Category Archives: Hundred Years Late

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

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.

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.

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!

I Want to Be Like Jesus

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, I’ve rephrased, reiterated and reframed this idea in almost every post I’ve written so far, but music has the power to affect us emotionally like no other art form. It’s been with us throughout our evolutionary history, in every culture, in every individual. It’s part of what makes us human. There’s even some research to suggest it’s part of what made us intelligent (Huron, Sacks). It can cut to the core of us in a single spine-tingling, heart-wrenching, gut-punching moment.

The development of a musical idea through time, whether ingeniously intricate or relatively simple, is like a language that speaks to our emotions more so than to our conscious minds. It’s a sublime plane of communication entirely separate from the blunt instruments of our mind’s inadequate vocabulary. The mathematical complexity that underlies harmonic interplay is something we interpret instinctively. The movement of waves through the air can sweep us up in its emotional current. We can be moved to tears, we can become merry, we can feel wonder and joy. It puts us in touch with ourselves in a way that nothing else can, helps us connect with parts of ourselves we may not have known existed. It’s a translation from those invisible waves in the air, through the miraculously complex human hearing system, to neurons firing in our brains.

When these neurons fire, it’s mainly in the limbic system and the frontal lobes, the regions of the brain primarily associated with emotion and intelligence, respectively. When listening to music, we are being communicated with by the composer and the performer. Our minds process a message that can be articulated in no other way. Our centre of intelligence is not performing calculations and analysing mathematically the frequencies and properties of the music we’re listening to. Instead it is often stirred into deep thought, self-reflection, or unbridled creativity. Our limbic system, the centre of emotion, is also responding to the message received from this composer or performer, this fellow human being. Our emotional response to music is often imbued with a kind of empathy. Music has the power to bring out the best in us.

As a musician myself, perhaps I’m compelled to overstate the importance of music. I was surely dismissive of language when I called it an inadequate blunt instrument. I was, in fact, ironically demonstrating its power. Language is something I also love, speech and the written word, sound and the imagination of sound, delighting us and enlightening us as our neurons light up and dance. Music with lyrics then, the form of the song, is a most potent thing. It is a communication on many levels, with the range of our entire emotional spectrum and any thought we are capable of having. Again, maybe I’m overselling it, but I think there are plenty of people who’ll agree with me. The popular song is, for me, a key part of human culture.

Most modern commercial music seems far too cynical for my liking. Mainstream music has been infiltrated, manipulated and hijacked by marketeers and sloganeers, puppet-masters behind the scenes and their vapid rag dolls in the spotlight. Of course, there’s still great music being made, probably more than ever before. But you have to seek it out for yourself, you never find it in the charts any more. The commercial juggernauts have all the momentum and they can craft the illusion of sincerity. While my neurons still fire, this music isn’t eliciting the same response as before. How can anyone of substance truly empathise with the Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas of this world? Let me rephrase that in terms of their music. It’s awful. As human beings, we seem to value one thing above all else… truth. The problem is, everybody sees the truth differently. My passionate love of music might be something you completely relate to, though your personal tastes might find mine appalling. Or perhaps music doesn’t mean that much to you, in which case, you have my sympathy. But you’re right, there’s more to life.

There are other key elements in human culture. There has always been the compulsion to search for meaning, going back to this human idea, this nebulous notion of ‘truth’. We search for it in the world, we search for it in ourselves, we search for it in music and literature and history. We created religions and cultural movements in attempts to understand the world and how we fit into it. Theology and mythology have been with us for as long as we have been able to communicate with each other, for the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been on this planet. These things, like music, cut to the very centre of our being. They profoundly inform our emotional connection with humanity. They are part of us. Likewise our history is part of us. Our parents, their parents, tracing the line back, ancestry, patriotism, identification with groups (ethnic and geographical), these things are second nature to us. These things make us who we are. Religion and history are touchy subjects, instantly triggering emotionally volatile responses. If my truth differs from yours on these matters, that may feel disrespectful or threatening to you. But there’s a reason I feel it necessary to discuss this, all these topics are due to intersect in a very complex and personal way.

I’ve mentioned the individual’s feeling of connection with ancestral history. For me, that’s the history of Ireland, a history fraught with occupation, disenfranchisement, slavery, slaughter, persecution and dispossession. Ireland’s history is also inextricably linked to that other hot potato, religion. My connection with the religion of my Catholic ancestors (right up to my own parents) is an uneasy one. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools, received the sacraments, but came to maturity in the cultural landscape of repeated scandals and revelations about the level of dysfunction and abuse in the Church. I stopped going to mass in my mid-teens, went rogue, entertained a vague half-hearted agnosticism for a time and ultimately became a vehement atheist. I remain so to this day. But the child is still the father of the man, and being raised Catholic will forever be a part of my psyche. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for me, as I was never subjected to abuse. I still carry the memory of the child I was, I still remember the kind of fear and wonder and awe that belief can instill in you. I also remember trying to be good, feeling it was important to be a good person. Though my belief in God didn’t survive the awakening of my critical faculties, my sense of morality remained with me. I suspect it would have been there anyway, to the extent that I now resent being denied the chance to discover all that for myself. Like I said, these issues run very deep in people. Complex thoughts arise, thoughts that seek expression and reinforcement in that sublime plane of communication, music.

