Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Various Artists: Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s

Various Artists
Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s
Rating: 4.6/5.0
Label: Dust-to-Digital

It's easy to see the earliest 20th century roots of that most popular of song topics - love - throughout Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s, though no deep knowledge of music history is needed to enjoy this archival concept album. Consisting of 66 tracks taken from the collection of musician/collector John Heneghan, this set should be immediately accessible for contemporary listeners, even for those who find songs this old exceedingly quaint. Think of it as a 69 Love Songs from another era; like Magnetic Fields' album, Baby explores love from nearly every conceivable angle and says more about the subject than most works of high culture ever have.

Baby appropriately opens with the Bo Carter song that gives this set its name, a wistful, head-in-the-clouds number with simple lines such as, "I'll never believe/ That you belong to me." It sets the template for most of the first disc; in this way, the disc has its fair share of female muses - there's Angeline, Lulu, Little Indian Napanee, Hapa Haole Hula Girl and the more nebulous sweetest girl in town - and even if these women occasionally struggle with fidelity and often bring nothing but misery and sometimes even death to their lovesick admirers or themselves, the first disc is generally the most carefree of the set. There are exceptions - "Dock" Walsh bemoans that he "never knew was misery was" until he met a woman - but mostly these are songs of new love before the bloom is off and domestic warfare begins. "I'm walking on air/ I've left all my blue days behind," Ted Lewis pseudo-sings on "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," a representative slice of the type of love-struck whimsy of this first disc.

The tone changes on the second and third discs, entitled "Lust" and "Contempt," respectively. "Lust" showcases the raunchier side of these old songs, especially in "Pussy" by Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys, perhaps still the standard bearer for double entendre with lines like, "There's one pet I like to pet/ And every evening we get set/ I stroke it every chance I get/ It's my girl's pussy." Elsewhere there are infidelities, sordid affairs, a drunken Irish threesome and generally every type of sexual debauchery one can think of. The final disc is heavy with the lovesick blues and various woeful laments; almost everything goes to shit and the titles say it all: "I'm Gonna Kill Myself," "Left All Alone Again Blues" and "Pretty Mama Blues." A mean streak runs through these songs; all varieties of barbed, if antiquated, insults and general meanness can be found. The object of derision in Bill Carlisle's "I'm Wearin' the Britches Now" is dismissed as a"lousy sow," Robert Hill mocks someone who's "gonna look like a monkey" in old age and Fiddlin' John Carson and His Virginia Reelers cloak a catchy singalong about daily boozing and gambling with some particularly distasteful marital advice: "It's a shame to whup your wife on Sunday/ When you've got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday...." Taken together, these two discs are remarkably cynical and darkly humorous and, maybe because of that, enjoyable as hell.

The scope of Baby ventures far beyond the typical old-timely folk usually favored by such compilations to also include early jazz, blues, bluegrass, brass bands, yodels, dignified urban tunes and ridiculously rural ones, as well as some truly unclassifiable stuff like "I Ain't a Bit Drunk." Much of it is pretty obscure - the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Is Going Wrong" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Corinna Blues" are probably the most "obvious" inclusions - a trait that's sure to appeal to a certain segment of listeners. Its packaging plays up the comedic and caustic tones of these songs; the gatefold shows a happy couple "Before Marriage" sharing an umbrella, and an "After Marriage" photo of them back to back, under separate umbrellas, the man smoking a cigarette and the woman dejectedly staring downward. The lack of simple biographical details and recording information is perplexing, especially for a label that is typically is spot-on in this area. A minor complaint to be sure, and while there are literally thousands of great love songs from the 1920s and 1930s out there, Baby, How Can It Be? is an excellent overview and comes wholeheartedly recommended for both novices and experts alike.

1 comment:

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