern rhythm section, and the scratchiness and general poor sound quality of these old recordings can make songs from this era inaccessible to modern listeners. But when performed and interpreted by modern musicians, the songs seem suddenly vibrant and relevant again. There’s a tenderness, a naïveté, a melodramatic sincerity about the lyrics that seems so fresh and free of cynicism. Musically, there’s a wide variety of styles covered. Some songs are playful and jazzy, others melancholic and avant-garde. Then there’s blues, gospel, rock and pop, but not as we know them. They don’t write them like this anymore.

You are cordially invited to come and listen to this strange and nostalgic album of cover versions.

The album will be available on Bandcamp on Monday December 15th.

To whet your appetite, Hundred Years Late have produced a charming animated video for lullaby The Slumber Boat. It is sung by guest vocalist Lynda Cullen, a Cork-based singer-songwriter whose album Paper Boat was released earlier this year to critical acclaim. The sleeping baby illustrations used in the video are in the public domain, taken from a magazine published in 1914.

The general health and well-being of the public domain is one of the issues that inspired this project. If culture can be locked up in copyright restrictions for 95 years, then remix artists across all genres and media are limited to using vintage material. Rather than complain about what can’t be done, this project aims to demonstrate what can be done with the public domain. All the artwork used for the project is in the public domain, or licensed for reuse under Creative Commons. The songs covered here are of course in the public domain, and the Hundred Years Late recordings of them are also licensed under Creative Commons. Here is the track listing, with links to archive recordings…

1) When You’re A Long Long Way From Home
2) Where My Caravan Has Rested
3) You Broke My Heart To Pass The Time Away
4) The Monotone (Ein Ton)
5) I Want To Be Like Jesus
6) Oft In The Stilly Night
7) If I Were The Ocean And You Were The Shore
8) The Slumber Boat
9) Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, Caroline?
10) Old Folks At Home
11) Crossing The Bar
12) I Cannot Sing The Old Songs

SOME POPULAR SONGS FROM 1914 marks a surprising change of creative direction for David Nelligan. His band, The David Nelligan Thing, released alt-pop-folk-rock album ‘Dark Matters’ in April last year to some acclaim, followed in August by the stylistically divergent electro-synth-pop E.P. ‘Who Is Synthia?’ which notably put Shakespeare’s poetry to music. His academic pursuits necessitated a brief hiatus from the band, during which time this Hundred Years Late album came about. If you would like to know more, visit hundredyearslate.com

Come Back to Erin

I was thrilled to receive another musical submission this week. Paul O’Regan, making music under the name RavenConspiracy, has remixed and reinterpreted a song called ‘Come Back to Erin’, using samples from a hundred year old recording. I asked Paul to write something about what he’s done, so here’s Paul explaining it in his own words.

I chose this song because it I wanted to work with something that connects to Ireland. Although written before 1914, the lyrics of the song could easily be transmuted to a wife or partner waiting at home for a husband or loved one who had joined the British Army in WWI. This version of the song was recorded around 1914 so I thought it would fit in nicely with the centenary of WWI.

Not being a musician in the traditional sense and with no singing voice to speak of I embarked on creating an electronic track using this original recording as a core component. To that end, many of the sounds in my track are sampled from the original. These samples were then sliced, edited and effects added to form various hits, melodies and vocal pieces within the track. After the arrangement was down, I then set about adding automation to effects such as filters, delays, distortion etc. I used a combination of automation envelopes and real-time automation recoding (such as the filter sweeps in the bassline).

The interesting thing about the song ‘Come Back to Erin Mavourneen’ is that it was written by an English balladeer Charlotte Alington Pye Barnard around 1868. The song became synonymous with Ireland for obvious reasons but like ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’ it was not written by an Irish person.

Well done to Paul. It’s great to hear something so unexpected, such radical and imaginative reinterpretation of the source material. I’ve found a nice version of the original sound recording Paul used, and it doesn’t immediately make you think of EDM. I’m really pleased that the enthusiasm for this project is crossing traditional boundaries and mixing disparate genres. If you like what you hear on this track, I recommend you check out RavenConspiracy on Soundcloud.

