A last-minute Facebook alert led me to check out the Wichita Ukulele Society’s appearance at The Donut Whole this evening, a combination concert, jam session and singalong. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in groups of like instruments, so you just know that I couldn’t resist hearing a band of about a dozen (give or take a few members of the audience playing along) ukulele enthusiasts. The repertoire included expected songs like “Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (complete with falsetto, and on Tiny Tim’s birthday, no less!), as well as surprises like “Y.M.C.A.,” “Paint it Black,” and “Margaritaville.”
Early in Ernest La Prade’s Alice in Orchestralia (which I discussed in Part Two of this series), the title character is welcomed to Fiddladelphia, home of the stringed instruments, by the Bass Viol. In promising to introduce Alice to the other members of the orchestra, the Bass Viol offhandedly remarks:
The others don’t live in Fiddladelphia, except a few of the lower-class stringed instruments, such as the guitars and mandolins and those pesky ukuleles, who hang about the outskirts of the village. By rights they ought not to be here at all; they’re not members of the orchestra. But it seems impossible to keep out the undesirable elements, even in Orchestralia.
(Previously, Alice finds the Bass Viol locked inside a case by “those naughty Ukulele boys” who are “always up to mischief,” so the antipathy is obviously mutual.)
One might assume this is another skirmish in the never-ending war between classical and popular music, the snooty Bass Viol playing into the stereotype of the uptight classical musician, while the “lower-class” ukes and guitars just want to live it up, “Roll Over, Beethoven”-style. At the time of Alice’s writing in 1925, however, the jazz age was just getting underway, and rock and roll was decades in the future. Although there were some associations with “cheap” popular music such as ragtime and the songs of Tin Pan Alley, guitars, banjos, and mandolins had a solid presence in middle-class music making before World War I, and much of the repertoire for these instruments would strike even the following generation as quaint. No, the undesirable element the Bass Viol hoped to escape wasn’t so much one of rebellion, but of amateurism.
Looking back to the mid-sixteenth century Renaissance, bowed and plucked string instruments were on nearly equal footing. Instrumental music as a whole was not as developed as vocal music, and it was common for parts to be played by whatever instruments were on hand. This was the “consort system,” a consort being a family of like instruments in different sizes and registers; a single consort, say a matched group of viols or recorders, could perform a multi-part work, or members of different families could be played together as a “mixed” or “broken” consort. Along with the bowed viols were lutes, theorbos, and citterns, which were plucked with the fingers.
The lute, in particular, enjoyed great popularity as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment for voices; the first instruction book on playing a musical instrument was written for beginning lute players. Queen Elizabeth I played the lute and included a lutenist as a member of her court. John Dowland, who desired the position but never attained it (probably for political reasons), left a substantial body of lute songs and instrumentals. This musical activity primarily took place in homes; although music was used in the theater, at church, and for dancing, the public concert of music for its own sake was a later innovation.
Venere Lute Quartet
After this high water mark of acceptance, plucked strings gradually split from the mainstream, following a parallel tradition. The bowed strings gained momentum as the viols were superseded by the violin family; great makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari contributed to the design and made instruments that are still played and treasured today (although many of these makers also made lutes and mandolins). The string orchestra as we know it came together in the mid-seventeenth century, both in Italy and in France at the court of Louis XIV. Composers Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully are both credited with the innovation of bowing string ensembles in unison (perhaps a case of independent invention), a key to the rich, pure sound and unified phrasing of the orchestra that is taken for granted today.
The plucked strings were largely left out of this development, except for special uses: the mandolin continued to be a popular solo instrument in Italy, and (for example) there are a number of concerti by Vivaldi for the instrument, but it has never been a regular member of the orchestra. The lute hung on as a continuo (chording) instrument in the Baroque period for a while, but was eventually replaced by the harpsichord, and fell into almost complete disuse until the “early music” revival of the early twentieth century that also brought the harpsichord back into currency. The guitar, originally Spanish, became a nearly universal popular instrument in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but within the classical tradition it filled the niche of the earlier lute, playing solo or accompaniment roles but rarely joining the orchestra. Other plucked string instruments were relegated to folk use, and there they have largely stayed.
Jumping ahead to nineteenth-century America, the growing wealth and education of the middle class, along with the increased production of material goods thanks to the Industrial Revolution, led to the cultivation of an amateur music-making culture comparable to the one that had existed in Elizabethan England. A piano came to be seen as an essential article of furniture, and in those pre-radio and –television days it was common for families to while away an evening singing or playing. Sheet music publishers supplied a steady stream of novel but not-too-hard compositions in anticipation of the pop music cycles of the twentieth century. Outside of the home, choirs and bands were as much civic organizations as musical ones, and were variously sponsored by churches, schools, businesses, and even prisons.
