SOPHIA DEBOICK on a year in which the last lingering cobwebs of Victorianism were blown away by a new sound.
Before the First World War announced the 20th century as an era in which humanity would pervert technology and ideals of gallantry into lethal forces, its earliest years were marked by legendary feats of human achievement and old fashioned heroism. In 1911, an ancient city was discovered, explorers raced to the South Pole, the largest ship ever built was launched, and man (or, rather, woman) was gaining mastery of the very elements. It was also the year that music dared to break the mould, and one song in particular represented the pioneering spirit of modernity and the future shape of popular music. Irving Berlin was the embodiment of the American Dream. His family, originally from a Belarusian shtetel, fled the anti-Jewish pogroms under the Tsars and arrived in New York when Irving, then named Israel, was five. This son of a synagogue cantor taught himself to play piano and cut his teeth singing in the saloons of Manhattan’s seedy Lower East Side, before going on to define modern America through his music. His God Bless America became an alternative national anthem and he provided the soundtrack to western popular culture across the first half of the 20th century and beyond, his songs being performed by everyone from Al Jolson to Lady Gaga. But it was his first hit, a song George Gershwin would call ‘the first real American musical work’, that would begin to change the face of popular music.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band was published in March 1911 and it became an instant sensation. Music was still most commonly bought on paper rather than cylinder or disc, and the song sold a million and a half copies of sheet music in 18 months. Nonetheless, the gramophone record was fast gaining ground and popular duo Byron Harlan and Arthur Collins and huge vaudeville star Billy Murray recorded the song that year. It resurrected ‘ragtime’, which had first been popular in the 1890s, as a byword for new, upbeat music in this pre-jazz age, and set off an international dance craze, with Berlin saying that it ‘started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking’. Many commentators denounced Alexander’s Ragtime Band as a public menace. Such a reaction was unsurprising, as the song signified the breaking out of the modern in music at a time when the classical world was also bridging into modernism, with Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier debuting in Dresden in January 1911, Mahler conducting his last concert at Carnegie Hall while gravely ill that February, and Debussy writing his score to Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien. But for his part, Berlin had done nothing less than create a new idiom for popular song. Berlin’s hit dragged audiences from a lingering Victorian sentimentality to the inescapable pop imperative of danceability. He famously didn’t read music and was more interested in feel than structure, and this was clear from his emphasis on the chorus for Alexander’s Ragtime Band, doubling the standard 16 bars, and the unorthodox key change at the beginning of the song. The almost self-referential lyrics and the immediacy of the song’s call to ‘Come on and hear, come on and hear’ the titular band were pop through and through. The song’s appropriation of an African American musical form and use of southern vernacular like ‘honeylamb’ also foreshadowed decades of plundering of black music by white artists. ‘King of Ragtime’ Scott Joplin, composer of such instantly recognisable tunes as Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, claimed Berlin had ‘borrowed’ part of his A Real Slow Drag for the song, and ultimately many of ragtime’s black originators did not receive the credit white artists did.
Joplin, who self-published his unsuccessful opera Treemonisha in 1911, and fellow ragtime pioneer, Jelly Roll Morton, who arrived in New York the same year, both died well before their time in destitution, while Berlin and others became legends. Berlin’s popular masterpiece was part of the story of another great achievement of 1911. On May 31, the Titanic was launched at Belfast before final fitting out and sea trials. The ship’s fateful maiden voyage less than a year later is heavily associated with music by virtue of the story of Wallace Hartley and his band stoically playing on as the liner sank, and survivors reported that they played Alexander’s Ragtime Band as part of an upbeat selection in an effort to counter the rising panic. The official White Star Line songbook used on the ship is a snapshot of the musical tastes of the times. It included opera, with pieces by everyone from Handel to Gilbert and Sullivan, national anthems, popular waltzes and marches, hymns and sacred music, and polkas and cake walks for livelier dancing (the ‘cake walk’ was a ragtime precursor). For the first class passengers ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ music eclectically rubbed shoulders, and while the more than 20 different nationalities on the second and third class decks would have made for an even more diverse musical mix, music hall tunes like Any Old Iron, published and popularised by Harry Champion in 1911, would certainly have figured. Legend had it that the final song played on the Titanic was Edward VII’s favourite Nearer, My God, To Thee, and 1911 was dominated by commemorations of the king, who had died the previous May. George V was crowned in June 1911 and was hardly his father’s son, more interested in stamp collecting than the gambling dens and brothels that had attracted Bertie. Nonetheless, he presided over some turbulent times in Britain early in his reign. In the summer of 1911, an 11-week heatwave and drought caused endless trouble, adding to the disruption of the National Railway strike. Already, in January, as the East End seethed with European émigrés – many of whom were rebel elements Tsarist Russia had hounded out – the Siege of Sidney Street had seen a shootout between the police and Scots Guards and a gang of Latvian anarchists. Early photo reportage showed an incongruously top-hatted Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, on the scene monitoring events in person. As the suffragettes stepped up their militancy, Emily Davison hid in the crypt of the Palace of Westminster on the night of April 2 to avoid enumeration in the 1911 census, as part of the Women’s Freedom League boycott. That year Ethel Smyth and Cicely Hamilton’s 1910 song The March of the Women, already adopted as the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, could be heard at rallies and in prisons holding women protestors. When Marie Curie won the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, it was evidence that the world was slowly changing for women. She had already won the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with her husband Pierre in 1903, but the chemistry prize recognised her solo efforts in discovering the elements radium and polonium, the latter named after her homeland of Poland. Other fields of scholarship were making great discoveries too. The remarkable Hawaiian-born adventurer-archaeologist Hiram Bingham who, with a Harvard PhD, a lectureship at Yale and a reputation as a womaniser, has predictably been cited as an inspiration for Indiana Jones, discovered Machu Picchu during an expedition in July. In far colder climes, Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, beating the rival British team led by Captain Scott by five weeks. Scott and his four colleagues would die making the return journey and their heroism entered the annals of myth. When an Italian painter and decorator had walked into the Louvre that summer and stole the Mona Lisa in order to return it to its motherland, this was seen as a poetic and noble act rather than a shocking theft. The painting was shown in triumph all over Italy before it was returned and Vincenzo Peruggia’s honourable motives resulted in a lenient sentence for the crime. Over the century since 1911, many of its events have been given a cinematic treatment, intensifying their sense of eternal legend. Irving Berlin’s songs became synonymous with the golden age of cinema, as hits like Puttin’ On The Ritz, There’s No Business Like Show Business and White Christmas were centrepieces of Hollywood musicals. And they have completely transcended the era they were written in, in their place in popular culture. But the extraordinary character of the achievements of that year, and the ground-breaking nature of its popular music, need to be grasped on their own terms, without the confounding lustre of myth, to appreciate just what an extraordinary time this was. Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick