Category Archives: amateur history

issuing bread instead of flour

How do musicians get paid if they can’t sell CDs because Napster is sucking the very lifeblood from their marrow? Per The Personal Memoirs of U. S Grant, one way is to issue bread to the soldiers instead of flour.

Our regimental fund had run down and some of the musicians in the band had been without their extra pay for a number of months.

The regimental bands at that day were kept up partly by pay from the government, and partly by pay from the regimental fund. There was authority of law for enlisting a certain number of men as musicians. So many could receive the pay of non-commissioned officers of the various grades, and the remainder the pay of privates. This would not secure a band leader, nor good players on certain instruments. In garrison there are various ways of keeping up a regimental fund sufficient to give extra pay to musicians, establish libraries and ten-pin alleys, subscribe to magazines and furnish many extra comforts to the men. The best device for supplying the fund is to issue bread to the soldiers instead of flour. The ration used to be eighteen ounces per day of either flour or bread; and one hundred pounds of flour will make one hundred and forty pounds of bread. This saving was purchased by the commissary for the benefit of the fund. In the emergency the 4th infantry was laboring under, I rented a bakery in the city, hired bakers—Mexicans—bought fuel and whatever was necessary, and I also got a contract from the chief commissary of the army for baking a large amount of hard bread. In two months I made more money for the fund than my pay amounted to during the entire war.

How many Famous Victor Record Artists does it take take to screw in a lightbulb?

Tim Gracyk’s Phonographs, Singers, and Old Records: biography of Fred Van Eps, Banjoist

Around May 1917 Van Eps joined a touring group of recording artists, called at different times the Record Makers, the Phonograph Singers, the Eight Victor Record Makers, the Popular Talking Machine Artists, and the Peerless Record Makers. He replaced Vess L. Ossman, who allegedly had not gotten along with manager Henry Burr. Surviving programs show Ossman performing in April 1917, but in the May 1917 issue of Talking Machine World Ossman’s name is missing from a list of members. The group was called the Eight Famous Record Artists by June 1920, and after five members–Burr, Billy Murray, Albert Campbell, John Meyer, and Frank Croxton–signed exclusive Victor contracts in 1920, “Victor” was added to the name. Van

Incredible but true: after all those iterations the best band name they could come up with was Eight Famous Victor Record Artists. It’s like the answer to the question “How many Famous Victor Record Artists does it take take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Hard to imagine somebody putting that on the back of their leather jacket.


I went to the Musee Mechanique in San Francisco to see the vintage player pianos in person, and while I was there I got these photos of historical Americana.

To snarf the raw photos, head over to my Flickr cache. As always with my work, these are under a Creative Commons (Attribution Share-Alike) license to enable people to reuse them. Personally I plan to attach them to MP3s to serve as album art.

Josephine Baker and the “hot” style of the 20th century

Vintage Powder Room is a blog about vintage cosmetics ephemera and vanity accessories:

My collection is comprised of items such as cardboard face powder boxes, hairnet packages and magazine advertisements from 1900-1950. It was the beautiful art that drew me to the items, and it is why I continue to add to my collection. The artists were frequently hired by the cosmetics manufacturers to develop advertisements and containers for their products. Most of the artists remain unknown to us – but their work is still exquisite. There were some famous artists who became involved in the design of cosmetics packaging – most notably Rene Lalique who designed the gorgeous Coty face powder box with the powder puff design. The Coty box and powder are still in production today. If you want to own a piece of cosmetics history you can buy one of the boxes for just a few dollars at your local drugstore.

When women first began to powder their noses in public, and to apply lipstick, eye shadow, and rouge it was up to cosmetics companies to get their attention, and their dollars, with advertisements and packaging. The advertising and packaging of cosmetics left a rich legacy of design.

It is amazing how many of these beautiful and fragile items have survived – some of them for more than 100 years. Rather than discard the face powder boxes, women frequently held on to them. Particularly during the years of the depression when beautiful things were hard to come by – for a few cents a woman could go to the drugstore and purchase face powder, lipstick, or a compact. Once the product was long gone, many women kept the containers and used them to hold safety pins or buttons.

What catches my eye here is that she is, like me, an amateur historian and collector of pop culture. There’s a fascinating essay on a Duska face powder box from 1925 — how did she find so much to say about it? But then again, how did gurdonark and I spend weeks following the journeyman guitar arranger E. Pique from Austria to San Francisco? And her essay on the powder box brings up the singer Josephine Baker:

Josephine Baker
Many of the people who came of age during the years following WWI rejected 19th century values, and its art, and earned the moniker the “Lost Generation“. Some of the Americans who gravitated to the expat’s life in Paris would become international literary superstars: Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos. Others of them were artists and performers, like Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker embodied the hot (musical) style that was the negation of the 19th century culture of elaborate social protocol and layer after layer of manners. She was black and outwardly incredible during a time when blacks in America were forced into the ritualized cringing of the minstrel style, and she was openly sexual at a time when public sexuality was still defined by Victorian style.

