In Appreciation of Vintage Music


I was listening the other day to a song sung by Cliff Edwards, Cheating on Me, recorded from an old 78 RPM single. Scratchy, warbly, and a bit thin, but it comes across beautifully across the gap of time. When you listen for a while, the scratches just disappear into the background and you hear Ukulele Ike’s lovely voice cut through the noise. I was thinking it was a song I really should learn to play myself. Listen to Edwards’s classic strumming in his version, as well as the key change towards the end:

I have it on my MP3, player along with many other tunes from the 1920s through the 50s. When I tire of listening to audio lectures and history podcasts (my usual audio fare when walking my dogs), or just want a change, I put the old music on; tunes featuring Al Bowlly, Ruth Etting, Rudy Vallee, Bessie Smith and others. Music my parents would have known. Songs like Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Why Don’t You Do Right? Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. Ukulele Lady.

Wonderful stuff. Not really all that different from today’s music, just some changes in instrumentation, in rhythm and in instrumentation. Certainly the sentiment in the lyrics is familiar: love, passion, loss, cheating, family, friends, the ups and downs of relationships. A bit more innocent than music these days (no violent, pornographic lyrics). I turn to this music increasingly often these days, less and less to modern, post-1990 tunes.

Here’s the same song, sung a few years later by Kay Brown, arranged for a somewhat later period’s musical tastes and different orchestration:

Both are undated, but I’d guess Edwards was from the late 1920s, Brown from the 40s.* One of the positive aspects of the internet has been the archiving of a lot of material from the past like these tunes, making them accessible for a new, wider audience.

Back when Edwards recorded the song, the guitar was not used a lot in popular music – it would start its ascendancy in the early 1930s when the first electric amplification was developed. But the ukulele craze brought that little instrument to the fore from around 1920 to the mid-1930s. And Edwards was the top of the pops for a while.

How well that music of yesteryear works today is evident in the numerous pop stars who have cut albums of old popular standards. Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and Brian Ferry, for example. Then there are those who have resurrected the music in somewhat more romantic manner: Steve Tyrell comes to mind as the best of them, as the least saccharine and most authentic of many performers. Critic John Taylor writes:

…Tyrell is a romantic’s romantic, his just-slightly-craggy voice possessed of a natural and easy-going warmth. He may not be the most technically precise singer around, but there’s a just-between-us quality that renders each tune an intimate and personal performance, as though Tyrell is singing, not to a crowd but to each and every individual listener. Add impeccable production and sympathetic support from an utterly immaculate orchestra, and the results are the perfect prelude to passion.

Tyrell and the rest all know that good music is timeless and our musical past is easily resurrected, with just a little careful honing (and sincere appreciation of the music). Most of their cover songs are arranged to suit more modern tastes. Orchestrations beefed up to fit the current tastes in sound and rhythm, bass lines pumped up. But really not all that different: it remains comfortable and approachable for any modern listener.

Brian Ferry – of the stylish, avante-garde Roxy Music fame, if you recall the 70s’ band – released two albums of vintage music.The first was As Time Goes By, released in 1999. It’s a rather ambitious collection of jazz and popular standards (aka “American standards“), mostly from the big band era, with Ferry’s quivery voiced backed by a fairly large contingent of musicians. It’s actually quite nice, although his voice is rather thin for many of the tunes. The Harvard Crimson wrote in its review:

…Ferry merely comes across as an oddly restrained lounge singer, tired of singing the same songs for the umpteenth time. There’s none of the gusto or the delicious abandon of his other covers, and the minimal production on the album doesn’t help matters: the horns never are quite brassy enough, and Ferry’s voice sounds muted at points.

Personally, I like it as an understated counterpoint to Rod Stewart’s enthusiastic – often too much so – covers. It would seem like an odd fit for Ferry, but he clearly likes the music he covers, and adds nuances that make them his own, which I think makes his efforts worthy of being listened to.

It was clear from the start of his solo career that he appreciated the music of the past. Ferry had thrown some vintage tunes into his mix on previous solo albums (Another Time, Another Place, 1974), but jumbled in with with contemporary covers and self-written material. But until As Time Goes By, he didn’t do a whole album of the tunes.

