Milestone Recordings in American Music


Minstrelsy (1891-1899)

In the second half of the 19th Century, the dominant form of entertainment in America was the minstrel show. It featured white performers in blackface using exaggerated racial stereotypes for comic effect. Ironically, although it was designed to lampoon African American culture, minstrelsy also helped spread familiarity with aspects of African American life and helped make people more sympathetic to their plight.

Music was a big part of the minstrel shows, and as recording technology was introduced many of the first recordings naturally featured the kinds of songs that one could expect to hear at a travel minstrel show. Here again, while the music didn’t always accurately reflect actual African American traditions, its popularity helped shape the tastes of its audience, with the result that it influenced many other kinds of music.

1891 Headlines … Liliuokalani becomes last monarch of Hawaii … James Naismith invents basketball in Springfield, Mass. … The Music Hall in New York (Carnegie Hall) opens … Thomas Edison patents the radio
1892 Headlines … Ellis Island begins accepting immigrants to the U.S. … The General Electric Co. is formed (merger of Thomson-Houston Co. and Edison General Electric Co.) … Edison patents two-way telegraph

Billy Golden
Turkey in the Straw(Columbia, 1892)

This is the first of many, many recordings Billy Golden made of his signature song, appearing in fledgling record company Columbia’s January 1892 catalog. A piano can faintly be heard through the crackling, playing what is now a familiar tune to many, but it is Golden’s energetic, borderline manic performance that sold this record in droves. As he sings the whimsical lyrics, he cackles, whistles and contorts his voice using every trick at his disposal to keep the song lively and entertaining despite the poor sound quality of the medium.

The original, two-minute wax cylinder recording is fairly innocuous, but as technology improved and recordings lengthened to around three minutes, Golden added spoken interludes to the song. These interludes invoked the full spirit of the minstrel tradition and are shocking to modern audiences in the boldness of their racism. The fact that Golden’s delivery doesn’t waver – and remains as entertaining as ever – shows just how matter-of-fact that racism was to artists and audiences alike in the late 19th Century.

~ You may also like: George W. Johnson, “The Laughing Song” (Edison 4004, 1898)

1893 Headlines … U.S. Marines overthrow government of Hawaii … Grover Cleveland inaugurated as 24th U.S. President … 1893 World's Fair in Chicago … NYSE crashes … Women gain right to vote in New Zealand
1894 Headlines … W.K. Dickson receives a U.S. patent for motion picture film … Coca-Cola first sold in bottles … The short-lived Republic of Hawaii is established … The first Sino-Japanese War begins
1895 Headlines … The first Sino-Japanese War ends … First professional American football game (Latrobe, Penn.) … George Selden granted first U.S. patent for an automobile … Wilhelm Röntgen discovers X-rays
1896 Headlines … Utah becomes 45th U.S. state … First modern Olympic Games (Athens, Greece) … U.S. Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson, introducing “separate but equal” doctrine and upholding segregation
1897 Headlines … William McKinley inaugurated as 25th U.S. President. … Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula published … Great miners’ strike of 1897 … Klondike Gold Rush begins … First U.S. subway opens in Boston

Len Spencer with Vess L. Ossman
Hot Time in the Old Town (Columbia 7266, 1897)

Although the technology of the day leaves Len Spencer’s voice sounding somewhat harsh, this is a good record for its day. Spencer does a good job under the circumstances, especially the way he slows down and drags out words for emphasis. The real attraction here, though, is Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King,” who provides lively accompaniment. Ossman was the premier banjo player of his day, contributing that instrument’s novel sound to many of the best pre-1920s records.

Today we associate the banjo with old-time country and bluegrass music, but it is actually an African instrument that had gained popularity in America in the 1800s thanks to the traveling minstrel shows. At the time of this recording it was still seen as a somewhat exotic instrument; what sounds old-fashioned to our ears was actually cutting-edge in 1897.

~ You may also like: Vess L. Ossman, “Whistling Rufus” (Berliner 092, 1899)

1898 Headlines … Spanish-American War: U.S. victorious, gains former Spanish colonies of Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico; Cuba gains independence from Spain … U.S. annexes Hawaii … Pepsi-Cola debuts
1899 Headlines … U.S. Senate ratifies a peace treaty with Spain following the Spanish-American War … Queens and Staten Island merge with New York City … Great Blizzard of 1899 affects southeastern U.S.

Arthur Collins
Hello, Ma Baby (Edison 5470, 1899)

Arthur Collins was one of the most popular recording artist of his day. Much of his repertoire consisted of what were called “coon songs” – songs in the blackface tradition where the singer created a caricature from grossly exaggerated racial stereotypes. “Hello, Ma Baby” was one such song. While it was less offensive than most, keep in mind that the humor of this recording was supposed to derive from the then-absurd notion of African Americans using telephones,  an expensive technology that was at the time out of reach of most.

Many modern listeners will recognize the melody and chorus from later versions: “Hello, ma baby / Hello, ma honey / Hello, ma ragtime gal / Send me a kiss by wire / Baby, my heart’s on fire.” Collins’ version, though, was the first, and despite its racial insensitivity it stands as one of the best recordings of its era.

~ You may also like: Arthur Collins, “The Preacher and the Bear” (Edison 9000, 1905)


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