Thanksgiving Is Ruined
June 01, 2010
America Sings of Bolshevism!
part II: the 1920s
. . . continued from the previous post.
The (we are already starting to think, increasingly boring) subject matter here, again, is a selective survey that TiR involuntarily imagined
[The reader rightly may stop reading here, and ask:
, of "popular music" in the USA, running up through 1938 or so, insofar as the music referenced the October 1917 Russian Revolution (definitionally extended here to refer to the USSR, its leaders, Soviet Communism, the general "revolutionary experiment" there, etc.).
What makes this topic temporarily interesting to us? "Interesting" means "a catalyst for intellectually curious surfing of webpages we'd not otherwise ever have viewed."
Put differently, what would a book survey of such a subject show? Probably & indirectly, among other things, it seems: the shifting winds of foreign policy and public opinion in the USA.
The Twenties are a grab bag, this way. TiR learns that, during that decade, the Soviet Union did not even exist, officially speaking, in Washington's opinion. The USA, it seems, extended diplomatic recognition to Moscow only in 1933.
Until then, "America" may have wondered: Which team or faction over there to back? With whom to sympathize? Whose interests to protect? Who are our friends, who are the villains, who are the pretenders to lampoon? For song-writers, publishers & music pluggers: Which aspects of the conflict translate well into sellable songs? Embodiment of rival, incompatible material interests in separate persons lends itself well to representations of dramatic conflict, and transfers well in turn to certain kinds of scenario, storytelling and songwriting.
So we discover that in American popular music of the 1920s soon began to appear songs about the embodiment of one set of material interests with a stake in the event of the revolution, in the character of the newly exiled Russian aristocrat.
The 1920 Broadway musical, "Sally" (music by Jerome Kern), featured such a storyline. Here, Russian nobility is reduced to wage labor as restaurant help in Greenwich Village. Constantine, the former Grand Duke of Czechogoviuia (now a waiter) sings of the world he left behind on "the banks of the Schnitza-Komisski":
They like revolutions at least once a week,
Constantine later remembers,
Harrowing dislocations, the high-born de-elevated, comedically recounted for an urban American audience. With tunes!
The full vocal score of "Sally" can be found here.
There are exiles, then there are exiles. A humbler and gloomier immigrant's tale appeared in Irving Berlin's 1924 "Music Box Revue" in the form of the song "Don't Send Me Back to Petrograd" (lyrics on this page):
Poor little immigrant feeling Oh, so sad.
Yes, one particular line in the foregoing lyrics excerpt jumps out at today's reader.
The above immigrant's elaboration of a multi-pronged case in favor of admission contrasts chillingly with her total demurral from disclosure about what exactly's going on in Petrograd, other than to repeat that "it's terrible."
To tug the heartstrings even more, the song was performed in the show by Fanny Brice, as mentioned by her biographers Herbert G. Goldman and Barbara Wallace Grossman.
The Berlin/Brice song serves as an indirect reminder of the wealth of non-English language popular music, including Yiddish song & theater, that could be incorporated here to explore the nuances of how news of events in Russia were received, represented and discussed in popular culture across the Atlantic.
For example, Yiddish theater scholar Joel Schechter notes a 1922 record that forms a kind of counterpart to the immigration-themed Berlin tune just mentioned: "The Messiah Comes, They Say the Messiah Is a Bolshevik" ("Meshiaskh Kimt, Men Zogt Meshiakh Iz a Bolshevik"), written by Jacob Jacobs.
[Yes, the same Jacobs who had to divide with Sholom Secunda a measly $30 payment for the rights to "Bei Mir Bistu Shein," which in 1937 would be a million seller and the first major hit for the Andrew SistersHere, the Mashiach arrives but can't make it past the screeners at Ellis Island, because he's taken for a Bolshevik. See Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire (2008), p. 21.
Schechter quotes Henry Sapoznik's attestation that "Meshiakh" was "'the oddest song' among many responding to the Soviet revolution."
