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A Red Hot Yiddishe Mamma

maurice-seymour-sophie-tucker-sophia-abuza-american-vaudeville-singer-with-occasional-film-roles

Let’s talk about one of the original red hot mammas – Miss Sophie Tucker (1884-1966). If I had a spangly frock & feather fascinator, I’d sit down at the piano and do one of her numbers for you.

One of my mother’s favourite songs was My Yiddishe Momme and I realise now that it was Sophie singing it. Mother knew not a schmidish of Yiddish and if her Presbyterian soul had known of Miss Tucker’s saucy vaudeville background, she’d maybe have reconsidered. But that’s where I first heard Sophie Tucker.

Now I have a few 78rpm records of the lady. They’re perfect for mechanical sound – on shellac, it’s like you’re sitting at the nearest table to the bar and Sophie’s perched up there on the mahogany, belting it out.

Her signature number was ‘Some Of These Days’ and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this 1911 cylinder recording on an original phonograph. What I have is the 1926 version on shellac with Ted Lewis. It’s considerably smoother than the original and I admit I prefer the rawness of the 1911 recording. After all, raw and punchy was what Sophie did best.



The song ‘Oh, You Have No Idea’ is wonderfully funny but naughty – how about that sexy growled ‘Oh’ at the end of each verse?

He’s got that whatsy whatsy what/What people can’t name/And say that whatsy, whatsy what/Would make the wildest woman tame./Hot as fire all the girls agree/Does he spark when he’s out with me/Oh you have no idea.

But it’s Yiddishe Momme that I play again and again.  Side one is in English and Sophie wrings every ounce of emotion from it.  On the other side, the band plays the song and Sophie speaks the words – in Yiddish.  Outstanding.

Listen to both sides here by clicking the arrows.


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Thinking Pongo Thoughts

pongo thoughts

This is Pongo. He’s known as An Ugly in pottery terms. I named him Pongo when I was a child and for much of my life, he was a doorstop. He went with us to a succession of houses and one of the signs of home for me was Pongo by the front door. When my parents died, I knew I had to have Pongo come live with me. He is honourably retired from his doorkeeping duties in deference to his age and sits on my windowsill, his droopy eyelids gazing benignly at me. The green of his bow is a little faded but that makes not a jot of difference to me. Pongo is home. He endures.
Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Buddy Bolden Blues

Dallas Blues on JOCO label

Back in the early days of the danceband, ad hoc bands with some weird and wonderful names were the norm.

The Original Memphis Five, for example, recorded under such names as Jazzbo’s Carolina Serenaders, Bailey’s Lucky Seven and The Cotton Pickers, despite none of their members having anything to do with the South. The bandleader Johnny Dodds was known for putting together a great group of musicians.

Here’s an example of a band called Blues in Dixieland, playing ‘Buddy Bolden Blues’, a song which began life as ‘Funky-Butt’ by the inspirational cornetist Buddy Bolden. This recording (1949?) is from the compilation Jazz Heritage – Volume IV and the label was a small outfit called JOCO, based in Northfield, Minnesota.

The number features Doc Evans on cornet; Al Jenkins on trombone; Art Lyons on clarinet; Mel Grant on piano; Micky Stienke on drums; and Biddy Bastian on bass. It’s possible that Jelly Roll Morton was also playing – information in the catalogues is often contradictory.

❦ To listen, click the audio player below. ❦

Photo © Rachel Cowan

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Corvid

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I am an enormous fan of the corvid family of birds.  They are highly intelligent and extremely clever. They do use that intelligence to bully and steal on occasion, but then so does homo sapiens.

I once knew a family of magpies who successfully raised a couple of young ones a year. Their dramatic looks reminded me of a gentleman’s evening tailcoat with electric blue silk lining and their machine-gun staccato cries like the braying laugh of the gentleman’s wife.

Crows are universally confident – it takes a lot to frighten them. Crow-scaring devices provoke an initial flurry of alarm, but canny corvids quickly work out what is a real threat and which a ruse.

One day this crow was patient enough to pose for me. Initially perched in a tree overlooking a riverside path, he hopped obligingly closer and struck a pose in nobile profile, that keen eye always keeping me in sight. People refer to this type of crow as little undertakers because of their all-black feathered suits.  If that’s so, then they are a very superior type of undertaker, for their sleek glossy feathers are many wonderful tones of black.

Their ghoulish reputation as scavengers of the dead is probably exaggerated, but it does give us that marvellous Scots song, ‘The Twa Corbies’:

As I was walking all alane,

I heard twa corbies making a mane;

The tane unto the t’other say,

‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,

I wot there lies a new slain knight;

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,

His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,

His lady’s ta’en another mate,

So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;

Wi ae lock o his gowden hair,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,

But nane sall ken where he is gane;

Oer his white banes, when they we bare,

The wind sall blaw for evermair.

Photo © Rachel Cowan

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Jean Sablon

JeanSablon

Jean Sablon, a popular French singer and actor, was born in Nogent-sur-Marne in 1906. The son of a songwriter, he studied piano at the Lyceé Charlemagne and the Paris Conservatoire. He began his career in musical comedy but shot to fame when he was spotted by the legendary performer Mistinguett who chose him as her partner at the Casino de Paris.

