Some Challenges of an Edwardian Parlour Band

'Ida Sweet as Apple Cider' by Eddie Munson, 1916

‘Ida Sweet as Apple Cider’ by Eddie Munson, 1916 edition

[The following article was written by Patricia Hammond, a researcher and performer of Edwardian ragtime-parlour music.]

I have a band called Ragtime Parlour. We perform Edwardian music: songs to sing along to, songs to dance to, songs to listen to. As far as I know, we’re the only Edwardian band in London.

This is our biggest strength, and our biggest liability.

“Is it jazz?” the bookers ask.
“Not really. We can improvise,” I tell them, “And it’s a style that informed jazz, led to it.”
“But if it isn’t jazz, is it classical?”
“Classical music lovers always adore it,” I answer, truthfully.
“Yes but what can we call it?”
“But nobody knows what that is.”

There is one agent who supplies the music for all the famous, glitzy hotels in London. And he won’t book us, because “There isn’t anyone doing it, so there’s no market for it.” So we remain a niche, an exotic novelty. With songs like Moonlight Bay, If You Were the Only Girl in the World, The Honeysuckle and the Bee, Put Your Arms Around Me, and You Made Me Love You.

It all started with sheet music covers. A child who loves antiques but has no money must be creative. Music was very cheap, often free if I asked my neighbours nicely. “Your Trash is Her Treasure” ran a headline in a local paper; it was good for several boxes’ worth.

Some of the sheet music was suitable for framing, but some was suitable for playing and singing. I tried out my favourites at nursing homes, sang the most successful ones with piano as encores in classical recitals as my career as a singer got underway, but I never forgot the sound of the 78-rpm records in my parents’ basement, with clarinets, oom-pa tuba bass-lines, mandolins and violins – and occasional percussion effects that made one jump.

I pored over old magazines and postcards of Palm Courts, looking for the musicians that were a part of the atmosphere of these places, trying to determine what instruments they used, and if singers joined in. Most images of Palm Courts, or Thé Dansants focused on the architecture – empty of people but full of palms – or the luxurious costumes of the guests. One can see, in an illustration of London’s Cecil Hotel Palm Court, a little balcony for musicians. A singer may or may not be standing there; it’s hard to tell. So I spoke to people in the nursing homes. An eighty-year-old remembered that her mother frequently sang in Palm Courts in Brighton. A hundred-year-old told me that she paid for her tuition at the Slade Art School by singing in hotels around London “and children’s parties, I sang anywhere I was asked. Pierrot Shows on the Pier. I knew how to sing from school.” A lady I met in Canada had a regular job in the 1950s singing standards, unamplified and accompanied by piano, taking the train back and forth between the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise.

I knew from the 78s that there was far less difference between Gaiety Girls like Phillis Dare and Doris Dean, and the opera singers of the same era, than there is between opera singers and popular singers today. Compare Gertie Millar’s recording of “Moonstruck” from 1910 with Metropolitan Opera star Alma Gluck’s 1913 recording of “The Lass with the Delicate Air”. One is more unbuttoned than the other, but the basic technique and sweetness, and vocal focus, is strikingly similar.

I tried to emulate this pure, old fashioned and focussed sound, which in the modern musical world meant that I was hired to sing Bach and Handel.

Then about five years ago, London suddenly went retro-mad, and 1920s bands sprung up like mushrooms. Everyone wanted to dance the Charleston in the recession; Tie-rack started to carry cravats, and Topshop stocked so many beaded dresses it started to resemble a Silver Screen Shanghai Bordello. I met some young musicians who were keen to explore the origins of jazz, to search earlier than the 1920s. Together, we made my old sheet music come to life.

It takes a special kind of musician to make this music work. He or she must be able to read music and play a written-out score like a classical player, but also work from chord charts and be able to move, on-the-fly, with the group, improvising and keeping the music fresh, like a jazz musician. The style of improvisation has to be informed by the period, so no swinging rhythms (there are exceptions, but they sound quite different from 1940s swing). Immersion into the world of old records is far easier today than it was even five years ago, because of YouTube. Entire collections are played and filmed by 78-rpm collectors around the world, and thousands of discs can be heard – and watched – ground out by thorn needles through papier-mache horns. Listening to these is essential, to pick up the mannerisms of the time. Not only for the sake of authenticity, but because these little twiddles and melodic interjections are genuinely beautiful and fun, and compliment the richness of the musical language, fleshing out what may look a little bare to those expecting the chords of a later era.

Edwardian light singing style can’t have too much vibrato, that being the province of the opera singer who needs to project grand passion to thousands in cavernous modern opera houses. But an Edwardian songstress must be powerful so that unamplified performance is possible. Even so, the musicians have to know how to play quietly when the singer has something intimate to say. A transparency in musical texture helps to keep this balance of subtlety and power in play. Nowadays audiences sometimes demand that bands be loud, and so we work with the sound technician to make sure that our natural sound isn’t distorted, and stays well balanced.

We do get anachronistic requests. We’re entertainers and we have to aim to please. Occasionally we can make a delightful discovery: 1953’s Cry Me A River, done in ragtime with stride piano, sounds marvellously no-nonsense.

But the number of original ditties to discover is truly staggering, the Edwardian song-seam endlessly rich. I chip away at it constantly, whether bookers understand it or not.

© Patricia Hammond, 2013

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