As Paul said, the song was written by Charlotte Alington Pye Barnard in the 1860s. This English composer, poet and balladeer – who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Claribel’ – also wrote I Cannot Sing The Old Songs, which I covered myself for this project a few months ago.

This version of ‘Come Back to Erin’ on YouTube features an original Edison Blue Amberol cylinder being played on a working cylinder player. Here it was sung by Orville Harrold. A short film made in 1914 by Sidney Olcott also used the name ‘Come Back to Erin’. Olcott was a Canadian-born filmmaker of Irish descent who made several movies in Ireland in the 1910s. According to his Wikipedia page, only the outbreak of World War I prevented him from building a permanent studio in Beaufort, County Kerry. You can watch the entire film on YouTube.

Many thanks to Paul O’Regan again, for a wonderfully different interpretation of a beautiful old song.

Album Progress Report

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been working on recording an album of songs for this project. In the last month I finalised the track listing, did more work on final arrangements and mixes, and invited some guest musicians to perform on these recordings. I’ve been giving it a lot of time and attention. But with a dissertation to write as well, I fear I won’t have much more time to devote to the album in order to finish it before the end of September, let alone release it.

I released an album of original songs last year, and without doubt the hardest part for me was not performing, arranging, or recording the songs. The hardest part was what you would call ‘post-production’. Mastering is a highly technical process. A mastering engineer is equal parts scientist and artist. They play with the frequency spectrum of the final song mix, finessing the sound to achieve the best possible results for that final mix on all kinds of speakers. It’s also the part of the audio production chain where consistency between different songs is achieved to make a coherent overall sound for an album, with careful and skilled use of compression, limiters, and all kinds of other technical tools, sound levels can appear consistent throughout an album even when vastly different instrumentation is used on different songs. That’s quite a technical feat. And this is where I see myself spending most time to finish this album. Since I can’t afford to get anything mastered professionally, I’m going to have to do it myself, mostly by trial-and-error.

That’s what I did last year when I released ‘Dark Matters’. I spent weeks mixing, remixing, mastering, remixing, back and forth between different songs on different programs. The final results were good, I think. But not as good as a professional (with professional equipment and professional experience) could have done in a fraction of the time. It was a compromise. But without making this compromise, I couldn’t have released an album at all.

Then I had to promote the album. I spent a couple of months trying to find every music blog I could that features independent music. Then I emailed them all, a few hundred of them anyway. A group email is a big no-no. You have to personalise the emails, write enough at least so they know that you know who you’re talking to and you’ve read their blog. You’ve got to write hundreds of these personalised emails. Having researched other people’s release strategies, I decided to make a few music videos and release one a week in the weeks preceding the album launch. This would give music reviewers a few chances to hear my music before the album launch, without annoying them by sending the same press release over and over – I was giving them something new each time. Over a month I sent over 1500 emails, all personalised. I also had to make five music videos. As I was pretty new to video production, this was insanely ambitious. Being insanely ambitious has kind of become my hallmark. So as I was finishing recording the album, I divided my time between researching music blogs, making music videos, finalising the mixes, experimenting with mastering, designing the artwork, writing emails and press releases, and rehearsing with my live band to learn all the new songs. I set a release date in April. Between January and April I worked sixteen-hour days (a conservative estimate).

If you pick up any album that’s been successfully commercially released, there’s a list of credits as long as your arm. Musicians, producers, promoters, management, record companies. I tried to be all those things. And this is the part that people don’t understand. I didn’t envision massive commercial success myself, not for this first release. My reward was not to be monetary. I had made something I was proud of. By taking on the impossible challenge of single-handedly marketing it, I was further investing in myself. This time was spent turning me into the kind of person I want to be. As the years before my first release were spent learning all I could about songwriting and music and audio production, this was my first step in learning how to market my skills, and picking up other skills too. Failure does not faze me because I’ve been extraordinarily productive. I have a definite artistic sensibility (frequently characterised by taking on seemingly-impossible challenges). I have ‘creative confidence’. I have faith in my own creative abilities. I’ve worked extremely hard to hone my skills, and been fearless to experiment and try things out. My first album was a modest critical success (i.e. some people really liked it). In commercial terms, it was a dismal failure (as most music released these days is). But I see myself as an artist creating a body of work. As I was releasing the album, I was already writing songs for the next release. My first album had songs in very different styles, but was mostly guitar-based with arrangements for a live band. My next release was very different. It was an E.P. of synth-and-beat based songs (including an electro-pop version of ‘Who Is Silvia?’ by William Shakespeare).

