As we are coming towards the end of the 19th Century, I present an overview of the music and history of 1898 and 1899 – minstrel shows, vaudeville, cakewalk, the horribly-named “coon songs” and an exciting new genre called “ragtime.”
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This time, coming towards the end of the 19th Century, we present an overview of the music and history of 1898 and 1899 – minstrel shows, vaudeville, cakewalk, the horribly-named “coon songs” and an exciting new genre called “ragtime.” This is a one-off solo show from James, as Sean is ill, expect lots of talking with occasional bits of something else, but it’s all good, really it is, honest.
Conflict raged across the world in the closing years of the 19th century, from the Spanish-American war to colonial wars in Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. To focus on these big-picture events only would miss perhaps a more important fight – that of the newly awakened voice of labour against the ruling classes of the world. In New York even kids went on strike – that is, kids who had jobs, and rotten jobs at that.
There’s a decent enough missed in history podcast about the strike here (usual provisos about content / adverts ratio applies) but this from wikipedia sums it up nicely enough.
On July 21, 1899, a large number of New York City newsboys refused to distribute the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Journal. The strikers demonstrated across the Brooklyn Bridge for several days, effectively bringing traffic to a standstill, along with the news distribution for most New England cities. They kept others from selling the papers by tearing up the distribution in the streets. The boys also requested from the public that they no longer buy either paper until the strike was settled. Pulitzer tried to hire older men to do the boys’ job, but the men understood their stance and wanted no part in defying the boys. Several rallies drew more than 5,000 newsboys, complete with charismatic speeches by strike leader Kid Blink.
So named because he was blind in one eye, Kid Blink (Louis Ballatt) was a popular subject among competing newspapers such as the New York Tribune, who often quoted Blink with his heavy Brooklyn accent depicted as an eye dialect, attributing to him such sayings as “Me men is nobul.” Blink and his strikers were the subject of violence, as well. Hearst and Pulitzer hired men to break up rallies and protect the newspaper deliveries still underway. During one rally Blink told strikers, “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind.”
Although the World and the Journal did not lower their 60¢-a-bundle price, they did agree to buy back all unsold papers and the union disbanded, ending the strike on August 2.
At the closing of the Victorian age, the Boer War saw the British discover they were not invincible after all – and though they ultimately won, the consequences would set the stage for South Africa’s history up until the present day. This documentary series goes into the story well, and includes plenty about the British use of concentration camps.
The British Empire was never the positive, civilizing force that it was sold as, but the Victorians seemed, as a whole, to either sweep any misgivings under the carpet or consider them less important than their blossoming sense of national pride. It’s only in the dying years of the era that cracks start to appear in the jolly facade, and none so vivid as Heart of Darkness.
Joseph Conrad is one of the most extraordinary writers I can think of – not only for the jarring modernity (coupled with undiluted 19th century prejudice) of his work, but the fact that he learned English as an adult, working for the merchant navy, yet has one of the most assured voices in literature, able to slip in and out of character like nobody else.
Heart of Darkness isn’t a fun book. A slim novella, it took me the best part of a month to get through it, but the relentless grimness of the trek through the horrors of the Belgian Congo never amounted to being bored. The “horror” here implicates not only the protagonist and narrator in these crimes, but also the reader and the culture they belong to.
A fascinating discussion about the book on the BBC’s In Our Time can be found here, the full text is here, a free audiobook is here, and you can buy the book here.
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Opel Motors, aspirin, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the paperclip, Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, The Bronx Zoo, FC Barcelona, A.C. Milan, Oxo beef stock cubes, The Miele Company
The first international Peace Conference ends, with the signing of the First Hague Convention.
RMS Oceanic sails on her maiden voyage – at 17,272 gross tons and 704 ft, the largest ship afloat.
The Philippine–American War and Second Boer War begin
Emilio Aguinaldo is sworn in as President of the First Philippine Republic.
Four-month-old Sobhuza II begins his 82-year reign as King of Swaziland.
The British Southern Cross Expedition crosses the Antarctic Circle.
Gold is discovered in Nome, Alaska, leading to the Nome Gold Rush.
The Newsboys’ strike in New York takes place.
Alfred Dreyfus is pardoned in France.
