By The Landlord
"Times have changed
And we've often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes." – Cole Porter
Let's rock before the clock. Normally we cannot help being influenced, throughout our lives, by the music that was around us at an impressionable age. So for the most part, our song themes tend to prompt suggestions from the 1960s onwards, or certainly after the musical explosion that came with the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets and their famous 1955 hit, or Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent, and then Elvis Presley. There are many contenders for "the first rock'n'roll record" before then, including by Fat Domino's The Fat Man (1949) or Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm) in 1951. Putting all that aside though, this week we're going to try something different, to delve into another time, another world, music that was recorded and released prior to 1955.
This may still turn into a vast topic, but it's also a voyage of great discovery, a steam train and chugging tug transport of delight back to the days of cylinder recordings and '78 records and beyond, of when songwriting was done differently, and aside from the great guitar bluesmen who can still feature here, more often written with different methods. Songs were more likely to be commonly on manuscript and composed on the piano, therefore leading to different structures, chords and key signatures, and above all, a different feeling altogether, certainly gentler rhythms, and sometimes, one could argue, songs with greater subtlety.
What other trends might we discover? Sexual feelings expressed in more oblique ways? A sense of propriety or repression? Different vocabulary? Much more care and time spent on lyric writing? Different value systems and cultural references? Was life lived slower, but were people tougher? Of course production values would have been simpler, but no less sophisticated for their times, but without overdubs and complex technology, without the ability to cut and paste in music software,would that have produced something more powerful, more direct?
All of this is to nominate and discover, and if you're looking any particular direction in this vast village field and smog-filled town of a topic, perhaps look for examples that show songwriting and performance at its finest, comparable with and influential on anything after 1955. Or alternatively songs that really capture their times perfectly.
Where might this lead us? I can only dip into a few examples that may inspired you, but they might include the music of Tin Pan Alley, the Great American Songbook, show tunes and old-style musical hall, jazz standards, blues and folk, and other genres. Song is a broad term in itself, but let's leave aside long classical pieces or film music, unless they are songs with lyrics.
Where to start? One of the first great songs of the 20th century was just a tune composed by the genius that was Scott Joplin. His first actual hit was Maple Leaf Rag in 1899, but this extraordinary man, who after a series of bad or tragic marriages and relationships, and financial problems, descended into syphilis-induced madness. Everything about his music was different however, not only of ragtime, but also writing operas. But his biggest legacy is of course The Entertainer, recorded in 1901:
Another popular recording made at the beginning of the century was by the Haydn Quartet, big stars of the first decade. They began in 1896 as the Edison Quartet, but then became the Haydn Quartet, named after the great composer. In 1901 they signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, and in 1902 also traveled to England to record for the Gramophone Company, which was Victor's affiliate. In The Good Old Summertime captures what seems like a more innocent era.
Great voices? How about Enrico Caruso, who made more than 260 recordings before his death in 1920.
Some songs very much reflect the history in which they find themselves, such as Till We Meet Again (1918), here sung by Charles Hart and Lewis James in the shadow of the First World War:
There is a wealth of material from the Tin Pan Alley, the New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated what was known as the popular music of the US, originally situated in West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower District of Manhattan. These include Sammy Cahn, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frank Loesser.
Or how about dipping into the Great American Songbook? Cole Porter to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart on Broadway and Harry Warren?
The field is wide open to you. This week's musical historian, helping us leap into the past, and perhaps leading to further topics that this one will no doubt inspire, is this week, the highly inappropriately named but wonderful DiscoMonster. A big welcome back the Bar for him, and I look forward very much to your soothing, swinging, jazzy, bluesy, showtime and more songs this week. I'm sure the standards, jazz or otherwise, will be very high.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.