Tag Archives: Billy Murray

“IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE”: TORSTEIN KUBBAN, JACOB ULLBERGER, FRANS SJOSTROM at the MIKE DURHAM CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 5, 2015)

in-the-shade-of-the-old-apple-tree-sheet-music-of-1910-song-by-harry-BRH6CH

You don’t need a large group of people to create something beautiful.  And you don’t need the most comfortable settings — even a large sign advertising GOURMET BURGERS and COMFORT SALADS is no distraction for heartfelt artists who know and embody lovely truths.

And so it was once again shown — gorgeously — on the first night of the 2015 Mike Durham Classic Jazz  Party (November 5) after the rehearsals had concluded and a small group of the devout gathered in the Victory Pub for fun and hot jazz.

Here, three masters of hot combined to produce music at the highest level: Torstein Kubban, cornet; Jacob Ullberger, banjo; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone.  Their text for this mellow sermon is the old song IN THE SHADE OF  THE OLD APPLE TREE — a song so well-known that I recall two parody versions (one ethnic-vaudeville, one lewd) and I am sure there are more . . . as well as Ellington’s and the sacred collaboration of Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers.

But rather than studying the past, I invite you to delight in the glories of the present — a performance where one can admire the individual voices and then marvel at what they combine to create:

Who knew that lovely fruit could grow in darkness?  These three artists did and do.  And more marvels like this will take place at the 2016 Party in November.

Thanks to the Library of Congress “National Jukebox,” here is Billy Murray’s 1905 parody version of the song, depicting death and violence in the orchard.  “Don’t try this at home!” rings especially true.

Apple Tree parody label 1905

May your happiness increase! 

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PRETTY LIVELY: EXILED SWEETHEARTS, CAGED BIRDS, SAD DOLLS, RUINED MAIDS

GLAD RAG DOLL 1929Members of repressive societies are forbidden to write about the forbidden; censorship blossoms in the name of morality.  But ingenious writers and artists make their way around prohibitions. Even in the most conservative environment, sin can be explored in popular culture if the writer is lamenting the horrid effects of such behavior.  Lost virginity and illicit drugs could be the titillating subjects of early films — if they were deplored rather than celebrated.

We could go back to 1900 for A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE, by Arthur J. Lamb (lyrics) and Harry Von Tilzer (music), a huge popular hit that depicted a young woman in a loveless marriage who has chosen money over affection. The story goes that Lamb approached Von Tilzer with the lyrics, which Von Tilzer liked — but he wanted Lamb’s lyrics to make it clear that the young woman was not someone’s mistress.  The famous refrain is: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, / A beautiful sight to see, / You may think she’s happy and free from care, / She’s not, though she seems to be, / ‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life, / For youth cannot mate with age, / And her beauty was sold, / For an old man’s gold, / She’s a bird in a gilded cage.”

Girls, don’t sell your beauty and be sure not to mate with age!

Here’s a 1904 version, sung by Harry Anthony:

Forward to two late-Twenties songs, music that motivated my meditations on bad girls who wear cosmetics.

The 1928 GLAD RAG DOLL (music by Milton Ager / Dan Dougherty; lyrics by Jack Yellen) assertively states that money and flashy clothing and jewelry bring only the most shallow happiness, even asking us where and how that finery was acquired.   The verse is almost accusatory: Hester Prynne has just gotten off the train in a small town, and everyone notices the way she’s dressed: “Little painted lady with your lovely clothes / Where are you bound for may I ask? / What your diamonds cost you everybody knows / All the world can see behind your mask.”

Here is Ruth Etting’s wistful version:

“Glad rags” become “sad rags” in a day; the brightly dressed young woman will never find a proper husband “to grow old and grey with,” and her many admirers will desert her — although she can always “amend” her flashy ways.  Presumably the speaker is sedately dressed and long married — neither a boy who “plays” nor a “pretty little toy the boys like to play with” any longer.  Respectable for sure, not aimed for disgrace or disappointment, but the painted woman seems to be having more fun, even if it is transitory.

I couldn’t leave GLAD RAG DOLL without offering Earl Hines’ wordless solo — rollicking without caring for the morals expressed in the stern lyrics:

nosweet1b

Another song in the same moral mode is NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, which most of us know as a Chicago hot number.  But its initial versions had the same warning coloration: the young woman, in this case, has left all her loyal small-town admirers behind for a shady life of glamor in the big city. Music by Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics by Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman.

Here’s the sad verse: “You were ev’rybody’s sweetheart / Not so long ago / And in our home town, each boy around / Longed to be your beau / But things are diff’rent today / I’m mighty sorry to say.” Urban fashion seems to require a loss of purity, in a dichotomy. Either small-town sweetheart or Painted Woman Wearing A Bird of Paradise.

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

“You’re nobody’s sweetheart now, / There’s no place for you somehow, / With your fancy clothes, silken gowns, / You’ll be out of place in the middle of your own hometown, / When you walk down the avenue, / All the folks just can’t believe that it’s you. / With painted lips and painted eyes, / Wearing a bird of paradise, / It all seems wrong somehow, / You’re nobody’s sweetheart now!”  

