In this special festive episode of Centuries of Sound, James and Sean take a break from the era of wax cylinders and marching bands to review some of the (perhaps) more sophisticated sounds of 2018, and discover some surprising parallels between the gilded age and today.
The true pioneering heroes of the Edwardian Era were not The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. This supposedly tranquil time was in truth the most turbulent age of social activism between the Civil War and the 1960s, and naturally the real drivers of this new “Progressive” age were less likely to be old, white or male than the usual famous names of the age.
Sophia Duleep Singh was born a princess, the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Indian prince in the Sikh Empire. Goddaughter to Queen Victoria, she was raised in luxury in England, but as an adult grew to realise that her sheltered upbringing had hidden from her a world of opression, and on a visit back to India she realised what had been done to her homeland. Returning to live in her own house in England in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) demonstration alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, where more than 150 women were assaulted. In 1911, on the day of the King’s Speech to Parliament, she launched herself in front of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s car and pulled out a ‘Give Votes to Women’ banner from her fur muff. In the 1910s she refused to pay her taxes, saying “If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?” – but with her royal connections, the police were too scared to arrest her. Here she is pictured selling a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace.
Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, born into slavery during the Civil War, then orphaned by a yellow fever outbreak at the age of 16, forcing her to become a teacher to support her siblings. In 1884, she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis after having been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket. After the lynching of one of her friends, she started publishing anti-lynching pamphlets and writing for newspapers, until one exposé led to her office being burned down. Driven out of Memphis, Wells began traveling internationally to tell the world about lynching, and confronting women’s suffrage organisations who refused to take the issue seriously. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and was there at the founding of the NAACP in 1909.
You may already have heard the inception myth of the teddy bear. Teddy Roosevelt, the definitive POTUS and all round man’s man, out on one of his regular hunting trips, refuses to kill a female bear as it has a young cub. A political cartoonist uses the story to illustrate Roosevelt’s humanity and sense of moral duty to protect lesser beings, two companies start making toy bears based on said cartoon, then for some reason this fad turns out to be the one in a thousand that becomes a permanent fixture. It doesn’t particularly matter that most of the story is probably not true, or that the bear was, in fact, killed, by 1909 the teddy bear is already embedded in popular consciousness, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic is one of the most-played bits of sheet music (though it – bizarrely – doesn’t have lyrics yet) and toymakers worldwide are producing masses of different stuffed toy animals, hoping to catch the next craze before everyone else.
In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters”—a toasty pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. (Taft gobbled up the roasted marsupial so quickly that a nearby doctor advised him to slow down.) When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear. They dubbed it “Billy Possum.”
More audio time travel adventures from James and Sean. This time we cover the years 1892 and 1893, the world’s fair in Chicago, a couple of notorious murderers, some rude jokes about Frances Folsom (the wife of the President of the USA), and some popular music hall songs, which may not be as innocent as they seem.
January 6 – The Great White Fleet, consisting of 16 U.S. Navy battleships sailing the globe in a display of American naval power, successfully completed its passage through the Suez Canal, passing from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea
January 9 – The British Nimrod Expedition to the South Pole, led by Ernest Shackleton, arrives at the farthest south reached by any prior expedition, at 88°23′ S, prior to turning back due to lack of provisions.
February 5 – Leo Baekeland announces the creation of bakelite hard thermosetting plastic
February 12 – The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded in New York, New York
March 4 – William Howard Taft is sworn in, as the 27th President of the United States.
March 30 – The Queensboro Bridge was opened to the public, linking Queens to Manhattan
April 13 – A countercoup begins in the Ottoman Empire.
April 14 – Ottoman Turks kill 15,000–30,000 Armenian Christians, in the Adana Vilayet
April 27 – Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Abdul Hamid II is overthrown and succeeded by his brother, Mehmed V. He is sent to the Ottoman port city of Thessaloniki (Selanik) the next day
May 19 – Russian ballet is brought to the Western world, when the Ballets Russes opens a tour produced by Sergei Diaghilev at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with 55 dancers, including Vaslav Nijinsky.
June 2 – French forces capture Abéché, capital of the Wadai Empire in central Africa.
July 16 – The Persian Constitutional Revolution succeeded in forcing Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar from the throne of Iran. The National Assembly proclaimed the 12-year-old Crown Prince, Ahmed Mirza, as Shah, and Azud ul Mulk as regent.
July 19 – Hudson Terminal and 22-storey twin towers open at future site of World Trade Center in New York
July 25 – Louis Blériot is the first man to fly across the English Channel (thus a large open body of water) in a heavier-than-air craft
July 25–August 2 – The city of Barcelona experiences a workers’ uprising.
July 27 – SS Waratah and 211 people on board vanish without a trace
August 2 – The United States Army Signal Corp Division purchases the world’s first military airplane, a Wright Military Flyer, from the Wright brothers.
August 29 – Glenn Curtiss winsthe world’s first airplane race, after being sued by the Wright Brothers and almost being in the first midair collision
September 1 – Frederick Cook announces he was the first to reach the North Pole. As of 2018 his claim remains unproven.
