January 1, 2005


CHAPTER ONE: of Visions of Jazz: The First Century (GARY GIDDINS)

Louis Armstrong/Mills Brothers (Signifying)

Just as Civil War battles and the politics of Reconstruction are rehearsed ceaselessly by buffs and historians, the power plays between slave and master have also remained vestigially alive at the end of the twentieth century, with this difference: they are secretly preserved, chiefly in popular songs handed down through generations increasingly deaf to their meaning. Subverted into neutralized meal for children (like much nineteenth-century American literature, for that matter), those songs, which once gladdened and even changed people's hearts, are now presumed to be opaque if not downright nonsensical. They are as invisible as the black bards who wrote so many of them. On the other hand, Stephen Foster, whose music embodied the widespread belief that former slaves spent the rest of their lives longing for the resumption of slavehood, remains a popular brand name, like Uncle Ben's and Aunt Jemima's.

One of the first songs I can remember learning well enough to sing was "Jimmy Crack Corn," or "The Blue-Tail Fly" (its real name); not for twenty years or so did I realize it wasn't a nonsense song, a kids' song, but an expression of glee at a slaveowner's death. What makes the song chilling is that massa isn't made out to be wicked; he isn't characterized at all, except as massa--reason enough to crack corn in celebration of his demise. A blue-tail fly got him, as the singer details in a series of verses, each followed by the chorus of merriment ("Jimmy crack corn and I don't care/My massa's gone away"). We don't know for sure where he's gone until the end, when his epitaph is sung. The song was popular in minstrel shows of the 1840s and has been handed down for a hundred fifty years, transformed into a campfire song for white middle-class kids. Perhaps "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" will be rediscovered in the next century as a cautionary ballad about the need to put on your galoshes.

These thoughts are prompted by listening to the long-neglected sides, eleven in all, recorded by the Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong for Decca between 1937 and 1940. The most reverberant are two numbers originally released together on a very successful 78 recorded at their first encounter--a politically astute response to the pastoralism that became rife in the recording industry of the '30s and continued into the early '60s. In the long, irreverent history of black performers signifying attitudes that went over the heads of white audiences, this is one of the most ironic pop records ever released. The songs were James A. Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878) and Benjamin R. Hanby's "Darling Nellie Gray" (1856). Part of the disc's power lies not in the talents of the performers, but in how they were perceived by audiences. The Mills Brothers, the most enduringly successful male quartet in American pop music and one of the first black groups to win international acceptance, made the leap from tent shows to New York via a triumphant radio stint in Cincinnati in 1929. Soon they were touring the country, recording prolifically (teaming up with such white stars as Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, and Al Jolson), and appearing in films and on network radio. With only one change in personnel (brother John, Jr., died and was replaced by their father), they recorded a chain of hits over thirty years, then kept on as a trio for another fifteen, after John, Sr., retired at age seventy-four. Their biggest hit, the weirdly fetishist "Paper Doll," was the third biggest hit of the `40s, after "White Christmas" and "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" (and was later mugged in a noted essay by the semanticist turned right-wing bureaucrat, S. I. Hayakawa). They had velvety voices, impeccable diction, dreamy harmonies, supple time, and--especially in their early, more jazz-oriented years--a remarkable gimmick: they imitated instruments (trumpet, trombone, sax, tuba) so well that they subtitled their act Four Boys and a Guitar to stress the cleverness of their mimicry. When they muted their vocal brass effects, their riffs suggested the Ellington band. But straight as they were honest, they allowed their later work to be subsumed in a blandness that bespoke too many chic nightclubs and hacked-out arrangements.

Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, was always a renegade, even when he acceded to the same idiocies in material and setting. He could telegraph with a growl or a rolling of his eyes his independence, confidence, and security. If the Mills Brothers were heroes in the black community for their talent and success, Armstrong (whose music influenced theirs, as it did every black band and vocal group to come along in the '30s) was venerated for all that plus an indomitable will and irreverence. As the embodiment of jazz, he made jazz the embodiment of individual signifying; the singer, not the song, was what counted, or as Trummy Young used to chant, "'Taint What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)." There's no better example than the material Armstrong rendered with the brothers Mills.

By 1937, seventy-two years after the Civil War, songs of the nineteenth century had long since become a staple of recording sessions not only because they appeared to tame black performers into a new kind of servility--singing pro-slave lyrics for liberal record producers on the grounds that they were true folk material--but because they were free, having escaped into public domain. One might reasonably assume that the lyrics of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "Darling Nellie Gray" had lost their bite if not their meaning, and indeed no one seems to have commented on the strangeness of black performers recording them, of black and white audiences buying them, of what Armstrong did with them. Yet though the lyrics of both songs are as explicit as those of "The Blue-Tail Fly," I haven't been able to find a single reference to them in the past sixty years of pop or jazz commentary. This despite the fact that it was a major seller, putting the Mills Brothers back on the charts after a troubled three years during which John, Jr., died. Its popularity contributed to the state of Virginia's decision to adopt "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" as the official state song in 1940, a decision hotly contested in 1997.

