Recorded Incunabula, Part II



I am pleased to be able to present the second installment of Recorded Incunabula, a follow-up to John Levin's first installment that he curated for the Cylinder Audio Archive in 2009. John's vast knowledge of the earliest cylinders, especially those pre-dating the widespread sale of cylinders to home consumers in the late 1890s, is knowledge that only a handful of collectors have today. He has again generously provided digital transfers of some of the world's rarest cylinders. His commentary puts them in context and provides a fascinating insight into the aural landscape of early sound recordings in the 1890s. We hope you enjoy Part II of Recorded Incunabula.

David Seubert, UC Santa Barbara Library

Curator's notes

Because we are drenched in media today and almost every day, it's difficult to imagine life without it. Yet that was the way it was in the 19th century. Media at home consisted of reading (sometimes out loud) and, perhaps, playing a parlor organ or other instrument. When affordable phonographs started to appear in quantity in homes in 1897, they were unrivaled home entertainment appliances, and cylinders were played over and over again.

The recordings in this program pre-date that time. The first phonographs were too expensive and finicky for home use so records were principally played in arcades where people could hear them using listening tubes. Such was the hunger for media experience that people paid a nickel ($1.25 today) to listen to 2½ minutes of faintly recorded music.

There are few records remaining from the early 1890s, before rag appeared and before the '90's turned “gay.” Most are gone forever. Further, since the arcades were considered a bit déclassé, the musical repertoire they offered was limited too. Still, from what has survived, it's clear that 19th-century America was musically diverse and that it sounded quite different. Instead of rock bands, there were concert bands. Instead of pop music, there were sub-categories of popular songs like comic, sentimental, and “coon” songs. Dance genres included quadrilles, lanciers, gavottes, and schottisches. Orchestras performed musical tableaux called descriptive selections, and audiences delighted in artistic whistlers, ethnic humorists, recitations and banjoists.

Despite the differences between those times and now, there is an important parallel. Even with today's near-constant immersion in sound, we still respond to live music. We recognize its organic quality – its “realness.” We can tell it's not canned, compressed sound, and we are drawn to it. Today's musicians have the creativity and technology to build pieces of exquisite complexity with synthesized sounds and sampled assets. Yet, it is often the solo singer or live band that affects us most powerfully.

This, then, is one of the reasons for the Incunabula series – and for the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Presented here are more than the quaint, odd sounds of a bygone era. Unlike the stream of numeric codes we usually listen to, this is the sound of real life, real performance, and real experience from another time, etched into wax for posterity in realtime with unlimited sampling. Somehow, our primal core recognizes this, knows the difference, responds to it, and cares.

John Levin, Los Angeles, California

Chimes of Normandy selections / Robert Planquette. Brand's Concert Band. Ohio Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [1896]

It's 1896. You are strolling in a town park on a bright, warm Sunday. Wooden folding chairs are set up for a midday “programme” in the gazebo by Brand's Concert Band… The Chimes of Normandy was the English version of the very successful operetta Les Cloches de Corneville, which opened in both Paris and New York in 1877. It was praised for its melodies, rhythmic variety, and orchestral complexity, and it ran (in Paris) for over 700 performances. This cylinder of “selections” is typical of light opera compilations that were performed without singing cast members during this early period. The band leader, Michael Brand, led the Cincinnati Orchestra, which in 1895 formed the nucleus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It is therefore highly likely that the lyrical quality of this performance can be attributed to musicians from the orchestra who “moonlighted” with Brand's Concert Band.

The Commodore song : ship ahoy. Edward M. Favor. Edison Phonograph Company: 722. [1893].

Edward M. Favor was one of the most successful and popular early recording artists, appearing on both cylinders and discs into the early teens. But he got his start in musical comedy, appearing in 1890 in the play 1492 Up To Date, by Edward Everett Rice, as part of its original cast. Ship Ahoy! opened in 1891. The company name was derived from an 1893 hit, 1492 (which Favor also appeared in), hence the announcement on this cylinder. This cylinder is probably the earliest extant original cast recording.

New York Herald march and two-step / Monroe Rosenfeld. 23rd Regiment Band. [unknown manufacturer] . [between 1893 and 1895].

Many of today's promotional marketing schemes – such as the limited time offer and the installment plan – were first conceived in the late 19th century. One of these – the gift with purchase – was widely used to sell newspapers. Publishers would have a march composed which people obtained by purchasing copies of the paper. The most famous of these, Washington Post March, was written by Sousa in 1892. This rarity was written in 1893 by Monroe Rosenfeld and was probably recorded at that time before disappearing into complete obscurity. Note how the recording company attempted to give the piece added luster by adding Sousa's name to the announcement, even though he had nothing to do with it.

Electric light quadrille. Issler's Orchestra. U.S. Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [1894 or 1895].

