Talking Machine West is an odd book. Michael Amundson, a history professor at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, has a quirky hobby: he collects recordings from the turn of the 20th century that rode a brief, kitschy “Western” fad. Any temptation to classify this music as a prelude to the Country and Western music that would serve as one element in the rhythm and blues genre in the 1940s—which itself was a foundation of what became rock and roll—should be resisted, and Amundson makes no such attempt. Rather, this vogue was largely over before World War I. Amundson is dealing in serious arcana here.
He does so lovingly—he has bought and refurbished the machines that played the cylinders and early records this music was distributed on, devoting considerable text to recounting his obtaining these magnificent machines. The book is also a distinctly up-to-the-minute one in that he needs not include a CD of the recordings: today we can reference them with a quick check on line, due to the miraculous comprehensiveness of YouTube.
I get it, as someone who cherishes early 20th-century popular culture and fetishizes ancient recordings, early sound films, old radio, Hollywood cartoons, vintage comic strips, and the like. However, Amundson, in dedicating a whole book to about fifty of these songs, has the unenviable task of proposing that this material is not only obscure but interesting. The sad thing is that it is not. This material can only intrigue the modern listener in how starkly better what came after it is. Only via a rather strained reliance on valid but unfresh observations on race can Amundson imply otherwise—but even then, at times against fact.
The main impression from the recordings Amundson devotes a whole chapterlet each to is, regrettably, how dull these songs were to the modern sensibility. Pointedly, this is not true of recordings just a few years past Amundson’s cutoff point of 1918, after which the jazz feel—first put on disc in 1917—infused American popular music and made pop what we today feel as “catchy,” “hot.” The majority of Amundson’s corpus is post-Victorian declamation of Stephen Foster vintage. Songs typically consisted of lengthy narrative sections capped by a brief “chorus,” couched in arch vocabulary and syntax and sung by people trained in what used to be called “diction,” complete with trilled r’s.
True, it didn’t help that recording for a cylinder or early record required shouting into a big horn surrounded by instrumentalists bleating over one’s shoulder. The intimacy of crooning afforded by the electric microphone beckoned way off in the mid-1920s. But the songs in Amundson’s book would land no more soundly upon our ear even if put across less vigorously. All of them, written for performance without amplification, dwell in the performative pitch of summer camp songs like “Bingo Was His Name-o.”
Even apart from their performance, most of these songs are, to today’s ear, distinctly flat-footed little works—hit American pop songs of 1905 did not, in modern parlance, “jam.” Listen to even a justifiably forgotten pop recording of 1925 and only a disease would keep you from tapping your foot at least a little to the combination of syncopation—the playing against one another of the rhythm of the bass and the rhythm of the melody —and the bluesy harmony. But in 1909, while ragtime had already taken America by storm with the same kind of syncopation, it was still treated as a local flavoring, something one did in jolly fashion to a stolid song as a lark—“Ragging the Träumerei”—or as one kind of song among many, à la Irving Berlin’s songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” amidst which waltzes, marches, and ballads continued to proliferate.
Thus decisively unjazzed T.R.-era big sellers in this book like “Hiawatha,” Navajo,” “Cheyenne” and “Ida-ho,” despite the occasional cute point, hardly strike us today as forgotten gems. Not a one of these songs survived as a standard, and it isn’t hard to see why. Some of Amundson’s songs actually delight a Looney Tunes aficionado like me in giving a name to songs on those cartoons’ soundtracks which, in my brain, are less songs than language, such as “Navajo” and “Tammany.” Or “Cheyenne,” for example, a tune often used when a Looney Tunes character in the 1940s is riding a horse—now I know that the words are “Shy Ann, shy Ann, hop on my pony . . .” But note that here we drift into the “Grandma’s Attic” wing of things, and Amundson tries to make a case that these songs are more interesting than that.
It doesn’t really hold up. “These talking machine songs about the American West represent a nostalgia for the lost frontier, the passing of the Indian, and the complex race relations of Jim Crow America,” Amundson tells us—but really? That summation, with its odor of the dissertation, is intelligent but, in terms of the pop culture landscape of the period, misses the forest for the trees.
Starting in the late 19th century, not just American songs but American plays, musicals, comic strips, and, later, radio shows, were ever hungry for new strains to attract the public’s business. In an era devoid of the sensitivity to bias that we have evolved since, a natural source of inspiration was mocking, exoticizing, and otherwise holding up for inspection that which differed from the WASP norm—as in race, religion, distant locales, and all that was “other.”
Isolated, the “cowboy” and “Indian” ditties of the era lend themselves to an analysis referring to the psychosocial repercussions of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, etc. However, this may qualify as overanalysis; the same musical culture included equally robust streams of genre songs about Hawaii, “Dutch” (German immigrant) humor, Jewish people, and of course black Americans, in the form of the “coon” song, more popular and longer-lived than the “cowboy” fad. In the 1940s on the radio, for instance, one had one’s choice of hit comedy shows mocking black people (Amos ‘n Andy), “hillbillies” (Lum and Abner), Jewish people (The Goldbergs), Italians (Life with Luigi) and Scandinavians (I Remember Mama). Amidst so catholic a backwardness, the idea weakens that the “Western” strain of the aughts channeled concerns as weighty as ones about “the passing of the Indian.” More economically, songs like “In the Land of the Buffalo,” “My Pony Boy” and “From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water” are just what the titles seem like—one strand in a genre of uniformly abusive kitsch, ground out by the yard by composers even Amundson makes clear had no sense of this work as anything but product to pay the bills.
