adapted/arr. Paul & Teresa Jennings
These days, a craze, even a pretty big one, lasts a week, or if it's really big, maybe a month or two. When the "Charleston" came on the scene, though, it was popular for years. As a matter of fact, even today, some 95 years later, when a filmmaker or TV writer wants to evoke the 1920s, he or she uses this song or a song that sounds like it rhythmically to tell your brain to think of that era.
The song and the dance - This song was written by two famous writers of the period, Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson, the latter also being an accomplished pianist, and the first to introduce "stride piano" into his style of playing. They wrote this song to facilitate the Charleston dance number in the Broadway musical comedy production Runnin' Wild. (In this particular chicken and egg question, the dance preceded the song.)
If your students appreciate good music and music that is different from what they hear every day, you would do well to spend some time discussing James P. Johnson. He was much revered in his time as a pianist, and grew more famous as he matured. He is considered the primary bridge between ragtime and jazz, with his technique followed by greats like Fats Waller, Count Basie, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington. There are a number of recordings out there of his playing, some live and some from his performances captured on piano rolls, the most common way of recording piano performances in the early 20th century.
Happy Birthday and more copyright fun - We want to note that February 1, 2019, is the 125th birthday of James P. Johnson. We had wanted to publish the tune in the last issue of this magazine – our January/February issue – but as you will read later, we just got the rights to publish this song. We try to get each issue to you early, so by sending it before the turn of the year, we would have given you the song while it was still under copyright... until January 1.
Yes, 1923 and 2019 are important years for anyone who loves older music and wants to be able to use it legally. Through the 1970s and 1980s, copyright law was fairly generous, putting a new group of tunes in the public domain every year some 70 years after the work was published. But as the public domain option started to approach the 1920s, owners of big copyrights and works of art, including films and Disney cartoons, lobbied to give their works a longer copyright life. So all of a sudden there were no new public domain tunes to look forward to every year. Congress passed a new law which changed the rule to 95 years after copyright and even longer for sound recordings.
But that is why many people are glad to see 2019 roll around – 95 years has finally passed since these songs were first published! Every year now, thousands of works will enter the public domain. Consequently, you will see arrangements of some of them in our pages going forward. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. Of course, most people only know a few of these songs, and only a few of them are appropriate for children even when we adapt the lyrics, as we did here. In 1923, for instance, you will find "Sugar Blues," "Bugle Call Rag," "Yes, We Have No Bananas," Stravinsky's Octet For Winds, "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'," and, of course, "Charleston."
Our arrangement - We wanted to keep this setting simple for a few reasons. For one thing, we wanted to emphasize the iconic "Charleston" rhythm, the one that occurs every time the word is sung. For another, we didn't want the lyrics to be too difficult, especially if the dance is being used or if they are performing the faster of the two versions we offer. (There is a slower version online which you can use for rehearsal or performance, as you like.)
Though we have chosen to record our singers singing the lyrics both times, you don't have to do that. You could sing the first chorus, but for the second time through, have the performers play kazoos, then switch back to singing for the ending. Or, if you are having everyone dance, just do that (no singing) for that part of the second time, again resuming the singing at the end. The orchestration will make it sound great either way. The bottom line here is to be as flexible and creative as you wish bringing this wonderful old favorite to life with your students.
Dance the Charleston! - As you might expect, this is the tune from this issue that our choreographer, Melissa Schott, is featuring this time. You can find her demo video online along with a PDF of her movement notes. Use her moves as she shows them, or adapt them freely for your own situation. For example, you could showcase some of your more serious dancers. Let them really step out the second time while singers look on. Bring everyone back in – singers and dancers – for a big finish!
Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.