Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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“The country is awakening to the real harm these “coon songs” and “rag-time” are doing… It is an evil music that has crept into the homes and hearts of our American people regardless of race, and must be wiped out as other bad and dangerous epidemics have been exterminated. A person once innoculated with the ragtime-fever is like one addicted to strong drink! Ragtime is sycopation gone mad, and its victims, in my opinion, can only be treated successfully like the dog with rabies, namely, with a dose of lead.” – Edward Baxter Perry

We’re finally getting to the point where music is the story rather than the technology used to record it, so that should be a cause for celebration. In reality, though, it’s so damn complicated. There is certainly a change in the air, but not only is it unclear what it should be called in 1898, it’s not even going to become remotely clear at any point in the future, not until historians start to discuss it in the 1970s, under the general heading of “early days of ragtime.” Blues and projo-jazz are for the moment out of the picture. So here’s an overview of what we have to deal with in 1898.

Minstrel shows

The dominant cultural form of 19th Century America, minstrel shows are naturally mainly remembered today for being deeply offensive towards black people. A product of first a slave-owning society, then a society nostalgic for the days of slavery, minstrel shows featured white performers performing as hideous blackface caricatures, who were by turns stupid, lazy, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. None of this is remotely excusable nowadays, and it would be tempting to consign it all to a dark cupboard, if it weren’t for the fact that it also contains most of the popular music that lives on to this day – “Dixie”, “Turkey in the Straw”, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home” (“Suwanee River”) and “My Old Kentucky Home” – the last three of these written by the “father of American music” Stephen Foster. Separating baby and bathwater at this stage is nigh-on impossible – these songs would continue as standards right through to the jazz age, and a ragged version of “Old Folks at Home” appears in this mix.


By the end of the 19th century, minstrelry had morphed into Vaudeville. Instead of a highly structured routine, vaudeville had a loose collection of acts – singers and comedians of course, but also dancers, trained animals, magicians, strongmen, female and male impersonators, acrobats, one-act plays , athletes, and celebrity appearances. Singers in blackface were still common, and the musical repertoire has so much in the way of overlap that it may as well be considered the same thing. These days we tend to think of the term “Vaudeville” as referring primarily to the comedy element of the show, but the musical side was if anything more of a draw.


The story goes like this – slaves would have dancing competitions where, dressed up in formal wear, they would perform a free-flowing mockery of white society dancing, the best performer winning a cake. How much of this is true, and how much a later invention is a matter of (sometimes furious) debate – but in any case the name stuck, first for a dance, and then for the variety of music that could accompany it. This style of music was also known as…


The musical innovation of cakewalk / two-step was a layer of syncopation slotted into the marching music of the time – an extra level of rhythm playing off and around the main beat. This wasn’t a new invention – examples can be found in all kinds of composers – but the bringing of both syncopation and (quite likely African) polyrhythms to the forefront of the music was a fundamental change in focus from the often slow, melody-driven music that dominated the Victorian age. However, these were still primarily considered to be dances rather than musical genres.


From the early 1890s references start to appear to the “ragging” of music (adding syncopation to existing songs in order to make them suitable for dances) and towards the end of the decade sheet music began to appear with “ragtime” in the title. Initially this seems to have referred only to the syncopated rhythm, but from 1898 onward the name seems to have stuck – only after which a host of other signifiers started to be drawn into the definition, including the “smears” added by soloists – Arthur Pryor’s trombone solos in Sousa’s band are a great example of this. Vess L. Ossman’s “A Bunch of Rags” is perhaps the first explicitly “ragtime” recording available, and naturally is an excuse for a virtuoso soloist to show off their skill. Scott Joplin was just getting started at this point, but even when his songs start getting recorded in a few years, they will still be performed on the banjo or by full bands. The idea of ragtime as a style of piano music is largely an invention of the mid 20th century. As we move on towards the 1910s, all kinds of music from dance pieces to popular songs will start to be referred to as “ragtime” – but in 1898 the main term to refer to popular vocal songs is, unfortunately…

“Coon Songs”

