This time James Errington is joined by John Ashlin to explore the music of 1916. While Europe lies devastated in the midst of the darkest year of the first world war, America is hotting up, with the birth of jazz and blues music imminent, while the old world of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley is struggling to adapt.
This isn’t a gif from a fiction movie – it’s actual footage from the first world war which has been cleaned up, extra frames added to bring it up to 26 per second, and then colorised. It’s the kind of thing which sets new standards for how we can use original sources to bring the past to life, something which Centuries of Sound obviously is in favour of. The scenes towards the end with the worst effects of the war are so shocking and visceral that I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget them.
The film, directed by Peter Jackson, is not perfect. I liked very much how it operated entirely on the personal level of the soldiers, but inevitably this led to a nagging feeling that there was a lot being missed. This is something which cannot be helped, though, and as far as two-hour documentaries about the war go, it’s surely unsurpassable.
The first and easily the most accessible of Joyce’s three novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of the early life of Stephen Dedalus, a fictionalized version of Joyce who will later appear in Ulysses. Cut down from a gigantic experimental autobiography, the work took Joyce the best part of 15 years, so you may be surprised to find how readable it is, especially if you have previously attempted to read his other novels.
The death of Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “Mad Monk” of Russia is the stuff of weird history legend. The story passed down by his assassin (and mentioned in the less accurate account given by Boney M in the mid 1970s) is as follows
Yusupov began to panic as Rasputin appeared to consume enough cyanide to kill scores of men. As Rasputin started to have some difficulty swallowing his wine, Yusupov feigned concern and asked Rasputin if he was feeling ill…
…Soon, however, Rasputin appeared to recover and become more energetic. Fearing that the poison had failed, Yusupov stood up and paced the room to work up the nerve to shoot Rasputin… Yusupov pulled out the revolver and firing one shot, hitting Rasputin in the chest. Rasputin cried out and collapsed onto the floor, where he laid in a growing pool of blood but did not move… The doctor checked for Rasputin’s pulse and found none, confirming that Rasputin was dead, shot close enough to his heart to be immediately fatal…
Rasputin’s body laid motionless exactly where they had left it, but Yusupov wanted to be sure. He shook the body and didn’t see any signs of life — at first. Then, Rasputin’s eyelids started to twitch, just before Rasputin opened them. “I then saw both eyes,” Yusupov wrote, “the green eyes of a viper – staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred.” Rasputin lunged at Yusupov, snarling like an animal and digging his fingers into Yusupov’s neck…
Purishkevich was the first out the door, and he immediately fired two shots at the fleeing Rasputin. He missed, but then Purishkevich chased down the wounded Rasputin and from just feet away, fired two more shots. One of the shots struck Rasputin in the head, inflicting a killing blow, and Rasputin collapsed to the ground. Yusupov had two loyal servants wrap Rasputin’s body in heavy carpets and tied with heavy chains. The conspirators then brought the body to a bridge over the Neva River and dumped it into an unfrozen patch of water below.
This documentary has the standard telling of his final hours
With the hundredth anniversary of his death, however, questions have inevitably arisen. First this BBC documentary, which alleges that the assassination was the work of rogue British secret service agents:
Rasputin’s actual murder was probably far less dramatic. His daughter Maria, who fled Russia after the Revolution and became a circus lion tamer billed as “the daughter of the famous mad monk whose feats in Russia astonished the world,” wrote her own book in 1929 that condemned Yussupov’s actions and questioned the veracity of his account. She wrote that her father did not like sweets and never would have eaten a platter of cakes. The autopsy reports do not mention poison or drowning but instead conclude that he was shot in the head at close range. Yussupov transformed the murder into an epic struggle of good versus evil to sell books and bolster his own reputation.
After my very mixed feelings about the DW Griffith’s beautiful, appalling racist epic The Birth of a Nation, I was keen to check out the next film he made, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. I’d heard that it was made to address the divisions caused by the controversial release of The Birth of a Nation, including the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. But it seems that I may have misunderstood DWG’s intentions.
Intolerance is supposedly about the scourge of intolerance throughout the ages – only the focus (if there is one) seems to be on closer analysis of intolerances perpetrated against the ideas and prejudices of one DW Griffith. The right to make a racist film without criticism, the right to follow a more puritanical religion, and so on. You may have a hard time actually picking these out of the immense scope of the thing, but as far as a moral core goes, I’m afraid it may be a rotten one.
