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“He told them he wanted a certain cylinder containing a particularly obscene song. He claims in his affidavit, on which the warrant was issued, that Hunting sold this cylinder to him and then in his presence made him another equally objectionable record, and offered to provide still worse productions… …When the warrant was executed the police officers seized fifty-three cylinders, said to contain bad records, and also took a phonograph instrument found on the premises.” – Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 25th 1896

The pattern is all too familiar. Experiments are conducted into a new medium, engineers work on it to make it a viable product, entrepreneurs invest and roll out mass production, the great and the good attempt to claim it for high culture, then the rabble inevitably take over. It’s 1897, and for the first time the gramophone isn’t the preserve of the self-elected tastemakers. Unfortunately this does not mean that someone’s gone down to New Orleans to record Buddy Bolden, more that the ability to record your own cylinders is leading to the arrival of the audio equivalent of b-movies (or perhaps even stag films.)

Much of this mix is made up of short clips from a CD called “Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s” issued by Archaeophone Records in 2007. A compilation of unofficial recordings, the dates were understandably guesswork at best, so putting them in here is the kind of messy compromise we have to maker quite a bit in this decade. Most of the clips are performed by one Russell Hunting, a very popular recording artist of the time who founded, Phonoscope, the first independent magazine for the recording industry and set up one of the first phonograph shops, in New York. On request he would reproduce bawdy monologues or dialogues from an illegal book (which he may be the author of) called “The Stag Party.” On one of these occasions he was set up by an undercover police office, and the resulting court case ended up with him being sent to jail. Some of these recordings are genuinely shocking in their obscenity, to the extent that this mix is probably unsuitable for playing at work or around small children, and I didn’t even include the strongest examples. Russell Hunting spent three months in prison, and suitably chastised set sail for England, where he immediately found work as the recording director of Edison Bell Records – he had quite a spectacularly successful career, setting up offices for Pathé and Zonophone, and lived long enough to see the second world war.

The other big takeaway from this month’s mix is ‘virtuosity’. Trombone player Arthur Pryor had by 1895 been promoted to assistant conductor of Sousa’s Band, and as Sousa would have nothing to do with recording studios, they were entirely his domain. On their tours of Europe, Pryor had put himself forward as a soloist, producing not only elaborate displays of lightning-fast trombone playing, but also incorporating the kinds of slides and smears that would later be a hallmark of early jazz – and which went against everything expected of regimented military music. This combination of peacock-like display of talent and occasional plunges into joyous self-expression was labelled a “Yankee trick” by astonished European audiences. While its link to the underexposed world of black music is unclear, the connection is certainly no co-incidence, and can be sensed in the work of banjo king Vess L. Ossman and piccolo player George Schweinfest. While we’re undoubtedly still in the stone age, something wonderful is bubbling up.


Students at Cornell University – New Years Day Party
Sousa’s Band (Trombone – Arthur Pryor) – Blue Bells of Scotland
Believed to Be Russell Hunting – Did He Charge Too Much
Vess L. Ossman – Old Folks at Home
Harry Heath – Speech With Church Chimes
Al Sweet – L’elegante [Élégante Polka]
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh on a Bicycle
Edison Brass Quartet – Come Where Lilies Bloom
‘Willy Fathand of New York City’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Sim Hadley on a Racket
Edison Concert Band – El Capitan March
‘Manly Tempest’ [Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting] – the Rascal Detector
The Columbia Orchestra – Sea Flower Polka
Len Spencer & Vess Ossman – Hot Time in the Old Town
N. R. Wood – Morning on the Farm
Edison Male Quartette – Annie Laurie
Drum Corps – Spirit of ’76
Garde Republicaine – Marche Des Petit Pierot
‘Charley Smith of Kankakee’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Out of Order
Fraulein Vioni Eidner – Der Vogelhandler, Act I- Die Nachtigall
Robert Green Ingersroll – On Hope
Cousins & De Moss – Poor Mourner
Harry Heath – Speech
Arthur Pryor – the Palms
Frank S. Mazziotta – Sleighride
‘Manly Tempest’ [Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting] – Gimlet’s Soliloquy
George Schweinfest – Bob White Polka
Russell Hunting – Casey’s Political Speech
Peerless Orchestra – My Babe From Boston
‘Charley Smith of New York City’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Reilly as a Policeman
George J Gaskin – Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly
Charles P. Lowe – Leonora Waltz
The Columbia Orchestra – I Thought I Was a Winner, Or, I Don’t Know, You Ain’t So Warm
Billy Golden – Listen to the Mocking Bird
Thompson River Indians – Dance Song of Thompson River Indians
Joseph Norrito – Original Schottische
Sousa’s Band – Stars and Stripes Forever

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