Some things never change. Seduction and courtship rituals have always been one of the compulsive excuses for making music. Though these gathered paeans to coupling and coupling might appear quaint on the surface, it’s only because time has curtained their lasciviousness with a misty-lensed nostalgia. The recent Great Gatsby (updated with a hip-hop soundtrack) and Boardwalk Empire attest to the fact that the ’20s were rife with the sound of bodices ripping, skirts shorting and morals in flux, fueled by bootleg liquor and a sense of joyous transgression. No other decade within the past century, except perhaps for the 1960s, transformed sexual mores into even-mores; and for the first time, there was a record industry in place, ready to promote and celebrate its mating call.
These selections, ranging over two discs (Volume 2 is available here), run the gamut from innocent (“Ain’t She Sweet,” courtesy of Ben Bernie & His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra) to guilty-as-charged (Ben Selvin’s “My Sin,” which of course is the penance paid for “loving you”). Helen Kane, who would provide the voice for Betty Boop, oop-oop-a-doops “I Want To Be Bad” and shimmies “I Want To Be Loved By You.” Superstars of the day abound: Rudy Vallee megaphones “My Vagabond Lover,” Eddie Cantor is “Makin’ Whoopee,” Cliff Edwards (also known as Ukulele Ike) heads-tails “Good Little Bad Little You.” There is female desire — Annette Hanshaw and Her Sizzling Syncopators’ “I Must Have That Man” — and a nod to gender-blending with the Savoy Havana Band’s “Masculine Women, Feminine Men.” The dance craze of the moment is free-styled in “The Original Charleston” (Isham Jones) and “Charleston Charley” (Bert Firman) along with their respective Orchestras.
Beyond lyrics, the collections are valuable for their window into performance styles of the 1920s. With rhythm supplied by banjo (the guitar was not yet percussive or loud enough to be heard in large ensembles), the emphasis is on dancing. Vocals are placed somewhere in the middle of each selection, almost as a bridge between the surrounding instrumental themes; and the spotlight usually shines upon the maestro: Coon-Sanders, Vincent Lopez, Ted Weems, Fred Waring.
Saucy, with a wink of an eye and a coy come-hither, this is music that speaks easy and sings even easier. Pass the bathtub gin, and as Irving Aaronson and His Commanders puts it, “Let’s Misbehave!”