April 22, 2011
In timing with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Smithsonian Folkways has released a new collection, Civil War Naval Songs: Period Ballads from the Union and Confederate Navies, and the Home Front. The album consists of 13 lively 19th-century tunes that sailors sung on ships or, when docked in port, or belted out in taverns, as well as a few songs their families listened to in their absence—all performed by an all-star group of folk musicians. To hear more about the songs and their origins, I recently caught up with the collection’s producer Dan Milner, a folk song collector and researcher and singer of traditional Irish songs who has teamed up with Folkways before (Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea).
Download a free mp3 copy of “Monitor & Merrimac” courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways
How would you describe the style of the songs?
There are four main types of songs on the recording: firsthand reports from combatants, songs from ballad sheets, songs from urban variety theatres and concert saloons, and parlor songs.
The firsthand reports are blow-by-blow descriptions and are about victories. The losers had other priorities as you can imagine. “The Fight of the Hatteras and Alabama” and “The Brooklyn, Sloop-of-War” are examples.
Ballad sheets are a printed song format that doesn’t exist any longer. They were the first mechanically reproduced song medium. Essentially, they are the words of one song printed on one side of a sheet of paper—importantly with no musical notation—but frequently with a commonly known tune indicated as appropriate for singing. Many of these were sold on busy street corners but many were sent by mail to rural places. They are predecessors of both the modern newspaper and modern sheet music and were occasionally written by hacks working from early, sometimes sketchy, reports. They vary in tone and can be alternately rousing, sad, political, full of praise, damning, etc. “A Yankee Man-of-War” and “The Old Virginia Lowlands, Low” are examples.
Music from early variety (pre-vaudeville) theatres appears mostly in songsters: portable, paper covered booklets of perhaps 40 pages. You can liken ballad sheets to singles and songsters to albums. They’re frequently upbeat—“The Monitor & Merrimac” is an example—and some were used for recruiting purposes. Comic singers were the royalty of Civil War music halls. Our recording is very compelling because everyone is very loose and the arrangement works so well. Gabe Donohue thumps beautifully on the piano. Kate Bowerman’s piccolo and clarinet work is hilarious. The chorus is really alive. If Spike Jonze’s Jones’ grandfather had been a bandleader during the Civil War, his music would have sounded like this.
Parlor songs were printed on sheet music as we undertand the term today and meant primarily for performance in middle- and upper-class homes, where popular theatres were frowned upon. Parlor songs (“The Alabama,” for example) were usually more musically complex and textually refined than the other types.
How did you go about finding the tunes you included?
There are some obvious places to look, starting with archives that hold 19th century song material. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Lester Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University are two such important places and they have extensive collections viewable online. But I went to a number of research libraries as well, the Watkinson Library of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, for example. “The Blockade Runner” came from the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.
Singers are always looking for good, interesting songs, and that was the first criteria in selection. But I also wanted the CD to be equally representative of Northerners, Southerners and Immigrants. I desperately wanted African-Americans in that mix too—18,000 African-Americans served in the Union Navy—but, try as hard as I could—I was not able to find any Civil War maritime songs that were identifiably the product of Black Americans, though I’m still looking. The answer to this apparent riddle is that real folk song passes from mouth to ear. Only occasionally are the words set down on paper. African-American songs were composed, they just weren’t recorded on paper and archived. Generally speaking, I bet for every one good Civil War naval song that was preserved another 99 were lost. The CD is nearly 53-minutes long and carries a tremendous amount of variety from song to song.
What can be learned about the Civil War era by listening to this collection?
Without question, people had a lot fewer diversions to occupy their time. One result of that was they probably sang a lot more. The Civil War period came towards the close of the end of the Second Great Awakening in America. During that period, the idea of duty was second only to religious commitment. I believe the ideas of service, patriotic fervor and fighting the “good fight” are strongly embedded in these songs.
(For more information on the battles and soldiers described in the song’s lyrics, download the liner notes.)
What did you enjoy most about the recording process?
Making recordings is fun but it’s also hard work. I immensely enjoyed working with Jeff Davis, David Coffin, Deirdre Murtha, Bonnie Milner and the other fine singers and musicians who took part. They are an extraordinarily talented crew. All were very generous with their time and contributed mightily to the CD. For all of us, hearing moments of musical genius emerge was tremendously uplifting. For sheer fun, personally, I really enjoyed the entry of the double fiddles on “The Brooklyn, Sloop-of-War.” I jumped in the air when I heard the playback.
April 7, 2011
It’s fitting that legendary jazz songstress-extraordinaire Billie Holiday’s (1915-1959) birthday today falls during Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM). “Lady Day,” as she was known, made songs her own, lazily wrapping her emotive voice like wisps of smoke around passages with distinctive horn-like phrasing. Her trademark songs like “God Bless the Child,” which went on to sell over a million copies, and the haunting tale of lynching, “Strange Fruit” still resonate today. Unfortunately for Holiday, the rock star lifestyle was not a recent invention. Drug abuse and drinking took its toll on her voice, and her limited legal ability to collect royalties left her with $.70 in the bank at the time of her death from cirrhosis at age 44 in 1959. To learn more about the life and times of Lady Day, Smithsonian‘s Ryan Reed corresponded with John Edward Hasse, the American History Museum’s curator of American music and a founder of Jazz Appreciation Month.
Who gave Holiday the nickname “Lady Day?”
The great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who was a musical soulmate of Holiday’s. She, in turn, gave him the nickname “Pres,” short for “President.”
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. How did Holiday influence the genre?
Like Louis Armstrong, she influenced other singers to take familiar songs and make them their own, changing the melodies and rhythms to match the singer’s artistic sensibilities.
What made Holiday unique?
Billie Holiday ranks close to Louis Armstrong among the greatest jazz singers. Acknowledging great inspiration from him, she practiced an instrumental approach to singing as she ranged freely over the beat, flattened out the melodic contours of tunes, and, in effect, re-composed songs to suit her range, style and artistic sensibilities. Her voice was physically limited, but she achieved shadings, nuances, color and variety by sliding along the thin line separating speech and song.
Smithsonian Folkways has the recording “Mean to Me.” What can you tell us about this particular song?
This recording marks an early stage of a remarkable partnership, one that Holiday forged with tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
In contrast to Coleman Hawkins’ big sax sound of the time, Young took a new approach. Young’s sound was a feathery, almost vibrato-less, lightly swinging style that moved improvisation away from the underlying harmonic sequence to focus more on the possibilities of melody. He personified ‘cool’ and influenced the bebop, cool jazz, and rhythm and blues that were to come.
The elegant pianist Teddy Wilson introduces Mean to Me, Young takes the three eight-bar A sections, with trumpeter Buck Clayton taking the B section or bridge. Holiday sings the second chorus, and then the band returns to play the second half of the chorus—Wilson solos on the bridge and Clayton on the final eight bars.
Holiday recomposes the melody of the A section, flattening out parts of it. In the bridge, she largely sings the original melody but makes the rhythms and phrasing her own. For her, such rhythmic conventions as eighth notes, quarter notes, and bar lines were merely guideposts, not fences. Holiday leans on the beat, then catches up, demonstrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. She makes a then-familiar hit song into something personal and fresh.
What made you choose an image of Holiday for the poster of the 2nd annual, national Jazz Appreciation Month in 2003?
I wanted a major figure who was widely considered one of the greatest on her instrument (the voice) and felt it was important to represent women, who have often been undersung in the annals of jazz.
Is there an artist today that reminds you of Holiday?
Holiday has influenced generations of singers, but one in particular has captured some of her style uncannily, and that is Madeline Peyroux.
What is your favorite song by Holiday and why?
“Mean to Me,” because it well represents Holiday as well as Lester Young and Teddy Wilson.
–Additional reporting by Ryan Reed
March 29, 2011
For the past three decades, when historians, critics and educators asked, “What is Jazz?” they turned to the 1973 Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, the landmark album by the late critic and Smithsonian historian Martin Williams. That six vinyl LP—an unprecedented collage of the “genre that revolutionized American music”— became so popular, it went double platinum.
The album became the standard for music educators across the country—college students used the set along with textbooks, or in some cases, in lieu of them.
But the collection went out of production in 1999, a huge loss to a community that had relied on its knowledge and breadth, says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History.
Hasse, who says he grew up with the album and once critiqued it in an essay for the Annual Review of Jazz Studies, “knew first hand how valuable it was,” and began dreaming of a way to update and revive it. So did Richard James Burgess, the marketing director of Smithsonian Folkways, who came to the record label in 2001 with a similar vision.
“We wanted to continue to help the country better preserve, understand and appreciate these extraordinary parts of our musical heritage,” Hasse says.
Today, seven years after Hasse and Burgess first began the project and nearly 40 years since the release of the original album, the label releases Jazz: The Smithsonian Collection, a 6-CD, 111 track box set that chronicles jazz from its beginnings a century ago through the early 2000s.
But unlike its predecessor, which was compiled largely on Williams’ tastes and preferences alone, the new album takes a more democratic approach, Hasse says. This set has three producers (Hasse, Burgess and Folkways Director Daniel Sheehy), an executive selection committee (David Baker, Jose Bowen, Dan Morgenstern, Alyn Shipton and Haase) and the tracks were chosen with input from a international panel of 42 jazz critics, historians and musicians.
“How do you take something like three-quarters of a million jazz recordings and boil it down to 111 tracks?” Hasse says. “Going in, my desire was to have this not be the work of one person but to make it broader and more inclusive.”
The result is an album that touches more on Latin jazz, Afro fusion and other international genres, featuring tracks from Tito Puente, French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê, and Machito and his Afro–Cuban Orchestra. It includes those like Dave Brubeck, George Shearing and Mary Lou Williams who were left off the old album, Hasse says.
It still features those household names: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. But where they may have had five or six tracks on the original album, they each only have two or three on its successor—an attempt to include as many artists as possible, Hasse says.
