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That Phantom Harvest Moon

Today’s guest post was written by David Sager, Reference Assistant in the Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

Photo of Nora Bayes

Undated portrait of Nora Bayes. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection.  //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.35668

In recognition of the harvest moon today, this blog entry is dedicated to one of the most popular and enduring songs of the early 20th century and a lamented lost recording of that era.

Back during the days of vaudeville and such musical revues as the Ziegfeld Follies, a name to be reckoned with was Nora Bayes, (1880 – 1928). A versatile actress, singer, and comedienne, she sang in a rich and throaty contralto over which she had great control. She was also the possessor of a keen wit and could shift moods suddenly within the chorus of a song, alternating between narration and portrayals of various ethnic types, all the while, maintaining poise and musicality.

She was, perhaps, the biggest star of her time; her fame rivaled the other top stars of the day, such as Fay Templeton, Eva Tanguay, and Lillian Russell. She also was a fiery and volatile presence – very much fitting the star persona. Highly influential, echoes of her style can be heard in the recordings of artists such as Marion Harris and Ethel Waters, the latter of whom was once billed as “The ebony Nora Bayes.”

Detail from “Falling Star.” Sheet music cover. Jerome H. Remick & Co., New York, NY, 1909.

From 1908 to 1913 Bayes was married to song and dance man Jack Norworth, best remembered today as the lyricist for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Together they composed and performed several hit songs on the musical stage during the time of their brief marriage. Perhaps the most popular of these was “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” which they sang in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908. The song has endured over the years, in part due to its easy lyric and unforgettable melody. And it is a simple song on which to harmonize. For those who may need a reminder, here is a link to the original sheet music from the IN Harmony exhibit at Indiana University.

Bayes and Norworth recorded two takes of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” for the Victor Talking Machine Company on March 7, 1910. Neither was released, and to this day no trace of them has been found. Collectors and historians have been searching for decades to find a test pressing of this recording, not only in order to hear this landmark song sung by its originators, but also for what seems to promise a marvelous performance.

Cover of sheet music for "Come Along My Mandy."

“Come along my Mandy!” New York: T. B. Harms, 1907.

As well as “Shine On, Harvest Moon” is remembered, Bayes and Norworth‘s manner of performance is all but forgotten. Fortunately, they recorded a few selections that hint at the compelling and delightful nature of their stage act. They had a special routine that was used as a template for their songs. What made it so special was that Norworth’s rather high tenor seemed higher than Miss Bayes’ contralto. As a result, their songs would change keys several times during the performance as they traded the melody and harmony. And the final chorus featured Norworth’s melody, while Bayes sang a ragtime-infused and swinging counter melody.

This routine is easily discerned on their recording of “Come Along, My Mandy,” which they co-wrote and performed together in the musical “The Jolly Bachelors.” The song opens with Norworth taking the song’s verse and chorus solo. Then comes a key change and Miss Bayes has her solo turn with the verse, being joined by Norworth, in harmony on chorus. The key then shifts again, back to Norworth’s key where he again takes the melody and Bayes essays a wonderfully exuberant obbligato, raggy and loose-limbed.

Here is the recording from the National Jukebox:

The very same routine applies to their 1911 recording of the up-tempo “Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man,” a song they co-wrote and performed in the show “Little Miss Fix-It.”

This song is also available on the Library’s National Jukebox.

"Mister Moon-Man Turn Off That Light" Sheet music cover.

“Mister Moon-Man Turn Off That Light.” Sheet music cover. New York: Norworth Pub. Co., 1910

So, it would stand to reason that the lost Bayes and Norworth recording of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” would follow the same routine, and perhaps was the prototype for these other songs. And, it seems that published duo recordings of the period may reflect the Bayes-Norworth model. However, they do not. The Columbia recording by Ada Jones and Billy Murray is simply a straight reading off the sheet music, though harmonized. This plus two other versions may be heard through the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive.

An odd quirk about the tune is that in its first edition, the familiar phrase, “January, February, June, or July” is not there. Instead, an awkward “April” starts the list. Norworth later explained that it was an attempt at humor, depicting an individual who was not familiar with the rotation of the months. The joke fell flat and almost immediately the more familiar version was put into publication. In May 1910 the Victor Talking Machine Company did issue an instrumental version of the song, played as a schottische by Arthur Pryor’s Band. Their version reflects the improved lyric.

The Pryor version can also be found on the  National Jukebox .

Although we will probably never get to hear a Bayes and Norworth performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” the story has a bittersweet ending.

In 1943, Jack Norworth obliged record collector/journalist Jim Walsh, who had been searching for the missing Bayes-Norworth master, by making a home-made recording of “Shine on, harvest moon,” especially for him.

The recording is part of the Library’s Jim Walsh Collection, and can be listened to by visiting the Recorded Sound Research Center (see //www.loc.gov/rr/record/) located in the Library’s Madison Building in Washington, D.C. On it we hear Norworth’s tenor sweetly singing the melody. Perhaps, if our imaginations will allow, we can hear a ghostly Nora Bayes, singing a rollicking obbligato.

Other recordings by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth in addition to thousands  of other recordings can be heard by in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox.