Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

1904 - Kampa Dzong Tibet

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One of the least thought about, but perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the way we listen to music is its loudness – that is, the quantity rather than just the quality. Modern day audiophiles will be familiar with the “loudness war” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, where mastering engineers applied compression techniques to commercial recordings to ensure they sounded louder than anything else on FM radio – and radio engineers then ran software to make everything level again, between them destroying the dynamic range of music and making everything sound much more flat.

To sacrifice fidelity for volume is not a new phenomenon. While the earliest sound recordings were relayed through stethoscope-like proto-headphones, by the mid 1890s recordings were being played through brass horns of the sort you would expect to find on an old gramophone or Victrola. These acoustic horns take small sound waves (which are large pressure variations with a small displacement area) and stretch them out (into a low pressure variation with a large displacement area.) This messes with the resonance of the sound, making mid-level tones boom and high-level or low-level sounds disappear or distort, but it at least means that you can play a record to a room full of people, so long as the room isn’t particularly big. Beyond a certain horn size the distortions became too disruptive, so playing music in concert halls was at first an impossibility.

The first attempt to do something about this problem was the “Triplephone” – a device which tripled the volume by having three gramophones playing the same recording. In some cases two triplephones could be used at the same time. You may think that this would cause problems with sychronisation, and this does appear to be the case, as such experiments soon faded away. A better solution was the ‘Auxetophone’, which used an electric fan to push air through the horn and force up the volume. It was much louder and much more expensive, too much so for home use, but it found a home in dance halls and theatres.

As the horn was a two-way device, its limitations also caused problems with recording. Loud recordings with greater dynamics caused stiff playback arms to force needles to hit the sides of the groove, resulting in records becoming unlistenable after less than 50 plays – not good value if you only owned a handful of cylinders or discs. Around this time engineers in the USA began to use dampening techniques – like encouraging artists to perform further away from the horn – and consequently mainstream recordings from this time often sacrifice their vividness for a reduction in distortion.

Sound engineering was so much in its infancy that it didn’t even have a name yet, so thankfully this new norm was confined to the studios of New York. Around the world vastly different techniques continued to be used. For some reason (please tell me if you know what it is) there seem to be a disproportionate amount of French recordings available in 1904 – so much so that I was able to dedicate a whole quarter of the mix to la francophonie. Russian and Italian opera singers also seem to dominate the repositories of available music. There was a lot of this to wade through this time, but the few nuggets I’ve picked out really are something special. One opera singer to pay particular attention to this time is Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to ever be recorded. More about him soon.


Edison Modern Minstrels – Louisiana Minstrels 0:00
Bohumir Kryl – Sweet Sixteen Waltz 0:05
Len Spencer – Lincoln’s Speech At Gettysburg 2:08
Vess L. Ossman – The Darkie’s Awakening 2:27
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – Two Rubes At The Vaudeville 4:43
W. W. Whitlock – Come Under My New Gamp 4:54
Albert C. Campbell & Bob Roberts – An Interrupted Courtship On The Elevated Railroad 6:57
Albert Sandler Trio – Kashmiri Song (Four Indian Love Lyrics) 7:30
Charlus – La Noce Du Chef D’orchestre 10.53
Grisard – Une Visite Au Jardin Des Plantes 11.35
Paul Fayol – Bonsoir Mam’zelle 12:36
Harry Fragson – L’anglais Triste 14:47
Harry Fragson – Le Flegme 15:14
Jean Péheu – Au Premier De Ces Messieurs 17:06
Léonne Et Willekens – Chez Le Dentiste 18:35
M. Bergeret – Chant D’afrique 19:16
Performers Unknown – Les Deux Pinsons 21:12
Martin Bendix – Eine Feine Familie 23:20
Kaiser Franz Garde-Grenadier Regiment Nr. 2 – Mill In Schwarzwald 23:46
Anonymous – Two Visitors to the St Louis Worlds Fair 25:11
J.W. Myers – Come Take A Trip In My Airship 25:28
Albert Benzler – Come Take A Trip In My Airship Medley 26:21
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskin’s Ride On The Cyclone Auto 27:42
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan – Woah, Bill! 27:58
Edison Military Band – Good Humor Quadrille 2nd Figure 29:43
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh And The Insurance Agent 31:22
Unknown – Lumbering Luke (Concertina Solo) 32:00
Booker T. Washington – The Atlanta Compromise Speech 32:35
Enrico Caruso – Una Furtiva Lagrima 33:02
Alessandro Moreschi – Ave Maria 36:20
Mary Garden – Chant Vénitien 39:29
Antonina Nezhdanova – La Tenera Parola 40:40
Isabel Jay – Poor Wandering One 41:34
Gypsy Choir Of V.V.Panina – Sasa Grisha 43:25
R.H. Robinson – Jarabe Tapatio 45:24
Orquesta Tipica Lerdo – Consentida 46:30
Haydn Quartet – New Years At Old Trinity 47:28
John Hazel, Frank R. Seltzer And The Edison Military Band – Two Of Us 48:01
Burt Shepard – The Boy And The Cheese 49:31
Billy Murray – I Can’t Do That Sum 49:47
Unknown Performer – Backyard Conversation Between Two [Jealous] Irish Washerwomen 50:47
Arthur Pryor’s Band – Mignon Overture 50:58
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – An Evening Call In Jayville Center 53:15
Fontbonne, L – Chasse Aux Papillons 53:15
Sir Harry Lauder – Tattie Soup 54:02
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Down Tennessee – Descriptive Barn Dance 55:04
Edison Modern Minstrels – Georgia Minstrels 55:53
Frank S. Mazziotta – Bluette 56:16
Cal Stewart And Ada Jones – Uncle Josh’s Courtship 57:18
Unknown Performer – La Chanson Des Nids 57:35
Albert Whelan – Scrooge’s Awakening 58:23
Edison Male Quartet – Breeze Of The Night 58:39

