Monday, February 19, 2024

Monday afternoon gospel: Smith's Sacred Singers (and two guests): 1926-1930


Of course, I'd hoped to have this up yesterday (Sunday), and I might have succeeded if the originals were in average-to-above condition.  But sacred shellac of the late 1920s has a far lower probability of showing up in decent shape than "pop" 78s.

But I did manage to get twelve sides good to go for this Monday.  The two "guest" artists are Rev, J.C. Burnett and His Quartet with the "folk" version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken (which, far as I can determine, is a variant on the 1907 Ada Habershon-Charles Gabriel hymn).  That, or the 1907 hymn followed from a folk source.  But, at this point in my investigation, it seems like a popular-to-folk migration.

And the other "guest" performance features the 1907 Circle, as performed by "citybilly" greats Bud Billings and Carson Robison.  Robison, while an imitation-"hillbilly" singer, did an important service in popularizing genuine from-the-hills material--and he was a gifted performer, besides. 

The rest are fabulous numbers by J. Frank Smith's quartet, Smith's Sacred Singers, spanning the years 1926-1930 and recorded in Atlanta, Georgia.  I really should know, but I'm not sure whether Columbia had a studio in Georgia or whether the group was recorded in "field" style with portable equipment.  Easily researched on line, I'm sure, but I'll leave that to you, dear reader/listener.

Here's a group photo I swiped from the great SecondHandSongs site, one of the net's most amazing resources:

1927's We Shall Rise might be my favorite SSS performance of all, and it's one of two resurrection-morning numbers often confused.  At one point, I went to the trouble of documenting the two numbers after much songbook research, but of course I can't recall the details offhand.  And a quick blog-history check didn't help.  The numbers in question are not as blatantly similar as A Wonderful Time up There and Gloryland Jubilee, both 12-bar boogie tunes, but they're close enough.

And the superlative 1927 SSS version of He Will Set Your Fields on Fire is an important document of the song as written (two years earlier, in 1925), and not with the "swingy" 2/2 pulse that came to dominate country and Southern gospel.  The distinction between the as-written and "swingy" pulse is too subtle to describe--it's akin to a choral score written in quarter and eight notes but with the instruction to introduce a "swinging" triplet pulse.  Country/bluegrass typically does not involve a jazz/R&B pulse (just every once in a while), but it rocks in its own way.  We're hearing Fire before it acquired the standard Chuck Wagon Gang/Cary Story feel. 

I hope that made some sense.  Sometimes, the slightest change in the feel of a performance can make a world of difference. 

Getting back on topic, SSS's style is often described as "shape note" (a variant on "shaped notes"), a term which refers to "Sacred Harp" singing, a choral style (typically rendered in the shouting manner of SSS) that started in New England and made its way down South.  "Shape note" refers to notation styles in which the scale degrees--do-re-mi-fa, etc.--are represented by (as the term implies) different shapes.  The most common variant is a repeated four-note scheme, which works because the standard seven-note Western scale (with the "do" degree doubled) consists of two tetrachords separated by a whole step.  I personally find shape notes an epic pain to read, and it seems, along with all the other music-reading shortcuts of its type, like more hassle than help.  Learning the various key signatures isn't all that much harder than memorizing different notehead shapes.

And... since any SATB or close-harmony number can be rendered in shape-note form, "shape-note" technically does not refer to a specific performance style.  But the SSS members were likely "singing school"-trained; thus, their style would be closer to "Sacred Harp" than not.  Aren't you glad I cleared that up?

Life's Railway to Heaven might have been my late foster mother's favorite gospel hymn, since the text is such a brilliant exercise in sustained spiritual metaphors: The spiritual journey of life as a train ride.  She was an OSU English prof and thus appreciated all expert vernacular examples of that literary device.  She also loved the allegorical aspect of A Tramp on the Street (aka, Only a Tramp), in which the tramp turns out to be no less than Christ himself.  Allegory-wise, Deliverance Will Come (more often titled Palms of Victory) is a condensed version of Pilgrim's Progress, that 1678-1684 work chosen by the Guardian as the greatest novel of all time.  SSS takes Deliverance at a slow tempo, in contrast to later versions.  

Oh, and apologies for the wrecked condition of Shouting on the Hills, but it's too good to omit.  Plus, it increases the track count from thirteen to fourteen.  Not that I'm superstitious, but I'm superstitious.

