“There probably has never been a sweeter, more naturally musical baritone voice than his… …Arthur Collins managed invariably to get into the wax the impression of a warm, lovable personality. The unctuous sound of his chuckles in dialect work is unfailingly charming. His negro [sic] heroes usually were in hard luck, but they bore up bravely and saw the funny side of their own misfortunes.” – Jim Walsh, in the December 1942 issue of “Hobbies”
“No, I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy / (Heyyy!) There’s a concept that works” – Eminem, Without Me
The aim of this site is to provide an audio history of sound. The history of the site itself can be traced back to the day I decided to pick a song for every year using rateyourmusic and archive.org, and realised that the first song I found predated the 20th century. It was ‘Hello, Ma Baby!’, familiar to most people as sung by Michigan J. Frog in the 1955 cartoon One Froggy Evening, but here performed by someone called Arthur Collins, who, according to Wikipedia was the biggest selling recording artist of the 1900s. Who was this man? What sort of music was this? What was this entire era of music, long before the start of the Jazz age and why had I heard nothing about it in three decades of listening? The answers to these questions stretched until they had to be hemmed in by the site in front of you.
As described last time, Arthur Collins was “King of the Coon Songs” – then “King of the Ragtime Singers” when people finally started feeling embarrassed about using appalling racial epithets as genre names. Already I’m sure you can see why people treat him as an embarrassment and nothing else, but let’s add to that another couple of things; his main singing voice was a racist impression, he used it to propagate lazy and offensive stereotypes by singing songs written by white people to cash in on a boom in black music, and the black musicians he was replacing couldn’t get anywhere near a recording contract. It’s no wonder that this once-huge star has yet to see a single release on LP or CD. But, as so often in these days, you have to work with what you have. Collins is far from the worst of his kind – unlike with Billy Golden his impression of a black man never seems to be deliberately condescending or mocking, and in the passion he put into his performances always comes across as a genuine enjoyment of the form.
Arthur Collins was born in 1864 in Philadelphia, the oldest of ten children. By 17 he was singing at church festivals and concerts, and he soon joined a number of unsuccessful touring companies, and sang in a number of summer operas, eventually giving up showbusiness to study bookkeeping, and later work for a cigar company when he got married in 1895. It wasn’t long after that that he received a letter from Edison’s National Phonograph Company inviting him to make a trial recording on May 16th, 1898. It was evidently a success. Between 1898 and 1912 he made at least 227 other solo cylinders, 50 Berlinner discs and many collaborations as part of groups like The Peerless Quartet and duets, most usually with Byron G Harlan. Both large, burly tenors, they were once introduced by Billy Murray as the ‘Half-Ton Duo.’
Collins most popular song was “The Preacher and the Bear,” written by George Fairman, and first recorded in 1905. The song was one of the all-time best-sellers, and Collins would go on to record it for virtually every record company in existence. Though his solo career soon seemed to fade away, this recording continued being pressed up until the 1940s. We will be seeing a fair amount of both his solo work and that with Byron G Harlan, including “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland” – the first ever record to mention Jazz.
A serious accident with a trapdoor during one of Edison’s ‘Test Tone’ demonstrations (where a singer would mime to a diamond disc recording before the curtain was raised to reveal the gramophone playing) led to him being out of action for a while, and after a single tentative attempt to get back into the game, he retired to Florida, dying on August 3, 1933, sitting on a bench under his beloved orange trees, with his head on his wife’s shoulder.
Joe Howard and Ida Emerson were a married couple, and one of the most successful writing partnerships on Tin Pan Alley. Joe had a difficult early life, being raised in gang-era New York, with no mother and a violent alcoholic for a father. He ran away to St. Louis, Missouri, and joined a touring theatre company, where he met a young singer called Ida Emerson. Together they wrote “Hello, Ma Baby!” which sold over a million copies in just a few months and set them up as a career as songwriters. Through the first two decades of the 20th century they wrote a string of hits, including “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” “What’s the Use of Dreaming?,” “I Don’t Like Your Family,” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”.
Howard and Emerson continued to perform on the stage throughout their careers, and in In 1939, Howard starred in a radio program called The Gay Nineties Revue, which revisited his hits from the turn of the century, this time as nostalgic entertainment for those old enough to remember the time before jazz, in 1947 a movie was made based on Howard’s biography called ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,’ and from 1948-1949 The Gay Nineties Review became a television show. He died on stage in Chicago while singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” during a curtain call in 1961.