Much of the research for this entry is from the always excellent Sound of the Hound blog.


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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“Under it all there’s a sort of strong, dark pulsing, the dimly recorded echo of the thundering rhythm: trombones, sousaphones (named after your man, of course), drums. The dynamics build to a controlled climax, the sound getting heavier and heavier as the band drives it on home. The total effect is anthemic, like Led Zeppelin without all the squiggly guitar… …The main thing that the modern, post-jazz listener will miss here is solos — the squiggles. When the band’s forging ahead at full speed, there’s nobody to take the wheel and jerk it, to bring in the element of surprise, of danger. Sousa’s Band had soloists, all right, but they played set pieces: themes and florid variations all composed and pre-arranged; sheet music. These would be set against a minimal, often-muted backing, so as not to detract from the magnificence of the solo. Free improvisation isn’t part of the vocabulary.” – David Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843–1924

“Freedom of choice / Is what you got / Freedom from choice / Is what you want” Devo, Freedom Of Choice

One perspective on the history of recorded music goes like this – each innovation is a new artistic tool to be used. Watch the innovations, then you’ll see see new genres springing up in their wake. 1903 is awash with these new opportunities, largely due to the democratisation of music recording around the world, but instead of one big idea, there are a load of little ones. Some are really just old ideas, some really are new, but for all their merits none really anticipates the way things would swing just a decade later.

From the old (American) ideas, brass bands are still something of a default setting – though having exhausted their standard modes, they are at least beginning to branch out in a few different directions. Naturally there are still the soloists – Bohumir Kryl and Arthur Pryor continue to helm bands, but both are starting to relax into the figure of coordinator rather than star performer. For Kryl at least there are a few more of these virtuoso performances to listen to before relegation to the ranks of jobbing studio bands. For Pryor, I’m sorry to say that we’ve already had the best.

Elsewhere, Tin Pan Alley continues to churn out novelty hits at an alarming rate, wringing every last drop of inspiration out of the fin de siècle and the lastest developments of the Edwardian age. On ‘Any Rags’ vaudeville performer / manager Thomas S. Allen takes a schottische and adds ragtime elements with a typical lyric featuring a racist caricature of a black man. If you can get past that, you can see why it was a hit – it does have a certain flavour of the transgressive, especially when performed in the leering baritone of Arthur Collins.

Vaudeville was still a relatively new phenomenon in 1903, and its performers seem to have demonstrated this by their referencing of new technologies. This year appears to have been marked by the increasing visibility of automobiles on the streets (this is the year of the introduction of the original Ford Model A) – we have two comic dialogues and one song on the topic, all presenting the car as a dangerous machine driven exclusively by reckless people. The song is not technically vaudeville, but its English counterpart, music hall, and the first British recording we’ve had for quite a while.

Elsewhere in Europe, the gramophone is being largely used to record “proper” (i.e. classical) music, with the occasional ethnographic adventure. In Enrico Caruso the gramophone has found its first true worldwide star, his records selling at double the price of other tenors and being eagerly snapped up by a new creature called a ‘record collector’. Caruso is still only 28 years old, and while it looks like he’s already conquered the world already in 1903, his star still has a long way to rise.

It’s easy to dismiss this era as a dull one, but really there’s a lot going on. Whether it will really lead anywhere seems like something of a side issue. This is what we get though our narrow (but widening) viewing hole this time, and there’s plenty worth saving.


Bohumir Kryl – Arbucklenian Polka 0:00
Collins & Harlan – Cat And The Fly Paper 2:00
Arthur Collins – Any Rags 2:21
Charles Prince’s Band – Any Rags 4:17
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskins’ Ride On A Cyclone Auto (1) 5:49
Vesta Victoria – Riding On A Motor Car 7:07
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh On An Automobile 8:50
Edison Military Band – Secret Polka (John Hazel Cornet) 9:26
Harlan & Stanley – Waiting For The Dinner Horn To Blow 11:27
Orchestra ‘Harmonia’ – Ruthenian Gopak 11:37
Fanny Cochrane Smith – Only recording of extinct full-blood Tasmanian aborigine 13:26
B.S. Troyanovsky – Mazurka 13:32
Romanchenko Duet – Nastya And Vanya 15:02
Natalia Tamara – Troika 16:17
Ivan Ershov – Ho-Ho, Ho Hei, Forging Song With Anvil 17:56
Antonio Vargas – Toreador Song From Carmen 18:20
Enrico Caruso – La Donna E Mobile 19:18
Enrico Caruso – Tosca, E Lucevan Le Stelle 20:24
Nellie Melba – Chant Venitien (Bemberg) 21:43
Pope Leo XIII – Ave Maria 23:12
Gilmore’s Band – Introduction To 3rd Act (Wagner – Lohengrin) 23:43
Harlan & Stanley – Two Rubes In An Eating House 24:33
Edison Symphony Orchestra – A Lucky Duck 24:49
Grisard – Les Canards Tyroliens 26:00
Len Spencer – Making The Fiddle Talk 27:28
Vess L. Ossman – Razzle Dazzle 29:07
Dan Leno – Going To The Races 31:08
Dan W. Quinn – The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous 31:58
Aeolian Piano Roll 3113 from The Wizard Of Oz – Poppy Song 33:03
Haydn Quartet – Camp Of The Hoboes 34:00
Lillie Langtry – On The Margate Boat 34:14
William A. Moriarity – Llewellyn March 35:53
Peerless Orchestra – Ma Ragtime Baby 38:02
Sam Mayo – Bread And Marmalade 39:02
Julian Rose – Hebrew Vaudeville Specialty 41:50
Anon – Bondei Xyolophone Piece (Tanganyika) 42:24
Qasim – Lagu Nuri Terbang Malam 43:01
Bahiano – Lundu Do Baiano 43:36
Damrosch Orchestra – Toreador Song 45:11
Russian Chorus Of E.I. Ivanov – The Volga Troika 46:27
The Imperial Court Ensemble – Seigaiha 47:42
George J. Gaskin – The Bassoon 48:58
Bohumir Kryl – National Fantasia 50:54
Leo A. Zimmerman – Leona Polka 52:47
Len Spencer And Parke Hunter – The Banjo Evangelist 53:56
Zonofone Orchestr – 740 54:20
Harlan & Stanley – Scene In A Country Store 55:40
Albert Bode Trumpet & Columbia Band – Seashell Waltz 55:58
British Military Band – Intermezzo (Mascagni – Cavalleria Rusticana) 57:33
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskins’ Ride On A Cyclone Auto (2) 59:40


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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1902 is the year everything started to explode. Not particularly in the world of music, not really in the world in general, but very much so in on my computer in 2018. Suddenly there is just so much out there to listen to, and the idea of listening to everything starts to recede, swiftly, from my sight.

The fault here lies with a variety of engineers, who had recently perfected techniques to reproduce gramophone records and phonograph cylinders without any great loss in sound quality. No longer would performers have to play in front of a great bank of horns again and again – one single best performance was all that was needed, and so was born the profession of recording engineer – though nobody seems to have talked of it as a profession for quite a while.

With this came stars who were able to achieve fame on an international level – for example Enrico Caruso and Billy Murray, who are both featured here for the first time. Vaudeville troupes would come by the studio and lay down a version of their most famous routine, virtuoso instrumentalists would make definitive recordings of set pieces, and around the world, from Japan to Brasil to the Vatican City, recordings were being made for mass distribution. From the last of these we have some of the only recordings from a castrato, Alessandro Moreschi.

This  is all good news of course, but it’s all starting to be a bit much for me to get through. I’m happy to say that I personally love all the music featured in this hour-long mix – but this is perhaps just 2% of what I listened to. From the rest perhaps 30% is maudlin sentimental ballads about brave soldiers going off to meet their doom, and maybe 40% is badly-recorded, unremarkable recordings of solo opera singers. A good half of my month is involved in downloading, listening to and deleting these, just to pull out the occasional nugget of gold. So much time does this take, in fact, that I haven’t had time to write a proper blurb. So here we are – an hour of sounds from 1902. Enjoy.


