THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

9 posts from May 2017

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

Blues trot text005

 

HMV label image

‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

25 May 2017

An Ode to Early Record Catalogues

Thomas Henry is a collector of 78 rpm records based in Paris who has carried out extensive research on the history of sound recording through his blog Ceints de Bakélite and his interactive mapping project Disquaires de Paris. With a background in history and sociology of music from Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, he is originally a vinyl collector who converted to shellac a decade ago after finding a bunch of mysterious Armenian 78 rpm records at Yerevan’s flea market.

A member of Paris Phono Museum, he also holds the Vice-Chair position of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives’ (IASA) discography committee. One of the aims of the committee is to create a network of partners who will collaboratively create a bibliography of discographies including information about all current, out-of-print and in progress discographies published worldwide in print and electronic formats. Digital versions of discographies, including those which have thus far only been available in print, will also be made available through this bibliography. You can access it and add to it through IASA’s webpage.

A discography is a comprehensive and detailed compilation of musical recordings, particularly those of a particular performer or composer. It is also very common to find discographies dedicated to a music style or a label. Behind a discography, there is the will to provide more information about a body of sound recordings. Discographies are often created by a researcher, a collector or an institution. Some of them are printed and published, some of them are just excel sheets on the computer of private collectors, but all of them are created with the same purpose: increasing knowledge about an artist or an orchestra, a composer, a label, a music style, etc. Record catalogues, key sources for this type of research, are printed documents produced by record companies that can be used as valuable tools by discographers and music aficionados. They offer less information than a discography about the sound recordings, but are full of interesting elements that complement and enhance them. 

For this blog post, Henry takes a closer look at some of the record catalogues made available online by the British Library and through their rich visual iconography, illustrates their use and history. Thomas Henry would like to thank Jonathan Ward and Suresh Chandvankar for their assistance in writing this piece.

An ode to early record catalogues

While listening to a fox-trot from the mid 1920's, a Beethoven sonata from the 1930's or a calypso from the early 50's, one might want to learn more about it. Of course some information will be available on the record's centre label but this information can be quite limited or not directly comprehensible. The name of a performer or an orchestra, title of a song, name and logo of a record company, short description ("fox-trot", "piano solo", "tenor with orchestra", "birds imitation" etc...), language and some obscure figures and letters can still lead us to wonder - When was this recorded? Who is the singer? What did he/she look like? Was he/she famous? What were people listening to at the time? And how did they listen to their records?

Finding answers to all these questions might take time or even turn into a lifelong quest for some obsessive researchers. Such research can be somewhat akin to detective work and clues can be found browsing photograph, newspaper, poster or sheet music collections available in libraries. Another fascinating, often underrated but incredibly useful item in this research is the record catalogue. 175 record catalogues have been digitized and made available on the British Library website. They are focussed on the British market and cover the "acoustic era" - from the late 19th century to the mid 1920's - before the microphone’s invention. One might see these catalogues as just a simple listing of records, but they are actually much more than that and in this post, I'll try to show why.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVOX1925XXX-0000V0
New His Master’s Voice Operatic Records, 1925

From the very beginning of the phonographic industry, all recording companies published catalogues listing their published output: wax cylinders and later on, records. In most cases, "general catalogues" were published every year and these were sometimes completed by "supplements", published on a monthly basis. In addition, some extra catalogues were also published for specific repertoires or special occasions. Created for a commercial use, these catalogues firstly give an overview of a record company's output at a given moment in time and illustrate how this output was categorised and marketed. Indications on the label's colours assigned to each musical style and its corresponding price range give us a clear picture of what it was like buying records in the past.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-ZONXX1913X14-0000V0
Zonophone Record Catalogue, 1913-14

The very first catalogues from the late 1890’s rarely mention the name of performers and composers; potential buyers were more interested in the name of a popular melody or an opera. Their content gets more precise over time and later catalogues, provide much more detail.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-EDIGX1898XXX-0000V0
Edison-Bell List of Records, 1898

These catalogues do not just consist of a monotone alphabetically ordered list of artists, they let us discover a very rich iconography - photographs, drawings, advertisements - complementary to the sounds themselves.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

