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What 'Boardwalk Empire' really does right: American pop's salad days

Boardwalkempire23 I love the golden age of appointment television. I was a lifelong surfer, jumping between cooking shows and "Law and Order"  reruns in a vain attempt to avoid being told what probiotic to buy, until our DVR made it possible for me to select the few, the proud, the Emmy-nominated shows that feel like serial films for the jaded, over-educated consumer. "Mad Men"!  "True Blood"! "Glee"! And now there's "Boardwalk Empire," HBO's latest attempt to give Netflix a run for its money with high production values, big names, and an addictive storyline.

Sunday I tuned in to the first episode of this bank-busting journey back to the days of bathtub gin and Ziegfeld girls. I agree with my esteemed colleague Robert Lloyd that the pilot was not the perfect H&H bagel --  toothsome surface plus chewy center, a substantial narrative meal -- but more of a pre-sliced La Brea Bakery loaf. Still, one thing stood out, beyond the classic Scorsese montages and the pleasure of watching Steve Buscemi wrinkle his brow.

The music!

"Boardwalk Empire" is blessed with one of the great music supervisors: Randall Poster, who worked with Todd Haynes on my favorite music film of all time, the glamtastic Velvet Goldmine, one highlight on a stunning resume that also includes "School of Rock," "Rushmore," "I'm Not There," "The Aviator" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Poster has described working on "Boardwalk Empire" as musical archaeology, as he and his team of archivists and musicians dig up and sometimes re-create the sound of the period's nickelodeons, vaudeville stars and hot jazz bands.

The pilot included hits from some major stars of the era, like Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor (the man known as "banjo eyes" was portrayed, performing in whiteface, by Stephen DeRosa). The gangster Big Jim Colosimo was floridly murdered as a recording by Enrico Caruso, the tenor who was arguably the first international recording star, played on his gramophone. And of course, the unavoidable Al Jolson got his moment: his (relatively) wistful "Avalon" played in the background as Buscemi's Nucky contemplated his future as reflected in a fortune-teller's window.

Then there's the less easily identifiable stuff, which, given the lack of a Glee-style instant iTunes anthology (or even a song list on the Boardwalk Empire homepage) calls for a good old-fashioned archival dig. I've been trolling the Internet since Sunday, trying to figure out just what string quartet played while Nucky and the gangster elite had their first big summit, and which rags got the partygoers jumping in the casino scenes. Mere Google searches didn't offer much beyond talk of the music used in the trailer -- cuts from Jack White and Allison Mosshart's band the Dead Weather and the semi-legendary psych-rock outfit the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

So I reached out to some of my pals who've made an avocation of burying their heads in pop's dustiest crates. Crack gumshoes, they came through with a few ID's. The writer and early recording aficionado Jody Rosen pointed me toward Tucker's 1915 cylinder recording of "Some of These Days" and to the slide-whistling "Whispering," by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, from 1920. The composer and sax player Andrew Raffo Dewar called out the "Fascination" waltz, a song with a long international history. Barry Mazor, author of a great book on Jimmie Rodgers, was the one who reminded me that Eddie Cantor often performed in whiteface.

Allen Lowe, the man behind several exhaustive, amazing anthologies of early pop and jazz, reminded me that the Archeophone label and Sony's Art Deco series are good places to start exploring music from this period. The musician, writer and philosophy prof Franklin Bruno pointed me toward a few online resources, including UC Santa Barbara's cylinder preservation and digitization project, and a more homespun one run by collector Jim Lavelle.

Bruno also performs some of this vintage music with his lovely companion Bree Benton -- their material is, as he writes, "more on the pathetic ballad/parlor song side." "Poor Baby Bree" is a very funny heartstring puller, and her ouevre will likely pop up on "Boardwalk Empire" as the subplot involving the abused and now widowed immigrant Margaret Schroeder picks up steam.

I'm hoping that "Boardwalk Empire" will inspire a rash of musical treasure hunts, leading viewers back to the insanely rich musical milieu at the dawn of the recording age. It's not always easy for contemporary ears to absorb the broad singing style of superstars like Tucker and Jolson, but once your ears get acclimated, you'll realize that this material is not just a novelty -- it's the foundation for pop as it's evolved over the next century, as sexy and funny and dazzlingly musical as anything you have on your MP3 player right now.

"Boardwalk Empire" might or might not become the riveting gangster drama that "Sopranos" fans want it to be, but merely by opening up this musical world to an unsuspecting public, it's contributed more than most appointment television can offer. Let's hope that as we move deeper into the Jazz Age, the show gives us more of that sweet, hot, surprisingly risky stuff.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Paz de la Huerta. Credit: Abbot Genser / HBO

Comments () | Archives (14)

As the editor/publisher of the book the show is based on, I wish Ann Powers' review of the pilot was more positive overall, but as a roots music junkie I am so totally in sync with her musical sentiments!

