Category Archives: Digital Humanities

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

Castle House Rag

Castle House Rag

‘Castle House Rag’
by Europe’s Society Orchestra.
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Victor Record Label

The title ‘Castle House Rag’ seems to be used more often for this composition, though Victor released this as ‘The Castles in Europe One-Step’. Notice how it says on the label ‘Recorded under the personal supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle’.
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Europe with his military band

Lieutenant “Jim” Europe
with members of his military band c. 1918.

Sometimes a narrative reveals itself to you when you’re digging around in the archives. It’s a fascinating way to come upon a story. Since songs are the focus of this blog, it always starts with a song. This song sets the scene as the story behind it unfolds. We find ourselves in a room in New York in February 1914 with James Reese Europe and his orchestra, Europe’s Society Orchestra. Presumably there’s a phonograph operator or technician to oversee the recording. There’s also an Englishman, Vernon Castle, and his wife, New Yorker Irene Castle, a couple famed for invigorating the popularity of modern dancing in the 1910s.

James Reese Europe was a leading figure in the New York black theatre music scene. He played piano in many bands and composed music and songs for many theatrical productions. In 1910 he founded the Clef Club, which established its own orchestra and chorus but also served as a union and contracting agency for black musicians, with as many as 200 men on its roster. He was known as a tireless innovator for his composition and orchestration, but also for his natural leadership and organisational ability. His music borrowed from and built upon African-American folk music, incorporating elements of ragtime and other contemporary styles – his name is often mentioned when people discuss the beginnings of jazz. He firmly believed that black musicians did not need to play or imitate white music, though they respected any music of quality. Instead they had their own musical tradition and their own musical style which people of all races would want to hear. His orchestra, sometimes as large as 125 musicians, included banjos and mandolins and presented music exclusively by black composers. In May 1912 The Clef Club Orchestra performed a ‘Concert of Negro Music’ in Carnegie Hall. It was a resounding success. The Clef Club was instrumental in changing attitudes towards black musicians, negotiating better salaries and working conditions for its members. The Clef Club Orchestra played in Carnegie Hall again in 1913 and 1914. As their reputation grew, it became quite enviable for New York’s high society to boast a genuine Clef Club orchestra at a social event.

Click to view a larger version of this image in another tab

This breaking down of racial barriers was expedited when Europe met Vernon and Irene Castle at such a social event in 1913. Famous and sought-after dancers, popularisers of modern dance, the Castles were excited and intrigued by the syncopated rhythms and unique sound of the group’s instrumentation. They made Europe their musical director and insisted on using Clef Club musicians in all their engagements, even in those venues which were not welcoming to black people. Their visibility and popularity made Jim Europe and his music very famous across all strata of society, this was a great catalyst in further changing attitudes towards black musicians. When Europe’s Society Orchestra entered the studios of Victor Talking Machine Company on December 29, 1913, it was the first ever recording of a black orchestra.

Europe’s association with the Castles continued until Vernon Castle joined England’s war effort as an airman with the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. While serving in Europe, he completed 300 combat missions. Flying over the Western Front in 1917, he shot down two aircraft and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was posted to the U.S. to train American pilots and died near Fort Worth, Texas on February 15, 1918, aged 30, in an aviation accident.

Some modern cover versions
of ‘Castle House Rag’…

MIDI version – YouTube user johnvuc
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Western Piedmont Symphony, July 2012
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performed by The Crown Syncopators

In late 1916, Europe joined the newly formed 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Commissioned a machine gun regiment lieutenant, he was soon asked to join the regimental band. He became bandleader, recruiting musicians and shaping their sound. The band became the 369th New York Regimental Band, the “Harlem Hellfighters”. According to The Parlor Songs Academy: On New Year’s Day 1918, Europe stepped off a troop ship onto French soil at the port city of Brest, where, in the midst of cheering crowds, he led the band in the playing of the French national anthem, “The Marseilles”, although at first those gathered on the dock did not recognize the tune due to Europe’s unique arrangement. The band was received so enthusiastically that officials sent it on a tour of France, entertaining troops and citizens.

