LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, January 28th, 2018: Repertoire is a most interesting element to track in popular music, especially during the 1930s and ‘40s when big bands began to perform not only jazz compositions and novelties but also songs from the developing “Great American Songbook.”
A hit recording would often lead to a bandleader recording songs arranged in a similar style, one that would recall his earlier hit.
Other bands would also “cover” the hit songs, sometimes in similar or identical arrangements; that is, of course, the modus operandi of many current rock bands that trade on the style, hits and names of earlier groups.
Repertoire: Tin Pan Alley to Western Swing
The 1930s also saw the development of a unique musical style that fused the tunes of Tin Pan Alley, the rhythmic swing of jazz, and the instrumentation and two-beat feel of traditional country music.
The result was one of the most original and exciting forms of popular music: Western Swing. As with more established forms of music, songs and lyrics passed freely from band to band.
Case in point: In 1940 Bob Wills took a traditional fiddle song, “Walkin’ Georgia Rose,” rearranged it in the Western Swing style, then added lyrics.
Repertoire: Bob Wills is still the king
He called it Take Me Back To Tulsa, and it was introduced to the public in a cleverly-titled 1940 Monogram feature, TAKE ME BACK TO OKLAHOMA, starring Tex Ritter.
The original lyrics, presented in the original version of the song, are both telling and honest and ironic: As Bob notes, “the black man plants the cotton, the white man gets the money.”
Wills recorded the tune the following year for Columbia Records and it soon became a staple item in the books of many Western Swing bands.
While not necessarily covered by other Western Swing bands in the recording studio … an emphasis on traditional fiddle tunes, original compositions and the blues was important in helping control royalty costs … many Western Swing outfits would have had a version of the song in its book for dancers.
Repertoire: The tragic saga of Spade Cooley
Such was the case of the great Spade Cooley Western Swing outfit that covered the song in public performance and on film.
Cooley was active in country music and Western Swing from the late 1930s. The later part of his life was truly tragic, however.
Suspecting his wife of being unfaithful …. something he had been guilty of throughout their marriage …. Cooley killed her in a brutal rage.
Sentenced to prison, he was granted a 72-hour parole in 1969 to play a Deputy Sheriff’s Association benefit. He received a standing ovation after the first half of the concert, then suffered a heart attack and died during intermission.
Spade Cooley’s version of the Take Me Back to Tulsa is similar in nature to the Wills band if featuring a different array of soloists.
Repertoire: Freddie Slack to The Rolling Stones
The journey of a song from one genre to another is something that cannot always be traced in great detail. How “Down the Road a Piece” made its way from a wonderful boogie-woogie recording by the Freddie Slack Trio (Columbia Records, 1940) to the Rolling Stones is not known.
Did Mick and the group somehow run across a recording of the song? Doubtful and it is more likely it had been picked up by another group that bridged the gap between Slack and the Stones.
Repertoire: From Henry Whittier to Shorty Warren to The Grateful Dead
Another song that was “in the ether” was “Lonesome Road Blues.” The earliest recording that I know of, one must be careful since there are recordings that use this title, but are unrelated to the song in question, was recorded by Henry Whitter in 1924.
Here the song is presented as a traditional countrified blues, with Whitter’s guitar supporting his own vocal.
In the decades that followed the song would be recorded by others, including a wonderful bluegrass interpretation Bill Monroe as a bluegrass tune.
In 1948, Shorty Warren’s Western Rangers presented the song as a bona fide Western Swing song.
With the song out there, it is not surprising that it was eventually pictured up and reinterpreted by a rock group, in this case, The Grateful Dead.
While repertoire was passed from band to band, generation to generation, the same is true, if in a more limited sense, with performance style.
Repertoire: From Milt Britton and Tiny Cahn to The Who
The image of a leader standing in front of a big band, baton in hand, is a familiar one, as is the honking tenor sax player walking the bar. But can one always ascribe the style of one band to an earlier model? Often yes, but not always so.
A few years ago the author shared this 1946 SOUNDIE in a clip presentation. The group, Milt Britton and his Band, is a comedy aggregation that had been performing since the early 1930s, and this routine was the regular conclusion to their stage shows.
The clip had been including in the program not because of its entertainment value though it is indeed a lot of fun to watch, but rather because the drummer on the band was the great Tiny Kahn; just to see him on screen (his only film appearance) was special for his audience.
After the program, a young fan who had interests in all genres of music commented on how The Who must have seen this film, so similar were the styles.
While I rather doubt any connection between this band and The Who, one can easily see what the young gentleman was thinking.
In our next installment, we will continue to look at repertoire, with a focus on the development of “The Great American Songbook.”
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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