One thing I've learned recently is that the great pianist Eubie Blake had a strong Atlantic City connection in the ragtime era. Later, Count Basie and Duke Ellington came through frequently and became local favorites.

While the series soundtrack should be positively awesome, it will not depend solely on original 1920's recordings. Contemporary interpreters Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks know how to swing, and someone (maybe that Randall guy Ann digs so much) had the great idea of tapping the wonderfully expressive vocalist Nellie McKay to warble here and there.

Boardwalk Empire is going to be a feast for music lovers and a welcome ear-opener and education for the uninitiated.

"Heaven, I'm in heaven..."

Hard to believe no one's seen this flick.
I'm trying to see it tonight and will leave my take on it, if anyone cares ..

The closing credits of the premiere episode of BE do not mention any of the songs written about in this article. And htis article does not acknowledge the closing song "I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife(Until The Town Went Dry)" performed by Eddie Cantor and co written by Albert Von Tilzer the man who gave us "Take Me Out To The Ballgame"
This was a more than fitting use of a song from the catalogue of Prohibition-themed songs whiuch supplaned te World War I themed songs from a few years before writetn by the likes of, Cohan, Berlin and Jessel.
I,for one, am anxiously awaiting HBO's release of a CD anthology of these great songs

An entire piece on the music from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and you never once mention the recreation of that music by Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, who perform it so beautifully and authentically. And working with Randall Poster is the equally talented Jim Dunbar, who deserved a mention as well.

Both the Whiteman and Jolson songs are collected in "Hits of 1920" by Nostalgia records. Easily and cheaply available on Amazon. The makers of "Boardwalk Empire" didn't have to go very far to find their music, and they didn't. Atlantic City was a summer rehearsal home for Ziegfeld and the Follies girls. Doris Eaton, the last Follies performer, who died at 104, told me that the company stayed at the smaller hotels to save on costs. I wonder if upcoming installments will mention the vibrant black club scene--Willie "the Lion" Smith, a favorite of George Gershwin was there. Millionaires who WEREN'T criminals always get short shrift in these period pieces, but they and the college boys, were critical to any illicit enterprise.

I liked the first show except for the Cantor impersonation. Not because it wasn't accurate, but because it was. Eddie hasn't worn well. I am hoping Gretchen Mol will raise the temperature a bit. She has four shows to do it in, and I'm betting on her.

I don't want yet another riveting gangster drama. I want a show about how Americans finally saw the light and understood that riveting gangster drama was about all they were going to get from Prohibition.

Because, you know, the story of Prohibition ended with Americans getting so tired of all that killing that they finally repealed Prohibition.

That has to be part of the story too. I think that's where Margaret Schroeder probably comes in.

When socially conscious Temperance women like Schroeder decided that the gangster drama of Prohibition was harming their children more than alcohol harmed them, Prohibition finally jumped the shark and got canceled by public demand.

I hope that's what they have planned for Schroeder down the line. I want to see her stand up and campaign for the Repeal in 1932.

My 'Pop & Hiss' are those awful tattoo's on the woman's arms. Casting is cracking down on not wanting fake people having had plastic surgery or botox, etc. done, they need to include tattoo's to their NO NO list.

Please give props to Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, of "Aviator" fame, and pianist Ehud Asherie, are well represented in this epic's installments to come.

Ms. Ann Powers makes some very cogent points about the music as a crucial ingredient of "Boardwalk Empire." As Randall Poster said in an interview, the music is, just like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, a character in the film. However, there is an unforgivable omission in her review. Vince Giordano, the indispensible expert who advised, played the music with his Nighthawks, and actually acted in the first episode, is not mentioned by name in the review. Ms. Powers should have read the review in the New York Times before writing her piece. ""VINCE GIORDANO didn't just record, with his band, the Nighthawks, much of the music on Boardwalk Empire. He also served as an invaluable historical resource. We [Randall Poster et al] adore Vince. He embodies the lost memories of that time."

I certainly hope that as the show progresses a bit, a collection becomes available on iTunes (perhaps seasonally). It would be such a shame to not give people the opportunity to have these classics for their own.

It's here! It's here! The song listing on Boardwalk Empire's HBO website for everyone's perusal:


In Episode 6 of Boardwalk Empire, during the scene where Paz's character Lucy Danziger is buying underwear, I heard a familiar song in the background.

I cannot find any reference to it other than in my own head. It is a song I believe is called "Toyland". I know this song because my 1984 birthyear Hallmark windup music box Christmas ornament plays the same song!

Can anyone else confirm this as true?

Nevermind, it is from that time period.

James Darmody is Tommy Gnosis from Hedwig and the Angry Inch! I knew I recognized him!

The answer to your question is Dvorak String Quartet No. 5 in f minor op. 9, first movment (moderato).


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