The quadrille was the precursor of square dancing. It was first developed in Europe as formal and highly structured social dancing. When it came to the United States, it became less structured and the social boundaries disappeared too, causing the quadrille and its many cousins – galops, schottisches, lanciers, etc. – to become immensely popular here in the late 19th century. Quadrilles consist of "figures" or step sequences that are "called" by a "prompter." Recordings of quadrilles commonly include a light-hearted announcement in the middle (also heard in Gems of Ireland), often delivered by a different person than the prompter. Since listeners were tethered to machines with listening tubes, these were likely added to entertain people who could not dance. The electric light that is both the inspiration of this piece and part of its announcement was a relative novelty in the mid-1890s. While the incandescent bulb was first invented in 1879, technical and manufacturing obstacles limited electrification to urban areas and large commercial structures until the 20th century. In 1935, 90% of American farms were still not electrified.

Daisy Bell / Henry Dacre. Edward M. Favor. Edison Phonograph Company: 1058. [1894].

It's interesting to speculate why some songs, such as After The Ball (see previous Incunabula radio program) and Daisy Bell, have stood the test of time while others that were initially more popular have sunk into obscurity. This cylinder was recorded in 1893 when Daisy Bell was first written. At that time, the bicycle had evolved to a basic design much like today's bikes, and they were enormously popular. They were also more than a new form of inexpensive transportation, liberating women from the need to rely on men to help with horses. The “bicycle built for two” referred to in this song is not the current, two-wheeled version, which wasn't developed until 1898. This version had three or four wheels with two passengers seated in tandem, side by side.

Still his whiskers grew / C. W. Murphy. Dan W. Quinn. Columbia Phonograph Co.: 5065 . [1896].

Comic songs were a staple of phonograph arcades and music halls, and even during the early days of the phonograph certain performers emerged with the talent to deliver comedic lyrics to the best advantage. One of them was Dan W. Quinn. He started his career in New England, at first performing vaudeville and ultimately enjoying immense success recording comic and light-hearted popular fare for over 25 years. Quinn himself estimated making over 2,500 recordings for every major American record company. Hair restorers first appeared in the mid-1800s and became increasingly popular through the end of the century. This light-hearted promotion of their efficacy was composed by C.W. Murphy, a prolific British composer of light, music-hall fare.

Poor blind boy. R. J. Jose. New England Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [1892].

Countertenors have had a place in popular song for centuries, achieving a resurgence in recent decades with artists as diverse as Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson, Timothy B. Schmit (The Eagles), Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), and, in a classical vein, Philippe Jaroussky. R. J. Jose was the first countertenor to record, achieving great fame in the early 1900s with his recording of Silver Threads Among the Gold. Jose's repertoire appears to have been limited to sentimental ballads, and this self-composed piece is no exception. Until this recording surfaced, it was believed that Jose began recording in 1903 exclusively for Victor Talking Machine. This cylinder was probably recorded in 1891 or 1892. It is channel-rimmed with paper label, and the announcer is Calvin Child, who went on to become a prominent member of the Victor organization. The Spanish pronunciation that he uses for Jose's name was an affectation: Jose was born in Cornwall, England, where his surname is pronounced, “joce.”

Gems of Ireland quadrille. Banta's Popular Orchestra. Chicago Talking Machine Co.: 753. [n.d].

This bouncy medley with its popular Irish tunes and quadrille structure conjures images of Irish immigrants finding diversion from dreary tenement life in teeming American cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. And that is very much the way it was in 1890 America. Irish immigration dates back to before the American Revolution but peaked during the potato famine of the mid-1840s, when more than half of American immigrants were Irish. Most Irish immigrants remained in the Northeast and Midwest, moving into skilled and semi-skilled jobs. In 1890, the combined Irish-born and second-generation population was 4,795,681. Since early recordings were mostly heard in arcades and other venues with inexpensive entertainment, many titles from this period are conspicuously aimed at the working-class Irish Americans who frequented them.

Anvil chorus / Giuseppe Verdi. John York Atlee. Columbia Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [1893].

With rare exception, classical music was not recorded until the late 1890s. There are many explanations for this, including the preference of arcade patrons for lively, popular selections and the limitations of 2½ minute cylinders. Yet the “Coro di zingari” – better known as the Anvil Chorus – from Verdi's Il Trovatore was an exception. Starting in the early 1890s, it appears for decades in record catalogs. Its accessible melody and frequent inclusion in band concerts probably promoted it from the classical category to that of popular fare. Even so, it's hard to imagine why people found whistling preferable to a conventional band performance. Perhaps it's because whistling was a popular vaudeville specialty at the time. It was also well-suited for early recording equipment because of its volume and sharp tone. John Yorke Atlee was a leading American whistling virtuoso and made dozens of recordings for Columbia and others. Still, one hears him struggle through the more aggressive passages. This is understandable, considering that early recording technology required him to perform the piece over and over to create multiple copies.

