Monthly Archives: April 2018

Ragtime begins to change our music

Ragtime became central to the development of jazz in both America and Britain around the turn of the century.  The term ‘ragtime’ comes from the syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythm and had its origins in the African-American communities in cities such as St. Louis. One of the first pioneers and composers of ragtime was Ernest Hogan. He was the first composer to have his ragtime pieces (or “rags”) published as sheet music, beginning with the song “LA Pas Ma LA” published in 1895.  More important, though, could be the fact that he has been credited for coining the term ragtime.  Ben Harney, another Kentucky native, has often been credited for introducing the music to the mainstream public. His first ragtime composition, “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down”, helped popularize the style. However – the composition was published in 1895, a few months after Ernest Hogan.

Nun-the-less – it is neither of these that keep Ragtime in our memory.  That composer is Scott Joplin who became famous through the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 and was followed by “The Entertainer” in 1902.  Despite this Scott, and many others of the time, were later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados.  It was not until a major ragtime revival in the early 1970s that brought them to the fore.

So what’s happening in Britain at this time?  Well – not too much with regard to day-to-day music it would appear.  Many of the earliest parlour songs were transcriptions for voice and keyboard of other music.  Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, for instance, were traditional “folk” tunes with new lyrics by Moore.  Many arias from Italian operas, particularly those of Bellini and Donizetti, had become parlour songs, with texts either translated or replaced by new lyrics. Various other genres were also performed in the parlour, including patriotic selections, religious songs, and pieces written for the musical stage.  However – excerpts from blackface minstrels, arranged for voice and keyboard, were particularly popular.  Also we we have a handful of the better-known songs, such as Schubert’s “Serenade”, that became part of the parlour repertory. Lyrics written for parlour songs often have sentimental themes, such as love songs or poetic meditations.  We’ll come to these at a later time.

However – the following has been tracked down as being the top 10 pieces in 1901 to 1910. Starting at 10th best – and heading to number one – we have:

Arthur Collins (1902) we have ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home’.

Harry MacDonough with Miss Walton (1909)‘Shine on Harvest Moon’.

Hayden Quartet (1903) ‘In the Good Old Summer Time’.

Bill Murray in 1905 ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’.

Billy Murray (1904) ‘Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis’.

Byron Harlan (1907) ‘School Days (When We Were a Couple of Kids)’.

Bill Murray (1905) ‘Give my Regards to Broadway’

Hayden Quartet (1908) ‘Take me out to the ball game’.

Hayden Quartet (1904) ‘Sweet Adeline (You’re the Flower of My Heart)’.

And at number one for the years 1901 to 1910 we have:

Bill Murray (1906) ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag (aka ‘The Grand Old Rag’)’.

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Ragtime gets closer

Last week we started our story with a broad overview of ‘Ragtime’ from both sides of the Atlantic.  This week we’ll have a look at early British popular music. This music can be seen as originating in the 16th and 17th centuries and from this we can trace the arrival of printed musical copies which were sold cheaply and in great numbers through to the 19th century.

Most of the instruments used by British brass bands had existed for some time but they only became a mass activity in the 1840/50s out of village, church and military bands. For many these brass bands were an expression of the local solidarity and their newly formed and often rapidly growing communities.

This developed as a result of a steady increase in the number of households with enough surplus cash to purchase musical instruments and instruction in music and with the leisure time and cultural motivation to engage in recreational music-making. This high point of the parlor song came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a distinction arose between ‘art music’ and ‘popular music’, even if it was not expressed exactly in those terms.

The increase in urban populations and the rise of the bourgeoisie brought a need for public demonstrations of social standing, since it was no longer common knowledge who was important. Attending concerts was, among other things, a means of displaying status.  What for a working-class audience might be down-to-earth, plain-speaking and funny – for the bourgeois audience might appear as rude, vulgar, and silly! Perhaps this is why inversion was common in popular form – for example, lust not love, crudity not politeness, degradation not sublimity, materiality not spirituality.

For the middle class, culture was in itself instructive but first required that people be instructed in it; hence the didactic character of attempts to encourage working-class ‘appreciation’ of music. The People’s Concert Society, founded in 1878, was an amateur organization dedicated to making high-status music known among the London poor. The Society began Sunday concerts of chamber music in South Place, Moorgate, in 1887. From the succeeding year, admission was free, or a voluntary contribution could be made, and attendance was good.