Compare her mid-20s version of a tune called “Bam Bam Bammy Shore” (from Breezin’ Along ) with Thomas Craig’s 1898 version of “Old Black Joe” (from Lost Sounds: Blacks.)

And here’s a 1925 version by a pop band called “The Revellers”:

The Warner Chappell publishing company, by the way, thinks this tune is still copyrighted, which goes to show how the entire 20th century is off limits to free culture.

last of the killer Gs

Check out the amazing typography of the two ‘G’ characters (in “dog” and “rag”) in the headline of this sheet music title page:

cover page for 'Yellow Dog Rag'

That’s from 1914, right at the moment of change between 19th and 20th century musical styles. Scott Joplin was in the terminal stages of the syphilis that killed him, too sick to play, living on his wife’s earnings from running a whorehouse in the Bronx. The hot style had emerged but didn’t have a name yet. The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s watershed hit “Livery Stable Blues” was three years in the future.

W. C. Handy was around 40, an established musician who had made his mark as the bandleader for Mahara’s Minstrels, one of the biggest minstrel shows at the turn of the 20th century. The first formal “blues” song — also by Handy — had been published the year before, and had been a big hit. This rag didn’t sell well, and in 1919 it would be retitled “Yellow Dog Blues” and republished with a new title page that had neither of these killer ‘G’s.

St Louis Blues

“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.

  1. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band in 1922: St Louis Blues, from W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

    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.

  2. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band in 1922: St. Louis Blues—Medley Fox Trot (Intro: Ole Miss Blues), from Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922.

    By the time something gets used in a medley it’s a pretty huge hit.

  3. Louis Armstrong sometime between 1925 and 1929: St Louis Blues, from Hot Fives and Sevens (Disc 4).

    This is one of the best bands in the history of jazz at the peak of its form. This version shows the song turning into a broad framework for musicians to assert their own style.

  4. Bessie Smith in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues:

    The way she lays on the pathos is close to Handy’s original vision. The schmaltzy chorus and big-budget band is a whole nother thing.

  5. Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys sometime around 1935: St. Louis Blues, from The King of Western Swing.

    21 years after publication and still going strong, but getting further and further from the original sound, by now a hillbilly jazz tune.

birth of the hot

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.

Here are four recordings from this transitional time. The last three are all from the killer Archeophone release Stomp and Swerve – American Music Gets Hot. Note that I’m using the versions hosted on, which are not as clean.

1902: John Phillip Sousa’s band plays Liberty Bell March. This is the point of departure.

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.

He’s in the Jailhouse Now

Blind Blake — He’s in the Jailhouse Now (MP3)

I put together a lead sheet of the 1920s classic “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” because I needed it to rehearse a biggish band, and there’s no reason to keep it to myself.

According to Roosevelt’s Blues, the song has been traced back to at least 1917, but the use of the abusive term “coon” in the lyrics may point to an earlier origin, perhaps around the turn of the century. The song’s origins were probably in the medicine show circuit, according to Songsters and Saints. Ernest Rogers claimed to have sung it over the radio as early as 1922. In 1924 it was recorded by the jug band leader Buford Threlkeld – “Whistler” – as “Jail House Blues”. The veteran medicine show entertainer Jim Jackson recorded it in 1927. Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band recorded recorded an almost identical version in 1927. Again in 1927, Blind Blake recorded a version with a medicine show banjo player named Gus Cannon. There was another version, in 1930, by the Memphis Sheiks, aka The Memphis Jug Band. And the best known and most enduring early version was made in 1927 by the proto-country singer Jimmie Rodgers, who had a background in the medicine show circuit.

All Music Guide, by the way, usually credits the song to Jimmie Rodgers, which goes to show something or other.

As old as this song is, the copyright status is less clean than with most of the music on this site. This is based most closely on the Memphis Jug Band’s version, which was recorded in 1930 and is not yet in the public domain in the US. Most of the words in that version probably come from sources now in the public domain, but there are also probably additions that are still under copyright, I just don’t know what they are. So caveat emptor if you record this. My own copyrightable contributions, including these files, are under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license, which means you’re free to share and modify them as long as you give credit and extend the same courtesy.

For a printout grab this PDF version of the lead sheet. If you want to edit my version, grab the Sibelius source file. If you just need to change the key and don’t have Sibelius, you can use the Scorch-O-Matic to do it in the browser. And here’s the PNG:

He's in the Jailhouse Now

W. L. Hayden revealed

The author of Centennial Grand March and arranger of Celebrated Shoo Fly Galop and Must I, Then turns out to have been a music teacher and equipment dealer in Boston.

What catches my eye is that he was both a musician and a businessman in the music industry, selling instruments and equipment but also composing and teaching. It’s like Guy Hands of EMI putting out his own CDs.

I ran across this ad in C. F. Martin and His Guitars, 1796-1873, which is a great book about American music history.