Watch That’s Entertainment! and listen to The Golden Age of Movie Musicals, and by comparison Judy Garland’s talents will be immediately apparent. She had energy and character. She never shied away from her slightly swallowed midwestern accent. In concerts she recognized her star status but made overt efforts to connect with her audience without condescension or pretension. She avoided overt pandering too. In an era of when everything from racism to cronyism to plain stupidity kept plenty of under-qualified entertainers in the limelight, Judy seemed to actually earn her time there — even if that dedication contributed to her well-documented personal issues and substance abuse. She became a camp icon for good reason. This particular compilation isn’t definitive. While these songs may be Garland’s hits, these recorded versions generally aren’t canonical ones. Many — if not all — are live and probably from Garland’s many concert performances from the 1950s, though the album sleeve gives no indication of the origins of the recordings. She is still backed by talented orchestras, finely-crafted arrangements, and the sound fidelity loses nothing despite being live. Here’s to Judy.
All show tunes and orchestral pop. Robeson’s vocals are nothing short of great. Yet the rather generic orchestral backing does a disservice to the music. It’s worth noting that on this version of “Ol’ Man River” Robeson has changed (and improved) the lyrics.
An excellent collection of early Robeson recordings for His Master’s Voice. There are a large and confusing number of Robeson compilations available. This one focuses exclusively on recordings from the 1920s and 1930s (and then mostly from the 30s). The bulk of this consists of showtunes/pop, but there are some spirituals as well. Though these recordings are so old as to have nowhere near the fidelity of Robeson’s 1940s recordings for Columbia Records, they, along with associated stage and screen appearances, are what helped first make him famous. The songs included here are well selected. It’s important to note that at this early stage Robeson was forced to record racist, condescending material in order to make a living in Jim Crow America. So the version of “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat” that is so closely associated with Robeson opens with the lyrics “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / Niggers all work while the white folks play.” It is crucial that these bigoted lyrics not be excised from history and forgotten, as if it all never happened, but remembered for what burdens an artist like Robeson had to deal with. Yet, this compilation does a huge service by sequencing “Ol’ Man River” (possibly the reason some might pick up this album) as the last song. It’s worth noting that in later years when Robeson’s stature was assured, he changed the words of “Ol’ Man River” to be more dignified when he performed and recorded it.
Various Artists – The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)
While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres. I really respect what was done here. From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing. It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century. People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”. The common denominator of this music is its simplicity. In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level. The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated. The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato. The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges. Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism. The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on. It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast. I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income? At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does. But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work. “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs. And there are plenty more great songs here. There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest. There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).