It echoes Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser: the young woman who leaves her home for the big city will be changed irrevocably — exiled, outcast.  Neither GLAD RAG DOLL nor NOBODY’S SWEETHEART suggests that the young woman has earned her clothing and jewelry through prostitution, but there seems no moral way for a single woman to earn her keep without a husband, so the worst suspicions are never contradicted.  But she is beautifully and glamorously dressed.  Vice doesn’t endure but it certainly looks good in the short run.

Nobody's Sweetheart 1924

Here is Marion Harris’ sympathetic version from 1929:

A few years earlier, Billy Murray and a tough-talking Aileen Stanley deflated the song’s moral stance from the start:

And for those who might not have seen this 1929 short film, it contains a very swinging vocal by a young man from the heartland who would later say that his singing had always been an error.  He sounds pretty good here!

(Incidentally, there were popular hits depicting small-town women, loyal and true, who would never think of wearing jewelry or painting their faces — MY GAL SAL is just one example.  And thousands of songs, it seems, that celebrate impending matrimony — “when we two are one and someday there’ll be three”.)

Thinking about all those songs that both deplore and secretly celebrate young women who have wandered from the orthodox path of marriage, prudence, and dependence, I remembered a poem (from 1901) by Thomas Hardy, called THE RUINED MAID: 

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!

Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —

“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

 

“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,

Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;

And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”

“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’

And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now

Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —

“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

 

“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak

But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,

And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —

“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,

And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem

To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —

“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

 

“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,

And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —

“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,

Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

In theory, Hardy was writing about the hard life of the country maiden, but it seems difficult to take that as the message of THE RUINED MAID, which makes being ruined a delightful version of upward social mobility.  A Moral?  Live fast, paint your face, leave home for the city, and you’ll be the subject of popular art.

And just in case this socio-literary survey has left you melancholy, here’s a modern version of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW by Hal Smith’s International Sextet at Sacramento in 2011.  You can sing along with Kim Cusack by now:

That’s Hal Smith, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Anita Thomas, clarinet; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. Uncredited appearance of a Recalcitrant Microphone Stand courtesy of the local Musicians’ Union.

May your happiness increase!

DUKE’S APPLE, OR ADVENTURES IN SOUND

IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, composed in 1905 by Williams and Van Alstyne, may have seemed nostalgic even when it first appeared.  The lyrics describe some caressing and blushing and a promise of pastoral fidelity although they are now apart.  But no one has been thrown out of the Garden.

To establish the song, here’s a 1929 Max Flesicher SCREEN SONGS cartoon — a whole show in itself, with a comic prelude, the cynical vaudeville patter (is the singer Billy Murray?), then two verses, two choruses.  The satire of the cartoon jostles the innocence of the lyrics and melody.  (As the lyrics describe pastoral pleasures — the birds, bees, and flowers — the sandwich refuses to be eaten, the dachshund is nearly caught in the shrinking building: slapstick proliferates.)

Here’s Duke Ellington’s version from August 15, 1933:

This has been one of my favorite recordings for years, showing once again how beautifully jazz improvisers take the most simple material and make it spacious, relaxing in the freedom that simple melodies and harmonies afford.

It begins with the reed section stating the first notes of the melody against a simple stride figure from Ellington’s piano — a stripped-down Willie “the Lion” Smith motif, perhaps? — that suggests both a vaudeville vamp and someone ambling down the street.  The reeds and piano (over Wellman Braud’s happily prominent string bass) converse in a most pastoral manner . . . suggesting that a sweet band is taking the stand (although Duchin could never have managed that piano figure with such swing) until ominous rumblings are heard in the background.

Did a large dog make its way into the Brunswick studios?  No, it’s just Cootie Williams with his plunger mute.  I think in the second half of the chorus either Freddy Jenkins or Rex Stewart takes over to continue the sweet satire.  If, in the first thirty seconds, the Jungle Band was peeking sideways through the sweet foliage, the second half of the first chorus is more raucously comic — the apple tree gets connected to horse racing, to a repeated blues phrase, and the trumpet soloist ends his chorus with what sounds like a genuine guffaw.  Obviously more than “the dull buzz of the bee” is evident here.

So far, by the way, one might think this a small band recording — a three-piece rhythm section, a reed section, and one or two trumpeters at most.  None of the annunciatory “big band” power of trading sections.

The next eight bars suggest that satire — or at least a distinctively mocking voice — has taken the upper hand.  Could anyone mistake the half-muted plunger sound of Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, offering his own wry commentary on what exactly might be going on in the wildwood — certainly blushing and caressing are the least of it, for the imagined lovers have given full vent to their animal passions!  Then Tricky (in the next eight bars) seems to jam his plunger mute fully into the bell of his horn, sounding like another musician completely, ending his chorus with a huge guffaw or Bronx cheer.

