Here's the actual article:

March 19, 2006

How Pop Sounded Before It Popped

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 
(, 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 

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 

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 

"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 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.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Lou Judson • Intuitive Audio

On Mar 20, 2006, at 6:47 AM, Dick Spottswood wrote:

> for modern journalism, an exceptionally insightful piece.  Maybe pop 
> music criticism is finally moving beyond Rolling Stone.  
> ----- Forwarded by Dick Spottswood/dick/AmericanU on 03/20/2006 09:47 
> AM -----
> Hank <[log in to unmask]>
> 03/20/2006 09:26 AM
> To
> Recipient List Suppressed:;
> cc
> Subject
> Fwd: How Pop Sounded Before It Popped
> Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2006 09:06:18 -0500 (EST)
>  Date-warning: Date header was inserted by
>  From: [log in to unmask]
>  Subject: How Pop Sounded Before It Popped
>  X-Originating-IP: []
>  Sender: [log in to unmask]
>  To: [log in to unmask]
>  Reply-to: [log in to unmask]
>  X-Initiated-By: [ website user]
>  Original-recipient: rfc822;[log in to unmask]
> E-Mail This
> <unknown.gif>
> <unknown.gif><unknown.gif><unknown.gif>
> <unknown.gif><unknown.gif><unknown.gif>        This page was sent to 
> you by:  [log in to unmask]
> Message from sender:
>  This is the site we spoke about a few months ago. I donated 6 
> cylinders of mandolin music to them. Best Jim
>  ARTS / MUSIC   | March 19, 2006
> Music:  How Pop Sounded Before It Popped
>  An astonishing trove of pop music from 100 years ago is now available 
> on the Web, opening up a lost musical world that deserves its place in 
> the historical narrative.
>                <unknown.gif>                       
> <unknown.gif>
>                 <unknown.gif>
> <unknown.gif>
>  1. Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?
>  2. 'American Theocracy,' by Kevin Phillips: Clear and Present Dangers
>  3. Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn
>  4. Music: How Pop Sounded Before It Popped
>  5. Wanted: A Few Good Sperm
>  »  Go to Complete List
> <unknown.gif>
>              <unknown.gif>
> Advertisement
> Thank You For Smoking opens March 17th
>  Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for Big Tobacco, makes his living 
> defending the rights of smokers and cigarette makers in today's 
> neo-puritanical culture. Confronted by health zealots and an 
> opportunistic senator, Nick goes on a PR offensive, spinning away the 
> dangers of cigarettes.
> <unknown.gif><unknown.gif>
> Do you love NY? Get the insider’s guide to where to stay, what to do 
> and where to eat. Go to for your NYC Guide now. 
> Click here.
> <unknown.gif><unknown.gif>Copyright 2006  The New York Times Company | 
> Privacy Policy  <unknown.gif><unknown.gif>