“Hello, Ma Baby!,” then, is a standard-enough standard of its time, not particularly notable, but catchy enough to be remembered half a century later, unlike its more objectionable peers “All Coons Look Alike To Me” and “A Coon Band Contest.” Thing is, though, it’s really not that different. There may not be racist terminology thrown around in the title, but it fits very much into the popular mode of the time – that is, white people performing ‘humourous’ caricatures of black people. In this case the joke is… wait for it, this is a good one… people who use African-American Vernacular English using a telephone. Now this might not be the source of hilarity to anyone born after 1910 or so, but you can sort of imagine the logic – people with low social status using the latest technology. It still stinks, of course, but take a look at almost any music from this era and you’ll find something similar. Even ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ is guilty of the same condescension.
The reason for continually dwelling on this stuff it that it is so prevalent, so embedded in every nook and cranny of popular culture at the time, that avoiding it entirely would involve cutting almost everything, and yet it would be an insult to those who suffered if we were to just sweep it all under the carpet. Arthur Collins, Joe Howard and Ida Emerson seem to have been decent enough people, they were absolutely complicit in the racist culture they benefited from, but remembering that doesn’t mean dismissing their work entirely. And ‘Hello, Ma Baby!’ is still a great tune, a song about technology, recorded on technology, using the latest technological jargon (the word “hello”). It’s positively futuristic, and the 20th century is just around the corner.
Note: Biography of Arthur Collins abridged from Tim Gracyk’s excellent book POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925 – which can be found here
Len Spencer – Promotional Message On The Edison Phonograph (Extract 1) 0:00
Arthur Collins – Hello, Ma Baby! 0:58
Len Spencer – Promotional Message On The Edison Phonograph (Extract 2) 3:26
Vess L. Ossman – Little Bit Of Everything 4:33
S. H. Dudley & Arthur Collins – Three Minutes With The Minstrels (Extract) 7:00
Edison Concert Band – Second Connecticut March 7:24
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh And The Lightning Rod Agent 8:53
Jean Moeremans And Jacques L. Van Poucke – Polka Variata 10:20
B. Russell Throckmorton – The White Man’s Burden (Kipling) (Extract 1) 11.51
Anton Arensky – Arensky- An Der Quelle In A, Op. 46, No. 1 12.16
B. Russell Throckmorton – The White Man’s Burden (Kipling) (Extract 2) 13:00
Columbia Orchestra – The Lime-Kiln Club 13:46
Edison Minstrels – Minstrel Potpourri (Extract 1) 16:27
Edison Quartette – Sunshine Will Come Again 16:39
Edison Minstrels – Minstrel Potpourri (Extract 2) 18:56
Will F. Denny – You Can’t Think Of Everything 19:11
Billy Golden – Rabbit Hash (Extract) 20:08
A. L. Sweet – Arbucklenian Polka 20:16
Imperial Minstrels – Upon The Golden Shore (Extract) 21:39
Columbia Drum, Fife and Bugle Corps – the Girl I Left Behind Me 21:54
Peerless Orchestra – Admiral Dewey’s Arrival In New York 22:47
Orchestra – The Mosquito Parade 23:49
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh At A Baseball Game 25:43
James C. Mcauliffe – Mrs. Mccloud’s Reel 26:14
Peerless Orchestra – Ma Ragtime Baby 27:39
Len Spencer – Auction Sale-Household Goods (Extract 1) 29:44
Unidentified Barrel Organist – Street Piano Number Two 30:29
Len Spencer – Auction Sale-Household Goods (Extract 2) 31:55
Dan W Quinn – Glorious Beer 32:32
Len Spencer – Auction Sale-Household Goods (Extract 3) 33:34
W. C. Townsend – The Pixies 33:54
William Jefferson (Len Spencer) – Cinderella (Extract 1) 35:43
Albert Benzler – Tell Me With Your Eyes Medley 36:25
William Jefferson (Len Spencer) – Cinderella (Extract 2) 37:23
Jacques L. Van Poucke – Fantaisie Variée 38:02
William Jefferson (Len Spencer) – Cinderella (Extract 3) 39:18
Joseph P. Cullen And William G. Collins – Twin Star March 40:11
Sig. Adamini – Los Ojos Negros 41:26
Vess L. Ossman – Whistling Rufus 44:24
Peerless Orchestra. – Whistling Rufus 46:58
Roger Harding & Steve Porter – The Imperial Minstrels (Extract 1) 49:24
Joseph P. Cullen And William G. Collins – Twin Star March 49:38
May Kelso – Because 50:52
Roger Harding & Steve Porter – The Imperial Minstrels (Extract 2) 52:36
Jean Moeremans – The Little Speranza 52:53
George P. Watson – Snyder, Does Your Mother Know You’re Out? 54:27
Orchestre Boldi – L’amour Et La Vie À Vienne 56:48
Unidentified Chimes – Home, Sweet Home 59:35