Category Archives: 1900s

Irvin Berlin, Bing Crosby and a White Christmas

Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. Born in Imperial Russia he arrived in the United States at the age of five and published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy”, in 1907.  He received 33 cents for the publishing rights!  Four years later – in 1911 – he had his first major international hit – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – and that sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Berlin’s native Russia.  Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in an American uncomplicated, simple and direct style with the stated aim to “reach the heart of the average American,” whom he saw as the “real soul of the country”. 

He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him famous before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films.

It was in 1942 when words and music came from Irving Berlin and a response came from on Bing Crosby.  That response was because Bing had heard ‘White Christmas’ and wanted to use it!  However – it didn’t stop Berlin fretting about the song in the first few months of its life.  The often brash and always insecure Irving approached each new song as if his life depended on it.  He insisted on being in the room with Crosby to hear it for himself – but to make sure he got a genuine reaction, he stayed out of sight until he heard Crosby’s favorable comments.  Berlin had originally based White Christmas on his own memories of spending Christmas in the Beverly Hills’ sunshine, among the palm trees, longing to be with his family in snowy New York.  In an original draft the song dealt with

White Christmas” is a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. The version as sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s is recorded as being the best-selling single with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide.  Other versions of the song, along with Crosby’s, have sold over 50 million copies.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta in California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing—he told his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”

The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show ‘The Kraft Music Hall’ on Christmas Day, 1941. He subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and for Decca Records in just 18 minutes on May 29, 1942, and it was released on July 30 as part of an album of six 78 rpms discs from the musical film ‘Holiday Inn. At first, Crosby did not see anything special about the song. He just said “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.” The song established that there could be commercially successful secular Christmas songs – in this case, written by a Jewish-American songwriter.

The song initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by Holiday Inn‘s first hit song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”. By the end of October 1942, “White Christmas” topped the ‘Your Hit Parade’ chart and remained in that position until well into the New Year. It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy—“just like the ones I used to know“—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during WW2. A few weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Crosby introduced “White Christmas” on a Christmas Day broadcast. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus.

In 1942 alone, Crosby’s recording spent eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the No. 1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 (on the chart dated January 4, 1947), thus becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.

The version most often heard today on the radio during the Christmas season is the 1947 re-recording. The 1942 master was damaged due to frequent use. Crosby re-recorded the track on March 19, 1947, accompanied again by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording session. The re-recording is recognizable by the addition of flutes and celesta in the beginning.  Although Crosby dismissed his role in the song’s success, saying later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he was associated with it for the rest of his career.

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It was just ‘One of those days’.

We’ve all had one of these – for me Friday 14th August 1908 was one of them.  The information sources I found told me that this day was the days of ‘The first International Beauty Contest in Britain – it was held at the Pier Hippodrome at Folkestone in Kent.’   That was all that was said!  I dug deeper and found another source that said that ‘Felixstowe held the first international beauty contest on 14 August 1908. Entries were said to include six English girls, three French, one Irish, one Austrian and ‘a number of fisher girls from Boulogne’ – and nothing more!  I dug further and finally found ‘The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser’ and that told me that:

‘Folkestone Beauty Show: A crowded audience assembled at the Pier Pavilion on Friday evening in connection with the final of the International Ladies’ Beauty Show. Three visitors and three residents had been selected by the votes of the audience to compete against a selection of foreign beauties – representatives from Paris, Boulogne, Vienna and America. The English visitors all came from London. They were Miss Nellie Jarman from East Molesey; Miss Lever from Maida-vale and Miss Winnie Pickworth of Chelsea – who were adjudged first, second and third respectively at the preliminary adjudication. The former lady is an accomplished long-distance swimmer. The prizes were a grand cottage piano, a lady’s cycle and a gold watch. The Mayors of Folkstone, Hythe and Maidstone superintended the voting on Friday in which the audience took part. Whilst the counting process went on the ladies sat in full view of the audience.  Amidst a scene of great enthusiasm the Mayor announced the winners as follows:             

At 3rd place with 209 votes – Miss Winnie Osborn, Folkestone

At 2nd place  with 346 votes – Miss Asta Fleming of Vienna with 346 votes

At 1st place with 470 vote we have Miss Nellie Jarman, East Molesey

Each of the losers was presented with a souvenir medal. 

I must admit that I would have loved to watched this

Britain’s Boy Scout movement begins – and continues to this day

It was on Monday 29th July 1907 that the Boy Scout movement in Britain began with an experimental camp being held on Brownsea Island near Poole in Dorset by Robert Baden-Powell.  His aim was to try out some of his ideas – ideas that were to become the basic principles and activities of the Scout movement. His aim was to foster a sense of honour, loyalty and good citizenship among children. These aims went much wider though, encompassing physical fitness through exercises together with the development of practical skills such as woodwork, tracking, observation, signalling and first aid.