In 1933 he moved to the USA where he became a hit on many radio shows. George Gershwin and Cole Porter wrote songs for him and he appeared in the Broadway musical ‘Streets of Paris’ with screen comics Abbott and Costello plus the singing star Carmen Miranda.

Jean Sablon, with his ‘crooner’ style, was often compared to such singers as Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. His biggest song success, for which he won the Grand Priz du Disque in 1937, was “Vous qui passez sans me voir,” written for him by Charles Trenet and Johnny Hess. He also helped to popularize swing music in France by teaming up on several occasions with Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.

Jean Sablon’s records sold in their millions around the world and he became one of the most widely acclaimed male French singers second only in reputation to Maurice Chevalier. He is frequently referred to as the French equivalent of America’s Bing Crosby. He died in 1994 at Cannes and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Label details:
Si Tu M’aimes
(Michel Emer & Ordner)
Sung by Jean Sablon
Garland Wilson at the Piano
Columbia DB 1709
1936

❦ To listen to my 78rpm record of ‘Si Tu M’Aimes’, click the audio player below. ❦

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The Anniversary

the anniversary graphic small

As Jenny pinned a rosebud cut fresh from the garden onto her frock, she remembered standing in this scullery for the very first time exactly a year ago. Then, she had been an excited bride clutching a posy of lily-of-the-valley tied up with blue haberdasher’s ribbon.

Now, she thought, Arthur and she were a very ordinary couple living very ordinary lives. But back then at the Locarno, a time that seemed so long ago, her first impression was that he was like a god, so tall and fair. Arthur, in reality a hardworking clerk for Henry Hughes & Hughes, had come along mainly to keep his friend Sidney company and it was he who suggested they ask the two laughing dark-haired girls to dance.

The band struck up ‘Happy Feet’ and Arthur asked his dancing partner if she’d ever heard Jack Hylton & His Orchestra play. She hadn’t but smiled anyway, a lovely, natural smile, Arthur thought.

For the rest of that summer, they walked out together and eventually Jenny took Arthur home to meet her parents. Her father, a porter at Covent Garden fruit market, took him out into their tiny back yard and, while puffing on a venerable pipe, grilled the polite young man before him on his intentions towards his eldest daughter.

The Dickens family was a large one and Jenny’s mother often struggled to keep poverty from the door. Arthur however was the only child of a comfortably off couple originally from Kent. Although his mother doted on him, Arthur Charlesworth Snr took care to instill in his son a keen awareness of life’s responsibilities.

Soon enough, they were officially engaged. Their world was bounded by the busy drag that was Streatham High Road. They saw a Jack Buchanan film in the Odeon’s cheap seats and caught the trolleybus to Streatham Hill to watch ‘Murder in Mayfair’ at the theatre. There were some half-hearted tennis lessons and long walks, hand in hand, with stolen kisses in the shrubberies of the Common. And on Jenny’s twenty-first birthday, they spent a magical evening at Crystal Palace where Jenny squealed with pleasure (and Arthur held her tight) as they rode the newest showground ride at Thurston’s Fair.

The wedding was a quiet affair but the men of both families rolled back the carpet at Leigham Avenue, the groom’s family home.

Arthur brought a blush to his new mother-in-law’s cheeks with an energetic foxtrot and Jenny thought she would never have a day so happy as this one in her whole life.

And now here she was, daydreaming, when she had still to make the sandwiches for today’s outing. Plain ham for her and some English mustard spread on top for Arthur. Two crisp green apples, along with a flask of tea, were already packed in the basket.

To celebrate their first anniversary, Arthur had suggested taking the early train down to Brighton and making a day of it at the coast. Jenny knew that the wind-up gramophone would accompany them, as it did everywhere, and she’d tucked a record of ‘Happy Feet’ into its lid. No matter if Arthur thought her sentimental – she still remembered that first dance.

She wore her favourite blue frock but had replaced the rather tired collar with one she’d sewn out of some pretty lace. And on her slim feet were new shoes bought at Pratt’s Department Store which she felt showed off her ankles to perfection.

Arthur’s colleagues would scarcely have recognised him. Day in and day out dressed in a drab grey suit, he was today resplendent in tan knickerbockers, matching argyle patterned socks and co-respondent shoes. Jenny thought what a very handsome husband she had and how lucky they were to have each other.

As they sat on the train together, she considered when the best moment would be to break her news to him. Perhaps after they’d had their first cup of tea on the beach or when the gramophone was playing their favourite song.

Catching her reflection in the window, Jenny saw that Arthur was smiling at her and as she turned, he reached out his hand to take hers.

Arts, Stories

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Faces

what price beauty mono

I was walking past the Shelter shop in Raeburn Place when something caught my eye. In the middle of the window display was a vintage mannequin bust. She was naked but for a string of pearls with a price tag hanging from them. Her head was bald, her maquillage only slightly faded. But the most striking thing about her was her beauty and how lifelike she was. I looked at her from every angle I could, pressing my nose against the window (never be self-conscious about these things if you’re serious about photography!). Eventually I found an angle that would give scarcely any reflection. The sunlight fell on her slightly upturned face and threw the rest of the display into shadow.