Having immersed myself in the music blogosphere last year with these two very different releases, I came to some generalised conclusions about modern music. Firstly, most people seem to listen to ‘production’ first. Production is important, no doubt. I’ve spent a lot of time on it. But it does not, and should not ever, trump melody. I believe I have a melodic sensibility, though I’m not sure it can be defined or analysed easily. I’ve written hundreds of songs, and possibly tens of thousands of melodic lines. I’ve obsessively listened to a wide variety of music for at least the last twenty years. And melody is always the deciding factor for me, melody is the soul of the music. Rhythm is the life and melody is the soul. I often deconstruct music into its constituent parts as I’m listening to it. When a music reviewer raves about a certain song, I listen to it and I think… yes, I can see why they like this. The production is really good. The arrangement is inventive and unusual. But if the melody is boring and derivative, I can’t enjoy the music. Melody and lyrics are important to me. They’re what I love the most. And they’re the most undervalued things in modern music.

This was partially why I wanted to record an album of songs ‘rescued’ from the archives. If these songs still resonate with me, a modern musician, a hundred years after their release – I think there must be something universal about their appeal, something ‘timeless’ in the lyrics and melodies. The sentimental, melodramatic lyrics are a million miles away from the cynically calculated lyrical content of many of our most commercially successful modern songwriters. I found a charming naïveté there, I sensed sincerity in the writing and the performances. Recording modern versions of these songs was a huge learning experience for me in a musical sense as well. Making piano my main instrument for the album was ambitious, I’ve never received any formal instruction in piano playing. Then again, I’ve never received any formal musical education of any kind, I taught myself to play guitar in my teens and piano in my late twenties. This has been, and will continue to be, a labour of love. I’ll release it before the end of the year. But I think I’ll have to wait until after my dissertation, so it will be October before I start to formulate a release strategy and work on the mastering. I want to do these songs, and all my collaborators, justice.

While it may be a mad folly of mine to put all this work into recording an album of vintage songs, I regret nothing. I’ve learned so much. And I’m still learning. I’d love to be able to release a ‘sister’ album to my own, an album of contributions from anyone who has seen this project and decided to participate. So far, I haven’t had enough contributions to consider doing this. But the ones I’ve had have been fantastic and have only made me hungry for more. If you’re a musician, dig into the archives, find a song you like, and record it. I’ve complicated things for myself by recording twelve songs and having guest performers, but any modern musician could take up the challenge and give this a try. If you do, I guarantee you’ll learn something.

For Bloomsday

It’s June 16th, the day when literary appreciators all over the world remember the work of James Joyce. Today is Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses. The events in the novel unfold on June 16th 1904, Joyce having apparently picked that day as it was when he had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, a walk in Ringsend.

A hundred years ago today, on June 16th 1914, four years before the initial publication of Ulysses in serialised form, Christine Miller recorded a song called ‘Oft In The Stilly Night’ in Camden, New Jersey. The words were written by Thomas Moore (who died in 1852). Joyce himself was familiar with this song, referencing it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a song sung by Stephen’s family on the eve of his departure. The lyrics evoke old memories and departed friends, and deeply affected Stephen as he prepared to emigrate in order to fulfil his artistic ambitions. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wasn’t published until 1916, so Joyce could well have heard Christine Miller’s 1914 version of the song before he wrote that passage. His love of music was well-known and Joyce was by all accounts a very good tenor singer. He won a bronze medal in Ireland’s Feis Ceoil on May 16th, 1904, exactly one month before his first date with Nora. Joyce was encouraged to enter the competition by his friend, and winner of the previous year’s Feis Ceoil, John McCormack. Joyce and McCormack even used to practise singing together. There’s a good chance they sang Oft in the Stilly Night together in 1904.

John McCormack was Ireland’s most famous singer in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1903 he won Ireland’s Feis Ceoil. By 1914 he had toured much of Europe and America, made many records and was an international singing star. Here’s a recording of John McCormack in 1914 singing ‘A Little Love, A Little Kiss’.