This atmosphere of low-level but pervasive music making, supported as it was by social expectations and commercial interests (primarily but not only publishers and instrument manufacturers), was fertile ground for all kinds of musical fads to spring up and fade away. One trend was the adaptation of the banjo (adapted from the African banja or banjar,) which had been popularized by minstrel shows as early as the 1840s but which continued to evolve throughout the century, adding the characteristic metal hoop and frets as late as the 1880s. Banjo clubs became a popular outlet, and instrument makers obliged by creating different-sized instruments to play a full range of parts, consort-style. (As a group, these were sometimes referred to as “plectral” ensembles, as all the associated instruments were played with a plectrum, or pick.)
I wish this video were longer; it is obviously from a later period than the 1880s and ‘90s, but it features a good look at a bass banjo with (kangaroo?) gut strings. When I saw a bass banjo at Miles’ Musical Museum in Eureka Springs, Arkansas*, it was strung with wound piano strings, but it was a newer instrument and undoubtedly had a steel rod to reinforce it against the tension of the strings, which wasn’t the case before the turn of the twentieth century; the instrument here appears to be all wood. The fact that the bandleader feels the need to introduce the bass banjo (and the bemused expressions of his bandmates) indicates that even at the height of the banjo craze the bass member of the family was a rarity at best. (A number of different banjo groups, some with mixed instrumentation, can be seen here.)
The popularity of the banjo as a parlor instrument dimmed in the US, not to be revived until jazz brought it back in a louder, snappier form. Overlapping and superseding the banjo fad was the popularity of the mandolin, first sparked by the American tour of the Estudiantina Figaro in 1880, a group of “Spanish students” who may not have played the mandolin at all, but rather the bandurria, a Spanish instrument similar to the mandolin. Historically, the mandolin had a teardrop-shaped body with a round back, like an egg sliced in half (much like the lute, to which the original mandolin is closely related); the bandurria was more pear-shaped, with a flat back. Both instruments, however, were strung with double courses and played with a fast tremolo, so the style was immediately recognizable, particularly to Italian-Americans who were among the first to follow the Spanish students’ lead in organizing their own mandolin groups. (There was already some basis for an ensemble of different sized mandolins in Italy: Norman Del Mar in his Anatomy of the Orchestra mentions an Italian mandolin orchestra arrangement of a Cimarosa overture in his possession, p. 484. The American mandolin orchestras took off in their own direction, however.)
Orville Gibson undoubtedly had the most influence on the development of the mandolin in America: a violin-maker, he applied the principles of his profession to a new design with a flat back and carved top, lengthening the scale and adding a cutaway to make the high positions more accessible; he also added the ornamental curl and art nouveau curves that are his design’s most distinctive features. Gibson’s F-4 “Florentine” instrument was both visually striking and projected more loudly than his competition’s, a feature that was actually toned down with gut and wound silk strings. At the time, the ideal mandolin sound was light and “fairy-like;” in a situation parallel to the banjo’s use in jazz, it wasn’t until the rise of bluegrass that a brassy, projecting sound was considered desirable. But Gibson’s design could supply it.
Gibson also understood the power of advertising, and sold his instruments’ capacity to bring people together as much as their musical qualities. Building on the consort principle that had proven successful for band instruments and (to a lesser degree) banjos, he and other makers expanded the mandolin family, adapting the tenor mandola (which had previously existed but wasn’t common) and developing a “mando-cello” and “mando-bass.” With these four instruments, the mandolin consort could match the bowed string orchestra as its plucked equivalent; with the addition of a guitar or harp, and a few carefully chosen woodwinds, it had the potential to be a real orchestra unto itself.
The potential to rival the traditional orchestra, advocated by some**, was undercut by instrument makers’ insistence that learning to play was easy and painless. A point frequently made in advertisements was the difficulty of playing the bowed (and fretless) orchestral strings: “While the violin pupil is struggling to grasp but one phase of his studies—accurate intonation—the student of the fretted instrument is able to enjoy his instrument in both solo and ensemble playing,” claimed Gibson’s 1921 catalog.