Beyond their aesthetic dimension, these graphic elements provide interesting information on the ways in which  records and talking machines have been used over time. In addition, they often include technical tips on the best ways to play and store records, information that can be useful for people interested the history of sound recordings and talking machines.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-PATGX1910X11-0000V0
Complete Catalogue of Pathe Standards 10 Inch Double Sided Discs, 1911

These catalogues are also full of photographs and biographical elements about artists that can be hard to find anywhere else. They reflect consumers' tastes of the time, showing what the hits and who the big stars of the early 20th century were. This gives us some clues about the music our ancestors were listening to. No talking machine nor record collection from that time has survived in my family, so I can only speculate: were my great-grandparents fans of the French soprano Emma Calvé or the baritone Maurice Renaud? 

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRARX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of “Red Label” Gramophone Records, February 1904

Or were they listening to marches by La Garde Républicaine and comic monologues by Parisian “Café-Concert” artists? Or were they actually lovers of rare or upbeat - yet popular - repertoires, such as animal imitations, whistling or hunting horn recordings?

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1910X08-0000V0
New Gramophone Records, August 1910

 At a time where phonographs and gramophones were still considered by many as amusing curiosities rather than a way to enjoy “serious” music, convincing famous artists to make recordings was also a way for record companies to legitimize the talking machine. From very early on, The Gramophone Company understood that and some of its older catalogues feature pages where some popular singers express their admiration for the Gramophone and its capacity to faithfully reproduce their voice.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVCX1915XXX-0000V0
His Master's Voice Celebrity Records, 1915

In the same vein, record companies also used their catalogues to promote some of their “sensational” or unusual recordings and demonstrate the superiority of their products. Lacking Lolcats at the time, lambs and dogs were preferred to create a buzz.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

As an object, each of these catalogues has its own history. If you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they have many stories to tell about their former owners and the period during which they were published. They might include personal hand-written notes by their former owners or references to the historical and political background, as illustrated by the following reference to the Russo-Japanese War.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAMX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of Twelve-inch Gramophone Monarch Records, March 1904

​Early recordings made in some regions of the world are less documented than those made in Western countries. In some cases, there is no longer an existing archive allowing us to discover more about an artist and the context in which he or she was recorded. For these types of records, the work of discographers becomes absolutely essential. Based on a systematic inventorisation and analysis of cylinder and record details - performers, title, language, label, genre, matrix and catalogue numbers - discographical research provides valuable elements to find out the date and the result of a recording session. Record catalogues are a key resource for discographers, as they feature dating and background information. Browsing these catalogues is often the first step in discographical research, even though some of them are very rare - in some cases much rarer than records themselves! The opposite also holds true: records listed in some catalogues might never turn up and  their presence in a catalogue remains the only evidence that they ever existed.


As a collector of 78 rpm records “from around the world” - some might call them “world music” or “ethnic” records - I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some beautiful examples from this area taken from the British Library’s catalogue collection. They let us discover some very early Indian, Persian, Arabic and Russian recordings made in 1899 by the Gramophone Company in London.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAGX1901XXX-0000V0
Gramophone Record Catalogue, 1899

 As part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Program, a large collection of 1,408 Indian songs recorded on 78 rpm records were digitized and made accessible online in 2016. This unique material, focussed on the Odeon and Young India labels was sourced from private Indian collectors Suresh Chandvankar, Sunny Matthew and Narayan Mulan. Some very rare catalogues were also digitized, allowing us to enjoy their gorgeous illustrations and fascinating photographs while listening to some of the fabulous recordings available, such as this solo of Sundari, a double reed instrument, performed by Vithal More.

20
Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
21
Young India Catalogues - Gujrathi, March 1941

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

22 May 2017

Recording of the week: Amy Johnson and the race to Australia

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

On 24th May 1930, a worn and weathered de Havilland Gipsy Moth named Jason crashlanded into the dusty red soil of Australia's Northern Territory. On board was the English aviator Amy Johnson who had just made history by becoming the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia. The 11,000 mile journey had been a gruelling one; desert sandstorms, monsoons, strong winds and extreme heat had tested both the plane and its 26 year old pilot. Johnson's original goal had been to break the record of Bert Hinkler, a pioneer Australian pilot who made the same journey 2 years earlier in just 15 1/2 days. While the odds were definitely in Johnson's favour for the first leg of the journey, bad weather and mechanical failures over Asia scuppered any chances of her breaking Hinkler's record. 

