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Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Overview of the Diamond Disc Recordings by Genre (1912-1929)

Instrumental Selections on the Edison Diamond Discs (1912 - 1929)—Overview

A wide array of instrumentals were offered in the Edison Diamond Disc catalogs. Many featured artists proficient with various musical instruments, performing both popular and classical songs. Examples can be found in the selections chosen for this presentation: Signor Lou Chiha "Friscoe" played his xylophone in the medley of In My Heart, On My Mind All Day Long and I Wonder if You Still Care For Me. Vaudeville banjo soloist Fred Bacon performed Medley of Southern Airs. The mandolin was featured in Spanish Rhapsody by the Alessios Mandolin Quartet, and Bohumir Kryl performed a cornet solo of the classic Carnival of Venice--Variations. Herbert Soman performed his violin on Old Pal (Why Don't you Answer Me?). The violin was a particularly popular instrument in the Edison catalog; several examples of classical violin pieces can be found in the Opera and Concert section of this presentation.

Signor Lou Chiha "Fiscoe", back cover of Edison Amberola Monthly, March 1921

Piano pieces were another key category in Edison instrumental recordings. Novelty pianist and composer Zez Confrey performed his most famous piece, Kitten on the Keys, for the Edison label, a piano solo which he also recorded for other labels such as Victor and Columbia.

Instrumental dance music was also common on the Edison label, indicative of the rising popularity of dance music in society, helped in part in the teens by the example of Vernon and Irene Castle. Also, exhibition ballroom dancing was a staple of vaudeville and musical shows during this period. One of Edison's "house" units, Eugene Jaudas's orchestra and band, played the fox trots Allah's Holiday from the theater musical Katinka and Poor Butterfly, a huge hit from the theater musical The Big Show.

Marimba and Hawaiian songs became popular during the early part of the 20th century in the United States, reflecting the increased exposure Americans had to foreign styles of music. The marimba style was very popular with buyers of Edison records according to catalogs of the time. In one, the marimba was described as resembling:

...somewhat the Xylophone. It is usually much larger, however, of a more extended range, and has a sound box for each note. This sound box, made of cedar, is fixed below the strip of wood which is struck by a hammer, having a head, usually of soft India rubber. The wooden block being struck with this hammer, has its vibration increased by the resonator and we hear a peculiar buzzing sound. In Africa a Marimba is used which is rather more primitive, gourds taking the place of the wooden sound boxes. (Edison Records of Music That Lives)

Typically, popular songs were given a marimba "twist," such as the Imperial Marimba Band's unusual rendition of John Philip Sousa's Stars and Strips Forever March or its version of 12th Street Rag.

Hawaiian-style songs became popular around 1915 thanks largely to the appearance of Hawaiian performers on vaudeville and in expositions. As an Edison catalog explained:

Quite suddenly, Hawaiian singers and dancers began to appear in vaudeville; Hawaiian songs were sung in the restauarants; ukuleles, almost unheard of a year before, were advertised and sold everywhere. Then the phonograph took up the propaganda and soon Waikiki Beach became nearly as famous as Coney Island. (Edison Records of Music That Lives)

The Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra was an Edison favorite, heard here in Myona-Hawaiian Waltz. The Edison catalog relates, "It has more 'life' and 'go' to it than most music of this character. That may be because it was composed by Carey Morgan and Anatol Friedland, who are far from being native Hawaiians, yet have a decided flair for their music."

Military marches were also popular during this period, and are represented here by The U.S. Field Artillery March, Sousa's arrangement of E. L. Gruber's song The Caissons Go Rolling Along, played by the New York Military Band, and by True to the Flag March, performed by the United States Marine Band.

Piano rags were also popular at the turn of the century. Later, many types of songs showed a ragtime influence, an example of which is Hungarian Rag by the New York Military Band. At this time, jazz music was starting to develop outside of its origins in New Orleans. Some early jazz efforts on the Edison label include two by the Frisco Jazz Band--Night Time in Little Italy and Umbrellas to Mend.