There is a snowball fight on the steps of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee during the Great Blizzard of 1899
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Miguel Ángel Asturias, Guatemalan writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1974)
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, 4th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (d. 1959)
Harold Bennett, British actor (d. 1981)
Jack Beresford, British Olympic rower (d. 1977)
Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet official (d. 1953)
Gertrude Berg, American actress (d. 1966)
Eugeniusz Bodo, Polish actor (d. 1943)
Humphrey Bogart, American actor (d. 1957)
Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine writer (d. 1986)
Charles Boyer, French actor (d. 1978)
Jean de Brunhoff, French writer (d. 1937)
James Cagney, American actor (d. 1986)
Al Capone, American gangster (d. 1947)
Hoagy Carmichael, American composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader (d. 1981)
Vera Caspary, American screenwriter, novelist, playwright (d. 1987)
Carlos Chávez, Mexican composer (d. 1978)
Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, Romanian fascist politician, leader of the Iron Guard (d. 1938)
Billy Cotton, British entertainer, bandleader (d. 1969)
Noël Coward, English actor, playwright, and composer (d. 1973)
Hart Crane, American poet (d. 1932)
George Cukor, American film director (d. 1983)
Jibanananda Das, Indian poet, writer, novelist and essayist in Bengali (d. 1954)
Alfred Denning, Baron Denning, English lawyer, judge and Master of the Rolls (d. 1999)
Karl Diebitsch, German fashion designer (1985)
Thomas A. Dorsey, American musician (d. 1993)
Duke Ellington, African-American jazz musician, bandleader (d. 1974)
King Frederick IX of Denmark (d. 1972)
John Gilbert, American actor (d. 1936)
Friedrich Hayek, Austrian economist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1992)
Ernest Hemingway, American author, journalist (d. 1961)
Alfred Hitchcock, British-born American film director (d. 1980)
Waite Hoyt, American baseball player (d. 1984)
Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bangladeshi national poet (d. 1976)
Percy Lavon Julian, American scientist (d. 1975)
Erich Kästner, German writer (d. 1974)
Yasunari Kawabata, Japanese writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1972)
Andrei Platonovich Klimentov, Russian-born Soviet writer (d. 1951)
Walter Lantz, American animator, creator of Woody Woodpecker (d. 1994)
Lao She, Chinese author (d. 1966)
Suzanne Lenglen, French tennis player (d. 1938)
Seán Lemass, Taoiseach of Ireland (d. 1971)
Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia (d. 1918)
Iskander Mirza, 1st President of Pakistan (d. 1969)
Colleen Moore, American actress (d. 1988)
Paul Hermann Müller, Swiss chemist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (d. 1965)
Vladimir Nabokov, Russian-born American writer (d. 1977)
Ramon Novarro, Mexican actor (d. 1968)
George O’Brien, American actor (d. 1985)
Eugene Ormandy, Hungarian conductor (d. 1985)
Francis Poulenc, French composer (d. 1963)
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Nevil Shute, English author (d. 1960)
King Sobhuza II of Swaziland (d. 1982)
Paul-Henri Spaak, 31st Prime Minister of Belgium (d. 1972)
Doris Speed, British actress (d. 1994)
Dorothy C. Stratton, American director of the SPARS during World War II (d. 2006)
Gloria Swanson, American actress (d. 1983)
Rufino Tamayo, Mexican painter (d. 1991)
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Juan Trippe, American airline pioneer, entrepreneur (d. 1981)
E. B. White, American writer (d. 1985)
Earl Whitehill, American baseball player (d. 1954)
Alfred, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (b. 1874)
Horatio Alger, Jr., American writer (b. 1832)
Eugenio Beltrami, Italian mathematician (b. 1835)
Erebus Black, English occultist (b. 1851)
Emma Hardinge Britten, British writer (b. 1823)
Robert Bunsen, German chemist (b. 1811)
Leo von Caprivi, Chancellor of Germany (b. 1831)
Augustin Daly, American theatrical impresario, playwright (b. 1838)
Grand Duke George Alexandrovich of Russia, Russian Grand Duke, younger brother of Nicholas II of Russia (b. 1871)
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Garret Hobart, 24th Vice President of the United States (b. 1844)
Robert G. Ingersoll, American politician (b. 1833)
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Emilio Jacinto, Filipino poet, revolutionary (b. 1875)
Princess Kaʻiulani, last monarch of Hawaii (b. 1875)
Vincas Kudirka, Lithuanian doctor, poet, and national hero (b. 1858)
Henry Ware Lawton, American general (b. 1843)
Dwight L. Moody, American evangelist (b. 1837)
Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, Sudanese political, religious leader (killed in battle) (b. 1846)
King Ngwane V of Swaziland (b. 1876)
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Romualdo Pacheco, Governor of California (b. 1831)
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Percy Pilcher, British aviation pioneer, glider pilot (b. 1866)
Charles Alfred Pillsbury, American industrialist (b. 1842)
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“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