Though from another angle: not so odd. The status of Ellis Island (or Trernindzl, the "Isle of Tears") as a deportation or turnback point for real or suspected Bolsheviki, Wobblies, anarchists, etc. was of course a real thing. See, e.g., Henry P. Guzda's "Ellis Island a Welcome Site? Only after Years of Reform," from Monthly Labor Review (July 1986), here.
TiR's websurfing turns up the possibility that in 1922, a fresh memory for Jacob Jacobs and many in his audience may have been that of the remarkable Mollie Steimer, a defendant in the high profile Abrams case who was deported with three others, through Ellis Island to Russia in November 1921. Jacobs, we learn, had a particular flair for incorporating reference to the news of the day into his theater work, as remembered by actress Esta Salzman in an interview here.
Moreover, knowledge of the Russian Revolution seems to have come from a relatively personal and immediate place along the informational continuum, derived less from "news" stories and more from lived experience, for some of those immersed in the USA's Yiddish theatrical world.
Case in point: The liner notes to the LP by songs by Yiddish vaudevillian Aaron Lebedeff (born in Russia in 1873, arrived in NYC in 1920), on-line here (Collectors Guild label, 1968), which claim that during Lebedeff's career in Russia,[Indeed, consideration of the results of our digging here recurringly suggests the near inapplicability of terms or concepts generally understood or (over)used today, like "media" or (worse) "mediality," to this earlier, still-just-barely-pre-massified, less etherialized, globalized or impersonalized epoch of communication.]
[H]e was ordered to perform before Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky. Since these leaders had differing political points of view, Lebedeff carefully varied his routines for each.
Lived experience indeed.
Lebedeff, we find, is said to have come to the USA with the sponsorship of Boris Tomashevsky. So too did Michal Michalesko. The latter sang the March 1923 Vocalion Yiddish language release, "A Griss fin der Neuer Russland," or "A Greeting from New Russia," with music by Josephy Rumshinsky (biographical sketch here), and lyrics by Louis Gilrod.
The Milken Archive explains about Gilrod:
Taking advantage, for example, of the initial American Jewish elation sparked by news of the beginning of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia -- as did a number of songwriters and comic performers -- he collaborated with Gus Goldstein on a satiric vaudeville skit titled Tsar nikolay un tsharli tshaplin (Czar Nicholas and Charlie Chaplin).
A 1918 recording of Gilrod & Goldstein's skit, under the title "Zar Nicholay und Charlie Chaplin," can be heard on-line at the website of Florida Atlantic University's addictive Judaica Sound Archives, here. Listen for the skit's English-language call of "Three cheers for the Russian Republic!"
In December 1922, right around the time of the establishment of the USSR itself, appeared an earlier (original?) version of "Neuer Russland" (Victor label), featuring the vocals of one William Robyn. We discover a very nice profile of William Robyn, here (.pdf), which states that he recorded under "a bewildering number of pseudonyms." Ain't that the truth: see the recent posting of an actual authority record for Robyn, by the OverAutomated Librarian blogger, with commentary:
He used more than 50 different names?!?!?! (I have to wonder, was somebody chasing this guy all the way from Latvia? . . . )
Finally, another relevantly topical Yiddish record to note here is the terrifically jaunty "Lenin[e] and Trotsky" by the quite prolific Morris Goldstein, released in spring 1923 on the Vocalion label, according to this listing. The song was included on last year's Cantors, Klezmorim And Crooners, 1905-1953 box set (JSP label), and has been covered by Kapelye.
With regard to other relevant non-Anglophone (and non-Yiddishophone) records, more research
[read: "pointless, obsessive-compulsive web-surfing by TiR"]could be done.
For example, Greek language rebetiko [not this "rebetiko"] on 78 rpm presents some tantalizing clues, though this may digress us prematurely beyond the 1920s for a moment. But what a moment: "I Am the Bolshevik Girl (Ego ime i bolsevika)." A version by the amazing Marika Frantzeskopoulou seems to have been released in 1933 on Columbia. Frantzeskopoulou is hearable via YouTube in clips such as this and others.
