Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s