A natural progression from the minstrel shows, “coon songs” are the inevitable result of an uncomprehending music business trying to get in on some of the magic coming out of black America. This idiotic mistranslation largely followed the formula of self-consciously edgy mistrelry (knife-wielding, womanising “Zip Coons” instead of docile, subservient “Jim Crows”) with an upbeat, syncopated backing, and was performed by wealthy white performers from the North-East doing the most outrageous version of Deep-South Black speech they could muster. So far it sounds terrible, and to a certain extent it is, but as for much of this the picture is nowhere near as simple. Take for example the most famous “coon song” of all, Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” The most rotten title possible, surely, and yet Hogan was a trailblazing black performer, the first African-American to produce and star in a Broadway show, and the song itself was an unstoppable hit which did much to bring ragtime into public consciousness. The title was, ironically enough, changed in the name of decency from “All Pimps Look Alike to Me.”

The “King of Coon Songs” was Arthur Collins, and this mix features his first available recording, Zizzy Ze Zum Zum. He will become easily the most popular recording artist of the next decade, by which time he will have been re-branded as the “King of the Ragtime Singers” as the term “coon song” mercifully fades from use. The songs themselves, and quite often elements of the offensive racial stereotyping embedded within, will remain present right up until the start of the jazz age, with some of them (usually those with less offensive titles) going on to be standards, their lineage forgotten, perhaps deliberately so. Many of these same songs are now thought of as being from…

Tin Pan Alley

Which many of them are. Tin Pan Alley was originally a specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the Flower District of Manhattan, the small music-publishing district of New York. From the late 1880s to the end of the 1920s this small area was the driving force for American popular music. Most of the songs here are from this street in one way or another, and while it produced a range of music, its influence as a hub of innovation, appropriation and the forces of the musical establishment cannot be overstated.


A. L. Sweet – Bugle Call – 00:00
Vess L. Ossman – Bunch of Rags – 00:08
Garrett A. Hobart – Words Of Welcome – 02:32
Arthur Collins – Zizzy Ze Zum Zum – 02:44
Harry Spencer – Side Show Shouter – 03:28
Edison Brass Quartet – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 04:05
Dan W Quinn – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 04:42
Gilmore’s Band – At A Georgia Camp Meeting – 05:35
William Jennings Bryan – Crown Of Thorns And Cross Of Gold – 06:45
George Rosey’s Orchestra Of New York City – Cotillion March – 07:01
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh On A Street Car – 08:05
Sousa’s Band – Love Thoughts Waltz (Trombone – Arthur Pryor) – 08:49
Buffalo Bill – Sentiment On The Cuban Question – 12:02
Columbia Orchestra – Charge Of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders – 12:21
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh Comments On The Spanish Question – 14:39
Edison Concert Band – Medley Of War Songs – 15:09
Chief trumpeter Cassi of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders – Bugle Calls – 17:24
Otto Mesloh – Tyrolienne – 18:07
Russell Hunting – Casey As Umpire At A Ball Game – 19:28
Columbia Orchestra – The Darkey’s Dream – 19:44
Ruby Brooks – The Darkies Dream (Banjo Solo) – 21:12
T. De Witt Talmage – Sermon On The Mount – 22:21
Frank C. Stanley – A Hundred Fathoms Deep – 22:36
W. F. Hooley – Ingersoll At The Tomb Of Napoleon – 24:40
F. Jardella – Spaghetti Polka – 24:55
Dr. B. Sunderland – Lord’s Prayer – 26:45
Jennie Hoyle – Musin Mazurka – 27:03
Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting – The Whores’ Union – 28:29
Joseph Pizzarello – Nocturne – 28:55
Sandra Droucker – Etude In F-Sharp – 30:58
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Donau Weibschen Waltz – 32:20
W. F. Hooley – Talmage On ‘Infidelity’ – 34:38
Sousa’s Grand Concert Band – The Jolly Coppersmith – 34:52
Frank S. Maziotta – Old Folks At Home – 37:27
August P.Stengler – Old Folks At Home – 39:09
John Terrell – Casey’s Address To The G.A.R. – 41:05
Otto Mesloh – Tyrolienne – 41:46
Cousins & Demoss – Who Broke The Lock – 43:08
Vess L. Ossman – Pretty Little Queen – 45:20
The Greater New York Quartette – The Sleigh Ride Party – 47:50

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