Category Archives: Art and Design

Creation vs Destruction

Creation vs Destruction

‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’
sung by Richard José in 1905. The 1914 version by Louise Homer unfortunately can’t be embedded in WordPress.

So far, every musician I’ve talked to has been very positive about the idea of reinterpreting archived material. But I’ve received zero submissions so far (apart from this one on this blog post, which was great). To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been as dynamic and forthright about promoting this idea as I could have been. I’ve been absorbed in my studies, and of course in the other areas of this project – listening to archived music, researching the people who wrote and performed it, and recording new versions of some of the songs I’ve stumbled across so far. The idea behind this blog, musicians, is that you can make something really creative and worthwhile by digging in the archives and finding any song recorded or published in 1914 that you like enough to learn, perform, arrange and record. Maybe you just want to sing it to the camera on your computer. Or maybe you want to record a video of a choral group in a cathedral performing a song you’ve found for them (if I don’t do that first). Maybe you’ll have your own imaginative ideas. There are many music archive resources available online, and a Music Resources section on this blog. You can do it in your own style, and put your own spin on it. Then you could write something about the experience, or any historical context you found interesting, or just your thoughts on the song.

In order to demonstrate to you that this idea has potential, I’ve done two different versions of an old song. I found it on the National Jukebox website, as sung by Louise Homer in 1914. The song predates that by some time since its writer and composer, Claribel, died in 1869. ‘Claribel’ was the pseudonym of Charlotte Alington Barnard, an English poet and composer of ballads and hymns. ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’ couldn’t be a more fitting song for this project.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Traditional Arrangement)

Initially I recorded a pretty minimal piano version, quite faithful to the original, then I added an organ and some harmonies. I came back to it a week later and some subversive impulse compelled me to put a slightly discordant bluesy guitar line over the last verse. I kept remixing the song, changing my mind back and forth as to whether to keep the electric guitar. Hearing the subversive melody so often, I started to sing along with it. Eventually another subversive idea occurred to me – to re-record the song using this as the vocal melody, with minor chords and heavy distortion. I have a bit of a history with this kind of thing. I used to do a minor version of Amazing Grace with my band. And I uploaded Minor Silent Night with new lyrics to YouTube on Christmas Eve a few years back. I’ve also written new music for Shakespearean poetry, perhaps his first foray into synth-rock. Some may see this as sacrilege. But I think reinterpretation helps to keep art alive. That’s valid even if you don’t happen to like what I’ve done with it.

Of course, musical taste is a hugely subjective thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. When I deconstruct a song and put it back together in my own style, it’s as much an act of destruction as it is a creative act. The listener’s personal taste determines my guilt or innocence. Have I befouled a sacred piece of art? Or have I reinvented and reinvigorated it? There are enough opinions out there for both views to be perfectly valid. These thoughts of individual aesthetic preferences, of creation and destruction, informed my new mix of ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Creation vs Destruction Mix)

I went for heavy distortion and heavy emotion, encoded and compressed with destructive algorithms, ready for this digital realm of infinite distraction. I’ve been studying Audio Processing this term, and I’m kind of shocked to get down to the nuts and bolts of just how destructive these audio codecs are, especially the MP3. My immediate reaction to it, as evidenced by this mix, has been to process every signal with distortion and other effects, so there’s no acoustic fidelity left for the codec to destroy. Instead I tried to make the digital seem visceral, keeping it decidedly lo-fi, awash with feedback and noise – evoking the hiss and fuzz of my teenage practice rooms half a lifetime ago, which in turn tied me in to the theme of the song and its emotional core. I think my emotional response to the material is evident in my vocal performance (or what’s left of it with all that distortion).

Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp

The image I used for the cover is in the public domain and attribution details are included in a post entitled Designing Hundred Years Late. You can also click the image above to check out Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp, a wonderful website that facilitates musicians in the sharing of their work. I hope to upload many more songs in the coming months.

It’s a very different approach from the one I took to all the 1914 songs I’ve recorded so far. I had been keeping it to bass / drums / piano / vocals, with occasional organ, guitar and ukulele. This song sounds like a spaceship landed in the playlist. It’s brash, obnoxious, incongruous, subversive. And like the guitar line that spawned it, I’m still ambivalent about whether it belongs there, whether it is in fact creativity or a manifestation of a darkly destructive impulse. As I trace the map of ideas and influences back through my own thoughts, of all the things that fed into this reinterpretation, objectivity becomes impossible. I’m never entirely sure my own subversive aesthetic preferences will resonate with other people. I’ll continue to vacillate, I expect, and I’ll keep working on writing a masters thesis that gets to the bottom of these and other questions. For now, there’s these songs, this project, this open call to musicians. Like it or not, you’ve got to admit you didn’t expect this from a ballad written in the 1800s. Musicians, are you starting to see the potential here?

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Vintage Artwork – Part 2

Vintage Artwork Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts featuring some of the front cover artwork from vintage sheet music. Some of the artwork dates from the 1920s but I’ve only included songs for which I can find a period recording c. 1914. When we see the photographs and movies of a hundred years ago, black and white images were all that the technology allowed. We see them now tinged with sepia tones. The medium of print was streets ahead and the vibrant palette in this artwork shows that life was just as colourful back then. Many of the songs in this and the last vintage artwork post are available online from Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music collection. I’ve also included links to National Jukebox’s collections for many of the names of the writers and performers mentioned here.

Way Down on Tampa Bay
Lyrics by A. Seymour Brown, Music by Egbert Van Alstyne
performed by Owen J. McCormack in 1915

I couldn’t find any more details about this recording, I’d be curious to know the identity of the female vocalist. This beautiful front cover illustration evokes the imagery of the chorus.

My Melancholy Baby
Lyrics By George A. Norton, Music by Ernie Burnett
performed by Walter Van Brunt

Though the sheet music was originally published in 1912, this recording was made in 1915. The cover below is from a later reprinting in the 1920s with an autographed photo of Gene Austin. I like the blue and white rhomboid patterns on the cover, and the illustration of the woman is excellent, the merest hint of melancholy around her eyes.

The Chevy Chase Fox-Trot
by Eubie Blake

This is the same Eubie Blake who played piano in Europe’s Society Orchestra. The clarity of the sound recording is quite remarkable, considering that it was made a hundred years ago. Someone’s obviously gone to some trouble to clean it up and restore it. I found this version on The Internet Archive. Eubie Blake’s piano playing is fantastic, this highly inventive ragtime piece features some unusual stops and rhythmic quirks. It’s well worth checking out the sheet music over on Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music collection, for those inclined.

Camp Meeting Band
Lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert, Music by Lewis F. Muir
performed by Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan

Collins and Harlan were popular singers, known mainly for their humorous songs. This song features a spoken word sketch halfway through. This artwork probably dates from later than this recording, as you can tell from the inset photograph of Eddie Cantor whose career hadn’t begun yet when this recording was made in 1914. I didn’t think I knew who Eddie Cantor was, but it turns out I’ve seen a fictitious portrayal of him as a recurring character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. This song fits neatly into that impression of him, the sing-song comic delivery, the jaunty style of the humorous song. I suspect Collins and Harlan were his all-time heroes, so it’s no surprise he later covered this song. The use of the term ‘darkies’ should make modern audiences squirm a little… Yes, true, the preacher speaks grand. Hear what he has to say, then hear them darkies play. It’s a term that now sounds antiquated and a bit wrong. But at least they’re saying that they’re ‘the best band in the land’. It’s actually quite shocking the amount of casual racism I’ve stumbled across in the archives. When I’m browsing on National Jukebox and I see ‘Ethnic characterizations’ in the description, alarm bells go off.

Saint Louis Blues
by W.C. Handy

The typography on this cover is excellent. W.C. Handy also featured in my last post about vintage artwork. He was one of the first well-known proponents of the blues, a highly influential figure. One of these days I’ll get around to writing a proper post about him. In the meantime, enjoy the Saint Louis Blues.

You Made Me Love You, I Didn’t Want to Do it
Lyrics by Joe McCarthy, Music by James V. Monaco
performed by Al Jolson

My personal favourite from today’s selection of artwork features an illustration of a woman with tears running down her reddened cheeks. I don’t know why, but I find the title kind of funny as well. Al Jolson’s vocals are amazing.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Vintage Artwork Part 1.

Designing Hundred Years Late

This project has allowed me to develop my skills in a number of areas. The project involved a lot of research, critical listening, sound engineering, musicianship, video production and writing. But today I want to talk about design. There are plenty of blogs that discuss style and design, but these are key elements of every blog and website. Every blogger is a web designer, like it or not. And we should take care with our efforts, knowing it may form the basis of an opinion about us (good or bad) before anyone even reads or engages with our ‘content’. Here I’m going to outline my approach to designing this project.

Font fetishism. It’s a thing. You may even be prone to it yourself. Given the vintage nature of the material being discussed on this blog, I browsed through hundreds of retro fonts before finding Pyriform Tones NF and Little Lord Fontleroy (of which Fontleroy Brown is the plain variation). These fonts were designed by Nick Curtis. Surely everyone can relate to my experience, seeing Hundred Years Late (or whatever’s in your bag) in all those different fonts, finally settling on the one that seemed to set the right tone, inexplicably looking proportionally perfect when all the others somehow didn’t. I put some thought and care into finding two fonts that didn’t just look good but complemented each other and looked good together. A slapdash ill-conceived logo can completely alienate the font fetishists, they’re a particularly discerning demographic (and I’m one of them).