So far we’ve had the counterpoint between the decorous (although swinging) reeds delineating the melody and the much naughtier brass voices.  Ellington saves his most dramatic soloist for the next chorus — the golden sound of Johnny Hodges, turning this simple melody into a blues, then adding a Louis-inspired upwards phrase to move us completely away from melodic embellishment.  There is no satire here — rather a mixture of the blues and a dramatic aria.

One more chorus remains.  What sounds like the whole ensemble (did Ellington have all his thirteen players in the studio for this or was it a smaller band?) — muted brass playing staccato phrases, supported by the reed section . . . but wait!  A beautiful embroidery of woody, swooping phrases (“that’s Barney Bigard on clarinet / you ain’t never heard nothing like him yet”) decorates the clipped phrasing.  That phrasing, to my ears, is so reminiscent of music for a tap-dance routine that I wonder if Ellington began playing this piece in theatres for a group like the Four Step Brothers.

And after a decorous, rather formal ending, the piece closes with a reiteration of those brass mockeries, doo-wahs that look backwards to the Jungle Band and IT DON’T MEAN A THING.  Whatever happened under the Old Apple Tree might have been less nostalgic, in Ellington’s imagination.

On paper, this is a very simple series of inventions: the reed section (and then the brass) keeps stating a pared-down version of the melody, while a small number of soloists improvise over it.  But what a variety of sounds!  And although I may have heard this recording several hundred times, and I know who and what is coming next, it never fails to be a delightful surprise.  No drama in volume, just a beautiful series of dance-vignettes celebrating individual sounds.

Twelve years later, Ellington returned to the piece and offered it regularly as part of his 1945 radio broadcasts from theatres.  One such version, recorded on May 26 in Chicago, made its way onto a V-Disc, which is how we have it here.  The band is larger: Rex Stewart, Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Cat Anderson (tp) Ray Nance (tp,vln,vcl) Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Claude Jones, Lawrence Brown (tb) Jimmy Hamilton (cl,ts) Johnny Hodges (as) Otto Hardwick (as,cl) Al Sears (ts) Harry Carney (bar,cl,b-cl) Duke Ellington (p) Fred Guy (g) Junior Raglin (b) Sonny Greer (d).

The outlines of the original performance are still visible, but the whole recording has a rather leisurely — even lazy — feel to it, as if this was a piece that Ellington’s band didn’t have to work too hard to perform:

And just in case you’d like another taste of the Apple . . . here’s my own personal Paradise, a sublime quintet:

May your happiness increase.

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS (Part Two: May 30, 2012)

It’s easy to tell the truth . . . so I will write it again.  (If you didn’t see Part One of this happy musical evening, here it is.)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure. It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist. It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing). It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination. Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE. Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH. Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.” His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide. In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios. Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements. King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing. All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways. I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.

Here’s the second part of that wide-ranging musical offering.

The NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES, which I associate with Bessie Smith and a 1940 Johnny Dodds recording:

Leadbelly’s THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL:

For Sophie Tucker, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and a thousand others — that hot jazz admonition, SOME OF THESE DAYS:

Another Jimmie Rodgers evergreen, THE DESERT BLUES:

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned Cole Porter above; here’s I LOVE PARIS:

A song by Ewan MacColl from 1949, made famous by The Dubliners, DIRTY OLD TOWN:

Lots of fun with THE SECOND LINE IN NEW ORLEANS, a rocking good time:

John evokes Bing Crosby splendidly — without imitating him note-for-note — and he performed one of my favorite early Bing romantic songs, PLEASE (it’s part of the Polite Bing Trilogy: MAY I? / PLEASE / THANKS:

And to close off the performance (they kept on, but bourgeois responsibilities called me home), they performed John’s own salute to New Orleans, THE BORDER OF THE QUARTER:

In my ideal world, Professor Gill would be both Artist-in-Residence at any number of prestigious universities with American Studies programs . . . but he would have time to lead bands regularly.  Any takers?

May your happiness increase.

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS: PART ONE (May 30, 2012)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure.  It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist.  It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing).  It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination.  Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE.  Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH.  Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.”  His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide.  In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios.  Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements.  King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing.  All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways.  I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.  They began the evening with a MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, which W. C. Handy then “adapted” as the ATLANTA BLUES:

One of those good old good ones that all the musicians love to play (and that includes Bix, Louis, Benny, and Basie), the ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

Here’s where John differs from the “traditional jazz” formula: how about the Jimmie Rodgers song T FOR TEXAS:

For the dancers (and they were at the National Underground that night), SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

If you enjoy odd intersections, I think MUDDY WATER counts as one, a song both Bing Crosby and Bessie Smith recorded in 1927:

Here’s a pretty 1931 pop tune that came back to life a quarter-century later (Vic Dickenson liked to play it, too), LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND:

And — to close off this segment — a song I’d only heard on recordings (Johnny Dodds); next time, I’ll ask John to sing WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO:

In my ideal New York City, John Gill is leading small hot bands like this on a regular basis.  It would take months before he and his colleagues had to repeat a song . . .  More to come!

May your happiness increase.