Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Father's Youth, and some Reflections

This Post is for my cousin, Mark

Background

"Burt Fay & Sid  Elmonte"  It's certainly my father, Sid, in the center, and I'm pretty sure, from adult pictures, that it's Burt at left and Fay at right.  My 1991 Road Atlas shows El Monte on the San Bernardino Fwy. (I-10) about halfway between downtown LA and Pomona.  If my father was about six here, the picture was taken in 1915.
For El Monte today, see this article and others that a Search yields.  The demographic stats show that the place had only about 1,000 population, then, but over 100,000 now.

A couple of years later (I have not been able to learn exactly why) the family was in Winslow, AZ:
"Sid  Winslow Ariz"  If he was about age 8 here, the date is 1917.  My 1991 Road Atlas shows Winslow, AZ, on I-40 some 50+ miles east of Flagstaff and in smaller typeface than Kingman (about 200 mi. west of it).  I don't know what they were doing there; by train it was a long journey and one that I doubt folks took six children on with a car of that date.  Did they have one?




Again, a Search for the page on Winslow suggests radical change.  Its population growth is only a tenth that of El Monte, but it has been made to prosper, and its ethnic profile is very different.  I am very fond of this Kodak snapshot, which shows that pair of houses evidently new and unmodified; their pre-cut appearance, even the uniform picket fences, suggest an early subdivison.  But Winslow, still just under 10,000 population, is still an important stop in the middle of nowhere; that is why it looks so "American".  With its Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe and Harvey Girls and Rte 66 associations, it is pretty well explained.  El Monte's existence today is not at all self-evident.

My father having been next to youngest in a large family, and that family not well to do (though in the next generation at least half of us earned university degrees), I have few records, and the future amateur photographer seems not to have had a camera of his own, but in due course he graduated from Van Nuys High School.  I think I once saw his High School year book, but that would have been in his boxes in his darkroom (a tiny upstairs room in our Alameda house that may once have been for storage, though its having running water also suggests that it may have been meant to become a bathroom), and in the course of other moves and his eventual death in 1950 all such mementos of his were lost.  He looks as if he enjoyed high school:




What did survive were a few of his phonograph records, intermixed with my mother's 78rpm favorites but which I knew were his because she didn't like them.  A few, basically to dance to, may have belonged to either one of them, but his were just a bit earlier (she graduated from high school only in 1933 and was five years his junior) and she preferred Russ Columbo and Alan Jones, and he probably had chosen the early Gene Austins and anything like jazz, so that besides the famous "Am I Blue" from Victor's house band, Nat Shilkret's, I think that the Brunswick-label "Betty" and "Valencia", for example, had been his.  They go with his ukelele playing of favorites such as "Show Me the Way to Go Home" for us children, in the darkroom.

What Paul McCartney's new album made me do
First, let me say, it didn't take much urging.  I already had collected a fair number of used 78rpm over the years.  With one thing and another, I have a strong liking for pre-Swing pops.  Also, all the actual disks from my parents were lost in a fire in my mother's assisted-living room.  But McCartney's interpretations are profoundly true to the period.  Anyone who reads younger persons' remarks in YouTube will have realized what a mystery (not least when they love it) the musical idioms of the mid 1920s are to them, not least jazz violin and piano (they just think of revivals of Jelly Roll Morton, and they may have heard of Stéphane Grappeli—but only a couple of his latest things).  But Sir Paul and the wonderful musicians working with him, without being imitative in the pedantic American Songbook sort of way (which is like early attempts to do authentic Early Baroque), effortlessly and blissfully blend elements that are identifiable as blues and jazz of assorted kinds and pop of both Tin Pan Alley and early Jerome Kern (Princess Theater kinds) and anything else that their own musicianship prompts.  I said 'blend', but it's more seamless than that, and it's early blues and early (not evolved "Dixieland") jazz and great pop that needn't apologize for its simplicity, like Irving Berlin's "Always".  Yes, of course, at 70 Paul McCartney can barely support his singing voice, even using falsetto.  But Richard Tauber at the end of his singing career pulled it off, too; one might even remember Karl Erb.  Both of them, of course, had real, trained tenor voices to begin with.  As for interpretation, the first necessity is to sing straight but not mechanically.  You ruin early jazz if you try to jazz it up; you take the grief out of delicate blues if you ham it up.  In short, if you can, sing the songs as if they were 19th-century Lieder (do the same, for best results, with Stephen Foster: do not turn him into Scout campfire sing-alongs!).  I must learn more about Diana Krall, who is great.
So, what he made me do, what that wonderful film at the Capitol studios did, was to take my favorite song, "Bye Bye Blackbird" (which, 1925, may also be the oldest) and find its earliest recording, since Sir Paul obviously was more familiar with such as Ella Fitzgerald's.  And behold, some noble collector has provided Gene Austin's, the first commercial recording of the song, and Austin has simple piano and violin accompaniment, and he sings all of both verses (BTW, if the Wiki article is correct, 1925 may be too early even for Joe Venuti on the violin).  I proceeded to play Gene Austin all night, album after album.  I don't know how well known he has become, but he was a Louisiana-Texan, who had some time in New Orleans after serving in WW I; Fats Waller recorded a couple of times with him; I only had known the two records my father had had.  Now I can report that his "St. Louis Blues" is definitely to be listened to.
And I'd been thinking of the generation directly preceding my own in other connections, too.

