Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Mystery of "The Sousa Cakewalk" and The Chicago Talking Machine Company

There's been a certain cylinder on the Santa Barbara website that has been a big mystery since it was first listed. Since then, everyone I have shared the recording with have agreed on the title  of "The Sousa Cake-walk", though it's just a very Ragged rendition of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". It's a mysterious cylinder with completely unknown origins, or purposes, the date is even unsure, though it was indeed recorded in the Rag-Time era. No one knows who the pianist is, and the announcement at the beginning is very hard to , if not almost possible to decipher the name given. I cannot understand the announcement at all. All people I know with great ears don't know who the announcement suggests, nor can they ascertain any specific style or name.

The style presented on this amazing piece of Rag-Time history however, is that of vaudeville/saloon pianists of the late-1890's, much like Burt Green, Ben Harney, Fred Hylands, or Max Hoffmann. But from what can be understood, the announcement doesn't really say any of those names. Before I get any deeper into analysis, here's the cylinder:
I have tried transcribing this version, and its been pretty hard playing along with it, as the pianist has great rhythm, but is changing the time slightly here and there. 
The amazing thing about this cylinder is that it's an authentic "professor" recorded on a cylinder in the middle of the Rag-Time era, which is beyond extraordinary. Not even the big record companies recorded that sort of material! This cylinder in many ways is a better look into how Rag-Time was really played in the era itself. This is why I cannot really stress enough how historically important recording, as really what it is explains it fully. I just wish there was more information given as to what it is, as clearly it was played by a rough and ragged professor from Harlem(?) in the late-1890's-1900's. My guess as to the date, would have to be around 1899-1900, which is early, I know, but the fact that it was recorded on a brown wax cylinder, with a specific announcement to it, clearly there's some significance to it. The playing style is also like that of the studio pianists we have heard, though more specifically, Fred Hylands' style. One of the many thousands of thoughts that have come to my mind as to what the cylinder might be a test recording of a Columbia reject. What is meant by this is that this could be one of those recordings I mentioned in a previous post about when pianists were chosen for the studio pianist position in 1889 for Edison, and 1897 for Columbia. So in that case, this would have been recorded in 1897, which since it's a hot piece of Rag-Time, it would make sense for it being recorded in '97.

The only thing that throws off the professional nature of the cylinder is that loud speaking at the end congratulating the pianist, clearly speaking as though they're not skilled with the phonograph. That is the only indication of this maybe being an unprofessional home recording. Though the piano playing is clearly masterful, and very vaudeville-centric, which is an uncommon feature of piano solos on home recordings from the era. It's a very perplexing piece of Ragged history, that needs to be understood, as it was recorded for some special reason, whatever it happened to be. 

This cylinder is what I've always imagined it would sound like if Hylands was recorded while playing for the Easton's at the Waldorf in 1898 and 1899, as it sounds like is was recorded in a large tall room(like Columbia's top floor...), and there would be an announcement at the beginning, for the cylinder to later be personally in the collection of Master Easton himself. 

Of the odd variety of cylinders I listened to this evening, a handful of them were cylinders made by the Chicago Talking Machine Company. These cylinders have been a curiosity to many record collectors for decades, beginning with this familiar face:
Silas Leachman, the Chicago recording genius. 
Leachman's thousands of home-made cylinders for the Chicago Talking Machine Company were really the only reason that record collectors remained interested in this company. As it was, and still is extraordinarily rare to even have the chance to hear his Chicago-made brown wax cylinders. 
You now have the chance to hear two of these exceedingly rare and wanted cylinders here:

Remember, Leachman did everything when making these, and he made them at home, not in a studio. You know what, I just noticed, Leachman's piano accompaniment on the recording of "Oh! Uncle John" actually sounds a little like the Chicago style that we Rag-Timers know of, like that of Theodore Northrup, Ben Harney, and Fred Hylands. It seems very distant, but that indicates that Leachman heard one of any of these pianists play at any of the local vaudeville houses at that time, which makes perfect sense. If you might recall, Leachman learned everything he ever played by ear, and as we well know, he was a masterful mimic and style imitator. I hate to say it, but this cylinder by Leachman actually is a great example of Chicago-style piano playing in the mid-1890's, not exactly Rag-Time(though there are sprinkles of it here and there...)  but it's the closest thing we're going to get until someone finds Leachman singing  a hearty coon song like "Mister Johnson Turn Me Loose" or "I Don't Care if you Never Comes Back" on a brown wax, then we've got another mess to sift through. 
Anyway, the reason I wanted to get into this record company is because of the suspicious piano accompaniments I have been hearing(other than on the Leachman cylinders, we know that's him playing piano). Since this company was located in Chicago, the studio pianist(s) could have been anyone, and as we Rag-Time pianists know, there were a great many ragged pianists already going at their broken rhythms by 1895. It doesn't help that there are so few of these cylinders online, that way, we cannot really piece together a single piano style for these fascinating cylinders. Since I'm going that way, I'm just going to drop that name again. Fred Hylands--he might have been in that studio at some point. As I can prove that Banta was there, which is a good direction the company went in when they did it. Here's Banta's Popular orchestra recorded by them in c.1894:
That's Banta's orchestra alright. 
I don't think Banta would have stayed in Chicago, as he had to get back to New York not long after to tend to his duties playing with Vess Ossman, so it's very unlikely that Banta was one of their accompanists. This further suggests that Hylands was in their studio at some point, by 1895-96, he certainly would have been wanted as a studio pianist by some local company, and therefore, the only local one being the Chicago Talking Machine Company. 

Take this cylinder for example:
This is the clearest recording for this company that I have heard on the internet, as of now. 
It is also by a famous baritone who Columbia begged him to make records for them in 1897 and 1898. Bert Morphy remained a popular attraction into the early-teen's, from performing with Sousa's Band. 
Anyhow, this cylinder above is fascinating because the piano accompaniment does indeed sound like Hylands quite a lot. That's a little strange, but thinking of the circumstances, it would make some sense. The one Columbia that comes to mind when hearing this one is this Quinn cylinder from 1899. It has the same sort of waltz time, and also the quick and anxious overkill of notes. It must be noted that all of the record from this company were original takes, not dubs or pantographs from an original(like later Columbia's and Edison's), so all of these cylinders sound fantastically clear and full. 

There are also these two cylinders that sounds like Hylands accompaniments:
(It cuts out at about 2 minutes, and comes back full and clear after ten seconds or so)
Just for a good comparison, here's the 1896-97 recording of the same song:
It's clear these are completely different recordings, even if no information was given. 
I must point out this one small thing on the Herbert Holcombe take in the piano accompaniment. There's a very odd rolled octave at about 2:11, also that there's some very strongly hit chords at the end, and the chord in the left hand is a lower inversion of a C7 chord, which was often played by Hylands, and other early folk-Rag pianists of the 1890's. The ending is very loud and powerful, much like I'd imagine 23-34 year-old Fred Hylands to play and be as a mere child. 

Anyhow, I hope this clears some of the mystery surrounding these thing mentioned here, they are still works in progress as of now...

Hope you enjoyed this! 

1 comment:

  1. Ramona, I would be careful in quoting statistics about "hundreds of thousands" of recordings for a single artist in the coin-op period. There is the 5-15-1895 Baltimore American article which states that Silas Leachman had made "nearly 250,000 cylinders" by that time. But if he started January 15, 1891 and recorded for "four hours" -- as they say -- every day without taking a day off, Leachman would have had to make 158 cylinders a day. Even with Silas Leachman working his butt off and making say 5-10 cylinders at a time, I'm not sure that the process of making pre-duplicated records could yield that kind of capacity.