It might not be the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time, but the J’Accuse letter resonates all the way to the dark heart of the 20th Century like nothing else. Antisemitism, inter-European rivalries, the politics of industrial hate – it stands as both a grim foretelling of these forces and an example of the moral and intellectual forces that would stand against them.
Zola is one of my favourite authors (I’ve written quite a bit about why this is over here – and may even finish it someday) but by the late 1890s he was definitely past his best, his last truly great novel, Germinal, being published ten years earlier. His work was always political, both explicitly and in its smallest detail, but central to his politics was an empathy for individual people and the rotten things the world throws at them.
Alfred Dreyfus certainly had a harder time of it that almost anyone. Born into a Jewish family in the forever-contested region of Alsace, he worked his way up the French army ranks before being found to be a convenient scapegoat when military secrets were leaked to the Germans.
History has to judge Zola’s intervention as a success. Despite the havoc it caused initially, it was clear that Dreyfus was innocent, and in 1906, already out of jail, he received his pardon. Zola was less fortunate, though. After fleeing to England, he died from carbon monoxide poisioning from a blocked chimney, the blocking quite possibly done by a chimney sweep who had been paid to kill him.
Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I thought it must be the darkest of Wells’s science fiction stories, but The War of the Worlds represents some solid competition on that front. As stories of alien invasion go, it’s remarkably bleak and lacking in heroism. After the aliens land in the suburbs of London (the capital of a third of the world in 1898) every attempt to deal with them is doomed by naivety, arrogant folly and blind, incoherent panic. An attempt by one individual to survive and rebuild is a castigation of these faults, but is, as the narrator soon realizes, guilty of the same. Victory over the Martians only comes by chance, with the humans having nothing at all to do with it.
1898 is quite a memorable year for one big reason; it marks the start and end of the Spanish-American war, the first adventure of the USA’s imperial phase, and the making of one of its most zeitgeist-setting leaders, Theodore Roosevelt. On the plus side this means the year is easier to research, but on the downside, the focus is usually blinkered.
When I’m scouting around for research sources through my strange little narrow frame, the most obvious thing to look at is “books about years.” This is the first one I’ve encountered so far (there are many, many more to come once we get into the 20th century) and is not the best, or the worst introduction to the genre. While supposedly about the events of 1898, the book is mostly (say 80%) about the Spanish-American war, from an entirely American perspective, and even the context setting introduction and conclusion are only basically lists of events in the USA. I guess this is fair enough, the war was nicely contained by the year, though the repercussions in Cuba and The Philippines would continue for decades after, and expecting American historians to take an international perspective is obviously wishful thinking. The war is described well-enough, taking a pretty even-handed approach to the rights and wrongs of it, but the analysis is a bit limited, events are covered in a reasonable depth, with no extra time taken on analysing deeper issues. Not sure I would recommend it, but I’m not giving it to Oxfam.
In the same sort of quality, but preferable due to being consumable in two hours, here’s a fairly dry PBS documentary with a host of military historians in front of bookshelves and hoary voice actors playing McKinley, Roosevelt and the rest.
It’s one of those stories that barely seems credible; British-led construction workers building a railway across Kenya and Uganda are picked off and eaten by a pair of unusually cunning lions. Traps are laid, but the lions manage to outwit the hunters at every stage, until in a final showdown they are defeated by a lieutenant-Colonel with a moustache and a twinkle in his eye. Some facts about the case seem to have been embellished or exaggerated (the kill-count being more like 35 than 100 for example), but the basics of the tale are apparently legit.
This is a podcast from ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class’ which discusses the case. As with all of their shows, great information, wish they would tone it down a little with the chat, and reduce the ads to something less than 30% of the show
Oscar in his third and final act was perhaps on the surface a different sort of animal; withdrawn and solemn, altogether lacking in the choice witticisms that made his name. I like to think that nothing had changed – here is the honesty and compassion that I see in his essays and his novel, just with the artifice relentlessly stripped away, and infused with an enforced humility in the face of the forces of fate. For all that, the resignation is still shocking in its cold fury, the numbing repetition of the simple meter mirroring the tramp of prisoners around the yard, the descriptions of the execution almost unbearably vivid. I’m not really a poetry person (hopefully with this project that can change) but this gets me *there* more than almost any other text.