In 1914, religious music was very popular. As I trawled the archives for this project, I tried to avoid it at first. But religious overtones were impossible to escape. As those waves in the air were transmogrified into neurons firing in my brain, the kinds of deep thoughts that assailed me were forcing me to face my history, both my personal history and that of my ancestors before me. The spiritual music of the Tuskegee Institute Singers prompted limbic fireworks, my heart overflowing with empathy. I found myself contemplating the historical context of these singers from this black university in Alabama in 1914, the slavery of their parents still a fresh memory, their continued disenfranchisement, their unwavering religious faith and the inhuman persecution they endured. There are many parallels with Irish history. There are many reasons for me to identify with them. Not least of these reasons is the beauty of their music, their harmony singing was breathtakingly good. And though I don’t share their religious beliefs, I sense their sincerity coming through as an undeniable truth – that thing we tirelessly seek. I have a physical reaction, feeling connected with all that is divine about being human. Divine, miraculous, these words are too expressive to be off-limits for an atheist. I use them advisedly.

And so, all the threads of these thoughts intersect in the song ‘I Want to Be Like Jesus’. Music, to me, is alive. I’m not content just to listen. I am a musician, I’m compelled to play songs for myself, learn the chords and lyrics, adapt them to my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. I try to find another kind of truth there, explore another kind of story there. When Tuskegee Institute Singers sang ‘I Want to Be Like Jesus’ in 1914, it came from that religious part of them. Though I have no faith, this part of me still exists. This part of me still seeks expression. The reflective thoughts and empathy that this song invoked in me found expression in playing the song for myself. Rather than attempting to recreate the beautiful harmonies of the Tuskegee Institute Singers, my own version is more simplistic. But I tried to make it sound really big. I want you to hear fireworks when those neurons of yours are lighting up.

The lyrics are simple. I want to be a Christian in my heart. I want to be more loving. I don’t want to be like Judas, Lord, I want to be like Jesus. In my heart. In my heart. In my heart. I remember the faith of my childhood and the innocently idealistic desire to be a good person. I’m reminded of all that is commendable and moral and upright about the simple genuine faith of normal people. The institutional dysfunction, hypocrisy and moral corruptness of organised religion has shaped my modern and secular disdain for it. And yet I sing this song completely unironically and genuinely, challenging myself to empathise unreservedly, to examine my history, to make peace with myself and the world and attempt to be a good moral upright person in an age of unparalleled commercialism, cynicism and endless distraction. Mainstream music today has largely become a commodity, a triviality, a sideshow. It has the potential to be so much more, it has the potential to tell us something more about ourselves.

The Slumber Boat

Baby’s boat the silver moon
sailing in the sky
sailing o’er the sea of sleep
while the clouds float by.

Sail, baby, sail
out upon that sea.
Only don’t forget to sail
back again to me.

Baby’s fishing for a dream,
fishing near and far.
His line a silver moonbeam is,
his bait a silver star.

Sail, baby, sail
out upon that sea.
Only don’t forget to sail
back again to me,
back again to me.

I became taken with this song and decided to learn it for myself. You don’t hear many lullabies these days. Such simple innocent timeless imagery is conjured, the moon, the sky, the clouds, the sea. Baby’s boat the silver moon… the lyrics were written by children’s poet and lyricist Alice C.D. Riley sometime around 1898. The music was written by Jessie L. Gaynor. I found a version of this song performed in 1914 by famous Mezzo-Soprano Christine Miller which was released on Victor Records. You can listen to it on National Jukebox, I urge you to check it out (unfortunately it’s unembeddible in WordPress).

There are a couple of modern versions of this song as well. There’s one from the mid-sixties by Mrs Miller, a fascinating figure (and no relation to Christine Miller). Mrs (Elva) Miller gained some notoriety self-releasing albums of shrill, off-key renditions of popular songs. According to Wikipedia, “Miller was apparently unaware at first that her musical ability was being ridiculed, but eventually realised it and decided to go along with the joke.” This clip on YouTube features a comedic introduction by someone claiming to be her husband and calling her Mrs Festoon.

