Various Artists: The Beautiful Old
Marsteller & Rhodes present The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs
by Peter Viney
The Beautiful Old is a compilation of popular songs most of which are at least one hundred years old. Some date from the 19th century, the others are very early 20th century. The oldest, The Last Rose of Summer, dates back to 1805. The youngest, Beautiful Ohio and Till We Meet Again, date from 1918. With this sort of material, we are looking at songs with major sheet music sales consistently over decades, so pinpointing a particular year, as we might do with songs since charts started, is irrelevant.
The choice of musicians is fascinating. Garth Hudson is on both piano and accordion. Richard Thompson, known for his 1000 Years of Popular Music opens the album, which includes Dave Davies of The Kinks, the great fiddle player Richard Greene (of Seatrain, among many others), Graham Parker, and folk luminaries Christine Collister, and Heidi Talbot, plus acoustic blues singer Eric Bibb. Gabriel Rhodes is the music producer, and plays guitar, piano, pump organ, ukulele, concertina, mandolin, melodica, banjo, dulcimer and accordion. Paul Marsteller, Gabriel Rhodes and singer Simone Stevens, are all part of Fiery Blue.
Coincidentally, just the day before I heard a pre-release version, I found a 1963 BBC LP, BBC Scrapbook 1914 for 50p which contained spoken voices recordings from the era, as well as a selection of scratchy 1914 recordings, so the music of a century ago was already on my mind. I also picked up the BBC Scrapbook 1940.
In contrast, The Beautiful Old... consists of impeccable clean new recordings, but which are also remarkably faithful in style. There is no trace of the deliberate pastiche of (say) Hinge and Brackett or the New Vaudeville Band in playing old songs, these are the songs presented with respect, as you would want them to be, though with modern recording quality. Take The Flying Trapeze, sung by Graham Parker in his natural voice. No need for megaphones, or trying to sound as if he had the strangulated British accent of 1910. Just a great performance, paying full attention to the lyric.
Though it dates to before her birth, this is full of the songs my mum sang in the kitchen, and probably they're the ones her mum sang to her... The Band Played On (Richard Thompson with Christine Collister), The Flying Trapeze (Graham Parker), After The Ball (Dave Davies) and Home Sweet Home (Christine Collister) stood out especially for me, because the British accents resonate with my memories of the songs.
The Band Played On is an apposite opener, as the lyrics pull us to the other end of the album (The band played Home Sweet Home... ). Richard Thompson immediately gets the band singer crooning style, and with Garth Hudson's European café accordion backed by trombone and glockenspiel it would suit even Bellowhead.
One tends to think of this music hall end of the spectrum when you think of the era just before the First World War, and the collection of original sheet music sleeves on the The Beautiful Old... website and in the CD sleeve, is a joy. I can't resist shifting the dust on boxes of old sheet music in secondhand shops myself. What was a surprise to me was the inclusion of folkier material, like Silver Dagger (done here in a sublime version by Jolie Goodnight) and The Dying Californian (sung by Carrie Elkin). I know the first backward and forward, but the second was new to me, and is a lovely song.
Garth Hudson plays on ten tracks, and on The Flying Trapeze, plays both piano and accordion. Garth is a master musician, with an incredibly wide knowledge of music in many esoteric forms, and he recreates the mood and feel of the originals. His solo piano version of The Rosary will join the playlist I keep of Garth Hudson solo pieces as music for reflection and relaxation, a list headed by French Girls. I so enjoyed Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (sung by Kimmie Rhodes with Richard Greene on violin) that I played it three times before I heard the next track. Let Me Call You Sweetheart (sung here by Simone Stevens) was probably the song my mum sang most while pegging out the washing. These songs have survived so well through the years due to their intrinsic quality, so going back to my BBC Scrapbook finds, they worked just as well in 1940 as in 1914. And continue to do so in 2013.
I've been playing the songs all morning. Both the other people in the house came in and asked separately, 'What is that? It's beautiful!' Choose the CD version, not the download. The booklet has the lyrics to all the songs, with illustrations of original sheet music.
Various Artists - The Beautiful Old - 2013 - Doubloon Records