Friday, April 13, 2018

Charles Asbury and New Transfers

It seems Archeophone is back at it again, not like they aren't always. This next record that they're working on now is just phenomenal. I was looking around on Facebook this week, and came across a bit of samples for the new record that Archeophone is planning to release. This new record is only a two sided 45, but what's on it is tantalizing. For a while, I have highlighted the importance of Charles Asbury's records, or at least the one that is currently online. In terms of Rag-Time historians, his records are among the best case studies of the earliest examples. The one we've all heard online is his 1894 "Haul the Woodpile Down", and it never fails to amaze the Rag-Time historians. 
The only image I had seen of Asbury was a crude drawing from the December 1892 issue of The Phonogram. On that page, Asbury is surrounded by all the favorites, such as Len Spencer, Russell Hunting, John York AtLee, etc. It was surprising to actually see Asbury there in that bunch of recording stars, since we who know about him wouldn't think of associating him with them. 
Maybe we're mistaken by doing that? 

Here's that picture I'm talking about: 
It's pretty crude, and the quality of the scan isn't that great...
Now here's the thing about Asbury that's intriguing, there's nothing known about him! 
I remember years ago attempting to do some digging on Asbury, but was led nowhere. I did eventually find someone who had done thew same thing and assumed they had found him, a minstrel performer and banjoist born around 1852-53. The evidence and details were a but questionable, but it was and still is hopeful to see an interest in his mystery. The fact that his records are so good, and are such outstanding outliers to the other "coon song" singers, is what makes him attractive to record scholars. His records are nothing like the authentic rugged records of George W. Johnson, or the educated primitive nature of Len Spencer's(before 1897). Asbury's voice and banjo playing sound more like George W. Johnson than anyone else, but here's a thought...
Think of Silas Leachman: 
We are for certain that Leachman learnt all the music he recorded by ear, never from music. With Leachman we also get the benefit of his upbringing in Kentucky at a prime period of time, which is essential to his unique style. In keeping in mind Leachman's method of learning new music, we need to know what distinct characteristics to his singing and playing(of piano) would indicate this. 
It can be hard to tell whether someone learns music by ear, but being someone who does that myself, I can catch the signs. 
One important thing to notice is if the lyrics are switched around or are phrased differently from the written ones. This is why I almost always check to lyrics to certain songs to compare. This sort of thing is all over the place on Leachman's records, more particularly his brown wax records made at home. His records such as his 1895 or so recording of "old Uncle John" are perfect examples of how he switched around the lyric phrasing, even the time signature in the chorus. In the written music, the chorus is in 6/8, but on Leachman's take, the chorus is in 3/4. This sort of thing is a signature to leachman, even on many of his later Victors, all of these things are present here and there. But of course why am I saying this? We are certain that Leachman played by ear, it was written about in that long Chicago Tribune article from 1895 about him. In Leachman's case, we're just trying to make sure that the things correspond correctly to confirm it. 

What has all of this to do with Asbury?
Actually, quite a lot. 

After being able to hear a little more of Asbury this week, the ideas that I've formulated about Leachman have transferred to Asbury's style. The only reason I have any idea of this is because he had all the signs that would indicate learning by ear. Another important factor to this theory is the fact that the performer bring to the recording horn tunes that were never published, or cannot be traced historically. This is similar with Billy Golden and George W. Johnson. However, Johnson had the privilege of having Frank P. Banta to actually write down the songs that were his specialties, and arrange them exactly as Johnson performed them. 
Asbury was alone with his music, performing tunes that were rare even to the most popular recording stars. The very unpublished(or impossible to trace) tune of his I'm thinking of is "Haul the Woodpile Down". Wherever the tune came from, it's a very old, perhaps early American, song with elements similar to "Amazing Grace" and songs related.
Here's the record just to refresh the memory:

 With this in mind, the sample of Asbury singing "New Coon in Town"(released by Archeophone this week) already exhibits these essential elements of ear learning. The chorus has mixed around phrases and added words, without the complicatedness of the original song published in Chicago in 1884. This was a popular song as the "coon song" era started to take shape, so it doesn't particularly come as a surprise that he recorded this tune. The way he plays the song is particularly interesting, since it's nothing like the way that all of us Ragtimers play it. One of my good friends listened to the bit of the "new Coon in Town", and immediately assumed it was a different tune with the same way, but that's not true. That is indeed the same tune that was often quoted, including in an article about George W. Johnson's domestic troubles:
Yep, those are the same lyrics, but switched around as expected. Just as Leachman was, Asbury also had all the aspects of a fully natural musician, with near perfect vocal pitch, and a very attractive style of banjo and singing. 
All of this makes Asbury more tantalizing for sure, though keep in mind that all of what I just said about him is just a theory, and none of it may be true. Hopefully there's at least a basic level of information on him in the notes that accompany the record Archeophone is putting out next month. 
I just can't wait! The samples are just unbelievable!

Now to move on from well hidden mystery. I said in the last post that I would do some more digging in Santa Barbara's new transfers, and in the past few weeks, that's exactly what I did. The excitement is never ending now that they're gradually putting up random brown wax transfers that have been sitting there on the website without any means of hearing them. Since there was so much to talk about on just a single Spencer record, there's actually more Spencer records put up since I dug deep into that c. 1895 record of "Mamie!...". Before I get into those Spencer records, I should most certainly dig into Hylands records solely. 
The amount of good Hylands examples has almost doubled on Santa Barbara's website, which is absolutely fantastic. There's one particular example that stands far better than the others, and it's this seemingly modest one:
Never have I heard such mastery from Hylands. We can hear how well he had perfected the Banjo imitation style he supposedly played. What's genius about this particular take is that he's rarely playing the actual melody with Schweinfest, but he's playing accompanying melodic lines and quick banjo imitation patterns all over the piano. It's also rather shocking to note that the rather slow(but perfect for a cake-walk) tempo is kept constant throughout. This isn't often the case with early examples of authentic improvised Rag-Time. It's records like these where we are reminded why we love Hylands, and it's for that distinct and weird Rag style that is easy to pick out from the others. Of course, after hearing such recordings like this from 1899-1900, it makes me more anxious to hear this:
Such recordings as the subject matter here are good explanations for such compositions by Schweinfest of all people. 
Speaking of Roger Harding(the publisher of the Schweinfest piece), this reminds me of another new transfer that includes Harding. At last, there are a few different takes of "Little Alabama Coon" online. The more takes I've heard have been by Gaskin, which are the best ones, because of that horrid scream he does on each one. While the same little sketch is one every take, one thing can be assured always different, the end piano solo. This particular take is by the Greater New York Quartette, which included Steve Porter and Roger Harding on this record specifically. 
here's the record:
To be honest, I only listened to this the first time because I knew there would be a dance part piano solo at the end. Supposedly Issler put together the arrangement that we hear Gaskin do, with the song and dance part and everything. That makes no different here however. That solo Hylands plays at the end is perfectly in his style. We even get the bonus of him playing those rare walking bass octaves, which is a distinct characteristic, but one that isn't always present. Like almost every solo by any early studio pianist(after Issler), it has got to be a quote of another song, but this one has me stumped. Most of the time it takes a few listens to get the more obscure musical jokes of the studio pianists. Also, listen to the very end, there's a loud thump! as though something fell over and a voice acknowledging the crash. It's clearly a mistake because it's so abrupt and it caught by some other voices far back there. 

Since there 's another earlier take(the last one is from 1898 or so), that one should be exhibited too. This take is transferred too fast, but it's still Gaskin's original take, likely from 1893 or 1894, which is entirely valuable. 
That's Gaskin around 1895. 
So here's that transfer:
There's that signature scream. I know he's supposed to be a little black kid, but this take is where it sounds absolutely the most hilarious. I'm learning overtime that Gaskin was weird, more so than any of us could imagine. A little Irish leprechaun of a man with lots of energy left vacant from so many slow songs. The wildness comes alive on records such as his 1893 ish "Little Alabama Coon". By the way, the pianist on that is most likely Issler, indicated by the year and circumstances of how around that time I've seen newspaper evidence of Gaskin performing that very tune with Issler. 