Frisco Jazz Band

*Instrumental Selections on the Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)--Selections:

Popular Vocals on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)—Overview

Popular vocals on Edison Diamond Discs had a variety of influences. The Edison label recorded songs popularized on the vaudeville stage and many times used vaudeville performers for the recording. Collins and Harlan, for example, recorded The Aba Daba Honeymoon, which was originally introduced by Ruth Roye at the Palace Theatre in New York. Collins and Harlan first recorded the song on Victor records, and then again on Edison. Both Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan were vaudeville performers, as well as recording artists. Collins specialized in novelty and coon songs, while Harlan was a popular tenor and comedian.

Jones and Hare, another singing team specializing in comic and novelty songs, performed In the Little Red School House for Edison. The team was very popular in radio during the 1920s as the Happiness Boys, and later as the Interwoven Pair.

Comic songs were popular in vaudeville acts, including ones that parodied ethnic groups. Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean was such a song that parodied the Irish. It was introduced and made famous by the vaudeville team Gallagher and Shean in the Ziegfield Follies of 1922. Edward Meeker and Steve Porter did their version of it for Edison.

Another type of comic song popular in the vaudeville theater and apparent on Edison recordings was the coon song. Extremely offensive to contemporary ears, usage of the word "coon" to refer to a black man in songs goes back as early as the 1880s and was found in the minstrel shows. Typically these songs would use demeaning racial stereotypes or dialects for humorous purposes. An example of one is the tremendously popular rendition by Arthur Collins of The Preacher and the Bear. Collins recorded it for six labels. To modern audiences, this recording is jarringly offensive, but it would be misrepresentative of history not to acknowledge the existence of these recordings and the fact that they were accepted as mainstream popular entertainment and were produced by nearly every popular record label.

The rise of American musical comedies was also apparent from the Edison song list. Mayo and Tally performed At the Ball That's All from J. Leubrie Hill's musical My Friend From Kentucky (1913), later also used in Darktown Follies (1914). Billy Murray, one of the most popular Edison artists, and perhaps the most recorded performer of the first two decades of the 20th century, recorded I've Been Floating Down the Old Green River, a song referring to alcohol, introduced by Florence Moore in Maid in America (1915). Green River was also a popular soft drink at the time, so the title was a play on words. Murray also recorded the song for Victor.

Vernon Dalhart

"Heart" songs were a staple of the Edison catalog, especially since Thomas A. Edison himself professed these to be his favorite type of music. "Heart" songs tended to be sentimental ballads, often love songs. Some of these songs would express a nostalgia for an old way of life, particularly in the South. Will Oakland sang about That Tumble-Down Shack in Athlone, and Billy Murray sang Are You From Dixie? ('Cause I'm From Dixie, Too). Lewis James, a popular tenor in the 20s, sang The Bells of St. Mary's, a English ballad celebrating a wedding at St. Mary's Church. Indiana was sung by The Homestead Trio, which consisted of Gladys Rice, Betsy Lane Shepherd and Amy Ellerman.

Some Edison artists later achieved wide celebrity. Vernon Dalhart became a successful country music pioneer in the mid-1920s, but the selections featured here, Carolina Rolling Stone and Lorraine (My Beautiful Alsace-Lorraine), are two of his early non-country, popular songs. Composer and vocalist Noble Sissle, who often performed with pianist Eubie Blake on several labels before eventually forming his own band, sang Crazy Blues for the Edison label. The song was the first popular blues song recorded for the African-American market, with the most successful rendition by Mamie Smith on the Okeh label.

Topical songs were also popular, and no event was more noteworthy than World War I during the Diamond Disc period. Several songs demonstrated the war's influence:Keep the Home Fires Burning, Just a Baby's Prayer at Twilight, Madelon (I'll Be True to the Whole Regiment,) 'Till the Boys Come Home, Lorraine (My Beautiful Alsace-Lorraine), and There's a Long, Long Trail. The last song was a particular favorite of President Wilson's, and was written by two seniors at Yale.