There followed a series of concerts with the greatest marching bands of France, Britain and Italy. Performances were often staged in hospitals to boost morale among wounded soldiers. After this tour, James Europe himself saw combat assigned to the French Army’s 16th Division in the Argonne Forest. This is related in Noble Sissle’s Memoirs of Lieutenant “Jim” Europe, in a passage from a letter contributed by Colonel William Hayward, Jim Europe’s commanding officer: A statement of Lieutenant Europe’s service would not be complete if confined to the work he did as the organizer and leader of this famous band. For many months he occupied the dual position of leader of the band, and officer of a machine gun company. When the regiment went into action in March, 1918, Lieutenant Europe was an officer of the machine gun company of the battalion which first went into the trenches, and as such was beyond all doubt the first Negro officer under fire in this great war.

Harlem Hellfighters in action. This image displays the action at Séchault, France on September 29, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Image from Wikipedia

On February 12th, 1919, the 15th Infantry returned to New York. They were honoured with a parade on February 17th, greeted by thousands of people, black and white, as they marched through the city. The band’s music could scarcely be heard above the roar of the crowd as they marched up Fifth Avenue. After this, Jim Europe set about booking a triumphant homecoming tour for the 369th New York Regimental Band. It was on this tour that Jim Europe met his untimely end, having survived the First World War unscathed.

New York Tribune, Front Page,
May 10, 1919.
Click to view on Chronicling America
(National Library of Congress Newspaper Archive)

Extract from Chapter 1 of
Noble Lee Sissle’s
Memoirs of Lieutenant “Jim” Europe

“Lieutenant Europe – we have little hopes for your recovering, our only possible means of saving your life is by an operation. If you have anything to say you must say it now.”

“I’ve nothing to say – I’ll get along all right,” very feebly answered the band master as he lay on the operating table in the emergency room of the Boston City Hospital, where he had been rushed after being stabbed in the neck, by his protégé drummer boy. During the Intermission of the opening concert of a three day engagement which was to mark the end of a triumphant ten weeks trans-continental tour. Just then the door of the operating room softly opened and Herbert Wright, handcuffed to a plain clothes man, was ushered into the room.

“Lieutenant Europe, is this the boy that stabbed you?” quietly asked the officer in charge of the assassin;

“Yes; that is Herbert, but don’t lock him up; for he’s a good boy – just got a little excited tonight.”

“But, Lieutenant Europe;” urged the chief surgeon, “you are in a serious condition and we’ve little hopes of saving you. If you have anything to say, you must say it now, We have hardly any hopes of your recovery. How do you feel about it?”

“I have nothing to say, I’ll get along all right. Herbert didn’t mean to do it – just hot-headed – go ahead and operate – I’ll get well.”

The doctors speedily administered the ether to their fastly weakening patient, for the operation, the operation from which Lieutenant Jim Europe never regained consciousness.

James Reese Europe died on May 9, 1919. New York City honoured him with a public funeral, another first for a black American, and he was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He left behind a wife, Willie Angrom Starke, and a son (named James Reese Europe Jr) through a relationship with entertainer Bessie Simms. Eubie Blake, African-American composer, lyricist and pianist with Europe’s Society Orchestra later said of him, “He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music.”

According to James Reese Europe’s biography on Jass.com,
James Reese Europe unknowingly influenced a future songwriting great: In 1905, when he was seven years old, George Gershwin sat on the curb outside Baron Wilkin’s nightclub in Harlem for hours listening to Europe play.

Hellfighter Noble Sissle, who worked closely with Europe and with Blake after Europe’s death wrote Memoirs of Lieutenant “Jim” Europe, which can be viewed on American Memory by the U.S. National Library of Congress. This work has been invaluable to me, helping me understand the times Jim Europe lived through and appreciate the extraordinary character of the man. It’s only available on American Memory as TIFF files. I’d like to digitize it and release it for free on Project Gutenberg, make it more widely available and accessible. So far my inquiries as to the copyright status have yielded no concrete answers. Sissle died in 1975, but the typed manuscript has been in the possession of the National Library of Congress since 1942. This unpublished manuscript may well date from as far back as 1920. If anyone has any further information or knows the copyright status, please get in touch.

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.

Canadian Music Archive Resource – The Virtual Gramophone

Press play.

Are we rolling?

Harry McDonough and Raymond Dixon perform in an a cappella recording of ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. The credited composer is Thomas Morley (1557-1602).

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Elsie Baker singing ‘One Sweetly Solemn Thought’.

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Paul Dufault performing ‘When Twilight Comes’ by Anton Strelezki.

