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How Pop Sounded Before It Popped
By JODY ROSEN
New York Times
Published: March 19, 2006
FOR a couple of months now my iPod has been stuck on Stella Mayhew's "I'm
Looking for Something to Eat." It's a lurching little waltz-time pop tune,
drawled over brass-band accompaniment. The lyric is hilarious, the lament of
a gal on a diet who can't stop eating, and it climaxes with a glutton's soul
cry: "I want some radishes and olives, speckled trout and cantaloupe and
cauliflower/ Some mutton broth and deviled crabs and clams and Irish stew."
I can't get it out of my head — so far, it's my favorite record of 2006.
As it happens, it's also my favorite record of 1909. It is an Edison
Phonograph Company wax cylinder, recorded 97 years ago by Mayhew, a
vaudeville star who liked to poke fun at her considerable girth. In certain
ways, the song is up to date: the satire on dieting is plenty relevant in
the early 21st century, and Mayhew's slurred talk-singing is a bracingly
modern sound. But the noisy, weather-beaten recording is unmistakably a
product of the acoustic era — the period from about 1890 to the mid-1920's,
before the advent of electric recording — when musicians cut records while
crammed cheek-by-jowl-by-trombone around phonograph horns in rackety little
Mayhew's record is just one of several thousand cylinders, the first
commercially available recordings ever produced, that have recently become
available free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection and some
spare bandwidth. Last November, the Donald C. Davidson Library at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, introduced the Cylinder
Digitization and Preservation Project Web site (cylinders.library.ucsb.edu),
a collection of more than 6,000 cylinders converted to downloadable MP3's,
WAV files and streaming audio. It's an astonishing trove of sounds: opera
arias, comic monologues, marching bands, gospel quartets. Above all, there
are the pop tunes churned out by Tin Pan Alley at the turn of the century:
ragtime ditties, novelty songs, sentimental ballads and a dizzying range of
dialect numbers performed by vaudeville's blackface comedians and other
For decades, these records languished unheard by all but a few intrepid
researchers and enthusiasts. Now, thanks to the Santa Barbara Web site and
the efforts of a small group of scholars, collectors and independent record
labels, acoustic-era popular music is drifting back into earshot, one
crackly cylinder and 78 r.p.m. disc at a time. These old records hold
pleasant surprises, but they also carry a larger lesson about gaping holes
in the story of American pop.
While historians have exhaustively investigated blues, jazz, rock and their
offshoots, the mainstream pop music of the early 20th century has received
only glancing treatment, the victim of a variety of prejudices entrenched in
popular music culture. Listeners accustomed to the crispness of modern
studio recording have been put off by the primitive sound of the old
records, with their limited frequency response and harsh bursts of noise.
Pop-song purists have scorned the music as the height of Tin Pan Alley's
factory-produced pap — the gruesome stuff that came before Jerome Kern, Cole
Porter et al. swooped in to transform popular music into a legitimate art
form. Nearly everybody has been repelled by the content of songs that date
from a time when coarse racial caricature was one of America's favorite
sources of amusement.
Then there is the anti-pop sentiment that has dominated rock-era
historiography, the tendency to trace rock's roots exclusively to folk
sources — Delta bluesmen, Appalachian balladeers and other romantically
hard-bitten bumpkins — while dismissing as inauthentic anything with a whiff
of Broadway about it. But turn-of-the-century pop was roots music in its own
right, and the period that gave us the very first star singers and hit
records deserves a central place in the historical narrative.
"Acoustic-era music is the historical underdog," said Richard Martin, the
co-owner with his wife, Meagan Hennessey, of Archeophone Records, a label
that specializes in acoustic-era pop. "These are scratchy records, with
19th-century aesthetics, with racist material all over the place, with
artists you've never heard of. This stuff is completely unknown, and it's a
Today, a flurry of activity is reviving those antique musical treasures, and
strengthening the challenge they present to critical orthodoxy. Archeophone
(archeophone.com), a tiny mom-and-pop label based in St. Joseph, Ill., has
released dozens of superb compilations chronicling the careers of the
period's top recording artists, including Henry Burr, a prolific warbler of
sentimental ballads, and the acoustic era's biggest star, Billy Murray, who
wrapped his reedy pipes around virtually every hit of the day, including
George M. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Boy" (1905) and Irving Berlin's
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911). The label's current top seller is a
two-disc feat of audio archaeology, "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of
the Recording Industry, 1891-1922," released in conjunction with a
groundbreaking book by the historian Tim Brooks.
