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Parlor Guitar
Joel Mabus


Originally the guitar was meant for intimate audiences rather than the concert stage. A century ago, the petite shape of what is now called the "parlor guitar" was considered the full and proper size for the instrument. Lighter in touch and more balanced in tone than the larger models of today, the sweet voice of the steel-stringed parlor guitar is perfectly suited for fingerstyle playing. 

Before radio and other electronic media, people did play popular music in their homes -- from sheet music. Much of this "parlor music" drew from the musical theater, vaudeville and other entertainments. In this set, celebrated guitarist Joel Mabus offers his instrumental arrangements of twenty-six such classics performed on the parlor guitar.


1.                  Long before “Showboat” and  Hollywood musicals, Jerome Kern first made his mark with “They Didn’t Believe Me,” still considered a standard nearly a century after it debuted in 1914.  I play the seldom-heard verse between passes of the more familiar chorus. (2:49)

2.                  Jimmy Monaco emigrated from Italy at age 6, and made an early living playing ragtime piano in Chicago . In 1913 he wrote “You Made Me Love You,” which remains his biggest hit. Monaco certainly would have known (and perhaps borrowed from) Eddie Munson’s popular “Ida (Sweet as Apple Cider),” which had been a standard on the vaudeville circuit since 1903. (3:46)

3.                  As with several songs in this collection, singing star Al Jolson put his stamp on “Swanee,” George Gershwin’s first blockbuster. At the piano Gershwin had a fondness for quoting the civil war era song, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” when playing the chorus, and so do I. (2:41)

4.                  New Orleans ’ Spencer Williams was one of the finest African-American composers of the early 20th century. Along with “Tishomingo Blues,” he wrote “I Found a New Baby,” “Royal Garden Blues” and many other early jazz standards. Tishomingo may be a sleepy town in Mississippi , but Williams wrote this tune while living in New York . He spent his later years in Europe, where he found race relations more tolerable than in America . (3:11)

5.                  Two hit tunes from the 1920’s:  I’m Just Wild About Harry” is from the pen and piano of the great Eubie Blake who wrote it originally as a waltz for his ground-breaking all-black Broadway musical, “Shuffle Along” (The show’s actress couldn’t sing in waltz-time and the rest is history.)  Al Jolson himself had a hand in writing “Avalon,” with Italian-born composer Vincent Rose, but the American courts agreed with Puccini’s publisher that the melody was lifted from his 1900 opera, “Tosca,” specifically from the aria “E lucevan le stella.” (3:08)

6.                  Juventino Rosas was a young violinist of 16 when he debuted his “Sobre las olas” at the worlds fair in New Orleans in 1884. Sometimes called “The Mexican Waltz King,” Rosas was born into a poor Otomi Indian family, and died at the early age of 26 while on tour in Cuba . This waltz became a favorite of rural American fiddlers in the early 20th century as “Over the Waves,” though few of them could tell you its origins. (2:54)

7.                  Here are two songs popularly associated with the Mills Brothers, who made radio hits of them in the 1940’s. But “Paper Doll” was a hot number in 1915 for its songwriter, vaudevillian Johnny S. Black. And “Glowworm” (Glühwürmchen) was written by German composer Paul Lincke for his 1902 operetta, “Lysistrata.” With translated lyrics, it was interpolated into the 1907 New York show, “Girl Behind The Counter.” About 40 years later the lyric got a re-write by Johnny Mercer for the show’s movie version. (2:56)

8.                  The evocative “My Buddy” was written by the prolific Walter Donaldson who wrote more hits than nearly anybody in his long career (“ Carolina in the Morning” and “My Blue Heaven” to name two).  It is paired here with the inventive “After You’ve Gone” by John Turner Layton, another African-American composer who expatriated to England . (3:48)

9.                  Not really a rag itself, Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was hugely popular in its day and set the tone for the next generation of Tin Pan Alley hits. By the way, Berlin is the second writer in this collection to incorporate a musical phrase from Stephan Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” (listen to cut 3). (2:20)