John McCormack, 1914

McCormack recorded a version of ‘Oft In The Stilly Night’ in 1907. I haven’t found a version of this recording to share with you, but he recorded it again in 1940. As a much older man, perhaps he understood the wistful lyrics a little better. When he recorded this in 1940, he wasn’t to know that his friend James Joyce would be dead within a year. Perhaps Joyce heard it before he died, it is noted in his biographies that he paid careful attention to the career of his old friend and singing companion.

The final version of the song I wish to share is my own. I found it to be a very touching song, universal and timeless in its appeal. Wistful and nostalgic as it is, there’s something very sweet about the lyrics. They’re as relevant today as when Thomas Moore wrote them over 160 years ago. I arranged it quite simply, voice and finger-picked guitar for the first half with bass, kick-drum, electric guitar and a vocal harmony joining in for the second half, a piano chiming in near the end. For the artwork, I’ve composited a photo of Joyce and McCormack together, as it was these two men who inspired my Bloomsday cover of the song, and of course, Christine Miller who sang this song a hundred years ago today. On that day she also recorded ‘The Slumber Boat‘, which I also covered. With all these coincidences arising from this day and this song, I wish you all a Happy Bloomsday.

Play a Simple Melody

Irving Berlin wrote the words and music for the 1914 musical ‘Watch Your Step’, which included the song ‘Play a Simple Melody’. The musical was a ragtime revue starring the popular dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, who you may remember from my post on unsung jazz pioneer James Reese Europe. Relatively few songs have the cultural importance to merit their own Wikipedia page, this song’s got one. It notes that the song was one of the few true examples of counterpoint in American popular music – a melody running against a second melody, both with independent lyrics. The parts are musically independent and very cleverly also lyrically contradictory. The lyrics of the first melodic line yearn for a simple melody “like my mother sang to me”, melody in the old simple style of bygone years. The second melody line calls for music in the more exciting modern ragtime style.

Polo Moro recorded this wonderful version of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ for Hundred Years Late. I absolutely love the fiddle on it. And the good old-fashioned harmony. Really excellent work by Polo Moro. He had this to say…

A duet by Bing and Gary Crosby (listed on the label as “Gary Crosby and Friend”) was a hit recording in 1950. This was the main inspiration for my re-recording. Procuring a ragtime band, traditionally clarinet, trumpet, trombone and banjo was not feasible, so I have subbed in violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and what is known as a banjuitar, a banjo head strung with 6 strings in guitar tuning.

Its worth noting too that these music hall compositions were a strong influence on Paul MacCartney in his formative songwriting years, echoes of ‘Simple Melody’ can be heard in ‘Octopus’s Garden’ from the Abbey Road album, with very similar chord progressions.

 

You can hear more from Polo Moro on reverbation. Here’s that version by Gary Crosby and Friend… Gary Crosby’s vocal stylings seem to be making Bing laugh. I like when Bing says “Steady, steady!” It’s quite funny. He then adds, “Don’t lose your head.”

I also found this fun version of the song from The Muppet Show, Jean Stapleton singing a duet of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ with Fozzie Bear. Jean Stapleton was a popular American actress of stage, television and film (I knew her from her guest appearances in 1990s sitcoms). She died last year, aged 90. Fozzie Bear is still alive and well.

-Singer 1-
Won’t you play a simple melody

Like my mother sang to me?

One with good old-fashioned harmony.

Play some simple melody.

-Singer 2-

Musical demons set my honey a-dreaming.

Won’t you play me some rag?

Just change that classical nag

To some sweet musical drag.

When you play from a copy of a tune that is choppy

You’ll get all my applause, simply because.

I wanna listen to rag.

 

All these modern versions left out the opening verse section which is included on the 1916 recording by Elsie Baker (credited as Edna Brown) and Billy Murray (linked in the image below, the one disguised as an embedded player). Maybe the verse section was left out in later versions because of the use of the word ‘darkies’. Or maybe it just wasn’t as catchy. Casual racism in the archives, I’m getting déjà vu.

This image represents the earliest recording of the song I could find. Click to listen to it on US National Library of Congress website, National Jukebox.