Europe’s Society Orchestra Animation Redux

Modern Dancing Delivery

This weekend, my pal Rob reminded me of the incredible book, Modern Dancing. The first time he showed it to me, I got obsessed and did some lame animated gifs from a photo I took. Since then I married a modern dancer and got a scanner. The combination was irresistible so I spent my weekend immersed again in this incredible tome. Here’s what I uncovered rediscovered.

Mr Ms Castle

Back in the teens, a high-society dancing couple named Vernon and Irene Castle made a name for themselves in Europe performing and teaching African American derived dances like the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. Returning to America in 1913, they found that social dancing and ragtime music were the rage in New York and quickly assembled a show to capitalize on the craze. As the story goes, because their dances “required syncopated music of a type that few New York bands were playing at the time” they needed a band that could cut the mustard. They found one in Europe’s Society Orchestra, an African American band playing a syncopated kind of driving ragtime that was circulating just prior to the first Jazz recordings.

Europes Society Orchestra

James Reese Europe was already a successful African American band leader in New York when the Castles saw him performing with his band at a private party. The pairing of the au courant dancing of the Castles with the syncopated ragtime of Europe’s Society Orchestra created an extremely popular show which went on to break some important color barriers in American pop culture. In 1914, when the Castles were asked to perform at the top New York venues, white musicians objected to having black performers share the orchestra pit. The Castles refused to compromise and solved the problem by having the band join them on stage. Apparently, this was the first known appearance by an African American band in a major vaudeville theater. Their 1913 Victor recording was also the first by an African American band on a major label. More on that in a minute.

As part of all this excitement, in 1914 the Castles published a book called Modern Dancing, which was an instructional manual complete with plates from a film (perhaps the newsreel Social and Theatrical Dancing 1909-1936). The book is available from a few locations including and Google.

Unfortunately, none of these sites provide a re-animation of the plates themselves. I could not resist. Here are some simple re-animations of the classic Castle plates showing Europe’s Society Orchestra playing along. While I have not been able to sync them up to music yet, the following MP3 of Castle House Rag and Castle Walk will give you a good sense of the vibe.

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Castle Walk 8 Step

Castles 8 Step

A note on my methods may be of interest here. Because these plates are probably excerpts from longer segments, the frames are not always continuous. Nevertheless, I decided it was worth having all the plates for a given dance together even if it adds some choppiness. I also used really low tech approaches (e.g., an orange highlighter and time) and certainly don’t claim any film restoration expertise. If it looks amateurish, that’s because it is. Here’s what I did.

Modern Dancing Prep

First, I cracked a bottle of wine and put on some appropriate music (the awesome Victrola Favorites worked perfectly). After scanning the plates, I adjusted them to get each one as vertical as possible. Then I used Photoshop to chop out each frame, trying to get them all the same size. I created a folder for each dance and saved all the jpgs for that dance in order in the folder. Then I used Adobe Image Ready to “import a folder as layers”.

Highligter Registration

This got them into Image Ready as a set of frames, but I still needed to line them up (register them). This proved a little harder than expected. Not only are the images different sizes, but they are not all continuous frames. Therefore, the image jumps around a lot. Since I was most interested in the music, I decided to stabilize them around the band and let the Castles dance where they would. I found a few spots that seemed to work as registration points (highlights on chairs, corners of tablecloths and the nicely positioned circle on the bucket in front of a table). Using a highlighter pen, I marked these. Then I stepped through each frame (and often back and forth) moving things around until the highlights were all lined up.

Voila. Very analog in a way, but pretty effective.

There are two things that are especially fascinating to me about the Castle/Europe story. The first is the apparently close synergy between the dances selected by the Castles and the songs recorded by Europe’s Society Orchestra (Castle Walk, Maxixe, etc.). It serves as a powerful reminder that the cultural artifacts we study as “firsts” are themselves the result of complex processes of gatekeeping, meaning-making, status and so forth. The second is the obviously international flavor of these plates.


Castles Cortez

Castles Maxixe

Castles Maxixe All

From the Cortez, to the beautiful Tango to the Brazilian Maxixe, the Castles certainly seemed hip to the latest global dance trends. They even provide some historical guideposts. “The Tango is not, as commonly believed, of South American origin. It is an old gipsy dance which came to Argentina by way of Spain, where in all probability it became invested with certain features of the old Moorish dances”. What’s more, the first recording made by Europe’s Society Orchestra was the tune Maxixe (though it’s rarely never included on Europe comps). I don’t know the story behind the selection of this Brazilian themed tune for the first song recorded by an African American band on a major label, but I’d love to hear it. In any event, with my pals tracking more recent/rapid diffusions of global dance/music trends, I love finding antique examples that seem so similar (if kind of slow mo) in their features.

