Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


“Music is so helpful to the human mind that it is naturally a source of satisfaction to me that I have helped in some way to make the very finest music available to millions who could not afford to pay the price and take the time necessary to hear the greatest artists sing and play.” – Thomas Edison, 1921

Mid-way through the decade, and where are we? On the up, on the whole. Developments in technology like clockwork motors and commercially viable disc recordings mean that the volume of surviving recordings is increasing exponentially. Faced with competition on multiple fronts, Edison has finally done the unthinkable and accepted the reality of the demand for a music industry, with artists producing recordings for discerning listeners.

Therein lies the catch, of course. Edison, his competitors and the vast majority of record buyers still resided in what David Wondrich refers to as ‘Upworld’ and their tastes naturally reflect the most conservative, middlebrow elements of what has elsewhere been called the “naughty nineties.” At best this meant collectable curios, at worst more of those interminable sentimental ballads – what it certainly didn’t mean was artistry, either of the sophisticated European sort or the perhaps more interesting Underworld variety.

So what could be more middlebrow than the banjo? Originally an adaptation of traditional African instruments made by slaves in plantations, it had taken a bizarre route via touring minstrel shows and parlour lessons to become the instrument of choice for middle class white amateurs. Our selection starts with the “king of the banjo” Vess L. Ossman, a performer who was skilled and accomplished enough that he would later become the first recorded musician to venture into the world of ragtime. After a fuzzy clip from a Russell Hunting monologue we have the great bulwark of middlebrow America, John Philip Sousa, or rather a performance of one of his greatest hits, The Monty Python Theme Tune Liberty Bell March.

Then, after a number from unadventurous Vaudeville star Edward M Favor, there’s a selection from touring “actual black artists” The Oriole Quartette – sort of proto-gospel in that it’s quoting a bible verse, then after something from Sousa’s Band (without Sousa himself of course) we have possibly the most risky selection for 1895, a recording of “Dixie” by Edison house band Issler’s Orchestra. It’s mercifully an entirely instrumental version, but still carries a whole host of connotations.

Aristide Bruant is perhaps best known these days as the subject of this Toulouse Lautrec poster, but he was also responsible for the chanson réaliste genre and the modern cabaret. ‘Le Chat Noir’ is the name of the first cabaret, and this is its theme song.

Next we have a marching band version of a popular opera overture, a more developed version of the ‘Streets of Cairo’ theme first heard in 1893, and two versions of maestro demonstration piece ‘Carnival of Venice’. Then there’s the other extant recording from the Unique Quartet, not really up to the standard of ‘Mama’s Blakck Baby Boy’ but worth a listen at least, and a clip from the first sound film, which will be covered separately in more detail.

The usual selection of Russian cylinders from the collection of Julius Block again succeed in effortlessly outclassing the competition. This time we have the old guard, represented by Paul Pabst, only two years before his sudden death, and the future in the shape of 19-year-old Josef Hofmann – both playing sublime piano music with the spoken words of Leo Tolstoy mixed behind from time to time.

The final section has a Québécois national song, a solo from the cornet player from Issler’s Orchestra, the overture from a popular Austrian operetta, some more whistling from George W Johnson, our first song in Spanish (there will be quite a lot of these in about ten years’ time, but until then they are very thin on the ground), another snappy marching-band number, a maudlin ballad from George J Gaskin, a mysterious cornet solo from a Berlinner disc credited to “Miss Alice Raymond,” Issler’s Orchestra performing a song named after a sadly unrecorded black singing troupe and a sardonic old-fashioned-sexist-humour look at married life from Dan W. Quinn.

Then to finish, Sousa’s biggest hit, The Stars And Stripes Forever. You will almost certainly know this one – I remember first encountering it as “Be Kind To Your Web-Footed Friend.”

This feels like the first time that we’re genuinely getting something like the greatest hits of the year. That’s not what I’m really aiming for, but even if it represents a tedious middle-brow spectrum of taste, at least the stage is starting to be set for genuine innovation.

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Vess L. Ossman – Cocoanut Dance
Russell Hunting – Casey As A Hotel Clerk
Baldwin’s Cadet Band Of Boston – The Liberty Bell
Edward M Favor – My Best Gal’s A New Yorker
Oriole Quartette – Brother Michael, Won’t You Hand Down That Rope
Sousa’s Band – Yazoo Dance
Issler’s Orchestra – Dixie
Aristide Bruant – Le Chat Noir
Holding’s Military Band – Overture Semiramide
Dan W. Quinn – Streets Of Cairo
Charles P. Lowe – Carnival Of Venice
Jean Moeremans – Carnival Of Venice
Unique Quartet – Who Broke The Lock?
Dickson – Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Leo Tolstoy – Spoken Word [14 February 1895, Russia]
Paul Pabst – Chopin-Pabst- Waltz In D-Flat, Op. 64, No. 1, “minute”
Josef Hofmann – Anton Rubinstein- Contredanse B, No. 3 From Le Bal, Op. 14
Paul Pabst – Tchaikovsky-Pabst- Paraphrase On Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Eugene Danton – Vive La Canadienne
David B. Dana – Evening Star
Baldwin’s Cadet Band Of Boston – Overture, Poet And Peasant
George W. Johnson – Listen To The Mocking Bird
Arthur B. Adamini – Caramba
Foh’s 23rd Regiment Band Of New York – The Melon Patch Schottische
George J. Gaskin – Sidewalks Of New York
Miss Alice Raymond – Love Me Little Love Me Long
Holding’s Military Band – Overture Semiramide
Issler’s Orchestra – Kentucky Jubilee Singers
Dan W. Quinn – Married Life
Sousa’s Band – Stars And Stripes Forever



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