Otherwise I’m left with two impressions. Firstly that the whole thing is visually absolutely stunning. The scenes in ancient Babylon in particular are some of the most ambitious I’ve seen in any era – and bearing in mind how everything needed to be constructed in real life, the achievement here is undeniable. Griffith also seems to have developed his editing style a fair amount in the year between productions, and some sections were clearly influential. That is, if you can find them. Because this is a long, long film, and what plot there is is impossible to follow.
A lot of this is due to the convoluted story of the film’s production. DWG started off shooting a film about a strike at a mill, in which the villains are not just the mill owners but also the moral puritans driving the strikers. After showing this to his friends in the industry he decided this was too slight to be the follow-up to the biggest film of all time and started shooting another three segments – one in ancient Babylon, one about Jesus’s crucifixion and one about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots in France.
Intolerance is therefore four films, woven together over three and a half hours of screen time. Most of the characters (and there are a lot of these) are unnamed, and the connection between the stories is highly tenuous. I’m not sure if my attention span has been destroyed by mobile phones and having small children, but it was very difficult to follow one strand, let alone four. This also seems to have been the opinion of contemporary audiences, who did not flock to the cinema as they had previously. The film barely broke even, and DWG’s career never really recovered. In the last century, however, the film has had a critical renaissance – writers who do not want to say anything nice about BOAN have instead flocked to lavish praise on it. Armond White, for example, described it as “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” in the National Review, an opinion which is clearly incorrect. More recently parallels have been drawn between the concept of “intolerance” as demonstrated in the film and the debating tactics of the alt-right, where intolerance of racism is presented as a greater crime than racism itself.
My take is this: it’s another beautiful, awful film, only this time it’s more beautiful, and also really, really confusing.
January 1 – The British Royal Army Medical Corps carries out the first successful blood transfusion, using blood that had been stored and cooled.
January 10 – In the Erzurum Offensive, Russia inflicts a defeat on the Ottoman Empire.
January 13 – Ottoman Empire forces defeat the Allied British in the Battle of Wadi.
February 11 – Emma Goldman is arrested for lecturing on birth control in the United States.
February 12 – At The Battle of Salaita Hill, South African and other British Empire troops fail to take a German East African defensive position.
February 21 – The Battle of Verdun begins in France.
March 8 – Pancho Villa leads 500 Mexican raiders in an attack against Columbus, New Mexico, killing 12 U.S. soldiers. A garrison of the U.S. 13th Cavalry Regiment fights back and drives them away.
March 24 – French ferry SS Sussex is torpedoed by SM UB-29 in the English Channel, with at least 50 killed, including the composer Enrique Granados.
April 11 – The Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.
April 24 – The Easter Rising begins in Ireland. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood proclaim an Irish Republic, and the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army occupy the General Post Office and other buildings in Dublin.
April 27 – The 47th Brigade, 16th (Irish) Division at Hulluch in France is decimated, in one of the most heavily concentrated German gas attacks of the war.
April 29 – The Easter Rising ends, as republican commanders issue an order for all companies to surrender.
April 29 – The Siege of Kut ends with the surrender of British forces to the Ottoman Empire, at Kut-al-Amara on the Tigris in Basra Vilayet.
May 16 – Britain and France conclude the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement, which is to divide Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence.
May 16 – United States Marines invade the Dominican Republic.
May 31 – The Battle of Jutland, between the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy, the war’s only large-scale clash of battleships, begins – the result is inconclusive.
June 4 – The Brusilov Offensive, the height of Russian operations in the war, begins with their breaking through Austro-Hungarian lines.
June 5 – HMS Hampshire sinks, having hit a mine off the Orkney Islands, Scotland, with Lord Kitchener aboard.
June 10 – The Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire is formally declared by Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.
July 1 – On the first day of The Battle of The Somme around 30,000 British, French and German soldiers are killed
July 15 – Battle of Delville Wood – 766 men from the South African Brigade are killed, in South Africa’s biggest loss during the First World War.
July 29 – In Ontario, Canada, a lightning strike ignites a forest fire that destroys the towns of Cochrane and Matheson, killing 233.
July 30 – German agents cause the Black Tom explosion in Jersey City, New Jersey, an act of sabotage destroying an ammunition depot and killing at least 7 people.
August 5 – At the Battle of Romani British Imperial troops secure victory over a joint Ottoman-German force.
September 6 – The first true self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, is founded in Memphis, Tennessee, by Clarence Saunders.
September 11 – A mechanical failure causes the central span of the Quebec Bridge to crash into the Saint Lawrence River for the second time, killing 13 workers.
