Thursday, October 23, 2014

When The Harvest Moon is Shining

When The Harvest Moon is Shining
1920 MCMXX
Music by Harry Von Tilzer
Lyrics Andrew B. Sterling
Key: Bb
Time: 3/4

Now we are getting into the deep tracks of American Pop. Harry Von Tilzer is sometimes referred to as the father of American pop music but that's only by people who have never heard of Stephen Foster. Tilzer does get credit for not selling all the rights to his songs for beer money, so he could be considered the first professional song-smith who figured out how to make a living and not get screwed over. Foster actually worked out the math for any future royalties he would receive for songs like Camptown Races and Oh Susanna while living and sold the rights to them for one lump sum that amounted to a few hundred dollars. Maybe he knew he'd be dead by 37 so money destined for his benefactors did him no good. Foster had the misfortune of writing popular songs prior to and during the American Civil War when plagiarism and copyright infringement was rampant and Foster's business sense was outmatched by a general and total disregard for intellectual property rights. Imagine going into a store, buying some sheet music, then paying a printer to print you off hundreds of copies and selling them all for a profit you didn't share with anyone. And for good measure you put your own name as the composer. "Gentle Annie: Words and Music by Oggy Bleacher." That's what the publishing world was like in 1850.

Not to be confused with "Shine on Harvest Moon"

Tilzer, on the other hand, became a partner at a publishing company sometime around his 28th birthday in 1900. One of my favorite songs to play at Long Term Care Facilities is A Bird in A Gilded Cage. Of course, if you were alive when that song was released then you'd be 114 years old now and wouldn't remember anything, but I play it anyway since it's in two of my premium songbooks. The song revolves around a Late-Victorian fashion queen who dies young.
'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age,
And her beauty was sold,
For an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage.
The "tears-by-a-tomb" Stephen Foster influence is obvious to me but I don't focus on that element. Instead I think of the men and women confined to wheelchairs, grey, transparent skin, nurses prodding their veins with needles, asking about bowel movements, struggling to shit, eating peas, marking the days and the seasons by what their relatives wear when they come to visit. For me, the birds are the patients at the Old Age home and the gilded cage is their wheelchair. It's a nice waltz that Von Tilzer and Arthur Lamb wrote. Like most waltzes it's unmistakeably old. When The Harvest Moon is Shining also seems arthritic and dated. Why is that? I've never heard this song and the chances are good that you've never heard this song but it immediately sounds like something that's nearly 100 years old.

This is a recording of it and also a link  to a website you should know about, the Library of Congress online music database. These songs are in danger of being lost forever because they only exist on 1/4 inch thick Victor records and "Victor Talking Machines" are no longer manufactured so these songs were digitally captured. The Library of Congress says that it obtained the permission of the copyright owners to post it on their site. I understood a copyright to expire 95 years after publication for works prior to 1978, so a song from 1920 is still one year from copyright expiration. But it says the same thing about recordings from 1902, so I don't know what the deal is with the copyright ownership. Maybe they expired but the LOC is just making sure it doesn't do anything illegal, or maybe they haven't updated their web page to offer it for free download. At any rate, now you know where to go when you pine for music from the Gilded Age.

Speaking of Pining; the best rhyme for "Shining" is "Pining". For those of you who don't know what that word is because it seldom shows up in Twitter comments, "To Pine" is actually an Old English torture technique probably involving pine tar or pine tree bark rudely meeting human flesh. Ex: "The blimey dirty pirate stole me wench's silver teeth. Let's Pine the lowly dog!" New torture devices were invented and the verb "To Pine" gradually softened to mean the ache in one's heart at unrequited love. Ex: "Oggy lay in agony, pining for the woman who never knew his name, but who would've loved him if she had only taken the time to say hello."

