The Chestnut Tree: A Very British Entertainment

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1938) and illustrated by G. Peres.

In these posts we already turned our attention to a few British dance crazes. Think of the springy Sir Roger de Coverly, or the Northern Soul dance style of the 70’s. Perhaps you do remember the catching, working-class Lambeth Walk. Well, here is another one of these singing dance sensations: The Chestnut Tree. Hip hip hurray!

The Chestnut Tree was the second in a series of five novelty dances, of which the Lambeth Walk was the first. The dances were launched in quick succession by the outbreak of WWII, and were produced by the Mecca Dance Halls —at the time the largest dance hall chain in England. At the head of Mecca Dance was clever Carl Heimann, advertising himself in the medallion on the cover.

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co (New York, 1938). source: John Hopkins, Sheridan Libraries – Lester S. Levy sheet music collection

The American version of The Chestnut Tree cover shows us that even King George VI was tapping his breast and his head while singing along. Or wasn’t he?
In a newsreel of 1936 we see King George VI, then still the Duke of York, joining in a singalong while visiting a camp for teenage boys. Together they sing Under the spreading chestnut tree, an action song of only one verse, that is repeated again and again while certain movements replace some of the words.

Under the spreading chestnut tree,
Where I held you on my knee,
Oh how happy I should be,
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

The action song was a great hit for the royals as witnessed by this other newsreel from 1939 — even the Queen and the princesses are joining in.

It was the success of these images of the King tapping his knee, breast and head, that inspired the creators at Mecca Dance to package the children action song as a new novelty dance. Indeed, hadn’t the publicity already been done by the King himself? Thus, The Chestnut Tree was born…

‘How to dance The Chestnut Tree, by Adele England’, dance instructions on the 1938 sheet music’s back cover.

Adele England was the leading teacher in the Locarno, Mecca’s flagship ballroom in Streatham, south London. She devised the dance hall routines for Heimann’s five novelty dances. For The Chestnut Tree she was not only inspired by the action song, but also inserted elements of the polka in order to appeal to the older patrons: the dancers were invited to circle the dance floor mimicking a tree, and to conclude by boisterously shouting ‘Chestnuts!’

Mecca tried to replicate its success by creating a third dance: The Park Parade about a couple taking a romantic stroll in the park on a summer’s day and by distributing free straw hats for the dance’s launch. In the newsreel below we can see and hear Miss Adele England explaining the ball room routine.

‘The Park Parade’ by Arthur Young, Anthony Page & Tommy Duggan, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939)

Heimann’s novelty dances all had the same mix of ingredients. They were quintessential English with English composers, producers and developed by an English dancer. They were meant to be performed by (mostly white) Britons of all ages, with or without dancing experience, rich or poor alike. The dances were a simple arrangement of steps performed in repetition while the patrons circled the dance floor in couples. All routines included shouting together and were meant to be a good laugh.

Heimann didn’t leave to chance the success of his novelty dances. Instead he devised huge promotional campaigns to launch them all over England. First the sheet music including dance instructions was sent to the press and to both the Mecca and non-Mecca dance halls, free of charge. It came with a warning that the dance was not to be performed in public before the date of the national launch.

The Handsome Territorial‘ by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr. Published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939). source: Sheetmusicwarehouse

The dances then all had a simultaneous debut at the Mecca dancing halls throughout the country. Professionals demonstrated the dance first and then invited patrons to join in. The words of the song were displayed on large banners along the dance halls so that everybody could sing along. And the very same day the sheet music and gramophone records would go up for sale.

The fourth (Handsome Territorial) and fifth (Knees Up, Mother Brown) novelty dances were less successful. During the war the dance business, owing to the presence of the large number of American servicemen and the jitterbug craze, would become explicitly less ‘British‘ and more Americanised.

Time to get your knees up!

Further reading: Doing The Lambeth Walk: Novelty Dances and the British Nation, by Allison Abra

Talking Machines, Part 2: Edison’s Phonograph

‘La noce d’un chef d’orchestre’ by Emile Spencer, published by Emile Benoit (Paris, 1887) and llustrated by Elzingre.

According to the singer Charlus (1860-1951) he recorded no less than 80.000 songs which earned him the nickname ‘slave of the phonograph’. Charlus (pronounced Charlusse) was a performer who’s versatility led him to succeed in Paris in many genres, largely between 1888 and 1914. Towards the end of his long career he was a director at Pathé in Paris, and later in Marseille, responsible for the recordings of the caf’ conc’ repertoire. Today, we get an impression of his artistic talent by this recording of the ditty ‘La noce d’un chef d’orchestre‘ (The wedding of a bandmaster).

Nosing about Charlus’ career, I learned a surprising —and hard to believe— fact about the first commercial recordings at the end of the 19th century. But first let me tell you a little about the early phonographs to better understand the challenges for recording artists.

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‘Phonograph’ by Charles D. Blake published by White-Smith Music Publishing Co (Boston, 1878). Source: Johns Hopkins

The first phonographs (1877), courtesy of Edison, recorded the sound on tinfoil wrapped around a hollow hand-cranked cylinder. Tinfoil, the predecessor of household aluminium foil, was soft enough for sound waves to be etched into its surface, yet hard enough to be traced over with a needle to play back the sounds. A cylinder could record sound for up to two minutes. But after a few playbacks the foil either had ripped or the sound quickly deteriorated. The cover above shows us the French operatic soprano Marie Roze singing Home Sweet Home into such a phonograph at Steinway Hall, New York in 1878. So for the first time, the famous soprano could sit in the audience and hear herself sing.