“This album wasn’t about greatest hits: the recordings weren’t based on which were most popular, but on which had the most influence, or were the best representation of major artists, classics whose luster will be undimmed in 10, 30, 50 years,” Hasse says. “Aiming this primarily at students, I argued that we should try to expose student to as many different musicians and approaches as we could rather than doing something that would give a history of any one artist. This wasn’t a place to give a capsule history of anybody, but rather to expose them to as many different recordings, styles and musicians as we could.”
After the initial polls of experts around the world, Hasse and the rest of the executive selection committee began the painful process of deciding what would make the cut. They spent two years working from multiple cities, Hasse says, and twice convened for marathon sessions in New York, working at some points until 2 a.m. to revise the list.
It took several more years to get rights to all the songs, and quite a while longer to solicit the world’s best jazz writers for the accompanying 200-page album notes (really, a small book that’s worth the price of the album alone).
“We wanted to bring the album much more up to date, into the 21st century. Forty more years of music needed to be considered. We wanted to give more coverage to women, besides singers, and more Latin jazz musicians. This couldn’t be an anthology of world jazz but we could be more inclusive of it,” says Hasse.
Hasse hopes that like its predecessor, the album will open the doors for students and music lovers to explore a genre so symbolic of American culture. For those asking what jazz is – or what this album says about it – it provides a new answer, he says.
“Jazz is a global genre. Jazz is an art form that was born and nurtured and develop in the U.S. but was quickly adopted by people in countries around the world. It is today an international lingua franca, one that sounds very different in Cuba than it does in Africa or Norway. It’s an ever-changing river that has been fed by many tributaries, streams, that is constantly moving. It’s a river so powerful and refreshing that people have been drawn to drink from its waters. I suspect as long as people are listening to Beethoven and Bach they’ll be listening to Armstrong and Ellington. The best of jazz will go on as long as anything produced. It’s for the ages.”
Test your knowledge with some Folkways-sponsored Jazz quizzes. There is a 25-song version and the full 111-song ultimate challenge both of which test how many songs on the new album you know.
February 22, 2011
Today, singer and songwriter Ella Jenkins, the “First Lady of Children’s Music,” releases her 29th Smithsonian Folkways album, A Life in Song. Music is life for Jenkins, who turned 86 last August and has been playing and performing for more than 50 years. Introduced to the blues by her brother and various relatives, Jenkins was born in St. Louis and raised in Chicago. She graduated from San Francisco State University in 1951 and first began writing songs for children while working at the local recreation center and while working as a camp group song leader. In 1956, Jenkins brought a demo to Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, and her first album, Call-And-Response, was released on the label the following year.
But performance is only a part of her story. As a veteran traveler (she’s performed on all seven continents) and educator, her message to children is one that speaks to universal love and respect across cultures.
“Music can’t be forced on children. The important thing is to expose them to all kinds of music, and see what they are drawn to,” Jenkins told the Parents’ Choice Foundation. Known for her call-and-response style, Jenkins, with her ukulele and harmonica, masterfully engineers a boisterous audience participation from not only the kids, but any nearby listeners. She has many influences, including vaudeville, gospel, camp songs, and world music.
Jenkins isn’t lacking in critical acclaim either, having received Grammy nominations, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The octogenarian, who has been entertaining children for two generations is still going strong, and with today’s release of the new 21-track A Life in Song, an eclectic mix of blues, folk songs, and traditionals, she’s out to teach and sing to yet another. Go here to download the track, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” from the Ella Jenkins’ new release.
December 8, 2010
Test Your Jazz Chops: Smithsonian Folkways just announced their forthcoming Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, which will be available beginning March 29. The collection features 111 songs on six CD’s that chronicle the history of jazz music, focusing on its most notable innovators and styles, from bebop to free jazz. Folkways is offering a quiz through Sporcle.com, where you can listen to samples of tracks and attempt to identify songs on the anthology. There is a shorter, 25-song version available, but in order to guess the full song list of all six discs, take the longer, 111-song quiz.
Crafty Cards: A few days ago, local artist Thalia Doukas facilitated a holiday card-making workshop at the Postal Museum. If you weren’t able to attend, Pushing the Envelope has posted some of her most salient tips on how to make some very worldly, one of a kind cards for the holidays using stamps as a primary decoration. There are also photos to get the imagination flowing.
Peanut Butter and Jellyfish: In Smithsonian’s 40th anniversary issue this past August, our colleague Abigail Tucker wrote about the proliferation of jellyfish in the earth’s oceans. The Ocean Portal blog recently explained why jellyfish populations are exploding, citing overfishing as a primary cause. Over 120 species of fish and over 30 other ocean-bound species feed on jellyfish, and if those populations are overfished, the jellyfish can get out of control. The blog suggests that if fish become a scarcity, we may indeed be stuck eating jellyfish instead.
Twenty-First Century Soda Bottle? Recently on the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Blog, an unlikely combination of ingredients is being tested in an attempt to make a new, eco-friendly soda bottle. French designer Francois Azambourg is teaming up with Harvard professor of bioengineering Donald Ingber to test a mixture of sea fungus and sodium chloride bath as a possible substitute to the plastic that is accumulating in our oceans in piles like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The duo is using a sausage-making contraption to shape the bottles into a teardrop shape. Word is that the bottles are even healthy enough to eat—whether or not they’re tasty is, of course, another story.