Charles D’ Almaine – Down At Finnegan’s Jamboree (Excerpt 1) 0:00
Sousa’s Band – Trombone Sneeze 0:10
Campbell & Roberts – An Interrupted Courtship On The Elevated Railway 2:13
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan – I’m A-Dreaming Of You 2:35
Collins & Harlan – Two Rubes In A Tavern 4:35
Bohumir Kryl – Carnival Of Venice 5:03
Charles P. Lowe – Carnival Of Venice 6:57
Len Spencer And Gilbert Girard – Daybreak At Calamity Farm 8:44
Edison Military Band – Lizard And The Frog 9:11
International Phonographic Language School – Spanish Lesson #9 11:12
Vess L. Ossman – Darkies Awakening 11:30
Charles D’ Almaine – Down At Finnegan’s Jamboree (Excerpt 2) 13:42
Billy Murray – Under The Anheuser-Bush 14:58
Len Spencer – 23rd Psalm 16:46
Choir Of A. A. Arkhangelsky – Axion Esti 17:11
Salomea Kruszelnicka – Vissi D’arte (Puccini) 18:50
Alessandro Moreschi – Crucifixus (Rossini) 20:09
Enrico Caruso – Una Furtiva Lagrima (Donizetti – Elisir D’ Amore) 22:40
M.A.A.Mikhailova And A.Semenov – Serenada 24:20
Len Spencer – The Lord’s Prayer 27:05
Instrumental Trio – Abkhazuri, Kabardinskiy Tanetz 27:23
Abdal Ali – Death Lament 28:32
Peking Opera – Old Valet Carries Master’s Letter 29:25
Performer Not Given – Japanese Song 30:17
American Quartet – A Meeting Of The Limekiln Club 30:55
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Down On The Old Plantation 31:23
Invincible Quartet – On Board The Oregon 32:44
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Old Folks At Home (Suwanee River) 33:05
Burt Shepard – Parody On ‘Suwanee River’ 34:44
Byron G Harlan & Joe Belmont – Merry Farmer Boy 36:09
Joe Belmont – Bird Imitations 37:40
Georg Tramer – Czardas 38:11
Cal Stewart – Fire Department 39:14
Arthur Collins – Under The Bamboo Tree 40:06
Invincible Quartet – Fireman’s Duty 42:10
Dinwiddie Colored Quartet – Poor Mourner 42:50
Dinwiddie Colored Quartet – Down On The Old Camp Ground 43:53
Haydn Quartet – Owl And The Pussy Cat 44:44
International Phonographic Language School – Italian Lesson #7 45:38
Little Russian Choir Conducted By A. Romanchenko – Since The Time I Got Married 45:47
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – The First Rehearsal For The Huskin’ Bee 46:43
Columbia Band – Arkansaw Husking Bee 47:00
George P Watson – Alpine Specialty 48:33
William Tuson – Nellie Gray 49:42
Victor Minstrel Company – On The Levee 51:12
J. Frank Hopkins. – Medley Of Reels 51:24
Invincible Quartet – Night Trip To Buffalo 53:31
Banda Da Casa Edison – Hino Nacional 53:48
Columbia Band – Reminiscences Of Scotland 54:11
Len Spencer – Arkansas Traveler 54.53
Will F Denny – Parody On ‘ Widow’s Plea For Her Son’ 55:08
Len Spencer – Arkansas Traveler 57:13
Prof D Wormser – Heimweh 57:22
Bohumir Kryl – Russian Fantasia 58:19

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Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

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Photograph of Bess Wallace and Mary Paxton

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Escaping a blinkered view of early 20th century recorded music sometimes seems like an impossible task. If the Edwardian era is often viewed as a blissful unknowing summer before the long winter of the First World War, its music is too easy to mentally group into the precursors and the Victorian hangovers, destined for confluence and extinction respectively. For the Edwardians, however, this is all utterly alien; their music, art and culture were modern to them, and the artistic movements they could sense were rooted in their own present and near past as much as ours are. The best artists of this time seem to be reaching forward towards something, but in most cases its a future which they couldn’t make happen. The most interesting things here are heading for a cul-de-sac. That doesn’t mean they are without value, just that they are more more distant, harder to place in a simple narrative.

In America, bands and soloists are still at the cutting edge. Separated by an ocean and a music industry from the classical tradition, musicians grow up playing the stomping rhythms and building-block melodies of Sousa and Gilmore in small-town brass bands. At the dawning of the Progressive Era, soloists are increasingly trying to break out of this straight-jacket while remaining wedded to the musical establishment which promoted them in the first place. Some, like Arthur Pryor, would give up their position to become bandleaders themselves, going on to direct music of a much more conservative bent than their free-ranging solos.

In Russia, on the other hand, the classical tradition and folk music are very much alive and immediate. Three of “The Five” (Balakirev,  Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) were still alive, and their mission to popularize Russian national traditions in classical music continued to be hugely influential. With the collapse of Berliner Gramophone a host of new record labels were springing up, many of them releasing recordings of opera and folk songs. The medium being well-suited to peacocking, as demonstrated by soprano Maria A. Mikhailova as she performs in a dizzying musical battle with a flute.

Then there’s the world of the stage – vaudeville, Broadway, and the host of regional theatres running touring shows. Much of their output consisted of mildly updated variations on the old minstrel-show theme (a couple of higher quality examples of this from Silas Leachman and S.H. Dudley appear on this mix – a warning that they both feature the disgusting racist language that was endemic at the time) but one double-act were breaking through the consensus to present something with more of a honest, human face. George Walker and Bert Williams were two black performers who started their careers in the usual blackface minstrel troupes, before meeting in San Francisco in 1893 and deciding to set up a highly-original show called “The Gold Bug,” which consisted of songs, dance and sketch comedy. Minstrelry at this point had become highly ritualised, with stock characters performing in a set of predictable routines. Williams and Walker, aside from their jettisoning of these conventions, wrote songs about the realities of life without either the cheerful chuckle or the sardonic wink that was expected in popular entertainment, and it’s a complete breath of fresh air to hear.

