I have noted in the past, some articles from the early 20th century that were critical of saxophones and saxophone players. (They were, of course, nothing but a reflection of the feelings and opinions of some of the general populace.) Well none however, were as verbose, nor perhaps as cheeky, as the following piece from the Sunday, August 14, 1921 edition of the The Milwaukee Journal.
So grab yourselves a good cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy this tidbit from the day when the C melody was the undisputed king of the saxophone family. (At least when it came to the home-trained masses.)
Sadly there was no byline provided for this piece, so the author will remain forever in anonymity. Hey, I wouldn’t want to sign my name to this either.
Oh, and I hope you enjoy my satirical commentary interjected here, there and everywhere. Because let’s face it, there is nothing about this article that can be taken seriously.
Saxophone, the Greatest Blow of All
Orpheus Used It to Play His Wife Out of Hades, but Modern Abusers of the Squeeking, Squawling Instrument Would Seemingly Reverse His Feat
Have you been startled of late months by an alarming uproar from a neighbor’s house–something different from the usual disturbing noises?—A series of sonorous groans, grunts, gurgles, squeals, squawls, screeches and squeakings. And have you stepped over to see if retribution or a new baby or another crate of chickens has arrived?
And have you found that it is nothing short of your neighbor’s son learning to play the saxophone?
And now a word from our sponsor…
Buescher True Tone Advertisement from 1929
We return you now to the regularly scheduled saxophone bashing.
If that has been your experience, you have only duplicated the plight of thousands throughout the length and breadth of the land, for the voice of the saxophone, that hybrid horn, is being heard in all these United States. It has reached the point of a craze, the instrument being just easy enough for anyone to play somehow or somewhat.
Grandfather, we remember, played the mouth organ on all occasions. Dad was indefatigable on the banjo. A less musically virile younger generation resorted to a slipshod strumming upon the Hawaiian ukulele. And now with the vigor of reconstruction comes the saxophone, giving every indication of being the hardest blow of all.
Hence it comes about that few communities are without their saxophonists, budding, blooming or full blown. Quiet mountain lakes this summer will hear a substitute for the cry of the loon. On the seashore, there will be a new and dominant note in the booming of the breakers.
File Your Order Early
Saxophone surveys made in music stores show an alarmingly heavy demand for the things. Reports are they are selling three times as well as other instruments and that is in spite of the price which runs from close to $100 to far beyond it.
“You have to file your orders away ahead of time, just as you do for xxxxxxx,” [word illegible] said one salesman.
It can be seen the time is coming, nay, is at hand, when a purchaser of one of the instruments must with great foresight file his order for his 1921 saxophone, brass or nickel fittings, muffler and cut out, wind shield, water proof top and 60 horsepower. [Sounds a bit steampunk to me.]
Perhaps it was through fiction that the saxophone first came into wide notice. In George Randolph Chester‘s Wallingford stories, the saturnine “Blackie Daw” often was pictured and described playing on the saxophone, while meditating some heinous xxxxxxxxx [word illegible] deal. One of the faults of Booth Tarkington‘s hero, “Clarence,” was the saxophone. After appearing in xxxxxx [word illegible] the saxophone came into popularity in very truth—that truth which is stranger than fiction.
And now another word from our fine sponsors, Buescher True Tone saxophones…
It’s Saturday night. Are you looking to get lucky? Got sax? No problem.
Buescher True Tone Advertisement from 1925
A Courting Weapon
The saxophone has become a veritable social parlor trick. Young men take their saxophones with them to serenade and court. It is true, one hears them more than one sees them. They generally stay out of sight, seeming to have fears of reprisals, fears which, it may be remarked, are not entirely groundless. Amateur players on the saxophone who volunteer to help out without recompense are the despair of dance orchestras. Nearly all amateur theatricals include as a matter of course a quartet or octet of saxophone players, or an even more numerous group of these offenders in full blast.
If there ever is any question of reparations or an indemnity for the inauguration of the saxophone craze, the matter well may be checked back to the Brown Brothers, who stepped forth one first night, heavily disguised as clowns, and opened up on an unprepared and unarmed “Chin Chin” audience with a terrific barrage of six saxophones. Ever since then there have been imitation Brown Brothers, their identity cloaked behind a mask of white grease paint. There is scarcely a theater in the country which has not echoed to the moanings of much aggregations, as they moved up and down the stage, thus making it harder for them to be hit.
Let’s stop here for a moment shall we, and enjoy a brief musical interlude from the famous, Canadian—yes, they really were from Canada—Brown Brothers.
Shocking. I say simply shocking. My god, what a cacophony of noise! We Canadians must hang our heads in shame. Apparently we have been exporting our musical talent world-wide for nearly 100 years. I guess the likes of Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, BTO, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, k.d. lang, Nickelback, The Guess Who, Michael Buble, Paul Shaffer, and on, and on, and on, can thank the Brown Brothers for the precedent.
We return now to the saxophone-bashing in progress.
The saxophone craze has an accomplice in every dance orchestra. The saxophonists are made unduly prominent and given a wide leeway from the score of the music played, with the result of fearful and wonderful “variations.” One of those original sounds is known as the “laugh” on the saxophone, although a purist might be inclined to say the laugh was on the person with the sensitive ears.
Another War Criminal
The forerunner of the saxophone probably was an instrument known as the serpent, a curved horn, the twists of which bore some resemblance to a snake. It is told of the composer, Wagner, that on hearing the guttural explosions of the instrument for the first time, he inquired its name. He was informed it was called the serpent. With a look of disgust, the great musician observed in his broken English, “Ah, surely, dot was not do serpent dot seduced Eve.”
