1903 is a marquee year for aviation, mainly because “first flight” sounds much snappier than “first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft” – and balloon pioneers are too far back in history to fit in with the age of innovation. All the same, the Wright brothers retain their fascination, their first flight at Kitty Hawk leading inexorably to the air battles of the First World War, just over a decade later.
Here is a BBC documentary on the first days of flight
And here is an American documentary on the first powered flight
A bit of a grim story today, though it is perhaps illustrative of the golden age of Vaudeville. Just after Christmas 1903, comedian Eddie Foy was starring in a sold-out matinee performance of a musical comedy, “Mr. Bluebeard,” in Chicago’s prestigious Iroquois Theater. 2000 people, mostly children and their mothers, were crowded into the theatre. During the performance, an overhead spotlight burst into flames, setting fire to the backstage rigging. Workers attempted to beat the fire out with sticks, but this was no help.
When flaming cloth began to fall on stage, panic set in. Foy asked the band to continue playing, but the audience began a mad dash for the exits. These, however, were not properly marked, or were even blocked. In the resultant stampede and inferno, 602 people died, and its a miracle that the toll wasn’t higher.
Stuff You Missed In History Class have an episode about the fire, and the changes in the law that followed, usual provisos about excessive advertising apply.
The revolution in sound recording is obviously the main focus of this site – but as far as a standard history of popular culture is concerned, the 1900s are better-remembered for the beginnings of the film industry – not yet started in Hollywood, but already beginning to differentiate this century from the last. Up to this point the natural home for cinema is France (and possibly Britain) – but 1903 sees the emergence of the first real auteur of American cinema, Edwin S. Porter.
The Great Train Robbery is nearly as much a bold leap forward as A Trip To The Moon, and its influence if anything may be greater. Watching it you get for the first time a sense of what American film-making is going to become. Porter didn’t exactly invent composite editing, or cross cutting, or location shooting, but his use of them is the first iteration of the grammar of film-making we still have today.
Here is The Great Train Robbery – certainly worth a look.
And here is a documentary about Porter, apparently made by a long defunct website.
“Under it all there’s a sort of strong, dark pulsing, the dimly recorded echo of the thundering rhythm: trombones, sousaphones (named after your man, of course), drums. The dynamics build to a controlled climax, the sound getting heavier and heavier as the band drives it on home. The total effect is anthemic, like Led Zeppelin without all the squiggly guitar… …The main thing that the modern, post-jazz listener will miss here is solos — the squiggles. When the band’s forging ahead at full speed, there’s nobody to take the wheel and jerk it, to bring in the element of surprise, of danger. Sousa’s Band had soloists, all right, but they played set pieces: themes and florid variations all composed and pre-arranged; sheet music. These would be set against a minimal, often-muted backing, so as not to detract from the magnificence of the solo. Free improvisation isn’t part of the vocabulary.” – David Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843–1924
“Freedom of choice / Is what you got / Freedom from choice / Is what you want” Devo, Freedom Of Choice
One perspective on the history of recorded music goes like this – each innovation is a new artistic tool to be used. Watch the innovations, then you’ll see see new genres springing up in their wake. 1903 is awash with these new opportunities, largely due to the democratisation of music recording around the world, but instead of one big idea, there are a load of little ones. Some are really just old ideas, some really are new, but for all their merits none really anticipates the way things would swing just a decade later.
From the old (American) ideas, brass bands are still something of a default setting – though having exhausted their standard modes, they are at least beginning to branch out in a few different directions. Naturally there are still the soloists – Bohumir Kryl and Arthur Pryor continue to helm bands, but both are starting to relax into the figure of coordinator rather than star performer. For Kryl at least there are a few more of these virtuoso performances to listen to before relegation to the ranks of jobbing studio bands. For Pryor, I’m sorry to say that we’ve already had the best.
Elsewhere, Tin Pan Alley continues to churn out novelty hits at an alarming rate, wringing every last drop of inspiration out of the fin de siècle and the lastest developments of the Edwardian age. On ‘Any Rags’ vaudeville performer / manager Thomas S. Allen takes a schottische and adds ragtime elements with a typical lyric featuring a racist caricature of a black man. If you can get past that, you can see why it was a hit – it does have a certain flavour of the transgressive, especially when performed in the leering baritone of Arthur Collins.