Large groups of mandolins or other plucked strings weren’t limited to the middlebrow approach described here, of course: in the classical realm, Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote for “guitar bands” in his idiosyncratic search for unusual sounds and textures, including a band of forty mandolins and guitars in his accompaniment for the Faeroe Island Dancing Ballad “Father and Daughter***,” along with more traditional instrumentation. Bandleader James Reese Europe, a key figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, is reported to have taken numerous mandolins and banjos with him as part of the “Hell Fighters” Band when he led the regimental band of the 369th Infantry in World War I. The ranks of plucked strings were partly there for volume in those days before electrical amplification made it possible for a single guitarist to comp for an entire band. Once jazz and swing replaced ragtime and parlor tunes in popularity, gigantic plectral ensembles became strictly the domain of folk festivals; witness the Russian balalaika orchestras that were an official part of Soviet musical culture.
Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today. (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.
Ultimately, the mandolin orchestra gave way to jazz and other kinds of popular music after World War I, although a few groups soldiered on (such as the Smyser band shown above), and of course the mandolin itself became an essential voice in the developing bluegrass style. A few mandolin orchestras stayed active (a list of active groups can be found here) as far afield as Australia, Japan, and Germany, and the last decade has seen a resurgence in large plectral ensembles; the ukulele is the most visible of the currently popular plucked strings, but a quick YouTube search (how I wish it had been that simple back when I first learned about this music!) turns up numerous performances ranging from the traditional “light classic” approach, to jazz, to covers of contemporary pop songs. Fortunately, both scholarship and popular music have played a role in rescuing this fascinating instrumental genre from obscurity.
* Sadly, this institution is no more; it was truly a magical place.
** For example, William Place, Jr., in his 1917 book The Organization, Direction, and Maintenance of the Mandolin Orchestra, commenting on the practice of bolstering plucked groups with bowed instruments, wrote, “We have a complete string quintet of our own mandolin family, and there is no reason why we should be obliged to ask for outside assistance.”
*** Described and excerpted in Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, pp. 481-485.
It occurs to me that in delving into the history of recorded music, I have somewhat strayed from my stated purpose of looking at influential or personally important anthologies. In this final installment of “The Pleasure of Anthology,” I’ll look at a work that is both: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith is a fascinating figure by himself, and the AAFM, which he put together for Folkways Records in 1952, is only a small part of his artistic output, which included experimental films, paintings, and poetry, as well as ethnographic research on American Indian rituals, string games, and dance (Smith studied anthropology in college, but had begun his studies even younger, visiting an Indian reservation near his boyhood home in Washington state and recording and interviewing members of the tribes there). It is the AAFM, however, that has had the most enduring influence.
Peripatetic, Bohemian, obsessive Harry Smith has more in common with the anthologists like Bill Blackbeard than might first appear. One of the primary accomplishments of his Anthology was to put an unacknowledged, even disdained, part of history front and center in the popular consciousness: the commercial recordings made by rural Southerners before the Great Depression. Such records were produced by big Northern labels like Columbia and Okeh after they realized that people (both black and white) in isolated small towns would buy records made by people like them. The countless 78s that Smith tracked down, collected, and sorted through held ballads, fiddle tunes, jug band stomps, and quasi-musical sermons, among other genres, either recorded on the spot by traveling recording outfits or in studios in Chicago or New York. Almost all of these were relegated by their original labels to “race” or “hillbilly” lines, for black and white customers, respectively, and as such were promoted only in limited areas and then forgotten. Not for these records would there be red labels or pink-paged catalogs.
Smith was one of many collectors scouring the countryside for old records—there had been a lively community of jazz and blues collectors, united by newsletters and fan-assembled discographies since the 1920s—but Smith was one of very few looking for “folk” music, and he was by far the most knowledgeable, generous with his learning if not with the records themselves. (According to fellow collector Luis Kemnitzer, “He would lend out books that he thought you might want, gave away paintings and collages, but once a record came into his room it never left.” Don’t we all know someone like that?)
Smith’s work was preservative, too: according to Smith’s longtime friend, poet (and founding member of The Fugs) Ed Sanders, “There was a big drive by the government to collect laminated records in order to secure the shellac for the war effort, so the records he was particularly seeking, from the 1920s and ‘30s, were in great danger of being wiped from history, a factor which may have given his collector-obsession an extra energy. On the other hand, the government drive brought millions of records out of the attics of America, making them easy to find.”* As with the science fiction anthologists, passionate collectors like Smith not only chose the best examples of their medium to showcase, they effectively created new fields, new spaces for preserving and discussing cultural artifacts that might otherwise be forgotten.