Now to move to something that's a little questionable for me. 
Now you all know how much I'm in love with Fred Hager, but I cannot stand his violin records. They are such an infernal racket, and are generally boring selections.
However, Santa Barbara put a few Hager records that are of more interesting selections. The first interesting selection was his "Rag Time Medley", which ought to be good, given the chances are very high Frank P. Banta is the pianist behind him. Here you go:
Just imagine it, pretty Hager looking not too different from how he did above playing violin with Banta. What a beautiful thing to imagine...
There are a few reasons I can't stand Hager's violin records, one is that he's rarely in tune(that's my perfect pitch coming in), and that he slurs notes so much that some of them blend together and make it more out of tune. This particular record is rather entertaining because Banta is keeping the rhythm nice and constant, with added syncopation so complement Hager, but Hager trips all over the place. 
Though, they did seem to put up the best Hager violin solo I've heard so far, and it's from a bit later than expected.
I had assumed most of his violin records were from 1899 and 1900, but I guess 1901 still works out. At least Banta's still there behind him to keep him from tripping over. For such a virtuoso and matinee idol, you'd think that he would embody the long passed soul of Niccolo Paganini. Hager unfortunately was nowhere close to that, despite his musical status in music conservatories and with symphony musicians all over. He was better at arrangements and keeping bands together turns out. 

Seems we're getting warmer to Spencer, so how about some George W. Johnson? Johnson's records are always different, since the arrangements were basically only based on chord changes and weren't exactly melody driven, each take is very different. We may not exactly know the origins of Johnson's "The Laughing Coon", but it likely had something to do with Banta, just as "the Laughing song" had back in 1894. Of course, the take i'm going to use here is not one of the typical Banta Edison takes, it's another one of those ragged Hylands Columbia takes. 
Unfortunately, this take is transfered really quiet, likely due to it being played quite often in its life of 120 years:
It's really hard to hear, but from what we can hear of the piano accompaniment, it's really ragged and has all of those signature early Hylands characteristics. If you know the song as well as I do, you should be able to keep track of how the song goes and what might be played at certain times. That's the only way I've been able to understand and pull apart this recording at all, since it's so worn out and quiet. Hopefully I will be able to almost completely transcribe the accompaniment on this record, because in the end, this one is certainly worth the time and effort. This may be a case of pieceing together if anything. 

All right, time to get to that new Spencer transfer!
These are obviously the most exciting new things for me, since Santa Barbara has had quite a few good ones listed for a while, and none have been transferred. Now little by little they're being put up, which is a great way to get them. The one in particular that has been a source of fascination is his c.early 1898 Columbia of "Kentucky Babe". It sounds like it could have been recorded in late-1897, but its most certainly in the early era of Spencer with Hylands(pre publishing firm I mean).
Unlike every other take I've heard of this tune, this take is quick and jumpy, rather than following the very theme, that Spencer announces at the beginning, of the song(Picanniny Lullaby). That unusual fact makes this record all the more charming though. The piano accompaniment was recorded really well, which makes for a nice balance of Spencer and Hylands, and that's always good. We can hear them both equally, which isn't always the case. I must note, since it peeves me, that Spencer's pitch is not great on this take either, it's too reminiscent of his pre 1896 records...All I can comment on that is that Hylands is there, and his influence of anything addictive is likely present. 
That may also be part of why the song was played quicker and more playful than the slow and calming that it usually was. Who knows, with Spencer and Hylands, anything's possible. 
But what about that accompaniment? Wow. Hylands plays pretty nice throughout the record, playing weird inversions and voicings of chords like usual, but at the whistling solo at the end---all hell breaks loose! The quick and complicated banjo imitation is entirely unexpected. He's playing so many notes it's hard to fathom. It's based on the banjo imitation form, whatever he's playing, but it's got all of those 32nd notes that he was known for. At least we have more evidence of his frequent playing of banjo imitations, this time before 1900, and rather early in his collaborations with Spencer. Rag-Time scholars take note!

Anyway, there are quite a few new transfers I need to get to, but I've exhausted my immediate knowledge for the night, so I've got to leave it here. 

Hope you all enjoyed this!

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Asbury, here's another -