Library Of Vinyl Experience 1.4

 

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Reverse engineering Louis Armstrong's New Orleans record stash

Herbert L. Clarke's "Showers Of Gold Scherzo" (1912)

Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues"
(1928)

Elder Eatmore's Sermon on Generosity - Bert Williams (1914) and Louis Armstrong (1938) versions

Elder Eatmore's Sermon on Throwing Stones - Bert Williams (1914) and Louis Armstrong (1938) versions

Tracing the gospel tributaries. A 4 song MP3 featuring the Golden Gate Trio ("Noah" and "This world's in a bad condition") and Mitchell's Christian Singers ("Standing by the bedside" and "My old mother died a shouting") from the 1930's. While recorded much later, these selections represent the musical extension of the church experience that was parodied in the Williams and Armstrong pieces above. An interesting musicological note is that the Mitchell's Christian Singers record was included in the Harvard Ethnostash (Love1.1). Apparently, this seemed like "world music" at the time this collection was assembled.

Rev. J.G. Burnett and Congregation "Downfall of Nebuchenezzer" and "I've ever heard of thee." (1927).

Rev. Kelsey and Congregation "Little boy"
(1949).

Audio links

Bert Williams and George Walker Tracks at Archive.org

Bert Williams' "I'm tired of eating at restaurants" (1906) at Tinfoil.com archive.

 

Bert Williams

Tracks

It is well known that the history of music is a history of citation, recycling and reuse. I recently saw Mike Doughty (of Soul Coughing fame) make this point at the Berkman Center's Signal/Noise conference about the legal, cultural and technological implications of emerging digital media. As he sat on the stage of the Austin Courtroom, Doughty deconstructed his writing process, explaining how existing musical memes get recycled and reused in his creative process. He illustrated this phenomena by offering an impromptu mashup (on acoustic guitar) of about 10 classic rock songs that use the familiar 1-4-5 chord progression found in Louie Louie/La Bamba/Good Lovin/Wild Thing, etc., etc. Realizing that this one progression unlocked the keys to dozens (if not hundreds) of rock songs was a seminal experience in his own musical education (as it was for many aspiring rock guitar legends in their own teenage minds).

In jazz, there is a similar tradition of learning the codes that unlock huge swaths of musical territory. The familiar "rhythm changes" pattern (from Gershwin's "I got rhythm") are at the core of countless jazz standards and are a staple part of any player's formal or informal education.

For most people that grew up prior to the digital age, decoding the memes of a musical idiom happened by playing with more experienced players and/or by listening to and playing along with records. Because the records in someone's collection represent the musical memes that they were exposed to (and perhaps emulated) in their formative years, speculating about Armstrong's record stash is like trying to see back in time to the very origins of the jazz universe. Irresistible for Rob and fascinating for me too.

Thus began a recent beat research session with Rob as we pondered one of the deepest imponderables of musicology/record mania: What was in Louis Armstrong's New Orleans record collection? It seems Rob has wondered about this off and on over the years but only recently discovered a critical piece of the puzzle. I was lucky enough to be there as he began to reverse engineer Armstrong's record stash.

Apparently, Armstrong himself admitted to listening to Caruso records as a young man. So it's a good bet that Caruso was in the collection. But what else? There must have been something hipper, more jazz-like. Of course, it is reasonable to assume some records from the Original Dixieland Band or perhaps some early blues and spiritual records, Rob surmised. It all made sense so far (except for the Caruso, I guess). And then things started to get strange.

It seems that It seems that Herbert L. Clarke, who was a cornet virtuoso in Sousa's Band, recorded a series of solo records that would have been of interest to any young horn player at the time. Rob also notes that there was a tradition of improvised cadenzas in brass bands and that Clarke's "Showers Of Gold Scherzo" (1912) contains one that sounds similar to the introduction of Armstrong's seminal "West End Blues" (1928). Whether or not Armstrong copped this lick, it is a good bet that he at least heard (if not owned) this recording.

But perhaps the most dizzying possibility came to light when Rob unearthed the two Bert Williams comedy pieces from 1914 (in an unnamed basement in Cambride, MA); Elder Eatmore's Sermon on Throwing Stones and Elder Eatmore's Sermon on Generosity. Rob already had the Armstrong versions in his collection and while it is known that Armstrong versioned these pieces, locating them in the context of his New Orleans record collection and the evolution of African American music generally provided a spectacular musicological journey which deserves a little explanation here.

Bert Williams was among the first African Americans ever to appear on record (along with his partner George Walker) and was an influential figure in the early history of African American entertainment. (See Jass.com for a short history of his work with Walker). The fact that Armstrong recorded these two spoken word tracks almost verbatim is a good indication that they were important to him and may have appeared in his own early collection. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of this Elder Eatmore collection are the layers of versioning and cultural commentary that it represents.

At the time Bert Williams recorded this (1914), the blackface and minstrel traditions were well established in the United States. Usually performed by whites in blackface, the minstrel shows were racist travesties of African American culture. African American minstrel shows (with blacks in blackface) were performing as early as the 1840's as well, but Williams and Walker were among the first African Americans NOT to perform in traditional black face and billed themselves as "Two Real Coons" (thereby critiquing the whole tradition while simulataneously particupating in it). In one sense, his minstrelsy contained a critical commentary of the white minstrelsy that mocked black culture. Perhaps it was this recognition that led Booker T. Washington to comment, "Bert Williams has done more for
the race than I have." This kind of reverse mockery/critical cultural commentary is even more apparent in other minstrelsy of the era such as Moss and Frye's "How High is Up?"

In Elder Eatmore's Sermons, Williams seems to be sourcing another critical meme in the evolution of African American culture through his parody of the greedy and lovable preacher Elder Eatmore. The vocal styles of African American preachers (and congregational music) later influenced the evolution of rock and roll via their impact on gospel groups (like The Golden Gate Trio and Mitchell's Christian Singers) who themselves influenced the early rock vocal styles of performers like Elvis Presley. Finding these Armstrong versions of Bert Williams parodies of traditional sermons is like identifying one of the headwaters that feeds the flowing tributaries of minstrelsy, vaudeville, African American church music/preaching, jazz and rock and roll. A nice paddle on any day. Thanks for the tour, Rob.

In addition to the Elder Eatmore versions, I include a series of "screaming preacher" records and other church related music from Rob's collection that occured to him as he reverse engineered Armstrong's collection. These include an amazing Rev. J.G. Burnett recording from a 1927 field recording in North Carolina and "Little Boy" by Rev. Kelsey and Congregation. The White Church label is included below just because it is so darn cool and I had extra room.

Enjoy.

With LOVE,

Pace

LINKS
Mainstream press article on Williams imitators
West End Blues Real Audio c/o Sony
Louis's jazz class c/o Smithsonian
Red hot jazz info on Armstrong

 

 

 

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