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May 01, 2010
America Sings of Bolshevism!

                                                 The Russian Revolution in American Popular Song, 1917 - 1938

The above is the title and subtitle of a book that, last Christmas eve, TiR dreamed existed.

We dreamed that we were in a library, and stole a copy from the stack of another patron who removed it from the shelf but disregarded it, unread.

TiR awoke to discover, of course, that, as with a lot of the things we dream, no volume called America Sings of Bolshevism! exists.

But what if one did?

Then an outline of the book might look pretty much like what follows.

ASoB! of course would be a more narrowly focused version of any other popular account that might exist out there, of the Russian or Soviet image in the USA's eyes and imagination. We have in mind something like Alexander McGregor's chapter, "Representations of the Traditional Foreign Enemy -- American Communism versus Soviet Communism" in The Shaping of Popular Consent: A Comparative Study of the Soviet Union and the United States, 1929-1941 (2007), or Matthew S. Hirshberg's Perpetuating Patriotic Perceptions: the Cognitive Function of the Cold War (1993).

Some interesting looking cinema studies are already out there, such as Russia and its Other(s) on Film (Stephen Hutchings, ed.) and Elizabeth Goering's (Re)presenting Russia: A Content Analysis of Images of Russians in Popular American Films.

The Sings! story probably would have to start sometime back before 1917, to offer some comparative sense of how Russia was portrayed in the USA's popular culture prior to the October Revolution.

The above starting point would provide rationale to begin with the great Cole Porter's "I Wonder Where My Girl Is Now," a song from his 1912 show "The Pot of Gold," performed when Porter was still at Yale. Robert Kimball's Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter tells us that one verse goes like this:

Now I met my girl on a roam through Prussia
And wooed her with some homemade caviar.
Then I led her back to my home in Russia
And taught her how to plot against the Czar.
When she lectured on the streets
She was so fiercely festic [?],
The crowd would all go crazy when they heard her.
She became so indiscreet,
So very anarchistic,
She even taught the baby how to murder.

Oh, I wonder where my girl is now?

So, Russia: land of anarchists, terroristic acts, and caviar. OK.

Moreover, 1912 simply has to be shoehorned into Sings so that the book could include the appalling and hilarious song, "My Russian Girlski" (music by Victor Herbert, lyrics by Anna Caldwell). A scan of its sheet music is included in the UCLA Music Library's terrific Archive of Popular American Music.
. . . a little Russian girl-ski o'er the seas
Her name I can't pronounce-ski
I might as well announce-ski,
It's a cross between a gargle and a sneeze.
My Russian girl-ski, she is a pearl-ski,
My gentle Nihilist with eyes of baby blue;
My sugar plum-ski, tossing the bomb-ski,
There's many a star in the land of the Czar
but there's none-ski like you.

The song appeared in the show The Lady of the Slipper; Or, A Modern Cinderella, which ran for 232 performances at the Globe Theater in New York City. (full book here, full score here (.pdf))

By or at about this point, the narrative probably would have filled in some background info for orientation of the above, with regard to the place of Tin Pan Alley in American popular culture; the workings of the music publishing, recording & sheet music industries; "dialect acts," etc. . . . the sort of thing that Camille Forbes' recent biography of Bert Williams did so well. . . .

. . . not to mention information, perhaps, on immigration or population trends? To clarify who was the supposed audience for such cultural product? & who was expected to get the jokes? Where were they from? What languages did they speak? Who produced this stuff, and with whose money? . . . and so on.

1917 brings us -- even before the Ten Days -- to "Hymn of Free Russia," with words by Konstantin Balmont and music by Ossip Gabrilowitsch. A May 1917 NYT article recounts the premiere of the piece at Aoelian Hall, "at a benefit concert for the repatriated Siberian exiles." The lyrics include:

No tyrant shall enslave thee,
Thy sun arises bright!
All hail to those who gave thee
New Freedom's sacred light!

A fine dissertation by Philip R. Camp, here (.pdf), includes some nice background on Gretchaninoff's composition of the Hymn. Gene Sosin discussed this too, in his Sparks of Liberty: An Insider's Memoir of Radio Liberty (1999)(p. 23):
[Grechaninov] had taken the words from a poem by Konstantin Balmont written not to celebrate the Bolshevik victory but earlier, at the time of the short-lived democratic revolution of February 1917 that replaced the centuries-old Romanov monarchy with the Provisional Government under Alexander Krenensky.

The "Hymn" would go on to become the kind of song that would be sung alongside the "Internationale," but before "The Star-Spangled Banner," at a May Day 1919 rally in NYC's Madison Square Gargen (see Joseph Bendersky's The 'Jewish Threat': Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army (2000), p. 127). Riots at this same event were those mentioned by Fitzgerald in his The Crack-Up, excerpted here, and of course took place amidst national, Palmer-stoked, anti-Red      hysteria.

[Indeed it's hard to see how the Sings! chronicle would be of interest as anything more than a quaint curiosity without recurring reference to how Russia or Soviet Communism was portrayed generally
(if such generality could even be said to have existed, or to be today capturable or describable)
in the US media
(if "media" could be said to have existed, as presently understood)
or by the US government, or was perceived by the USA's various "public"(s).]

Later, in the 1950s, Sosin explains how the Hymn's opening celesta notes became the "signal" used for Russian service programing over the anti-Communist Radio Liberation, later to become Radio Liberty. Though that gets beyond the story here . . .

So, one of the most entertaining parts of America Sings! would probably be its survey of some of the songs topical and otherwise that appeared in the USA during the few years after Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station.

Thus, we would have "Bolsheviki (a Comic Song)," from 1918, by Arthur J. Jackson and George White. Its sheet music is viewable here. The song tells the tale of a "gay young New York lad" who travels to Petrograd and propositions a "shy young Russian lady."