The saxophone proper (so to speak) was invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, who might have been charged along with the Kaiser as one of the war criminals were he living today. However, Adolphe probably did not realize to what lengths his invention would be blown.
Another Interlude: He’s gotta’ be kidding. Or is he?
Strange as it may seem, a use has been found for the saxophone in classical orchestras. Halevy called for the saxophone to denote the anguish and despair of humanity on the Last Great Day, and without doubt the instrument did it admirably. Bizet used the instrument for even wider registration to express gentle melancholy. Inexpressible sadness, resignation, hopelessness and grief. And certainly if those are not the saxophone’s expressions they undoubtedly are its results.
Orpheus Played Saxophone
Even before Mr. Sax devised his idea of a phone, there is a very credible theory that the horn in question or some recognizable ancestor of it existed in antiquity or mythology. In the mists of time the identity of musical instruments played upon by fabled or semi-historical musicians of fame is very easy confuse. Apollo, for instance, was accused of playing the flute, while it is very unlikely that anyone considered to be as handsome as Apollo was ever would have allowed himself to be seen looking as funny as one must when he plays the flute. It is proverbialbut by no means certain that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but for all that is actually known, the tyrant might have played anything else except the hose.
“I’m just too damn pretty to play flute. Apollo (OK, so I made that up, but then so did the journalist who wrote this piece of hysterical fiction.)
Orpheus, one of the most noted musicians of all time, is alleged to have emitted the lyre. That seems most inaccurate in the light of the effects which the music of Orpheus are said to have had. It seems hardly possible that he could have played anything other than the saxophone.
When Orpheus struck up, it is reported that sticks and stones and trees were moved to dance about. When that is read, it draws a laugh as a myth. And yet does it seem far fetched after observing the rheumatic gentlemen and heavy ladies who instantly take the floor when a saxophone sounds off in a dance orchestra today?
Tricked Old Cerberus
But the most conclusive piece of evidence in the case is the expedition which Orpheus undertook to ransom his wife, Eurydice, by means of his persuasive music. In the course of human events, Eurydice had died. Missing her, Orpheus slung his saxophone over his shoulder (granting the contention it was that instrument) and set out. He asked no directions, seeming to know just where he would find Mrs. Orpheus. His destination, he announced, was Hades [the underground home of the dead in Greek mythology].
Arriving at the gate of that region, he found it was guarded by a three-headed hound, which breathed fire, was very bad tempered and had the tail of a serpent which rattled when it wagged. The animal would answer to the name of Cerberus, but no one ever called him. Orpheus solved the problem by playing some high notes on his instrument. Almost any dog, it may be proved by experiments, will howl mournfully at the playing of a saxophone. While Cerberus was so indulging, Orpheus slipped through the gate.
OK, I’ll give the article’s author this one point. Many dogs do tend to bay at the sound of saxophones. Although none of mine did, one of my borzoi was very fond of howling, in almost perfect pitch no less, to “New Attitude”, by Patti LaBelle.
Orpheus betook himself to headquarters of Hades, after a few difficulties on the way in convincing several devils he merely was a visitor. He obtained an audience with King Pluto.
“Mrs. Orpheus is in?” the musician inquired.
“For keeps,” said Pluto uncomprissingly [sic].
“Oh, well. Orpheus replied, changing the subject. “I dropped down to give you a musicale.”
“Fair enough,” declared the infernal monarch. “Let ‘er go, professor.”
Imitated Hades Chorus
Orpheus put his saxophone to his lips and began syncopating some “blues,” which he believed was the composition most likely to find local favor. Plato listened entranced, now and then shaking a satanic shoulder. But while he applauded for encores, it was clear he was not yet in the xxxxxxx [word illegible] mood. It was while Orpheus was putting a few trick attachments on his instrument that fate played into his hands.
Near the hall there happened to be a furnace in which a batch of damned souls were sizzling. In the pause before an encore, a devil dropped around to make an inspection of that furnace and found that it had gotten full of clinkers, was giving out hardly any heat at all and the damned souls within, who were barely being scorched, were congratulating each other on the mild temperature and joking about changing back to their winter underclothes. Maybe that devil didn’t shake down that grate and pull out those clinkers with a volley of oaths at the local coal dealer’s product! The resulting tumult of howls and bellows came to the ears of Orpheus in the concert hall.
What should the alert musician do but imitate it all on the saxophone, finding it made a most suitable tune for that instrument. It brought down the cavern.
Played Wife Out of Hades
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Pluto. “That was the most homelike little piece I ever heard. It certainly sounded like hell! What can I ever do to repay you?”
“Let me have my wife back,” Orpheus instantly requested.
“Huh!” grunted Pluto. “Eccentric chaps, these musicians. “Oh, well, take her. But don’t look at her till you get out of my territory.”
That order of Pluto’s was violated by Orpheus, for he looked at his wife before he had carried her back to earth again and in consequence a devil snatched her and escorted her back to the infernal regions.
But that did not lessen Orpheus’ musical triumph. Performing on the saxophone—for that such was the instrument must by this time have been proven to the reader’s satisfaction—he had literally played his wife out of hell.
But that was Orpheus. Most of the saxophonists one hears nowadays seem to be trying to reverse this famous old feat.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s instalment of saxophone bashing 401. It really was an upper level course on how the saxophone was despised during the sax-happy 1920s. But did you notice the date? This was written in 1921! I can only imagine how this author was feeling by the mid 20s. By the end of the decade he may have even welcomed the Great Depression, because it ultimately brought about the end of saxophone’s reign in pop culture.