Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jazz comes to Lily Springs

Abelia loves her music.  The Harvard 1906 model "talking machine" sits during the summer months on the table on her back porch.  She loves sipping wine and listening to music at night, watching the insects swarm around the lamp on her table.

In 1917, a new craze was about to hit America.  The Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the first ever jazz record.  The record was released on the Victor record label in May and became an instant hit.  Jazz had for the first time pushed into the mainstream.

Victor Records didn't quite know how to describe the music.  In one ad they described it as a "Brass band gone crazy."  And then admit quite frankly that they didn't know what a "jass" band is.

Last summer, I purchased an original copy of this album on Ebay.  So many were sold that they are relatively easy to find.  My copy is okay, considering the album is almost 100 years old.  I cleaned it up and recorded the song "Livery Stable Blues" into the computer, knowing then that this song was going to become a significant part of the narrative in Lilac Wine.

This album helps bring Abelia and Robert together in the novel.  Robert had already had a small taste of jazz while witnessing a performance from Fate Marable aboard the paddle wheeler Sidney with his new friend, Billy Miles.  Fate Marable was an African American bandleader who traveled up and down the Mississippi River on excursion boats.  Due to the mainly white clientele on the excursion boats,  however, he was never fully able in 1917 to perform the true jazz from his hometown, New Orleans.  He was like countless other jazz initiators who were not recorded until much later.

Ironically, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was made up of white musicians.  This, in a large part, was due to the inherent racism in the recording industry at the time.  Plus, jazz musicians from New Orleans were reluctant early on to have their music recorded for fear of imitation. 

Here is the first ever recorded Jazz song:  "Livery Stable Blues," by the Original Dixieland Jass Band:

In the novel, Abelia orders a copy of the album after seeing an ad for it.  Robert, working for the Lily Springs post office delivers it.

Robert walked into the back yard, a square package under his arm, calling out her name. She hurriedly wiped her hands on an old cloth, straightened her skirt and threw open the door to the greenhouse.
     “Oh, there you are,” he said. “It’s going to be a hot one again and I didn’t want to leave this on the porch. Another record, huh?”
     “Yes. Thank you,” she replied, taking the flat, heavy cardboard package from his hand.
     “You must be one of their best customers. Which one is that?”
     Abelia smiled. “I saw an ad for this one. Brand new. It’s like a ‘brass band gone crazy’ it said. Come on.” She turned and headed up the porch steps, untying the rough hemp string from around the package. Robert followed, removing his straw hat on the shade of the porch. Abelia offered him a seat and disappeared into the house. “How about some lemonade?” she called as the door closed behind her. She returned quickly carrying a tray with a pitcher and two tall glasses.
     After pouring the lemonade she started to sit---“Oh, the record,” she remembered. She soon returned, pulling the black disk from the sleeve. The Harvard was at its place on the table with “Ave Maria” still on the platter. “This is a record by the Original Dixieland Jass Band,” she said as she switched the disks, carefully setting Alessandro Moreschi on a stack of records next to the talking machine.
     “Jass band, huh?” Robert said, setting the glass that was already dripping with condensation on the table. “I read about a jass band playing at a cafĂ© on the South Side last year. Never went, but I know they were very popular. Came up from New Orleans.”
     “I don’t know anything about it. This is called ‘Livery Stable Blues.’” Abelia placed the disk on the platter. She then cranked the machine and let go of the brake, the gold Victor label quickly becoming a blur. “Ready?” she said with a smile. “I have to warn you, the ad stated that this music can inject new life into a mummy.”
     Abelia let down the tone arm; static as the needle settled into a groove. Then: a cacophony of sound. Cornet, clarinet and trombone in a burst of noise; shrill and disorganized. Then the trombone took up the beat as the crowing coronet voiced the melody. Soon, the clarinet took up the tune, carrying it above the other instruments. It was ostentatious, full of life and energy. The pattern repeated several times, then a brief pause and the cornet whinnied like a horse, the other instruments following with a “moo” and a “cockle-doodle-doo.” Abelia smiled. Robert was tapping his fingers on the top of the table, his lips in a slight grin. He had short sideburns, but hadn’t shaved that morning. Stumble dotted his chin, but his cheeks were relatively smooth. His hair had been neatly combed, but his hat had left a slight crease along the hairline. He hadn’t used a pomade today and as he bounced his head ever so slightly to the beat of the music, strands of hair fell loose and rested upon the crest of his ear. Sweat beaded his forehead and when he casually wiped it with back of his hand, his eyes moved to hers and he smiled. Abelia quickly averted her gaze, the warmth she could feel in her checks.
     There were several more instances when the instruments took on the sounds of a barn. After each whinny and moo, the tempo picked up pace, the sound became more intense. The music was fun and lively, unlike anything Abelia had in her collection. More than the music, she enjoyed watching Robert. In light of everything that happened in the last week, it was good to see him smiling.
                                                       ---- Lilac Wine, Chapter 25

