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The story of recorded must prior to 1917 has been, on a personal level, a juggle with two opposing narratives. First there is of course the convoluted journey towards the explosion in jazz and blues of the late 1910s and 1920. Then there’s the other side, the world of music and musicians who had their own path and their own values. So far these two threads have been happy so sit peacefully side by side, occasionally intertwining, but always on their own terms. In 1916, though, there is an overwhelming feeling that something really big is coming. Perhaps its the war (covered here by a single track) with its mythical power to change attitudes, perhaps its the work of a number of talented individuals, perhaps the spread of the gramophone is making it necessary – but for whatever reason, the majority of music in this mix seems to be almost-but-not-quite jazz and blues.
A couple of exceptions to this, before we go digging in – the mix kicks off with one of a couple of very atmospheric klezmer cymbolom instrumentals (this is a genre which would not be so easily colonised by the new music), and features yet more of the Hawaiian craze which seems to have been a constant in the decade. The biggest revelation here may be from fiddler Don Richardson – his instrumental version of Arkansas Traveller (featured on here a couple of times before in its vaudeville form) is as far as I can tell indistinguishable from the “first country records” which would kick off the other musical explosion in about a decade’s time.
Blues has been around for a while at this point, though not so much as a genre as a mood, or perhaps even what we might call a meme now. The sheet music for “I Got the Blues” by New Orleans musician Antonio Maggio was published in 1908, and over the following decade a number of other songs started riffing on the idea, including some written in Tin Pan Alley and given to a new generation of female vaudeville singers, most notably Sophie Tucker. In this vein we have torch-song standard “I Ain’t Got Nobody” – here performed by Marion Harris, the music for which was written by a black songwriter, Spencer Williams – a pattern of visible white performers with black artists in the background which started as early as the 1890s and would continue until the start of the 1920s.
This naturally leads on to one of the accidental shifts this music has pushed into view. W.C. Handy’s compositions weren’t just called “blues” – they actually drew from his life as a black man in the south of the USA, the presumed source of the melodies and rhythms which easily delineate this music to the modern ear. The St Louis Blues was his breakthrough hit, but is here presented as an instrumental, and performed by a ragtime dance band who had started out performing military marches, led by Charles Adams Prince, a record company director and relative to two US presidents.
The appallingly titled “Nigger Blues” was, naturally, written by a white man, Lee “Lasses” White, a veteran of minstrel shows and “coon songs” who would go on to become a stock actor in early westerns. It would be nice to think that the racism of the turn of the century was dying off by this point, but this would be extremely wishful thinking. “Chinese Blues” was written by young George Gershwin, and is here represented by the composer himself (on a piano roll) and Sousa’s Band, of all people.
The most striking example of all this dissonance, however, is to be found on “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland” performed by Arthur Collins and Byron G Harlan. Collins, now billed as “king of the ragtime singers”, has a long and very mixed history on this site, as is natural for a figure who looms as large as he does in pre-WW1 music. A good case could be made that “That Funny Jas Band” is the first jazz recording, but it’s a bit less embarrassing to call it “the first recording that mentions jazz” as it is, on the whole, the sort of embarrassing racist churned-out “coon song” which you’d instinctively want to sweep under the carpet – it even includes a painful bit of minstrel-show banter in the middle. For all that though, I don’t know what you can call the instrumental break at the end except jazz – it’s straight out of an Original Dixieland piece.
If we are going to award the birth of jazz to anyone in 1916, though, perhaps the best recipient would be the two acts that close the mix. We’ve heard “Down Home Rag” before, performed at a frantic pace by James Reece Europe and his ‘Society Orchestra’ – but here it is again, first performed by its composer Wilbur Sweatman, on course to become one of the founding fathers of jazz. Then we switch into a supercharged version played by The Versatile Four, associates of Europe who had branched out to form a more portable unit, able to tour the USA and Europe. They may be a smaller ensemble, but their glorious racket is more than enough to match Europe’s Society Orchestra. This really feels like the start of something.
0:00:00 Joseph Moskowitz – Doina
0:01:06 Gilbert Girard & Company – Daybreak at Calamity Farm (Part 1)
0:01:15 Eugene Jaudas National Promenade Band – Memphis Blues
0:04:36 R.H. Burnside – A New York Hippodrome Rehearsal
0:04:45 Arthur Collins – Hesitating Blues
0:06:15 Prince’s Orchestra – The Hesitating Blues
0:07:56 George O’Connor – Nigger Blues
0:10:27 Gladys Rice – Here Comes Tootsie
0:10:41 Marion Harris – I Ain’t Got Nobody
0:12:20 Elsie Baker & Billy Murray – Play A Simple Melody
0:13:17 Gilbert Girard & Company – Daybreak at Calamity Farm (Part 2)
0:13:42 Abe Schwartz – Sadigurer Chused’l
0:16:39 Aleksandr Vertinskiy – Malen’kiy Kreol’chik
0:19:20 Jeanne Feinberg – Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen
0:21:17 Enrico Caruso – Ah Tout Est Bien Fini (Le Cid)
0:23:54 Karl I of Austria – Speech, Feb 1916
0:24:05 Murray Johnson – Pack Up Your Troubles
0:26:47 Barney Bernard – Goldstein Goes in the Railroad Business
0:27:06 Kyria Koula – Tsifte Teli
0:29:07 Canhoto – Abismo De Rosas
0:30:18 Raquel Meller – Los Impertinentes Mágicos
0:32:55 Quinteto Borinquen – Diamante Negro
0:34:31 Pepita Ramos ‘La Goyita’ – La Modista Militar
0:36:44 Helen Louise & Frank Ferera – Hapa Haole Hula Girl
0:37:51 Rene Dietrich and Horace Wright – My Own Iona
0:40:18 Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra – On The Shore at Le-Lei-Wei
0:42:51 Scott Joplin – Magnetic Rag
0:45:42 Avon Comedy Four – Ginberg’s Stump Speech
0:45:56 Six Brown Brothers – Walkin’ The Dog
0:48:12 Eugene Jaudas National Promenade Band – Walkin’ The Dog
0:51:30 Fred Van Eps – Raggin’ The Scale
0:54:08 George Gershwin – Chinese Blues
0:56:14 Sousa’s Band – Chinese Blues
0:57:40 Lou Chiha Frisco – Kangaroo Hop
0:59:29 George Formby Snr – The Grandfather’s Clock
1:02:14 Bert Williams – Never Mo’
1:04:48 Strassmeir Dachaur Bauernkapelle – Werdenfelser Trompeten Landler
1:07:41 Conway’s Band – Two-Key Rag
1:10:42 Prince’s Band – St. Louis Blues
1:13:24 Eugene Jaudas Society Orchestra – Step With Pep
1:15:26 W.G. Haenschen & T.T. Schiffer – Sunset Medley
1:17:14 Cunniah Naidu – Modi Instrumental- Ragam-Alapana In Thodi
1:19:02 Adeline Francis – The Mouse and the Thomas Cat
1:19:15 Don Richardson – Arkansas Traveller
1:22:00 F. J. Bacon – Massas in De Cold, Cold Ground
1:22:51 Charles Ross Taggart – Old Country Fiddler at the Telephone
1:23:12 Collins & Harlan – That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland
1:26:49 Wilbur Sweatman – Down Home Rag
1:28:10 The Versatile Four – Down Home Rag