All music within is sourced and reconstructed from the creaking,
winding, piping, chiming and wood-knocking of several Victorian
parlour music machines, wax cylinder recordings, a French carillon and a seafront calliope.
In 1867, Justin Holland published his arrangement of the American popular song “Spanish Fandango”. The first recording on this page is my live recording of the original score obtained from the Library of Congress.
“Spanish Fandango” is arranged here in its traditional tuning – ‘open G’ – in which the strings of the instrument are tuned to the notes of a Gmajor chord. Through the dissemination of sheet music publications including Holland’s, this piece became a permanent part of the American guitar repertoire. Over the years, popular and traditional players arranged and recorded the tune – changing it slightly or dramatically along the way. John Hurt, Chet Atkins, and Mike Seeger are among the artists that have recorded their own arrangements. More than this, to this day blues and folk players refer to the ‘open G’ tuning as “Spanish” because of this history.
In the American guitar tradition, open tunings are often (and most commonly) used for playing with a bottleneck slide. David Hamburger’s track on this page “Chickens” is an example of traditional early 20th century blues slide playing. My track, “Keanae, HI” by Benjamin Verdery, showcases both the contemporary classical approach to slide playing in open tunings and the history of the slide. The slide itself is believed by players to have entered American guitar culture via Hawaii around the time of the 1915 World’s Fair. Finally, Kirby and I play “God Bless America” – with me on classical guitar and him on slide in a open tuning – combining two styles of “American roots” guitar.
To put it in historical context, ragtime was getting long in the tooth but wasn’t over the hill yet. Pop was morphing into a rowdier, hotter, and blacker form. Lynchings were at their height. Blackface minstrelsy was still common but was a style for older people. Blacks were abandoning the banjo en masse; the saxophone was hip; brass military bands were becoming New Orleans -style second lines. The reigning white banjo virtuoso Vess Ossman was declining and Fred Van Eps was taking his place.
“Blues” broke with the publication of W. C. Handy’s seminal compositions “Memphis Blues” in 1912 and then “St. Louis Blues” in 1914. At that time the recording industry existed but was still subdominant to the sheet music industry. Between 1917 and 1923 their roles reversed, and both of these stayed popular in the new industry.
Here are five versions of St Louis Blues in chronological order, starting almost ten years after the first publication.
Handy learned his trade in minstrel bands before the turn of the century, and by 1922 his sound was pretty square. His take on the hot style here is credible but still stiff, like the Eagles doing a Nirvana cover. But still, it’s his damn song and nobody knows better than him how it should go.
19th century American culture had endless layers of social protocol. They used personal titles in family life: “Professor Cunningham, please pass the salt.” They used multiple initials in their full names: “W. E. B. DuBois”, or “D. E. Jannon.” They used elaborate circumlocutions, like saying “prestidigitation” instead of “magic trick.”
Manners were a big deal, so music respected protocol even when it was intended for partying. And that made it too stiff for our ears. Our ears expect music to breach protocol. We still care about hierarchy at the office, but we don’t want it on the dance floor. And there was a transitional time in music when hot sounds were rare and shocking.
The change to hot styles was related to blacks assuming cultural leadership. Throughout the 19th century blacks had been dominant among performers, even of styles we think of as white. Between 1893 and 1930, black musicians led the introduction of modern styles — ragtime in 1893, blues in 1914, and then jazz in 1917.
1908: The Zon-O-Phone Concert Band plays Scott Joplin’s rag The Smiler. Notice how much more lively Joplin’s writing is than Sousa’s.
1914: Castle House Rag played by Europe’s Society Orchestra. Europe is James Reese Europe. His style was crazy hot and way before it’s time, analogous to early Stooges. Give this time to build to the climax and you’ll see what I mean.
1917: Livery Stable Blues played by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white act with plenty of sloppy enthusiasm but limited technique. This is the record that broke the hot style into the mainstream.
The commercial recordings on this CD are the only known copies that Comstock’s men missed. They were preserved by long-time Edison Recording Manager Walter Miller and are now in the vault of the Edison National Historic Site. Scarcity and suppression have kept them silent for a century. They were stories told readily in the bar; yet they became legally actionable offenses when fixed in wax and played on a phonograph in that same bar. Brace yourself. Just because they are from the Victorian era does not mean they are tame by today’s standards—far from it.
Pioneer Recording Artist Goes to Jail
They are so indecent that Russell Hunting was imprisoned in 1896 for making and selling them. Up to that point Hunting had been doing a brisk trade selling his bawdy cylinders to the exhibitors on Coney Island who had certain “discriminating” customers. Although he recorded under pseudonyms such as “Charley Smith” and “Willy Fathand,” his voice was so well-known through his “Casey” routines that he was identified as the creator by aural evidence alone. Hunting’s recording career never fully recovered, and he left the U.S. in 1898 to make a fresh start in England.
These would not be safe for work in any way shape or form if your coworkers could figure out what they’re saying. You might have to listen 7-8 times to understand the details. “A Hard Head” is unbelievably funny and filthy, but it could take quite a while to figure it out. “Whore’s Union price list” is not far off and the recording is a lot more clear.
To an enthusiast of historical American pop culture this stuff is mind boggling for the way it brings those times to life. Topics reserved for dirty jokes are important, and the lack of them in the historical record makes those times abstract and distant. You know intellectually that the texture of life was the same then as now, pretty much, but no amount of imagination can fill the gaps like verbatim potty talk and gross-outs.