There was also a very new slant on the project; there were to be boys from the whole spectrum of social classes involved and they would share everything as equals. On this first gathering they were divided into four, mixed, ‘patrols’ with each patrol having their own tent for sleeping purposes. Each day had a fixed routine of morning prayers, drills, games and instruction. There were breaks for quiet rest periods and the day was ended with stories around the campfire.

In his ‘Scouting for Boys’ in 1908 Robert Baden-Powell  wrote: ‘The scouts’ motto is founded on my initials, it is be prepared, which means, you are always to be in a state if readiness in mind and body to do your duty’  

Over 100 years later these fundamentals still underpin the Scout movement.

The world is changing – and perhaps not for the better

It’s the second decade of the 20th century and the world continues to develop and change.

At this time Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade.  It occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire.  However, domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform.  British rulers had engaged in imperial expansion over the years but had sought to avoid war – a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’.  However – this policy approach was waning in the early 1900s as British interest concentrated on events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In the USA Sophie Tucker was singing of ‘Some of These Days’; Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan were telling us all about ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.  We also have the American Quartet group singing  ‘Moonlight Bay’; Billy Murray telling the story of ‘Casey Jones’ while Al Jolson was singing ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’ to the US population at large.

By 1914 Britain was no longer the dominant economic power in Europe. It still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry but in other areas such as coal, iron, chemicals and light engineering, Britain was being out-performed by Germany.

Britain was a constitutional monarchy under George V with a government formed by the majority party of the House of Commons with members being elected by some 8 million registered male voters. The aristocratic House of Lords had limited power to veto legislation.

Since the later part of the 19th century the British government had considered Germany to be the main threat to its empire. This was reinforced by Germany’s decision in 1882 to form a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy – an alliance to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia.  France felt threatened by the Triple Alliance and was concerned by the growth in the German Navy and, in 1904, the two countries had signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) with the objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived German threat. Three years later Russia, who also feared the growth of the German Army, joined Britain and France – and the ‘Triple Entente’ was formed.

By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain’s overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The USA had no links with either side at this time.

Despite everything, there was music to generate some cheerfulness.  One such number was ‘Pack up your troubles in your old Kit Bag – and Smile, Smile, Smile’ written in 1915 by Welsh brothers Felix Powell – an army staff sergeant – and George Henry Powell who became a conscientious objector.  A later play presented by the National Theatre recounts how these music hall stars rescued the song from their rejects pile and re-scored it to win a wartime competition for a marching song.  In its many ways it became very popular and boosted British morale despite the horrors of that war. It was one of a large number of music hall songs aimed at maintaining morale, recruiting for the forces, or defending Britain’s war aims. Here are the words if you want to turn back those challenging times:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style.  What’s the use of worrying?  It never was worthwhile, so pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.

Another of these songs, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was so similar in musical structure that the two were sometimes sung side by side.

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’)’.

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.

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We enjoyed this in years gone by

Britain has many ‘traditional’ activities that, in summer or harvest time, bring all members of the community together for a celebration – a celebration that can go on for the best part of a week or more.  The town where I now live had a reputation for their ‘Feast’ but, I’m afraid, those events seem to have gone absent of late.

The county magazine of 1936-8 tells us of earlier times in the community of the Deepings:

‘The village feast, lasting a week, still survives, and last year was greater than ever, two fields hard by the church being necessary to accommodate the entertainment kings, and people flocked in crowds from neighbouring villages.  A luscious yellow plum retains its name of “The Feast” plum, being ripe at this time, and “duck and green peas” is the time-honoured dish of the old “Deepingers” who rejoice at the homecoming of their sons and daughters.’

There is an interesting point in connection with this popular event, for although St. James’ Day is July 26th, “Feast Sunday” is the second Sunday in August.

The answer lay in the change made in the calendar in 1752 when the English date was 11 days behind the continent, but the residents did not alter their feast.  The Parish Constables’ Book settles the query. In 1751 we read “July 3, For watching at Deep Feast 2-0” and in 1752 “Aug. 13 Paid for ale watching 2 days at Feast, 3-3.” I can only assume that these two sums are shillings & pence and not pounds.

Just tagging on for all of this we have the ‘Court of Piepowder’ – a court of justice that was formerly held at fairs to deal with disputes between buyers and sellers.  The literal meaning is ‘wayfarer’s court’ – piepowder comes from the French ‘pied-poudreux’ meaning ‘dusty-footed’ or ‘vagabond’

The village attraction was renewed in 1945 and boasted not only a local plum, ready at this time of year, but also a local duck-and-green-peas dish.  Both were a welcome change from the stuffed chine mentioned at most other village feasts!  Ale must also have been plentiful as an undisclosed fee was paid for ale-watching!

Unfortunately this whole source of enjoyment ceased quite a few years ago and, although there are many activities for the community, I doubt if we will see the like of this again.