We are no closer to the jazz age in 1901 than we were in 1898, but I’m not sure I mind. Mainly due to a vast increase in the pool of available recordings, this is the first mix which I find a joy from start to finish.


Arthur Pryor with Sousa’s Band – The Patriot 0:00
Bert Williams – All Going Out And Nothin Coming In 3:04
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Huskin’ Bee Dance 5:46
Kendle’s First Regiment Band – Cotton Blossoms 6:11
Dan Leno – Huntsman 8:55
Orkestr Garmoniy – Vo Sadu Li v Ogorode 9:18
Chanté Par Polin – La Dernière Carotte 10:48
Sousa’s Band – Pasquinale 11:27
Len Spencer – Scene At A Dog Fight 13:23
Gilmore’s Band – Poet And Peasant Overture 14:34
Steve Porter – Backyard Conversation Between Two Irish Washerwomen 16:43
Burt Shepard – When The Gentle Breezes Blow 16:55
Silas Leachman – Truscalina Brown 18:44
Chimes – Nearer My God To Thee 21:46
Columbia Band – El Miserere (Il Trovatore) 22:50
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh At The Opera 25:45
Leonid Sobinov – La Donna è Mobile 26:10
Irene Abendroth – 5 Romanzen Und Lieder, Op. 84- No. 4. Vergebliches Standchen 28:04
Maria A. Mikhailova – Charmant Oiseau 29:53
Feodor Stepanov & Mikhail Volf-Izrael – Nocturne, Op 56 No 4 32:47
John C Martin – Arbucklenian Polka 35:42
Len Spencer & Gilbert Girard – The Imperial Minstrels 36:52
Metropolitan Orchestra – Impecunious Davis 37:03
Edison Concert Band – Commercial Traveller’s March 39:10
Hager’s Band – Oriole Polka 40:31
Len Spencer – Con Clancy’s Christening 42:37
S.H. Dudley – The Whistling Girl 42:48
Polin – La Boiteuse Du Régiment 44:58
Peter Nevsly – Polka / Kamarinskaya 47:56
Gryunert, S.I.Bol’m – Fantaziya 50:37
Kin’nosuke – Tokiwazu ; Modoribashi 51:27
Peerless Orchestra – Birds And The Brook 53:02
Williams & Walker – I Don’t Like That Face You Wear 54:09
Edison Quartet – Sleigh Ride Party – Jingle Bells 56:58




Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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Is this a new century? Difficult to get agreement on this one, but it’s certainly a new decade, and changes are very much in the air; changes that haven’t quite filtered through entirely to the mix you’re about to hear, but which are about to turn everything upside-down – the beginning of a “music business” or “music industry” in terms which are much more familiar to us than anything seem so far – all due to the kind of duplicitous shenanigans which will also seem typical of the business in the 20th century.

The story of the technology so far was a friendly-ish war of two competing standards – Edison’s wax cylinders (still the dominant form) and Emile Berliner’s flat discs. Born in Hanover in 1851, Berliner emigrated to the USA in 1870 to avoid being drafted for the Franco-Prussian War, and found work for the sometime Edison-affiliated Bell Telephone after inventing an improved telephone transmitter. In the 1880s he developed his disc recording system, which produced playable discs by (probably even earlier than) 1889, when he went into business with Kammer & Reinhardt, a German toy-maker with whom he made 5-inch hard rubber discs, though this venture did not last long.

In the early 1890s, Berliner tried to start his first companies – The American Gramophone Company, which failed before issuing a single machine or disc, and the United States Gramophone Company in 1894, which had a slightly more success selling machines and 7-inch hard rubber discs. These were replaced in 1895 by shellac discs, which remained the standard until the 1930s. Through the next few years, production slowly increased, until on September 29th, 1897, his mastering plant in Washington, D.C., burned down, destroying his record manufacturing equipment and masters of recordings.

This wasn’t the end, though – Berliner managed to resume production within a few months, but in 1898 he was beset by further problems as various companies began to copy his invention. He had already shut down two of these operations when he found that one of his agents, Frank Seaman in New York, was manufacturing identical copies of his Gramophone labelled the ‘Zonophone’. He immediately cut off all supplies to the city, but was hit by a lawsuit for breach of contract from Seaman, and in 1900 an injunction was granted, ceasing all operations for the United States Gramophone Company. All attempts to have this injunction lifted were fruitless, and Berlinner eventually quit the business entirely, transferring his assets to Eldridge Johnson, who then launched the hugely successful Victor Talking Machine Company.
In 1900, the Gramophone’s patent being unenforced, recorded sound is effectively in modern terms “open source” – anyone could open a record company, and many did. In the coming years we will hear recordings from all manner of labels around the world, and when we get to the 1910s the hegemony of the Edison Cylinder and the conservatism it brings with it will be truly cracked open.