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Albert P. Quesnel sings this French-language Easter song, ‘Hosanna’. Music composed by Jules Granier. Poem by Julien Eugéne H. Didiée.

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This recording features The BlackFeet Tribe, the same Navajo Indians recorded by Geoffrey O’Hara as discussed in previous post ‘Navajo Indian Songs’. This is their ‘Gambler’s Song’, performed by Medicine Bull, Sleeps Long Time, and Big Top.

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The song at the top of the entry is ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ performed by Knickerbocker Quartet and New York Military Band. All the songs featured here were recorded or released in 1914.

Columbia Mixed Quartet will play us out with ‘O, Canada’.

I visited Canada a few years ago. It was late 2008 and it was beautiful. There were red maple leaves everywhere. And I saw a squirrel. Earlier this year I visited Canada again, this time it was in 1914. While researching Canadian tenor Henry Burr, I discovered a wonderful resource of Canadian recordings online. The Virtual Gramophone project was discontinued in 2006, with only sporadic updates since then. There’s a lot of good stuff there, and plenty of material from 1914. It’s a pity it’s not still being added to regularly, the recordings available on The Virtual Gramophone represent only a portion of the 78-rpm and cylinders collection held by Library and Archives Canada. There’s good music in collections all over the world, music that’s being preserved but not enjoyed. I hope some discussion around archives might revive projects like The Virtual Gramophone. Musicians can cover some of these Canadian gems from 1914 to show that the archives are still relevant, a hundred years later. I’ve enjoyed lending my ear to these voices from history, and I’ve picked out some highlights. If listening to these songs isn’t enough for you, there’s loads more that you can discover for yourself.

On The Virtual Gramophone there are biographies of prominent Canadian performers of the time, chronologies of sound recording technologies and the sound recording industry, and collections such as ‘Songs of The First World War‘. According to the ‘About’ page on the site… In choosing the titles for digitization, only those recordings having Canadian content, such as a performer, composer or lyricist were digitized. Recordings where the music and lyrics are still under copyright in Canada or for which the copyright status could not be determined are not available on The Virtual Gramophone. In other words, it’s all in the public domain just waiting to be enjoyed by modern audiences and rediscovered by modern musicians. That’s what music is for.

Due to the nature of Hundred Years Late (the focus on a specific year), I had to find a hack to search The Virtual Gramophone by year. If you click on Search/Advanced Search and enter a comma between inverted commas as a search field and Year = 1914, you can browse the content available from that year.

Now if only you could find a link to The Virtual Gramophone!

Navajo Indian Songs

Geoffrey O'Hara Record

‘Navajo Indian Songs’ – Geoffrey O’Hara
File embedded from
Cylinder Preservation & Digitization Project,
Department of Special Collections,
Donald C. Davidson Library,
University of California, Santa Barbara

Every song tells a story. Most old sound recordings I’ve found online have some metadata attached – composer’s names, performers names, date of recording. When I start looking into these names and reading about the lives and careers of the people involved in the recording, it brings a new layer of understanding to the material. When I stumbled across ‘Navajo Indian Songs’, I knew there must be an interesting story behind it. Introduced and sung by Geoffrey O’Hara, a Canadian American composer, singer, ethnomusicologist and music professor, his respect for the Navajo musical tradition is apparent, though his use of the word ‘savage’ is typical enough of the time. He introduces one Navajo medicine song by saying, These songs abound in strange and wonderful rhythms and melodies, many of them quite baffling and bewildering to our ears. At first hearing, they sound as if they were simply improvisations of a savage mind. But upon investigation, the student finds that they are composed along well-established rules and abound in poetic figures of speech. And in the performance of most of them, not the slightest error is tolerated.

There’s a great forum for antique phonograph and recording enthusiasts called ‘The Talking Machine Forum’. On it I found a thread about O’Hara’s Navajo recordings. Lenoirstreetguy posted a wonderful photograph (apparently taken from a book – see bottom of post) of O’Hara and three Navajo singers, with unnamed phonograph operator and, as interestingly noted by Lenoirstreetguy, a battery-powered phonograph recording machine. O’Hara’s recordings of Navajo songs began in 1913, on behalf of the U.S. Government. Another member of The Talking Machine Forum, Discman, added the text from a May 1913 article in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement, Les Peaux Rouges et le Phonographe (The Redskins and the Phonograph). If I’m not mistaken, this is Discman’s own English translation of the French article…

Everyone knows how quickly the last races of the primitive inhabitants of North America are disappearing. Within a century, perhaps, there will be no more redskins in the United States.

