Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Harpo Marx - Harpo At Work

Eugene Chadbourne wrote a fantastic review of Harpo Marx's 1958 easy listening masterpiece, Harpo At Work for All Music Guide that very much deserves to be read in its entirety. I don't often read a review at All Music Guide and say "I couldn't have possibly said it any better myself," but that is the case here. I say this neither to denigrate the other reviewers at All Music Guide, nor to praise myself. It's just that generally the goals of this blog are different enough from those of All Music that I rarely find much overlap between their take on a particular album and what I want to say.

Chadbourne touches on all the major characteristics that give this album and the Harpo character such enduring appeal: the surprising and delightful ability of a mute character to express himself so elegantly through music, the tension inherent in the idea of Harpo as both cherubic angel and outrageous rebel, and the seemingly natural affinity between Harpo's unorthodox musical technique and jazz.

I've noticed that Chadbourne--a noted avant-garde musician in his own right--occasionally writes album reviews for All Music Guide. From the few I've read, his reviews are typically both entertaining and insightful. It makes me wish All Music was searchable by author. Chadbourne's writing is so different from the blandly authoritative tone adopted by most of the site's writers that it almost seems as if he somehow hacked into the allmusic server and uploaded idiosyncratic reviews of personal favorites that are obscure enough that the site's editors will never notice they're there. [If that in fact is what happened, I hope I haven't busted him].

Harpo recorded several jazz oriented, easy listening albums during the 50s. In addition to this album, he also recorded a 10" EP for RCA in 1952, and another album for Mercury, Harpo In Hi-Fi, in 1957. Both the Mercury albums were packaged as a single CD by Collector's Choice Music that has sadly fallen out-of-print, and now fetches collector's prices along with the original LPs.

If you consider "easy listening" a derogatory term, you are not likely to appreciate these albums, as the music fits comfortably into that genre. For the rest of us there is much in Harpo's music to appreciate. First and foremost is Harpo's harp playing itself. Though self-taught, Marx was a virtuoso on his instrument, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

When he was first given a harp by his mother (or possibly his uncle), there was no one around who knew how to properly tune the instrument. So Harpo tuned it himself. As it turned out he inadvertently discovered an alternate tuning that allowed for considerably more slack in the strings than standard tuning.

Harpo later hired some of the finest classical harpists in the world to teach him proper technique, but to no avail. The style he developed using his own alternate tuning would have snapped the strings on a "properly" tuned harp. No matter, most of his teachers quickly became more interested in observing Harpo's unique playing style than in teaching him how to play "properly." It is no exaggeration to say that no one played the harp quite like Harpo Marx. (Or as Jonathan Richman put it, "Well when Harpo played his harp it was a dream, it was/Well if someone else can do it, how come nobody does?")

Of course the fact that Harpo innocently stumbled onto his own method for tuning and playing the harp fits nicely with the persona he developed for stage and screen. Harpo the character, the mute clown in a fright wig, seemed to have stumbled in from some alternate universe, so it is no surprise he would play the harp differently from everyone else.

Harpo's unique approach to playing the harp is very much on display in this clip from The Marx Brother's 1932 film, Horse Feathers:

Many of Harpo's fans today seem to remember him primarily as a kind of benign, angelic presence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early films the Brothers made for Paramount (and before the era of censorship ushered in by enforcement of the Hays Code), Harpo's character was also frequently a lecherous pervert who was apparently sexually attracted to animals. His character was neutered in the later films by MGM and the demands of the code, but in those anarchic early films Harpo is one of the most deliciously strange characters ever to appear in film (which is no doubt why he counted Salvador Dali among his many admirers). In films like Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, Harpo's character was typically lecherous and perverted while at the same time angelic, innocent and otherworldly. A similar tension is present in his music which manages to be unorthodox and experimental while simultaneously sounding soothing and conventional.

The first song I selected from the album is "Laura." The virtuoso display of harp pedal use that Chadbourne mentions in his review is also a showcase for the arranging talents of Harpo's son Bill Marx. "Harpo Woogie" demonstrates Harpo's well-known humorous side. Finally there is Harpo alone at his harp, appropriately enough, on Duke Ellington's "Solitude." The music on Harpo At Work is completely enchanting, and Chadbourne's comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix are in no way over-the-top. Harpo Marx was a truly gifted and original musician, and his slim recorded legacy outside of the Marx Brothers films is surely a great loss.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever heard the "Thumper Marx" stuff Harpo did? It's pretty good.

Pete Bilderback said...

I must say I haven't come across the Thumper Marx material. I have been searching for years for the legendary "Camper Van Harpo" album, which features Harpo's only known performance on the electric rake.

PMcD said...

excellent stuff, thanks for these - brilliant!

Nazz Nomad said...

nice job on this post. your writing has really made me look forward to listening to the music.