She turns him down, with these cryptic words:

Bolshevki Bolshevki
If you go I'll tell you what-sky
I'll get what Lenine gave Trotsky
You're too tricky.

. . .

You can 'Kid' McCoy but you can't Bolsheviki me.

What does she mean by "what Lenine gave Trotsky," at least as of 1918? The office of People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs?

The "Kid McCoy" line is clever, even though, by 1918, that legendary boxing champ (and master of deception) basically had quit fighting and gone into movie acting, on the way towards his downhill slide and sad end. (A thorough profile of McCoy from Sports Illustrated in 1995 is here.) The use of the word "kid" as a verb, to mean "to tease, joke with, hoax or humbug" has citations in the OED that go back to 1811.

In any case, in the song "Bolsheviki," it turns out that the Petrograd lady's father is a rabbi. She will accept the lad's proposition only on condition that they get married immediately, in a synagogue. Quite a far cry from the "gentle Nihilist" of several years earlier.

1918 also brought music fans in the USA the "Bolsheveki Glide" (1918), with music by Harry Tierney. Its sheet music is viewable here.

The lyrics here (by Carl Randall -- future choreographer of "The Gay Divorcee"!) were rather darker than those just above:

Syncopation now becomes their pride
With what they call the Bolsheviki Glide . . .
Rich men poor men even their wives
Dance it with guns and knives
Don't give a cent for their lives.
It gives us all a thrill,
You dance it dressed to kill . . .

A March 1919 NYT article attests to a demonstration by Moscow refugees of the dance, said to be "not unlike the present Russian Government -- unsettled." Invitees to a forthcoming ball and "public tryout" of the dance at the Commodore Hotel were said to include Mrs. Enrico Caruso and Mrs. John Barrymore.

This brings us to the tune that, TiR thinks, was the whole basis for its Xmas Eve dream: "Look Out For The Bolsheviki Man" by one Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline, in Siberia):

Far across the ocean blue
There's a dang'rous boogy boo
He'll be after me and you
Bye and bye . . .

He hasn't got a single sou
And he wants to share it all with you
Look out! Look out!
For the Bolsheviki Man

The sheet music is here. The song was part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. TiR theorizes that it dreamed about a book devoted to Bolshevik-related show tunes just to have a flimsy justification to surf the web in search of more like this one.

Like this one: Berlin's "That Revolutionary Rag":

Where the Russian breezes blow
There's a piece of calico
Ev'ry thread dyed in red
You can see it on a pole
Or in Trotsky's buttonhole . . .

Run with your little money bag
Or else they'll steal it away, wheel it away
As they go raving, madly waving
That revolutionary rag
It's not a melody
It's a crimson flag
All the Royalties across the seas
Shake in their B.V.D.s
When they see that revolutionary rag.

Berlin once told the story of the song's genesis like this:
I wrote . . . a song when I came out of the army that George [Gershwin] transcribed for me . . . because I can't write music. . . . It was a kidding song about the Russian Revolution and it was called 'The Revolutionary Rag.' George took it down, and he played it so that I just didn't recognize it, it was so beautiul.
See Fascinating Rhythm by Deena Rosenberg, p. 25.

The sheet music for "Rag" ("In fox-trot time") is here.

Meanwhile, with 1919 we can start to trace the post-revolutionary emergence of Russian-related tunes on vinyl, or shellac at least. So we have the "Russian Rag" by George Cobb, from 1918, popularized on stage by the Six Brown Brothers but apparently never recorded by them.

March 1919 saw the "Russian Rag"'s appearance on Pathé's "Perfect" label, recorded by Lt. James Reese Europe's 369th Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band, and released a few weeks after the band's triumpant return from Europe and march up Fifth Avenue to Harlem.

"Russian Rag" can be said to be "about" the Russian Revolution only by a kind of possibly too cutesy negative implication. The rag's basis is a composition by Rachmaninoff from 1892. The rag has no words. Chicago's Will Rossiter, publisher of its sheet music, was no radical; see this 1927 profile of him from the Rotarian, here. Neither was George L. Cobb. Rachmaninoff himself reacted to the Revolution by getting the heck out of Russia ASAP.

However, all the more thereby is TiR tempted to create (or hope for a chapter about, in the (non-existent) ASoR!) a special mental category for Russian-themed or -inspired popular music in the USA that dealt with the fact of the revolution by, 1) not dealing with it -- avoiding any mention of it, or 2) harkening back to the Tsarist era, the Russian Empire, or perhaps alternatively through homage to "peasant" Russia, myth & folklore, etc. We suspect that we shall see more examples of these strategies, going forward.

[Where do considerations end, between a sidestep around the politically thorny, and commercial marketability? We are talking here, after all, about "popular" music. It needs to sell.

"Russian Rag" was "one of the biggest crowd pleasers" in James Reese Europe's live show, according to Reese biographer Reid Badger.

From another angle, one can imagine Lt. Europe's excitement about getting the chance to work a little Rachmaninoff into a jazz number. In a spring 1919 interview with the New York Tribune, Europe explained his love for Russian music, like so:
I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negroes should write Negro music . . . The music of our race springs from the soil, and this is true today with no other race, except possibly the Russians, and it is because of this that I and all my musicians have come to love Russian music. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, it is the only music I care for outside of Negro.

See Karl Koenig's Jazz in Print (1856-1929), p. 133.

One can only imagine where Lt. Europe's creative instincts might have taken him, and American popular music. Before spring of 1919 was out, he was dead, not yet age forty.]

In any event, the entrance onto the scene of 78 rpm records gives TiR yet more webpages to surf
                                                                                                                                                                                   (pointlessly, as ever).

Next post: the 1920s.