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Association, Transgression, and Martha Raye

A smart woman with good taste, a radio documentarian named Delaney Hall, had a sizable problem with the Maria Schneider concert that I gushed about in my last post. Delaney was one of several friends and students of mine who went to see Schneider at my urging, and Delaney found herself resisting the big-band instrumentation that Schneider employs, because it carries, for her, associations of Vegas lounges and schmaltz. I can’t blame Delaney, because associations are the cage in which aesthetic judgments grow, and some of my own have never been able to escape.

Over the past week, I’ve been reading the quirky new Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald. It’s an authoritative but wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of work, comparable in design and ambition to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. One of the joys Friedwald provides is insight into singers who are largely forgotten or under-appreciated, such as Martha Raye, the comic actress of the ‘40s perhaps best remembered today for her film-saving performance as the un-murderable wife in Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Friedwald argues passionately for Raye’s greatness as a singer, praising her “megachops” and “limitless imagination.” Comparing Raye to Ella Fitzgerald (who, along with Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, admired Raye), Friedwald writes, “If Raye’s application of goddesslike intonation on top of brilliantly conceived scat singing may not have prefigured Lady Ella’s whole career, at least it certainly gave her the perfect diving board from which to spring.”

Although Raye’s output of commercial recordings is miniscule—just twelve songs done in a single year, 1939—she sang in dozens of movies and TV shows, and the documentary evidence on YouTube supports Friedwald’s case. Still, like Delaney Hall at the Schneider concert, I can’t listen to Raye without finding my judgment overtaken by associations with my parents’ nostalgia for the World War II era—USO shows, jitterbugging, and all that Greatest Generation stuff. I can’t hear the music for the generational politics. At the same time, I can recognize the charm of Raye’s old-trooper show biz in performances like this medley with the Tin Pan Alley master Harold Arlen, performed on Raye’s own 1950s TV show:

(It’s easy to see in this clip why Bob Dylan has always had a fondness for Arlen and “The Man That Got Away” in particular.) Also, there’s also something prescient and deliciously transgressive in some of Raye’s collaborations with other women—especially the kooky, pseudo-hipster scat duet she did with the gender-twisting pianist and singer Francis Faye (joined mid-song by Bing Crosby) for the 1937 movie Double or Nothing.

I will close with a synaptic pirouette to another largely forgotten singer: Amos Milburn, who is not in Friedwald’s book because he worked outside the tradition of the Great American Songbook. Another favorite of Bob Dylan’s, Milburn played virtuoso boogie-woogie piano and talk-sang wordy songs about sex and intoxicants in a proto-rap style. His professional nickname, speaking of delicious transgression, was “the He-Man Martha Raye.”