As mentioned before, the 1928 Bud Billing/Carson Robison Will the Circle Be Unbroken presents the 1907 hymn as written, its lyrics intact (save for "Is a better world" revised into the more hopeful, "In a better world").  Though beautifully done, the recording is not something modern ears are likely to regard as remotely folk--or country, for that matter--but for 1928 listeners, it was a different story.  That is to say, the 1920s had its pop-country variant, just as we have ours today.  In fact, the latest variant is something I can happily do without, though I like the now-"classic" country of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.  A reminder that "authentic," "classic," etc. are temporally specific labels (and, usually, in reference to our own period).

To the downhome goodness of Smith's Sacred Singers:

DOWNLOAD: Smith's Sacred Singers, Feb. 2024

We Shall Rise--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1927

He Will Set Your Fields on Fire--Same, 1927

I Will Sing of My Redeemer--Same, 1927

The Church in the Wildwood--Same, 1927

Will the Circle Be Unbroken--Rev. J.C. Burnett and His Quartet, 1928 (Take 2)

Deliverance Will Come--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1928

The Home Over There--Same, 1928

Life's Railway to Heaven--Same, 1928

Meet Me There--Same, 1929

Working for the Crown--Same, 1929

City of Gold--Same, 1927

Climbing up the Golden Stairs--Same, 1927

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Habershon-Gabriel)--Bud Billings and Carson Robison, 1928

Shouting on the Hills--Smith's Sacred Singers, 1926


Sunday, February 04, 2024

A variation on the standard twist-ploitation album: "New Twists on Old Favorites"---Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra, 1962


Finally, my promised Sammy Kaye post--1962's New Twists on Old Favorites--and sorry it took so long.  And, the big question: Do I like it?  Did it please your blogger?  I'm not sure, really.  However, I am impressed by how brilliantly this succeeds in its primary mission: The merging of Sammy Kaye's "sweet band" (aka, "Mickey") style with that 1960 and 1962 dance craze which heralded a new era of popular music.  That is, if you believe in the contemporary hype.  In my mind, the question remains: Why was this particular dance, the music for which was standard eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie (instrumental blues), greeted as an epic moment in pop music history?  Most answers offered in this regard are classic tautologies.  Such as, "It was a dance which crossed generational lines."  Which I find weird, since the chief objection to r&r dances (on the part of grownups) was their absence of close contact. Rewind back to the 1830s, and the waltz was scandalous BECUASE of its close-contact nature.  Yes, such perceptions often do a 180 over time.  What is correct becomes incorrect, and what is is incorrect, etc.

But any answer which generates further whys (such as, "The twist crossed generational lines") is tautological.  Circular, even.  X is so because x is so.  In a word, "Because."  To me, the vastly over-the-top reaction to the twist makes no sense.  If there was a perceived cultural need for a style which put grownups and teens on the same page, why this one?

And could that be Barbara Nichols posing on the cover?  I can easily imagine Barbara taking such a gig.  At any rate, the model is Barbara Nichols-esque, anyway.  Here's Barbara Nichols.  A nice picture of her, um, face:

For vocals, we get the Kaydets and SPC great Laura Leslie, typically with spoken intros by Kaye.  And, again, these tracks are a remarkable marriage of Kaye's brand of big band and the twist beat (eight-to-the-bar with a backbeat, a la Chuck Berry and the Beatles).  But... Kaye started recording in 1937 (according to Brian Rust), and so why does the song list focus on the 1910s and 1920s (exception: 1939's We'll Meet Again)?  The arrangements are true to his style (if we make allowance for the boogie-woogie twist pulse), but the titles are not true to his era.  Was Decca expecting listeners to associate Kaye with the Victor Military Band, Paul Whiteman, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band?

There are the questions which haunt us as we travel along this mortal coil.  So, my verdict for the moment: This effort accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do as far as expertly merging a "sweet band" style with Chubby Checker (and with impressive musicianship), its song choices are anachronistic, and Laura Leslie should have been given more chances to shine on vinyl.  Her brief discography doesn't befit her talent.  I may grow to love this, but at the moment I'm very impressed by its originality and expert presentation.  Clever title, too, though I would have liked "Twist and Sway With Sammy Kaye."  

Enjoy!  Oh, and I neglected to note that this was another thrift gift from Diane.  Thanks, Diane!

DOWNLOAD: New Twists on Old Favorites--Sammy Kaye and His Orch. (Decca DL 4247, 1962.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

After You've Gone

Doodle Dee Doo

Who's Sorry Now

We'll Meet Again

I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

That's My Weakness Now

The Darktown Strutters' Ball

Somebody Stole My Gal

Nobody's Sweetheart

Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Gal)

It's Sunday Down in Caroline