The British Brass Band Movement, in the second half of the century, was another example of ‘rational recreation’, with the willingness of factory owners to sponsor works bands. These bands had their roots in the industrial North, but the steel, ironworks and shipping companies of east London also had bands in the 1860s. Some of the difficulties and distractions facing London bands compared to bands further north have been discussed by Dave Russell. Huge annual contests were held at the Crystal Palace during 1860-63. The first of these, a two-day event with entrance prices of 2s 6d for the first and 1s for the second day, attracted an audience of 29,000. The test pieces for the contests at the Crystal Palace placed an emphasis on high-status music: selections from Meyerbeer’s grand operas were the favourite choices, as at the Belle Vue contests in Manchester that same decade.

The labouring poor may have been sung about and even felt to be understood in certain socially-concerned drawing-room ballads, but their lives often lay outside the experience of those who sang the ballads. Antoinette Sterling, who so movingly sang ‘Three Fishers Went Sailing’, confessed that not only had she no experience of storms at sea, but ‘had never even seen fishermen’. Actual acquaintance with fishermen was undoubtedly unnecessary, since the subject position such ballads addressed was that of the middle class.

So we have now had a glance of both sides of the water in the years as music met with the changing needs and attitudes.
Our story, though, was born as being from ‘Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’. That arrives next week – on Wednesday 25th April 2018.   Please be there!

A story from Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll

I first started pulling the pieces of this story together some 15 or so years ago.  At that time I was a tutor/speaker for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and, among many other courses I presented, I offered ‘From Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’.   In due time I moved on, my activities changed and ‘FRT to R’n’R’ went on the back boiler.  I now feel that the time is right to bring it back to life.

I hope you will enjoy it as much I am sure I will.

Ragtime music came from the work camps linked to the railway’s expansion in the USA.  The words of Max Morath an American ragtime pianist, composer, actor and author who was best known for his piano playing .  He was referred to as “Mr. Ragtime”. – ‘Scorned by the establishment as ephemeral at best, trashy at worst, Ragtime was the fountainhead of every rhythmic and stylistic upheaval that has followed in a century of ever evolving American popular music’ – summed up his view of the establishment’s view of the new music.  But, as we shall see, this response to new popular music repeats itself time & time again.

Very few people ever listen by choice to music that they don’t like so, for music to be popular, it has to match or reflect the desires, feelings, conditions and attitudes of its listeners potential and real. Therefore, no commercial composer or performer can afford to ignore their chosen market.  As a result all, strands of composed music can be taken as a reflection of the social environment of the listeners the composer expected.  For the purposes of this course we are interpreting ‘popular music’ as music with mass appeal to the ‘man and woman in the street’ – the ‘Person on the Clapham Omnibus’.  This first session laid the foundations for our exploration of this look at our social history.  What I want to do is tell the story of the popular music as created, released and, above all, enjoyed.

Very few people ever listen by choice to music they don’t like so, for music to be popular, it has to match or reflect the desires, feelings, conditions and attitudes of its listeners potential and real. Therefore, no commercial composer or performer can afford to ignore his chosen market.  As a result all strands of composed music can be taken as a reflection of the social environment of the listeners the composer expected.

Almost everybody has a favorite tune or song, something that can instantly bring back a very special memory – good or bad.  However, the power of music to bring back that personal past is not limited to a single tune – or even a single event.

‘If music be the food of love, play on’ from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night conjures up one social aspect of music and Noel Coward’s comment in 1930 that ‘Strange how potent cheap music is’ from Private Lives gives musical meaning a different slant.  I think us, though, should start our path to understanding and enjoying the social underpinning of popular music with Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s 1899 Maple Leaf Rag

New Orleans was its birthplace – 1896 legislation created institutionalized segregation and tended to drive classically trained coloured musicians into the black community.  Changing work patterns took the black population north to Chicago, and the 1919 prohibition act created the illegal, gangster owned speakeasies.  Ragtime morphed into Jazz – music that was an integral part of this; music that was variously described as ‘the ultimate in rugged individualism and the creative process incarnate’ and ‘a manifestation of a low streak in man’s taste that has not yet come out in civilization’s wash’

In Britain we had our Music Halls that developed out of do-it-yourself pub entertainment & reigned supreme as the source of popular entertainment. The ‘Halls’ were frequented by ‘sporting aristocrats’ as well as the ‘working classes’, and made performers like Marie Lloyd national idols.

