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Carousel of American Music: The Fabled 24 September 1940 San Francisco Concerts

Various Artists

Music & Arts Programs of America

MC Gene Buck characterized the event as “the greatest group of creative talent ever in one spot in the history of the world,” a claim that would be difficult to dispute. On Sept. 24, 1940, a host of American songwriters and classical composers assembled in San Francisco to present their works in two marathon concerts, an afternoon performance of symphonic pieces and an evening of popular song. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, an organization founded to license and collect royalties on its members’ compositions, produced the programs to commemorate its 25th anniversary. These concerts, highlights of the closing week of the Golden Gate International Exposition, were recorded for radio broadcast but, because of an ASCAP boycott by the National Association of Broadcasters, were never aired.

Music & Arts, a Berkeley, Calif., label with an extensive catalog of classical and contemporary releases, has packaged this previously unissued material in a four-CD set containing nearly six hours of music. Carousel of American Music is an extraordinary document, an invaluable piece of cultural and social history. The sound quality is uneven, derived from a rare set of low-fidelity transcriptions marred by intermittent passages of surface noise. But the singularity of this cavalcade of American artists makes sonic limitations seem trivial.

The first disc documents most of the outdoor classical concert, performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for an audience of 25,000 at the Golden Gate International Federal Plaza on Treasure Island. The program features compositions by Roy Harris, Richard Hageman, Charles Wakefield Cadman, William Grant Still, and Deems Taylor. (Music & Arts has omitted Howard Hanson’s Third Symphony in order to limit the running time to the storage capacity of four CDs.) Particularly intriguing are excerpts from a ballet and a symphony conducted by Still, the first African-American to have his works played by major orchestras.

The evening pop concert, which is chronicled on the three remaining discs, was held at the California Coliseum. 15,000 people pressed into an auditorium designed to hold 12,000, and an overflow crowd of 10,000 listened to the performance through loudspeakers in the adjacent Festival Hall. With the notable exceptions of Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington, nearly every living 20th-century American songwriter of consequence appeared to perform his (or, in two cases, her) own work. The roll call of luminaries—George M. Cohan, Sigmund Romberg, W.C. Handy, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Johnny Mercer, to name only the most illustrious—makes the Woodstock and Monterey Pop festivals seem like gatherings of lightweights.

The concert was hosted by Gene Buck, then president of ASCAP, a garrulous moderator whose self-serving introductions sometimes last longer than the performances they preface. Intermittently droppin’ his “g”s in a transparent attempt to appear folksy, and repeatedly invitin’ us “to meet and know” the songwriters, most of whom he describes as “modest little fellas” (a particularly absurd label when applied to the famously autocratic Kern), Buck can be banished simply by pressing the skip button. Without his intrusions, the carousel spins merrily.

Four decades of songwriters take the stage in random order. Following orchestral tributes to John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert, Lee Roberts gets the show rolling by conducting his 1917 hit “Smiles” and is immediately followed by composer Ralph Rainger and lyricist Leo Robin performing their 1934 ballad “Love in Bloom,” best known as Jack Benny’s radio and television theme. Some of the compositions have become so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that it’s startling to discover someone actually wrote them. Albert von Tilzer sings and plays his “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” complete with the rarely heard verse, and leads the crowd in a massive community sing. Turn-of-the-century tunes—L. Wolfe Gilbert’s steamboat shuffle “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” Joseph Howard’s cakewalk “Good-bye My Lady Love,” and Harry Armstrong’s barbershop quartet classic “Sweet Adeline”—are performed by their elderly but still spry creators. Songs that every pre-rock era citizen knew by heart—Ernie Burnett’s saloon staple “My Melancholy Baby,” Walter Donaldson’s World War I lament “My Buddy,” and Shelton Brooks’ defiant “Some of These Days,” Sophie Tucker’s theme song—are interpreted by their authors. Hindsight makes several of these presentations poignant. Billy Hill, famous for writing cowboy ballads, sings about heading for “The Last Round-Up.” Three months later, to the day, he died. Ann Ronell, a vibrant pianist and saucy vocalist, performs her “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” the Depression-era hit featured in Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. Fifteen months later, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ronell’s novelty tune became a morale-building, war-mobilization battle cry.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the evening’s outstanding moments are provided by its most gifted participants. Harold Arlen accompanies young Judy Garland’s definitive performance of the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow,” introduced the previous year in The Wizard of Oz. In a rare public appearance, Kern, American music’s nonpareil melodist, plays “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” then accompanies crooner Tony Martin on “All the Things You Are,” cited three decades later, in a Saturday Review survey of professional songwriters, as the greatest of all popular compositions. (The enthusiastic crowd refuses to allow Kern and Martin to leave the stage until they perform it a second time.) Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Mercer, an underrated, delightfully casual vocalist, zip through “Jeepers Creepers,” and Jimmy McHugh plays and groans “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a song that, in recently years, has been reattributed to Fats Waller, who allegedly sold it to McHugh for liquor money. Conductor Edwin McArthur leads a tribute to George Gershwin, who had died at 39 in 1937, with symphonic arrangements of “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm.” The inimitable Carmichael contributes a dazzling “Stardust,” filled with inventive pianistic improvisations, and sings and plays “Little Old Lady” undaunted by firework explosions rattling the hall.

A volley of heavy hitters closes the concert. Handy, one of the seminal figures in the history of jazz and blues, plays his “St. Louis Blues” on cornet. Kern returns to accompany Metropolitan Opera baritone John Charles Thomas in “Old Man River.” Sexagenarian composer-lyricist-playwright-director-actor-dancer Cohan sings a medley of his stage hits, followed by an encore of his World War I battle call “Over There.” For the star-spangled finale, Berlin’s thin tenor brings the audience to its feet with “God Bless America,” our unofficial national anthem.

In his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, Handy describes the concert as “a program that was never before and can never again be duplicated this side of kingdom come.” Much of the music heard that evening is now forgotten, some of it, like Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s prim 1909 recital piece, “The End of a Perfect Day,” happily so. But Carousel of American Music takes us back to an era when popular music was a thread that bound us as a nation. Today’s music, divided into discrete categories and targeted at specific age, class, race, and gender groups, reflects our ever-increasing social fragmentation. When America sang in 1940, everybody knew the words.CP

For information about purchasing Music & Arts releases, call (510) 525-4583 or contact the label’s web site: http://www.musicandarts.com.