Thursday, October 23, 2008

Johnny Canuck's the Lad III


By Peter Steven

Spiritual – Popular Gospel
What a Friend we Have in Jesus (with lyrics by Joseph Scriven in 1855 and music by Charles Converse, 1868) must rank as the best-known example of the spiritual among a general audience. Scriven was quite a character. After moving to Canada from Ireland at an early age he achieved considerable fame and notoriety from his home-base near Rice Lake, Ontario. He drowned in mysterious circumstances, predeceased by both his former fiancées, one of whom also drowned.

African-Canadian hymns and spirituals from an earlier folk era made their mark on a wide audience. A few of these were composed by Canadian-based singers or church leaders, especially in Nova Scotia and western Ontario. The music could be either solemn as with most spirituals or uplifting in the form often called jubilee. The new urban forms, usually referred to as black gospel, drew from the emotion and polyphonic rhythms of the uplifting version. Unfortunately, this music while undoubtedly popular remained an oral form, unrecorded and apparently of no interest to Canadian sheet music publishers. But we know it existed because so many of the next generation’s musicians honoured it as an influence in their pop compositions.

White evangelists also wrote new forms of spiritual music in the late 19th century. This version of gospel emerged, like it’s black counterparts, as accompaniment to the great Christian revival movements which swept North America and Britain in the late nineteenth century. The best-known Canadian composers were John and David Whyte of Paris, Ontario, whose anthologies Sing Out the Glad News (1885) and Battle Songs of the Cross, of 1901 circulated widely in book and sheet-music form and invariably set the congregations rolling.

Even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union jumped into the act with the wildly popular 1909 hit for the teatotal set, sung by vaudeville star Lottie Moore to the tune of The Maple Leaf Forever. The WCTU reached its greatest popularity in these years just before the war and most of their meetings featured rousing music – all of it topical and political.

Canpop – It’s Awfully Nice
The musical genre with the most specific references to place and setting during this era could best be described as canpop. These contemporary tunes or old chestnuts with incorporated up-to-date lyrics, were meant to be enjoyed solely as entertainment, novelties or dance music. A reviewer for the Toronto Star heard the crowd at Sheas vaudeville theatre singing Take me to the Toronto Fair in 1915 and enthused that “The orchestra under Mr. Gus Nauman’s leadership is heard to particular advantage in this number.” Young folks might be hearing Silly Ass, a lively two-step in vogue during 1907 or Oh Take Your Girl to the Picture Show, recommended as a Valse Moderato by the Colonial Music Publishing Co. in 1909 – “It costs just a little. It’s only a nickel.”

Charles Wellinger (1888-1943) actually seems to have made a living composing these sorts of tunes. Originally from Ottawa, Wellinger performed regularly with Hamilton’s Royal Connaught Winter Garden Dance Orchestra. Waltz Me Kid (1910) became his biggest hit but other tunes capture the canpop spirit quite nicely. His Come With Me For a Roller Skate (1907) gave us that memorable Canadian phrase, “It’s awfully nice you don’t need any ice.”

As with the patriotic and the spiritual, these proudly commercial forms were not confined to the biggest cities in the East. During the Yukon gold rush of 1898 William Diefenbaker, an Ontario teacher and the father of John, Canada’s 13th prime minister, penned a true canpop number known as Rush to the Klondike. The new metropolis of Dawson was awash in this sort of thing during its heyday.

But the rather simple rhythms and melodies of the patriotic, religious and canpop genres were no match for the cultural power and musical sophistication of a completely new phenomenon that emerged in the last years of the nineteenth century – ragtime.

Ragtime – Vital as the Heartbeat
The earliest ragtime burst into life during the 1890s in the Midwest U.S. Like spontaneous combustion, it seemed to explode unannounced and within a flash it was everywhere. In fact, ragtime emerged in many settings at once, drawing on several strands of African-American music composed for dances, taverns, brothels, traveling fairs, and variety shows. The cakewalk of the 1880s and the earlier, but still surviving, racist ‘coon-songs’ set the stage with their complex patterns of syncopation.

Ragtime piano combined a steady beat, played in the left hand, with various off-kilter, syncopated rhythms in the right hand. Unlike jazz, which erupted fifteen years later, ragtime was composed rather than improvised music. The result was lively and joyous and it spread like wildfire throughout North America. Ragtime was distributed rapidly among musicians in sheet music form and via piano rolls. For general audiences it soon bounded onto the vaudeville and burlesque stages. Although later commercialized and horribly bastardized, ragtime in its classic form was a sophisticated, hard-to-play music – it only sounded easy. Ragtime represents the first truly modern music because it starts to blur the line between amateur and connoisseur. Once it had been easy to know the difference between the simple forms of popular music and the complex concert repertoire; now the culture starts to produce popular music that only skilled musicians can handle.

Canadian audiences heard ragtime almost immediately as U.S. performers toured in their regular cross-border circuits. And it wasn’t always second-class acts. A 1905 performance at Sheas in Toronto featured the great Williams and Walker, the best performers of Black music of any kind in their day. At the other end of the continent, in Dawson, “the most famous pianist in town,” recounts Pierre Berton, “was the Rag Time Kid at the Dominion Saloon.” The Kid reemerges in Robert Service’s classic poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune.

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899), named after a tavern in Sedalia, Missouri run by Canadians, became the most famous ragtime composition, but several Canadian composers also took up the form. Not much is known about G.W.Adams, author of The Cake Winner (1899) or S. Em Duguay, who wrote The Club Cabin in 1903. Also long forgotten is George Lynn and his Ottawa Rag (1913). But their songs can be heard today on the Library and Archives Canada Virtual Gramophone website.