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‘The Song Of Mister Phonograph’ by H.A.H. von Ograff published by G. Schirmer (New-York, 1878). Source: Charles H. Templeton, Sr. sheet music collection. Special Collections, Mississippi State University Libraries.

People, eager to see and hear the magical talking machine, were flocking to public exhibitions held throughout America. These exhibitions got promoted with The Song Of Mister Phonograph: “It is just long enough to be sung into one sheet of tinfoil and is admirably reproduced”. In Paris the phonograph was introduced at the International Exposition in 1878.

It took Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues seven years to improve the crude sound recording of Edison’s first phonograph. They introduced wax as the recording medium, and used engraving rather than indenting tinfoil. Edison then further refined the recording technique by replacing wax-coated cardboard tubes by all-wax cylinders. From 1889 on professionally made pre-recorded wax cylinders were commercialised. By stripping away the top layer of wax, cylinders could be reused and phonographs were even sold with an attachment that let customers record their own audio at home.

Now back to Charlus. He was one of the first artists in Paris to make recordings on cylinders from the mid-1890s on. What I didn’t know previously is that each cylinder had to be individually recorded, one by one! Moreover, the machines didn’t pick up sound very well so one had to shout into them. All in all an exhausting experience.

Le Muet mélomane‘ by Gerny, published by F. Petit (Paris, s.d.). source:

Around 1900 in the studios of Pathé Frères, Charlus recorded Le Muet mélomane of which 500 cylinders were made. This meant for Charlus that he had to repeat the same song 500 times!
Charlus recorded an average of 80 songs a day, 40 in the morning, 40 in the afternoon. Some time later Pathé Frères used three cylinders at the same time. But as by then sales had increased, the artists had to work even harder. Thus Charlus had to interpret the song L’ Aventure espagnole more than 1.500 times in order to create 5.000 cylinders. No wonder his nickname was ‘slave of the phonograph’.

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Aventure Espagnole‘ by Léopold Gangloff, Delormel & Garnier. Published by F. Vargues (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Faria.

Charlus in ‘Lecture Pour Tous‘, January 1934: “I sang duets with Mrs. Rollini, who had an excellent voice. You would have laughed at our posture while recording these duets. In order to stay close to the horn which was hardly more than 25 centimetres in diameter, we had to hug each other; she held me by the neck and I held her by the waist! We couldn’t move. When there was a need to imitate the sound of a kiss, ouch! .. I stuck it on her cheek: it was a natural kiss.”

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As a tribute to the pioneering work of Charlus more than 120 years ago, we gladly bring here a performance by Van Morrison, the king of endless repetition.

Talking Machines, Part 1: Charles Cros

Sheet music cover of 'L'Orgue'
‘L’Orgue’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1900]) and illustrated by Charles Léandre.

The cover of L’Orgue, magnificently illustrated by Charles Léandre, oozes end-of-the-century gloom, a typical form of expression of the Parisian Symbolist and Decadent artistic movement. The composer of the music for L’Orgue is Gabriel Fabre, now a forgotten symbolist, but in his time a well known artist, successful in all of the salons. For his short melodies and piano works he sought inspiration from texts by Verlaine, Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Charles Cros. He —or his publisher— chose fine artists to illustrate the covers of his scores, such as Lepère, Signac, Le Sidaner or Léandre.

The poet who wrote the lyrics for L’Orgue is Charles Cros (1842-1888), one of the poètes maudits. Cros was friends with the notorious Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. This friendship halted in 1872 when Cros sided with the abandoned wife (and son) of Verlaine, who preferred to continue his stormy affair with Rimbaud in faraway London…

Cover of sheet music 'L'Archet'
‘L’Archet’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1895]) and illustrated by Auguste Louis Lepère.

The unconventional Charles Cros was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He was largely self-taught and had a wide interest, amongst others in chemistry, physics, medicine and oriental languages. His scientific papers include theories on improved telegraph equipment, colour photography, and communication with the inhabitants of Mars or Venus by means of signals flashed by huge mirrors. Contemporary scientists considered his work as ludicrous.

Charles Cros by Atelier Nadar. Source: Wikipedia.

Charles Cros, who most of the time was penniless, lacked the flair for business. Often he was too late or without financial resources to create prototypes, or he forgot to patent his inventions. His biggest missed opportunity was the invention of the phonograph.

In April 30, 1877, he deposited a paper in a sealed envelope with the Parisian Académie des Sciences describing the principle of a sound reproduction device, which he called paléophone. He stated that sound vibrations can be engraved in metal using a pencil attached to a vibrating membrane. Subsequently, by sliding a stylus attached to another membrane over this engraving, one would be able to reproduce the original sound. Before Charles Cros had the opportunity to follow up on his idea, or even build a prototype, Thomas Edison in the US developed and patented his phonograph on January 15, 1878. When this news reached Paris, Cros asked the Academy to open his sealed envelope to prove that he had invented this technical concept first.

The bohemian lifestyle of Charles Cros and his addiction to absinthe contributed to his early death in 1888, aged 45. It is said Cros drank as many as 20 absinthes a day. Sadly, he is now remembered for almost having invented the phonograph.
And I, I almost cut my hair!

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