Vaughn De Leath
This is the first of 2 articles on Vaughn De Leath which sets the scene for Document Records new release "Dancing The Devil Away". The next, more comprehensive article will appear in the next few weeks, so keep checking back to read more about the "First Lady Of Radio".
It was as if the western world’s accelerator had been applied with more pressure in the early 20th century than ever before. Even now, a hundred years later, when speed is the driving force and a demand no longer only a requisite of the western world alone, one looks back at the dawn of the I 900s and in particular the “Roaring Twenties” with breathless amazement. It was a fast changing world, as automobiles began to roll off the production lines in their thousands and astonished crowds gathered see 'moving pictures'. To prosper or just survive one had to be adaptable, intuitive, enterprising and talented.Vaughn De Leath was all of these, as can be heard by the extraordinary breadth of her repertoire and flexible style on this CD. Such talents were instantly recognized in as a survivor and achiever. She was an “all American girl” completely in tune with her surroundings and era.
The roaring twenties were also known as "The Jazz Years”. The first jazz recording had been made in 1917 by the white jazz band The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and in 1920 it was the black blues singer, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”, selling 75,000 copies in
The majority of the white music loving population of , particularly living in the north and west, had little idea of the existence of blues recordings during the twenties and thirties. For them Jazz was safety and acceptably packaged, not by originators such as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Clarence Williams, but by white artists such as Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman and Hoagey Charmichael. Whiteman was actually hailed as “The King of Jazz”.
The music of black America and in particular that which went with the image of the “Mammy’s and “The Old Joe’s” of the deep south, was intriguing and exciting but the real thing was generally held at a distance and this was done with the distillation of jazz and the parody of the “Coon Songs” still in vogue during the twenties. The popularity of these two genres were brought together in the hugely popular film “The Jazz Singer” (1927) starring Al Jolson. Looking back from the 21th century the film seems bizarre and grotesque as does the fact that he was accepted as ’s favourite jazz singer and superstar leaving the likes of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey in relative obscurity.
Listening to her recordings and hearing the many musical and subject references to the south, it is difficult to believe that Vaughn Deleath was not born or associated with the region in any way. Certainly one is left wondering what her evident fascination for the south was based on. Did she spend time there? Apart from what was in vogue during the twenties she seemed to dig quite deeply into what was then representative of it.
I Love The Land Of Old Black Joe, written by Grant, Clarke, with melody composed by Walter Donaldson is was one of several “Coon Songs” that she recorded including Is Ya?, Honey, Honey (l’se A Waitin’ Jes Fo’ You) and Stay In Your Own Backyard. Mah Lindy Lou was written by her contemporary Lily Strickland whose early works display the influences of life in the Jim Crow South, incorporating numerous elements of African American spirituals and folk music and the rhythms of Southern speech.
lt first appeared in the 1920 musical revue The Wynn Carnival. ln the same year another popular singer of “Coon Songs” Billy Murray along with The Peerless Quartet recorded the number for the Victor record company. Originally known as The Columbia Quartet, they were said to be the most commercially successful vocal group of the acoustic recording era. Electric recordings were to arrive in 1925. Until then artists from solo singers to orchestras had to be carefully positioned around huge megaphones playing into the opening with the largest circumference. The sound vibrations would then travel down to the small opening at the opposite end which was connected to a vibrating needle which picked up the frequencies and etched them out into the “wax recording”. Bearing this in mind, it has to be said that the quality of sound restoration on this track along with all other pre-electric recordings presented in Document’s
Though not mimicking the stereotyped southern black accent Vaughn still accentuates a “southern accent” in the light hearted “popular” songs As Long I’m With You and Since I Found You. These recordings are tantalizing in the way that the listener is left wondering how much of the performance is a true reflection of her character; carefree, humorous, determined? Similar clues to her character are found in When The Pussywillow Whispers To The Catnip and It’s A Million To One You’re In Love.
Dancing The Devil Away is a superb “hot” jazz number. Here, we find Vaughn in the company of Don Voorhees And His Earl Carroll Vanities Orchestra under whose name the record was released. Vaughn also provided the vocals for the flip side of the record The Same Old Moon. Dancing The Devil Away jogs along at a good pace. There were some notable names in the orchestra and there are some nice contributions by the great Red Nichols on trumpet, Miff Mole on trombone and Dick McDonough on guitar.
Vaughn recorded with some of the top artists at the top of their genres and other jazz musicians included Eddie Lang and Paul Whiteman.
When The Pussywillow Whispers To The Catnip was also known as The Whisper Song. This comedy song proved to be very popular in 1927 with several recordings of the number being released in the same year by other artists, including Cliff "Ukelele" Ike who had recorded it in the previous month to her release. It’s slightly surreal subject matter and silly sound effects border on the zany and one cannot help but wonder what could have happened had it got into the hands of Spike Jones a few years later.