The entire text is here and (if you are in the mood for something grim and depressing) I urge you to read it:
“The country is awakening to the real harm these “coon songs” and “rag-time” are doing… It is an evil music that has crept into the homes and hearts of our American people regardless of race, and must be wiped out as other bad and dangerous epidemics have been exterminated. A person once innoculated with the ragtime-fever is like one addicted to strong drink! Ragtime is sycopation gone mad, and its victims, in my opinion, can only be treated successfully like the dog with rabies, namely, with a dose of lead.” – Edward Baxter Perry
We’re finally getting to the point where music is the story rather than the technology used to record it, so that should be a cause for celebration. In reality, though, it’s so damn complicated. There is certainly a change in the air, but not only is it unclear what it should be called in 1898, it’s not even going to become remotely clear at any point in the future, not until historians start to discuss it in the 1970s, under the general heading of “early days of ragtime.” Blues and projo-jazz are for the moment out of the picture. So here’s an overview of what we have to deal with in 1898.
The dominant cultural form of 19th Century America, minstrel shows are naturally mainly remembered today for being deeply offensive towards black people. A product of first a slave-owning society, then a society nostalgic for the days of slavery, minstrel shows featured white performers performing as hideous blackface caricatures, who were by turns stupid, lazy, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. None of this is remotely excusable nowadays, and it would be tempting to consign it all to a dark cupboard, if it weren’t for the fact that it also contains most of the popular music that lives on to this day – “Dixie”, “Turkey in the Straw”, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home” (“Suwanee River”) and “My Old Kentucky Home” – the last three of these written by the “father of American music” Stephen Foster. Separating baby and bathwater at this stage is nigh-on impossible – these songs would continue as standards right through to the jazz age, and a ragged version of “Old Folks at Home” appears in this mix.
By the end of the 19th century, minstrelry had morphed into Vaudeville. Instead of a highly structured routine, vaudeville had a loose collection of acts – singers and comedians of course, but also dancers, trained animals, magicians, strongmen, female and male impersonators, acrobats, one-act plays , athletes, and celebrity appearances. Singers in blackface were still common, and the musical repertoire has so much in the way of overlap that it may as well be considered the same thing. These days we tend to think of the term “Vaudeville” as referring primarily to the comedy element of the show, but the musical side was if anything more of a draw.
The story goes like this – slaves would have dancing competitions where, dressed up in formal wear, they would perform a free-flowing mockery of white society dancing, the best performer winning a cake. How much of this is true, and how much a later invention is a matter of (sometimes furious) debate – but in any case the name stuck, first for a dance, and then for the variety of music that could accompany it. This style of music was also known as…
The musical innovation of cakewalk / two-step was a layer of syncopation slotted into the marching music of the time – an extra level of rhythm playing off and around the main beat. This wasn’t a new invention – examples can be found in all kinds of composers – but the bringing of both syncopation and (quite likely African) polyrhythms to the forefront of the music was a fundamental change in focus from the often slow, melody-driven music that dominated the Victorian age. However, these were still primarily considered to be dances rather than musical genres.
From the early 1890s references start to appear to the “ragging” of music (adding syncopation to existing songs in order to make them suitable for dances) and towards the end of the decade sheet music began to appear with “ragtime” in the title. Initially this seems to have referred only to the syncopated rhythm, but from 1898 onward the name seems to have stuck – only after which a host of other signifiers started to be drawn into the definition, including the “smears” added by soloists – Arthur Pryor’s trombone solos in Sousa’s band are a great example of this. Vess L. Ossman’s “A Bunch of Rags” is perhaps the first explicitly “ragtime” recording available, and naturally is an excuse for a virtuoso soloist to show off their skill. Scott Joplin was just getting started at this point, but even when his songs start getting recorded in a few years, they will still be performed on the banjo or by full bands. The idea of ragtime as a style of piano music is largely an invention of the mid 20th century. As we move on towards the 1910s, all kinds of music from dance pieces to popular songs will start to be referred to as “ragtime” – but in 1898 the main term to refer to popular vocal songs is, unfortunately…
A natural progression from the minstrel shows, “coon songs” are the inevitable result of an uncomprehending music business trying to get in on some of the magic coming out of black America. This idiotic mistranslation largely followed the formula of self-consciously edgy mistrelry (knife-wielding, womanising “Zip Coons” instead of docile, subservient “Jim Crows”) with an upbeat, syncopated backing, and was performed by wealthy white performers from the North-East doing the most outrageous version of Deep-South Black speech they could muster. So far it sounds terrible, and to a certain extent it is, but as for much of this the picture is nowhere near as simple. Take for example the most famous “coon song” of all, Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” The most rotten title possible, surely, and yet Hogan was a trailblazing black performer, the first African-American to produce and star in a Broadway show, and the song itself was an unstoppable hit which did much to bring ragtime into public consciousness. The title was, ironically enough, changed in the name of decency from “All Pimps Look Alike to Me.”
