Midnight Frolic, II

Note to self: always read the press release carefully before you actually write something! I’d written here a few days ago about the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s new record Midnight Frolic thinking the focus was Ziegfeld’s revues. Having received the CD in the mail, I discovered the subject of the album is more narrow, and conceivably more educational than that. The album concentrates on the music of the now-forgotten composer Louis A. Hirsch. (1881-1924) In his wonderfully thorough liner notes, PRO director Rick Benjamin posits Hirsch as a link between the age of Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan and that of Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. He makes a strong case for Hirsch’s brilliance, and goes a long way toward explaining his present obscurity. For one thing, he died young, in 1924, before the recording and broadcasting arts were around to make him much of a household word. (By contrast, Gershwin, who followed in Hirsch’s footsteps by adding blue notes, syncopation and other jazz elements into showtunes, and who also died young, passed away in 1937 — long enough for radio and so forth to spread his fame around). Hirsch was one of the top songwriters of his day, but in a time when sheet music was still the principle medium for dissemination. Also, I would add that Hirsch, who came from a fairly comfortable background and studied music in college both in the U.S. and Berlin, doesn’t fit into what was to become our favored mythical template for the Tin Pan Alley songwriter: the immigrant Rags-to-Riches story we associate with the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and others. But, as Benjamin points out, the years since the mid-twentieth century saw a sort of canonization in popular culture scholarship. Now, we are in a very exciting new phase where many other artists of that era re being discovered and brought to light. Benjamin is a prime mover in this effort — I feel a strong kinship with his instincts, and am genuinely grateful for the pioneering, educational work that he does.

Some interesting tidbits on Hirsch. He was a boyhood friend and neighbor of Jerome Kern’s. After his studies in Berlin, he came back to the U.S. and began song-plugging in the mid aughts. It seems he just drifted into show business. He began working for Gus Edwards music publishing company. Towards the end of the decade he was writing a lot of music for Lew Dockstaders’s minstrels. And from here it was just a short hop to many revues and book shows for the Shuberts (including Vera Violetta, the show that made a star of Jolson) and Ziegfeld until pneumonia stole him early at age 43.

Of the songs on the record, I recognized only “Love Nest” from the 1920 show Mary. And why do I know it? George Burns and Gracie Allen used it as their theme song. (Another example of the power of radio and television as compared with older forms of disseminating information. The other songs were just as popular as “Love Nest” in their own day — I simply never heard of them). I was also very charmed by the “Overture to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915”, which contains some original Christmas music, making it very timely at the moment.

As always, Benjamin’s fidelity to the original arrangements is unwavering, and the singers he enlists to essay the tunes are mercifully without the usual tendency to drag in modern trends in vocal technique in a misguided attempt to make this already perfect music “more accessible” to listeners. Benjamin’s integrity is a beacon. He should be cloned and the clones should go into Congress. At any rate, I’ll be playing these tuneful artifacts throughout the holidays, I imagine. And I encourage you to do so as well!

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