Amy_Johnson_(Our_Generation _1938)

Amy Johnson photographed in 1930

Though she failed by only 4 days to best Hinkler's record, Johnson's achievement was hailed around the world as an overwhelming success. A few weeks after arriving in Australia, Johnson recorded this short memoir of her perilous journey which was published by Columbia Records.

The Story of my Flight_Amy Johnson (1CS0028898)

Johnson would go on to break many more records before her untimely death in 1941. It was this heroic journey however that secured her position in the aviation hall of fame.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

19 May 2017

The Sound Recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake at the British Library: A treasure trove of South Asian music

This is the second blog from World and Traditional Music highlighting collections at the British Library  from India, as part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture

19th May 1899 is the birth date of Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake [1899-1963].

Today the British Library is launching the first series of recordings from his collection of music from South Asia which has been a great resource for many academics across several disciplines. The British Library is actively engaged with a number of international academics and communities who are working with wax cylinder recordings from the Arnold Adriaan Bake archive to enhance the documentation for these recordings. They are being released in regional batches as research progresses.

The first batch includes recordings from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. These recordings have been the focus of PhD student Christian Poske's research, the author of this blog. 

Bake_1

Bauls at the Jaydev Kenduli festival, West Bengal, India, 15.1.1932.

(Still of film by Arnold Adriaan Bake, British Library, C52/FO/12)

 “Kees, Charley and I enjoyed the silence, and headed towards a small camp much closer to the way, where we had heard such nice flute playing. It was quite unreal. Some women and men, marvellous figures, sat in a circle, and a quite old man warmed a pair of long, thin hands above the small fire. Facing with his back to us, a man played on a bamboo flute, (…) completely detached from the outer world. It was splendid. We remained standing for quite some time and listened (…) The flute player stopped, and one of the others sang a song that was also very nice. To my great surprise, they agreed to come to the tent in the afternoon of the next day to record songs. I was very happy. It was the first really good thing that we had heard.” (Arnold A. Bake, Letter to his mother, 20.1.1932)

 

 C52_1757 Eman sādher bāgāne āmār

Listen: C52/1757, MP3 “Eman sādher bāgāne āmār” (engl. “In the garden of my desire”): Song performed by three Bauls, vocals with percussion accompaniment (Jaydev Kenduli, 15.1.1932, phonographic cylinder recording by Arnold Bake). This song belongs to the category of dehatattva (lit. ‘principles of the body’), the philosophy of the role and function of the human body, perceived as dwelling place of the divine, in attaining spiritual salvation. In its lyrics, aspects of human life are expressed through natural symbolism and personification: the six human sentiments of kāma (lust), krodha (anger), lābh (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (attachment), mātsarya (jealousy), known as ṣaḍṛpu (six enemies) in Indian philosophy, are described as six gardeners with corresponding character traits who influence human nature.

The Dutch ethnomusicologist Dr Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963) was a pioneer in the study of South Asian music and dance. Initially trained in Western music, Bake was perhaps the first Western scholar to fully realise the wealth and diversity of South Asian music and dance traditions, which could be found not only in urban salons, theatres and concert-halls, but also in temples, monasteries, small towns and remote villages, across the sub-continent and at all levels of society. Taking advantage of the latest developments in audiovisual recording technology, and with the devoted help of his wife Corrie, he set about documenting this diversity - from Sri Lanka in the south to Nepal and Ladakh in the north - with unprecedented dedication and energy. The World and Traditional Music Collection of the British Library holds a unique anthology of material recorded by Bake. Its Bake collection spans not only many decades but also many formats of audio and visual material including wax cylinders, tefi-bands, open reel tapes and 16mm black and white and colour silent films, providing a complex and detailed document of music and ritual in South Asia from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

Bake_2
Arnold A. Bake recording women of the Mannan tribe, Kerala, 17.11.1933

(British Library, C52/FO/12)

            In the course of my AHRC-funded research at SOAS and the British Library Sound Archive, I am studying Bake’s fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. In the last few months, I have evaluated his audio recordings and silent film recordings from these regions with the support of World and Traditional Music curators, Janet Topp Fargion and Isobel Clouter. Bake’s overseas correspondence, which is stored in the India Office Records and Private Papers collection of the British Library, provides much information about his fieldwork. Through an evaluation of these letters, new information related to Bake’s fieldwork and recordings has emerged so that previously uncatalogued recordings could be identified.

Bake_3
Arnold A. Bake with tabla and tanpura, Santiniketan, around 1926-27

(Bake collection, SOAS Music Department, SNK 55)

Presumably, Arnold Bake's interest in Indian music was sparked by the visit of the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to the Netherlands in 1920. Having studied Sanskrit and other Asian languages in Leiden and Utrecht, Bake decided to complete his doctoral thesis, a translation of two chapters of the Saṅgīta Darpaṇa, a seventeenth-century treatise on Indian musicology, at Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s university in Santiniketan in West Bengal. While completing his thesis at the university, Bake also learned to sing Indian classical music and Rabindrasangit, the songs of Tagore, from 1925 to 1929. After his return to Europe, Bake held lectures on Indian music in Europe, providing practical demonstrations by singing Indian songs. Bake also sang some of Tagore’s songs at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1930.

C52 2022-2 Nāi nāi bhay

Listen: C52/2022 (song 2), MP3 “Nāi nāi bhay” (engl. “Don’t be afraid”): Rabindrasangit, performed by Arnold A. Bake (Berlin, early 1930, phonographic cylinder recording by Georg Schünemann). Tagore originally wrote this song during one of his European journeys in Munich in September 1926, inspired by the struggles of Jatin Das and other leading figures of the Indian independence movement. The song praises the strength of the human spirit in the face of difficulties. In 1935, Bake published a transcription of the song in his book Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts.[1]

During his second stay in India from 1931 to 1934, Bake was again based in Santiniketan. From there, he made several recording trips to festivals in the vicinity to record folk and devotional music such as Santal music and dance, Baul music and Vaiṣṇava kīrtan. To reach the recording locations in the morning, Bake and his wife often had to travel overnight on bullock carts:

We took our two mattresses with us so that we had camping beds (…) - first straw, then two mattresses, then our bedding. It got cold quickly, so we wrapped up in the blankets nicely. Nevertheless, the cold still got us and we got out again in the middle of the night. (…) Around 6 am we climbed down from the cart and ran ourselves warm. At 7 am, Ganapati made tea somewhere by the side of the way, and at 8 am we started again and walked in front. It was around 10 am when we arrived in Kenduli (…)

(Bake, 20.1.1932)

Bake’s third fieldwork trip in South Asia was prolonged by the outbreak of the Second World War and took place between 1937 to 1946. His last fieldwork in South Asia took place in 1955-6, centering on Nepal. Bake also found the time to revisit Santiniketan for a few days, where he recorded Indira Devi Chaudhurani (1873-1960), the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who had helped to establish the music department of Visva-Bharati University. Recorded when she was 82, her rendition of Tagore’s song “Katabār bhebechinu” has a striking intensity.

C52_NEP71-1 Katabār bhebechinu


Listen: C52/NEP/71 (song 1), MP3 “
Katabār bhebechinu” (engl. “How many times have I thought”): Rabindrasangit performed by Indira Devi Chaudhurani (Santiniketan, 8.3.1956, reel-to-reel recording by Arnold Bake). Tagore originally wrote this song in 1885, modelling its melody after the English folk song “Drink to me only with thine eyes”. The Bengali lyrics speak of surrender to the beloved one and are a fine example of how Tagore merged expressions of human and spiritual love in his compositions, inspired by the concept of bhakti (devotion) of Hindu Vaiṣṇavism. In 1961, Bake published a comparative musical analysis of both songs in his article “Tagore and Western Music”.[2]

Bake’s cylinder recordings of his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1931-34 are now available for listening online at British Library Sounds, where they can be listened to for enjoyment as well as for further exploration by ethnomusicologists. Many of Bake’s recordings from other South Asian regions still await further evaluation, and thus provide fertile ground for further research.

 

[1] Arnold A. Bake, ed., Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts, Bibliothèque musicale du Musée Guimet. (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1935).

[2] Arnold A. Bake, “Tagore and Western Music,” in A Centenary Volume: Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1961 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961), 88–95.

 

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

15 May 2017

Recording of the Week: a musical family

This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Jacob Collier has been creating a stir in the musical world recently, winning two Grammys in February at the age of twenty-two. His grandfather Derek made his first broadcasts for the BBC at the same age, in 1949. Here he is in a work by Handel arranged for solo violin by the great Hungarian violinist and teacher Jenő Hubay.

Handel Larghetto from Op. 1 arranged by Hubay

Collier b+w photo 

Derek Collier (courtesy of Suzie Collier)

Over 100 recordings from the Derek Collier collection can be found on British Library Sounds

Follow @BL_Classical and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 May 2017

Recording of the week: Parental warning

This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Ethnomusicologist Bryony Harris (née Pearson) spent 2002 doing field work in Uganda to record the drumming styles of the Busoga and Buganda as part of research for her dissertation "Towards a notation for African dance drumming, focusing on the Baganda and Basoga of Uganda". The recording featured this week [collection C1079] was part of that research and in a recent e-mail exchange, she gave us some more insight into its making –

“This is such a rich layering of instruments and textures. It was a very humbling experience to attempt to learn something of the history, tradition and drumming technique in a snapshot of time. I arrived with my western preconceptions, a 20 year old English girl trained in western music, but completely out of my depth with the complexities of this traditional music.

Bryony Harris_Uganda

This recording is of the Kalalu village 'Balongo' group of musicians. Kalalu is a very rural village, a bumpy bicycle ride from Jinja in Busoga, where some of the children were fascinated / scared of my white skin. They were very welcoming but keen to be paid for their expertise – and rightly so, in hindsight. As it was something I hadn't really budgeted for however, we got the group to play together for my recording by arranging to produce a cassette for them. The market for cassettes was still going strong in 2002 Uganda as they were cheap to produce and buy. We took photographs of them in their blue t-shirt uniform and they decided on their best songs.”

According to the catalogue entry, based on the recordist’s notes, the song warns parents of the dangers of cursing their children stating they will be affected and face trouble in the future. For such a serious warning, it is a joyful song featuring the following instruments: endere (flutes), ndingidi (string fiddle), nkwanzi (panpipes), embaire (small xylophone), ensaasi (flat metal shaker), endumi (small drum), engabe (long drum), tamenaibuga / irongo drum.

Abazaire Abatukolima - 'Parents Cursing their Children'

Upon re-listening to the recording, Bryony reflected –

“The quality of the song is judged by the lyrics and the singer - the competence of the musicians is taken for granted. I think I did move around with my microphone a little during the recording, as you can hear different instruments stronger at different points. Thoughts that return to me on listening to it again: Firstly - where is the beat? The need to focus on the shaker to hear it - but then the drums always put me off when they enter! I was trying to focus my learning on the drums, but they were so different to any West African rhythms I'd played previously. Seeing the drums signal the dancers to change their amazing rapid hip movements. Where does the cycle of notes start? How do they know where to come in? The phenomenal speed of the interlocking xylophone, where different patterns spring out at you the more you listen. The cyclical nature of the melody and the variety in texture and colour. This music, which is made of fairly simple, repetitive parts is elusive. The more you listen the more there is to hear.”