There are also another couple of interesting developments taking place in 1900. To open the mix we have a recording of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria made on Valdemar Poulsen’s telegraphone, a device which recorded sound magnetically on a thin piece of steel wire. The sound produced is remarkably different to the cylinder and disc recordings, and despite being neglected for nearly half a century, magnetic recording will become vitally important after the second world war. Another item to note here is the excerpt from a 1900 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which is the earliest bit of film dialogue I’m able to use. But more about that soon.


Emperor Franz Joseph – Oldest Magnetic Recording On Poulsen 0:00
Edison Concert Band – Champaign Gallop 0:09
Film Soundtrack – Cyrano de Bergerac 2:11
Edison Grand Concert Band – Mr. Thomas Cat 2:36
Arthur W Haddon – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Talking 4:41
Vess L Ossman – A Coon Band Contest 5:03
Sousa’s Band – A Coon Band Contest 7:18
American Quartet – A Night Trip To Buffalo (Excerpt 1) 9:05
Arthur Collins – The Mick Who Threw The Brick 9:26
American Quartet – A Night Trip To Buffalo (Excerpt 2) 10:31
Charles P. Lowe – Brilliant Gallop 11.08
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 1) 13:15
Will F. Denny – Doing His Duty-Ooty 13:27
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 2) 15:41
George Schweinfest – Robin Adair 15:54
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 3) 17:12
Charles D’ Almaine – Polish National Dance 17:28
Aumonier – Le Cor 19:36
Paul Daraux – Les Myrtes Sont Fletries 22:01
Choir with Alessandro Moreschi – Tui Sunt Coeli 23:26
William Jennings Bryan – Imperialism Speech (Excerpt) 25:48
Peter Dawson – The Miner’s Dream Of Home 26:10
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh In A Chinese Laundry 29:54
Oppakekepei – Kawakami Noburo Isao 31:04
Siam Theater Ensemble (Berlin) – Kham Hom 32:30
Harry Spencer – The Absent-Minded Beggar (Kipling) 34:22
Edison Male Quartet – Vesper Service 35:30
William F. Hooley – A Record For The Children 36:38
Arthur Collins – Mandy Lee 37:18
Frank Kennedy – Schultz At The Paris Exposition 40:51
Peerless Orchestra – Hail To The Spirit Of Liberty 41:26
Wilson Gabo, Cora Gabo And Unidentified Accompanists – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Harmonica Solo Talking 43:40
Vess L Ossman – The Old Folks At Home 45:04
Performer Not Given – Brown Wax Home Recording 47:27


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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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


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


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

'Hogan's Alley' - Below decks aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn circa 1897 Glass negative by Edward H. Hart

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“He told them he wanted a certain cylinder containing a particularly obscene song. He claims in his affidavit, on which the warrant was issued, that Hunting sold this cylinder to him and then in his presence made him another equally objectionable record, and offered to provide still worse productions… …When the warrant was executed the police officers seized fifty-three cylinders, said to contain bad records, and also took a phonograph instrument found on the premises.” – Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 25th 1896

The pattern is all too familiar. Experiments are conducted into a new medium, engineers work on it to make it a viable product, entrepreneurs invest and roll out mass production, the great and the good attempt to claim it for high culture, then the rabble inevitably take over. It’s 1897, and for the first time the gramophone isn’t the preserve of the self-elected tastemakers. Unfortunately this does not mean that someone’s gone down to New Orleans to record Buddy Bolden, more that the ability to record your own cylinders is leading to the arrival of the audio equivalent of b-movies (or perhaps even stag films.)

Much of this mix is made up of short clips from a CD called “Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s” issued by Archaeophone Records in 2007. A compilation of unofficial recordings, the dates were understandably guesswork at best, so putting them in here is the kind of messy compromise we have to maker quite a bit in this decade. Most of the clips are performed by one Russell Hunting, a very popular recording artist of the time who founded, Phonoscope, the first independent magazine for the recording industry and set up one of the first phonograph shops, in New York. On request he would reproduce bawdy monologues or dialogues from an illegal book (which he may be the author of) called “The Stag Party.” On one of these occasions he was set up by an undercover police office, and the resulting court case ended up with him being sent to jail. Some of these recordings are genuinely shocking in their obscenity, to the extent that this mix is probably unsuitable for playing at work or around small children, and I didn’t even include the strongest examples. Russell Hunting spent three months in prison, and suitably chastised set sail for England, where he immediately found work as the recording director of Edison Bell Records – he had quite a spectacularly successful career, setting up offices for Pathé and Zonophone, and lived long enough to see the second world war.