Roza Eskenazy (as equally YouTubeable as Marika F. and at least equally awesome) recorded a version of the same song, apparently for Odeon (release date, if any, unclear).
The lyrics of "I Am the Bolshevik Girl" -- in Greek -- can be viewed here. GoogleTranslate transmangles them in part as follows:
Come vre Bolshevik
The above does not sound much like Lenin, but could perhaps be mistaken for the transposition of a Russo-Greek, Zaum-Dada-Surrealist combo of, say, Ilia Zdanevich and Andreas Embirikos or Nicolas Calas (.pdf).
Where and how far did "Bolshevik Girl," or Greek-language records like it, circulate? How were they received, in the USA or during the very fraught interwar years within Greece? Moreover: Is this song not overdue for a rerelease in Greece?
Finally, in the Russian language itself, what are we to make of the Victor label's summer 1922 "Revolutzia," which, we learn, was a "comic," Russian language, male-female vocal duet with piano and balalaika? A related version with an English language title seems to have been captured in wax by the same label two months earlier. Were these released? If so, who bought them? Just how "comic" were they?
Speaking of comedy, and to return to Fanny Brice: We have looked at "Don't Send Me Back to Petrograd," which she sang in 1924. We discover too that, in the previous year's Ziegfeld Follies, she sang a different post-Revolutionary song, when Russophilia or Russofascination in the USA was no less in effect.
[Indeed, in May 1923, songwriter George Cobb even went so far as to rework his "Russian Rag" from 1918 (looked at in our previous post) into a snazzier, more novelty version. The title? "The New Russian Rag."]
However, Brice's 1923 song, written by Blanche Merrill, approached the Russian émigré phenomenon from a direction of less pathos and more cynicism.
As "Luba Rockamonanoffsky," she sang "Russian Art," a send-up of what Goldman's Brice biography (p. 114) calls "the craze for Russian cultural influence in art that had swept through 'chic' moneyed clases following the Red scare of the early 'twenties." (One offshoot of the craze would manifest itself in the opening of the Russian Tea Room in NYC in 1927.)
In Merrill's song, as Goldman explains, "Luba" is a knowing phony who plays the rich for fools by milking their fad for all things "Russian." Brice's audience got the joke because of the popularity of Balieff's "Chauve-Souris" dance/vaudeville/revue company which first hit Broadway in early 1922. The company featured numerous Russian émigrés. So too in 1927, one among these would be Tamara Geva, first wife of George Balanchine. Her solo dance pieces introduced his choreography to the USA (and Lincoln Kirstein).
[Balanchine's biographer Bernard Taper called the solo pieces a "kind of dissolution settlement," created by Balanchine as his marriage to her was falling apart. A great interview with Geva from 1997 can be found here.]
The Chauve-Souris digression underscores how quixotic it may be to dream, as TiR did one night (it set off this entire, tiresome post), about a book whose potential contents we are investigating here, subtitled "the Russian Revolution in American Popular Song, 1917-1938."
Where to draw a circle around the "popular"? (an inevitable problem) Or the "revolution"? Or "in"?
How far to go, in hoping to track 1917's every possible ripple effect on America's cultural life?
Here's how far afield such an inquiry might carry us. In 1920, Serge Koussevitzky leaves the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd, and Russia. By 1924, he has emigrated to the USA and is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (a story engagingly told in Colin Eatock's "Serge Koussevitzky Discovers America," here). He leads the BSO through arguably its greatest quarter century; broadcasts its concerts live over radio; makes some impeccable recordings for RCA Victor's "Red Seal" label; and introduces American audiences to, and "popular"-izes, works by Bartok, Copland, Hindemith, Honegger, Ravel, Roussel, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Stravinsky, etc. What indirect influence, if any, does all this (e.g., in the the injection & cross-fertilization of new musical ideas, in the honing of radio and phonograph techniques, in the development of the USA's musical listening culture) have on the parallel development of "popular music" in the USA during those years, or later?
We now go one step further. In 1930, Arthur Fiedler took the helm of The Boston Pops. With the springboard of the BSO's institutional support, or at least its orchestra members, Fiedler went on to sell an estimated 50 million disks by the time of his death. Could the "Pops" not be considered "popular," in some sense? This is the same orchestra that would even one day give birth to the classic "Saturday Night Fiedler." Can it be said that we are able to trace here the sometimes perverse reflective effects of the Russian Revolution on American's "popular" music by n+1 degrees of separation?
How about the easier stretch involved in the case of Vernon Duke? Born Vladimir Dukelsky in Belarus, he got out of Russia during its civil war, relocated to the USA in the 20s, and went on to co-write American popular songs that include "April in Paris" (1932) and "I Can't Get Started" (1936).
Then there's mandolinist Dave Apollon, born in Kiev, arrived in the USA in 1919 and went on to a career in vaudeville (with the help of Mae West, as explained here) and jazz.
And so on. Maybe a tracing of the lineage of some popular music in the USA uncovers music that is not necessarily "about" the Russian Revolution, but preconditioned by its occurrence? Stated less annoyingly: We seem to trace here the effects of the 1917 Russian revolution on immigration to the USA after 1917, and the effects of post-1917 Russian immigration to the USA on American popular culture & music.
The reader can see at once how overly clever such an exercise could, or, in the case of this blog post, already has become. We could stagger one final step. What about the roles played by scientists or engineers who fled post-1917 Russia, on the technology, design or materials that emerged to deliver popular music to the masses in the USA throughout the 20th century?
Thus we contemplate the contributions of Alexander M. Poniatoff. He was a soldier with the White Russian army, fled to Shanghai in 1920, and arrived in the USA in 1927 (.pdf). The Ampex audio recording technology that he later invented was indispensible after WWII for the development (with Bing Crosby's financial backing) of workable reel-to-reel and (with Les Paul's genius) mutitrack recording. An Ampex 521 recorded Elvis Presley's first single.
Or what about Ivan Ostromislensky? He departed Russia in 1921, relocated to the USA, went to work for the Goodyear and the US Rubber companies, and made significant contributions to technologies that included PVC. PVC of course was / is a key ingredient in 33 & 45 rpm phonograph records. Would such a technological contribution constitute part of the story of "the Russian Revolution [embedded] in [the technology of] American popular song"?
So too with Vladimir Zworykin, who arrived in the USA in 1918 via Siberia during the Russian civil war. His work on the development of television (iconoscope & kinescope) technology for RCA helped to create a central delivery system for the administration of dosages of popular music to the USA.
Finally there's the case of the combined technician and musical creator who was Léon Theremin, who relocated to the USA during the Twenties. However his influence might be a bit too odd to try to characterize here.
In any case, TiR's obsessive websurfing suggests that we can find in the commodified world of mid-to-late 1920s popular music in the USA some signs of a generosity or openness towards some aspects of the Russian Revolution. Consider the Broadway show "Song of the Flame" (a Hammerstein production with music in part by Gershwin). The show opened at the end of 1925, ran for six months, and became a (now lost) film in 1930 (starring Wallace Beery's brother). Gerald Bordman's American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (1978) summarizes the plot as follows:
Though she is a noble, Aniuta incites the peasants of Russia to revolt against oppression. She is known as "The Flame" because of the scarlet dress she wears. Prince Volodyn falls in love with her, not suspecting her double identify. After the revolution they meet again in Paris, where they accept each other for what they truly are.
And here perhaps we have what most fascinates TiR about this whole topic. A work like "Song of the Flame" seems to aspire to embody or embrace contradiction to a maximum extent, to have it multiple, seemingly incompatible ways at once, with enthusiasm. The show provides us with a plot about a Bolshevik who's in fact an aristocrat; with a "Russian" epic, complete with, as Bordman recounts, a "Russian Art Choir" and ballet worked into the scene changes, yet a classic Hollywood-style ending; and with a cultural product whose task is to take a historical event ostensibly predicated on, among other things, the very downfall of commodity fetishism, and commodify it as a Broadway musical.
