Here’s a wonderful thing. In 1994 a stack of negatives was found in a cellar by workmen demolishing a shop. The prints turned out to be the largest surviving collection of actuality films anywhere in the world, and their restoration is almost certainly the best window on to life in Edwardian England.
Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon made “Local Films For Local People” from 1899 to 1907. This meant traveling to different towns, filming real-life scenes, of people in the streets, sports matches and public events, then screening the films the same evening. Members of the public could come and see themselves projected onto the big screen.
There are two DVD collections of the films I’ve acquired. The first has full films, unedited, and is utterly fascinating, but the second, the DVD release of a BBC series, is perhaps better, offering in-depth historical analysis and even tracking down descendants of the people featured.
Research for this project is never a chore, but this is one of those things that I suspect I’d be watching even if I wasn’t researching the era.
Here is the first part of the BBC series – the other two parts can also be found on Youtube.
Theodore Roosevelt towers over the Progressive Era like nobody else – he rose to fame at its inception, became president at its height and died as it was spluttering out. Viewed from the 21st century he seems like a mass of contradictions – a strongman intellectual, a populist warmonger who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Reading about him, I am never sure whether to find him admirable or a monster – certainly he did plenty of good, but his decisive leadership also led the country into bloody colonial wars. In our mixes we will (eventually) hear his surprisingly reedy, intellectual voice, and hear songs about him, or the ‘teddy bears’ which bear his name.
The Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts is a good introduction to Teddy. Naturally the whole thing isn’t up on Youtube, but this clip is a nice starter.
President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6th, 1901, during a visit to the Pan-American Exposition at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later of gangrene caused by the gunshot wounds. He was the third American president to have been assassinated in forty years – an era in which the USA had turned away from the serious work of building the nation after the civil war to the excesses of the gilded age, the reversal of civil rights gains, and the nation’s first colonial wars. His successor would handle things in a very different fashion, though one no less fond of war.
The Edwardian Era is a short one – a decade at its basic understanding, 14 years in its extended version – but it’s nevertheless an age that lives on in the memories more than any royalty-based-group-of-years since. Usually it’s referred to as a pleasant break between the stern seriousness of the Victorians and the horrors of the First World War, the ‘Edwardian Summer’ remembered by war poets, but of course the reality was very different. It was an era of unrest, the confidence of empire knocked out by the Boer War, the rise of the suffragettes and the Labour Party, vast changes in technology, fashion and daily life, and much in the way of political and social turmoil.
Roy Hattersley’s book on the era does a fairly good job of explaining all of this, though the entire first half (and it’s a big book) is taken up with minutiae of the political ins and outs of the House of Commons, which is a struggle to get through to say the least. The Rex Factor podcast on the reign of Edward VII is as entertaining as ever. Otherwise it seems that fictionalised portrayals are the way to go – The Go-Between, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Howards End, Jeeves & Wooster, The Wind In The Willows, The Magician’s Nephew, My Fair Lady, basically any HP Lovecraft story. No, I’m not going to say Downton Abbey.
Trawling through the years there’s always a lot of talk of the ending of one era and the beginning of another. Much of it is the sort of bluster engaged in to promote an area of study. In 1901 with the start of the 20th century, the death of Victoria (and later McKinley) and the ascension of Edward VII (and later Theodore Roosevelt) the drawing of a line does become much easier.
Queen Victoria died 22 days into the 20th Century at the age of 81, with Edward VII, and her eldest grandson, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, at her side. Her funeral was one of the largest ever gatherings of European royalty, and one of the first public events to have extensive film recording surviving.
This interview with Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Alice includes her talking about the funeral from four minutes in.
These days you can’t move for historical reenactment shows, but back in the heady days of 1999 the concept was new, and hadn’t been swallowed up by the often frustrating enforced narratives and predetermined “journeys” which have now made the subgenre barely watchable. The members of the family tasked with living in 1900 find the experience to be genuinely difficult to take, and come out of it saying quite a bit more than “wasn’t that a fascinating experience.” Life was particularly hard for women in 1900, and the makers of the programme have no hesitation in allowing the unfairness of late Victorian life to play itself out with a minimum of interference.
The funeral of Queen Victoria is held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shoots U.S. President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley dies 8 days later.
Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year old schoolteacher from Bay City, Michigan, became the first person to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel and to survive
Two automobile manufacturers, Alexander Winton of Cleveland and Henry Ford of Detroit, competed against each other at a track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in a race that would set the future of American automobiles
Philadelphia City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, designed by John McArthur, Jr., is completed, the world’s tallest occupied masonry building
U.S. General Smith orders Philippine civilian massacre
The Great Fire of 1901 in Jacksonville
Gillette patents a disposable razor blade system
In the first great Texas gusher, oil is discovered at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas
Wireless radio is received from 1,700 miles away
Registration opened for the Oklahoma Territory land lottery at 9 in the morning on July 10th
The Acousticon, the first battery-powered hearing aid, is patented
Santos-Dumont wins the 100,000 francs Deutsch Prize
Escaping a blinkered view of early 20th century recorded music sometimes seems like an impossible task. If the Edwardian era is often viewed as a blissful unknowing summer before the long winter of the First World War, its music is too easy to mentally group into the precursors and the Victorian hangovers, destined for confluence and extinction respectively. For the Edwardians, however, this is all utterly alien; their music, art and culture were modern to them, and the artistic movements they could sense were rooted in their own present and near past as much as ours are. The best artists of this time seem to be reaching forward towards something, but in most cases its a future which they couldn’t make happen. The most interesting things here are heading for a cul-de-sac. That doesn’t mean they are without value, just that they are more more distant, harder to place in a simple narrative.
