November 3rd, 2006
Title: Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook
Artists: William Brown, Ann Sears
Catalog No.: TROY 839/40 (2 CD set)
Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook takes us back to the phonograph era with a collection of 26 songs for voice and piano. The two CD set, which encompasses various styles including coon songs, art songs, parlor songs, Negro spirituals, and musical theater, represents some of Will Marion Cook’s more well-known works from the 1898-1934 period. In the present day much of Cook’s music has been forgotten. Interestingly enough, several of his songs were recorded for the first time on Swing Along. William Brown, tenor, and Ann Sears, piano, together take on the challenge of preserving this important part of musical history.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1869, Will Marion Cook was a talented composer and musician. Similar in ideals to Scott Joplin, he wanted to elevate black music by taking it out of the minstrel show to the higher art form of the black musical. In his formative years, Cook was no doubt influenced by the sounds of ragtime in addition to the classical music training he received while at Oberlin College. By the turn of the twentieth century, Cook had become highly respected for his compositions for voice as well as his syncopated orchestral works and black musical comedies.
Swing Along features the late William Brown, who draws on his extensive experience in opera, blues, jazz, and gospel for this recording. Brown’s command of the various styles represented in this album is impressive, as is his virtuosity, which allows him to easily run up and down his range. He also incorporates theatrical nuances, such as the use of different voices to delineate various characters in the narrative text. This careful attention to musical detail helps give a turn-of-the-century authenticity to this recording. Musicality aside, it must also be mentioned that the CD is accompanied by extensive liner notes by Marva Griffin Carter, which include brief biographies of the composer and performers, lyrics in their entirety and, most importantly, a short contextualization of each song. Although Brown and Sears are in top form and the liner notes impressive, there are still some shortcomings worth mentioning.
Unfortunately, this recording lacks somewhat in sonic diversity. Despite the fact that the musical selections come from a range of traditions, it feels as if the same song plays over and over. Also, there appears to be no thought put into the organization of songs—the tracks jump around between different time periods and genres. Consequently, after 26 songs, the voice and piano combination becomes somewhat monotonous. The addition of another instrument every now and then could have added more interest to the work overall. Nonetheless, Brown and Sears are to be commended for taking on this project and reviving Cook’s music. When viewed from the stance of preservation rather than entertainment, this recording only seems to lack the pops and cracks of the phonograph on which this music probably would have been played.
Posted by Stephanie Fida
Editor’s Note: For more music of Will Marion Cook and his contemporaries, check out New World Records CD 80611-2 (2003), Black Manhattan: Theater and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members of the Legendary Clef Club. Also, watch for Dr. Marva G. Carter’s forthcoming biography of Will Marion Cook, to be published by Oxford University Press.