Louis Armstrong in Minnesota, 1939
The Illinois-Wisconsin Border

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.



Lyle Lofgren

Everyone knows about the stock market crash of 1929, but did you know that 1921 was also a very bad year for a lot of Americans? There was a crash in commodity prices, which left a lot of farmers in trouble, and farmers were a big part of the economy back then. Various parts of the economy struggled throughout the 1920s, and it was probably simply bad moonshine whiskey that led to the stock market bubble of the late 1920s, which happened in spite of a crippled economy.

So Tin Pan Alley was merely responding to a psychological need (not to mention a need to forget about the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans and perhaps 100 million people worldwide).

Only a true pessimist could listen to a song like "Look For the Silver Lining" or "Keep on the Sunnyside" and dwell on how bad things are if you have to be cajoled to be cheerful. From a small sampling (parents who used to sing such songs, remembering them from the 1920s) I conclude that they had their desired (if mindless) effect (at least, my mother was cheerful; my dad was morose from survivor's guilt caused by witnessing some horrendous trench fighting in WWI -- but those songs didn't make him feel any worse).

As to "Al Jolson, crap?", I respond, "Al Jolson, crap!" But remember H.L. Mencken's observation that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence (or overestimating the depraved desires, I would add) of the American public. Pandarus is still alive and well.

Speaking of the Brill Building, have you read "The Telephone Booth Indian," a collection of A.J. Liebling's "New Yorker" essays on that place? It's still in print, even though I first read it in about 1950, in a paperback that fell apart long ago.


Lyle Lofgren

P.S.: I googled Pandarus, and found there were several of them. I was thinking about the panderer Pandarus, in Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida."


Jerome Clark

"Keep on the Sunny Side" was composed two decades before "Silver Lining." If you're implying a cause and effect linking the two -- as in the Carter Family's electing to write "Sunny Side" to exploit "Lining's" commercial success -- that's historically impossible.

According to roots-music journalist and historian Colin Escott, "Sunny Side" was composed in 1899: "Lyricist Ada Blenkhorn got the idea from a crippled cousin who always wanted his wheelchair pushed on the sunny side of the street."

Jerry Clark


"Al Jolson: Crap?" Oh, surely. Thanks for saying.

"Anybody want to be a guest blogger on that?" I only wish I had the chops.

Thanks for keeping the Monochord going. 'Tis my favourite blog by a country (no pun intended) mile.

Oh, Archeophone cubed? Cube the cube! They're the Nazz.

(Appy polly logies for incoherence of this comment; we've been into the wine, Furry Lewis and me.)

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