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One of the main problems with making this Centuries of Sound thing is representation. The 1890s are the birthplace of ragtime and the blues, Buddy Bolden was playing proto-Jazz down in New Orleans, and over in Europe figures like Dvořák, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Sibelius, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff were leading classical music’s last great popular era. And what do we have in the way of photograph cylinders for this golden age? Marching bands, sentimental ballads, novelty instrumentals and nothing much else.

When I was about 10 I had a “Portable Action Replay Player and Keyring” which played 30-second clips from blockbuster movies, or monster trucks and dirtbikes.

Imagine for a second our civilization was destroyed and this was all that remained.

This is the narrow aperture which sound recording gives us at this point. Without a duplication process, every cylinder had to be an original, played into a brass funnel by at most five or six artists. These recordings were then consumed almost entirely in a small number of “phonograph parlors” which fed recordings to customers through a stethoscope-like device. Why would any fan of the arts consider this to be worth their time when the real thing was infinitely superior? And why would any serious performer take such a thing seriously?

The answer, of course, was that it was a living to be made. In this mix we meet (possibly) the best-selling artist of the decade and (maybe) the first million-seller, George W Johnson. Johnson was born in the South before the civil war, made his way to the streets of New York and found a living as a street performer, soon building enough of a reputation performing at the ferry terminal that both existent recording companies signed him up. Soon he was sitting in a “studio”, singing the same two songs into a bank of gramophones up to fifty times a day, for limited financial returns. “The Whistling Coon” is offensive all the way down the line from awful title to much worse lyrics, but apparently this is what the public wanted, and it made a black man the first star recording artist in the particularly racist post-reconstruction era of the USA. It’s included here as ignoring it would be an insult to his memory.

Also he can whistle very well, and that seems to have been a big deal in the early days of the record industry. Our mix starts with another example, “artistic whistler” John Yorke Atlee with the bird noise vaudeville staple “Listen To The Mocking Bird.” Then we have Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band with another of their jolly marching band anthems, followed by cylinder catalogue staple George J. Gaskin with “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,” a novelty song about  Irish workers drilling holes in rock to blast out railroad tunnels. Just before George W Johnson we have a much more offensive item from blackface performer Billy Golden, presented for historical reasons but with a serious warning about its content.

Another U.S. Marine Band recording follows, this one allegedly a “Mexican dance” and providing a deal more subtlety than usual. Then we have Welsh baritone J.W. Myers with a bit of light operetta,  an unknown singer called Will White with another bit of light operetta, a mournful trumpet solo from D.B. Dana, then the first of many selections from the 1890s foremost spoken word artist, Russell Hunting, here barely audible in his Irish ethnic stereotype “Casey”. This fades out into a pair of Julius Block recordings, firstly of noted Russian pianist and composer Sergei Taneyev, then of soprano Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva, with Taneyev accompanying. Mixed into these we have the final words of C.H. Spurgeon, a British Baptist preacher whose influence was massive at the time. The words were, of course, not recorded at his bedside, but later by his son Thomas Spurgeon.


John Yorke Atlee – The Mocking Bird
U.S. Marine Band – Farewell to Dresden
George J. Gaskin – Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill
Billy Golden – Turkey in the Straw
George W. Johnson – The Whistling Coon
Hager’s Band – La Media Noche
J.W. Myers – Bell Buoy
Will White – Third Verse of Mary & John
D.B. Dana – Cujus Animam
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey as Physician
Sergei Taneyev – Mozart: Fantasie in C Minor, K. 396
Thomas Spurgeon – C. H. Spurgeon’s Last Words
Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva and Sergei Taneyev – Schumann: Widmung, no. 1 from Myrthen, op. 25

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