10.              Four hymns in medley here: Baptist minister & hymnist Robert Lowry (who also gave us “Shall We Gather at the River” and “How Can I Keep From Singing”) is at his most dramatic in “Low in the Grave He Lay,” a perennial Eastertide favorite.  Charles Austin Miles gave us both “A New Name in Glory,” with a peppy revivalist tune reminiscent of a college fight-song, as well as the tender evergreen, “In the Garden.” Southern Pentecostal song publisher Robert E. Winsett wrote the happy melody of “The Message of His Coming.”  The chorus was evidently borrowed by Woody Guthrie for his recently discovered “Peace Call.” (4:08)

11.              Debuted at Chicago ’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the hymn-like “ Illinois ” some years later was named that state’s song. Archibald Johnson (or Johnston) reworked one of his earlier tunes to fit lyrics written by a Civil War veteran for the occasion.   Indiana ” is not the state song of Indiana , but almost so.  In 1917 James F. Hanley was granted permission to write a jaunty take-off on Paul Dresser’s 1897 “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” which remains Indiana ’s stately state song, while Hanley’s tune has become an iconic jazz standard. (3:08)

12.              Al Jolson debuted “April Showers” in his 1921 show, “Bombo,” in the guise of his familiar black-face alter ego, “Gus.” The song’s composer, Louis Silvers, conducted the orchestra in the pit. Of the many songs associated with Jolson, this one actually became his theme song on radio.  (2:55)

13.              The several strains that make up “Tiger Rag” come from various sources, and all the parts seem to have been well known in the streets of New Orleans long before Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded it in 1918 (and published the sheet music in 1917).  But the ODJB was first out of the gate with this immensely popular early jazz standard sometimes known as “Hold That Tiger.” (2:42)

14.              Four songs in medley are the oldest in this collection – by the end of the19th century all had became standards in glee clubs and community choirs.  The Scottish ballad, “Kempie Kaye” was the basis for the melody of “Annie Laurie,” composed by Alicia Anne Spottiswoode in 1835. George R. Poulton published “Aura Lea” on the eve of the Civil War, and it fast became a favorite of Union troops (and the tune for “Love Me Tender” 100 years later). Luigi Gordigiani is usually credited with “Santa Lucia,” a Neapolitan favorite of the 1840’s, and Ireland ’s Thomas Moore wrote “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” in 1832, but it is said he borrowed the melody from Irish tradition. (4:44)

15.              I prefer the original title for this showstopper from George M. Cohan’s 1906 musical, “George Washington, Jr.”  Little more than 40 years after Booth shot Lincoln , the play had a confederate veteran looking up at the Yankee flag and admitting, “She’s a grand old rag after all.”  With the ragtime craze in full sway the title was also a clever play on words. But reactionary critics could not bear the thought of Old Glory referred to as a rag, even in colloquial admiration, and forced Cohan into changing “Grand Old Rag” to “Grand Old Flag” – even if it meant spoiling the rhyme and reason. I prefer the original, and spoil my instrumental by singing a chorus. (2:52) 

It's easy to fall in love with this music. These old melodies really do stand up strong after all these years, and, taken as a group, speak to the genius of another age. Most of the songs in this collection were written in "tin pan alley" for vaudeville or early Broadway musicals. The rest are sentimental songs or hymns composed with somewhat higher ideals. But what all these melodies have in common is that they were crafted for popular consumption in the days before radio broadcasting. And, as it happens, none of them were written with the guitar in mind. That allows the guitar arranger -- in this case, me -- to work from a clean slate. In each piece I have tried to balance my respect for the composer's melody with a desire to let the guitar sing in its own voice, striving for something fresh, yet informed. 

The guitar I play on this recording (a Larrivee maple-bodied parlor guitar in standard tuning) was built just this past year, but very much in the tradition of guitars a century earlier. In happy synchronicity, the very modern studio where these songs were recorded -- Arcadia Recording -- is, in fact, housed in the parlor of a grand Victorian home in a city long known for its guitars: Kalamazoo, Michigan. A tip of the hat is due Arcadia's gifted audio engineer, John Stites, who captures the sounds of acoustic instruments brilliantly. Recorded in the first four days of summer, 2005, the parlor guitar felt right at home in the parlor studio celebrating some wonderful old parlor music. 


JULY 2005



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(c) 2005 Joel Mabus


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