We’ll come to those next week and hope you do too!I first started pulling the pieces of this story together some 15 or so years ago.  At that time I was a tutor/speaker for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and, among many other courses I presented, I offered ‘From Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’.   In due time I moved on, my activities changed and ‘FRT to R’n’R’ went on the back boiler.  I now feel that the time is right to bring it back to life. I hope you will enjoy it as much I am sure I will.

I

We were first over the top of the world

The the 29,029-foot-high summit of Mount Everest was first conquered on foot by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953.  BUT – it had been two decades earlier – on Monday 3rd April 1933 – that Everest had been conquered by air – by Britian!

With the financial backing of philanthropist Lady Houston, the Houston Everest Expedition took off from an airstrip near Purnea, India at 8:25 a.m.  Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquess of Clydesdale as he was then known, was flying a modified Westland PV-3 biplane accompanied by Colonel Stewart Blacker. Following them in a Westland PV-6 were Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre and photographer S.R. Bonnett.  The flight would test not only the mechanical capabilities of the biplanes at dizzying altitudes, but also the endurance of the pilots in the thin and frigid air.  After 30 minutes’ flying the planes passed over Forbesganj, their forward emergency landing ground forty miles from Purnea, and at a height of 19,000 feet Everest first became visible above the haze.  The crew members were flying without the benefit of pressurized cabins, and relied on oxygen tanks to breathe and at one point in the flight, the photographer Bonnett felt faint and experienced shooting pains in his stomach. He paused filming and sat down inside the cabin, where he discovered a gaping fracture in his oxygen line.  He quickly tied a handkerchief around the breach, and was able to resume his duties without losing consciousness.

With that now under control they were neared Everest, when wind presented them another challenge.  The deflection of winds off the mountain had created a down current that caused the planes to drop 1,500 feet as they struggled to climb skyward.  However, despite the high winds, both planes soared a hundred or so feet over the summit and the men spent some 15 minutes circling the roof of the world before beginning their journey back.

In recognition of his achievement Douglas-Hamilton received the Air Force Cross in 1935. Also in his open cockpit was an unnamed cine-photographer and following them was a second Westland PV-6, piloted by Flight Lieutenant, D F McIntyre.  The flight took three hours, covered a return distance of 320 miles reaching nearly 30,000 feet clearing the mountain by a reported 100 feet. Close range photographs of Mt Everest proved the achievement.

A film, ‘Wings over Everest’, was made of the record-setting flight – no doubt using the film of Squadron Leader’s cine-photographer.  In 1936 the story was told in a book ‘The Pilot’s Book of Everest’ written by the two pilots.

These happened in April in years gone by

Some while ago I compiled a set of 12 ‘It Happened in ….’ books – one for each day of each month of the year.  It was sold locally and went quite well.  However, various things came along and stopped me taking the ‘Happenings’ further.  Now – hopefully – this is the beginning of the next version of ‘It Happened in ….’ and we’re starting it in April.

April is the fourth month of the year and, by the Romans of times long past, was associated with the goddess Venus – and the word April may be related to her Greek name Aphrodite.  Both this and the traditional etymology, from the Latin aperire, to open (with reference to the opening of buds), was rejected by some scholars in favour of an ancient derivation from a word meaning ‘other’ that came from a time when March was the first month of the year.

As times and attitudes changed, traditions and expectations adjusted.  Linked to this month of April we find that Diamonds became the appropriate gemstone to be gifted to your lady.  If you just wanted to give your lady flowers Daisy or Sweet Peas were appropriate.

A traditional rhyme in Britain, however, tells the individuals or couples that:

Married beneath April’s changing skies; a chequered path before you lies.

Other traditions tell us that:

April blows his horn when it’s good both for hay and corn.

April floods carry away the frog and her brood.

April showers bring forth May flowers.

1606-7 – Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra III ii 43: ‘The April’s in her eyes.  It is love’s spring, And these the showers to bring it on.’

1648 – Herrick in Hesper – ‘First, April, she with mellow showers Opens the way for early flowers; Then after her comes smiling May, in a more rich and sweet array.’

1846 – Denham: ‘March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.’

Mid 19th century – ‘March brings breezes sharp and shrill, and shakes the dancing daffodil while April brings the primrose sweet and scatters daisies at our feet.’

We’ll tell the story of an airplane – and pilot! – next Tuesday