This disappearance is unavoidable. This is why, before it becomes accomplished fact, the American government is taking the effort to collect all the materials which will permit future scholars to study these people.

Thus, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington chose Mr. Geoffrey O’Hara to collect the songs and music of the indigenous tribes of the United States. These songs are, it appears, highly original.

Therefore Mr. O’Hara has arranged to record into a “talking machine” the principal songs of the tribes, which still exist. He began with the tribe of the Blackfeet who are encamped in the Glacial National Park, in the state of Montana.

Three of the principal chiefs: “Medicine Bull,” “Sleeps Long Time,” and “Big Top,” were brought to New York where they were invited by Mr. O’Hara to sing into a precision phonograph.

”The Indians,” we read in Musical America, ”could only with difficulty understand how, in singing into a sort of funnel, one could possibly harvest the sound of their voices. A few minutes after they had recorded their first song the machine was started up. The magic of the operation left them stupefied. They declared that it was the most extraordinary marvel of any they had seen in the Empire City.”

The modern reader is struck by the callousness of the first couple of paragraphs, the description of Native Americans as ‘primitive’ and the casual assertion that their ‘disappearance is unavoidable’. If these were the prevailing ideas of the time, then the story of Geoffrey O’Hara’s engagement with their musical culture becomes more extraordinary. He found a musical sophistication and depth where many others heard ‘improvisations of a savage mind’. ‘Navajo Indian Songs’ was included on The Edison Phonograph Monthly (v.12 from 1914) which was very well-subscribed at the time. It would have been the subject of many heated discussions, no doubt. I can’t help but admire O’Hara for undertaking a musical project that must have been so strange to his sensibilities, rather like my own journey into the archives. If music is unfamiliar to our ears, we may dismiss it immediately. Or we may realise that it has something to teach us.

O'Hara & Navajo Recording

Above is the image shared by Lenoirstreetguy.
Below, the cover of Le Petit Journal which featured the article translated by Discman.
Original French text available on cent.ans.free.fr

LePetitJournal Navajo

The Monotone (Ein Ton)

Ein Ton Sheet MusicThis haunting song comprises a vocal melody of just a single note. Of the 1914 songs I’ve covered so far, this is probably the most avant-garde. It was written in 1854 by German composer Peter Cornelius. The version I first discovered is on The U.S. National Library of Congress music website, National Jukebox. It was sung by world-famous Romanian-born American soprano Alma Gluck. She was accompanied on violin by Efrem Zimbalist, who she later married. It was recorded in New York on November 15th, 1914 with Samuel Chotzinoff on piano. You can listen to that version here.

The process of figuring out such a compositionally unusual song was difficult. I felt like I was getting tinnitis as I tried to work out the chords. Eventually I discovered a sheet music resource online called The Mutopia Project. Here I found sheet music (which as a self-taught semi-illiterate musician I could probably decipher with a bit of work) and MIDI files (which is better than sheet music for most home-recording nerds). The monotonous vocal melody is compensated for by the rich harmonic line on the piano. The metaphysical lyric is full of grief and hopelessness until the last verse when the chords switch from minor to major and the monotonous vocal line is given a completely different context and mood.

In my research, I found some contemporary versions of this song. In the first I’ve posted, taken from Antonio Faieta’s YouTube channel, you can hear the original German lyrics. The second is an instrumental version, saxophonist Ties Mellema plays the vocal melody with his left hand as he has injured his right. Just as it can be challenging to sing such a monotonous melody without it becoming boring, playing a one note melody on any instrument requires excellent dynamic control and imaginative phrasing, evidenced here by an exemplary performance. As I considered how to arrange and record the song myself, I toyed with the idea of playing the piano melody (the part reimagined by Zimbalist for violin in the 1914 version) on an electric guitar. I tried it out but opted in the end for the simplest piano arrangement with layered heavily-effected vocals. I used some unusual EQ settings on some of the layered vocals, emphasising the exact frequencies that correlated to the consistent ‘B’ note of the vocal melody to cause some distortion effects. I also added an almost imperceptible drone, a feedback effect that grows and grows until the chords change to major. In short, I had some fun with it.

I hear a tone
so wondrous rare,
it fills my heart
’tis ever there.

