When looking back into the past, it’s important (but difficult) to remember that for everyone concerned it was just the present, especially at times like these when technology was making the world strikingly different. For Americans born into the civil war era, the gilded age of the 1880s and 1890s must have been a dizzying sprint up a mountain of advances, with the 1993 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago taking place right at the summit, opening four days before the worst stock market crash America saw until the great depression. Set over 690 acres, the fair set the tone for the next twenty-five years of architecture, arts, culture and the electrification of the world.
It was a bit too late for recorded sound, though, or a little too early. Edison’s wax cylinder “phonograph” and Columbia’s wax cylinder “graphophone” had been around for half a decade, and had lost much of their novelty value, while Emile Berliner’s disc-based “phonograph” was not quite ready to go on sale, and it would be another few years before the inception of the record business as we know it. All the same, in 1893 we can start to see more in the way of “hits” – music produced with an eye to selling, even if only as a souvenir or a fun novelty.
Our mix opens with the oddest of all curios, a song written and performed by a genuine group of black professional musicians. Not that there was a shortage of black music out there, of course, but the endemic racism of the time and the philistinism of the people in charge of recording meant that their name “Unique Quartette” was particularly apt. It would be a bit of a stretch to claim “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” as in any way proto-blues; it’s a show tune from a group who clearly knew what white audiences wanted. But despite its clear taint of racial stereotyping, it does appear to at least reflect something about their lives, and for this it’s an invaluable record.
After a brief (basically indecipherable) clip from the only surviving record of Louis Vasnier performing as his character Brudder Rasmus (which apparently was listenable as recently as the 1980s), we move onto the usual business, a stomping marching band piece from the 23rd Regiment Band Of New York, and the first of two pieces of “artistic whistling” which apparently sold well at the time and seem marvelously odd with nearly 125 years’ perspective.
As we move on through the years, there will be a certain tension between representing what was popular at the time, presenting a wide spread of what was happening around the world and making something which is enjoyable to listen to. I would say the last of these is the most important, followed by the second, but the first also has a part to play, especially when choices are as thin on the ground as they are this year. 1893’s biggest hit was ‘After The Ball’, a particularly lugubrious sentimental ballad. The rendition here by “silver-voiced Irish tenor” George J. Gaskin epitomises the best and worst aspects of the genre, having a clear, singable melody, a rousing, emotional vocal performance, and an overwhelming, oleaginous droning quality, apparently designed to put an end to any unseemly high spirits.
A better sampling of the year may perhaps be found in Issler’s Orchestra’s “On The Midway” – a 140-second sampling of the Chicago World’s Fair which pitches itself as neither comedy nor advertisement – just a souvenir. The most interesting part of the recording is perhaps the end, where the “hoochie coochie” belly dancers are leeringly described while a tune known variously as “The Streets of Cairo” “The Poor Little Country Maid” and “The Snake Charmer Song” plays. This melody was improvised by showman Sol Bloom, who brought the belly dancers to the fair, and has since served as a shorthand for Middle-Eastern exoticism throughout western culture. You definitely know it.
Next up is the first recording from Ada Jones, easily the most prolific female recording artist of the pre-WW1 era, here singing another huge hit of the day, sentimental romantic ballad “Sweet Marie” without thinking of doing any sort of lyrical gender-swap. Then a clip of a speech in Afrikaans leads into our first Julius Block cylinder of the mix – a delicate, accomplished piano duet from Sergei Taneyev And Leo Conus. Then a monologue from Russell Hunting, nobly describing an apparently momentous game of baseball.
A brass-band waltz from Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band leads into “A flute solo played by Mr Arthur Houston of Norwalk, Ohio” – who he was and why this recording was made are complete mysteries, but the multi-layered harmonies he manages to produce are truly astounding.
To finish off the mix we have a trio of popular songs – a rendition of The Commodore Song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, a fairly lighthearted tune from George H. Diamond, and another bit of whistling from John York Atlee, this time accompanied by verses in which he sings an explanation of “why should I keep from whistling? As it isn’t any sin.” Quite.
Unique Quartette – Mamma’s Black Baby Boy
Louis Vasnier – Adam And Eve And De Winter Apple (Excerpt)
23rd Regiment Band Of New York – A.O.O.S. March
John York Atlee – Anvil Chorus
George J. Gaskin – After The Ball
Issler’s Orchestra – On The Midway
Ada Jones – Sweet Marie
Unknown – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Speech In Afrikaans
Sergei Taneyev And Leo Conus – Leo Conus- Suite For Piano Four-Hands
Russell Hunting – Casey At The Bat
United States Marine Band – The Kiss Waltz
Arthur Houston – Flute Solo
Edward M. Favor – The Commodore Song
George H. Diamond – When Summer Comes Again
John York Atlee – Why Should I Keep From Whistling?