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Rawlins is an engaging writer who obviously relishes digging out the meaty stories behind the songs he loves. His new book will delight anyone interested in music history or who loves early jazz.

Book Review: ‘Tunes of the Twenties: The Stories Behind the Songs’ by Robert Rawlins

Robert Rawlins’s Tunes of the Twenties: The Stories Behind the Songs will delight anyone interested in music history or who loves early jazz. Rawlins intended the book as a companion to his earlier The Real Dixieland Book, a collection of sheet music for 250 classic traditional jazz songs. But I don’t own the sheet music book and I’m having a great time with Tunes of the Twenties.

I say “having” and not “had” because it’s an alphabetical-order reference work rather than a straight-through read, so I’m working my way through it slowly, treating it as something to dip into for pleasure and enlightenment.

My skipping-around method is running into trouble, though. The brief histories of each song are so interesting that I’m having trouble jumping ahead. The book makes we want to stop and listen even to songs I’ve never heard, or heard of. And most of the recommendations it provides for the most important or interesting recordings are available to listen to online (via YouTube). I keep having to stop reading and listen, sometimes to multiple recordings of a song, and appreciating the often groundbreaking musicianship of the great early masters of jazz – America’s classical music.

A few choice details will serve as examples of the fascinating byways the book wanders down.

Bill Bailey (as in “Won’t You Come Home”) was not only a real person, but a vaudeville singer and trombonist. His drinking pal, ragtime pianist Hughie Cannon, wrote the song about his friend in 1902 after hearing stories of his marriage and romantic life.

 

Florenz Ziegfeld, wiped out in the Depression, “hated movies” and had to “watch in horror while his brilliant stage effects were dismantled” for the 1930 film version of his Broadway show Whoopee, the source of Eddie Cantor’s hit “Makin’ Whoopee.”

Ernie Burnett, composer of the music to “My Melancholy Baby,” was wounded in France during World War I, lost his dog tags, suffered amnesia, and was listed as killed. He got his memory back when he heard a piano player who was entertaining the patients dedicate the song to the “late” composer.

Clearly some of Rawlins’s “tunes from the twenties” predate that roaring decade. Others weren’t written until the 1930s. In music, he feels, “the twenties” is more a state of mind than a strictly delineated time period, and it’s hard to disagree. Ragtime, Dixieland, and other styles of the time fed into early jazz. Through its more than 200 individual song-stories, the book traces the development of the popular music of the first half of the 20th century – whatever you call it, whenever it was made.

Along the way he mentions recordings of classic songs dating from the earliest days of recorded music all the way to the 21st century. For example, a 2012 album called Timeless Melodies included a recording by Bria Skonberg and Gary Mazzaroppi of “Avalon,” a song associated with Benny Goodman and recorded decades earlier by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and others. With lyrics co-written by Al Jolson, the music to “Avalon” was likely partly cribbed from the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s opera Tosca. “The resemblance,” Rawlins writes,

was close enough to spark a lawsuit for copyright infringement, which Puccini and his publishers won. [Composer Vince] Rose and his publishers were forced to pay 25,000 dollars and concede all future print royalties to the song. Fortunately for Rose, it was agreed that he would retain mechanical royalties – that is, payment for record and piano roll sales. Puccini’s advisors had badly miscalculated, as sheet music was on its way out and records were on their way in – not to mention radio and movie musicals which were just on the horizon.

The book is full of juicy stories like that. Yes, before records and into the era of 78s, songs’ popularity was measured by sales of piano rolls as well as of sheet music. Irving Berlin’s 1921 hit “All By Myself” sold over a million records, over a million copies of sheet music – and 160,000 piano rolls. Imagine how many player pianos must have been out there.

The text could have used more careful proofreading. But Rawlins is an engaging writer who obviously relishes digging out the meaty stories behind the songs he loves. My only real beef is with the glossy paper on which this paperback volume is printed. It makes it hard to pencil notes in the margins on items I want to refer back to or look at again. Which just goes to show how interesting the darn thing is.

Tunes of the Twenties from Rookwood House Publishing is available now.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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