In 1893, Milwaukee-based songwriter Charles K. Harris penned popular music’s first multi-million-selling piece of sheet music, “After The Ball,” a sentimental ballad with a bittersweet twist ending. Thirteen years later, the prolific Harris created a book entitled How To Write A Popular Song: A Practical Tutorial On Song Writing—With Music & Lyric Samples. The handbook illustrated Harris’ nuts-and-bolts approach to songwriting, as well as his eye toward the idea of music as cut-and-dry commerce.
Fast forward 110 years, and another Milwaukee-based songwriter—Christopher Porterfield of Field Report—plans to bring Harris into the 21st century with a one-night-only show for Alverno Presents. On Saturday, January 30, Porterfield and a host of collaborators will both reinterpret songs from Harris’ extensive catalog and follow his instructions to create their own “popular songs.” Before the show, Milwaukee Record spoke to Porterfield about being incredibly busy (his fundraising song for his 8-year-old neighbor with sickle cell anemia was released last week), Harris’ “proto-hustler” Milwaukee past, and creating one of the final shows for the long-running Alverno Presents.
Milwaukee Record: Thanks for taking the time to chat. You’ve been a little busy lately.
Christopher Porterfield: Yeah. [Laughs] We just put out that song for my neighbor, because it was ready to go and why not. But in retrospect, maybe my timing was a little questionable as we’re leading up to this Alverno show. But all of the press is great because it’s raising more attention for the song, and the whole goal is to raise money. I’ve had a lot of phone calls over the last few days, and sometimes I’m not sure until the person starts talking which thing they’re talking about. [Laughs]
MR: Well, we’ll stick to the Alverno show for this one. You’ve been a part of three Alverno shows in the past [2013’s “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project,” 2013’s “Nick Sanborn: Lend Me Your Voice,” and 2014’s “Unlooped Vs. Marvin Gaye”]. Have you been cooking up your own show for a while?
CP: [Alverno Presents Director] David [Ravel] and I had been talking for a while, and he opened the conversation and invitation to do it. We were going to try to do one last year, but everything with my band was super busy and there just wasn’t enough time to dedicate energy I thought the series deserved. Eventually we decided it was best to just lock down a date and go from there. I wanted to do something that had some kind of Milwaukee connection. I reached out to Bruce Cole, who runs the Raynor Memorial Library at Marquette. He has a collection called the Cujé Music Collection. Its goal is to pretty much document any music that has come out of Milwaukee, ever. I was like, “Bruce, who should we know about?” And he said, “People should know about Charles K. Harris.”
So I started digging in. I went to the Milwaukee Public Library and spent a lot of time in the archives, because all of Harris’ stuff is long out of print and kind of hard to track down, unless you do it the old fashioned way. This guy was in Milwaukee from 1880 to 1915 or 1920. He was this proto-music-biz guy. He learned how to play the banjo, kind of, as a young man, and he decided he wanted to be a songwriter. So he opened up a little office space on Grand Ave. and hung out a shingle that said, “Professor Charles K. Harris: Songs For Hire.” He would go to different performances in the city and sort of hustle his tunes and try to get nationally touring artists to sing his tunes at their shows. He got to the point where he was posing as a journalist, and he would offer to write a good review the next morning if an artist would sing one of his tunes.
MR: Wow, this guy really was ahead of his time.
CP: [Laughs] He was the proto-hustler! Pretty soon all of the local people just got really tired of seeing him, and his songs weren’t very good, and he was just the guy that was at every show. He was an usher at all the theaters. He was trying to get his tunes heard.
He wrote this one song and it had, like, five verses, and the big punch line for the song was at the end of the fifth verse. He got one of his buddies who was a tailor in town to sing it at a concert. This guy said, “Hey, we should do one of your tunes.” And Charles said, “Yeah, let’s do this one. But you’ve got to learn all the words. You’ve got to learn all the words. You’ve got to learn all the words. Do you know all the words?” His friend said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it.” And then he gets to the third verse and freezes. The orchestra is just playing behind him, just vamping for verse after verse, and the guy doesn’t know any of the words. And that’s when Harris totally wrote off anyone local, and was like, “I’m getting pros from here on out.”