September 13 – Mary, a circus elephant, is hanged in the town of Erwin, Tennessee for killing her handler, Walter ‘Red’ Eldridge.
September 15 – Battle of Flers–Courcelette – significant for the first use of the tank in warfare and for the debut of the Canadian and New Zealand Divisions in The Somme.
September 27 – Iyasu V of Ethiopia is deposed in a palace coup, in favour of his aunt Zewditu.
October 21 – Friedrich Adler shoots and kills Count Karl von Stürgkh, Minister-President of Austria.
November 5 – An armed confrontation in Everett, Washington, between local authorities and members of the Industrial Workers of the World results in seven deaths.
November 7 – In The U.S. presidential election, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson narrowly defeats Republican Charles E. Hughes.
November 7 – Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives.
November 18 – After 5 months and nearly half a million British casualties, BEF commander Douglas Haig calls off the Battle of the Somme.
November 21 – Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria dies of pneumonia at the Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, aged 86, after a reign of 68 years and is succeeded by his grandnephew Charles I.
November 23 – Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is occupied by troops of the Central Powers.
December 12 – ‘White Friday’ in the Dolomites – 100 avalanches bury 18,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers.
December 18 – The Battle of Verdun ends in France with German troops defeated.
December 22 – The British Sopwith Camel aircraft makes its maiden flight. It is designed to counter the German Fokker aircraft.
December 30 – The mystic Grigori Rasputin is murdered in Saint Petersburg.
The story of recorded must prior to 1917 has been, on a personal level, a juggle with two opposing narratives. First there is of course the convoluted journey towards the explosion in jazz and blues of the late 1910s and 1920. Then there’s the other side, the world of music and musicians who had their own path and their own values. So far these two threads have been happy so sit peacefully side by side, occasionally intertwining, but always on their own terms. In 1916, though, there is an overwhelming feeling that something really big is coming. Perhaps its the war (covered here by a single track) with its mythical power to change attitudes, perhaps its the work of a number of talented individuals, perhaps the spread of the gramophone is making it necessary – but for whatever reason, the majority of music in this mix seems to be almost-but-not-quite jazz and blues.
A couple of exceptions to this, before we go digging in – the mix kicks off with one of a couple of very atmospheric klezmer cymbolom instrumentals (this is a genre which would not be so easily colonised by the new music), and features yet more of the Hawaiian craze which seems to have been a constant in the decade. The biggest revelation here may be from fiddler Don Richardson – his instrumental version of Arkansas Traveller (featured on here a couple of times before in its vaudeville form) is as far as I can tell indistinguishable from the “first country records” which would kick off the other musical explosion in about a decade’s time.
Blues has been around for a while at this point, though not so much as a genre as a mood, or perhaps even what we might call a meme now. The sheet music for “I Got the Blues” by New Orleans musician Antonio Maggio was published in 1908, and over the following decade a number of other songs started riffing on the idea, including some written in Tin Pan Alley and given to a new generation of female vaudeville singers, most notably Sophie Tucker. In this vein we have torch-song standard “I Ain’t Got Nobody” – here performed by Marion Harris, the music for which was written by a black songwriter, Spencer Williams – a pattern of visible white performers with black artists in the background which started as early as the 1890s and would continue until the start of the 1920s.
This naturally leads on to one of the accidental shifts this music has pushed into view. W.C. Handy’s compositions weren’t just called “blues” – they actually drew from his life as a black man in the south of the USA, the presumed source of the melodies and rhythms which easily delineate this music to the modern ear. The St Louis Blues was his breakthrough hit, but is here presented as an instrumental, and performed by a ragtime dance band who had started out performing military marches, led by Charles Adams Prince, a record company director and relative to two US presidents.
The appallingly titled “Nigger Blues” was, naturally, written by a white man, Lee “Lasses” White, a veteran of minstrel shows and “coon songs” who would go on to become a stock actor in early westerns. It would be nice to think that the racism of the turn of the century was dying off by this point, but this would be extremely wishful thinking. “Chinese Blues” was written by young George Gershwin, and is here represented by the composer himself (on a piano roll) and Sousa’s Band, of all people.
