Friday, December 11, 2009

Before country : 1893-1909 (2)

Dear readers,

I'm both excited and worried. Excited, because I've discovered a new field, a musical virgin land for me : pre-1920 recordings.
Worried because , as always, there is so much music and so little time. I just wanted to post a couple of songs the other week to illustrate the pre-hillbilly era, but now I'm hooked on this music and I want to go much farther.

I know this is just the beginning but as I did last time, I have posted a playlist I want to share with you (see link at the end of this post) of pre-country recordings (and more will follow), covering the same period as last time, from 1890 to 1910.

As you will hear, lots of different styles are featured there : Tin Pan Alley songs, some in the over sentimental fashion of these days, more comic tunes ore sketches from the minstrel tradition, gospel songs, banjo tunes, and some sadly famous "coon songs".

So here's the list (with my comments) :

George J. Gaskin - After The Ball (1893)
: Gaskin, an Irish tenor, was one of the most famous singers from the 1890s. This song is typical of the sentimental style : the brother/sister misunderstanding episode can be found in numerous songs like "The Tragic Romance" (Doc Watson).

Cousins & De Moss - Poor Mourner (1898) : This is one of the most ancient forms of Afro American pre-blues music I've ever heard. It's fascinating. This banjo duet plays a call and response gospel in a pure rocking style. I HAVE to get more from them (and I will).

Steve Porter - In The Baggage Coach Ahead (1899) : This is the song that Mellencamp's grandma sings on JCM's Scarecrow album from 1984. It was covered by Vernon Dalhart in 1925.

Vess L. Ossman - Whistling Rufus (1899) : Vess Ossman was a very famous banjoist who recorded a lot in the turn of the century. Here he plays an instrumental version of the famous coon song "Whistling Rufus".

Dan W. Quinn - Ain't Dat A Shame (1901) : another recording star of the era, in another coon song.
I decided to include a few of these songs, because they were very popular at the time and that most of the time the music is excellent and shows a lot of African american influences. I am conscious that the lyrics are very offensive today, and needless to say I was disgusted by their outspoken racism, but they are very representative of the era. As Patrick Featser at his wonderful site Phonozoic says, "The coon song coupled the catchiest tunes of the age with words marking a low point in crude racial stereotyping and insensitivity. This genre of popular song shaped and reinforced racist assumptions to a degree that should not be underestimated". You can find an excellent article on coon songs here at Parlor Songs.

George W. Johnson - The Laughing Song (1901)

George W. Johnson was the first Afro American artist to record. A famous whistler and singer from Virginia, he started recording in 1890. From 1890 to 1895, the total sales of his records was 25 000 to 50 000, each one recorded individually by Johnson !! (every single record was a master by then). This is a re-recording of one of his most famous songs, carrying the stereotype of the big-mouth, loud laughing "darkey". Coon songs were not sung by white men only...

Silas Leachman - Fortune Telling Man (1901) : Silas Leachman was also known as George Walker, part of the Walker and Williams duo with Bert Williams, one of the first and the most prominent acts of Black comedy.

Arthur Collins & Vess L. Ossman - All Coons Look Alike To Me (1902) /
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan - Old Black Joe (1902):
These are two of the most famous coon songs. Arthur Collins was a popular minstrel singer, who often paired with tenor Byron Harlan. The banjo accompaniment on these two songs is very interesting and probably derived from Afro American music. "All Coons Look Alike" was written bu a Black composer ! Sad...

J.W. Myers - I Stood On The Bridge At Midnight (1902) : a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Byron G. Harlan - Always In The Way (1903) /
Byron G. Harlan - When The Harvest Days Are Over (1902) : As a solo artist, Harlan specialized in sentimental ballads like "Hello Central Give Me Heaven" (see previous post) or "Harvest Days", later sung by Uncle Dave Macon

Harry Macdonough - Stay In Your Own Backyard (1904) : another typical sentimental song, often advertised as a "plaintive coon song" (sic). Although showing compassion for a little coloured boy who his rejected by his white neighbors, the title and the conclusion of the song are more than ambiguous and justify segregation in the end.

