England's Oldest Hitmakers

There was quite a bit of traffic between the continents before the first World War. The Brits sent over Vesta Victoria, who was forever being comically jilted, and Alice Lloyd, Marie's younger sister, who was harmless and had a voice like a nine-year-old. The Americans countered with ragtime and blackface and the big hit of 1904, "Under the Anheuser Busch" (the lyrics had to be altered in Blighty, the indigenes not yet having been reduced to drinking Budweiser). The ragtime here is mostly courtesy of Irving Berlin, but the blackface is thoroughly English—aside from the pro forma insertion of a few n-and c-words, the songs are grave, dignified, and free of any attempt at dialect or accent. Then there was Pete Hampton, a bona fide black American who went over and stayed. His 1904 rendition of "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home" is a forceful reminder of that song's ragtime backbone for anyone who grew up in the days when it was the standard number eked out on TV variety shows by comedians, jugglers, barflies, Broadway hustlers, and anybody else who couldn't sing.

'Arry Champion: 'E got married to the widow next door.
Photographs courtesy of Bear Family
'Arry Champion: 'E got married to the widow next door.

This box set is a mixed blessing, in my life at least. It is awe-inspiring, to a degree, to hear voices warbling across the span of a century, knowing just how much business lies in the stretch between their breath and yours. Some of the tunes are quite memorable, some of them so memorable and so relentlessly peppy that you'd be inclined to hire a contractor to remove them from your waking and sleeping consciousness. I might find myself singing some of them, like Charles Coborn's "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," although my affection for it owes something to the memory of hearing it sung in the sleigh-ride scene of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. The two songs I unreservedly love are anomalous: Nat Travers's "He's Moved in a Bigger House Now" and Billy Bennett's "She Was Poor, but She Was Honest" are the two numbers in the set that draw blood. A few months ago a letter writer to the Timesreproached those rockist sorts who have distorted history in favor of old murder ballads while disregarding the genius of Jerome Kern. I plead no contest. The Travers and Bennett numbers, which were recorded in 1929 and 1930, respectively, are the only two songs I can imagine being sung in a deadfall in Limehouse by cutpurses and harlots. Their humor is harsh, their accompaniment skeletal, and "She Was Poor" is even in a minor key. But of course the cutpurses and harlots of Limehouse in 1910 or 1930 would have gone for the dead-baby numbers, no question; crooks have always been notoriously sentimental. These are the only two songs that could be sung today without too much ironic framing—not because innocence has been lost, but because it's become an alibi. The veneer of innocence now just looks sick and guilty. The rest of the songs, with their unguarded smiles and tears and buoyant major-key airs, wave faintly at us from a psychological past as remote as Troy.

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