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Look for the Silver Lining

Archeophone 1921

I've been working long hours on a ridiculously long entry, but I can't quite get it "out there" just yet.

But aren't blogs about "what I happen to be thinking tonight" anyway? Aren't they? So while we're waiting for that ridiculous masterpiece, here's what I'm thinking tonight.

I've been listening to CDs from Archeophone lately.

Going into the Moonshiner's Dance project, I knew more about southern Appalachian tunes for banjo and fiddle than anything else. Now, as I do my research on that Minnesota oompah record, I've often suffered from a lack of context.

That's why, over the past two years, I've looked for ways to boost my familiarity with popular music that's both pre-Moonshiner's Dance and not necessarily from the South.

For one thing, my CD collection has taken on things like Jewface, and Avenue A to the Great White Way, and Archeophone, Archeophone, Archeophone.

The 1921 edition of Archeophone's yearbook series includes Marion Harris singing "Look for the Silver Lining." It turns out to be a bone-crushingly sad song, despite the encouragement it supposedly provides. It pretends to offer advice on how to keep the spirits up, but leaves you a sniveling heap instead.

Of course, I was reminded of the original Carter Family's signature song, "Keep on the Sunny Side." Its modus operandi is identical — while encouraging you, listener, to turn away from your troubles, it only emphasizes them and the pathos of your trying to soldier through them.

Archeophone's 1922 yearbook includes Al Jolson singing "April Flowers."

(Someday, I may write a post that asks the sticky question, "Al Jolson: Crap?" Anybody want to be a guest blogger on that?)

In any case, "April Flowers" proceeds in very much the same way, and was an attempt to duplicate the smash success of "Look for the Silver Lining."

Archeophone's inclusion of a rewriting of "Silver Lining" leaves me with the impression that "Keep on the Sunny Side" too was probably an attempt to score a hit by following a previous hit's blueprint. If that's the case, it was a hugely successful attempt, both commercially and artistically.

The book Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone portrays AP Carter as struggling, struggling, always struggling to come up with new material for Sara and Maybelle to perform — he was like a Brill Building songwriter without the benefit of a building full of brilliant creative people from whom to draw ideas and inspiration and a spirit of competition.

The Carter Family was as much a commercial act as it was a folk act — or better, they expose how wrong-headed the distinction can often be.

Another thing I hear in "Look for the Silver Lining" — in fact, for the first few listenings, it's the only thing I can hear — is "Look for the Union Label," the stirring theme song in 1970's commercials sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Marion Harris gave the melodic lines of "Silver Lining" lovely little paisley swirls and seagull dips befitting a great 1921 pop song. It seems "Union Label" took the tune and straightened it out and squared it off to serve as a rousing union sing-along.

As I say, "Silver Lining" outwardly keeps a stiff upper lip, but inside, it's a song almost entirely lacking in hope for the future. So I don't know if this was the right tune to borrow — union membership has crashed through the floor and Americans now buy foreign goods with such fervor that you'd think it was the American-made toys that were dripping with lead. Look for the lead lining?

It's doubtful that I'm the first to consider most of this. That ridiculously long post? Now THAT nobody's ever thought of before. But this is here, and that isn't. No wonder blogs are always about what you happen to be thinking tonight.