So there you have it folks. The first real reanimation of these important documents of American pop culture history. I am on a quest now to find the original newsreel and have a good angle on its whereabouts. But if you know of a copy available somewhere, please let me know.

Meanwhile, here are some additional links and background info I used for this post.

James Reese Europe

Modern Dancing
@ Google books


A tasty mix of rastahouse, dubby breaks and screwed ragga tracks with a sugary pop coating. Live from decks to tape through my kaoss pad ca. 2006. Deal with it.

How Fi Dance Ska

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Electro_Ragga_Defcon Mix

Here comes the judge meme

I almost entitled this post “I discovered the first rap song” as a bombastic attempt to get some new readers over here while poking some regulars in the eye. Cooler heads prevailed, but it still seems a benign bit of bluster compared to say, James Chance/White’s claim to have “invented rap”. Certainly, titling a blog post something like, “I discovered the first rap song” pales in comparison – even if its just as big a fib. But its just too misleading for too many reasons. The truth is that I just want to share a song that my friend Wayne shared with me that he described (with a wink) as “the first rap song”. I think what he meant was, “here’s a tune where someone rhymes over an open breakbeat that most people don’t know about.” Needless to say, he got my attention (as usual).

Just to be clear, I don’t actually believe there was a “first” rap song. The first one that most people heard was certainly Sugarhill’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979. It was definitely the first one I heard. But others in the know were obviously aware of Fatback’s King Tim III which barely beat Sugarhill to the presses (but was far less well known in the end). But of course, these were just the first “recorded” rap songs. There were obviously countless earlier versions being performed at parties and less formal settings way back into the 1970s. Still think there was a first rap song?

At this point, academic approaches start to trace sources of the practices and things get dicey. Of course, there seem to be similarities among things like Jamaican toasting, the blues tradition of the dozens, the rhythmic vocal talkovers of R&B radio jocks, the slick street talk of pimps, jazz scat singing and even the musical storytelling of West African griots. But we need to be careful about holding these too closely. In particular, that last turn toward the motherland is particularly tricky as it gets you pretty close to reaffirming some ugly old stereotypes about racial origins of “the funk”. So looking for the first rap song is at best quixotic quest and at worst an affirmation of old racialist stereotypes. In fact, all of these practices probably played some role in creating the cultural foundations for the song form that would eventually come to be called (and more importantly marketed as) rap.

All I am really doing here is tracing the history of a song that is less often mentioned as one of these many potential sources. Specifically, the tune/routine “Here Comes the Judge”.

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Pigmeat Markham – Here Comes the Judge

While it was “discovered” by the mass market when it appeared in the late 1960s as a skit on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In in the 1960s, this routine had already been circulating around for some time in the “chitlin circuit”. Specifically, it was a signature routine for Pigmeat Markham, an African American comedian and performer who had been active since the 1930s and eventually became one of the most regular performers at the famed Apollo Theater. While Pigmeat was apparently annoyed that his routine had been appropriated by Sammy Davis Jr. for use on Laugh In, this exposure led to increased national recognition for Markham. In a strange twist, a novelty version of the song was recorded by Shorty Long and reached number-four on the R&B charts and number-eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. Later that same year, Pigmeat himself hit the Billboard charts with a “cover” of the Shorty Long version of his stage routine (which had itself become popular through being “stolen” by Sammy Davis Jr. on Laugh In). If these layers of appropriation and commercialization are not complicated enough, it gets a good bit deeper friends.

While Pigmeat seems to have claimed the routine as his own, research suggests that he may have borrowed it himself. I think most will agree that its hard not to hear strains of old minstrel tropes in the Pigmeat version of the song (and certainly in the Laugh In routine). Knowing that this tradition included some fairly standard routines that were widely versioned (for example, Louis Armostrong’s versioning of the Bert Williams’ Elder Eatmore routine). It got me wondering if there was an even earlier version of this routine lurking in the history of minstrelsy.

