Thursday, October 20, 2016

Digging into Ed Issler, and directly imitating the black singers

Most collectors of the earliest commercial band recordings certainly have heard of Edward Issler, since his parlor orchestra led the business of recording small studio orchestras for the first five years of the 1890's. Issler was not only the best overall musicians of the earliest studio pianists, he was the best at knowing how to balance instruments and balancing time and energy when it came to making round after round. he is a largely forgotten figure, despite his obvious mark on the amount of records made from 1889 to 1895. Not much of anything was known on him for fifty or sixty years, not knowing how long he had been dead for, or anything else really. It took until just a few months ago for all the essential information on him to be at last found, I am still trying to correct all the bios and articles that speak of Issler with this new information. 

For decades, it was assumed that Issler died in 1900, or sometime shortly after that. Since no one could dig up anything on him after his recording career supposedly ended(I don't think it ended there), most had assumed that looking for him in public records and such was a dead end. How they were damn wrong!
 Issler probably remained at Columbia a little bit after 1900, since thinking of the Hylands logic, they wouldn't just drop him after just a year of working there! Since Issler was the most valuable studio musician at the time, and he wasn't nearly as busy outside of the studio as Hylands, and remember, there would have been at least two different rooms of music going on at any given time at Columbia. 

Issler's talents and musical excellence was not paralleled in any recording studio at that time. Banta couldn't have surpassed Issler's abilities even with all of Banta's natural talent and smarts. Something about Issler's musical upbringing gave him the superior abilities he had, of course, that remains unknown, since his musical background will perhaps never be known, and none of that unfortunately was dug up amid the new findings on him. It has been known for decades, and was reassured in census records, that he was a music teacher before he became a bandleader in the mid-1880's or so. His background other than that is forgotten, but he was certainly gifted. The one thing about his playing that sets him apart from all of the other piano accompaniment era(1889-1905) pianists is his fantastic sense of rhythm. His sense of time was always perfect, and fast or slowed when needed. His time was really remarkable, better than Banta's, Hylands'(most of the time), and all the other early studio pianists I've heard. His sense of Ragged time was not really the best, but you could tell that he was really trying it, and was all-right at it for a man who was more of a conservative Germanic man than Banta was. Issler was forcd to learn how to syncopate early on, when I say early, I mean the early 1890's. It is evident that by 1896, Issler had a good understanding of this newly popular syncopated music. This is very clearly heard on this record here:
This syncopation that he plays on this record is really fascinating, as it's of the early Rag-Time style, and since this was recorded in 1896, that really gets the point across, and that it's IMPROVISED, ever more illustrates Issler's genius. 

This also gets the point I harshly argue about Rag-Time officially beginning as a craze in 1896, and hearing the same syncopation that was in Rag medleys from the year after really says something about what Max Hoffmann called "The present day fad". It seems that "fad" had begun in 1896 and spilled over into 1897. Issler had caught the bug, not bit as many times as Hylands or Burt Green, but had a little of it in him by 1896 and 1897. 

To listen to more of Issler's great records, we have come to the conclusion that he is on that infamous early 1897 Columbia of "Uncle Jefferson"by Billy Golden. You can hear that here:
It's still unclear whether it's young Fred Hylands or Issler on this record, but in this case, it's more likely Issler. The syncopation on much of this record also mirrors the other records where he's improvising syncopated melodies. An unexpectedly good example of Issler's semi-Ragtime playing can be heard on George W. Johnson's famous 1891 Edison of "The Whistling Coon".You can hear that historic cylinder here:
Other than it being the first record Johnson made, it's a very early example of Issler's pre-Ragtime playing. It's not syncopated very clearly, it would take a few very close listens to catch the syncopated playing in the accompaniment, as well as the very timely left hand rhythmic patterns. A clearer section of syncopation can be heard in the piano at 1:19-1:20, and that's one of the clearer things on this record behind Johnson's piercing whistling. Issler's playing on this unexpectedly "ragged" recording is very fitting with Johnson's very clearly syncopated whistling melodies. 

*It MUST be noted how syncopated and ragged Johnson's singing on this cylinder is, and it's not even "victorian" syncopation which isn't really ragged rhythmically, it just sounds like it is. Johnson's rhythm was very good, considering all of the rushy pianists he had behind him(not counting Issler), and this cylinder exemplifies that. His whistling is particularly syncopated, and needs, therefore, to be noted by Rag-Time scholars.*

I really mean it about Johnson's 1891 Edison of "The Whistling Coon", it's not only historic for what it is, but it's also a great example of pure and clear "Negro Dance" era(c.1886-1895) syncopation, or just simply, pre-Ragtime. This is essentially what pre-Rags sounded like before Ben Harney, Ned Wayburn, or Ernest Hogan came on the scene.

Now to somewhat tie the second section of this post to the end of the previous one, the second part of the post title is a subject often debated hotly among us record collectors and music historians. But with this, I have come across a fascinating comparison to address this controversial matter. After going through the Lost Sounds book once more yesterday, other than just going through the Johnson trial once more, I read over the relatively short section on Cousins and DeMoss, who were a fantastic black vaudeville duo much like Williams and Walker, but kept a more traditional style of black hymns, general music and instrumentation. Their two known records are among the best examples of traditional black American music. The particular record of theirs that I will address here in this touchy comparison is their fantastic Berliner no. 3012, "Who Broke the Lock", recorded in 1898. 
Here's the record:
skip to 1:12:40 for this transfer
It is one of the most danceable 1890's records I have ever heard, hands down, and it really sets the scene of a black dance floor better than anything the white orchestras tried to illustrate. It's a fantastic record all around, with a strange combination of a guitar and banjo, you can't go wrong. 

Now that you've heard that, compare that with the closing song of this Len Spencer creation from 1901:
It's very strange to compare these two records. 
Something tells me, though, that Spencer and Hylands probably set down and listened to Berliner 3012 at some point before this was recorded, also since Berliner recording this group must have caused a little stir among the Columbia clan. Spencer would have heard either way, since he was Johnson's advocate, any news of new black artists would have gotten to Spencer quick for sure. 
(a cartoon I did of Spencer in minstrel attire)
Thinking of Spencer, he probably spent time to listen to the two records Cousins and DeMoss recorded, and tried his best at imitating their fantastic and wholly authentic style, even if the 1901 minstrel record is not nearly as syncopated and authentic as the original 1898 recording. He would have at least listened to the record and mimicked them as best he could, he and Hylands seem the most likely to have done this. 

It's almost not a fair comparison, but it's very interesting that Spencer specifically chose "Who Broke the Lock"(or "Who Built the Ark", which sounds like a Spencer alteration anyway), is very suspicious, as it's a pretty unusual song for one of those minstrel records of his. Most of the songs he used were old favourites like "The Old log Cabin" or were more modern major hits like "Hello My Baby", not really more obscure tunes like the one on the 1901 recording. It must have been because of the Cousins and DeMoss recordings, if not, I'm not sure where else he would have gotten it from. It must be noted that Spencer used this tune on earlier versions of the same selection, such as their 1899 take(without Spencer for some reason...):

This is truly a fascinating comparison to make, and theory to consider, since it really is just another example of many of the white singers imitating the black ones because of how good the black performers were with the songs. This seems to be part of Spencer's strangely backward means of advocating for recording authentic black music, even if he had nothing to do with Berliner recording Cousins and DeMoss. If he had anything to do with recording Cousins and DeMoss(which he probably didn't) I would give him more credit for being more enlightened as far as race relations go. As far as everything that he did in his "advocacy", his grade in this matter would be a solid C. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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