Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/21/09

Shades of Somber (1926-1927)

While the majority of the jazz and pop music of the 1920s was happy and upbeat, the blues did not have a monopoly on melancholy. In the hands of skilled musicians, jazz proved to be versatile enough to convey a wide range of emotions while remaining as engaging as ever. On the other hand, stage actor and singer Paul Robeson was able to take simple folk songs and spirituals and give them a modern polish – without losing an ounce of emotion.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Dead Man Blues(Victor 20252, 1926)

“Dead Man Blues” is another classic from Jelly Roll Morton and company. This one starts out with a tongue-in-cheek dialogue that explains the back story (a funeral procession is passing by) while letting you know that there is fun ahead. Then, after a few somber bars of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” the band transitions into jazz with a slide of Kid Ory’s trombone, and the song takes a decidedly more relaxed and happy tone. The song captures the New Orleans funeral tradition of somber music on the way to the burial, and joyous music (to celebrate the life of the deceased) on the return. There is a brief section where Ory, clarinetist Omer Simeon and trumpeter George Mitchell all play competing melodies at once. This is followed by solos from first Simeon and then Mitchell, and while neither is technically challenging, they are both beautifully played. The lead instruments then all come together for several bars for another lovely melody, which is this time punctuated by quick strikes from the rhythm section. The lead instruments then go their separate ways again for a short spell and appear to end the song that way. But after only the briefest moment of silence, there is a final sweet gift: a soft, understated repetition of the unified melody and a final strike from the rhythm section.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Sidewalk Blues” (Victor 20252, 1926)

Ted Lewis and His Band with Sophie Tucker
Some of These Days(Columbia 826-D, 1926)

Sophie Tucker was a Jewish veteran of the vaudeville circuit who had begun her career in blackface imitating African American song styles. However, her imitation was sincere and she soon left the blackface behind and concentrated on perfecting her craft, taking lessons from such African American stars as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. Backed by the Ted Lewis’ popular band, “Some of These Days” would sell a million copies in 1926 and would become Tucker’s theme song for the rest of her life. And for good reason: this is a dynamite song and Tucker nails the performance. She imbues the age-old story with both sadness and defiance, as she tells the lover who has spurned her “You’re gonna miss your big fat mama / your mama / Some of these days.”

~ You may also like: Sophie Tucker’s original, solo recording of “Some of These Days” (Edison 4M-691, 1911)

Paul Robeson
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (Victor 20013, 1926)

Paul Robeson was an African American pioneer and renaissance man, breaking many color barriers in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best remembered for his work in musical theater, and for his heart-felt renditions of old, African American spirituals such as this one, which he rescued from obscurity and helped become a modern folk standard.

Robeson has only a simple, slow piano accompaniment here, but he needs nothing else. A trained opera singer, his deep, rich bass voice is a powerful instrument and he plays it superbly. The tremolo in his voice conveys just the right balance between emotion and restraint as he stretches each note out for effect. And despite its somber tone, the beauty of its delivery makes this performance strangely uplifting.

~ You may also like: Walter Pidgeon, “What’ll I Do?” (HMV B1882, 1924)

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1927 Headlines … Charles Lindbergh makes the first nonstop transatlantic flight … Great Mississippi Flood affects 700,000 … First full-length movie with synchronized sound: The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson
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Paul Robeson
Deep River (Victor 20793, 1927)

This is another moving performance from Paul Robeson of a traditional African American spiritual. The lyrics of the song are simple but powerful, drawing parallels between the Biblical theme of the Israelites seeking the Promised Land, and the trials of African Americans seeking freedom: “Deep river, my home is over Jordan / Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.” The implication is that the trials of this life are a deep river, but heaven (campground) lies on the other side.

Again, Robeson’s vocal control is amazing. Because this song is written to be more comforting than somber, he is able to deliver a more dynamic performance here than he gave on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He takes liberties with tempo and loudness to deliver maximum impact throughout. After starting with the chorus, he repeats it again, but this time speeding it up in the beginning, only to slow it way down at the end, making the listener hang on every word. Then he does the same with the verse and the song hits its apex just as he slows down and powerfully delivers the words “Promised Land.” The song then fades softly out as he finishes the verse and repeats the second half of the chorus.

At that point, I highly recommend hitting pause to stop and soak in what you’ve just heard. And then rewind to hear it again, because it is over far too quickly.

~ You may also like any of Robeson’s numerous performances of his signature song from the musical Show Boat, such as his original London cast recording: Paul Robeson, “Ol’ Man River” (Columbia/EMI, unreleased 1928 recording; Paul Robeson Sings “Ol’ Man River” and Other Favorites, Angel, 1972)

Blind Mamie Forehand
Honey in the Rock (Anchor 381, 1927)

Mamie Forehand was a blind street singer from Memphis who made a handful of highly-regarded recordings late in life. With her husband, A.C., gently accompanying on slide guitar, she created a delicate masterpiece in “Honey in the Rock.” This is proto-gospel blues, and the spiritual elements add amazing depth to the fragile vocals. The contrast between Forehand’s weak, weary voice and the weightless, uplifting lyrics is captivating: “Mother, mother, can’t you see / Oh, what the Lord has did for me / There is no evil ever in sight / While I’m walking by my savior’s side.” In addition to singing, Forehand plays small, antique cymbals, which chime faintly but steadily in the background. This unusual choice of accompaniment serves to make the record even more distinctive and elevating.

~ You may also like: Washington Phillips, “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” (Columbia 14277-D, 1927)

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