*Popular Vocals on Edison Diamond Discs (1912 - 1929)--Selections:

Spoken Word on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929) Overview

The most prominent performer of spoken word recordings on Edison discs was elocutionist Harry E. Humphrey. Featured here are recordings he made of poetry recitations and monologues, including ones by Shakespeare and James Whitcomb Riley. Humphrey also recorded explanatory talks on the opposite side of various opera pieces. (For an example, see the Opera and Concert section.) Edna Baily is featured telling a bedtime story. The inventor of the phonograph, Thomas A. Edison, appears on his only commercial disc recording, urging Americans not to forget our allies in the war that was just fought.

*Spoken Word on Edison Diamond Discs (1912 - 1929)--Selections:

Spoken Comedy on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)—Overview

Ada Jones
Spoken comedy recordings on Edison Diamond Discs featured, for the most part, vaudeville routines, many focusing on ethnic humor. Backyard Conversation Between Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Finnegan, for example, made use of Irish stereotypes and accents for its humor. Cohen on His Honeymoon, made fun of a popular Jewish character featured in a series of comic monologues. While by today's standards, much of the humor is deemed offensive, ethnic humor and stereotypes were a major part of comedy on the vaudeville stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and this is reflected on recordings from the beginning of the industry.

The Edison label also featured rural humor, which focused on small-town or country bumpkins. The Band Festival at Plum Center is a typical example of the genre. Cal Stewart, who brought the character of Uncle Josh to sound recordings, also made a series of comedy monologues for the Edison label as well as for others which focused on "Uncle Josh's" decidely rural and humorous look at modern life and topical events, such as in Uncle Josh Buys an Automobile. The character of Uncle Josh originated in a morality play know as The Old Homestead; Stewart was the understudy for the role.

Occasionally, topical humor would also be recorded, as in Dinnie Donohue, on Prohibition.

Most comedy routines were monologues by popular comics, such as Happy, Tho' Married by Fred Duprez. Duprez, born in Detroit, Michigan, started out on stage at 15. After five years of dramatic work, he began to appear in vaudeville and became famous for his comic monologues.

*Spoken Comedy on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)--Selections:

Foreign Language and Ethnic Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)—Overview

Foreign language and ethnic recordings were represented on Edison Diamond Discs. A cursory glance at the 1928 Edison catalog contains sections for Czechoslovak, Danish and Norwegian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Mexican and Cuban, Swedish, and Ukrainian records. Edison maintained offices worldwide, and therefore had a global market. Also, immigration to the United States was high and extremely visible in New York where many of the recordings were made. Thus, the foreign language and ethnic recordings served a double purpose: they could be sold abroad to foreign audiences or to immigrant groups here in the U.S.

For the immigrant, sound recordings offered a way of maintaining one's culture amidst a larger society, and perhaps offered some solace to those who missed their homelands. The Edison disc phonographs tended to be more expensive than those of the competitors, which meant that the poorer immigrants would be more inclined to buy cheaper ones, such as those made by Victor. Consequently, the Edison foreign language output was not as large as that put out by Victor and others.

Unfortunately, the Edison Diamond Disc collection at the Library of Congress does not contain a large selection of the foreign language and ethnic recordings. Indeed, they are difficult to find anywhere. Therefore, the selections offered here are somewhat limited, but include a liturgical Hebrew recording, two Polish songs, two German songs, a Russian recording, and another in Czecho-Slovak.

*Foreign Language and Ethnic Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912 - 1929)--Selections:

Opera and Concert Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)—Overview

"I shall yet put before the world a phonograph that will render whole operas better than the singers themselves could sing them in a theater...I shall do this by virtue of the fact that with a phonograph I can record the voices better than any person in a theater can hear them."--Thomas Edison, as quoted by Allan L. Benson, "Edison's Dream of New Music," Cosmopolitan 54, no. 5 (May 1913): 797-800.

