Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ronnie Gilbert doing the indigenous WASP roar

[almost immediate 2nd thought below]
[and then 3rd thought]

If Stephin Merritt were serious about alluding to white pop culture with his music, 19th century parlor songs would have been a much better place to start than the Tin Pan Alley-Broadway-Hollywood tradition, which was full of jazz, blues, and other African American influence, and a number of whose top songwriters were African American -- Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Spencer Williams, the Johnson brothers, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn, to name a few.

I was thinking about this the other day, and the first song that popped into my head as a Tin Pan Alley survival of the parlor song was Irving Berlin’s classic “What’ll I Do,” but then I remembered that Berlin borrowed some of the melody and a lot of the feel from a 19th century Yiddish song from Russia called “Vu Is Dus Gesele (Where Is the Little Street).” (Jewish American opera star Jan Peerce recorded a beefy orchestral version that’s available on The Yiddish Dream: A Heritage of Jewish Song.) Which may or may not qualify it as a “parlor” song; only the well-to-do in the shtetl had parlors. And white supremacists would disqualify the song because of its Jewish provenance.

It’s not a parlor song, but Ronnie Gilbert’s fierce version of a 19th century Lincoln campaign song on the various-artists collection Songs of the Civil War changed my conception of “indigenous” white pop music. A galloping waltz, Gilbert sings it with a fire that seems completely congruent with the tune as well as the abolitionist sentiment of the words. The parlor songs were highly sentimental, dripping with emotion, about death and memory and family, about love won and lost and missed. It seems that most of the people who assay the stuff now either come from a classical tradition that sacrifices verbal connection to vocal tone, or, more recently, an “indy” tradition that is too irony-laden for the material. Gilbert shows another way. It couldn’t be Merritt’s way, but I’ve learned from it.

My own interest in sentimental 19th century white pop material may be influenced from having grown up living with my grandparents in the summers. Their parents were small-town American Victorians, and in recent years I have found 19th century white pop artifacts of my grandfather’s ancestors in my parents’ house.

My grandparents were total jazz-age kids, my grandma a flapper -- they loved to dance and party. I once asked my grandpa if he ever saw his parents dance. His mother sang to him when he was a child, but no, he never saw them dance.

2nd thought immediately after posting: It could well be that Ronnie Gilbert's roar may not be indigenous to 19th century white pop singing at all, but influenced by African American gospel and pop. I'm not aware of any research into 19th century vocal timbre. Anybody who knows anything about that, please let me know in comments or via email. Thanks!

3rd thought: Gilbert's roaring isn't gravelly in the style of Etta James or Bobby "Blue" Bland -- it's more of an orator's roar with a highly accentual rhythm in the singing -- in fact, "roaring" may be overstating -- "fervent" may be closer. From what I've read of it, early 20th-century white American oratory could be quite intense; I imagine 19th-century could as well.

The song I'm thinking of, by the way, is "Lincoln and Liberty"; here is the tune and a version of the lyrics that differs in places from Gilbert's. And here's something about the probable lyricist, Jesse Hutchinson.

It just goes to show how much is really unknown about what was heard before we had the ability to record it. We know that the "oratory" style as you call it was a necessary tool in order to be heard without amplification. I think it is an interesting question you bring up about vocal tone: are there absolute assumptions that one can make about vocal timbre, or do the extramusical, sociological elements and associations explain it all?

Also, I think it's pretty impossible to dig up an entirely "white" music - in America, anyways. It seems silly to me to even try, because there is no filter for racial influence that music can measure. What does "white" mean - European? Then Celtic music, Polish music, this stuff is bound to be more "white" than anything you'll find in America, in any century.

And on the Lincoln note: Why aren't there original campaign songs like that today? Imagine the effect it could have.
Can't defend myself from charges of silliness, and I see your point about the impossibility and unattractiveness of searching for a "white" style. I'm conflicted. The Merritt Affair has brought all this out in the open, and thinking about it reminded me of my reaction to hearing Gilbert's recording of "Lincoln and Liberty" (which is a terrific song -- the whole album is pretty terrific, the Confederate songs too). Like I said, my interest in this is partly sentimental family stuff (and false sentimentality too -- my grandpa's ancestors don't appear to have been abolitionists; at least some of them bought their way out of serving in the Union Army, and one of them lamented the breaking up of the "lovely old plantations"). But it's partly just historical and aesthetic curiosity.

Regardless of racial and personal and political issues, I simply dig the emotional rhetoric of Gilbert's recording, as I have of countless musics to which I have no personal connection -- Mexican music, Roma music, Fela Kuti, Umm Kalthoum, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.
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