Meanwhile, the Internet is crammed with specialists sharing knowledge and
posting audio files of their own collections. By far the biggest online
resource is the Santa Barbara site. It took $350,000 and several painstaking
years for archivists to digitize the university's vast cylinder collection —
the third-largest after the Library of Congress's and Syracuse University's
— using a newly invented electric cylinder player that extracts information
from the ancient grooves with startling clarity. The response has been
overwhelming, with more than 750,000 songs downloaded and streamed in the
four months since the site went up.
"I thought the site would be used primarily for scholarly research," said
David Seubert, the project's director. "I had no idea that so many people
would want to hear the records."
Spend a little time browsing the site and a lost musical world opens to you.
The range of music is staggering: whistling soloists, xylophonists playing
polkas, John Philip Sousa leading his band through famous marches. Hacks
abound — tone-deaf songbirds mauling treacly ballads — but there are also
some real virtuosi. There are dozens of catchy records by Harry Lauder, the
Scottish music hall star with a lustrous vocal tone and a flair for comedy.
There's the banjoist Vess Ossman, whose fleet-fingered renditions of
cakewalks and rags reveal that rhythmically dynamic improvisation entered
American music years before the rise of jazz. Pop vocalists like Murray
don't exactly swing, but there is a briskness and cheer in their singing
that is infectious — the sound of American pop shrugging off its Victor
Herbert-light opera complex and becoming something definitively Yankee
It is a commonplace that sitcoms and stand-up comedy are contemporary
extensions of vaudeville, but we have lost sight of pop music's vaudeville
roots. The popular theater was the main performance outlet for Tin Pan
Alley's tunes, and you can hear that vaudeville lineage on acoustic-era
records, in the singers' booming, shout-down-the-rafters vocal styles and in
lyrics packed with punch lines. It was a time when pop music and comedy were
virtually one and the same, and one of the delights of the period's big hits
is the glee and unpretentiousness with which they aim for the funny bone.
That emphasis on jokes and novelty has done the music no favors with
historians who equate art with gravity.
But the best of these novelties were artful, with indelible melodies and
flashes of wit, and many have endured: "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Yes,
We Have No Bananas," "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "The Darktown Strutters'
Ball," "Carolina in the Morning." Period recordings of these standards can
be revelatory. Consider "Take Me Out to the Ball Game": it's one of the most
frequently sung songs in the United States, but few people know the verses
on Edward Meeker's 1908 record. It turns out "Take Me Out" was a comedy
number about shifting gender roles, starring a baseball-crazed young woman.
Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad
Just to root for the home town crew
Ev'ry sou Katie blew.
These lines, belted out by Meeker with an audible twinkle in his eye, carry
us back the social tumult of the Progressive era, to an America moving
swiftly and anxiously into a post-Victorian phase. Songwriters were obsessed
with topicality, charting every fad and invention and bubble in the melting
pot, and the recordings from the period are unusually rich artifacts — far
more historically evocative, for instance, than the 32-bar variations on the
theme "I Love You" that dominated popular song for years afterwards.
Yet most public archives and record companies have been cavalier about
conserving these valuable artifacts. (The preservation of silent film reels
has been a far bigger priority, although the very earliest records, delicate
brown wax cylinders from the 1890's, are far more imperiled.) The most
notorious episode occurred in the early 1960's, when RCA dynamited the
Camden, N.J., warehouse that held the masters for Victor Records' thousands
of acoustic-era 78's. The rubble was bulldozed into the Delaware River and a
pier was built atop it: a huge part of our musical heritage, entombed in a
And while scholars and critics have lavished attention on early roots music
recordings — no rock snob's record collection would be complete without
Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music" and an Alan Lomax field
recording or two — they have almost completely ignored this other recorded
legacy. Pop critics are currently in the throes of post-"rockist"
revisionism, thinking through their longstanding biases against commercial
pop music. Maybe it's time to look at how those same prejudices, projected
back into history, have distorted our vision of pop's distant past.
The truth is, beneath their quaint rhythms and lyrics about "spooning" under
stretching boughs, acoustic-era songs are thematically quite similar to rock
and even hip-hop, awash in sex and dancing and a cheery
anti-authoritarianism. (Little wonder that moralists of the day thundered
against Tin Pan Alley's "suggestive" songs and the pernicious moral effects
of ragtime.) You hear that spirit in the Columbia Quartet's 1911 recording
of Irving Berlin's "Everybody's Doing It Now," in the salacious relish with
which the singers deliver the lines "Everybody's doing it/ Doing it?/ Doing
what?" Berlin's song is nothing less than an anthem of youth rebellion, an
ode to kids going nuts doing racy dance moves — precisely the kind of song
that, according to conventional wisdom, did not crack the pop mainstream
until sometime around 1954.
Of course, the biggest obsession of songwriters during this period was
ethnic pastiche, and you won't get too far into the Web site without bumping
up against "How Can They Tell That I'm Irish?," "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy" or
"Ching-a-Ling's Jazz Bazaar." And then there are the ubiquitous "coon songs"
— hundreds upon hundreds of them, filled with racial epithets, chomped
watermelon and other grotesqueries. No period in American music has been as
bound up with the question of racial representation, and it is embarrassment
about minstrelsy more than anything else that that has kept this stuff
tucked in the darkest corners of sound archives.
"Some of it was probably better forgotten for a while," Mr. Seubert said. "I
think coon songs would have been a pretty hard thing for a folklorist to try
to resurrect during the civil rights era."
Now, though, minstrelsy is a hot scholarly topic, and much of the current
interest in the acoustic era revolves around blackface and black performers.
By far the most talked-about figure is the brilliant vaudeville singer Bert
Williams, the first African-American pop star, who specialized in blackface
material. (Archeophone has released three volumes of Williams's recordings.)
But if we really want to know acoustic-era pop music, we need to look at the
white minstrels, ask some hard questions and rein in our instincts to
dismiss their acts as racist trash, full stop.
Some of the most compelling voices of the period belong to female "coon
shouters" — Mayhew, May Irwin, Sophie Tucker — who eventually washed the
burnt cork off their faces and graduated to a thrillingly insouciant singing
style. That style owed everything to minstrelsy but was no longer explicitly
Then there are even trickier cases, like that of Al Bernard, a blackface
comedian and female impersonator who specialized in fiercely swinging
ragtime and minstrel numbers. Are we ready to admit that unequivocally
racist songs, delivered by white singers in the thickest possible dialect,
might not only be historically significant music, but great music?
Students of pop history will be mulling over such questions for some time to
come. In the meantime, there are thousands of new records to be listened to
— some of them more than a century old. "Some of this stuff is dreadful,
you'd really rather not listen to it," Mr. Martin allowed. "But there's some
really enjoyable stuff along the way."
One enjoyable record, which distills the period's pleasing mix of pop hooks,
belly laughs and sheer strangeness, is the vaudevillian Eddie Morton's
"Don't Take Me Home," a jaunty ragtime novelty about a husband who runs off
to war to hide out from his henpecking wife. Morton sings the verses pretty
straight, but in the fiendishly catchy chorus — "Don't take me home!/
Pleeeease, don't take me home!" — his voice ripples across the frantic
oompah beat, a long sobbing phrase that's halfway between an Irish tenor's
flourish and the yelp of a dog whose tail has been stepped on. It's unclear
what impact the record made when it was released in 1908. In 2006, it sounds
like a hit.