The River Raisin Ragtime Revue with Daniel Washington
Nobody is Somebody
WW Records 2018
The River Raisin Ragtime Revue is a theater orchestra based in Michigan that produces exciting performances of America’s original popular music. They have curated concerts and CDs around themes such as the works of new ragtime composer Reginald R. Robinson. They also host an annual Ragtime Extravaganza! with musicians, dancers, actors and visual artists in a vaudeville style revue.
The orchestra is led by co-founder William Pemberton, the tubist, who also narrates many performances and since the retirement of William R. Hays has served as music director. Hayes was behind the orchestration of much of their new album Nobody is Somebody. The title is a reference to Bert Williams who became a widely known star, a somebody, after the success of his song “Nobody.”
Williams was the starting point in choosing music for this program mixing spirituals and popular songs from turn-off-the-century black composers. In addition to Williams they perform works from H.T. Burleigh, J. Rosamond Johnson, Robert Hood Bowers, George Walker, and others. Some of the songs were originally part of African-American led stage productions, such as Abyssinia, that were trying to push theater beyond the tropes of minstrelsy. Some were recorded at the time by their composers, and others not recorded by anyone until years later.
The titles are not performed as they would have been in their original context. Instead, this mix of secular and sacred is raised up as the American heritage it is and presented in Bass-Baritone vocals by Daniel Washington. The result is a classy CD honoring the songs and their authors reminiscent of mid-century patriotic concerts by Paul Robeson.
The difference between those efforts and this is the greater focus on orchestration, the music is lively and full behind Washington’s powerful articulation, and these songs, such as “Under the Bamboo Tree”, have never before been treated as high points of American art. The album is most effective where it is most unique. The spirituals are well done and moving, but not surprising. The serious presentations of popular music, however, capture the deeper significance of lyrics often thought of comically. The extensive liner notes which address the racial circumstance in which the songs were composed help put these songs in context and give them their own spiritual weight. Williams and Walker’s “It’s all going out” is a marvelous example of this.
This is a worthwhile album for anyone with an interest in turn of the century popular song or the African American composers trying to create a uniquely American music in the years ahead of jazz.
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