June 6, 2004

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924.  By David Wondrich.  Chicago, IL: A Cappella Books (imprint of Chicago Review Press), 2003.  258pp (softcover).  Illustrations, Index.  ISBN 1-55652-496-X. $17.95.

CD: Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot.  Archeophone 1003. $17.50 (available from www.archeophone.com).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Stomp and Swerve is one of the most frustrating yet thought-provoking books I have read in recent years. The CD of the same name, produced in conjunction with the book and sold separately, is a sheer delight.

Despite its subtitle, the book is primarily a discussion of hot music on record from the 1890s to the early 1920s.  Obviously the term “hot” is rather broadly defined, and includes cakewalks, coon songs, ragtime, and syncopated novelties of all kinds, along with proto-blues (was Bert Williams singing the blues in “Nobody”?) plus a few examples of hot jazz from the early 1920s.  This is about the creative musical ferment from which jazz (as we know it) gradually evolved in the pre-World War I era.  Luckily for us it was also the first era of recorded sound, so we can actually hear much of  what was going on.  The author has dug deep and unearthed a lot of vintage recordings that reflected this evolution, many of them apparently on uncredited reissue labels such as Document and Archeophone.  Some you’d never suspect.  Arthur Pryor’s Band?  Arthur Collins?  Len Spencer?  Why not?

The frustrating part is Wondrich’s writing style; he is one of the most self-consciously cutesy, smarmy, smart-ass writers I’ve encountered.  Filled with sarcasm, put-downs and occasional profanities, his conversational prose groans under the constant weight of HIS OPINION about just about everything, and frequent look-how-smart-I-am references to everything from classic literature to Greek mythology (who, he muses, is the god of reissues–Hippolytus?  Aesculapias?).  It’s the kind of writing that strives so hard to attract attention to itself that it actually gets in the way of understanding the subject at hand.  That’s a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting ground covered here.

Wondrich, we learn, hates academics (the “thought crowd”), but he is analyzing music so he is forced to make up his own terminology.  “Drive,” he says, is the quality that gives a piece of music momentum, while “swerve” is that bend, that slur, that surprise that upsets the musical applecart.  Wondrich loves to upset applecarts.  Music that does not do so, in his opinion, is “dicty,”or “powerful dull,” or just plain crap.  (The author has little appreciation for, or understanding of, music outside his super-cool world.  A lack of peripheral vision haunts this book.)  The world in which this music took root is neatly divided as well, into Underworld (the poor but cool place from which the music sprang) and Topworld (the rich but dicty place which eventually coopted it).  Got that, chillun?

Once he gets through these preliminaries we embark on a journey through the recordings, many of them familiar, some less so.  Sousa, Pryor, Ossman (“If Vess L. Ossman wasn’t exactly an Underworld character, at least he could fake it on the banjo”), Fred Van Eps, Arthur Collins, Len Spencer, Michael Coleman, the Victor Minstrels, Polk Miller, the Standard and Unique Quartets of the 1890s, the Dinwiddie Quartet, the Peerless Quartet, Bert Williams, W.C. Handy, Enrico Caruso, Jim Europe, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Earl Fuller, Wilbur Sweatman, Art Hickman, Paul Whiteman, Mamie Smith, and a host of others.  Even though some of the records he discusses are familiar, the attentive reader may well hear them with new ears (e.g., the intricate and syncopated picking patterns on Ossman’s “blistering” 1907 version of “Maple Leaf Rag,” the trombone smears on Pryor’s 1906 “Coon Band Contest”).  That’s one of the great values of this book–a chance to hear familiar favorites with someone else’s informed perspective, and to see them as part of a larger musical whole.  For many the book will also highlight records they may not have heard that are worth seeking out.  Most of these records are available somewhere, although a few are apparently lost to history (no one has ever heard C.H.H. Booth’s 1901 ragtime piano solo “Creole Belles,” apparently because it wasn’t issued).

Wondrich’s basic premise is that although early delta blues and the first glimmerings of black jazz may not themselves have been recorded, there are clear echoes of such music in selected mainstream recordings.

Musicians the author doesn’t like, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, are sarcastically dismissed (“what the concupiscent humours cry out for, however, isn’t art and dignity; you gotta put some of the old mohoska into it”).  When African-Americans show some musical range, he trashes them.

Since Stomp and Swerve is primarily a “listening” book historical research takes a bit of a back seat.  The author has relied almost entirely on secondary sources, and while they’re generally good ones his basic unfamiliarity with the field sometimes lets him down (Wondrich is billed as a writer on “music and cocktails” for the New York Times, and a former punk musician).  Little Wonder wasn’t issuing records in 1910, Bert Williams did not record cylinders while in Europe in 1906, and some of the early-recording experts in ARSC will no doubt take exception to the author’s description of the beginnings of the record industry (page 48).  But generally the facts are OK.  Since Wondrich doesn’t like “the thought crowd,” there are no footnotes or sources, even for direct quotes.  This is basically a sermon; you gotta take his word for it.  There is a short and fairly useless discussion of recorded sources at the end (go to Google and try your luck, man), and a somewhat longer riff on the books he consulted, which range from the landmark discography Blues and Gospel Records to Ken Emerson’s Doo Dah: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture.

Archeophone records assisted Wondrich with the preparation of the book, supplying a number of illustrations, and concurrently with its publication has released a CD of musical examples.  The CD, also titled Stomp and Swerve, is essential to understanding the book, and is well worth getting even if you don’t want to wade through Wondrich’s bizarre prose.  Its twenty-two cuts range from the “El Capitan March” by the Edison Concert Band (1897) to “Cake Walking Babies from Home” by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, featuring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet (1925).  There are a lot of rare and wonderful cuts inbetween.  How many collectors have heard Len Spencer’s “hot” version of the early ragtime hit, “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down” (Lambert, c.1902)?  Arthur Collins and Vess L. Ossman’s Edison of Ernest Hogan’s huge hit “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is so infernally infectious that you’re likely to find yourself whistling it around the office.  Which could be a problem, given the title (“what’s the name of that song?”).  It is a good example of the mixture of vibrant musical creativity and blatant racism that makes this period so awkward to study.

Also present and accounted for on the CD are early banjoists Cullen and Collins, Sousa’s Band, Dan W. Quinn, Silas Leachman, Bert Williams (the 1906 cylinder version of “Nobody”), the hot Jim Europe band of 1914, the even hotter Clef Club combo The Versatile Four (1916), Polk Miller, Sophie Tucker, Harry C. Browne, Uncle Dave Macon, Earl Fuller, the ODJB, Art Hickman, Mamie Smith, the rare 1916 Gus Haenschen personal recording of “A Bunch of Blues,” and a soupçon of genuine hot jazz from the early 1920s (“Shake It and Break It,” “Cake Walking Babies”).  It’s surprising how much this motley crew has in common, musically.  But that is the point, I suppose.

The transfers are generally fine, although a couple of the cylinders are rather tinny and shrill (including, unfortunately, track number one).  There is also an excellent 26-page booklet with notes by Richard Martin and a somewhat toned-down Wondrich.

The whole project, book and CD, constitutes a worthy examination of a fascinating period in American music, a period that has been too often overlooked or briefly dismissed in the rush to get to the hot jazz of the 1920s.  These are the true roots of much of modern American popular music, from jazz to rock.  If you can stand Wondrich’s annoying writing style, both are recommended; if not, at least get the CD.  You’ll be tapping your toes.


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