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04 May 2017

Beecham in Hollywood

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Baja California and the West Postcard Collection. MSS 235. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from John Lucas, author of Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music.  In the past John had donated some Armed Forces Radio Services discs of a Beecham concert broadcast on 21st April 1945 from the Ritz Theater in New York.  Now he had spotted some lacquer discs for sale on ebay of a Beecham concert in Hollywood and wondered if the British Library had the recording.  A quick search on our Sound and Vision catalogue showed that we appeared to have this recording on an Armed Forces Radio Service shellac disc but something was amiss: our single disc had 15 minutes of music on each side, labelled 1 and 3, but sides 2 and 4 were not in the collection.  The new discs comprised four sides and included Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss which did not appear on our catalogue entry. ‘I’ll bid on them, and if I get them, you can have them!’

A few days later an email told me that John’s bid was successful.  He kindly brought in and donated the four 14-inch discs to the Library which our engineer dubbed using a special sized turntable.

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Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

The background to the concert was this.  Under the heading ‘Beecham will conduct here’, the Los Angeles Times informed the public on 11th August 1944 that ‘Sir Thomas Beecham will replace Artur Rodzinski as conductor of six concerts at Hollywood Bowl, beginning August 22nd, it was announced last night.  Illness in Mr Rodzinski’s family makes it impossible for him to travel west.  Beecham is now in Mexico City.’

Beecham was in Mexico City conducting a three-week festival of Mozart opera so was in an ideal location to act as a last minute substitute.  In the end he conducted four of the six concerts given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, their summer home since 1922, in the 'Symphonies Under the Stars' series. The last minute change in conductor was made in time for the correct name to appear on the programme, but the actual works performed were changed. 

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Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

Beecham probably agreed to conduct without knowing the programme beforehand.  Changes were made so that on the programme of 27th August soloist Amparo Iturbi played the second and third movements from Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major instead of her brother’s Fantasia for piano and orchestra while Handel and Delibes were dropped in favour of Johann Strauss and dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  The only works retained on the printed programme were the Overture to Mignon by Thomas and the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust.  Because the Sunday Standard Hour was only on air for that limited time, the Grieg Piano Concerto was not broadcast, but a short review of 28th August proves that it was performed.

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Beecham in the US in 1948

Here is an extract from the Overture to the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), a work Beecham never recorded commercially.

Mignon extract Beecham

The curious thing about the discs is that they turned up not in the United States, but in Devon.  Thanks to the eagle eye and generosity of John Lucas, they are now preserved for the nation.

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02 May 2017

Blair's Babes

Twenty years ago, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in a landslide general election for the Labour Party. Among the new government’s Members of Parliament were 101 women. A photograph taken on 2 May 1997 of 96 of the new Labour women MPs with Blair publicised the new cohort, but the image and the associated term 'Blair's Babes' were attacked as having a demeaning, sexist tone.

Mo Mowlam on Blair's Babes

In this extract from an interview Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) remembers inadvertently coining the phrase. Mowlam was not proud of the image, but she justified it by pointing out that it helped convey the message that such large numbers of women MPs had been elected, to a public largely unaware of what happens on Parliament. In any case, she comments, ‘A lot is demeaning in politics.’

Full transcription:

I have the unfortunate notoriety of having worked out Blair Babes, because somebody said something, and I said “Well, Blair Babes, that’s what we are”, which I don’t—I’m not proud of, and it’s been used against us. But I think we needed to do that. I think we needed to do other things to show that we were there in such large numbers, because you very rarely understand how little the public know about Parliament, how little they know about their MP, how little they know about what’s going on, and I think it’s very important to get whatever method you can to get that message across, and I think that was a good one.

I mean, some people felt it was sort of kind of demeaning.

A lot is demeaning in politics. You often get used, you write something, it gets rewritten; that’s demeaning. I think there are many more demeaning things than that picture. I can see that we were being herded together like animals, but it was for a function, for a purpose, to get a message across that women had arrived, and I think that was an important message.

Did you think then that big influx did actually change the atmosphere at all?

It did a little. I didn’t think it would, but I remember when I went in once and there were men talking to all the women, which wasn’t always the case, and I suddenly realised there was an election coming up and jobs in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and women had votes, and so they were being talked to in a way I hadn’t them seen before, and men took women’s issues into account.

This interview (C1182/64) was recorded in July 2004 for the Harman-Shephard collection of interviews with women Members of Parliament. Find out more in our oral histories of politics and government collections guide. Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.