Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

Caddo family butchering a Longhorn steer near Anadarko Agency, Oklahoma, 1894

The classic minstrel show is refracted through just about every aspect of American entertainment since. As a ritual, the minstrel show was as formalized as an exorcism. Each of its set parts has its own afterlife, appears peeking through a different window in American culture like a leering, priapic idiot glimpsed through a heavily barred attic dormer. The show had three main parts. Originally, it would begin with a sheaf of songs. By the 1870s this evolved into a full-blown mockorchestral overture, swerved only by the rather unsettling rattle of Mr. B’s bones. As this dies down, Mr. I steps to the fore and says, “Gentlemen, be seated.”

          David Wondrich – Stomp & Swerve; American Music Gets Hot

We’re a few decades into recorded sound now, but so far the field has been the preserve of innovators and hobbyists. In 1894 this is fundamentally still the case, but things are beginning to open up. This year saw the launch of the Graphophone G, the “Baby Grand” – the first machine designed for home entertainment. It sold for $75, or $100 with a horn, a listening tube and a set of records, and allowed the playing of both competing standards of cylinder, Edison and Columbia. Then in November, Berliner disc recordings finally went on sale to the general public. Very little of this would have filtered through into the average household, but for well-off, forward thinking types, having this device in your house was now at least an option. So the piano still has its place in the drawing room, for now, but the shift from home musicianship to mass consumption of recorded sound has begun.

And the actual sounds being recorded? Slim progress on that front, I’m afraid, but greater volume of production at least makes more to choose from.

Minstrel shows were still just about the dominant paradigm of American entertainment in 1894, and the obvious way to tap into this for the wax cylinder market was to produce cut down taster menu versions which could fit into the two-and-a-half minutes available. Our mix starts with the opening overture and first joke from one of these, complete (of course) with the usual racist slurs being thrown around, an unfortunate fact of the time. This is followed by another representation of commercial entertainment – a reproduction of a dance number performed by Edison’s in-house band to promote Edison’s electric lights.

Daisy Bell is one of the few hits of the 90s which is still well-known today, and is included more for reasons of familiarity than quality of performance or recording. After that we have the first of two recordings of Native American “Ghost Dances” collected by noted anthropologist Professor James Mooney. It’s unclear who is actually recorded on the cylinder, but it’s very likely to be Mooney himself. Then we have a clip of a grandfather using the phonograph for ins intended purpose, the dictation of letters – in this case to his grandchildren.

Nostalgia for the pre-Civil War South might seem at best distasteful today, but it was the very definition of a safe topic in the 1890s, and for that matter the only real way for black artists to gain a mass audience. The Standard Quartet were stars of a touring show called “The South Before The War” which presented the era of slavery as “happy days and pleasant nights.” A single recording of the group still exists, and it’s better than might be reasonably expected.

After the chimes of Harvard Clock Tower, and more from the unknown grandfather, we have some recordings from famed Russian violin player and composer Jules Conus, pianist and composer Anton Arensky, tenor Lavrentii Donskoi and pianist Vladimir Wilschaw. The Wilschaw piece is particularly interesting for its almost furious speed which seems to prefigure certain aspects of 20th century piano music. Then, after a very brief bit of speech, we have an excellent piece from a trio of two famous pianists and a violin player and a spooky sample of soprano Maria Ivanovna Gutheil. All of these recordings come from the archive of Julius Block.

Next we have a sentimental story about ‘Old Jim’ going off to war, backed with a mournful piece from “The World’s Greatest Cornetist” Jules Levy, then something from noted bagpipe player John MacColl. The Brilliant Quartette seem to have been blackface singers, but their singing on ‘Blind Tom’ is at least a tad more respectful and lacking in racist stereotypes than most of their peers.

After another “Ghost Dance” excerpt, we have an example of that other staple of the age, pre-vaudeville ethnic music hall performance, here a song and monologue about an Irish wedding. Then in our final stretch we have three songs from the understandably ubiquitous Sousa’s Band (twice called the U.S. Marine Band, but quite possibly exactly the same people), plus one similar piece from the 23rd Regiment Band. Of these the “Enthusiast Polka” is perhaps the best, featuring astounding cornet playing from a young Arthur Pryor, who will doubtless become a fixture of these mixes in the next decade. Then to finish there is some very accomplished stroke-style banjo and proto-country vocals from Charles Astbury and a brief bit of harmony singing from the Bison City Quartet.

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Spencer, Wiliams And Quinn’s Imperial Minstrels – Minstrel First Part
Issler’s Orchestra – Electric Light Quadrille
Edward M. Favor – Daisy Bell
James Mooney – Arapaho No. 73. Ghost Dance
Unknown – Personal Message from a Grandfather to his Grandchildren (excerpt 1)
Standard Quartet – Keep Movin’
Harvard Clock Tower – Chimes
Unknown – Personal Message from a Grandfather to his Grandchildren (excerpt 2)
Jules Conus – Chopin-Sarasate- Nocturne In E-Flat, Op. 9, No. 2
Anton Arensky – Le Ruisseau Dans La Forêt In G, No. 15 From 24 Morceaux Charactéristiques, Op. 36
Lavrentii Donskoi – Rubinstein- O Pechal I Toska From Nero
Vladimir Wilschaw – Godard- En Courant In G-Flat, No. 1 From 6 Morceaux, Op. 53
Joseph Sawyer – Birthday Speech, October 22 1894
Anton Arensky, Jan Hrímalý And Anatoly Brandukov – Arensky- Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, Op. 32- Second Movement – Scherzo- Allegro Molto
Maria Ivanovna Gutheil – Rubinstein- Sail
Russell Hunting – The Old Man And Jim
Jules Levy – The Last Rose Of Summer
John MacColl – Campbells Are Coming
Brilliant Quartette – Blind Tom
James Mooney – Caddo No. 2. Ghost Dance
Dan Kelly – Paddy’s Wedding
Sousa’s Band – The Crack Regiment
U.S. Marine Band – The Enthusiast Polka
23rd Regiment Band – New York Herald
U.S. Marine Band – The Directorate March
Charles Asbury – Haul The Woodpile Down
Bison City Quartet – Mill Medley

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