Wednesday, December 29, 2010


When the somewhat frail Groucho Marx made his "comeback," sparked by companion Erin Fleming and such devotees as Dick Cavett and Marvin Hamlisch, he briefly toured in a one-man show. Released by A&M cobbled from several tapes (as Groucho wasn't always on target at every performance with every song or anecdote), the program sounded like a triumph. Old Julius was getting stampeding applause just for mentioning the names of old movies. Every anecdote and witticism was treasured (and most deserved to be) and a big revelation was his choice of songs. Naturally he included crowd-pleasers written or co-written by his friend Harry Ruby, but he dipped into nostalgia for some numbers he remembered others singing in vaudeville or on 78rpm.

One of those: "Stay Down Where You Belong," is by the usually optimistic Irving Berlin. It's about The Devil himself, talking to his son about how much nicer it is in Hell than on Earth. A song that would've been a little too grim for Rufus T. Firefly to sing in "Duck Soup," it's an anti-war piece that includes these lines, which Groucho sometimes reprised for his audience in an encore coda: "They're breaking the heart of mothers, making butchers out of brothers. You'll find more hell up there than there is down below."

While the song was also covered by Tiny Tim (it appears on "God Bless," 1968) the original's been an obscurity since 1915, when it was recorded by one of the great stars of the era, Henry Burr (born Harry McClaskey in Canada, January 15, 1882 - April 6, 1941). Burr was one of the busiest performers in the acoustic days of brittle black shellac, making discs faster than clumsy people could break them. Scholars are still unsure how many sides Burr recorded…estimates are 3,000-5,000. Aside from being a soloist, he sang duets with Ada Jones, Albert Campbell, Louise McMahon and many others, and was a key member of the Sterling Trio and the Peerless Quartet. He also used plenty of aliases as he recorded for many rival labels. He was Harry Barr for Harmony, Harry Haley for Apex, Henry Gillette for Aurora, Alfred Knapp for Velvetone, Alfred Alexander for Pathe, Robert Bruce for Emerson, and on and on.

As you'd expect from a guy who was required to sing loud and clear for primitive recordings, and to reach the back row of a concert hall, Henry's style was somewhat melodramatic, which matched the sentiments of so many of the songs he covered, including "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," "I'se Gwine Back to Dixie," "Missouri Waltz" and "Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" As you can tell by the titles, the best way to reach buyers at the time was to play on their patriotism, ethnicity, or maudlin love of home and family. It was definitely odd for Burr to sing a cynical number such as "Stay Down Where You Belong." The songs that were most popular in the World War One era were positive ones, including the George M. Cohan classic from 1917 that ends: "And we won't come back 'til it's over Over There!" The few anti-war numbers ("I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier" and "Don't Take My Darling Boy Away") were sentimental, with this one, perhaps the only hit that was a downright protest song.


1 comment:

Duncanmusic said...

To me this is about as cool as it gets in a posting. I love the history, bringing it up close where folks can relate and dig what stays the same no matter what. Great song; have to dig out my Tiny Tim and listen to his version. Henry Burr sure is prolific. I always seem to find a 78 of his whenever I DO find a big pile. I'll be looking for more now. Probably a lot at Archive.Org's 78 section I presume.
Really, thanks for this one. I enjoy what you do even if I don't comment everytime.