In late 1919, this guy wrote:
General talk about freedom, equality and democracy is in fact but a blind repetition of concepts shaped by the relations of commodity production. To attempt to solve the concrete problems of the dictatorship of the proletariat by such generalities is tantamount to accepting the theories and principles of the bourgeoisie in their entirety.
& this other guy would write, in late 1928:
We have overthrown capitalism, we have established the dictatorship of the proletariat, we are developing our socialist industry at a rapid pace and are linking peasant economy with it. But we have not yet torn out the roots of capitalism. Where are these roots imbedded? They are imbedded in commodity production, in small production in the towns and, especially, the countryside.
Thus we come to the crux of the problem. American Sings of Bolshevism! offers an illustrative case study. How can the "free market" system, or at least certain creative actors within it, confront a political, economic and historic force that purports to embody that system's existential threat, then transform symbolic representations of that force into products crafted to be unleashed on the market to turn a buck?
[And not crafted only to turn a buck. We imagine that the songs must resonate with someone, strike a chord with the audience, further a wider conversation, contain some kind of emotional, psychological use-value or even "truth," etc., to sell in the first place.]
The problem, restated: What new obsession du jour can TiR find, thinly veiled with insecure, pseudo-intellectual B.S., to enable maximum time wastage via web surfing?
TiR's prolonged chronology now brings us to the fall of 1926, during which US gramophone labels and fans seem to have gone temporarily "Bolshevik"-crazy.
In August 1926 appeared the fox trot "Bolshevik." We find that the song was a coproduct of Moe Jaffe (later to co-write "I'm My Own Grandpa") and Nat Bonx.
In 1925, the same songwriting team had achieved huge success with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians' recording of their "Collegiate."
An entirely charming clip from "Horse Feathers" (1932) that features Chico Marx's performance of that song is here.
Waring's version of "Bolshevik" (Victor label) can be heard via YouTube here, here and here. The record is in large part an extended vodka joke, w/ snippets of Russianesque tunes, comic voices (mainly thanks to Poley McClintock), and liberal attachment of the suffix "ovitch" to random English words:
Far far far far away,
An intrepid attempt at decipherment of the full lyrics appears here.
September 1926 saw the appearance of a version of "Bolshevik" on the Harmony label by Tommy Christian & his Orchestra -- a tune "of a 'novelty' nature," per this (.pdf) Jerry Rothstein article.
Who was Christian's audience? Rothstein's profile of the guy has him, around this period, touring Pennsylvania and the Midwest; playing guest sax with Ted Weems (who later gave Perry Como his first big break); and has him billed as "the Sensation of the South" during a 1925-26 residency at NYC's Roseland Ballroom. This Roseland: "It was a 'whites only' dance club called the 'home of refined dancing'" (though Fletcher Henderson was based there). According to Rothstein's timeline, "Bolshevik" appeared during the end of an almost year-long period when Christian abruptly dropped out of the public eye, on account of a "nervous breakdown."
As for the fate of "Bolshevik," in October 1926 the floodgates for it further opened. Around that time, tunes by that title seem to have appeared from Jack Kaufman and Albert Campbell on the Harmony label; among the eclectic offerings of the Royal Troubadours, on the Gennett label (an example of their work can be heard here); and by the always wonderful Lee Morse, the sometimes-called "Southern Aristocrat of Song," and her Bluegrass Boys, on the Pathé label.
[Yes, the same Lee Morse's 1930 "Tain't No Sin (To Dance Around In Your Bones)" (audio file here) was covered by William S. Burroughs & Tom Waits in 1993, as hearable here.]
One seemingly notable aspect of Jaffee & Bonx's song is how bloodthirsty and terroristic its portrayal of the Bolsheviki is not, at least in comparison with the Red Scare-era compositions rifled through in our previous post. "Bolshevik" seems to suggest that these Russians, apart from a few humorous cultural peculiarities, drink, dance and fall in love (with their "girl-ovitch," naturally), fundamentally like the rest of us.