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Over There" and the Problem with Anachronisms

One of the cool things about writing an historical novel is the ability to place characters in actual events and places. When I started Lilac Wine, I was determined to make the novel as historically accurate as possible.  Being a history teacher, this was very important.

So, when my characters go on a Mississippi river excursion, for example, it is based on the actual timetables for the actual boats. In this case, the S.S. Sidney.  When they go to a movie theater in Chicago, they go to an actual theater and see what was playing that evening---such as seeing Charlie Chaplin's classic The Cure at the Gem Theater on June 10, 1917.

In Chapter 20, a special guest arrives in Lily Springs for the Fourth of July celebration.  He is there to sell Liberty Loans and, in the process, sings a rendition of the famous George Cohan song, "Over There."

The problem is:  in July of 1917, no one had ever heard of the song. Although it was written in April of 1917, it wasn't recorded until July by Nora Bayes.  That recording wasn't released until October.  The song was premiered live for the first time in the fall of 1917 at a benefit in New York for the Red Cross.

When I first wrote that chapter, I had read that George M. Cohan had written the song the day after war was declared in April of 1917.  I assumed then that the sheet music would have been released shortly after.  None of the examples of the sheet music had a date beyond the year.  So, I just went with it.

Just recently I discovered that I had been mistaken.  Horribly mistaken. Turns out the sheet music wasn't copyrighted until December.

So this brings an historical conundrum.  "Over There" is a song that modern audiences will know; it can give the reader a sense familiarity.  However, it is not historical.  The character could not have sung that song.

So, do I go with history or familiarity?  If I chose history, what could I use in its place?

Thank God for Google.  Although they are no longer adding to their newspaper archive, Google has hundreds of newspapers digitized.  And among those digitized is the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.  A few years ago, I traveled to Dubuque to view issues of the newspaper on microfilm.  Not anymore.  I can look at every issue from 1917 from the comfort of my own home. Thanks, Google.

So, I began searching for ads and articles related to music of 1917 and found this Victor ad from the June 18, 1917 edition:

Among the standards, such as "Hail Columbia" and "The Star Spangled Banner," the ad lists two popular songs as well.   A quick search in the Victor catalogue reveals that both songs were written before war was declared and even the sound recordings were released just in May of that year.  So these two songs are prime candidates if I chose to replace "Over There" in Chapter 21.

The first song is "America, Here's My Boy."  It was written by Andrew Sterling and Arthur Lange.  It was published on April 20, according to the Copyright office and released on Victor Records in May, 1917.  This version is performed by the Peerless Quartet.

The other song is "Let's All Be Americans Now," written by Irving Berlin.  This recording is by Billy Murray and the American Quartet. It was released in February of 1917.

Both songs have a great feel for a patriotic Liberty Loan rally....but, for most readers, these songs will be very unfamiliar.  Does that matter?  Or is it better to go with a song that many people can hum in their heads?

I think I need to go with the history.  That was the intent at the beginning and I cannot change now.  The question then is:  which song?