The “King of Coon Songs” was Arthur Collins, and this mix features his first available recording, Zizzy Ze Zum Zum. He will become easily the most popular recording artist of the next decade, by which time he will have been re-branded as the “King of the Ragtime Singers” as the term “coon song” mercifully fades from use. The songs themselves, and quite often elements of the offensive racial stereotyping embedded within, will remain present right up until the start of the jazz age, with some of them (usually those with less offensive titles) going on to be standards, their lineage forgotten, perhaps deliberately so. Many of these same songs are now thought of as being from…
Tin Pan Alley
Which many of them are. Tin Pan Alley was originally a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower District of Manhattan, the small music-publishing district of New York. From the late 1880s to the end of the 1920s this small area was the driving force for American popular music. Most of the songs here are from this street in one way or another, and while it produced a range of music, its influence as a hub of innovation, appropriation and the forces of the musical establishment cannot be overstated.
A. L. Sweet – Bugle Call – 00:00
Vess L. Ossman – Bunch of Rags – 00:08
Garrett A. Hobart – Words Of Welcome – 02:32
Arthur Collins – Zizzy Ze Zum Zum – 02:44
Harry Spencer – Side Show Shouter – 03:28
Edison Brass Quartet – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 04:05
Dan W Quinn – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 04:42
Gilmore’s Band – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 05:35
William Jennings Bryan – Crown Of Thorns And Cross Of Gold – 06:45
George Rosey’s Orchestra Of New York City – Cotillion March – 07:01
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh On A Street Car – 08:05
Sousa’s Band – Love Thoughts Waltz (Trombone – Arthur Pryor) – 08:49
Buffalo Bill – Sentiment On The Cuban Question – 12:02
Columbia Orchestra – Charge Of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders – 12:21
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh Comments On The Spanish Question – 14:39
Edison Concert Band – Medley Of War Songs – 15:09
Chief trumpeter Cassi of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders – Bugle Calls – 17:24
Otto Mesloh – Tyrolienne – 18:07
Russell Hunting – Casey As Umpire At A Ball Game – 19:28
Columbia Orchestra – The Darkey’s Dream – 19:44
Ruby Brooks – The Darkies Dream (Banjo Solo) – 21:12
T. De Witt Talmage – Sermon On The Mount – 22:21
Frank C. Stanley – A Hundred Fathoms Deep – 22:36
W. F. Hooley – Ingersoll At The Tomb Of Napoleon – 24:40
F. Jardella – Spaghetti Polka – 24:55
Dr. B. Sunderland – Lord’s Prayer – 26:45
Jennie Hoyle – Musin Mazurka – 27:03
Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting – The Whores’ Union – 28:29
Joseph Pizzarello – Nocturne – 28:55
Sandra Droucker – Etude In F-Sharp – 30:58
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Donau Weibschen Waltz – 32:20
W. F. Hooley – Talmage On ‘Infidelity’ – 34:38
Sousa’s Grand Concert Band – The Jolly Coppersmith – 34:52
Frank S. Maziotta – Old Folks At Home – 37:27
August P.Stengler – Old Folks At Home – 39:09
John Terrell – Casey’s Address To The G.A.R. – 41:05
Otto Mesloh – Tyrolienne – 41:46
Cousins & Demoss – Who Broke The Lock – 43:08
Vess L. Ossman – Pretty Little Queen – 45:20
The Greater New York Quartette – The Sleigh Ride Party – 47:50