Ah, can it be
the last faint breath
that stirr’d thy pallid lips ere death?

Is it the tender monotone
of church bell which for thee made moan?

Lo, still it comes!
So full, so clear,
as though thy soul
were floating near…

As though with love and yearning deep
you sang my bitter pain to sleep.

This video is intended to explain the concept behind this music archive revival blog. Please share it with any musicians you know who might be interested in reinterpreting a song from 1914.

The English translation of the lyrics was made some time before 1894 and is attributed to C. Hugo Laubach. I found this information on The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive, a great resource for finding lyrics and authorship information of classical music. The original lyrics in German are also available.

If you have any further information on this song, please feel free to write a comment (or email me). Let’s get a discussion going! Are there other notable modern versions of this song? Does this song mean something special to you? Any feedback or historical background information is very welcome.

Let’s Make Music. Let’s Make History.

There are many projects in Digital Humanities which need active participation from a community of users in order to grow. The most famous and staggering example is Wikipedia, a vast Encyclopedia of human knowledge produced, edited and updated by its own users, generously donating their time and expertise to make it an invaluable resource for millions of people. New technology has enabled the interconnectivity of scattered users throughout the world, based not on geography but on the interests of those people. Clay Shirky spoke of ‘cognitive surplus’, the generosity of these scattered users uniting for a common goal, contributing to a collaborative project of some kind, using their own free time, resources and expertise to build something for the common good.

There are also many projects in Digital Humanities which seek to digitise archived material to give it new value. Once text is digitised and collated in a computer system, it becomes possible to perform text mining and other technologically advanced techniques to obtain new meaning and insights from the material.

Music is a special case among these archived materials. A computer algorithm cannot analyse and extract meaning from a sound recording to the same degree that it can ‘understand’ text. For archived music, human ears and listening is required. Metadata is often attached to a music file. In the case of a wax record from a hundred years ago being transferred to .mp3 or .wav format, the kind of dry information that is typically attached will not answer the kinds of questions a musician, or indeed a casual listener, might want to ask.




Four very different interpretations of
When You’re a Long Long Way from Home
performed and recorded since 1914.

I would contend that music itself is alive. Songs are not static and unchanging, good songs are malleable things. A strong melody can be transposed in style from jazz to classical to rock. It can survive and thrive in different time signatures, at different tempos, on different instruments. A good song can be reinterpreted and reimagined to suit the sensibilities and peculiar gifts of the musician or musicians reworking it. A hundred different singers will sing it a hundred different ways. Just listen to these strikingly different versions of the same song. It was recorded by influential R&B outfit The Orioles in 1951, by Bing Crosby and The Paradise Isle Trio in 1954, Buffalo Bills in 1961 and the final version was performed by The Fralinger String Band earlier this year. Across these different versions the song went from soul to soft jazz to barbershop to bluegrass banjo/string band. And the first recording I can find of this song is by Henry Burr in 1914. Interestingly, Henry Burr recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. You could say he was the Elvis of his day.

Music, more than most literary forms, can have an immediate emotional impact. It is a uniquely personal and emotional form of human expression. I recently read a thought-provoking post entitled ‘Emotion, Archives, Interactive Fiction, and Linked Data’ on Mark A. Motienzo’s blog. In it, he examines the idea that archives can be repositories of emotion, appealing not merely to the academic or the intellectual parts of our minds, but connecting very powerfully with our emotional cores. It occurs to me that music archives have the power to move us like no other archives.

You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away
Sung by Manuel Romain in 1914
A fine example of emotion in the archives.



File embedded from
The Internet Archive (archive.org)

As a musician and songwriter myself, I’m very interested in old songs. What made them different from songs today? What makes a song timeless? The archived music from 1914 is fascinating. In terms of sound quality, it’s sometimes grainy and muffled. The old recordings are scratchy, the bass end is missing, the overall sound fidelity leaves an awful lot to be desired. Apart from the sound quality, I’m struck by how different the vocal stylings are from what’s common today. Most singers then were accustomed to performing without electrical amplification, they projected their voices to fill large rooms in an operatic style. Backing music was typically ornate and orchestral. The modern drum kit barely existed yet, most songs had none, and the rhythm would slow down and speed up in response to the crescendos and mood of the vocal performance. All of these features make these songs very different from most modern songs.

