Here is the same article, in text only format. 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 studios. 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 "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 (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 Doodle. 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 "black." 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.