The other big takeaway from this month’s mix is ‘virtuosity’. Trombone player Arthur Pryor had by 1895 been promoted to assistant conductor of Sousa’s Band, and as Sousa would have nothing to do with recording studios, they were entirely his domain. On their tours of Europe, Pryor had put himself forward as a soloist, producing not only elaborate displays of lightning-fast trombone playing, but also incorporating the kinds of slides and smears that would later be a hallmark of early jazz – and which went against everything expected of regimented military music. This combination of peacock-like display of talent and occasional plunges into joyous self-expression was labelled a “Yankee trick” by astonished European audiences. While its link to the underexposed world of black music is unclear, the connection is certainly no co-incidence, and can be sensed in the work of banjo king Vess L. Ossman and piccolo player George Schweinfest. While we’re undoubtedly still in the stone age, something wonderful is bubbling up.


Students at Cornell University – New Years Day Party
Sousa’s Band (Trombone – Arthur Pryor) – Blue Bells of Scotland
Believed to Be Russell Hunting – Did He Charge Too Much
Vess L. Ossman – Old Folks at Home
Harry Heath – Speech With Church Chimes
Al Sweet – L’elegante [Élégante Polka]
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh on a Bicycle
Edison Brass Quartet – Come Where Lilies Bloom
‘Willy Fathand of New York City’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Sim Hadley on a Racket
Edison Concert Band – El Capitan March
‘Manly Tempest’ [Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting] – the Rascal Detector
The Columbia Orchestra – Sea Flower Polka
Len Spencer & Vess Ossman – Hot Time in the Old Town
N. R. Wood – Morning on the Farm
Edison Male Quartette – Annie Laurie
Drum Corps – Spirit of ’76
Garde Republicaine – Marche Des Petit Pierot
‘Charley Smith of Kankakee’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Out of Order
Fraulein Vioni Eidner – Der Vogelhandler, Act I- Die Nachtigall
Robert Green Ingersroll – On Hope
Cousins & De Moss – Poor Mourner
Harry Heath – Speech
Arthur Pryor – the Palms
Frank S. Mazziotta – Sleighride
‘Manly Tempest’ [Unknown Performer, Possibly Russell Hunting] – Gimlet’s Soliloquy
George Schweinfest – Bob White Polka
Russell Hunting – Casey’s Political Speech
Peerless Orchestra – My Babe From Boston
‘Charley Smith of New York City’ [Believed to Be Russell Hunting] – Reilly as a Policeman
George J Gaskin – Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly
Charles P. Lowe – Leonora Waltz
The Columbia Orchestra – I Thought I Was a Winner, Or, I Don’t Know, You Ain’t So Warm
Billy Golden – Listen to the Mocking Bird
Thompson River Indians – Dance Song of Thompson River Indians
Joseph Norrito – Original Schottische
Sousa’s Band – Stars and Stripes Forever


Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound

pretzel vendors

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In a tiny, bare-walled back room a man sings into a huge metal horn. The sound causes vibrations in the air, which travel down the horn, compressing into a smaller point, causing a diaphragm to vibrate. The diaphragm pushes a metal stylus, which cuts a minuscule groove in a brown wax cylinder turned by a clockwork mechanism. No electricity is involved – the force cutting the groove is the sound wave itself. As the cylinder turns, the wax shavings have to constantly be blown away to avoid the device skipping.

The cylinder is made of “brown wax” – actually a metallic soap. With time it becomes extremely brittle, and can split or shatter if not handled with care. Even stored carefully, oxides or oils tend to migrate to the surface, and this attracts a black mold which eats away at the wax, making playback impossible.

To play the sound back, the operation is reversed – a lighter stylus moves through the groove, vibrating a diaphragm which resonates out of the horn. It is a matter of cutting edge precision engineering to get any sound out at all, so the reproduction of voices and instruments is still something of a miracle. 120 years later, with all the wear and tear that means, sticking a needle into these artifacts seems downright insane. But still, the sounds are sitting there, and it’s a race against time to get them out.

There are a few different ways that these recordings can restored. The best way is to use a microscopic range scanner to make a 3d image which can then be reconstructed on a computer. This costs an impractical amount of money and is only done for a small number of historically important recordings – for everything else the cylinder is actually played, and the sound imported into a computer. Purists will leave it there, pointing out that any further recovery is liable to do further damage. I can sympathise with this, but feel that the mixes are challenging enough in this area already, and any improvements in listening quality are welcome.

The easiest way to get better quality is with graphic equalisation. Cylinders only recorded on a narrow band of frequencies, so removing anything outside that area is a good start. If the noise or the music is focused in on certain frequencies then even better. Higher-impact restoration involves taking a ‘noise print’ of a section at the start of the track and running a program to identify this sound throughout the track. The problem here is that even the best technology is significantly worse than our own ears. Where noise is removed, edges are smoothed out, and even a moderate amount of this sort of treatment can give the recording an unnatural, robotic, underwater quality. Unfortunately many of the mp3s available on archive.org have had excessive treatment of this sort, and are consequently unusable. Here is an example of the worst uploader on there – I had to eventually exclude all of his uploads from my song-gathering phases.

