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About Theodore Morse

Theodore Morse passed through Maryland Military Academy and came to New York at the age of 14. He worked for a series of music publishing houses as a clerk, a plugger of songs, and eventually established himself as a composer. His earliest song, published in 1895, appears to have suggested a new dance called "The Broadway." Following conventional guidelines for minstrel-flavored material, he wrote "Coontown Capers" in 1897 and "Lucille, Ma Lady Love" in 1898. For the next two years he ran his own publishing house, then seems to have chosen the life of a songwriter rather than presiding as a big cheese in the industry. "Sweet Morning Glory" was published in 1901. "Blue Bell," published in 1904, enjoyed moderate success, as did "I've Got a Feelin' for You (Way Down in My Heart)." This last title was designated as a "coon song," meaning that the piece was intended for performance either by an African-American entertainer or by a white person in blackface.

In 1906, Morse dreamed up an apparently anti-Semitic novelty entitled "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band." Still another ethnically charged selection, "The Leader of the German Band" appeared in 1905. Judging by a humorous recording made in 1907 by the vaudeville team of Collins & Harlan, this song makes fun of the German dialect while serving up a riotous cacophony of brass band "oompah" effects, with a segment of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" brazenly inserted after the vocal chorus to serve as a goofily jingoistic instrumental coda. 1907 should also be remembered as the year when Theodore Morse published a song with the title "I'd Rather Be a Lobster Than a Wise Guy," and "Make Believe," a pretty tune that propelled for years the endless gyrations of hotel bands and phonographic dance orchestras. In 1908 Morse created yet another nominally racist number, "Down in Jungle Town." This song was a ripping success, and was instrumentally hot enough to become an authentic warhorse jazz standard for many years; trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen made a great recording of it for Decca records late in his career. It also served as a staple for average Dixieland revival acts. Today it is most commonly associated with cornball novelty bandleader Spike Jones.

A turning point both in Morse's personal life and career occurred when he married and began collaborating with a lyricist by the name of Theodora "Dolly" Terriss. Their matrimonial partnership produced "Another Rag" in 1911, "When Uncle Joe Plays a Rag on His Old Banjo" in 1912, and "Bobbin' Up and Down" in 1913. Other songs dating from this same period are "Washington Waddle" and "Whistling Jim." All of these tunes were made popular by traveling vaudeville comedians like the Three Pickert Sisters and by various popular recording stars. Possibly the most lugubrious song of his entire career was "M-O-T-H-E-R," which had lyrics by Howard Johnson. This was a theme commonly resorted to in Tin Pan Alley and most conspicuously popularized by Al Jolson. Morse, like most of his cohorts, would write about anything in order to sell a song. But if you really want to succeed, try getting your name affixed to a song that everybody already knows.

Perhaps the shrewdest maneuver of Morse's career was his 1917 adaptation of "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here." This newly gilded beer hall anthem also fit nicely into the mass psychology of a nation preparing to enter the First World War. Morse rose to the occasion by publishing a rowdy bit of militaristic posturing, giddily punning off of the name of a tiny fragment of Germanic geography: "We'll Knock the Heligo Into Heligo(land)." A more sober reflection from 1918, "When a Blue Service Star Turns to Gold," refers to the practice of displaying a flag with a blue star on it to let the public know that someone in the family had gone to serve in the war. A gold star served to indicate that the individual had died on the battlefield. Morse was not the only songwriter to confront this subject matter as thousands of young men were slain in the trenches of Europe. Morse himself hardly wrote anything after the war, and quietly passed away in 1924. Nothing much has been heard from him since. ~ arwulf arwulf

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