To Pine has mostly fallen out of favor now so when it appears in lyrics you can be sure that song is 90-100 years old. It's a Tin Pan Alley word because moons shining and rivers flowing were much more common in 1919. Listen again to the LOC recording and enjoy the period authentic enunciation by Tenor Charles Hart. "A-Gaaaaaine. Laaaaaine." For me, in my mutty New England gutter-speak, "Again" and "Lane" don't rhyme. For me, "Again" rhymes with "Ten". So people sung differently in 1920. If I were really trying to recreate the scenario these songs were sung in then I'd have to adopt this affected, stiff-jawed, Thurston Howell III, Harvard speak, but I have a hard enough time simply punching the correct notes and singing the words. In fact, in my last chorus I was so tempted to sing, "My heart will be--long to you." because that's exactly how that line would be written today if Lionel Richie had his say. But no! This is 1920 and the line is "My heart will be----Piiii-ning for you." I practiced and practiced this song before recording it but modern conventions/habits still plague me.
Every songwriter should have one of these stamps. Or at least a blog.
Harry Von Tilzer is a giant in the sheet music publishing world because he was shrewd and talented. Where Stephen Foster got exploited by publishers, worked for peanuts and didn't even own his songs at the end, Tilzer ultimately owned his own publishing company and made it a family business with brother Albert. Not bad for a guy who actually joined a traveling circus as a youth. Consider this: he was born Harry Gumm, but took his mother's maiden name because he liked it more. And then he added "Von" to be more sophisticated. It works. Try it with your name. Oggy Von Bleacher immediately has added weight and credibility. And this was during a time when Germans weren't greatly loved in America since the Kaiser was killing soldiers in Verdun. And Von Tilzer wasn't even German! His Jewish family came to Detroit from Poland before he was born, so he adopted a name that was the subject of discrimination, practically begging to be blacklisted, and still found success while Stephen Foster died with absolutely nothing. Though Tilzer is an example of the opportunity America offers you can be sure Poland had successful songwriters too, but they probably didn't come from Detroit. Watch the video below for the only footage I could find of Von Tilzer. His attitude is immediately trustworthy and that's what opened doors for him. Shitty attitudes get you nowhere. Remember, this is a video of a guy who joined a circus and played a steam powered calliope (portable pipe organ) to entertain rowdy audiences when he was 14 year old.

I try not to spoil my performance by listening to these songs prior to recording them so I won't post links or embed videos for all these songs, since you're at liberty to search for them yourself, but Von Tilzer is Stephen Foster's heir to popular music so he deserves it. I also doubt most people have heard of him though many of his songs are well known and his influence is great, so I'm going to force you to watch this and quiz you on it later. Von Tilzer echos my sentiments that one of the rules to writing pop songs is to "write for the average piano player and the average voice". Once you listen to my recording this statement is a little subjective. Or maybe I simply can't sing songs with a range greater than 4 notes. I admit I'm below average.

The song When The Harvest Moon is Shining is noteworthy for the reason I point out during my recording. There is a rest on the first beat of the verse measure. This small variation creates the whole 1920 feel of the song. "REST-short-short-short-short-Loooooong" It screams Woodrow Wilson. Stephen Foster wrote many waltzes but the lyrics usually start on the downbeat. This pause on the first beat is Tilzer's way of separating himself from Foster. The same rhythmic recycling is employed here as the verse melody is stated and then transposed a step lower and repeated. Von Tilzer had learned from Foster and was now setting the new standard for writers like Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne to follow, which is not to try to write masterpieces, but to write often and fast and aim for the average audience. I think the theory here is that if lightning is going to strike there has to first be a storm, and the dud songs are required to increase the chances that one will be a hit. All bands, except maybe Boston, think like this. If the creative magic doesn't eventually fade then the times will soon pass you by, so strike while the iron is hot. The Rolling Stones have recorded 56 songs since 1986, can you name one?

