Recorded Incunabula 1891-1898



Long before institutions like the UC Santa Barbara Library collected early sound recordings, private collectors sought out artifacts from the first years of sound recording. These collectors were often fascinated by early sound recording technology and the performers who made these rare recordings. Many of these fragile early recordings were lost because of their original owners' negligence, and the fact that any survive at all reflects both luck and the foresight of those private collectors, who often passed their knowledge and their collections to other individuals who shared their interests. These early recordings are extraordinarily rare, if not unique, and institutions and private collectors alike are merely stewards of these sounds, which by all rights should belong to the public. Examples of less than 6 percent of the 22,000 cylinder titles issued before 1902 are known to survive (1), so it is imperative that we treat them with respect.

Because many of the earliest recordings are in private collections, it is difficult for scholars to study these recordings and for the public to hear and enjoy them. The act of saving them has often kept them hidden—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. UCSB is keenly interested in providing access to these early recordings and is exploring public-private partnerships to enable collectors to share the sounds of their rarest recordings with the public through the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. This "radio" show, curated by collector John Levin, is our first such effort. It is a small endeavor, but we hope it shows that collectors are willing to share their recordings and that public institutions such as UCSB are willing to support this work. Please feel free to contact us if you share our goals. John has been extraordinarly generous with his time and his collection in putting this show together, and I thank him for making these gems accessible to a wider audience.

David Seubert, UC Santa Barbara Library

Curator's notes

When most people think of the birth of the phonograph, images come to mind of cylinder machines in the cluttered interiors of dark, Victorian homes. Yet in the early years of sound recording, phonographs were too expensive and temperamental for widespread home use. Instead, most people went to arcades and paid to hear very faint, distorted recordings through listening tubes. (Horns that enabled groups of people to listen were not yet “perfected.”) “Home entertainment” as we know it simply did not exist.

This is the beginning of the commercial record industry—the early 1890s. America is in the throes of enormous change as its largely agrarian economy is transformed into that of an industrial superpower. Coincidentally, the country's financial condition was much like today's, with over-speculation and bank failures precipitating years of double-digit unemployment and widespread panic.

The music of the time is steeped in mid-19th-century values—the product of a simpler time about to give way to ragtime. It is often nostalgic and sentimental, reflecting an unwillingness to abandon rural life and small-town virtues in the face of urbanization, industrialization, and widespread financial hardship.

The cylinders from this time are primitively recorded, with the repertoire selected for the broad audiences that the arcades attracted. There was no mass production. Cylinders were produced in small quantities using a fragile "brown wax" medium that couldn't withstand the heavy use of the arcade machines. Over time, almost all of them developed significant wear, and in many cases surface mold caused the brown wax itself to deteriorate. Today, almost all of these early recordings are gone. When those that remain are carefully restored, however, they conjure up a sonic tapestry of another time. This is a world of band concerts in the park, military bravado, and slow courtship as the norm rather than the exception. It is in sharp contrast with the world of the early 20th century, as depicted by other cylinder recordings in the UCSB archive.

—John Levin, Los Angeles, California

After the ball. George Gaskin. [no publisher]. ca. 1893.

Charles K. Harris's famous song of 1892 was an unqualified hit in its time, selling 2 million copies of sheet music in the first year alone. Its unprecedented success catapulted him into the publishing business when printers couldn't meet the demand. Yet today, this 1893 cylinder might be the only extant copy from that period. Also surprisingly rare today are original issues of certain other durable standards, including Take me out to the ball game (1908) and Daisy Belle ("Bicycle built for two"; 1892), which will appear in a subsequent "cylinder radio" program.

The enthusiast polka. U.S. Marine Band. Columbia Phonograph Company: [no number]. between 1893 and 1895.

Just as saxophone virtuosity elevates the stature of jazz ensembles, it was often the lead cornetist who brought distinction to the 19th-century band. The most famous of these, of course, was Jules Levy, but there were dozens of others who, while less famous, were extremely accomplished. One of them was Walter Smith, who is likely the cornetist on this ca. 1894 piece that was written for the express purpose of showing off the cornetist's talents. The "bump" sound that is heard at the beginning of this selection is common among mid-1890 recordings, created by the recording phonograph as it started cutting the blank cylinder.

Just one girl. Frank Butts. Kansas City Talking Machine: [no number]. 1898.

The early sales and distribution model for the phonograph consisted of 33 "operating companies" licensed to offer phonographs and recordings on a regional basis. Even before the Panic of 1893, about half of them went bankrupt. The ones that survived often generated additional revenue by recording local artists. One of them was the Kansas City Talking Machine Company, which recorded this popular, sentimental song, ca. 1898. As was often the case with early recording artists, Frank Butts was probably hired as much for his strong voice as for his singing skill, and the recording quality also was not up to the standards of national suppliers like Edison and Columbia. Note the speed deviation in this recording, and that the needle runs off the end of the cylinder before the song finishes.

Nanon waltz. Issler's Orchestra. [no publisher]. between 1891 and 1893.

Edward Issler was an accomplished band leader and arranger. Although his "Popular Orchestra" made literally hundreds of recordings, almost all of them well performed, the band disappeared in the late 1890s and little is known about them today. The physical appearance of this cylinder suggests that Nanon waltz was probably recorded between 1891 and 1893.