I took only a couple of shots and this was one of them. In colour, she was beautiful but unexceptional. But in black and white, the starkness of her beauty shone out. Her eyes seemed beseeching, her cheekbones as sharp as a whetting knife.

Out of all my photos, this is probably my absolute favourite. I never gave the mannequin a name, although I know that her owner does. I’ve since seen her dressed in many different outfits, but never to me did she look more beautiful than the day she was clad only in pearls at a price.


Martine peeking

Martine was a French lady who came to visit friends in Edinburgh for a few weeks each summer. My French is terrible these days and she didn’t have an extensive grasp of the English language, but we nodded amiably to each other – Ca va? ~ Ca va bien, merci. She had a wonderfully mobile face and I knew I wanted to capture some of her facial expressions.

In the small back room of the Gramophone Emporium in St Stephen’s Street, there was a hubbub of conversation which Martine was struggling to follow. Suddenly, someone asked her a question. As she leaned forward to listen, I took this picture. The light in the room was very bad, not to mention being so crowded, my elbows were welded to my sides as I lifted the camera and I wasn’t sure I had caught the moment.

When I showed her this photo later, she was amused – C’est moi! Oh! – and didn’t mind a bit.

My grateful thanks to the manager of the Shelter shop for his inspirational mannequin.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Wild Man Blues

Louis-Armstrong-young

I have a passion for old shellac 78rpm records which I play on my cherry red HMV 101 wind-up gramophone. My tastes run from 1920s dancebands through classic French chanteuses et chanteurs to early tango orchestras. The collection is modest by most collectors’ standards (about 120) and is governed purely by the amount of space I have to store the records – 78s are heavy and bulky. Creating a personal collection isn’t a costly affair: I have only one or two rarities and don’t care if a particular record was so popular in 1925 they pressed hundreds of thousands of them. I buy my records, usually costing £1 or £2, from my old friends at The Gramophone Emporium in Edinburgh.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have only a few classical 78s and these are of iconic opera singers of the time. No sopranos though – the recording process wasn’t kind to the soprano sound. But tenors, including of course Caruso, the first real recording star, are a different matter. Singing directly into a huge recording horn with the orchestra placed around and behind the singer, the tenor voice rang out clear and true.

The appeal of 78s is mysterious, but their appeal for me is largely the immediacy of the sound. It’s like sitting in the front row of the stalls as Caruso gives it his all, or leaning on the bar while Fats Waller tinkles the juke joint ivories.

The first taster of my 78s collection is a number by the inimitable Satchmo. As he continued to record right up to his death in the 1970s, most people are familiar with the name of Louis Armstrong, but this earlier recording is Armstrong at his raw best.

Label details:
Wild Man Blues
(Armstrong-Morton)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG
Trumpet Solo, acc. by His Original Washboard Beaters
Parlophone
R 2162

❦ To listen, click the audio player below ❦

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Trains & Flowers

going off the rails 600

I had been wandering through Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, but had grown bored with shots of pretty trees and benches. An American tourist once asked why Edinburgh Castle was built above the railway: they found it hard to grasp the concept of an ancient castle built on an extinct volcano.

I headed over to the bridge that separates the Gardens from the slopes of the Castle. I was initially disappointed to find that not only were the sides of the bridge were too high to effectively shoot over, but the railway authorities had filled in the mesh with heavy duty plastic.

I stood there for about fifteen minutes watching trains come from nearby Waverley Station, bobbing up and down like a lunatic as I tried to find a vantage point I could shoot from. Then I concluded that it might be less frustrating to work with the prevailing conditions. So I hunkered down a bit to the level of the plastic sheeting, focussed as best I could and waited for another train. As the train approached, I fired off a few shots. I knew there would be blur, but hoped it might be effective blur. What I got was what snappers often call the happy accident. The effect of the plastic, plus my shaky hands, produced this impressionistic, even romantic, picture of a very ordinary modern commuter train.


discarded 600 small

I was walking home through St Stephen’s Place, the site of the old fruit market in Stockbridge. And there, just beside the arch, were these torn-up discarded flowers. Vividly red against the grey of the paving stones. I knew that my newly acquired Bronica was loaded with Velvia film and that this was the perfect subject for it. Velvia has always been a favourite with photographers who want intense, deep colour. I gambled that the flowers wouldn’t be cleared away in the time it was going to take me to fetch my camera and my luck held.

Was there a story behind them? I imagined a quarrel between lovers, perhaps a longstanding grievance about not spending enough time together. The man, as men do, bought flowers and presented them to show his devotion. The woman, as women do, talked of empty gestures and was that the best he could do. She tore the flowers to pieces in front of him and flung them on the pavement. He retreated, hurt, to the pub.

While I took a few shots of the torn blooms, several passers-by asked me what I was doing. Part of the curiosity was about the camera, for old medium-format cameras bear no resemblance to the pocketsize digital cameras we’re now so accustomed to. Apart from anything else, the picture is back to front in the viewfinder. But it turned out that people were also curious about the flowers and why they were there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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