If I had to pinpoint the quality of a song that makes it from the 1920s I would say the child-like simplicity of the melody is the key. There is not one syncopated note, the phrases are all two measures long. The chords are Bb, Eb, F7 and C7 (a few diminished chords are in the music but I ignore them) There is one classic use of a single D7 chord at the very end that screams Barbershop Quartet to me. Why? It's a III7 substitute for the tonic Bb but doesn't resolve to a G major chord. It hangs there, "Just we twoooooooooo..."
Uke chord diagrams were in an unfamiliar tuning so I had to write the chord in. Note the F# harmony voice for duets around the spinet.
The function of this D7 is to announce to the audience that this is it, the song is about to end. Sammy Cahn said, "If you let people know they should applaud, they will applaud." This D7 is a sign that the audience should get their hands out of the popcorn bucket because the "Vaudeville finish" is right around the corner. I love it but it's not a convention any more. Now pop songs end with a kind of slow bleed/fade. Broadway theater musicals are the only place you finds songs stop on a dime but Harvest Moon is an example of how pop music in 1920 had only minor differences from theater musical songs.

I think the era where songwriters attempted to pen masterpieces began in 1943 with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. It was then that a cultural appreciation of pop songs met the formidable talents of two veteran Broadway composers and it became an acceptable goal to craft songs with more enduring qualities. Even though Hammerstein's lyrics and Rodgers' music had the stage in mind their compositions began to blend the pop qualities of recycled rhythmic material and the Broadway themes, derived from 19th Century Opera, of love, loss and crisis.

I think music intended for the stage and music intended to be recorded and played at home followed parallel paths but infrequently the paths touch and traits like more legato melodies found on Broadway are traded for pop traits like a tighter melodic range. When The Harvest Moon is Shining is an example of music securely in the pop camp. It's a generic, singable, basic waltz with no key changes and an androgynous perspective. Von Tilzer had Broadway experience with the Ziegfeld Follies but his approach is definitely a professional one that puts quantity at a premium. The problem with casual research on music from 1920 is that I will only uncover the other professional songwriters like Von Tilzer because in 1920 the auteurs, the snobs, the artists were all starving in vaudeville shows, bitterly cursing the age they were born in. It would take a major assault on history books to uncover some of those undiscovered artists because there was no outlet for those choosing to break convention and write music ahead of its time. Conformity, conservatism, top hats, lace, matching silverware and horseless carriages were the trademarks of the day. Movies were still silent so if you wanted to see someone sing then your only choice was a live theater. In January 1920, about 2 months before Harvest Moon was recorded, the 18th amendment prohibited the production, transport and sale of alcohol (if you stocked up a bunch of barrels of whiskey in 1919 then you could legally drink it or give it away). Americans are proud of the fact that our government tried to legislate sobriety and citizens answered with organized crime supported by illegal drinking, aggressive corporate lobbying of Congress and 110 more years of alcohol abuse. Yeah, America!

To summarize, When The Harvest Moon is Shining captures the simplicity and professionalism of 1920 as executed by one of modern music's founding fathers, Harry Von Tilzer. The pastoral setting, the waltz timing, the playability of the music all point to a non-controversial approach to songwriting typical of the time period. A Bird in A Gilded Cage has a a social dimension to it but still breaks no boundaries. 22 years later I've Heard That Song Before demonstrates that musical theater had shifted to the movies with certainty. There is an unmistakeable swing embedded in I've Heard That Song Before that is nowhere to be found in Harvest Moon. I could force the verse to swing but the melody has the angular leaps popularized by Stephen Foster and those big Major 6th and Perfect 5th jumps don't swing in waltzing quarter notes.

Popular Music is an art that captures conventions better than anything and is best looked at for contrasts. The Waltz has almost completely fallen out of favor as the Shuffle or Swing or driving rock timing now dominate dance clubs. The whole point is to avoid obviously imitating a previous generation, and nothing says "Grandpa pissed his pants." like a waltz, but the imitation is there nonetheless. If I had the pipes of Charles Hart, I would sing for you the waltz Take it To The Limit by The Eagles from 1975 with that same stiff-jawed affectation of accent and you would see the similarities. Only the laid back drawl of Randy Meisner and the layered orchestration of the band keep that song from sounding 60 years older than it is. Harvest Moon is a song Tilzer could write in an hour. He was a waltz machine and the words added by Andrew Sterling were unimportant as long a they were appropriate for a piano parlor in the newly sober America.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.