Sure enough. A little digging uncovered an old routine by Bert Williams called “Twenty Years” in which he plays cruel judge Grimes who doles out unreasonable punishments for non-crimes like “slipping on a banana peel”. Not only are there similarities in the content of these routines, they are both done in rhyme. While the 1917 Bert Williams routine does not use a funky breakbeat as an intro, it does feature a similar rhyming pattern. Pretty cool. Not only that, apparently Bert Williams was an early mentor to Pigmeat Marhkham. It seems likely that he would have known this routine.

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Bert Williams – Twenty Years

Apparently, the courtroom skit was one of the scenes used in minstrel shows as early as the middle 1800s as part of a larger set of parodies of professional occupations. Willaim Mahar’s Behind the Cork Mask (p. 75) suggests that the Christy Minstrels had a judge routine for example. Given the extent of standardization in minstrel routines, it seems likely that the judge skit has a long history indeed.

OK. To recap. Here is a song that was described to me as “the first rap song” that starts with a funky breakbeat and a rhythmic rhyming vocal that likely traces its origins directly to a routine done by one of the most famous early African American performers, Bert Williams. Phew. But imagine this, it gets deeper still.

Some googling and crowd sourcing found examples of the “here comes the judge meme” in reggae as well. Specifically, in 1967, the year before the Shorty Long and Pigmeat versions, Prince Buster did a tune with a very similar theme called Judge Dread. However, in this version, the judge is now a righteous force judging real world rude boys for crimes like killing other black people. Finally, there is the Wailers version which continues to transform the message to one of righteous judgment of all oppressors. This version flips the silly and cruel judge of minstelsy into a divine and righteous judge sentencing a long list of oppressors including Francis Drake, Alexander the “so called” Great and in an interesting similarity with the minstrel tradition of ironic lyrical inversions, Christopher Crumbulous.

And around it goes.

Beard Fest PS

Beard Fest Finalists

Folks, what can I say. I had so much fun at the All American City Beard and Moustache Contest this weekend that I had to share some YouTube links pics and stories! Not only was it packed with supportive onlookers and fans, the facial creativity was in full effect (as the videos will attest). Two particularly awesome moments included the 12 year old kid with the barely started fuzzstache who won second place in the mustache contest and the elderly Sikh gentleman who won in the natural beard category with his wonderful whispy white beard. So great! Somerville was certainly showin’ the love this Sat.

Along with all the nice community feeling, it also gave me an excuse to play some classic rock tunes and drink free Naragansett tall boys in the afternoon. What could be better? Well, how about an impromptu DJ lesson for the kids to wrap it all up?

Beard Fest DJ Lesson

I have often noticed this when I play family style events. The kids always seem fascinated with the DJ rig and often come up wanting lessons. At one wedding, I was literally swarmed with a ring of Lilliputian onlookers all decked out in their finest. Of course, being a teacher at heart, I am always glad to mess up the mix to explain the technique to inquiring little minds.

All in all, a pretty sweet weekend. Hope to see you all next year.

Get your beard on

Todds beard

Todds beard

I’ll be spinning a rare afternoon set at Precinct in Union Sq. Somerville tomorrow, Feb 13 from 3-6. Its a facial hair party/competition, so expect plenty of classic beard rock (ZZ top, Allman’s, Steppenwolf, etc) sprinkled into my regular sonic salad. I’ll be getting itchy and scratchy all afternoon.

I know some of my local people just culled, but come represent even if you are bald faced by choice or necessity. Whatever your follicular situation, come give the hirsute among you some love! In this age of increasingly plastic people, you know we need it.

Get Your Beard On Saturday
Saturday, Feb. 13, 3-6pm
Precinct, 70 Union Sq.

Sponsored by the Somerville Arts Council

A contest & party sure to tickle your chin. Previous contests have been held in other parts of the world but nothing like this has happened in your own backyard. Jimmy DelPonte will emcee; a panel of bearded judges will issue the verdict; and DJ Pace will create the scratchy sonic backdrop. We will nibble, drink and hob-nob within a roomful of artistic facial hair. What better way to spend a winter afternoon? Contestantswill vie for prizes in 5 categories: natural full beard, free-style full beard, free-style moustache, free-style partial beard, (which includes goatees, sideburns and any other creative combination of the above), and for follicle challenged, best fake beard. To register/questions: Co-produced with Todd Easton.

Here’s a little youube to get you in the mood. Reminds me I might want to bring some classic Greek Orthodox tunes too.