The songs themselves sound much older than the mere two or three decades that separated them from 1952; listeners who had only been familiar with the music of polished groups like The Weavers were struck by the stark, ghostly quality of many of the voices and the sometimes eccentric quality of the music. Even though many of the recording artists were professional musicians (on a regional level, at least), there is nothing slick or cookie-cutter about them; they have more in common with the rough-hewn, self-taught geniuses of the early jazz era, and in the best of these recordings there is something of the same energy.
The 84 recordings Smith chose are divided into three volumes: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs, each volume originally on two LPs. Smith’s ordering and his brief, even telegraphic, notes are carefully considered to guide the listener through the not-so-distant but disappearing land that Greil Marcus called “The Old, Weird America.” Smith saw the project as half scholarly and half an agent of cultural transformation, but he mostly lets the music speak for itself. If there is an agenda beyond simply making the music more available, it might be found in Smith’s refusal to list or even acknowledge the race of the performers, instead emphasizing the connections that transcend segregation. In Marcus’ words, “Linking one performance to another, he ultimately linked each to all”—an excellent description of what a great anthology can accomplish.
Everyone has their favorite disc in the Anthology; the Ballads and Songs of Volumes One and Three appear to have had the most influence on the contemporary folk movement, but the “Social Music” of Volume Two is mine. Most of the tracks are instrumental, rhythmic fiddle or banjo music for square dancing (on “Georgia Stomp,” the fiddler calls the dance steps out as he plays), as well as what can only be called good-time party music (“Moonshiners Dance,” one of my favorites, sounds like a rural Spike Jones by way of an A&M college bash). All of these dance numbers fit into the two- to three-minute span of a record side, but within that short time they create their own worlds. There is a droning quality (in the literal sense of a repeated pitch or chord) that one easily associates with “primitive” music, to the diddly-bow or the monochord that fascinated Smith, and some of the music is genuinely archaic—pan pipes are represented, made of reeds cut by hand—but mingled with urban trends or Tin Pan Alley standards that show the creeping influence of radio and commercial sheet music.
There are songs on Volume Two, as well—not “Songs” as Smith defined them, but vocal music nonetheless. I sometimes presented Jim Jackson’s heartbreaking “Old Dog Blue” as an example of a “floating couplet” proto-blues song when I taught Music Appreciation, an act of bravery (or foolishness) considering it’s hard for to listen to without getting choked up. Like other songs on the Anthology that have been the focus of intense study, “Old Dog Blue” is at once crystal-clear on the surface—a reminiscence of a faithful hound, now passed away—and deeply mysterious, with seemingly biographical references (like “a little bitty girl with a red dress on”) thrown in, suggesting an entire life in the same way a white tip on the ocean suggests the iceberg beneath the surface. Whether the lyrics are drawn from Jackson’s memory, the common property of rural song, or consciously constructed by Jackson, the result is a song that seems to imply more than it says. The Romantics like Robert Schumann knew how evocative fragments could be, leaving gaps for the listener’s imagination to fill in: Jackson, and many of the other artists present, do the same, whether on purpose, or because of the limitations of recording, or simply because of the cultural gulf that separates us from them.
In the original booklet that came with the AAFM (reproduced for the lavish 1997 CD rerelease), Volumes Four, Five, and Six were promised, but they never arrived. According to knowledgeable sources there were disagreements over the playlist between Smith and Folkways publisher Moses Asch, and Smith, ever temperamental, dropped the project.** Later, Smith seems to have simply lost interest in this kind of anthologizing, moving on to studying quilt patterns and other, more physical, examples of folk life. Within a few years of the original AAFM there was a flood of rereleases of similar material, fueled by the interest Smith had awakened. It didn’t seem as important for him to continue since others had picked up the thread. How short a creative period may turn out to be, especially for one with such diverse interests as Harry Smith: what may appear to be a mercurial temperament may simply be a restless intellect, always searching for new territory to explore.
*A comparable situation prevailed in the mid-1990s, when I was doing my most serious collecting: vinyl was considered dead, doomed to be replaced by CDs, and almost every garage sale or junk store had a crate (or several) of records at bargain prices.
** Following the CD reissue of the AAFM, a fourth volume was released on the Revenant label in cooperation with the Harry Smith Archives, based on a playlist Smith had compiled but with notes written by others. Although it is little more than a footnote to the original AAFM, it’s still a worthwhile sequel, concentrating on music from the 1930s, and it includes songs that would become classics when reissued by others: Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and The Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven,” for example. It is from the liner notes to Volume Four that I have drawn Ed Sanders’ comments.