A low note in American entertainment

Last week Zayde’s Turntable featured a record that captured perhaps one of the most culturally sophisticated and artistically profound albums in my collection. This week we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum, with a performance, while no less culturally important, of a far baser nature.

Some examples of the Harmony Disc Record label.

Harmony Disc Records (HDR) were manufactured in Chicago by the Great Northern Manufacturing Company starting in 1907. The label was discontinued after a merger of several labels in 1916 that formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, making this disc one of the oldest (though not the oldest) in my collection at probably around 100 years in age.

A Great Northern Manufacturing Company phonograph. The trumpet is probably not original to the machine. Note the large spindle pin in the middle of the turntable.

HDR albums are most notable because of their unusually large spindle hole in the middle of the record (at ¾” in diameter the hole is 200% the size of most 78-RPM records); this suggests the records were made specifically to play on a precise machine, one made by – you guessed it – the Great Northern Manufacturing Company. Kind of like how cell phones today can only plug into the charger manufactured by their company. Infuriating. HDR was not the only label to employ the extra-large spindle hole. Standard (at 1/2” diameter), United (1/5”), and Aretino (3”!) did likewise. All four of these labels were brands of the Great Northern Manufacturing Company and there are some instances reported of records in which two of these labels appeared on one disc, one on each side.

Great Northern sold their phonographs for a fraction of the cost of competitors’ machines (sometimes even giving them away): compare $1 for a Great Northern phonograph to $30 for a comparable machine from Victor. The cost savings are obvious, but once the customer was locked into the Great Northern machine, they could only play that company’s discs because of the spindle size. Again…this all sounds somewhat familiar. Sadly, some Great Northern owners reportedly went so far as to take drills or files to ¼” spindle hole discs to get them to fit on their Great Northern gramophone. The outcome of such an attempt can probably be guessed. Owners who later upgraded to a standardized ¼” inch spindle machine would likewise sometimes plug the holes of their Great Northern records to get a better fit.

Several labels had "Harmony" in their name, but they were not from the same company. The bottom image was a label that issued Christian Science recordings.

HDR should not, of course, be confused with Harmony records or the handful of other labels that employed the word “Harmony” in their brand name. The earliest HDR records (including this one) were one-sided issues and sold for four cents.

Harmony Disc Record #4100.

This album is in Fair condition, with the expected wear that would come from a record of such age. Despite its age, however, there are no significant scratches and the entire shellac is intact, though worn; the record is playable all the way through but the audio quality is poor (while I supply a clip below, I recommend following one of the links provided below to the full song available elsewhere online). It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¾” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony Disc Records 4100 and there is no master number. There is only one side of recording on this album; an unnamed vocalist accompanied by an unnamed pianist singing the “Negro Shout” “Turkey in the Straw.” It runs 2 minutes and 36 seconds.

The back of the record has no grooves or recording, indicating it was from the earliest days of recorded discs.

The precise record date is unknown, but it likely falls some time between 1901 and 1908 (the record’s use of only one side and its thickness suggest an album of this age, as later discs tended thinner and double-sided as technology and engineering improved). It does not appear in Les Docks’ valuation guide and there is no dealer I could find currently selling this exact record (some are selling a similar recording by the same artist on different labels: Columbia for $5, Victor for $10, Edison cylinder for $10, Edison disc for $11, an unidentified label for $36, and American Record Company for $115). The final two sellers seem a bit over the range of the rest and I would estimate the value of my record therefore to be in the $10-$15 neighborhood.

The label, unlike with many other HDR discs, is not printed on paper affixed to the album, but seems to be printed directly onto the shellac at the center.

A label affixed to the unpressed back of the record warns against duplicating or reselling the record (Megaupload, be warned!). It somewhat optimistically cautions that purchase of the record is accepting the condition that, if the record is sold below the price assigned to it by the company, it may not be played. Finally, it notes that the record may only be played on a phonograph that has the properly sized center spindle pin.

The warning label on the back of the record, with some numeric stamps on it, possibly prices or catalog numbers.

After some research I was able to determine that the vocalist on this record is the minstrel and vaudeville comedian Billy Golden (1858-1926). Golden’s performance of this song was issued on a multitude of labels, with all issues dating from within the first decade of the 20th century (American Record Company 30501, Victor 65, 17265, and 4515, Edison disc 50605, Edison cylinder 8293, Columbia A1291, and Monarch 65). And, of course, Harmony Disc Record number 4100 (click to hear the entire song on the HDR record elsewhere or below to hear a clip off my own copy of the record).

Billy Golden (1858-1926).

Golden was a prolific comic of the late 19th century and early 20th century. He started in the entertainment industry with a blackface spoken word act in 1874 and pressed his first record, for Columbia, in 1891. He would record with a multitude of labels as a solo act between 1891 and 1908, including as one of the first artists on the Berliner label (in 1895), eight titles for Edison, and a remarkable 51 records for Victor between June 1900 and September 1906.  His three top records all placed in the top ten on the US charts the year they were issued (“Roll on the Ground” on Gramophone, his #2 selling record, placed 4th in 1901; “Turkey in the Straw” on Victor, his #1 selling record, placed 4th in 1905; and “Whistling Pete” on Victor, his #3 selling record, placed 10th in 1911). Fifteen of Golden’s recordings are available for a free listen through the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox. As a performer who specialized in the now highly insensitive and repugnant blackface routine, Golden (who was white, of course) has a roster of track titles that reads like a case illustration in the racially derogatory type of entertainment that was, unfortunately, for far too long a well-selling staple for the American music and comedy industries: “Turkey in de Straw,” “Yaller gal,” “Sisseretta’s visit to the North,” “Rabbit Hash,” “Roll on de ground,” “Crap shooting,” “Uncle Jefferson,” “In front of the old cabin door,” etc.

A 1900 ad for blackface vaudevillian Billy Van.

Blackface was a type of theatrical makeup and performance utilized, in America, during the minstrel show and vaudeville eras (from roughly 1830 to 1930), though its earliest recorded use dates as far back as the 15th century in Europe and blackface minstrel television programs in Britain persisted until as late as 1981. Blackface involved, for white performers, the heavy application of burnt cork and, later, grease paint or shoe polish, to darken the skin and exaggerate the lips; costuming would exacerbate the caricature and typically included wool wigs, gloves, and tailcoats or, with other common blackface “characters” (the cast of stock characters depicted was generally universal, similar to commedia dell’arte), ragged clothing. During the vaudeville period black actors who wished to take to the stage were even required to perform in blackface themselves. The blackface style died off finally with the successes of the Civil Rights movement, except for satirical uses and the occasional idiotic undergraduate costume party.

Billy Golden (right) with his post-1908 comedy partner Joe Hughes. Hughes was the straight man to Golden's buffoon.

Golden’s repertoire included singing solo and duet, comic monologues, comic scenes, and laughing and whistling solos. This album was probably popular because it was a well-known song and his performance of it included almost his entire repertoire: singing, monologue, whistling, and laughing. His blackface “character” was a stereotyped buffoon performed with “unrestrained glee and wit,” as well as “black dialect” (an important cue to the listener once the blackface act became audio-only on a record). In 1908 Golden teamed up with comedian Joe Hughes and issued a number of records performing a two-man blackface comic bit that laid the groundwork for the likes of “Amos and Andy” and other performers (including, more immediately, Jack and Phil Kaufman). Golden and Hughes performed to great success both on vaudeville and on records, with Hughes taking the role of the straight man and Golden the joker, complete with “crazy laugh and exaggerated dialect.” Their acts had such titles as “Darktown Eccentricities,” “Unlucky Mose,” “An Easy Job on the Farm,” “Hotel Porter and the Traveling Salesman,” “Aunt Mandy,” “Jimmy Trigger’s Return from Mexico,” “Love Sick Coon,” and “The Coon Waiters.”

Fred Gaisberg (left) with Edward Elgar in 1932.