September 7 – Eugène Lefebvre becomes the first pilot, and second person overall, to die in an airplane crash
October 22 – The Baroness de Laroche becomes first woman to fly an airplane solo
October 26 – Itō Hirobumi, four time Prime Minister of Japan (the 1st, 5th, 7th and 10th) and Resident-General of Korea, is assassinated by An Jung-geun at the Harbin Railway Station in Manchuria.
November 13 – The Cherry Mine Disaster, the third deadliest coal mine accident in United States history, kills 247 coal miners, and 12 rescuers.
November 14 – Joshua Slocum had, in 1898, made the first solo circumnavigation of the globe, sailing in his yacht, the Spray. After refitting the Spray for another voyage, Slocum departed from Martha’s Vineyard and was never seen again
December 17 – Belgium’s genocidal monster King Leopold II dies
Many people have observed that as we get older, time seems to pass more quickly – and it seems natural to apply this to civilization in general. But while it’s true that technology has had some disorientating lurches forward over the last century – going from the first flight to the first space flight in just over 50 years for example – I would say that (n terms of culture) we seem to be if anything slowing down now, partly for the simple reason that it’s difficult to shock your mum if your grandad was a punk, but also because this longevity means the careers of artists and entertainers are now significantly longer. Artists from the 1960s and even the 1950s are still touring, and plenty of young people are turning up to see them. This might seem unremarkable, but taken from the vantage point of the Edwardian era, it’s a massive shift. The popular artists of the 1900s were not the popular artists of the 1920s. Why? Well, many (if not most) of them were dead, for a start. So let’s take a look at three of our featured artists who would not be around in a few years, and one group who you can go and hear even now.
British listeners will probably be familiar with the name of George Formby, a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s, but may not be aware that his father was also called George Formby, and was if anything an even bigger star in his day. Born to an alcoholic prostitute mother and a coal miner father in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, then neglected, mistreated and malnourished, George often had to sleep outside because his parents were being held in police cells. In order to raise some money for food, he began singing on street corners for pennies, and was good enough to get real work in a singing duo in his teens. Touring music halls, George developed stage characters, including “John Willie”, described by Jeffrey Richards as “the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad … hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through” – and whose costume served as inspiration for Charlie Chaplin when he was creating his Little Tramp. Formby’s health was never strong – he gained the nickname of “The Wigan Nightingale” after incorporating his bronchial cough into his act, and had to retire from music hall after a stage accident in 1916. He contracted influenza in the pandemic of 1918/19 and a bout of pulmonary tuberculosis finished him off in 1921 at the age of 45. In the 1909 recording featured in this mix, he is a mere 33 years old, but sounds much older.
Billy Williams was another big name in 1900s music hall, but his accent might be harder to place than Formby’s – it was in fact masking the fact that he was from Australia rather than Northern England. He worked with songwriter Fred Godfrey to create a “song factory” – Godfrey would create personalised character songs and Williams would perform here. The selection here has a young Billy finding a coin, buying a packet of cigarettes and lying down to smoke them on some tramway lines – this was wholesome family entertainment at the time. Billy Williams was rumored to be an overindulger, and this perhaps led to his premature death in Hove in 1915 from septic prostatitis, at the age of 37.
Across the atlantic, Polk Miller had a much longer life, but was so much of a late bloomer that his recording in this mix comes just four years before his death. The son of a Virginian plantation owner, he learned to play the banjo from his father’s slaves and took time out from his work as a druggist to fight for the south as an artilleryman in the Civil War. In the reconstruction era he became a successful businessman, launching the Sergeant brand of pet care products which survives to this day. It wasn’t until the 1890s that he began playing music professionally, and not until the 1900s that he began touring nationally with his “Old South Quartette.” This backing group consisted of four black singers and the music presented was “Stories, Sketches and Songs depicting African American life before the Civil War” – but this was no minstrel show. Nobody put on blackface and the musical content was intended to be as authentic as possible, and performed to exclusive social clubs as well as African American churches. As the ethnographic sound recordists touring the world could not find the inspiration to travel a few hundred miles south, this seems to be the closest thing we have to capturing this music, and on this evidence we are missing a huge amount. In just a few minutes we can hear harmonies, rhythms and call-and-response patterns which are notable absent from the bleak landscape of “coon songs” and which gives a clear idea of the commonalities between early blues and early country music. Before I get too carried away praising Polk, however, I should probably mention that he was not just a racist, but an apologist for slavery, whose stated aim was “to vindicate the slave-holding class against the charge of cruelty and inhumanity to the negro of the old time” – and that this song perpetuates a series of stereotypes about black people and includes multiple uses of the ‘n’ word.