Why was "Bolshevik" a hit just then, in fall 1926? What was going on in US-Russian relations at that time? Well, we don't want to get too deterministic, though it's an interesting moment to look at. Russia-side, things were in kind of a post-Lenin, pre-Stalin interregnum: the NEP was still going on; Cheka head Dzerzhinsky had recently died; Trotsky was still in country, and part of the United Opposition. Trade with the USA was picking up nicely, thanks in part to Armand Hammer (as discussed in Katherine A. S. Sibley's Loans and Legitimacy: the Evolution of Soviet-American Relations, 1919-1933 (1996), chapters 5 & 6.)
Maybe "Bolshevik" got a boost from the popularity of Cecil B. DeMille's spring 1926 epic "The Volga Boatman"? The film's heroic Bolshevik lead was played by the actor who a decade later would be Hopalong Cassidy. The New York Times said about the film:
Nevertheless the Reds appear to have the best of the bargain, for the Czarist officers are portrayed as the most outrageous scoundrels, tearing the garments from a woman and striving to make her dance for them on a table.
[No, Eisenstein's masterpiece Potemkin had not yet hit American shores, but would do so in NYC in December, 1926.]
Who knows? The song may have been a success simply because it is fun and immediately infectious.
The overdue end of this post can at this point thankfully be hastened by our reference to a post on the terrific "Humming A Diff'rent Tune" blog, here. The post, reminiscent of Alex Ross's writing, comprehensively discusses Irving Berlin's 1927 "Russian Lullaby" waltz, and discusses it brilliantly, with musicological & technical analysis, historical background and .mp3 links. Roger Wolfe Kahn & Orchestra's spring 1927 recording of the song on Victor was a "# 1" hit, according to David Jasen's 2003 Tin Pan Alley encyclopedia.
[Though the idea of a "# 1" record or even a music best-seller chart or "hit parade" seems looser and harder to grasp, by today's standards of reference, when we're talking about an era that pre-dated the RIAA (1952), Billboard record "charts" (mid-30s), and even radio's "Your Hit Parade" (1935).
The "Humming" blog rightly notes the "minimalism" of the lyrics of "Russian Lullaby." They conjure up a Russian mother crading her child and envisioning somewhere simply "a land that's free for you and me." We imagine that the minimalism shows both circumspection about the complicated flux of the political situation in Russia as Stalin consolidated power, and commercial intelligence in appealing to the broadest possible audience of music consumers.
Among the various examples of Russian-themed popular music in the USA during the 20 years or so after 1917 that TiR has stumbled into finding, "Russian Lullaby" leans toward exemplifation of what we have found ourselves lumping conceptually into one cluster of more evasionary approaches, which cast a more oblique eye towards Russia's politics, set against a contrasting cluster of more direct, specific, concrete or complicated depictions of the world of post-October Russia and its inhabitants or outcasts.
The last years of the Twenties include two final records that we found taking the former, more oblique approach.
One is the April 1929 release on the Victor label of a new recording of "Hymn of Free Russia." As we recall, the early 1917 "Hymn" is an anthem to the promise of a historical path along which the "Ten Days that Shook the World" had never (yet, anyway) even occurred.
Second and finally, the avoidance approach is taken to one logical conclusion with the waltz ballad "Underneath the Russian Moon," (April 1929, Brunswick label). The song is hearable here. The scenario of separation and longing depicted in "Russian Moon" certainly seems direct and specific from one angle: The song's singer has a specific romantic object in mind, and sings directly from her heart. However, in the song's universe, Bolsheviks and soviets need not necessarily exist at all. The song indeed seems devoid of any specifically "Russian" content whatsoever -- unless you count the balalaikas, or the Russian parentage of its singer, Belle Baker (born Bella Becker, circa 1873 in NYC), who was clearly a heckuva vocalist.
Next post: The 1930s