In America, bands and soloists are still at the cutting edge. Separated by an ocean and a music industry from the classical tradition, musicians grow up playing the stomping rhythms and building-block melodies of Sousa and Gilmore in small-town brass bands. At the dawning of the Progressive Era, soloists are increasingly trying to break out of this straight-jacket while remaining wedded to the musical establishment which promoted them in the first place. Some, like Arthur Pryor, would give up their position to become bandleaders themselves, going on to direct music of a much more conservative bent than their free-ranging solos.
In Russia, on the other hand, the classical tradition and folk music are very much alive and immediate. Three of “The Five” (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) were still alive, and their mission to popularize Russian national traditions in classical music continued to be hugely influential. With the collapse of Berliner Gramophone a host of new record labels were springing up, many of them releasing recordings of opera and folk songs. The medium being well-suited to peacocking, as demonstrated by soprano Maria A. Mikhailova as she performs in a dizzying musical battle with a flute.
Then there’s the world of the stage – vaudeville, Broadway, and the host of regional theatres running touring shows. Much of their output consisted of mildly updated variations on the old minstrel-show theme (a couple of higher quality examples of this from Silas Leachman and S.H. Dudley appear on this mix – a warning that they both feature the disgusting racist language that was endemic at the time) but one double-act were breaking through the consensus to present something with more of a honest, human face. George Walker and Bert Williams were two black performers who started their careers in the usual blackface minstrel troupes, before meeting in San Francisco in 1893 and deciding to set up a highly-original show called “The Gold Bug,” which consisted of songs, dance and sketch comedy. Minstrelry at this point had become highly ritualised, with stock characters performing in a set of predictable routines. Williams and Walker, aside from their jettisoning of these conventions, wrote songs about the realities of life without either the cheerful chuckle or the sardonic wink that was expected in popular entertainment, and it’s a complete breath of fresh air to hear.
We are no closer to the jazz age in 1901 than we were in 1898, but I’m not sure I mind. Mainly due to a vast increase in the pool of available recordings, this is the first mix which I find a joy from start to finish.
Arthur Pryor with Sousa’s Band – The Patriot 0:00
Bert Williams – All Going Out And Nothin Coming In 3:04
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Huskin’ Bee Dance 5:46
Kendle’s First Regiment Band – Cotton Blossoms 6:11
Dan Leno – Huntsman 8:55
Orkestr Garmoniy – Vo Sadu Li v Ogorode 9:18
Chanté Par Polin – La Dernière Carotte 10:48
Sousa’s Band – Pasquinale 11:27
Len Spencer – Scene At A Dog Fight 13:23
Gilmore’s Band – Poet And Peasant Overture 14:34
Steve Porter – Backyard Conversation Between Two Irish Washerwomen 16:43
Burt Shepard – When The Gentle Breezes Blow 16:55
Silas Leachman – Truscalina Brown 18:44
Chimes – Nearer My God To Thee 21:46
Columbia Band – El Miserere (Il Trovatore) 22:50
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh At The Opera 25:45
Leonid Sobinov – La Donna è Mobile 26:10
Irene Abendroth – 5 Romanzen Und Lieder, Op. 84- No. 4. Vergebliches Standchen 28:04
Maria A. Mikhailova – Charmant Oiseau 29:53
Feodor Stepanov & Mikhail Volf-Izrael – Nocturne, Op 56 No 4 32:47
John C Martin – Arbucklenian Polka 35:42
Len Spencer & Gilbert Girard – The Imperial Minstrels 36:52
Metropolitan Orchestra – Impecunious Davis 37:03
Edison Concert Band – Commercial Traveller’s March 39:10
Hager’s Band – Oriole Polka 40:31
Len Spencer – Con Clancy’s Christening 42:37
S.H. Dudley – The Whistling Girl 42:48
Polin – La Boiteuse Du Régiment 44:58
Peter Nevsly – Polka / Kamarinskaya 47:56
Gryunert, S.I.Bol’m – Fantaziya 50:37
Kin’nosuke – Tokiwazu ; Modoribashi 51:27
Peerless Orchestra – Birds And The Brook 53:02
Williams & Walker – I Don’t Like That Face You Wear 54:09
Edison Quartet – Sleigh Ride Party – Jingle Bells 56:58