One of the first Canadian performers to jump into the ragtime craze was the classically trained and prolific pianist J.B. Lafrenière, born in the small town of Maskinongé, near Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1875. Lafrenière first gained fame in Montreal’s El Dorado Orchestra in the 1890s and later performed as an accompanist for the moving pictures at The Ouimetoscope, Francais, and National Theatres. His performances at the Ouimetoscope, a sumptuous movie palace, opened in 1907 and unmatched for years anywhere in North America, would have made him well-known indeed. Before his early death in 1911, he wrote dozens of waltzes and marches as well as Balloon Rag, Taxi Rag, and his best-known piece, Raggity Rag (1907).

The young Nathaniel Dett ( 1882-1943) remained completely unknown in Canada beyond Niagara Falls during his time here, but thanks to modern scholars and supporters he is now considered a major figure, his name kept alive by Toronto’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale. Dett was born in Drummondville, an ex-slave community near Niagara Falls, became a child prodigy and went on to write dozens of significant compositions in many styles. These included spirituals with newly popular rhythms, serious piano suites and choral music.

His earliest compositions were clearly ragtime, created for popular dance tastes. After the Cakewalk – March-Cakewalk (1900) was the first, followed by Cave of the Winds, March and Two Step (1902).
“It was once possible to walk behind Niagara’s Bridal Veil Falls,” explained Dett. “The experience was very much like entering a cave.” Visitors described the winds there as “tumultuous and breathtaking and called it the ‘Cave of the Winds.’”

Dett’s music drew on a wide range of traditions – his mother’s piano and spiritual singing, through the local British Methodist Episcopal Church, his father’s guitar and saloon piano playing, and free music lessons by a skilled local teacher. While still attending high school in Niagara Falls, Ontario Dett landed steady work as piano player over the river at the up-scale Cataract Hotel. Yet not everything was smooth sailing, and lest we forget the social climate for African Canadians at the time, in 1889 Nathaniel’s younger brother was shot dead by a local, white property owner.

Early in the century he moved to the U.S. where he soon began to publish significant new music. His Juba Dance piano solo (1913) was included in the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus. According to music historian Elaine Keillor of Carleton University, Dett’s subsequent work in the U.S. “revolutionized the presentation of African American music.”

"There was poured into the astonished and delighted ears of the world an indigenous music, sung by its own creators, a music as fresh as the morning, as intimate as the breath and as vital as the heartbeat."
– R. Nathaniel Dett


Joseph F. Lamb, yet another gifted kid, was born in New Jersey but, like Dett he made a strong impression on the Canadian popular music scene. As a young student Lamb attended St. Jerome’s College in Berlin, (later Kitchener) Ontario in the years 1901-1904. During that time, while still only a teenager he was terribly homesick, his sister later recalled, and quite fed up, she said, with the city’s ubiquitous sauerkraut. Despite these privations he also managed to write an incredible number of sophisticated rags. Among his best are Ragged Rapids Rag (1905), Lilliputian’s Bazaar: A Musical Novelty (1905), and Walper House Rag (1903), the latter named for the famously elegant hotel that still stands in Kitchener.

All the tunes were published in Toronto by the dynamic H.H. Sparks music publishers. The going rate was anything between $5. and $50. It seems that Lamb and Sparks decided to capitalize on the German connection associated with Berlin and spelt his name Josef. Under the pseudonym Harry Moore, Lamb and Sparks released She Doesn’t Flirt, with a title and lyrics revealing the new-century realities for young urban women – “every masher smiles at her as through the town he goes.” Lamb, who was white, has long been considered among the three greatest ragtime composers, along with Joplin and James Scott. He lived to see the first ragtime revival and in 1959 played a special tribute concert at Club 76 in Toronto.

Willie Eckstein (1888-1963) also started young. Following serious study with teachers from McGill University and a scholarship that took him to Sweden, Eckstein launched into life as a vaudeville star, beginning in 1900, with the astounding salary of $15,000 a year. He was twelve.
Willie wasn’t entirely happy with the arrangement, however, and years later recalled, “Lack of money interfered with my ambitions. My family needed aid and when my father received a fabulous offer for my services in vaudeville, he accepted!."

Willie’s act emphasized, even exaggerated, his youth – by presenting him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit and Buster Brown collar.
A Montreal Gazette reporter later tried to sum up Eckstein’s vaudeville repertoire. His playing “brought together a curious mixture: Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, jazzed-up classics, popular tunes of the day and something called ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’” By his twentieth birthday it had all come to an end. The boy was simply too old to keep up the act.

For the next phase of his musical life Eckstein sank deep roots back in Montreal and in 1906 became serious competition for J. B. Lafrenière as a motion picture accompanist at the Lyric theatre on St. Catherine Street. During this period he also wrote his first commercial composition, The Royal Highlanders March and 2 Step and co-wrote two genuine rags, his most popular tunes – Delirious Rag and Perpetual Rag (1914).

Eckstein accumulated several nicknames throughout his career: “The Swedish Boy Wonder,” “The Boy Paderewski,” “Mr. Fingers,” and during his time at Montreal’s Strand, management billed him as “The world’s foremost motion picture interpreter.” Throughout his twenty years at the Strand the outside wall of the building featured a two-storey-high painting of Willie at the piano. In 2006 Willie Eckstein was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Many Canadians living today remember his music on the radio and on 78 rpm disks from the 1920s and 30s. He even made it onto early television, but Willie had contributed to the urban popular long before.

1 Comments:

Anonymous William J. Zick said...

I was very interested in your blog post's discussion of R. Nathaniel Dett, who is profiled at www.AfriClassical.com This post is linked to http://AfriClassical.blogspot.com/,which I have forwarded to Prof. Elaine Keillor. Your post has brought her to my attention. Congratulations on an informative piece.

8:19 AM  

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