The most striking example of all this dissonance, however, is to be found on “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland” performed by Arthur Collins and Byron G Harlan. Collins, now billed as “king of the ragtime singers”, has a long and very mixed history on this site, as is natural for a figure who looms as large as he does in pre-WW1 music. A good case could be made that “That Funny Jas Band” is the first jazz recording, but it’s a bit less embarrassing to call it “the first recording that mentions jazz” as it is, on the whole, the sort of embarrassing racist churned-out “coon song” which you’d instinctively want to sweep under the carpet – it even includes a painful bit of minstrel-show banter in the middle. For all that though, I don’t know what you can call the instrumental break at the end except jazz – it’s straight out of an Original Dixieland piece.
If we are going to award the birth of jazz to anyone in 1916, though, perhaps the best recipient would be the two acts that close the mix. We’ve heard “Down Home Rag” before, performed at a frantic pace by James Reece Europe and his ‘Society Orchestra’ – but here it is again, first performed by its composer Wilbur Sweatman, on course to become one of the founding fathers of jazz. Then we switch into a supercharged version played by The Versatile Four, associates of Europe who had branched out to form a more portable unit, able to tour the USA and Europe. They may be a smaller ensemble, but their glorious racket is more than enough to match Europe’s Society Orchestra. This really feels like the start of something.
0:00:00 Joseph Moskowitz – Doina
0:01:06 Gilbert Girard & Company – Daybreak at Calamity Farm (Part 1)
0:01:15 Eugene Jaudas National Promenade Band – Memphis Blues
0:04:36 R.H. Burnside – A New York Hippodrome Rehearsal
0:04:45 Arthur Collins – Hesitating Blues
0:06:15 Prince’s Orchestra – The Hesitating Blues
0:07:56 George O’Connor – Nigger Blues
0:10:27 Gladys Rice – Here Comes Tootsie
0:10:41 Marion Harris – I Ain’t Got Nobody
0:12:20 Elsie Baker & Billy Murray – Play A Simple Melody
0:13:17 Gilbert Girard & Company – Daybreak at Calamity Farm (Part 2)
0:13:42 Abe Schwartz – Sadigurer Chused’l
0:16:39 Aleksandr Vertinskiy – Malen’kiy Kreol’chik
0:19:20 Jeanne Feinberg – Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen
0:21:17 Enrico Caruso – Ah Tout Est Bien Fini (Le Cid)
0:23:54 Karl I of Austria – Speech, Feb 1916
0:24:05 Murray Johnson – Pack Up Your Troubles
0:26:47 Barney Bernard – Goldstein Goes in the Railroad Business
0:27:06 Kyria Koula – Tsifte Teli
0:29:07 Canhoto – Abismo De Rosas
0:30:18 Raquel Meller – Los Impertinentes Mágicos
0:32:55 Quinteto Borinquen – Diamante Negro
0:34:31 Pepita Ramos ‘La Goyita’ – La Modista Militar
0:36:44 Helen Louise & Frank Ferera – Hapa Haole Hula Girl
0:37:51 Rene Dietrich and Horace Wright – My Own Iona
0:40:18 Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra – On The Shore at Le-Lei-Wei
0:42:51 Scott Joplin – Magnetic Rag
0:45:42 Avon Comedy Four – Ginberg’s Stump Speech
0:45:56 Six Brown Brothers – Walkin’ The Dog
0:48:12 Eugene Jaudas National Promenade Band – Walkin’ The Dog
0:51:30 Fred Van Eps – Raggin’ The Scale
0:54:08 George Gershwin – Chinese Blues
0:56:14 Sousa’s Band – Chinese Blues
0:57:40 Lou Chiha Frisco – Kangaroo Hop
0:59:29 George Formby Snr – The Grandfather’s Clock
1:02:14 Bert Williams – Never Mo’
1:04:48 Strassmeir Dachaur Bauernkapelle – Werdenfelser Trompeten Landler
1:07:41 Conway’s Band – Two-Key Rag
1:10:42 Prince’s Band – St. Louis Blues
1:13:24 Eugene Jaudas Society Orchestra – Step With Pep
1:15:26 W.G. Haenschen & T.T. Schiffer – Sunset Medley
1:17:14 Cunniah Naidu – Modi Instrumental- Ragam-Alapana In Thodi
1:19:02 Adeline Francis – The Mouse and the Thomas Cat
1:19:15 Don Richardson – Arkansas Traveller
1:22:00 F. J. Bacon – Massas in De Cold, Cold Ground
1:22:51 Charles Ross Taggart – Old Country Fiddler at the Telephone
1:23:12 Collins & Harlan – That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland
1:26:49 Wilbur Sweatman – Down Home Rag
1:28:10 The Versatile Four – Down Home Rag