Friday, March 20, 2015

At The Mississippi Cabaret

Dedicated to the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System

At The Mississippi Cabaret
Words by A. Seymour Brown
Music by: Albert Gumble
Key: C Major

This is one song from way back. 101 years old. And this is on newsprint paper so it's fragile and the pages separated. The sheet music itself is 100 years old. It's a small miracle that it survived the 3 years in my van, once it got rained on when a window leaked, I almost used it to start a fire in the wood stove. But I'm glad I didn't because this particular cabaret/ragtime tune is something that I am tested to play. The Once in A While, Daybreak, Stardust, Some Enchanted Evening, Deep Purple style is very easy to slow down to my skill level and then take liberties with the tempo. But this kind of basic cabaret tune is what separates the players from Oggy because if I slow it down to a speed I can sort of play it at then it loses all the uptempo spirit, and the tempo must be consistent because the song depends on swinging your hips and tapping your toes and if you are tapping and I'm not playing the whole mood is broken. It's even worse if I play it as slow as a Death March. But this is a work in progress and I'm not going to wait 10 years so I can really devote myself to sight reading and then record this. I shudder to think that I'm at my peak on the piano...and it only gets worse from here. That would suck. As you can see, I'm getting old and thought the lyrics were, "You'll see them dancing with banjos rising. You'll see them prancing and hear them dancing."
Well, Rising and Dancing don't really rhyme and I thought A. Seymour Brown dropped the ball on that one. Then I looked closer and realized the word is Ringing, which makes way more sense. My eyesight is still pretty good considering how much porn I've watched on the internet.

I think this style is familiar from the movie Cabaret and the ragtime, two-step feel, but I honestly don't think this was a popular style in 1914. No, I think this is a nostalgic tune. The Mississippi River is the western border of Tennessee, in case you are wondering. Memphis, Tenn is in the tri-state corner of Tennessee, Mississippi and, since these states love double consonants, Arrkannsass. But I could be wrong because one article suggests American Cabaret can be traced to 1911. That was a long time from now but only 3 years from when this song was published. So, this sounds like a novelty tune today but it was taken seriously in 1914. All my babbling about this being nostalgic for 1880 is totally wrong. Gilbert & Sullivan were producing musical comedies in 1880. This song is simply in the style of Ragtime, which was popular in 1914, with Cabaret as a subject, which was also popular in 1914.

I shouldn't dive headlong into these essays without doing any research because after reading about Albert Gumble I am sure this song was not a novelty in 1914. Maybe I like the idea that the reader gets to learn I'm wrong at the same time I do. I won't go back and edit out my errors because a musical essay should be an exploration, and I'm not afraid to admit I took a wrong turn. It wasn't the Harry Von Tilzer style that I'm accustomed to hearing from 1910, but this was simply a variation of dance music, uptempo, jungle-music, influenced by "The Darkies", but still white bread.  

It was a natural extension of Gumble's Midwest ragtime roots. Consider this, Albert Gumble and Scott Joplin were contemporaries. Joplin was a mere 13 years older than Gumble and ragtime tunes were abundant from St. Louis to Cincinnati to New Orleans. In 1913 the great Claude Debussy released The Golliwogg's Cakewalk, which is a tribute to the ragtime style, and then a year later At The Mississippi Cabaret is released with the full intention to get people dancing. It's a lively tune, with a lot of spirit and it's not a coincidence that ragtime was developed in Missouri in 1890 by Joplin, who moved to St. Louis at the turn of the century and his music was picked up on Paddle Boats and carried down the river toward New Orleans, stopping off in Memphis. This is a dramatization of events probably because music was published and it's as likely someone bought the music in Memphis. It's worth noting that Albert Gumble and A. Seymour Brown were composing this song in New York, NY so what this tells me is that the publishers wanted a song in the style of ragtime and the composers had to speculate on what that would be based on their playing experience and music they had available. 

1914 is so long ago that if I found someone who was 101 years old they would have no memory of that year. The oldest person alive now would've been about 13 years old in 1914...and my question to them would be how they listened to music? I don't think home radios were common, but I think those cracking Victroloa record players were available. I suspect if you weren't hearing a song being performed live then you didn't ever hear a song. The streets must've been quiet in 1914.
I guess Black people didn't exist on the Mississippi in 1914