Part of my exploration of music archives has been to find songs that still feel relevant, though they were being performed a hundred years ago. The process of finding these songs has been quite organic. I don’t have specific criteria, I’m just looking for songs that I like. I want to undertake a project that allows me to indulge my passion for music in a hands-on creative way. The idea of methodically cataloguing music archives or some such other typically-academic project was intimidating in its scale and would likely never be completed. There are thousands of archives on the Internet, some in private collections only available to certain academic institutions and/or paid subscribers. I found the idea of reinterpreting one song at a time much more exciting. The idea becomes more exciting still if lots of people decide to do it – it can become a community of curators and creators. When I sat down at my piano and figured out the chords to some of these songs, they came alive again. Immediately, as musicians do, I was thinking about how I would rearrange and rework them to suit my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. Compositionally, I found the chords interesting, sometimes jazzy, sometimes presciently modern in feel. Some very sophisticated musical ideas were hiding behind those scratchy old recordings. I felt like I learned a lot in the process of reinterpreting them. And I found it so enjoyable, I thought perhaps other musicians would enjoy it too.

Picture of The Edison Phonograph Player

The Edison Phonograph Cylinder Player, an early record player. In 1914, cylinders were losing out to the new disc format in the first commercial format war of recorded music.

Music recording software has allowed many people to have a functional recording studio in their home. There’s a legion of bedroom producers out there who are making incredible music across all kinds of genres. I began thinking how brilliant it would be to harness some of that talent and creativity and direct it to an archive-revival project, taking those old songs and reworking them into something new and unique. Picking a hundred years ago as a starting point will ensure most songs are out of copyright, allowing musicians to experiment with them however they please. In 1914, recorded music was in its infancy. That’s a good place to start. That narrow time-frame will make this a focused cohesive blog. Hundred Years Late will be a forum for musicians to showcase their talents and share the songs they found most interesting. Contributors will be encouraged to write about what they have recorded, why they picked the song, any historical background, links to the archived version (where possible), lyrics, score, chords etc, anything the musician wants to include. Other visitors to the blog can comment, perhaps contributing other historical information or links to further resources on the song.

As the collection grows, the links to various scattered archives will start to amass as contributors and enthusiasts find more archived material. Ultimately this will make the blog a valuable resource about where to find music from this era. If this project aims to mirror the archives a hundred years later, it will be an incomplete picture. Not every archived song will grab the attention of modern listeners and inspire musicians to record a cover version. But it will encourage engagement with music archives and salvage from obscurity some absolutely wonderful songs that have a lot to offer modern audiences and a lot to teach modern songwriters. If it works like I’m hoping it will, it can be a vivid, creative and vibrant community. The more musicians, contributors, followers and enthusiasts we can attract, the better the resource will become.

To get the ball rolling, I’m going to upload a couple of songs I’ve recorded. Each blog entry will include background info contributed by the musician, a link to the source version in an archive (where available), the contributor’s version of the song in some streamable format (YouTube video, Soundcloud widget, anything WordPress-compatible). Hopefully other user comments will provide further metadata. This ‘music-blog’ style arrangement allows the contributors to host the Be Creative!music however they please and retain control of it. It also seems to be a manageable format from my point of view. If musicians email me with their work, I can compose the posts in a consistent format and maintain the focus of the blog as a Digital Humanities project and a resource on archived music. I’ve posted a video on YouTube that introduces the project and outlines its objectives. It would be good of you to share it, especially among Digital Humanities practitioners, lecturers and students and most importantly, musicians who enjoy a challenge.

If you like this idea, please help me run with it. Tell people. Tweet and talk.

A call for music submissions

To encourage engagement with music archives, Hundred Years Late wants to get musicians to record their own versions of songs from 1914. This is a really exciting project for musicians to get involved with. You may learn a lot, showcase your talents and discover some really interesting and unusual music. As the collection of songs grows, it will hopefully become an interesting resource on archived music and a creative outlet for contemporary artists to reinvigorate old forgotten masterpieces. If you’re a musician who would like to contribute a song, please email hundredyearslate@gmail.com

It’s Late November 2013 and I’m just setting up the blog now. I’ve recorded a few songs from 1914 myself but I want to get the word out to other musicians as soon as possible, now’s the time to browse the available archived music and pick out a song you like. I’ll be posting some archive resources, blog posts on the project and most importantly, some reinterpretations of old songs. There will be more information on this project in the next blog post. It all starts soon…

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