Preservation efforts always involve difficult compromises. Let’s say we could use a time machine and a state of the art recording studio – would the resulting recordings be a better historical record than what we have now? While I am in a constant war with noise, the noise holds the sound as much as the sea holds fish. Mitigation must be balanced by acceptance and ultimately appreciation.

I hope you are now ready for quite a noisy mix (though to be fair the middle section is much clearer.) We start with the usual minstrel show opening, followed by George W Johnson’s other big hit, The Laughing Song. Of the tens of thousands of recordings he made of this piece in the 1890s, this sadly seems to be the best-preserved. With Ragtime now emerging, Johnson’s street-corner entertainments already seem outdated, but his laugh is still hearty and infectious even after so many performances, and he could rest assured at being the biggest-selling performer of the decade. His story, including his trial for the murder of his common-law wife, is covered well in Tim Brooks’s ‘Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry’.

After a short clip from soon-to-be-US-President William McKinley on the disastrous recession currently being suffered by the country, we have another virtuoso banjo performance from Vess L. Ossman, and a parody of political speeches on economy from George Graham.

Now onto some Ragtime, or more like Cakewalk, and mediated through the white musicians of the Columbia Orchestra, who felt the need to add minstrel-style imitations of black speech throughout, and name the thing after the original and most famous white minstrel troupe. Still, it’s one of the loosest, most expressive performances I’ve heard from one of these groups.

The rhythms of the auction house were often reproduced as a novelty in these days – here the appeal is increased with toy noises. Then more lightning-paced violin virtuosity, this time from Steve Clemens.

Cal Stewart was one of the most prolific pre-WW1 recording artists, and we’ll be hearing quite a lot more of him. A friend of Mark Twain, he performed his Uncle Josh routines (a sort of vaudeville Garrison Keillor) around the country for a decade or so before Edison Records got him in to put some of them down on wax in 1896. His monologue about a trip to Coney Island is broken up with an instrumental excerpt from a French ‘opera-comique’ and followed by an instrumental excerpt from an American ‘musical comedy’.

Next we have a home-recorded monologue from a Bill Nye (not that one) about how much he hates eating tripe, followed by a performance from one of America’s greatest cornet players (and later band leader) William Paris Chambers. The cornet was the foremost brass instrument of its day, and would be even as far as the start of the jazz era. Then another beautiful Wagner piano piece from Josef Hofmann, on a Julius Block cylinder.

A couple of cheeky vaudeville skits – a John Terrell monologue on drinking, and another bit of Irish ethnic comedy from Russell Hunting – are mixed around a less beautiful brass band attempt at a Wagner piece, a comic song about hair restorer from Dan W Quinn, an obscure overture from the Edison house band and another comic song from Russell Hunting.

In our final section Sousa’s Band AKA The United States Marine Band make their inevitable appearance, there’s another novelty auctioneer (this time played by the ubiquitous Len Spencer), a bit of the old civil war marching music from the Peerless Orchestra, a bit more from Sousa’s Band, this time with an unfortunate racist title, George Graham does another of his slightly-comic imitations of real life, and Dorothy Hoyle performs a well-known piece for cello.

In the end we sink back down into the noise from which we came, dust to dust, scratches to scratches. See you next time.


Imperial Minstrels – The Old Log Cabin
George W. Johnson – The Laughing Song
William McKinlley – Speech to Republican Convention
Vess L. Ossman – The Stars and Stripes Forever
George Graham – Talk on Money
Columbia Orchestra – Virginia Skedaddle
W.O. Beckenbaugh – Sale of Toys, Dolls and So Forth on Christmas Eve Night
Steve Clemens – Darkys Patrol
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Trip to Coney Island (Excerpt 1)
Brand’s Concert Band – Chimes of Normandy
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Trip to Coney Island (Excerpt 2)
Empire State Concert Band – Belle of New York March
Bill Nye – On Tripe
William Paris Chambers – The Seraph
Josef Hofmann – Wagner-Brassin- Magic Fire Music From Die Walküre
John Terrell – a Few Words in Regard to Drinking
Gilmore’s Band – Grand March From Tannhauser
Russell Hunting – Casey at the Telephone (Excerpt 1)
Dan W. Quinn – Still His Whiskers Grew
Russell Hunting – Casey at the Telephone (Excerpt 2)
Edison Concert Band – Ouverture to ‘Der Tambour Der Garde’
Russell Hunting – I Wonder Why
United States Marine Band – the Directorate March
Len Spencer – Sale of Pawnbroker’s Goods (‘by Harry Spencer’)
Peerless Orchestra – Yankee Doodle Dandy Lancers
Sousa’s Band – The Darkie’s Temptation
George Graham – Street Fakir
Dorothy Hoyle – La Cinquantaine


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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