Not long after, he did get somebody to sing a tune, and it was called “After The Ball.” It was written after he had gone to Chicago for a dance. He went with his sister. He saw this couple have a big fight and break down on the dance floor. So he wrote this tune about that. He got this woman to sing it when she was coming through town. There were conflicting reports, though, that some people said he paid the audience members to clap early and to lose their minds. It was proto-payola! It was crazy!
MR: And yet there’s still something super likable about this guy.
CP: Oh yeah! His whole thing was the hustle. He understood early on that the only way for a songwriter to make music as a non-performer was through publishing, and getting other people to sing his songs. This was all before recorded music. It was all sheet music sales. Getting other people to sing his songs in big theaters, and then rush out and buy the sheet music and bring it home. That was how people experienced music and interfaced with it back then. Sheet music was the Cassingles of the day.
MR: Looking at Harris’ handbook, there are a lot of obviously antiquated ideas—”avoid slang and vulgarism”—but there are also a lot of practical things that still apply today, stuff like, “Get to the chorus as soon as possible.”
CP: I think he realized that after he had that guy try to learn five verses.[Laughs] He ended up changing his position professionally because he found success with a verse, a super-strong chorus, another verse, and out. And yeah, I think that still holds true. People want to get the point of a thing, and get to a point where they’re comfortable with it and can sing along. And that’s what makes a song popular. When he was talking about popular songs, he wasn’t talking about pop music necessarily. It sort of became that, but he just wanted something for the masses, because the masses have money, and he wants their money. It’s all he’s after.
MR: So how do you see yourself compared to Harris?
CP: It’s been really interesting looking at his work and his legacy as somebody who, if there was an art and commerce continuum, would definitely skew more toward the commerce side. Me, I probably lean more toward the art side. I never expect to be fabulously wealthy from my work. The people that I’ve got involved probably skew more that way as well. It’s interesting looking into a corner of this form of songwriting and seeing the shadow this guy cast, and how it all started here in Milwaukee.
MR: What kind of form will the show take? Who can we expect to see on stage with you?
CP: It’s going to be two parts. The first half we’re going to try to contextualize Harris’ life and work, and then take a look at some of his songs and get people familiar with what he’s all about. The second half we’re going to premiere the new work that was generated in response to having read this handbook. I’ve got Phil Cook coming in from Carolina. I’ve got Monica Martin from Phox. I’ve got Dave Godowsky from New York. I’ve got Caitlin Canty from Nashville. I’ve got Ryan Necci from Buffalo Gospel here in town. And then my guys, Shane Leonard, Tom Wincek, and Barry Clark. It’s kind of a bunch of hitters. [Laughs] I’m pretty stoked about it.
MR: Is there anything you’ve learned from your involvement with past Alverno shows that you’re applying to your own?
CP: I think subconsciously, yes. Some of the other formats have seeped in. I really didn’t realize it when we were conceiving this project, but it’s sort of turning into an “Uncovered” show of this guy that people aren’t familiar with. So it’s sort of a backwards “Uncovered,” or more of an excavation. Also, I think I probably took some cues subconsciously from “Lend Me Your Voice.” I think we’re going to replicate a bit of a parlor situation, and just have everybody on stage and sort of cycling in and out, accompanying each other, with everybody being in the room together the whole time.
MR: Not to end on a down note, but how does it feel to be a part of what will likely be Alverno Presents’ final season?
CP: When I got the news, I was stunned. I was really shocked. It felt like…you know, this thing’s been going on for over 50 years, and with all the amazing work and connections that have been built, it just seems like it’s been so woven into the Milwaukee community, especially as of late. It was shocking and really disappointing, and it really casts a sense of gravity on this show.
But at the same time, it makes you really want to have a good show. You know, David’s whole thing with this has been “This might fail.” It’s all about taking risks and trusting the artists. He probably could have been recording these shows and releasing them, and having this huge body of work from these events and shows. But his other thing is “This is here, this is now. You have to be here to experience it.” Through that lens and the “This might fail” lens, it almost seems appropriate for it to be done, and to shift into a new thing.
This series has had a really, really good run, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of some of the shows. I’m still astonished by David and his vision, and ultimately his trust. To be on the receiving end of that has been incredible. In the end, we’re going to try to put on a real good show, and help send this thing on its way.
“Christopher Porterfield: How To Write A Popular Song” takes place Saturday, January 30 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre. Tickets are $25, and available online or at the Alverno box office (414-382-6044). The show begins at 8 p.m.