Gumble and Brown were veteran songwriters. Gumble especially was incredibly prolific during his career. 10 published songs a year at least and many of them with Seymour Brown. I'm still puzzled that Michael Edwards, who composed Once in A While has no other songs I can find but Gumble has about 100. It looks like 1910 was Gumble's peak year and the history is rich here because The RMS Titanic sank in the Spring of 1912...and the James Cameron movie about that sinking includes a soundtrack with Irving Berlin's ragtime tribute tune Alexander's Ragtime Band and one song with lyrics by Mr. A. Seymour Brown, Oh, You Beautiful Doll, both from 1911. I just tried to find the exact spot where this Beautiful Doll song is played in the movie. It's definitely played live by the string quintet but only very briefly and I can confirm that the identical melodic and rhythmic motif is played at 56:40 when Molly Brown gives Jack Dawson a tuxedo to wear. It's not likely she could hear the band on a different deck and I don't see the cabin equipped with record player so this is a little bit of soundtrack magic/deception that weaves through all movies, it's live music, but edited in such a way as to lead to the dinner part, but at that particular moment they wouldn't be able to hear that song. But the audience can hear it because we are omnipotent observers. That's trivia anyway, and the main point I want to make is that ragtime and A. Seymour Brown were popular enough in 1912 to be included in the band's songbook of English ships bound for America. Not that I should put too much importance on the Titanic, but it's a dramatic incident and I'm linking it to this Mississippi Cabaret tune because the lyricist also wrote a song that was one of the final songs played on that ship.

Oggy had a rough time with this harmonic analysis
 Speaking of lyrics, this Cabaret song describes a traveler, maybe he went to Vicksburg or Natchez, but he doesn't speak too glowingly about the cabaret he visits. In fact, he doesn't even specifically say which state or city he visited, but he does specifically say that his night life back in Tennessee is better. It must be Memphis because there's no other mentionable city in Tennessee that's on the Mississippi river. So, this guy wants to party, goes to a city somewhere and decides it isn't as good as the night life back in Memphis...where people dance down by the levee. You know, I will hypothesize that Brown is actually writing about New York. Yes, that would make more sense. Brown is sitting a cafe or outside a Zeigfeld Follies performance and he hears someone, maybe an itinerant construction worker, drawl in a southern slur, "That shew weren't nothing special. I seen shews twice that fer free back home in Memphis. We have Levee Parties with banjers and dancing. Come on. Le's get some steak."
That kind of anecdote would make sense... 
So, the city lights mentioned in the song are New York, where Brown and Gumble were living when they wrote this song. That's my theory.

And I studied that cover art a little closer and compared it to the production design in Titanic and decided it's a very close representation of actual fashion from 1914. This does look nostalgic to me, but I'm seeing with modern eyes. This was not nostalgic for 1914. It was idealized, but not nostalgic. Steam powered paddle boats still exist on the Mississippi as novelty tours so I'm certain steam powered paddle boats existed in 1914 as actual transportation. The West had been conquered by that year but I don't think internal combustion gasoline motors had been perfected for river boats so that picture you see on the front of this sheet music is an artist's depiction of actual events and appearances of 1914.

Always Good

This Cabaret style music immediately brings to mind a specific era and I think I've been underestimating how long that era lasted. When I hear ragtime I want to think of 1890-1900, which is accurate, but by 1914 into World War I composers were still milking the style. All ragtime sounded similar when it was first developed so after 20 years it made no difference that the style hadn't changed. Only in the hands of Debussy and Irving Berlin did Ragtime morph into something more than toe tapping syncopation that becomes impossible to analyze for chords to simplify the music so I can play it. It's details like this that I embarked on this project to learn because nothing helps me remember it better than playing it. Mississippi Cabaret is from 1914, and it is indeed at the tail end of ragtime, but I would not call this song "Ragtime gone to seed" No, Gumble was a very talented composer with an epic list of popular songs that were mostly composed in the first 18 years of the 20th Century, and Brown was a charter member of ASCAP with a modest number of songs with his lyrics. Did either of them ever live in Tennessee? I don't see any evidence they had drifted too far from Manhattan once they arrived around 1900. Brown was about 4 years younger than Gumble and was born and died in Philadelphia with a long working career in New York City performing in Vaudeville and writing for Ziegfeld Follies, who, if you remember, included the wife of the future Bud Green. I wonder if there's some vast web of connections within this box of sheet music, but I think when popular musicians publish sheet music and the music is primarily from 1914-1945 then it's all East Coast, all white, mostly New York or British and it's only natural that the lyricist of one song in the box would write songs for a performing group who would include the wife of another lyricist in the same box of music.

It's worthy to note that I have dug so deep into the past that this is one of the first songs I've recorded that is in the public domain. It is freely available on the internet without any copyright violation. My performance here can be promoted for my own profit and Brown and Gumble's heirs can do nothing about it. This is the law. I don't know if anyone publishes this particular song anymore. There's probably a compilation of songs of the 2nd decade of the 20th Century that might include this song and as I understand it the modern publishing company doesn't need to have the permission to publish it. It's like republishing Moby Dick or Walden. If you want to print these books out and sell them that's within your right, but you should do the math on what it will cost you to print a book and what someone will pay for it because it's a hard way to make a buck. In the case of this piece of sheet music, I basically own an antique and can reproduce it in any way I want. I might be able to work out a basic arrangement of the music to play better and it irks me that this is beyond my ability because I would love to walk into an old age home and play this song at proper tempo. There's a part where I sing, "Get Over Sal!" And then repeat it, but in a performance I think I'm supposed to have the audience sing the second "Get Over Sal!". Wouldn't that be fun? I don't know if it would bring back memories but I'm pretty sure anyone who hears this song will smile and tap their toes. Ragtime has that effect.

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