Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What’s Wrong with Being First?

Today, I’m going to talk about a harmonic convergence that led to my interest in collecting, and eventually writing about, Really Old Music. I didn’t come by that interest naturally; even though my parents introduced me to pop music when I was two years old, the oldest music they really listened to was Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” Even my dad’s parents seemed to have begun their record collection in the mid-1950s, though it’s likely that they simply tossed their 78s from the 1940s when they broke. My mom’s parents didn’t seem to have a record collection at all, but her dad turned 74 when Elvis first charted, so that’s no surprise.

Since no one played Big Band music for me when I was little, it took an adult caithiseach, interested in what had Come Before Rock, some time to learn the names of the artists who made music prior to Bill Haley. Even then, I thought recorded music sort of started with the Big Bands of the 1930s, and I impressed myself one day by buying a CD compilation of Glenn Miller recordings. That foray came ten years after I began to steep myself in Celtic music, which was a necessary lateral move I had wanted to make for years.

When CD compilations of 1950s music began to abound, I bought them as quickly as finances allowed. I figured they would not stay in print forever, and I was right about that. Some of these compilations included songs that did not fit neatly into the Rock Era collection I was amassing. I found myself with a small but significant collection of songs that had charted between 1950 and 1954. The Ames Brothers, early Nat “King” Cole, and Doris Day formed part of this batch of “early” music.

If I logged my music as most other collectors did, I might still be collecting Rock Era Top 40 and gathering the occasional pre-1955 song. But when I convert my songs to compressed files, I don’t sort by artist. From the beginning, I wanted my folders to show longitudinal, rather than stylistic, variations, and so I start my file names with the date that a song entered the Top 40, according to Joel Whitburn.

That system meant that I needed to know the debut dates for the songs I owned from 1950 to 1954. It turned out that there was a Whitburn book that dealt with the matter: Pop Memories 1890-1954. I even got to make a bit of use of the book without buying it: I could see sample pages on the Record Research website, as well as on Amazon. Thus, I was able to rename my Ames Brothers songs according to their debut dates. But beyond the A artists, I was stuck.

Finally, after I drooled over that book for a couple of years without being sure it held much value for my collection, a friend decided I should own it, and I got it for my birthday. That gift opened a portal into the rest of the music story, and I, an avid collector of sound, found myself mesmerized by the data the book offered.

My first goal was to collect as much pre-1900 music as I could. Imagine: artists singing into horns about a bygone era when wagons were far more common than automobiles, or about waiting for a call from a beau on that newfangled instrument, the telephone. How cool was that?

Still, there was a definite problem with expanding my collection to the pioneer era of recording: Very little of the material was available on CD. I didn’t see how I was going to get past that hurdle, until a day that I bought a 100-pack of CD-Rs.

How would blank CDs make it easy for me to collect music from 1890? The Verbatim CD packaging included an offer for 100 free downloads from eMusic.com Ah! One hundred free songs is a good thing, and with no further obligation, even a suspicious consumer such as caithiseach could not pass up the offer.

On the eMusic site I found the entire Stax-Volt catalog, now owned by Fantasy Records, whose entire catalog, including CCR, was also there. But more to the point of this essay, there was a bunch of early music available for download. And at about 23 cents per song after the 100 free tunes, they were a bargain that I, again, could not ignore. For the past three years, I have been paying $20 a month and downloading 90 DRM-free mp3s.

This is not an ad for eMusic, though you could consider it a tip for collectors. But the beauty of getting these mp3s lay in the fact that the early recordings had a fairly narrow dynamic range, which meant that the compression of mp3 technology had little effect on the quality of the sound. The format was perfect for recordings from 1890 to 1925 or so, and these songs exist in abundance on eMusic.

So, now, I have a solid and not at all random collection of the big hits from 1890 to 1954. My Pop Memories book serves as a checklist to some degree, and it has allowed me to expose my mind to a wide variety of artists, previously known and unknown, that I would not have met were it not for the intersection of eMusic and Pop Memories.

One example of the exposure I received is my acquaintance with the first commercially recorded jazz tunes, the efforts of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Controversy swirls around this group, which was founded in 1916 to bring an extant musical idiom, New Orleans Jazz, to Chicago. The act arrived so early in the evolution of the genre that it referred to itself as a “jass” band, reworking the word to “jazz” more than a year later.

On January 31, 1917, this band made some audition recordings for Columbia. These, the first jazz recordings ever, were not released until the act had some success with Victor recordings, but the original Columbia takes of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and “(Back Home in) Indiana” saw the light of day in late 1917.

The personnel story is convoluted and best read on Wikipedia. What needs to be mentioned here is that a lot of purists don’t like to give credit to a white act for originating a musical genre with African American origins. The same thing happens, of course, when Bill Haley and Elvis (Presley) are described as the originators of rock and roll. What can be said about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is that they are documented as having made the first recordings that can be called jazz, and they composed as a group some of the most iconic jazz tunes of all time, including “Tiger Rag.”

Wherever you fall on the “originators of jazz” argument, the fact is that you have an opinion only if you have been able to read about early jazz, and that would happen only if you knew where to find the names of the bands that deserve to be explored. My whole point of talking every other Wednesday about Really Old Music is to enable you to know what to look for if you have any interest at all in going back in time to the early days of music.

The Pop Memories book is lamentably not available right now, but if you want to know the names of some acts worth pursuing and perusing from the old days, I’ll gladly give you some personal pointers, if you email me. Though I, as late as 2006, did not envision myself being attracted by the pioneers of music, I now find myself trying to dig up not just every Top 40 hit from the Rock Era, but every chart song ever recorded. It’s a fascinating evolution from Billy Golden’s “Turkey in the Straw” to “Chain Hang Low” by Jibbs, which uses the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” Along the path from one version to the other, we find a lot of firsts, and I’m glad I can share with you today the first jazz recordings.

Since I am back home in Indiana for the week, it makes sense to include that song, as well as the huge smash “Tiger Rag” and the presumed first jazz recording, “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Enjoy them, and consider taking the plunge into the past yourself.

Saturday, I’ll bring you Week Ten of the 1950s chart action. See you then!

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Indiana

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Tiger Rag

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Darktown Strutters’ Ball

1 comment:

whiteray said...

Fascinating! I don't dig into the pre-1950 era to the degree you do, but it's way cool to hear these songs. (I occasionally have fun playing for folks the oldest recording I have, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet singing "Poor Mourner," which I believe was recorded in 1902.)