What else I'd been thinking of
Don't suppose that my father was very poor in those first pictures I found; in California my birth cohort also went barefoot all summer long.  No, it was that the wonderful books of photography that I have are all of the iconic FSA, TVA, NRA period, after 1930 or WWII (but may I recommend the less well known Library of Congress volume, Bound for Glory, which is all first-generation Kodachrome, showing the famous FSA photographers in a whole new light).  As for the critical period for most of the songs in "Kisses on the Bottom", the post-WWI and pre-Great Depression of the 1920s, it's all Flappers and John Held, Jr., and Prohibition.  I'm interested in the period when working-class adolescents and young couples bought the records, who, if they learned the basic steps of the Charleston and got shingle-cut bobs, did so on the level following Vogue but shopping at Walmart today.  Repeatedly, I had heard and read that the Beatles came out of this stratum, and I knew it was my parents'; the social patterns of going out of an evening were the same, though my parents certainly lacked the stimuli of Liverpool.  And I thought, though Paul is younger than me, his parents and mine were of just the same cohort.  Also, in popular culture, both in popular film and illustration drawings and comic strips and in music, those who are younger than Paul McCartney have no firsthand memory of their parents' 78rpm records, and it is quite evident from his voice that he has done this album just in time.  My own younger siblings did not listen to the parental records as I did, even.  My mother's favorites verged on 1930s pop.  There is a great culmination of early popular music, early modern pop music, ca. 1927. A second peak, perhaps ca. 1933-4, is different.
And then, there is my other current addiction, reading about economics.  What has seemed to me apparent is beginning to be emphasized also by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz or Jeff Faux: the recovery from the present crisis cannot take as a model the World of the 1930s.  We cannot reinstate our industries, for example.  We cannot, probably, hope to employ so large a majority of our population.  The whole economic system needs to be re-based.  Population is part of the picture, but immigration is not the main thing.  And much, much more.  And the professed talking points of the present election about too much or too little government are generations out of date.  Regulation, of course, is necessary.  But I remember being taught in Social Studies that by the time we grew up productivity would have made it necessary for us to know how to make good use of a four-day week...  I remember thinking, as printing in first the Netherlands, then Taiwan, then ... (I forget what order it was in) kept the price of large, beautiful textbooks as low as ever, that print-setters in the USA would have to learn a new trade, if we couldn't afford the books they produced here.  I've been worrying over such questions almost all of my life.  By a couple of decades ago, I saw that no one would be setting type anywhere except for arts and crafts books, that the price of postage was irrelevant when we all used e-mail, and the reason why my old steam iron will never be replaced is not the cost of steel but the fact I haven't ironed anything for years.  And so on.  I feel an odd sense of obligation to understand what has happened to the whole world in the course of my life, now that Beatles (to name only one group) are seen in a perspective not unlike that in which I regarded my parents' popular culture.  That is what it means, I suppose, to be an art historian, one for whom every package design is part of its own Zeitgeist.
Oh, by the way, I love the set of the Metropolitan Opera's new Ring of the Nibelungen.  I bought my first color TV, new, my own, and then ordered a Cable service expressly for the last wholly new Met broadcast of the Ring and I had bought my first CD player in order to hear the Solti Ring properly, though I already had it on LPs.
While the World is still singing the Merry Minuet, I am in love every minute of it.