The last hurrah for music hall coincided with Britain embracing a new sound, and both had a big year in 1919. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports.
Rarely had the world been in such turmoil as it was 100 years ago. While the June signing of the Treaty of Versailles declared the First World War officially over, the repercussions were still being felt and hundreds of thousands of the war dead were not yet even in their graves. As the Imperial War Graves Commission scoured the battlefields for remains, following the principle that ‘what was done for one should be done for all’, the huge graveyards of glittering white Portland stone would only start to appear the following year.
Lutyens’ cenotaph was but a temporary structure in wood and plaster for the Peace Day celebrations in July. The Weimar Republic was in a state of turmoil, and the founding of the German Workers’ Party, the precursor to the Nazi Party, meant that even as delegates were sitting down at the Paris Peace Conference in January, the seeds of future war were being sown.
The Conference’s endorsement of the Sykes-Picot agreement saw a colonial carve up of the Middle East and laid the ground for a century of turbulence in the region. Mussolini’s founding of a new fascist party in March also augured ill for the future.
But further violence was not just a future prospect, but an immediate reality. The first shots of the war in Ireland that would lead to partition were fired in January. In Russia, there was civil war and chaos in Eastern Europe as several short-lived soviet republics were founded.
There was mutiny in British India, with April’s Amritsar massacre one of the worst stains on the empire’s history. The Turkish War of Independence saw Greece, Armenia, France, Britain and Italy all drawn into the fighting.
The shape of the post-war era was unclear, the future uncertain. Having received a boost during the war, when popular entertainment became of vital importance, the Victorian delights of music hall were finally decisively on the wane as ‘variety’ took over.
One final fling came in the form of Don’t Dilly Dally On the Way, also known as My Old Man, or Follow the Van or The Cock Linnet Song, due to the line about that then popular caged bird. Written by Fred W. Leigh and Charles Collins in 1919, it was popularised by the then nearly 50-year-old and ailing Marie Lloyd, although she never recorded it.
About a couple making a moonlight flit, it reflected the post-war housing crisis, while the line “Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers/ When you can’t find your way home” referenced the Special Constabulary of volunteer policemen created during the war, who were widely viewed with suspicion.
Meanwhile, music hall pianist and singer Tom Clare’s biting social commentary, as seen in What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy? of this year, which contrasted those who had made genuine sacrifices with the lazy, the complacent and the selfish (“And all the profiteers who had been so long in clover/ Fell a-sighing and a-sobbing when they heard the war was over”), added to the impression that the carefree days of music hall were over.
Music hall couldn’t have seemed more passé as jazz descended on London with a vengeance. When the white five-piece, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, performed at the London Hippodrome in April, it was the first time the genre had been heard on the British popular stage (jazz had been known in the exclusive clubs of London for a few years).
After the December 1918 releases of Lasses Candy and Satanic Blues, the band temporarily abandoned recording to complete a 15-month tour of Britain, which included a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace (good-time boy, the 24-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, probably had more to do with the invite than his father). Hot on their heels came the New Orleans-based Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO), who docked at Liverpool in June.
Led by Will Marion Cook, no less than a former pupil of Dvorák, this black jazz and ragtime group caused a sensation. They played London’s Philharmonic Hall, the Prince of Wales Theatre and the London Coliseum scores of times, performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the first anniversary of the Armistice, and also did a Royal Command Performance at the palace. The deaths of eight members of the band when their ship sunk in the Irish Channel during touring in 1921 marked the beginning of the end for the band, and their achievements would be overshadowed by the Original Dixieland Jass Band as the recording stars the SSO were not. But the SSO shifted ideas of both what a ‘Negro’ band and popular music itself could do, with Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet comparing the band’s reedman, Sidney Bechet, to Bach in a review and the socialist Daily Herald writing vividly of the finger-snapping effect they had on the audience during a free concert at the People’s Palace, Mile End, saying “At last we had met the real thing”.
Back in the US, perennial favourite Henry Burr, Bahamian vaudevillian Bert Williams, megastar of the stage Al Jolson, white populariser of jazz and blues Marion Harris, and star of musicals John Steel all had No.1s, and both Broadway and Tin Pan Alley were booming.
One of the most popular hits of the year, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, proved itself all things to all people as it was adopted by British music hall but was also recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, as well as several popular singers. The lyrics were co-written by composer and lyricist Nat Vincent, publisher James Kendis and Russian-born songwriter James Brockman. Brockman’s previous work had ranged from the cheeky I Trust My Husband Anywhere, But I Like To Stick Around, to the sultry Down Among the Sheltering Palms, and during the war the Vincent-Kendis-Brockman trio had written virulently patriotic songs, like We’re Bound To Win With Boys Like You.
I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles was a deliberate attempt to ride the coattails of the previous year’s I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, but despite the writers’ eye for the main chance, the song had a deep melancholy, only lightly disguised by the childlike melody, as the bubbles of the title “fly so high, nearly reach the sky/ Then like my dreams they fade and die”. It seemed highly appropriate to the times.
New media threatened music’s primacy as the 1920s approached. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) had been ground-breaking, and in early 1919 he, along with some of the biggest on-screen names of the day – Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin – founded United Artists in an effort to take greater control of their work.
Its first film, released in May 1919, was Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish in a love story between an East End waif and a ‘Chinaman’ set in opium-ridden Limehouse. The Fairbanks comedies His Majesty, the American and When the Clouds Roll By followed before the year was out.
While the company was thrown into crisis when Griffith bailed out five years later, it survived to see the development of the studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood. But already, in 1919 the film industry was one of incredible variety, and that year’s releases included everything from social issue dramas examining gender and class, to car-racing action films, improbable fantasies, rollicking adventures and historical dramas.
While in the US Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton made genre-defining physical comedies, and Koko the Clown and Felix the Cat first appeared, in Europe film was being used to process the experience of the war, as Abel Gance’s J’accuse, premiering in April 1919, excoriated the stupidity of the conflict.
Meanwhile, documentary films were released that glorified the conduct of the victors, including Lowell Thomas’s With Lawrence in Arabia, which made T.E. Lawrence a celebrity. Elsewhere in Europe, Alexander Korda was learning his craft in Hungary before fleeing for Vienna that summer when the Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown, and in Germany Fritz Lang was busy marrying Expressionism to the popular formats of drama and thriller.
In Britain, the studios at Lime Grove, Hepworth, Ealing and Elstree were all already established, and Gaumont-British tackling H.G. Wells with the science fiction romp The First Men in the Moon indicated the far-reaching ambition of the medium, even away from Hollywood.
It fell to an unlikely song to sum up the feeling of 1919. The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise, with lyrics by Canadian actor Gene Lockhart and music by the concert pianist Ernest Seitz, was published in 1919, although it wouldn’t become a hit until John Steel recorded it in 1922.
At first a melancholy ballad, it was rendered as a jaunty jazz number by the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt and Jack Teagarden, but the sentiment was one that resonated in the aftermath of war and has an enduring significance for a perpetually troubled world.