More recently (late 2012), Ferry released The Jazz Age, a collection of instrumental covers of Ferry’s tunes, from early Roxy Music days to his last solo album, arranged in the style of the 1920s orchestras. It varies between languid ‘Great Gatsby’ moments to finger-popping dance floor tunes that make you see flappers dancing. I really like it.

It’s received mixed reviews, and never made it above number 50 on the album charts. Reviewers seemed torn between calling it brilliant and cartoonish. Without Ferry’s signature voice, they weren’t quite sure what it meant, artistically. It breaks genres and stereotypes, requiring more than simplistic comment. It isn’t the derivative pap that seems to score high on the new charts, either. It’s complex, layered and thoughtful.

The Chicago Tribune review said, somewhat snuffily:

Ferry’s best songs bubble with double-edged nuances and pastiche-style textures, drawing on influences from many eras. “The Jazz Age” diminishes that complexity, turning many of these brilliant tunes into period caricatures.

Clearly not a fan of the vintage style. The Jazz Police site wrote glowingly,

“The Jazz Age” is stylish, seductive, and strange. I approached it with skepticism that dissolved into delight. There is an air of fiction about the album, a sense of stepping into “The Great Gatsby.” It’s not quite real. This is music from a time when jazz was becoming America’s popular music, when jazz meant rebellion, freedom, cocktails, and sex. No one except traditionalists, historians, or fans bothers with this music anymore. But Ferry has always loved and been influenced by the early jazz greats, and he has never been predictable or dull.

I think what the reviewers all missed was the statement this album made about the universality of music: that popular musical styles nearly a century old can meld with those of today and still captivate, still engage the listener, the new can segue into the old almost seamlessly. That we need not be tied by the gravity of any musical style or formula and can be transported by any sound.

Wajobu Music noted, that Ferry himself is re-inventing himself by casting his own material in this new-old mold, showing he retains his inventiveness and creativity:

…Bryan Ferry is reinterpreting his own past work with vocals removed, leaving the melodies and harmonies of the original songs, and they’re are filtered through a time machine that brings the listener back to Ferry’s earliest musical influences—the sound, orchestration and recording techniques of the roaring and often buoyant 1920s.  Some fans of Roxy Music or Ferry’s original work don’t seem to appreciate the effort (especially the sound treatment, and the monaural recording), but… I think it’s a favorable re-examination of Ferry’s work while avoiding the temptation reissue yet another compilation for the sake of churning a back-catalog.  In fact, the recording sounds almost identical to the hi-fidelity of that period, a Victor Orthophonic reproducer and Victrola.

It’s not a musical oddity or some arrangement sleight-of-hand to show off his eccentricity as a few reviewers suggested: it’s a comfortable and enjoyable sharing of nostalgic past and future pop. It’s an appreciation of music, of vintage style and form, but not merely a dry museum piece: it’s a living work, a creative synthesis. It plays well in the living room and the car, although apparently not too well on hidebound FM stations locked into fixed categories and rigid formulae for airplay.

As Ian Johnston wrote,

In lesser hands, this enterprise might have fallen into mere pastiche or vacant imitation but Ferry and Orchestra have managed in unison to fashion music that sounds incredibly authentic to the era (the producers of the excellent Boardwalk Empire take note; any one of these compositions could be used in any new episodes of the series and nobody would be none the wiser) and discover new qualities and subtle nuances within Ferry’s 13 dazzling songs included here.

You don’t have to have a love of the music of the era to appreciate The Jazz Age, but it helps to have at least broader musical horizons that allow for more than one style or fashion to entertain you. And if you already like that music, it’s a delight to hear how well some of those past musicians have been captured. If you watch the ‘making of’ video above, you’ll realize this wasn’t an off-the-cuff project and took a lot of work, thought and effort to capture the sounds.

Take a listen. It’s really worth having in your collection.

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* These tunes are downloaded from a wonderful online collection of old 78s you can find here. It’s a treasure trove for anyone who appreciates the music of the past. You can also find song in the Internet Archive. You can often find similar music on YouTube, but that requires removing the audio track from the video to play on an MP3 device. However, it has such gems as this, which are both musically and visually entertaining: