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MMD > Archives > March 2012 > 2012.03.20 > 04Prev  Next

How Did Wurlitzer Choose Songs for Music Rolls
By Adam G. Ramet

It is often curious, looking backwards in time, to note the apparent
absence of certain tunes from points in the historical record where
you'd expect to find them.  The solution is very simple: looking
backwards is the wrong point from which to observe.

Our perception of music from the present day is shaped wholly by the
intervening years -- never by the moment of creation.  The musical
hit-of-the-moment in any age is, by definition, ephemeral.  Therefore
in observing the titles on period material from 1929 we are only
observing the ephemeral.  Looking for the evergreen amongst the
ephemeral is an abstract pastime in which we try to connect our
understanding of our present to our perception of the past.

In supplying music I am often asked for "music of World War One" or
"music from the 1920s".  I always ask, "Do you want what was actually
played or what people will today identify with as music of that period?"

The two alternatives are not mutually exclusive but they do take very
different routes through the material.

Most of what we today regard as the top hits of the Roaring Twenties and
surrounding decades are actually artificial nostalgia we learnt from
the jazz revival decades and preservation movements typically from the
late 1950s and '60s.  Even what is now seen as the defining tune of the
'20s, the very "Charleston" itself, was never recorded by its composer
apart from on one solitary piano roll.

"Button Up Your Overcoat", "Let's Do It!", "Lover Come Back To Me" and
"Makin' Whoopee!" are all now evergreens but really only through their
recycling into the big Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and '50s.
Gershwin's name is evergreen, but not from any period artiste
recordings, only from latter-day reincarnations.

It can be no surprise that 1929 music rolls ignore the (latterly
well-regarded) hits from certain musicals in favour of early talkie
musicals.  Talkie musicals were the latest fad and their songs were
what people purchased in sheet music, records and rolls.  Stage-bound
live musicals were being rendered obsolete.  All the big stage talent
transferred to the big screen and later still to the small screen.

The big screen recycled "Button Up Your Overcoat", "Let's Do It!",
"Lover Come Back To Me" and "Makin' Whoopee!" decades later as a
nostalgia trip.  We in turn, are now become nostalgic for the nostalgia
-- we never lived the original!  In recent years the screen has now
started spilling stuff back into live theatre but that is another story.

To consciously disregard the skew of the revival age is the only way to
find what really were the hits of the moment in past decades.  It is a
hard thing to do.

Adam Ramet 

(Message sent Tue 20 Mar 2012, 15:58:13 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  Choose, Did, How, Music, Rolls, Songs, Wurlitzer

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