Dr. David Shevin photograph

A Viva For Elizabeth Lands

August 5, 2004

Lately I've been feeding my obsession with old vinyl. Wherever the specialty shops and thrift stores have gathered the detritus from everybody's attic and garage, I'm the geek picking through the historic record, going, "Oh, THIS one would be cool to hear." For a while I was getting rid of my records (like everyone else in this age of constant new technologies.) Then I decided that I like the older technology. It's hardly for audiophile reasons. I could care less about the "purity of sound" debates. I simply like all the needle noise, pops, quirks and human feel of those discs ... and having big pieces of cardboard with big pictures and readable text. Those were artistic presentations in themselves.

Besides, I like the era of the LP recording. Musicians today have terrific conveniences . they play together by sending files across computer wires, and the production of a CD is relatively inexpensive. Still, it makes me respect those days when artists had to confront the expense and effort of physically getting into the same studio at the same time. I wish I could have been, for example, at the 1959 session when Harpo Marx sat as his harp to accompany Mahalia Jackson singing Marx's composition "Guardian Angels". Can you imagine what those two geniuses' conversation must have been like? Also, just for fun, I like turning over an old P.D.Q. Bach album to read Professor Schickele's description of the composer's instrumentation for the "tromboon": "[T]his instrument is a hybrid - that's the nicer word - constructed from the parts of a bassoon and a trombone; it has all the disadvantages of both."

Without question, the strangest bit of old vinyl I unearthed this season is a recording that must date from the late '50s, a Mercury Records release called "UNTAMED!" by a singer named Elizabeth Lands. From what I can learn from the web, her debut album is also her entire recorded oeuvre. The boys at Mercury were making a lot of money from jazz greats like Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington in those days, and the hype on the album compares Elizabeth to those others. The girl had a hard-luck-coming-up-as-an-orphan-in-Harlem biography. She made a hit on the gospel circuit. Then a composer named (honest!) Jack Hammer heard her singing in a Brooklyn club, brought her to attention of the label, and composed a whole album of arrangements for the singer who possessed, as the copywriters claimed, a unique talent: "Elizabeth Lands has an Yma Sumac range with a Mahalia Jackson soul." The copywriters were correct about everything, except for the Mahalia Jackson part.

So we get this very period recording. The instrumentation is sparse. Most tracks feature guitar, bass, the occasional harmony voice, and flute. Oh, and bongos. LOTS of bongos. Mercury recording director Clyde Otis was descended from a bongo. The copywriters, again, explain the choices. They assure us, in Italics, that this is "probably the first vocal album ever made by a feminine voice where there is no real melodic background anytime in the entire twelve songs." You can almost hear the unrecorded instructions from the producers. "All right, girl. On this first track, you'll be doing a virtually unaccompanied 'Ol' Man River', so give it all you've got." Bass and bongos lay down a rhythm, and Elizabeth attacks the song. No, I don't mean "interprets". She ATTACKS the tune, investing deep and inappropriate emotions into every phrase, and singing passages that only dogs can hear. It's a noise that never wound up catching on with a wide listening audience, but I have played this over and over in utter amazement, hearing something new and annoying each time.

While "Ol' Man River" is the premiere tour-de-force, there are other delights a-plenty here. "Have a Child" celebrates a woman's fulfillment in the act of childbirth; "Plain Gold Ring" is a paean to marriage; "Friday the Thirteenth" describes a star-crossed love. A spectacularly aggressive rendering of "Summertime" gives a lie to the lyric. Nowhere is "the living easy" in this noise. Dying would be easier. And the folk song "Ku Ku Ba" is seemingly constructed of the mating noises of chalk and board.

A hungry public never did demand a sophomore album from Diva Lands, but this one accomplishment is certainly memorable enough. "Vivas to those who have failed!" wrote Whitman, and Elizabeth Lands gets my heartfelt admiration. Viva Lands! Viva, unknown creators! And viva, the old disks . the contemporary cybermusicians will be leaving us no precious artifacts as these.

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