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“On or around December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that, but a change there was, nevertheless.” – Virgina Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”

Pity the author trying to conjure up the aural landscape of the world before WW1. It’s too late for Victoriana, too early for the slightest hints of jazz, ragtime (in its popular conception) seems odd outside of saloon bars, and popular song? Well, there’s plenty of that, sure, but does it evoke anything peculiarly about this particular era? I would say not.

What we’re experiencing here is the distorting effect of multiple pairs of rose-tinted glasses. The shock of the war and the flu pandemic, closely followed by the shock of jazz and blues, these things walled off the pre-war era, made them look artificially old, and ripe for reinvention as nostalgia – both in the fairly harmless personal sense and in more sinister uses by those who wished to roll back social and political progress.

Some common ways to encounter popular songs of this time are;

* As “barbershop,” an invention sourced to a revival in the 1940s which pieced together several aspects of music and fashion of this era into a unified tradition which bears little resemblance to the way people actually understood it at the time. Certainly we have harmony singing quartets, but the narrow stylistic focus in Barbershop has no real predecessor.
* As “standards” or even “The Great American Songbook” which is traditionally understood to date from the dawn of the Jazz age (say 1917-1922) to the birth of Rock & Roll (say 1954-1959), but by 1910 we have many of the most important figures already on the board – Irving Berlin himself appears in this mix, and Gershwin’s piano rolls are coming fairly soon.
* As jazz – many of the hit songs of this time (especially those which mentioned “the blues”) were reinterpreted into jazz standards. See how many you recognise from this list – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pre-1920_jazz_standards – you may be surprised.
* As cartoon music. These were the songs of the artists’ childhoods, the most readily available touchstones available in their subconscious, it’s no wonder that when sound cartoons began in the late 20s they gravitated towards the simpler, less swervy melodies of a simpler time. When I’m playing band music from this era to friends, “this sounds like music from a cartoon” is an almost universal response.

The common thread through each of these is, again, nostalgia. We hear these songs as interpreted by the following couple of generations. Advances in recording (particularly electronic recording) would render these originals sonically poor, encourage re-recording and reinterpretation, and yes, that’s good, it’s the heart of the constant recycling at the heart of popular music. The jarring thing is the relative lack of this re-interpretative sense in the music of 1910. The remakes of recent classics like Old Folks At Home and The Mockingbird seem to have faded away, fueled by ragtime and tin pan alley, everyone seems to be looking to the present, or even the future, and that’s kind of an amazing place to be.

Early modernism has now been so recycled as to become an abandoned cliche, but sometimes this era can throw other curveballs at you. Have a look at this device, the “chronophone”, designed to play discs to accompany short ‘phonoscènes’ in a single French cinema, but looking for all the world like a steampunk dj deck.

The biggest star in the world in 1910 is still Enrico Caruso, and for good reason too. His superb singing style was exploited by the best engineers and with the most expensive studio setups. But something doesn’t feel quite right with these recordings, they are just too good. The truth is that while the vocal is most likely from this year, the backing seems to have been added at a later date – an unsatisfactory state of affairs for my obsessive side, but making for perhaps a more comfortable easing into and out of the era.

This is the final mix made using my “driftnet” technique, which meant finding every available recording from the year in question. This worked fine in the 1890s, but at this stage I had over 3000 mp3s to listen to in a single month, most of them poor quality opera recordings, and annoyed my family by listening to them all hours of the day. From this stage on, recordings are selected from lists and compilations prior to listening, not as extensive a reach into the year as before, but continuing to use the driftnet was madness.


Enrico Caruso & Frances Alda – Miserere (I Have Sighed to Rest Me) 0:00
Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan – I’m A-Dreamin’ of You 2:42
Sousa’s Band – Dancing Girl 4:15
Murry K Hill – Monologue on Married Life 6:07
Marie Dressler – Marie Dressler’s Working Girl Song 7:00
Ada Jones & Len Spencer – The Suffragette 8:20
Billy Murray – I’m on My Way to Reno 8:45
Jose Rocabruna – Romanza Expresiva 9:51
Aleister Crowley – One Sovereign for Woman 11:07
Belfs Rumaenisches Orchester – Yikhes 11:27
Sarah Bernhardt – Phedre 12:46
Schrammel Quartett Maxim – Slibowitz Tanz 13:39
Imperial Russian Balalaika Court Orchestra – Toreador Et Andalouse 14:23
Banda Odeon – Ze Pereira 15:54
Resurrección Quijano – Sarasa 16:40
Quarteto Da Casa Faulhaber & Cia – Chave De Ouro 18:33
Trio Instrumental Arriaga – El Novio De Tacha 20:40
Agustín Barrios – Ay Ay Ay 23:55
Jack Johnson – How I Won The Big Fight 23:37
Agustín Barrios – Jota 26:26
Fisk University Jubilee Singer – When Malindy Sings 26:27
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet – Swing Low Sweet Chariot 27:01
Bert Williams – Constantly 29:51
Sophie Tucker – That Lovin’ Rag 33:04
Steve Porter – Flanagan’s Courtship 34:53
Mr R. White – Ragtime Frolics 35:35
George Formby Sr – Standing at the Corner of the Street 39:03
Harry Lauder – We Parted on the Shore 41:45
Charles Daab – Irish and Scotch Melodies 43:10
Murry K Hill – Father’s Eccentricities 45:16
Eddie Morton – You Ain’t Talking to Me 45:56
Stella Mayhew – There Are 57 Ways to Catch a Man 47:10
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Rheumatism 49:40
Ada Jones and Billy Murray – Mandy, How Do You Do? 50:15
Nora Bayes & Jack Norworth – Come Along My Mandy 52:04
Irving Berlin – Oh How That German Could Love 54:48
Billy Murray & Ada Jones – Come Josephine in My Flying Machine 57:03
H Benne Henton Saxophone – Scenes That Are Brightest 59:08
Vess L. Ossman – the Moose 59:43
Sembannarkovil Ramaswamy Pillay – Sowrashtra-Mangalam 1:01:35
Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar – Karaha Athi 1:02:48
P.S. Ramuloo – Harmonium Instrumental- Abhogi-Athi 1:04:18
Nagamma and Sister – Lakshmi Saraswati Samvada 1:05:28
Fatma Ben Meddah – Zeza Barkak Melbeka 1:06:44
Si Said Ben Ahmed – Yemma, Yemma 1:07:21
Nai Chon & Nai Suk, the Luang Sano Phinphat Ensemble – Lakhon Rueang Kraithong 1:08:04
Kachikuri Mimasuya – Shiokumi Kasatsukashi (Collecting Water) 1:09:03
Jere Sanford – Jere Sanford’s Yodling and Whistling Specialty 1:10:21
Stella Mayhew and Billie Taylor – That Beautiful Rag 1:13:15
Albert Benzler – Ideas and Ripples 1:15:14
Performers Not Given – Brown Wax Home Recording of Cheering and Greetings 1:16:23
Stroud Haxton – Canzonetta 1:17:07
Edgar L Davenport – Sheridan’s Ride 1:19:04
Mischa Elman Violin Solo – Melodie (Tchaikovsky) 1:19:41
Lieutenant Ernest Henry Shackleton – My South Polar Expedition 1:21:14
Roxy P La Rocco Harp – Annie Laurie 1:21:53
Victor Herbert Orchestra – Spanish Dance 1:23:53
Raymond Hitchcock – So What’s the Use 1:24:50
Arthur S. Witcomb and the U.S. Marine Band – The Premier 1:26:29
Marguerita Sylva – Habanera (Bizet – Carmen) 1:29:08
Geraldine Farrar- Madama Butterfly- Finale Ultimo (Butterfly’s Death Scene) 1:30:22
Nellie Melba – Puisqu’ on Peut Ne Fléchir Vainement Ma Bien Aimée (Lalo – Roi D’ Ys) 1:31:48
Enrico Caruso – Carmen – Air De La Fleur (Flower Song) 1:33:12


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