Down on the farm. Edward Clarance. North American Phonograph Co.: 864. between 1892 and 1894.

Around 1890, the rural population of the United States began to plummet as industrialization caused more and more people to migrate to cities. By 1900, 40 percent of the population lived in cities, compared to just 28 percent in 1880. This dramatic shift certainly influenced the writing of this popular song in 1889, and in this ca. 1893 recording, Edward Clarance captures the real and permanent sense of loss for those who abandoned rural life.

Grover Cleveland march. Gilmore's Band. United States Phonograph Company: [no number]. 1892.

President Grover Cleveland served two terms. During his first term, no less than nine marches were written in his honor. But this isn't one of them! This march—which does not appear to have been published—was likely written and performed when Cleveland began his second term in 1893. It is probably among the first group of recordings made by the famous Gilmore's Band after Patrick Gilmore, the "father of the American band," died in September 1892.

Blind Tom. Brilliant Quartette. Columbia Phonograph Company: [no number]. ca. 1894.

This "negro shout," with its traditional call-and-response structure, provides a feel for the sound of American black music barely a generation after the Civil War. While blacks were not totally excluded from early recordings, their role was largely limited to "coon" and banjo songs. In fact, there is some question today whether the singers of the Brilliant Quartette were black or white.

On the midway. Issler's Orchestra. United States Phonograph Company: [no number]. between 1893 and 1895.

Owing to the harsh economy of 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago seemed doomed to fail—and it probably would have were it not for the mainstream appeal of the Midway. The immensely popular sideshows and carnival rides of this area were the inspiration for this descriptive piece by Issler's Orchestra. The Midway's major draw was the Ferris wheel—the first of its kind. Another was the erotic belly dancing of the "Hoochy Koochy Girls," who performed the still-familiar Danse du Ventre that is heard at the end of this recording.

Cujus animam. D. B. Dana. Edison Phonograph Works [no number]. 1891.

In seeking to attract the largest crowds, arcade operators rarely chose "serious" music for their phonographs, which makes this Rossini selection unusual. The sensitive piano accompaniment is by Edward Issler, who is said to have proposed that the lead cornetist of his band, David Dana, make this solo recording. The cylinder dates from the beginning of commercial production (1891), yet the routine of live recording was already sufficiently familiar that the announcer coughs and pauses to refer to his recording notes at the beginning. Also note that the recording is called a duplicate, indicating that this is not a unique recording; other machines are "taking" the performance simultaneously.

Why should I keep from whistling? John Yorke Atlee. Columbia Phonograph Company: [no number]. [n.d.].

This recording provides a sense of the musical repertoire that comprised vaudeville programs of the 1890s. Often, these shows included "specialties" such as bird imitations and whistling. John Yorke Atlee, heard here on a rare custom recording for a Columbia-owned arcade, was far and away the most famous whistler of this time. The piano accompanist identified as "Professor" Gaisberg is Frederick Gaisberg, who was probably 18 or 19 years old when this recording was made. Gaisberg left Columbia shortly after to work for Berliner as its recording engineer. He made many of the most important early commercial recordings, including the first Caruso session, in Milan in April 1902.

When my 'Lize rolls the whites of her eyes. J. W. Myers. Globe Phonograph Co.: [no number]. 1896 or 1897.

The pervasive prejudice of 1890s America is hard to grasp by today's standards. Most people were openly bigoted and felt that the social and economic inequalities that came with this prejudice were essential and just. Under the circumstances, therefore, it's not surprising that they also thought the pejorative names and jokes that were applied to blacks were nothing worse than innocent humor. Still, it's hard to consider this early vaudeville composition by George M. Cohan as anything other than numbingly racist. Its singer, J. W. Myers, was so popular during the cylinder era that his recordings are still available today. However, the same cannot be said of the output of the Globe Phonograph Company, which Myers formed in 1896. It folded only 18 months later.

Sweet Marie. H. G. Williams. Ohio Phonograph Company: [no number]. between 1893 and 1895.

The Ohio Phonograph Company was one of the few regional companies that operated successfully for a time in the nascent commercial music industry. Using local artists such as H. G. Williams, it filled out its catalog with popular titles such as Sweet Marie, which was written in 1893. The taboo surrounding overt expressions of love and the emphasis on purity and virtue are typical Victorian values of the time. Like many recordings of the regional companies, this one suffers from technical problems—the master (playback) phonograph starts to slow toward the end and then speeds up as the recordist gently gives its spring a few cranks.

Beau ideal march. Baldwin's Cadet Band of Boston. New England Phonograph Company: [no number]. 1893.

Today we are so immersed in recorded music that it is hard to imagine a world where almost all the music heard was performed live. That was the case prior to the late 1890s, which is why there were literally hundreds of bands across the country in the first part of the decade. Most of these regional bands were never recorded, and most of the recordings of those that "went before the horn" are lost forever. However, Baldwin's Cadet Band is an exception. They were a staple of the New England Phonograph Company; an entire catalog was devoted to their output as early as 1893 (when this cylinder was probably recorded). It also appears that these New England recordings of Baldwin's were purchased and sold briefly by other early companies as well.

(1) Klinger, Bill. Cylinder records: Significance, production and survival. National Recording Preservation Board, 2007.