A less morally mixed window into this music is provided by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, the latest incarnation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a cappella ensemble, consisting of students at Fisk University, a historically black college founded after the end of the Civil War in order to educate freedmen and other young African Americans. The group was first organised in 1871 in order to raise money to save the college from bankrupcy. Touring the USA and later Europe, the nine-member group are often credited with the popularisation of what would later be called “negro spirituals” – slave songs which were not previously heard in public. Original member Ella Sheppard said “they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship and shouted over them…It was only after many months that gradually our hearts were opened to the influence of these friends and we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.” Fisk Jubilee songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” “Wade In The Water” and “Shout All Over God’s Heaven” are well-known to this day, and the group itself is still active – in fact you can go and see them tonight in Nashville.
Press Eldridge – a Confidential Chat 0:00
New York Military Band – Wild Cherries Rag 0:10
Eddie Morton – Wild Cherries Rag 0:55
Ada Jones & Len Spencer – Si Perkins’ Barn Dance 2:25
Billy Murray & Haydn Quartet – Take Me Up With You Dearie 3:47
Miss Jones and Mr. Spencer with Orchestra – Zeb Green’s Airship 5:29
American Symphony Orchestra – Black and White Rag 6:21
Murray K. Hill – A Talk on Married Life 7:23
Stella Mayhew – I’m Looking for Something to Eat 8:26
Nat M. Wills – Hortense at Sea 10:31
Nat M. Wills – Parody on There Never Was a Girl Like You 12:11
Fred Duprez & Steve Porter – Blitz and Blatz 14:13
Bohumir Kryl – Du, Du 14:44
Skobelev, Sart – Survora Andizhany 16:20
Choir of Guria Province – Tsamokruli 17:11
Obercantor Sawel Kwartin – Jaale Tachnuneinu 17:55
Vladikavkaz, Ossetian – Kudari Zarond Lechi Zarag 19:57
Tiflis, Georgian – Lezghinka 21:17
William Howard Taft – On War 23:31
United States National Guard Fife & Drum Corps – On Parade 24:02
Orquesta Pablo Valenzuela – Mama Teresa 26:08
Alfredo Gobbi, Flora Rodruez De Gobbi – El Gaucho Mam 28:46
Trio Instrumental Arriaga – Predilecta- Vals 28:56
Eduardo Das Neves – Gargalhadas Isto Bom 31:42
Enrico Molinari – E Naturale 33:05
Florencio Constantino – Recondita Armonia 33:17
Enrico Caruso – Bianca Al Par Di Neve Alpina 34:49
Charles Draper – Concertino 37:14
Paul Lack – Poesies de Table 38:22
Billy Williams – Wild Woodbines 38:58
George Formby Sr – Playing the Game in the West 41:52
Steve Porter & Edward Meeker – Flanagan and Harrigan 43:24
Harry Champion – Boiled Beef and Carrots 43:42
Steve Porter – She’s No Friend of Danny’s 45:02
Edward Meeker – Clancy’s Wooden Wedding 46:07
Charley Chase – Experiences in the Show Business 49:10
Jack Pleasants – I Said Hooray 49:34
P. Molinari – Street Piano Medley 51:39
Polk Miller & Old South Quartet – Watermelon Party 52:45
Len Spencer – Arkansas Traveler 56:21
Fred Van Eps – Yankee Medley 56:54
Cal Stewart and Len Spencer – Uncle Josh at the Dentist’s 59:12
Samuel Siegel and Roy H. Butin – Waltz 59:39
Miss Ray Cox – Baseball Girl 1:02:05
Edison Concert Band – In the Hall of the Mountain King 1:02:31
Empire Vaudeville Company – Traveling Salesman 1:03:51
Olly Oakley – Oakleigh Quickstep – Danse D’Oakley 1:04:08
Professor Kaukub – Banjo Instrumental- Bhopali 1:05:27
Ma Kyaw Bala, Ma Sein Myine, and Ma Chin Yone – Untitled Trio Part 1 1:07:25
Asadollah – Reza-Qoli Shahnaz (Shur) 1:08:42
Aung Bala – Maung Sein Mida Part 2 1:09:15
Seyyed Hoseyn Taherzadeh, Habibollah Moshir-Homayun – Bayat Esfahan 1:09:50
Seyyed Hoseyn Taherzadeh, Akbar – Daramad 1:10:55
Pinto, Lufsky and Stehl – Dreamy Moments 1:12:02
Venetian Instrumental Trio – Love and Devotion 1:13:11
Sousa’s Band – Summer Girl 1:13:25
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet – Little David, Play on Your Harp , Shout All Over God’s Heaven 1:15:37
Maurice Levi Band – Frau Luna Selections 1:18:21
Ada Jones and Len Spencer – a Race for a Wife 1:20:35
Indestructible Concert Band – Oscaleeta 1:21:12
U.S. Marine Band – Maple Leaf Rag 1:22:53
Fred Duprez & Bob Roberts – Blitz and Blatz at the Sea Shore 1:25:29
Billy Murray & Premier Quartet – Little Willie 1:25:58
Albert Benzler – Two Old Songs 1:26:38
Koos Speenhoff – Spotlied Op De Jaloerse Vrouwen 1:27:09
Albert Spalding – Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen) 1:28:23
Harry Lauder – Fu’ Th’ Noo’ (I’ve Something in the Bottle) 1:30:07