I really enjoyed the process of recording this song. Though the piano leads the arrangement, I gave the bass and drums some real power. It seems counterintuitive for a lullaby, but I liked the effect. Cork songwriter Lynda Cullen lends her vocal talents, and Paul Moore (Polo Moro) improvised some lovely fiddle parts, I’m so pleased with the final version that’s going to be on the album. The simple imagery of the lyrics lends itself to a very literal visual interpretation, so I made an animated video to accompany the song. I couldn’t tell if the vintage sleeping baby illustrations I used were girls or boys. So I changed the lyrics to make it a lullaby sung to a girl, where originally it was a boy. Because why not?

Show this to your little ones at sleepytime. Okay, goodnight.

Happy Birthday Henry Burr

My research into the music of 1914 has turned up a lot of interesting figures. But I find none more compelling than Henry Burr. I found biographical information and partial discographies on a lot of websites. A full discography of Burr’s output would be almost impossible to compile. Henry Burr in 1918, picture from WikimediaHis career spanned over thirty years and by his own estimate he made over 12,000 recordings in this time (under a variety of pseudonyms). What grabbed me most was the music itself. Though we’re separated by a hundred years and music has undergone profound stylistic changes, I find many of his song choices to be truly timeless, songs I’m compelled to play and sing and work out for myself. I referred to him in a previous post as the Elvis of his day and, like Elvis, the songs he sang were written by others. Burr even sang ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. He was one of many artists to record the song that year but this was not at all unusual for the time. Most new popular songs were covered by several artists.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1927) and
You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away (1914)

Born Harry Haley McClaskey in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada in the 1880s, he had been singing in public since the age of five. His first notable concert was in St. John’s Opera House in April 1901 with Scottish soprano Jessie McLachlan. Later that year, again in St. John’s Opera House, his talent was noticed by Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Campanari, who insisted he go to New York for musical training. McClaskey moved to New York in 1902 and began taking lessons and singing with the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church choir. One of his teachers was Kate Stella Burr, in whose honour he adopted his most famous pseudonym. His recording career began (as Henry Burr) in New York in 1902 with Columbia Records. In 1904 he began recording with Edison Records as Irving Gillette. In 1905 he also recorded with Victor Records, again as Henry Burr and later as Harry McClaskey (his real name). He also released music under the names Henry Gillette, Alfred Alexander, Robert Rice, Carl Ely, Harry Barr, Frank Knapp, Al King, and Shamus McClaskey. These different names seem to have initially been used for releases from different recording companies, though I can find no consistent pattern in their usage throughout his career. Perhaps the purpose of his many pseudonyms was to frustrate future researchers and retain an air of historical mystique. Figures of this era are often wrapped in mystery. For example, one source claims he was born in 1882. Another says 1885, making him still a teenager when he embarked on his recording career. Whatever the year, all sources seem to agree on his birthday. It’s January 15. He would have been 132 (or 129) today.

Burr’s long and distinguished career included many collaborations. Vocal duets were common at the time and Burr sang with the most famous and celebrated female singers of the age, Ada Jones, Helen Clark, Elise Stevenson, Elizabeth Spencer, Elsie Baker, Marcia Freer and others. Male vocal duets were also common and Burr shared billing with Frank C. Stanley, Will Oakland, Joseph Belmont, Frank Croxton and others. Burr recorded many songs with Albert Campbell, who was also a collaborator in the vocal groups Peerless Quartet and Sterling Trio. These names are all searchable on National Jukebox, whose songs I’m unfortunately finding impossible to embed in WordPress. Not to worry, Henry Burr’s Herculean musical output has left in its wake some wonderful recordings in many other sources online.

Burr’s later career was spent as Director of the Artist’s Bureau at CBS radio, and from 1935 he continued to perform as a regular on the WLS Chicago National Barn Dance which was broadcast on NBC on Saturday evenings. He remained a featured performer on the show until shortly before his death in 1941 from throat cancer.

It was stumbling across a Henry Burr song in the archives that initially gave me the idea for this blog. Figuring out the music and singing it in my own voice convinced me that there are music archives full of gems waiting to be rediscovered by modern musicians. Now that I’m in a bit deeper and have been poring over these resources for months, I’m more convinced than ever. Unfortunately I haven’t recorded my own versions of the Henry Burr songs yet, you’ll have to wait a few months for them. Perhaps after recording an album of songs from 1914, I’ll attempt an entire album of Henry Burr covers. With over 12,000 recordings to his name (or rather, his many names), being short on material wouldn’t be a concern. And though what I’ve listened to so far could be considered a drop in the ocean, Henry Burr hasn’t disappointed. The songs he chooses to sing are inventive and interesting, his performances brimming with emotion, his voice smooth and warm and clear, cutting through the static of the last century. Happy birthday, old man.