What kind of song is it? A nostalgic minstrel expression of mourning for the Old South, for massa and the plantation. The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and the structure--thirty-two bars, AABA--surprisingly modern. The Mills Brothers sing it exactly as written, including the line "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and the stupefying release:

There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa
Day after day in the fields of yellow corn
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Then old Virginny, the state where I was born.

Armstrong, whose first entrance serves to introduce a scat figure that propels the piece immediately into double time, attacks the song with creative relish, but he makes a couple of seemingly casual changes in the offensive lines that make all the difference in the world. In the first case, he sings (twice, both times accommodating the loss of sibilance with a rhythmic adjustment), "There's where the [not `this'] old darkie's heart longs to go." In the release, he changes "dear ol' massa" to "old master," carefully enunciating the consonants. (When Ray Charles recorded the song in 1960, he obviated the problem by changing the first line to "That's where this heart of mine yet longs to go" and omitted the release, replacing it with a new chorus about finding freedom in death.) Perhaps Armstrong's most able signifying comes at the end of the first eight bars of his thirty-two-bar solo, an unmistakable trumpet call--to freedom in life. If the flip side had been a similar piece or an ordinary ballad, the record would--despite Armstrong's saves--have limited meaning. But "Darling Nellie Gray" was one of the most powerful abolitionist songs of the 1850s; published only four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is widely credited with changing people's minds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Only sixteen bars and five lines long, crooned nostalgically by the Mills Brothers, then swung with candid effervescence by Armstrong, it is a Kentucky slave's lament for his lover, sold or traded like a prize sow: "Oh, my poor Nellie Gray/They have taken you away." If the choice of material alone didn't counter the sentiment of the A side, the job was done by Armstrong: his tender solo; utterly engaged vocal, made the more dramatic by syncopations (especially in the second of two surviving takes); caressing, virtuoso fills behind the quartet; interpolated remark before the close ("Now, boys, what do you know about this?"); second chorus alteration of the line "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver"; and extended scat cadenza.

The whole endeavor is heightened by the irony of authorship. The composer of the Virginia state song, the celebrated minstrel and tunesmith James Bland (he wrote "In the Evening By the Moonlight" and "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" as well), was black. "Darling Nellie Gray" was composed by a white twenty-two-year-old minister, Benjamin Hanby, to aid the abolitionists. His tune spurred heavy black sales of the record in the summer of 1937, but did anyone comment back then on the curiosities of the disc? It's difficult to know what contemporary black reviewers thought since black newspapers have yet to be fully gleaned for the valuable anthologies they could undoubtedly produce. White critics, then as now, paid it no mind. Jazz critics hated the idea of Armstrong working with a silky pop group, which is one reason the sessions have been incompletely reissued in the United States, while that strange breed of folklorists who trekked into the Alabamy veldt in search of folk Negroes ignored city ones as ersatz. Yet most of the Armstrong-Mills material is uncommonly interesting: three Irving Berlin gems; a wry novelty about the WPA's impact on the Puritan work ethic ("Sit Down and Smoke While You Joke, It's Okay--the WPA"); Don Redman's gently lubricious "Cherry"; the scat-filled call to dancers, "Boog It," with its descriptive verse ("You do like shinin' a window/But you ain't got no window/So you just picture a window/and Boog It!--slow and easy"); and most pungent of all, Stephen Foster's outrageous and eternal "The Old Folks at Home."

They did the Foster song at the same session as the other minstrel tunes and coupled it with the turn-of-the-century ballad, "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." With a few alterations, Armstrong could distance himself from "Carry Me Back"; with his natural elan, he could restore the emotion to "Darling Nellie." What in heaven's name could he do with Foster's recalcitrant song, in which free darkies sadly roam the dreary world, "longin' for the old plantation and for the old folks at home," except burlesque the hell out of it? No sooner does the quartet croon it straight than he suddenly turns the performance into a mock church service, entering like a deacon ("Now brothers!"), impaling every phrase on the precision of his caricature: "That's where my heart turns, Yowsah!...Know one thing? My heart am still longin' for the old plantation...Hallelujah, hallelujah...Oh, darkies!" He ends speaking, "Well, looka here, we are far away from home," and adds with devastating menace, "Yeah, man." Rasped with implacable finality, that phrase buries the song and the maudlin pastoralism that kept it alive. Few whites, however, in or out of the academy, wanted to hear what old Deacon Satchmo was signifying. Here once again was evidence that, as Pope wrote of Homer, Armstrong's art "is like a copious nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2005 3:26 PM

"Visions of Jazz" is a terrific book. It takes quite a bit of stamina to go straight through it, but goes down easier if taken essay-by-essay. While I was previously unfamiliar with some of the early performers Giddens profiles (such as Bert Williams and Ethel Waters), most of his subjects were well known to me. I am curious as to how accessible the book is to a more casual fan of jazz or pop music.

Posted by: Foos at January 1, 2005 10:32 PM