This series of articles confirms that Joe McNaghten was basically sympathetic to the Oakley cause. His numerous criticisms require careful examination - some are well founded while others are not. Both in detail and emphasis Mac often falls wide of the mark and sometimes seems more concerned with having said ‘something’ than with getting to the heart of the matter.

Writing in 1945, McNaghten did not have access to any systematic Oakley discography such as that undertaken by Uli Heier and Rainer Lotz  for the book "The Banjo on Record" (Greenwood Press). Consequently, his survey of Oakley’s recording output omits many important recordings and is highly inaccurate from a chronological point of view. Nevertheless, he does cover a great deal of material and his comments provide plenty of stimulus for Oakley devotees and connoisseurs.

As a guide to the uninitiated these articles are not totally reliable. McNaghten criticises or ignores some of Oakley’s finest recordings while at the same time elevating some of his lesser achievements. Of course, all attempts at criticism are directed by the individual tastes of the critic. When a woman once remarked to maestro Vladimir Horowitz that she didn’t like the works of one particular composer he replied, "But, my good woman, now you’re talking about yourself."

A complete commentary of Mac’s articles would almost fill a book so I have confined myself efforts to the main points he raises and to a more or less representative selection of his record reviews.

Occasional faults

Mac is right that Oakley occasionally seemed to forget the order of repeated sections previously agreed with his accompanist. Sometimes Oakley starts a repeat then after a couple of beats realises that the accompanist has moved onto a different section. On other occasions Oakley is itching to move on while the accompanist insists on the repeat. In either case Oakley swiftly returns to what he should be playing - indeed, sometimes he plays no more than the initial chord or note of the incorrect section before perceiving and correcting the error. Nevertheless, these mistakes do disturb the performance and it is surprising that Oakley allowed such recordings to be issued. It is clear that some of Oakley’s recordings were better prepared than others and, generally speaking, those which are technically and musically polished are also free from errors in the order of movements. Finally, however, one is tempted to add that, had the accompanists been as versatile as Oakley, they would surely have followed him and not the other way round!

Mac’s other point concerning Oakley’s tempos is far wide of the mark. I cannot think of a single instance where Oakley suddenly "steps up" the tempo. Oakley’s instinctive attitude towards tempo lies at the very heart of his playing and is one of the main factors which distinguishes him from other players. Anyone who has recorded Oakley’s ‘split times’ (an expression from the world of track athletics) with a stopwatch will know that he often speeds up as a piece progresses. Why does he do that and what is the effect? Often he uses the first section and its repeat to ‘feel his way’ towards the tempo he is aiming at. In some recordings the quickening in tempo runs throughout the piece. This is felt as an attempt (perhaps an unconscious one) to maintain momentum and increase the general level what we might call ‘excitement’. The increases in tempo are subtle and gradual: they could not be indicated by the term accelerando; they are Oakley’s way of ensuring that the music keeps moving forward and that the listener is carried along by the master’s evident enthusiasm for what he is playing.

What Mac does not really make clear is that some of Oakley’s recordings are clearly substandard from a general technical point of view. There are fluffed notes, occasions when the fifth string is clouted by accident, moments of general unmusicality and even a few recordings where a profound lack of rhythm pervades from beginning to end. There are also some discs where he seems content with playing notes which have almost nothing to do with the piece in question! (e.g. the final reprise of the main section in the 1926 recording of ‘Banjoland’). Sometimes we actually hear Oakley’s learning process on disc – a classic example being his unconvincing run through ‘Torchlight Parade’ for Zonophone on December 8th, 1910, followed later that month by a wonderful and definitive rendition of the same piece for the Winner label.

Oakley’s solo recordings may be grouped into a number of periods. Broadly speaking, the Gramophone & Typewriter Co. and Zonophone recordings made during 1902 – 1910 are almost all of high quality and include many of his greatest achievements. After 1910 Oakley recorded for numerous other companies and it is during this period from 1911 to 1920 that he produced both excellent (e.g. Drum Major, April 1913, Regal G-6203; Coloured Major, September 1916, matrix 928-X; Canadians’ Parade, June 1920, matrix 2923) and mediocre (e.g. Camptown Carnival, January 1913, matrix 3429; Poppies and Wheat, November 1916, matrix 36797) results as well as one or two monstrosities (e.g. Oakleigh Quickstep, June 22 1913, matrix 60623    ). After 1920 we see a gradual diminution in his technical facility (compare the 1927 remake for Regal of the Drum Major, i.e. G-6203-R, with the original waxing), ending with those last heroic 1930 Parlophone recordings in which Oakley’s heart and soul are fully engaged but his fingers no longer respond.

Turning to Mac’s reviews in Part One of his "Homage", we are happy to be able to share his wonder at these early Gramophone & Typewriter Co. recordings. However, if ever a record deserved Mac’s ‘capital letter’ status then it is the 1910 Zonophone release of Oakley’s own composition, ‘Marche de Concert’. From of technical point of view Oakley here is way up in the ionosphere. The ascending G seventh scales of the third section are flawless and seem almost casual in spite of the full-blooded tempo (crotchet = 138+). Otherwise, the first section of this recording differs from that of the published score. By 1912 he had arrived at the new version which he recorded at astonishing speed for Parlophone in May of that year. However, if I had to choose between the two I would take the Zonophone disc every time.