Bob Roberts & Vess L. Ossman- - The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane (1904)

Now a bluegrass standard, this song was written in 1871 for the minstrel trade. The song itself was popular, but the melody was even more widely used, finding itself adapted to a variety of other songs: "The Little Old Sod Shanty On The Claim" , "Little Red Caboose Behind The Train"; and even hymns, "The Lily Of The Valley".Fiddlin' John Carson's version of 1923 is famous for being the first commercial recording by a white rural musician.

Edison Male Quartet - When The Bees Are In The Hive (1905) : A pastoral sentimental Tin Pan Alley song later recorded by Bill Monroe.

Arthur Collins - The Preacher and the Bear (1905) :
Collins' greatest hit and signature tune, a great comic song and a convinving bear imitation.

Irving Gillette (Henry Burr) - In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905)

Billy Murray - Parody on In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905): Henry Burr(photo below), born in Canada, was one of the most prolific artists of the era. This song was so sentimental that Billy Murray recorded this parody.

Osman Dudley Trio - St. Louis Tickle (1906) : a ragtime piece for banjo celebrating the 1904 St Louis Exposition.

Len Spencer & Alf Holt - A Barnyard Serenade (1906) : this vaudeville comic duo performs a series of animal imitations.

Arthur Collins - Moving Day (1906) : another "coon song" that Charlie Poole would record later.

May Irwin - The Bully (1907) : May Irvin, a vaudeville Canadian actress and singer with her signature tune, the famous "Bully Of The Town" (in country, the Stankey brothers covered it). Her act around 1900 was known as "Coon Shouting" in which she performed African American influenced songs. watch out : the lyrics are particularly racist, but as they say at Parlor's song, it's important to know that such things existed. The Golden years were not good for every one....

Frederick Potter - Red Wing (1907) : Red Wing ("an Indian fable") was a popular Tin Pan Alley Song that became a very famous fiddle tune and a barn dances favorite.

Arthur Collins - All In, Down and Out (1907) : this vaudeville classic was later recorded by Uncle Dave Macon. The song title and line "If I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I'm gonna hold on to it" were used in the famous classic "Nobody Knows You When You're down and Out" (Bessie Smith)

Fisk University Jubilee Singers - Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1909) : the famous a cappella ensemble was organized in 1871 to raise funds for the African American Fisk university in Tennessee and toured all over the world. This is one of their first recordings (of course it was not the origninal line-up). Fisk Jubilee singers still perform today.

Polk Miller & The Old South Quartet - Watermelon Party (1909)
Last but not least, a pure gem. It's from 1909 and it sounds like blues, 20 years before the fist country bluesmen were recorded ! It is one of the rare recordings from the era featuring a guitar, and the playing, singing are just plain authentic. And there's more to it : Polk Miller (see photo below), a white pharmacist and musician from Virginia, performed with a quartet of African American singers : one of the earliest mixed groups ever recorded ! According to various sources, they played material going back to the days before the Civil War. Mark Twain considered Miller as "the only thing this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American". One can understand why. Document records issued more songs by them and they're on my immediate wish list !


... and enjoy the music !


Record Fiend said...

Greetings, Nicolas,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments at my place earlier. Also, I appreciate being added to your blogroll. You have a fantastic place here, my friend! Looks like many of your posts will end up on my external hard drive. Of course, I will be adding "River's Invitation" to my list of "Recommended Blogs & Sites." I look forward to exchanging future correspondence.

All the best,


Record Fiend said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Record Fiend said...

Forget to mention that this post and Part 1 look fascinating since I'm a fan of music from the late 1800s and early 1900s as well.

Thanks for making both volumes available.


Nicolas said...

Thank you for your comment !
I'll try to keep the good work as best as I can, and find time to visit your blog every now and then !

Lisanne! said...

Actually, Silas Leachman and George Walker were two separate people. Leachman solely worked as a recording artist, in fact, he often worked from his own home in Chicago, recording into multiple machines. His output during the 1890s was quite prolific, which earned him the nickname "The Record King". His recording career ended in 1903 when Victor asked him to move east and make his recordings either from Camden or NYC. Apparently Leachman was not especially happy with that arrangement.

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How nostalgic, these guys where true genius!