Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spike Jones as ethnomusicologist? - 1

As I noted in a previous post, there weren't many opportunities in the middle of the Twentieth Century to hear we now call world music in the mainstream world of musical America. Some recordings of what was then call "ethnic" music could be found in the stores, or heard heard on the radio programs, of non-English language immigrant groups scattered around the country, particularly in large urban centers.

In my own experience growing up in Denver, Colorado in the 1950's, I was aware of Hispanic music playing on at least a couple of local am stations. But as for recordings of songs not North American in origin, I was dependent for international musical exposure on the occasional pop hit such as Eartha Kitt's "Uska Dara", which could legitimately be called "ethnic".

Another such piece from my childhood was the instrumental Skokiaan, which was introduced through American pop radio stations in 1954. Composed by Rhodesian musician August Musarurwa (d. 1968), the song refers, according to Wikipedia, to "an illegal self-made alcoholic beverage typically brewed over one day that may contain a dangerous ingredient, such as methylated spirits." (Such a subject brings to mind the hit song Tequila, by the Champs. which won the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. . . . Something here about strong drink and music?)

Here is a sample of Musarurwa's 1947 recording with the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band:

(Click here to hear the complete recording.)

This attractive piece was quickly recorded by nearly twenty groups from around the world. I had purchased the 1954 release of Ray Anthony's "Skokiaan" on a 10" 78 rpm recording, and loved the energy and optimism of the solo saxophone's soaring over the band's accompaniment:

And the kid in me also absolutely adored the surprise element at the end of this version:

(You can hear the complete Ray Anthony version here.)

But not long hearing Anthony's Skokian for the firs time, I also discovered a rendition of this piece by master jazz comedian Spike Jones (see my earlier April Fool's Day entry on this amazing musician), and it is here that we return to the subject of today's entry: the explorations by a talented jazz musician, Spike Jones, of subjects outside the mainstream of American music as a source for his own witty creations. Here is the midportion of Jone's version of Skokiaan:

Given the delicacies of political correctness, I should probably keep my comments on this rendition to a minimum. While the Japanese-accented English commentary might be offensive to some, it is important to remember that more than any other Asian country, Japan has wholeheartedly incorporated western musical styles into its own vast repertoire. In college in the early '60's, when I was a fledgling folksinger playing, along with guitar, five-string banjo, and I remember learning to my amazement (and well, yes, envy) that one of banjo godfather Earl Scruggs' main disciples was a young Japanese man. Similarly, Japanese classical composers have produced countless instrumental and choral works in the western (as opposed to the classical Japanese) idiom, just as myriad groups have formed in Japan playing western-style jazz and rock. Suffice it to say here that while not imitating (other than the accent) in this piece, Jones is signaling to the fact that in 1953 western-style jazz was growing and beginning to thrive in Japan, as projected in the form of a hypothetical "cat" (as in "cool cat") named "Skokimoto" who is "the craziest cat we know, he can really make that be-bop flow, he's not a square but really cool", and adding, lest we be in doubt as to his authenticity, "in other words he's really not a schmoe." That is to say, he's the real thing.

In the next blog entry we'll examine two of Spike Jones' pieces that actually make use of non-mainland U.S. musical material, in the form of the "Hawaiian War Chant", and--both from Russia--the "Song of the Volga Boatman" and "Dark Eyes".

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Just for the record, let me refer here--since I'm speaking of the "internationality" of the pop music of the 1950's in the U.S.--to another major hit song whose origins were from abroad: Volare ("Nel blu dipinto di blu"), by the Italian Domenico Modugno, which not only occupied number one position on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart for two months in August and September 1958, (as well as being Billboard's number-one single for the year), but which also received the Grammy Award in two categories in 1958: Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Sadly, we have no version of this song by the inimitable (and irreplaceable) Spike Jones.

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