I don’t necessarily recommend you click through and listen to it. Not because the music is bad (I’ll get to that), but because thanks to the vagaries of international copyright law listening to it will not give money to publishers, songwriters, performers, or (more likely) their descendants, but to whatever European fan of American dance-band music slapped together a shitty jpeg of an album cover and called himself a record label for the purposes of the release. Recordings made before [checks the calendar] August 8, 1962 are out of copyright in the UK, and similar statutes apply to the rest of the continent. Which don’t get me wrong is great for people like me who have a strong interest in recordings from before 1962 and an even stronger interest in their availability being made as frictionless as possible. But I’m wary of digital “releases” like this one because of the ways in which they elide actual history, mushing everything together into an undistinguished gloop of The Past, or rather, as Stephen Colbert might put it, Past-iness.
Not to be confused with Pastiness, which is the other notable thing about this “album.” It’s a collection of largely (though not entirely) white singers, players, bandleaders, and performers of the 1920s making the sort of light dance, comic or sentimental music that might very well have been played at one of Jay Gatsby’s epic West Egg lawn parties, sometimes approaching jazz but often merely eccentric or showbizzy, sweet rather than hot, high-stepping rather than low-down, vaudevillian rather than riverboat. None of which is a bad thing, and indeed I rather admire the historical knowledge and ability to contextualize which left off overfamiliar tunes from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in favor of the less-known Nat Shillkret and Fred Waring. (Although there is some actual jazz in the back half of the set — and Armstrong and Ellington’s absence may be more attributable to Sony’s robust protection of certain cash cows than to smart curation.) (And Shillkret and Waring are hardly obscure to students of the period, as witness the fact that they were the first names to occur to me.)
But back (or perhaps through) to Past-iness. My fulminating over lack of historical rigor might be attributable to my being a crank, or (much the same thing) one of those geeks who gets enraged when nobody else takes his geek-object as seriously as he does; and the number of people for whom this is a concern of even moderate interest is probably in the low hundreds. It’s no pressing injustice, in other words. Nevertheless, in a nutshell, the idea behind Past-iness is this:
Music made before the Rock Era (generally conceived of as beginning in 1955 or 6, but the dividing line can go as far back as World War II or as far forward as the Nixon Administration) is all more or less the same. Sure, there are people who are interested in it, and that’s lovely for them, everyone should have a hobby, but its only real use-value to the average consumer — and more importantly to the people who stand to turn any profit from it — is as a sort of sonic wallpaper indicating Period Piece*. Efforts to locate that music within a given historical context, say by noting the year of composition/performance/recording/release, are doomed to failure, not only because no1curr, but because it was all so long ago who even knows all the records are probably lost if there were even any records kept in the first place and anyway no1curr**. The music’s the important thing, the thing that consumers can attach emotions to and which can therefore be sold to them for a profit. Knowledge about the music, raw information, doesn’t make anyone any money, and so is disposable***.
But as access outstrips archival knowledge, as everything in a licensee’s vaults gets shoved onto Spotify or iTunes or QQ or etc. without any concern for or interest in properly maintained metadata or even if it was there any interface that would show it, and as more and more storefront-bots copy each other’s thin gruel of data and clutter up the web with false positives, it’s more and more possible to fall deeply, obsessively, in love with music and have no way of learning anything about it beyond a name and a title, and even those get all too often switched around when crossing enough language and historical barriers****.
As it happens, none of this is really a concern for this particular glorified playlist, as all the records have the good fortune to be of U.S. origin and so the archival information has long since been diligently nailed down by the obsessives of my grandfather’s generation — if i want to know the provenance and likely the session information of each record, I have five or six bookmarks on my browser which will tell me within a couple of keystrokes. My annoyance at having to search each song individually if I want to know the year is a very small thing, and really only matters even to me because of my ridiculous projects in which the year of release is life-or-death (okay, inclusion-or-not) information.
As you can probably tell, the Spotify album is rather the occasion for an unburdening of my soul than the font and origin of all my complaints. Though even if it existed in physical release, I can guarantee that the information I most want would still be left out; Sony’s robust protectionism starts to look pretty good by comparison. Which means that much of this complaint can be boiled down to “if this music was only available to properly obsessive scholars, it’d be done right; now that it’s been thrown open to the cherrypicking masses we’ll never get it sorted out.” Which is a particular kind of snobbery, and demonstrably untrue to boot; after all, my own measly scholarship was given impetus by the explosion of context-free music on Napster. Who’s to say that, now that it’s been thrown open to the cherrypicking masses, we won’t be able to crowdsource the scholarship? I mean besides experience and common sense.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking of listening through to this “album” and writing a little bit about each song. N/N?
* To take one example that has bothered me for a decade: the Rupert Everett/Colin Firth Importance of Being Earnest is supposedly set a decade after the Wilde play in order to take advantage of a cod-jazzy score — except nobody in England was listening to, and well-bred servants were certainly not playing, New Orleans jazz in 1905. Possibly, though still a stretch, in 1915. In 1925, absolutely; though they still wouldn’t have been playing a bluegrass banjo.
** A related but somewhat separate issue is that of recordings made in or of a specific culture that doesn’t place a premium on precise dating or historiography, preferring to emphasize oral or mnemonic traditions, and in some cases preferring to reject or ignore the past entirely, particularly when those pasts hold the raw memory of colonial, fascist, totalitarian, and/or ethnic-supremacist regimes. Unhappy as I generally am about any irretrievable loss of knowledge or information, people do have the right to forget.
*** One reasonable response to this, of course, is: “You want someone else to have already done the heavy archival work for you? Pull up a stool and do it yourself.” I take the point, of course; but the only real pathway to independent scholarship is independent means, and my reach so far exceeds that particular grasp.
**** Another intriguing/annoying barrier, related to footnote **: reissues of 30s/40s mandopop that trade out the original sawing orchestras, jazz combos, and traditional Chinese instrumentation for chintzy synthesized burbling, because why would anyone want to hear actual historical artifacts when you could hear glassy enveloped-to-hell voices over the thinnest possible 80s muzak? Which isn’t to say that those particular artifacts aren’t fascinating documents of their own time (the late 90s/early 00s) in their own right; I just wish there were more truth in advertising, is all.