Vaudeville was still a relatively new phenomenon in 1903, and its performers seem to have demonstrated this by their referencing of new technologies. This year appears to have been marked by the increasing visibility of automobiles on the streets (this is the year of the introduction of the original Ford Model A) – we have two comic dialogues and one song on the topic, all presenting the car as a dangerous machine driven exclusively by reckless people. The song is not technically vaudeville, but its English counterpart, music hall, and the first British recording we’ve had for quite a while.
Elsewhere in Europe, the gramophone is being largely used to record “proper” (i.e. classical) music, with the occasional ethnographic adventure. In Enrico Caruso the gramophone has found its first true worldwide star, his records selling at double the price of other tenors and being eagerly snapped up by a new creature called a ‘record collector’. Caruso is still only 28 years old, and while it looks like he’s already conquered the world already in 1903, his star still has a long way to rise.
It’s easy to dismiss this era as a dull one, but really there’s a lot going on. Whether it will really lead anywhere seems like something of a side issue. This is what we get though our narrow (but widening) viewing hole this time, and there’s plenty worth saving.
Bohumir Kryl – Arbucklenian Polka 0:00
Collins & Harlan – Cat And The Fly Paper 2:00
Arthur Collins – Any Rags 2:21
Charles Prince’s Band – Any Rags 4:17
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskins’ Ride On A Cyclone Auto (1) 5:49
Vesta Victoria – Riding On A Motor Car 7:07
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh On An Automobile 8:50
Edison Military Band – Secret Polka (John Hazel Cornet) 9:26
Harlan & Stanley – Waiting For The Dinner Horn To Blow 11:27
Orchestra ‘Harmonia’ – Ruthenian Gopak 11:37
Fanny Cochrane Smith – Only recording of extinct full-blood Tasmanian aborigine 13:26
B.S. Troyanovsky – Mazurka 13:32
Romanchenko Duet – Nastya And Vanya 15:02
Natalia Tamara – Troika 16:17
Ivan Ershov – Ho-Ho, Ho Hei, Forging Song With Anvil 17:56
Antonio Vargas – Toreador Song From Carmen 18:20
Enrico Caruso – La Donna E Mobile 19:18
Enrico Caruso – Tosca, E Lucevan Le Stelle 20:24
Nellie Melba – Chant Venitien (Bemberg) 21:43
Pope Leo XIII – Ave Maria 23:12
Gilmore’s Band – Introduction To 3rd Act (Wagner – Lohengrin) 23:43
Harlan & Stanley – Two Rubes In An Eating House 24:33
Edison Symphony Orchestra – A Lucky Duck 24:49
Grisard – Les Canards Tyroliens 26:00
Len Spencer – Making The Fiddle Talk 27:28
Vess L. Ossman – Razzle Dazzle 29:07
Dan Leno – Going To The Races 31:08
Dan W. Quinn – The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous 31:58
Aeolian Piano Roll 3113 from The Wizard Of Oz – Poppy Song 33:03
Haydn Quartet – Camp Of The Hoboes 34:00
Lillie Langtry – On The Margate Boat 34:14
William A. Moriarity – Llewellyn March 35:53
Peerless Orchestra – Ma Ragtime Baby 38:02
Sam Mayo – Bread And Marmalade 39:02
Julian Rose – Hebrew Vaudeville Specialty 41:50
Anon – Bondei Xyolophone Piece (Tanganyika) 42:24
Qasim – Lagu Nuri Terbang Malam 43:01
Bahiano – Lundu Do Baiano 43:36
Damrosch Orchestra – Toreador Song 45:11
Russian Chorus Of E.I. Ivanov – The Volga Troika 46:27
The Imperial Court Ensemble – Seigaiha 47:42
George J. Gaskin – The Bassoon 48:58
Bohumir Kryl – National Fantasia 50:54
Leo A. Zimmerman – Leona Polka 52:47
Len Spencer And Parke Hunter – The Banjo Evangelist 53:56
Zonofone Orchestr – 740 54:20
Harlan & Stanley – Scene In A Country Store 55:40
Albert Bode Trumpet & Columbia Band – Seashell Waltz 55:58
British Military Band – Intermezzo (Mascagni – Cavalleria Rusticana) 57:33
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskins’ Ride On A Cyclone Auto (2) 59:40