Stay In Your Own Back Yard (also known as “Play In Your Own Backyard” and “Mama’s Little Alabama Coon”) was originally written in 1899 by Karl Kennett with music by Lyn Udall. The song is typical of heart wrenching, melodramatic songs of the turn of the century. It tells of a little black boy shunned by his white neighbour kids and the words of advice given by his mother who tells him to just accept that “Nobody ever would want to play with a little black coon like you” and comforts him by telling him that he would be better off sticking with his own.
Stay In Your Own Back Yard (version)
Ah’s mama’s li’l Alabama coon
And ah ain’t been born very long
Ah’s remember one big round moon
Ah’s member sing in’ one sweet song
When they took me down to the cotton field
There I tumbled and I rolled in the sun
Daddy picking cotton; mama watch me grow
This was the old song she sung
Lilac trees are bloomin’ in the garden by the gate
Mammy’s at her little cabin door
Curly headed picanniny comin’ home so late
Cryin’ cuz his little heart is sore
All the children play around
With skins so white and fair
None of them with him would ever play
So mammy in her lap, took that weeping little chap
And crooned him in her kind old way
Why don’t you play in your own backyard
Never mind what the white chile do
Nobody ever would want to play
With a little black coon like you
Go out and play as long as you please
But Honey don’t you cry so hard
Go out and jump on the high board fence
But stay in your own backyard
Go to sleep my little picanny
Brer fox catch you if ya don’t
Slumber on the bosom of your ol’ mama Jinny
Mama goin to swap yo if you don’t
Underneath the sunny southern moon
Lullabye, Rockabye Mama’s li’l baby
Mama’s li’l Alabama Coon
It is said that Vaughn Deleath created the style of “Crooning”, a way of softening the tone of her voice which she had to adopt to avoid the power of her vocals damaging microphones of the day. This style is beautifully demonstrated on the delicate There’s A Cradle in Carolina. The song is that of the restless, the displaced, the wandering hobo who at “the end of the road” has journeyed so far only to find himself staring at failure and dreams of returning to the comfort of home. The record was evidently a hit with Gene Austin, Ben Bernie and Nat Shilkret, including the song into their recordings within days of Vaughn’s release.
The novelty song Blow, Blow, Blow On Your Old Harmonica, Joe is another reference to the south with harmonica playing that would have even delighted The Memphis Jug band.
The knock-about novelty duet with Jack Kaufman I’m Gonna Dance Wit’ De Guy Wot Brung Me (also known as The Gum Chewers Song) was originally written by Walter O’ Keefe with music (for ukulele) by Harry Archer. This wonderful comedy song is made all the more humorous by Vaughn’s attempt to sound like someone from the Bronx but actually sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s attempt at a London cockney in the film Mary Poppins. The song had already been recorded in June of the same year by Aileen Stanley and Billy Murray with Nat Shilkret and his Orchestra. Like Lily Strickland, Aileen Stanley was another of Vaughn’s contemporaries from whom interesting parallels can be drawn having made blues records as Mamie Jones for the exclusively black run label Black Swan, known mainly for its recordings by black artists.
The song had also been recorded three weeks prior to Vaughn’s recording by the black male blues singer Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon.
The hit popular song I Can’t Give You Anything But Love had featured earlier in the year in what was to become the longest running black musical of the twenties, “Blackbirds of 1928”. It opened in May of the same year, featuring Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and singer, Adelaide Hall. The song was written by Dorothy Fields, daughter of the musical’s producer Lew Fields, with music by Jimmy McHugh.
I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling was originally written by Billy Rose with music by Thomas “Fats” WaIler. This popular song with it’s Waller trade mark composition does have a diluted jazz feel and Vaughn’s crooning style gives the song great justice. It seems to have been first recorded by Beb Bernie and his Roosevelt Orchestra in late March 1929. “Fats” WaIler, himself, left the piece alone until August, by which time several artists had recorded this hit including Gene Austin and Miff Moler. He did record it was as one of his many piano instrumentals which he then re-recorded six years later, again only as an instrumental.
With her versatile singing style Vaughn approached the moods of her song with great effect, from the lively Marianna to the melancholic love song My Dear which is set against the background of what sounds like the accompaniment of the popular Hawaiian guitarist of the day Frank Ferrara. Back In The Hills Of Kentucky and the pleading Don’t Say We’re Through are also shed in the light of heart tugging drama and reflection.
Her best-known recording over the years was probably the version of "The Man I Love" she sang with Paul Whiteman's Concert Orchestra for Columbia, however in 1999 her recording of "Ukulele Lady" was used in the film adaptation of the John Irving novel "The Cider House Rules".