This is not a recap of the year. It is not a recap of the decade, or a Top Ten List of any kind. Instead, it’s a little bit of a look back at an earlier few decades, occasioned by a charming photographic moment from sometime around 1921.
Harry Lauder (1870-1950), in addition to being a vastly popular Scottish singer and comedian during the early years of the 20th C., was also a rather marvelous giggler. While other images of him in the collection in the LOC ‘s Flickr stream showcase the usual nicely posed theatrical ham, every now and then we see something like this — a man often and easily brought to laughter, infectiously hilarious.
He is so wonderfully easy to move to laughter that he brings his audience effortlessly with him into his story and into his song (one for which he was already particularly well known) — undoubtedly a large part of his personal charm. This is the great joy of a music hall performance — the scale just big enough to be exciting, but still small enough to be jolly and personal. He laughs the way a child laughs (even as he is making a decidedly adult joke). Lauder also made an art of simultaneously dialing back and exaggerating his Scots dialect, so that one gets the odd experience of a genuine accent and dialect (he was born and raised in Edinborough and Arbroath, and worked a decade in the coal mines in Lanarkshire) straightened and smoothed to an artifice for the English music hall scene.
If Lauder’s singing voice (which is just as charming as the rest of him) sounds familiar, it might be because a number of Scottish songs that entered the popular consciousness in the 1910s and ’20s were sung and recorded by him.
There’s a sort of risk in an act like Lauder’s — a temptation to reduce his carefully cultivated stage persona to a stereotyped Scots schtick. It’s an easy temptation to give in to, in light of Lauder’s very careful work to turn identity and history into a performing advantage, a kind of colorful self-deprecative caricature (putting a fake horn on a real unicorn). But the stories and the songs he shares are not cleanly reducible to a stereotype or a lie, and if some of the edges are sanded off his dialect, they nonetheless often reappear, sharp as ever, in the nature of his humor. It’s a complicated and difficult act to perform authentically and well (keeping Hannah Gadsby’s recent remarks about self-deprecation in humor in mind), and while some of Lauder’s schtick might clang a bit to contemporary ears, it’s still an honest laugh from a man much given to laughter.