Mill medley. Bison City Quartet. Ohio Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [n.d].

Almost every early record company included male vocal quartets as part of their repertoire, even though none of these groups ever achieved the popularity of other musical genres. This recording by the Bison City Quartet is typical of its time, with a sentimental subject, complex harmonies, a cappella singing, and ensemble performance rather than solos designed to evoke images of the slow, gentle life of rural, 19th-century America. Yet male vocal quartets have persisted as part of popular music during the past century. In addition to the nostalgia-fueled "barbershop" quartet revival of the mid-century, there have been popular performers like The Ink Spots and rock groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Eagles.

Haul the woodpile down. Charles Asbury. U.S. Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [ca. 1894].

It's hard to fully grasp the nature of race relations in the United States during the “separate but equal” era that followed the Civil War and continued until the 1950s.  But it's certain that the lyrics and – indeed – the categories of "coon songs" and minstrelsy did not widely offend then as they do today. This music was enjoyed – and performed – by whites and blacks. In fact, the excellent banjoist Charles Asbury was portrayed as both white and black in the various record catalogs that were sent to record dealers in the 1890s. 

UPDATE:  Thanks to the musical archaeology of astute old-time banjo enthusiasts, it appears that my previous assertion is incorrect that this song refers to the Underground Railroad and places of concealment used by slaves.The song is likely a minstrel piece written in 1887 by the musical theater duo Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart. It was probably derived from a work song used on wood-burning steamboats to stoke the boiler. The lyrics follow in their entirety:

De red cow brushing de old blue fly
Away down in Florida
De white man laugh when de coon goes by
I'll haul de wood-pile down
De steamboat ready to burn dat pine
Away down in Florida
De grape am ripe on de old black vine
I'll haul de wood-pile down.

Traveling, den traveling
As long as de moon am round
Dat black girl mine on de Georgia line
I'll haul de wood-pile down.

De muskrat hide in de old burnt log
Away down in Florida
De chipmunk laugh at de old house dog
I'll haul de wood-pile down
Dar's Captain Jim of de old Bob Lee
Away down in Florida
He drinks more rum den he does hot tea
I'll haul de wood-pile down


De old roof leaks and de rain comes thro'
Away down in Florida
De nig done die if he touch hoodoo
I'll haul de wood-pile down
When I grow wear den I lay down
Away down in Florida
De wench looks nice in a new clean gown
Now haul de wood-pile down.

The night alarm. Holding's Military Band. U.S. Phonograph Co.: 355. [1892].

“Descriptive selections” were sonic tapestries that came into favor in the late 1800s and faded in the early 1910s. Sometimes comprising music only and other times a combination of music, voices, and sound effects, the subject matter of descriptive selections varied widely, from auto races to the destruction of San Francisco in 1906. Far and away the most popular selection was The Night Alarm, and it's not hard to understand why. Fire was the great scourge of urbanizing America. Even before the Chicago Fire of 1871, 400 large conflagrations struck 30 leading American cities. In 1907 alone, it was estimated that U.S. fires inflicted more than $215 million in damage. The Night Alarm spoke to the fears of many. It also packed music, drama, jeopardy, heroism, and triumph into two minutes of exciting multimedia.

Wang's gavotte. Issler's Orchestra. U.S. Phonograph Co.: [catalog number unknown]. [1893?].

The musical Wang opened in 1891, was revived in 1892, and had its most successful run in 1904. Even though it was set in Siam, the show was basically a blend of comic opera and burlesque. It also included a gavotte, which was particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The gavotte originated as a French folk dance. It was performed by crossing the feet twice for each step, followed by a hop. In the United States, the gavotte took many forms, musically and in terms of steps and formations. Over time, it also took on an undeserved air of pretension as evidenced by the Ascot Gavotte in My Fair Lady and the lyric in the Carly Simon song You're So Vain:“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.” As evidenced by this lilting confection, gavottes were informal, up tempo, and fun.

The last rose of summer / Thomas Moore. Jules Levy. Edison Record: 1425. [1894].

Just as many American boys born in the latter half of the 20th century wanted to play the guitar, in the 1890s that same yearning applied to the cornet. Cornetists were the rock stars of their era because they were often the lead musicians in concert bands. Jules Levy, who – according to legend – learned to play with a mouthpiece because he was too poor to buy an instrument – was probably the most famous of them all. He was also arguably the first to be recorded, having made tinfoil recordings for Edison in the late 1870s. By the time this cylinder was recorded in 1894, he was past his prime (56 years old), but still anxious to demonstrate that he had the control and lung power to perform this slow and highly sentimental version of Last Rose of Summer. The melody dates back to the early 1800s when it was written for an eponymous verse written by Thomas Moore, a friend of Byron and Shelley. Friedrich von Flotow used the song in the opera Martha, which opened in 1847, and it remained a popular, sentimental song until the early 1900s.