These little inset boxes with supplemental information are a key design and layout feature of this blog. In HTML, they’re called DIVs. Since the Twitter Feed widget came in ‘light’ or ‘dark’, I decided to use the ‘dark’ colour as the background colour for my DIVs, it’s nice when things match. I also noticed the widget’s rounded corners, a neatly elegant and subtle little feature that I also decided to imitate. My enthusiasm for the ‘border-radius’ property of the ‘style’ attribute saw me going back and retro-coding it into DIVs and images in all my previous posts. It’s such an appropriate little idiosyncrasy to appear as a design feature in this blog, suggesting the softened edges of history following years of erosion.

Then there were the colours to consider. Again, a retro feel seemed so appropriate as to be inevitable, muted sepia tones were the natural choice. This WordPress theme, Coraline, only has a few colour schemes which made the choice extremely easy – this shade of brown, take it or leave it. Actually I quite like it. I decided to carry on the same colours in the graphics on the header and for the title of each blog post, camouflaging them in the theme’s colours. The colours used on the Twitter page and the Bandcamp page can afford to be a bit more exciting and extravagant, a bit more high-contrast retro. The muted colours on the blog are intentionally easy on the eye, such that if anyone were to sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting, their rods and cones wouldn’t be completely fried. Each post was given a title graphic, mostly to break up the blog entries in a more visual way when they all load on the main page, but it has the added bonus of reinforcing the visual character of the project, and revealing more letters in that charming font face – I don’t believe you’ve seen an ‘x’ yet, it’s quite lovely, I hope I will have cause to use it soon. In the meantime, you can admire how the ampersand looks like a treble clef. What could be more perfect for Hundred Years Late? Thanks, Nick.

When it came to designing individual pieces of album artwork for the songs I’ve recorded and uploaded on Bandcamp so far, I decided to break out of the ‘retro’ mould and explore another theme of this project – reinterpretation, reappropriation, remixing, mashing-up, public domain, open source, free-culture. I wanted a splash of colour and so I visited Wikimedia Commons to reappropriate and remix some of its crowdsourced resources, one of the world’s greatest gifts to itself.

Being happy with the fonts I’d chosen, I was confident that the thematic unity they lend would tie all the artwork together, no matter how disparate the images used. This set the scene for a kind of visual free association, using literal (and abstract) search terms and browsing to find public domain images that would satisfactorily represent each song. The Monotone, to complement the song, prompted quite a faded, desaturated, sepia edit of a picture of a church bell. I Want to Be Like Jesus features a Crucifixion statue photographed from below against a bright blue sky, bringing some colour to these pages and heralding this blog’s vibrant mission to rediscover, remix, re-edit, and reinterpret our history and shared culture across multiple media and, crucially, to encourage others to do so as well. I’ll leave you with a few other images. They contain spoilers – titles of songs I’ve yet to record! See if you can find them in the archives…

Click on any of the images in this post to view the original image and attribution on Wikimedia Commons. Thanks again to Nick Curtis for producing such wonderful fonts.

Vintage Artwork – Part 1

Vintage Artwork Part 1

This will be the first in a series of posts where I’ll be displaying some of the wonderful front cover artwork from the published sheet music of a hundred years ago (most of these songs were published or recorded in 1914). It’s been a real pleasure going through these images. The typography and illustrations of this era are beautiful and fascinating. So far I’ve only selected artwork for which I can also include a period recording. I hope you enjoy it.

The Yellow Dog Rag
by W.C. Handy

The cover is vibrant red, there’s yellow in the title, and the song is written by W.C. Handy, a man often credited with popularising the blues. Now there’s a colourful story.

The Rose of the Mountain Trail
performed by The Peerless Quartet

This version is sung by Peerless Quartet. The lovely illustration sets the tone for the song.

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

O! The cruel vagaries of love! Such a wonderfully melodramatic song. The wide-brimmed hat of the cold-hearted woman on the cover seems to say… Don’t get too close.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
performed by Albert H. Campbell and Irving Gillette

Though this version is sung by Albert H. Campbell and Henry Burr (credited here as Irving Gillette), the beautifully illustrated sheet music artwork features a photographic inset of popular singing duo The Manson Twins.

In the Palace of Dreams
performed by Helen Clark and Emory B. Randolph

The front cover artwork features singer and actress Reine Davies.