Camden's silver sound
"RACE RECORDS." Today, the term sounds prejudiced – evil in a not-quaint, old-fashioned way.
But with "Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet," a musical world premiering at Rutgers University Camden this week, race records are being remembered and evoked anew as a great breakthrough for and celebration of African-American culture.
"That's what this ragtime, blues and gospel music represented in the 1920s and '30s, when it was first being recorded and released," said Rutgers professor and show author Kenneth Elliott. "African-Americans were proud to finally have recordings they could buy and play on their Victrolas, records made by and for their own."
This music would also prove "highly influential and popular across the musical spectrum and color lines, both here and abroad," added Iceland-born Rutgers prof (and the show's musical supervisor) Stefan Orn Arnarson.
Also being celebrated in a "Sounds of Camden" exhibit of memorabilia now in Rutgers Stedman Gallery, "Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet" has already proved an eye- and ear-opener for show performers like Donnel Treadwell Jr. It's introduced the lead actor/singer (a college senior and music major) to "a highly expressive, personal music like I've never heard before," and to a world "so completely different, it's like diving into 'The Chronicles of Narnia.' "
The musical could likewise go a long way to buff up Camden's civic image and sense of self-pride, especially if the production has "legs."
There's a good chance of that.
Elliott has helmed his share of off-Broadway productions, and Arnarson and choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes are recent Barrymore Award nominees.
From 1901 forward, our Jersey border town was one of America's entertainment capitals, awash in the musical machinery and millions of discs churning out of the Victor Talking Machine factories.
Founded by Eldridge Johnson (1867-1945), and building on technology he'd licensed and evolved from Gramophone inventor Emile Berliner, Victor grew to encompass 10 Camden city blocks and employ as many as 4,000.
Two recording studios operated "virtually around the clock, attracted many of the most famous artists from around the world," Elliott shared. "African-American musicians were recording from the start, but initially it was repertoire targeted to a white audience. Then, with the great waves of black migration north, Victor began targeting the market with music they could call their own."
Treasures in the attic
Treadwell leads the musical's journey back in time, playing a contemporary kid going through his great-grandmother's attic after her death.
"I come upon these amazing old records that magically transport me back to the time and place where they were recorded, a 1928 recording session at Victor Records," he said.
Elliott said they lit on that year "because we found a catalog from 1928, that listed all the recordings Victor had put out on the [African-American centric] Black Label."
Rutgers grad student Bashawn Moore and guest artist Mike Weeks play a pair of jazz singers who become Treadwell's guides. Another guest artist, Langston Darby, plays a preacher man, modeled after the Rev. F.W. McGee, who "recorded sermons like 'Jonah in the Belly of the Whale,' distilled down to three minutes – that were very strong sellers back in the day," Elliott said.
So, too, were gospel numbers like "Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet," source of the musical's title, plus lots of hardscrabble blues – "as political as that music would get," noted Arnarson – and double-entendre blues and ragtime tunes dreamed up for Victor by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Alberta Hunter, Louis Armstrong and an especially prolific and rascally Fats Waller.
One of Waller's favorite winky ploys was writing songs ostensibly about eating but really about sex – "Rump Steak Serenade," "All That Meat and No Potatoes," "Hold Tight, I Want Some Seafood Mama."
"We've put them together in a food medley," Elliott said.
Digging up the vintage material wasn't all that hard. It's certainly a city disgrace that Camden doesn't have a big repository of Victor stuff, that the Johnson Victrola Museum is located in, ugh, Dover, Del. (The company founder was born in Wilmington and attended Dover Academy.)
But Rutgers' campus in Newark houses a huge jazz library, including some original period arrangements that proved "extremely helpful" for Arnarson in recreating his period-correct arrangements for the show's 12-piece orchestra and cast, which also includes Davonna Patterson, Adeja Rice, Markenzie Johnson, Malcolm Ortis and Linda Ibeneche.
And some of the songs listed in that 1928 Victor catalog actually turned up on YouTube, of all places.
"Record collectors are great at sharing their treasures," Elliott said. "They put up videos of the music playing on their windup Victrolas."
Walter Gordon Theater, Rutgers University Camden, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $15, $10 seniors and Rutgers alumni, $7 non-Rutgers students, 856-225-6211, rugerscamdentheater.com.
Stedman Gallery, Fine Arts Center, 314 Linden St., 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday and Saturday, until 8 p.m. Thursday, 856-225-6350, rcca.camden.rutgers.edu.