Before the Blues

An essential new book explores 'hot music.'

A MAN WITH a taste for the wild side, David Wondrich has wagered the accrued status of his published oeuvrenamely, Esquire Drinks: An Opinionated and Irreverent Guide to Drinking With 250 Drink Recipeson a hot book about hot music, a book that honors the art of, to choose some modern examples he throws out for clarity's sake before his antiquarian passions take over, Merle Haggard, Nirvana, and hip-hop (as opposed to Pink Floyd, Alabama, and ambient techno) by translating their tone into written English. The topic of Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924 (Chicago Review Press, $17.95) is fine in an era when the reluctant pedagogues Wondrich breezily brands "the thought gang" will write 250 pages about any cultural byway. But the manner marks him as a troublemaker. Although Wondrich's discographical research renders him a scholar of sorts, he's slangy, irreverent, nontechnical, given to gratuitous wisecracks, and scornful of any jargon not his own. For all these reasons he has produced a book with a rare ear for its subject, but also a book that risks neglect from the thought gang. I would have appreciated footnotes there are leads worth exploring, and once in a while a generalization that cries out for double-checking. A bibliography to augment the pungent essay on sources would be nice, as would record-buying discographical advice beyond "Google it." But Wondrich rejects such academic apparatuses as spiritually incongruent with the art he loves, and for that he deserves the respect he may not get.

Wondrich defines his I-know-it-when-I-hear-it subject as elegantly and unpretentiously as it's ever been defined. Come on, he declares, poking millions of fellow hot music lovers in the ribs. You know and I know that two kinds of musical motion move us. One propels and the other wiggles. Either can be hot; put them together and they combust. It's that simple. Why did the fire leap so high in the U.S.A.? Because "something happened to African music in Anglo-Saxon North America that didn't happen to it anywhere else"namely, it was less African. Not only were there proportionally fewer Africans here, but they were counterbalanced by another outcast group, the Celts. Admirably, Wondrich never infers musical or political parity from this familiar construct, nor adduces the crude formula in which Africans add rhythm to Scotch-Irish tunes. He just believes American music fuses two species of drive, Celtic stomp and the swervier African kind.

With 80-plus percent of the 250-odd pages devoted to 1890 and after, the 81-year timespan promised by the subtitle is misleading. If Wondrich had dug deeper into minstrelsy scholarship and studied Charles Hamm's Yesterdays and Peter van der Merwe's Origins of the Popular Style, he might have found more to say about post-Civil War stage musicHenry Clay Work's emancipation ditty "Kingdom Coming" was pretty hot. But since hotness is better heard than notated or described, his decision to concentrate on recordings makes sense. His 1924 cutoff date is the year before Louis Armstrong first recorded as a leader and electrical recording replaced "acoustic," which Wondrich likens to "two condensed-orange-juice cans and a string" (hardly his most fanciful approximation of how cruddy old cylinders and 78s now sound). But the cutoff guarantees that he'll write about lots of music by white people.

WITH A HANDFUL of very significant exceptions, no African Americans were recorded before Valentine's Day, 1920, when headstrong hustler Perry Bradford, his ad hoc Harlem band the Jazz Hounds, and beauteous black vaudevillian Mamie Smith cut "Crazy Blues," judged by Wondrich "the most riveting recording of American music the record business had yet produced." It scared the little Okeh label so much that it wasn't released until July, when it proved an instant hit, supposedly selling 75,000 in Harlem alone. Just by demonstrating that African Americans bought records, it opened the gates to Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and countless other black performers. It changed music forever, and Wondrich knows it. But he also believes that the changes it manifested were already well under way.

In a turn of events both curious and just, black pop between 1890 and World War I now receives far more detailed attention than white. Pantheon songwriters like Berlin and Kern enjoy ceaseless adulation, and not even Wondrich wants to waste thought on the best sellers of the acoustic-recording erasay the Peerless Quartet, which produced both Arthur Collins and Henry Burr (and thus also produced over 400 hit records). But in many other white musicians of the period, still remembered but seldom scrutinized, Wondrich finds evidence of heat.

There were the Virginia Minstrels transforming blackface into showbiz in 1843: "the first truly American band, playing American music." There were the 20,000 brass bands active between 1890 and 1910, most prominently the Marines led by second-generation Portuguese immigrant John Philip Sousa, especially as brought to the studio by cakewalking trombonist extraordinaire Arthur Pryor. There were white musicians ripping off unrecorded pianists Scott Joplin and Ben Turpin and red hot mamas ripping off St. Louis whorehouse singer Mama Lou. There were banjo kings Vess Ossman from Hudson, N.Y., and his less funky acolyte Fred Van Eps from Somerville, N.J. There was the most prestigious pop star of the acoustic era, Enrico Caruso, who for 18 seconds of "Vesti la giubba" gave posterity "one of the hottest things ever recorded."

MOST DECISIVELY, there were turn-of-the-century white singers specializing in pseudo-black "coon songs," which whether indefensible racist propaganda or arguably subversive "tales of violent love and lost poultry"many of the best written by such non- Caucasian pioneers as self-billed "Unbleached American" Ernest Hogan and Bert Williams, whom Wondrich presumptuously nominates "the first black man in America"relegated "ee-nun- see-yating parlor singers" to the dustbin of gentility. And in 1917 there was the Original (they claimed) Dixieland Jazz Band, who in preparing the way for King Oliver also inspired legions of better-mannered white imitators playing what Wondrich likes to call "Synco-Pep," the politeness of which, he believes, "fronted for a smooth drive and a carefully disguised swerve that could and sometimes did break out into a raw excitement."

But that excitement couldn't bust altogether loose until the African-American rhythmic-harmonic complex Wondrich dubs "the Senegambian mode" achieved full emancipation. The scandalously underrecorded Williams, the durable blues popularizer W.C. Handy, and the paradigm-shifting Harlem/Army/orchestra leader James Reese Europe are conscious, heroic rebels in a book where white guys just do what comes naturally, which is fall under the Senegambian sway. What tipped the balance is something the author of Esquire Drinks is well-prepared to notice: Prohibition. In a nation that systematically crushed blacks into a de facto Underworld (upper case Wondrich's), the illegalization of alcohol handed night life to the actually existing criminal classes. Public drinking turned into risky business, tony boites turned into roughneck joints, and before anyone knew what hit them it was the Jazz Age. American music had gotten hot, and the best hooch ever was on the house.

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