Bizarrely, Golden can also be credited with an act that advanced and made possible the career of one of the most important record producers in the classical music genre. One of Golden’s piano accompanists for his Columbia and Berliner recordings was a young Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951). Golden thought Gaisberg was talented and helped the pianist receive a job as a recording engineer for the Gramophone Company. In that position in 1902 Gaisberg recorded a now famous and exceptionally important series of albums for Victor featuring the tenor Enrico Caruso (the opera singers first recordings and also the first records to be issued on the His Master’s Voice label). From there Gaisberg was catapulted into the upper echelons of the classical music and opera world and became, in a sense, one of the first major classical music producers of the recording age.

Sheet music to "Zip Coon," also called "Old Zip Coon," which was based on the tune for "Turkey in the Straw." Zip Coon was a blackface stock character.

The song “Turkey in the Straw” is one of America’s oldest minstrel tunes. The earliest references to the song seem to be around 1820, with its melody based on a fiddle tune called “Natchez Under the Hill.” The historical derivation of “Natchez Under the Hill” has been traced even further back to the ballad “My Grandmother Lived on Yonder Little Green,” which is itself derived from the Irish ballad “The Old Rose Tree.” It was first published with lyrics in 1834 under the title “Old Zip Coon” and became wildly popular during the Andrew Jackson presidency. That the song was, in its infancy, entitled “Old Zip Coon” and that a blackface vaudeville performer would sing it is no coincidence. Even as early as the mid 19th century blackface performers were singing the song, as its title was, in fact, a reference to one of the most common blackface stock characters, Zip Coon:

George Dixon (1801-1861). This drawing was made two years after he originated "Zip Coon."

“First performed by George Dixon in 1834, Zip Coon made a mockery of free blacks. An arrogant, ostentatious figure, he dressed in high style and spoke in a series of malaprops and puns that undermined his attempts to appear dignified.”

As commonly happens with American folk songs the melody was appropriated for a variety of lyrical settings. The tune was set to songs about the American Civil War, obscenities, fishing, and even doggerel.

“Old Zip Coon” and Golden’s performance of it as ‘Turkey in the Straw” may clearly be classified as what musical historians have called “coon songs”: a heavily syncopated, fast-paced style of music (intended to mimic ragtime) commonly, though not exclusively, performed by blackface singers between 1880 and 1920 that – especially when accompanied by the blackface makeup, costume, and physical and vocal performances – portrayed blatantly racist and stereotyped images of blacks.  “Coon songs” were a national craze at the end of the 19th century, with over 600 such songs being published in the last decade of the century alone – one of many signals that, despite emancipation, black Americans had a long, hard road still to travel. The genre included songs with such names as “The Dandy Coon’s Parade,” “The Coons are on Parade,” “New Coon in Town,” “Coon Salvation Army,” “A Trip to Coontown” (written by black composer Bob Cole), “Every Race has a Flag but the Coon,” “Coon Coon Coon,” and “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”

The lyrics to "Old Zip Coon" from a mid 19th-century document printed in Vermont. I've included it at the largest size possible to permit the text to be readable.

Quite a bit could be written about the history, rhetorical and racial significance, and sociological or psychological underpinnings behind the blackface and “coon song” movements in the American entertainment industry. And, indeed, quite a lot has been written on the topic. It’s easy to judge these repugnant chapters in our history now, in retrospect; on the other hand, we simultaneously patronize media that presents other stereotypical caricatures, including those of Muslims, Latinos, gays, Native Americans… You get the idea. There seems to be at once a murky line in some instances between what is cultural comment and what is intended to mock, stereotype, or demean. In other instances the line is bright and clear. Perhaps one of the clearest cues when something is crossing that line is the consideration of the intended audience. Blackface minstrel shows and “coon song” records were intended for consumption by an almost entirely white audience; the stock characters and stock storylines reinforced existing bigoted notions of how black people looked and how they behaved. They were designed to be commercially successful and the shortest route to that end involved catering to the lowest, most base preferences and emotions of the consumer.

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” written and first staged in Britain while America was at the height of the blackface craze, was also a commercial success (and still is today) and it, too, mockingly satirizes a specific type of person and social institutions (British aristocratic society and Victorian conventions). Yet it avoids crossing that line. Is it because the targets of Wilde’s satire were white people? No. I would suggest it is because his art challenged the audience to think critically; it conveyed a social message, whereas blackface performers abetted and exploited a racist attitude that was latent. One pushed the audience to examine their culture; the other enabled them to stay safely ensconced in their comfort zone. As repulsive as their beliefs might be, it said to the consumer that those beliefs were acceptable and shared by others. In the end, while both records are still here in their physical form, the trajectory of history has – rightly in my view – elevated the former of these performances and disposed of the latter. One might well wonder which entertainment artifacts from today will persist in 100 years and which will not. And then one might wonder why.

A historic Harmony

This week on Zayde’s Turntable is an album of no true monetary value to a collector, but I wanted to learn a bit more about it because it captures an important historical moment in American history.

First, a word about the label. Harmony Records were pressed from 1925 until the early 30s and was owned outright by Columbia Records. It was often used as a low-price outlet for Columbia’s reissues and, in the 1950s, Columbia revived the label for a series of LPs with nothing but reissued tracks (about five songs per side). Columbia continued to release reissues on the LP version of the label into the mid 1970s.

Harmony labels (with the ca. 1950s version on the left and ca. 1930 versions center and right).

Perhaps the most interesting facets of the original Harmony Records is their role in straddling one of the most significant technological shifts in recording history: the movement from acoustic recording to electrical recording. Reportedly Columbia had just completed a major overhaul of their acoustic recording system when the new fad – electrical recording – came onto the scene. Rather than scrap their significant investment in the acoustical studio they simply continued to utilize it for their “lower end” Harmony label. The result is some of the finest, and last, acoustically recorded commercial records.

Acoustical recording is a mechanical process in which the artists performed live, their music being captured in a massive machine with a diaphragm; a needle connected to the diaphragm literally cut the recording into master disc (or cylinder). Level control was achieved by actually having a performer move physically closer to or further from the machine.

The Victor Orchestra recording acoustically. Auto-tune function not available on this model; sorry, Ms. Black.

Electrical recording was introduced in 1925 and is still, in many respects, the manner by which audio recordings are made. Electrical recording systems allow for microphones, over-dubbing, level adjustment, and, these days, even more. In its earliest incarnations, however, the process still physically cut a master record with a needle, meaning that a mistake at any point in the recording rendered the entire take – and record – useless. (Some labels would reissue scrapped takes of popular songs on later albums, though it was far more common to simply reissue the originally released take.)

This album, the only Harmony label in my collection (according to my notes from the late 1990s) is in Good to Very Good condition, with some slight wear and one light scratch to one side (the scratch does not effect the record’s playability and both my Symphony phonograph needle and my Crosley Archiver needle were able to navigate it without problem). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony 418-H and the master number is 144218/144219.

Harmony Records #418-H

Harmony records include a unique Columbia code.

Peculiar to all post-1924 Columbia records is a third identifying number pressed into the vinyl of the end gap of the record at the 12-o’clock position: 3-B-5 on the A-side 1-B-6 on the B-side. The first number is the take number, the middle letter designates the “mother” (the metal master disc), and the final number indicates the “stamper” (the metal “negative” of the mother). One stamper could press out about 1,000 copies of a record before it was no longer useable (hence the need for a “mother” that could create more stampers). With this information we know that the A-side song took three takes and the B-side song took only one take. At least two mothers were created (probably more), and at least 5 stampers for the A-side and 6 for the B-side – meaning, at a minimum, about 10,000 to 12,000 copies of this record were made.

The A-side recording is “Lucky Lindy,” lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Abel Baer, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The B-side recording is “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” lyrics by Howard Johnson and music by Al Sherman, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 55 seconds. Both songs are sung by tenor Jack Kaufman, backed up by an unnamed orchestra. While I could find no indication of a specific recording date, it is likely from 1927 or early 1928.

Both songs were written on the occasion of “Lucky” Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated May 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight. The record-setting event engendered a remarkable level of patriotic fervor and an incredible number of musical tributes, perhaps more so than any other event in American history until then or since. Ironically, the flight was considered an illustration of mankind’s (and America’s specifically) technological prowess and ingenuity – I say ironic because this particular record was recorded in what was then an antiquated technology, the acoustic method. Lindbergh became celebrated more than any star of Hollywood or radio and there was a rush to capture that spirit by the leading cultural medium of the day: recorded music.

Charles Lindbergh, around the time of his famous 1927 flight.

To say the quantity of songs written about Lindbergh’s flight exceeds that written to mark any single event in American history before or since is not an exaggeration. Not even including the still recognizable dance craze inspired by the flight (the Lindy Hop), in all in the two years following Lindbergh’s journey the U.S. Copyright Office received three hundred applications on songs related to the flight and the pilot. Thirty songs alone had the same title – “Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh’s plane. Another twelve were entitled “Lindy” (there was some confusion over the spelling, resulting in Lindberg, Lindburg, Linberg, Linderburg, and Linbergh). The third most popular title was “Lone Eagle” – a commonly used metaphor for the pilot that combined jingoistic American symbolism with the physical feat of flying itself. Other Lindbergh tributes included “Won’t You Take Me to Heaven, Please, Lucky Lindy Do,” “America Did It Again,” “Like an Angel He Flew into Our Hearts,” “Plucky Lindy’s Lucky Day,” “Just Like a Butterfly through Sun and Rain, and “He Did It, the Thing that Couldn’t Be Done.” The Hoover for President campaign benefited from “If He’s Good Enough for Lindy.” The volume of musical tributes was so great that one Tin Pan Alley songwriting team even wrote one entitled “This Song Is Not About Lindbergh.”

Lindbergh received a hero's welcome on his return to the U.S.

In 1929 Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Bertolt Brecht penned an opera entitled “Der Lindberghflug” (Lindbergh’s Flight), though Brecht would later remove all references to the pilot and rename the piece “Der Ozeanflug” (Ocean Flight) in 1950 in reaction to Lindbergh’s perceived Nazi sympathies. Indeed Lindbergh’s apparent right-wing political viewpoints also engendered negative musical references, though not for some decades after his flight. In the 1940s Woody Guthrie’s “Lindbergh” skewered the celebrated pilot for his affiliation with the far right America First Party (“They say America First, but they mean America Next”). Guthrie probably would have found the lyric “Lucky Lindy, right all along…” on the A-side of this record to be a bit too true.

On the A-side we have the prolific recording artist and vaudevillian Jack Kaufman singing Gilbert and Baer’s “Lucky Lindy” – perhaps the single most popular and widely produced of the Lindbergh paeans. Gilbert and Baer had just finished composing the piece on May 21, 1927 when word of Lindbergh’s safe landing at Le Bourget was announced on the radio. It was performed that very evening at several venues around New York City; Leo Feist printed the sheet music that very weekend and it was on sale by Monday. On Tuesday the number was headlining at the Paramount Theater, being performed on the cinema’s massive Wurlitzer in between films. The song was probably featured on every major label by most of the leading singers of the day. I can find evidence of (in addition to the Harmony recording) a ca. 1927 recording by Vernon Dalhart on Perfect (#12345), another Jack Kaufman recording (possibly the same) also from around 1927 on Velvet Tone (#1418-V), a Domino Records (#17260) recording with baritone Ernest Hare, another Ernest Hare recording on Banner (#1994-A) (which one EBay seller is currently listing for $1), and a May 26, 1927 (yes, five days after Lindbergh landed) Victor scroll recording (#20681-A) by Nat Shillkret and the Victor Orchestra. Not one of these albums appears in Les Docks’ guide to “collectible” records – in fact, I could not locate a single of the Lindbergh tribute songs anywhere in his compendium. This simply further illustrates that, today, value is determined more by scarcity than historical import, musical quality, or even the featured artist.

The sheet music for "Lucky Lindy" was on sale just a few days after Lindbergh landed.

Songwriter Abel Baer (1893-1976).

Abel Baer (1893-1976), a World War I veteran, originally trained to be a dentist, but abandoned that career in 1920 when he joined a music publisher as a staff writer. His works include many Tin Pan Alley hits, including “Mama Loves Papa,” “When the One You Love, Loves You,” and “I’m Sitting Pretty.” Less celebrated today is his World War II jingle “We’ve Got A Job To Do On The Japs, Baby.” Two years after penning “Lucky Lindy” – probably his greatest commercial success – Baer moved to Hollywood and wrote songs for the films “Paramount on Parade,” “True to the Navy,” and “Frozen Justice.” His credits also include the Broadway scores of “Lady Do” and “Old Bill M.P.”

Lyricist Wolfe Gilbert (1888-1954).

Louis Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970) started as a singer in a quartet on Coney Island, before being discovered by an English producer and being brought to London to perform as part of The Ragtime Octet. He started writing music in 1912 and made the move to Hollywood in 1915, writing – eventually – over 250 songs for film, television, and radio, including “Ramona” – the very first motion picture theme song, as well as numbers for the Eddie Cantor Show and the lyrics for the hit children’s program “Western Hop-Along Cassidy” on NBC. Gilbert was an astute self-promoter and one of the first songwriters to publish and market his own catalog; his acumen for the business led to his selection to serve as director of ASCAP from 1941 to 1944.

The B-side recording is Kaufman singing “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)” – again keeping with the eagle symbolism. It is clearly the more jingoistic of the two songs, with Al Sherman, the writer, appropriating snippets of melody from classic American anthems (listen for a bit of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle” in the clip below). Like “Lucky Lindy,” this tune was released within days, perhaps even hours, of Lindbergh’s successful landing in France in May 1927. In addition to this recording I was able to identify several contemporaneous recordings: three issues of Vernon Dalhart singing it, one recorded on May 23 (two days after he landed!) on a Victor scroll record (#20674-A – note how close the catalog number is to the “Lucky Lindy” Victor recording, illustrating how closely together the two albums were released), one on Edison Blue Amberol cylinder (#5362), and one on Perfect (#12345; the reverse side of the same disc with “Lucky Lindy,” exactly as with this Harmony record, though with a different artist; one seller on EBay currently lists this disc for slightly overpriced cost of $30). There was also a Harry Crane recording on Oriole Records (#922-A) and another issue of the Jack Kaufman recording found here on Velvet Tone (#1418-V – again, identical to this record, in this case in both song selection and artist).

Sheet music to "The Eagle of the U.S.A."

Lyricist Howard Johnson (1887-1941) was likewise a veteran of World War I. After getting out of the Navy in 1917 Johnson, a pianist, joined ASCAP and began his career as a songwriter. In addition to penning “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream” Johnson was behind many of the most popular ballads of the period. One of Johnson’s (now ironic) pieces was the 1917 song “China, We Owe A Lot To You” (music by Milton Ager). No kidding.

Songwriter Al Sherman (1897-1973).

Al Sherman (1897-1973) came to America from Prague in 1909. Speaking little English and serving as a surrogate father for his four siblings after their father left them, Sherman taught himself piano and quickly became one of the most in-demand improvisers in America. He developed a reputation for providing “mood music” and his skills were sought by many of the leading film stars of the silent movies; in 1916 Universal signed Sherman to do bit parts in the films himself. In 1918 he joined the Remick Music Company as a staff pianist, composing numbers alongside some of the top songwriters of the day, including George Gershwin. Sherman also organized and directed his own orchestra that played in both Miami Beach and New York City. Sherman’s sons, Robert and Richard, would continue in their father’s footsteps, eventually writing the music for the classic films “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Sherman’s own Tin Pan Alley credits include over 500 songs, most notably “Over Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Now’s The Time To Fall In Love,” which became his signature tune and “helped raise the spirits of the Depression generation.” His songs made or furthered the careers of a remarkable roster of musicians: Maurice Chevalier, Fred Waring, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Ruddy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, and Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra. His music can be heard in the Broadway hits “Ziegfeld Follies,” “George White’s Scandals,” “The Passing Show,” and “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” His film music includes songs for “The Big Pond,” “Sweetie,” “The Sky’s the Limit,” and “Sensations of 1945.”

Cyndi Lauper in 1983. Her cover of one of Sherman's songs earned her a Grammy award.

Sherman’s music continued to influence American musicians even into the 1980s, when Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of Sherman’s “He’s So Unusual” – titled “She’s So Unusual” (1983) – even featured scratches and hisses designed to sound like a vintage 78-RPM record. The song hit #4 on the Billboard pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Album Package; it made #494 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

The vocalist on both sides of the album is tenor Jack Kaufman, one of the famous singing brothers Irving, Phillip, and Jack Kaufman, who originally hailed from Syracuse, New York, about an hour from where Zayde’s Turntable currently resides. Irving has been called the “most recorded singer between 1914 and 1930” and his two brothers, who performed for a while as “The Kaufman Brothers” (until Phillip’s death in 1918), were quite prolific in their own respects.

Jack (left) and Phil Kaufman in a promotional poster from around 1910.

Jack and Phil’s early vaudeville acts seemed to include quite a bit of the reviled “blackface” routines. An undated period newspaper review of their act states:

“The Kaufman Brothers… [began] their act by impersonating the Russian dancers and the Parisian vocalist who had just preceded them.” … “Especially worthy of attention are their parodies of Italian songs. Both men… play ‘swell coons’ attractively.” … “Their entrance is made in bangy, bangy coon-shouter style… These brothers have excellent voices, but are too full of monkeyshines to take time to sing properly.” … “Ragtime and Italian songs are their long suit.” … “They sing exceptionally well, but otherwise just indulge in effervescent nonsense and wear red vests and checkerboard suits.” … “Their Yiddiher Opera brought a storm of applause.”

They grew to become “second stringers” – vaudeville acts that filled out the bill for larger stars like Irene Franklin and Will Rogers.

Newspaper cartoons depicting Phil and Jack Kaufman in their blackface performance (top row and bottom left, 1910-1911; bottom right, 1914).

Jack and Phil Kaufman in an undated photo appear in blackface as part of their vaudeville act.

After Phil’s death, Irving joined with Jack and the two performed together for a number of years. The partnership dissolved in 1923, though they reunited briefly again starting in 1928. It was during this five year hiatus that Jack, performing and recording as a solo artist now, cut this album for Harmony Records. Irving and Jack (and, earlier Phil) were studio workhorses and recorded separately and together probably more albums during the Tin Pan Alley period than any other musical family, appearing by name or by pseudonym on quite literally hundreds of records for dozens of labels. Jack’s sense of theatricality, a maybe even bombast, comes across in the two recordings on this album – listen to his rolling R’s and energy, due probably to both the enthusiasm around the event and his own personality. The last Kaufman recording was made by the busiest of the brothers, Irving, in 1974, meaning the Kaufman era of original recordings lasted a remarkable 60 years.

Lindbergh and his plane.

Lindbergh and his plane - the inspiration for over 300 songs.

This May America will celebrate the 85th anniversary of Lucky Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. The air mail pilot took off from Long Island a virtual unknown and landed, 3600 miles and one day later, in Paris, France as a national hero and icon. One can imagine the songwriters, musicians, studio executives, sheet music publishers, and recording technicians scrambling for that one week in late May in 1927, trying to be the first to get a piece of that Lindbergh magic. In some ways it may not seem so different than today’s commercialism. But, when I put that record onto Zayde’s Turntable and try to imagine the energy, the (much needed) optimism, and the pride that must have been coursing through the singer, the band, and the original listener, playing this disc for the very first time in 1927, I can’t help but think that it is, maybe in some way, just a bit different.