To be sure, this kitsch was unabashedly and indisputably racist. Here, then, fits Amundson’s idea that these songs constitute a kind a commentary on Jim Crow, as had been entrenched shortly before the “Western” fad with the Plessy v. Fergusondecision. Even here, however, to go beyond that simple observation requires a certain athleticism reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods’ calisthenic demonstration of how she had “accidentally” erased incriminating sections of the Oval Office tapes.
A major trope of these songs, for instance, was crossovers between the “races.” Long before the Jewish Fanny Brice entertained audiences with songs like “I’m an Indian,” these Western pop songs depicted the “Yiddish cowboy” and delighted in romances between Native Americans and Irish people and—of course—black people (the black swain exclaims ”If you’ll have a coon for a beau / I’ll have a Navajo”).
Hardly for the ages—but Amundson goes further with more specific condemnation: “Every one of these recordings reflected Eastern concerns about white dominance and miscegenation by suggesting that it was acceptable for all of these other couplings to occur, so long as they did not involve white/Indian relationships.” Except—this isn’t true. The songs did not primly stop at the white line: “Oglalla” and “Snow Deer” did depict relationships between whites and Indians. Amundson claims that it somehow disqualified them as depicting miscegenation in that the lyric is couched from the Native American’s point of view, but it is unclear just why. It is also suspiciously easy to imagine a song lost in the cracks depicting a white man exclaiming over the virtues of his “Indian maiden”—especially since cartoons and movies were soon to quite regularly feature exactly this.
Racist these songs were, then, and certainly the culture did not allow songs about whites coupling with blacks. However, these “Indian” songs do not support an attempt to bring them under the same post-Plessy umbrella. Similarly shaky, too, is Amundson’s claim that the depiction of Native Americans speaking in “pidgin” fashion is racist. His mistake here is quite understandable, for two reasons. One, in that in this era, ridicule and exaggeration of speech patterns was part and parcel of the brutal dismissal of difference. Second, however, although few have reason to know it, “Indian talk” including words like “squaw” and “heap” was not entirely a Western construction.
Our modern impulse is to dismiss a lyric like that of “Chief Big Smoke”—“Me no more will cook for you / You’ll eat ‘um’ heap meat raw!” says the “squaw”—as bigoted fabrication. However, when Native Americans first met Anglophone whites, they had no reason to learn English beyond what they needed for bare necessities of trade and negotiation. As such, they did what humans worldwide have done since time immemorial in situations of temporary, utilitarian contact—they fashioned a stripped-down makeshift kind of speech called a pidgin. In other words, what would be surprising is if Native Americans had not forged a pidgin-style English at first. One hardly seeks fluent command of the language of alien invaders.
Of course, as time passed and many Native Americans had more extensive contacts with whites, they came to speak actual English. That the Lone Ranger’s Tonto, for example, would have ridden at a white man’s side for, apparently, decades without getting past pidgin-type speech was ridiculously unrealistic. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, earnest Europeans recorded actual Native Americans speaking in just that way, complete with “squaw,” “heap,” “papoose,” “me” for “I” and the “-um” suffix on verbs. The temptation, today, is justifiably great to assume that these documenters were stereotyping, but Henry David Thoreau was among them. Studious and sympathetic in his documentation of the unfamiliar, he explicitly wrote of a Native American who “generally added the syllable um to his words when he could, as padlum, etc.; e.g. ‘Sometimes I lookum side-hill.’ ”
Therefore, while “Indian talk” was indeed part and parcel of a stereotypical depiction of Native Americans, it was not simply a white invention, and, as such, to term it “pure racism” oversimplifies matters.
Talking Machine West is lovely as a kind of exhibit. Amundson provides an essay on each and every song, complete with a transcription of its lyrics and a high-quality reproduction of its sheet music’s cover (these covers’ art was often pretty in an orange-crate label kind of way). The problem is simply that the material does not bear the kind of analysis that academics are trained to apply even to ephemera like this.
Thus, “Oh, That Navajo Rag” of 1912 has a Native American bringing ragtime to his people exclaiming “Shake your moccasins and roll your eye / Tear my blanket, make my feathers fly / Whirl me, twirl me / To that Navajo Rag.” The song, as a rag, is rooted in something interesting indeed: the hybridization of European and African music in the 1880s has been deeply and fruitfully studied by scholars such as Edward Berlin. However, in terms of the Old West and Native Americans, is this “shake your moccasins” business really about “nostalgia for the lost frontier, the passing of the Indian, and the complex race relations of Jim Crow America”?
A less dramatic, but more plausible, analysis is that “Oh, That Navajo Rag” was a typical example of a standard American pop song trope since the 1890s: the idea, designed in order to get people up onto the dance floor, that “everybody” is in on the new tune or dance craze and dwelling in it 24/7. “Everybody’s Doing It,” a Berlin rag exclaimed. Later, songs like “Rock Around the Clock,” “Surfin’ USA” (in which “everybody” is going surfing) and hiphop hits like “In da Club” mined the same vein.
As such, the message of “Oh, That Navajo Rag” is less a threnody to a vanishing culture than a more elemental observation: namely, “Even Indians are doing the new dance!” To adapt the proverbial observation of Dr. Freud, sometimes a ditty is just a ditty.