Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The More Things Change . . .

In the earliest days of the recording industry, master recordings could reproduce a severely limited number of copies. Therefore, an artist would have to record a popular hit hundreds of times to replace worn-out masters. It was also customary for artists to record the same song for more than one label. Often it is possible to keep track of the recording date of a take, but that information doesn’t always accompany mp3 files.

For that reason, it is very difficult for me to know exactly which of the early recordings I own is the oldest in my collection. I am fairly confident that the song I am featuring today, “Turkey in the Straw” by Billy Golden, is my oldest recording, even if it is not as old as the song’s original chart date: October 17, 1891.

Several details about this recording fascinate me. First, Billy Golden was born before the Civil War began. Second, when he sang about a horse breaking the tongue of a wagon, he was singing about the only conveyance he was likely to know. These days, if an old-time group sings “Turkey in the Straw,” it is a quaint exercise in how things used to be. Billy could easily visualize the song’s scenario from his daily life, and there really was no alternate reality for him.

Born William Heins in Cincinnati in 1855, Billy developed a significant vaudeville career for himself. That made it easy for him to transition to a recording career, though chances are good that his live performances were more perky than his recordings, especially once Billy got up to around one hundred takes or so.

Billy was a specialist in two types of early recordings: the laughing song, and what is now recognized as racist content. The laughing song involved the artist chortling loudly over the instrumental parts of the song, perhaps to encourage laughter from a live audience, perhaps to pull some chuckles out of those who listened to the recordings. Either way, the laughter sounds forced to me.

As for racist content, there’s a small chance that some recordings were a celebration, rather than a mockery, of African-American life. I won’t try to make a case for that point of view, but I can say that racism was so deeply embedded in American culture that it’s difficult to find a pioneer artist whose body of work is untainted by it.

Billy died in 1926, with 6 chart hits to his credit. “Turkey in the Straw” reached #1 for seven weeks at a time when there were few data to analyze and little competition for the top spot.

A characteristic of this and virtually all early recordings is a phenomenon that has returned in the 2000s: at the beginning of the record, the title and artist were announced and, in this case, the label was also announced. The person announcing this recording for Edison Records is Thomas Edison. Nowadays, as songs are cranking up, often rappers will give their name and tell us who is singing with them. As you can tell, the idea is not a new one.

And one other idea that has returned as of 2006 is the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” The melody, with the parody lyric “Do Your Ears Hang Low?,” was further parodied as “Chain Hang Low” by Jibbs (Jovan Campbell), and the single entered the Top 40 on August 26, 2006, reaching #7.

While we all know about sampling and retreads of songs that are just a few years old, the idea that a hip-hop artist based a song on a 180-year-old melody intrigues me. Give the songs a listen, and meditate on how vast a space the creative tableau is in the world of music.

For Saturday, it's Week Seventeen of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Billy Golden, Turkey in the Straw

Jibbs, Chain Hang Low

No comments: