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How Pop Sounded Before It Popped

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 (, 
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 
"ethnic impersonators."

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 
treasure trove."

Today, a flurry of activity is reviving those antique musical treasures, and 
strengthening the challenge they present to critical orthodoxy. Archeophone 
(, 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 
watery grave.

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.