Tag Archives: vintage music

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

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.

Vintage Artwork – Part 2

Vintage Artwork Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

The Chevy Chase Fox-Trot
by Eubie Blake

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

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

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

Saint Louis Blues
by W.C. Handy

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

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

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

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