In the period prior to the development of the Edison Diamond Disc, the Victor Talking Machine Company with its Victrola had managed to acquire a reputation for engaging superior operatic and concert artists, such as Enrico Caruso. In an attempt to compete with Victor's overwhelming advantage in this market, it was decided at Edison that the Diamond Disc should contain concert music to showcase its advantages in comparison to other discs. To the dismay of the other Edison executives, Thomas A. Edison decided to take control personal of the hiring of these artists. In a letter to Thomas Graf, managing director of the Edison phonograph division in Berlin, he stated, "I propose to depend upon the quality of the records and not on the reputation of the singers...I do not intend to pay great sums for exclusive, but prefer to pay good price for say 12 records from their particular repertioire which we will select." (John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith, Edison, Musicians, and the Phonograph: A Century in Retrospect, p. 4) Walter H. Miller, manager of Edison's recording department, wrote in 1911 in a letter to the managing director of phonographs and records in London, "Mr. Edison just now does not seem to think we require any talent with reputation, and until he changes his mind in this matter it seems almost useless to bid for talent." (Harvith, p. 5) Edison listened to records from his own company and those of his competitors to decide what sound he wanted for the Diamond Discs, and what songs to use. Some of his views on music stunned musicians, since he often denigrated popular songs in favor of his favorite "heart" songs. When it came to operatic records, Edison was very opposed to any singer having excessive vibrato or tremolo in his or her voice, even a renowned artist.

Marie Rappold

The Edison label arranged to have "Tone Tests" of the new Diamond Discs where an artist such as Marie Rappold or Anna Case would sing with a phonograph recording of her voice before a large audience. The house lights would be dimmed and only the record or the artist would remain, and the audience would be challenged to detect whether they were listening to the artist or the recording. The objective was to show that there was no discernible difference in quality and that the Edison Diamond Discs were true re-creations of the artists' voices. Critical reaction to these tone tests tended to be positive, as the Diamond Discs were of superior quality to the discs made by competitors.

Ultimately, though, record quality did not cover the fact that Edison did not have an impressive enough cadre of name artists compared to Victor, since the label was disinclined to pay for premium talent. Still, several of the Edison artists were talented and distinguished.

Anna Case, an American soprano, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1909 and remained there until 1919. She performs here a piece from Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula. Included on the reverse side is an explanatory talk delivered by Harry Humphrey which the label sometimes included for operatic pieces.

Maggie Teyte, an English soprano, successful in both Paris and London, sang with the Chicago Opera Co. (1911-14) and the Boston Grand Opera Co. (1915-17). Thomas Edison was initially dismissive of Teyte's talents, feeling that she had too much tremolo. When she adjusted her voice to his demands, he apparently regarded her more highly. She performs a piece from the suite Four Indian Love Lyrics.

Claudia Muzio, an Italian soprano, made her first American appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1916 where she stayed until 1922. She later sang for the Chicago Opera and returned to Italy. She sings here La Mamma Morta from Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, a verismo opera written in 1896 of a melodramatic love triangle during the French Revolution.

Marie Rappold, an English soprano, moved to the United States as a child with her family. She made her opera debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1905 where she stayed until 1920, except for a brief period when she went to Europe. She sings here O Patria Mia from Giuseppe Verdi's grand opera Aida, which was written in 1871. An explanatory talk from the reverse side is also included.

Guido Ciccolini, an Italian tenor, came to the U.S. after the outbreak of World War I, and sang with the Boston Theatre Opera Company, the Chicago Opera Company, as well as on vaudeville stages. Ciccolini here performs two songs: Elégie by Jules Massanet and Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci.

Arthur Middleton, born in Logan, Iowa, joined the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York as a bass-baritone in 1914. He also sang with the Apollo Club in Chicago and the New York Symphony Orchestra, among others. Here he sings from Verdi's Falstaff and Mozart's Don Giovanni. He also sings The Trumpet Shall Sound from Handel's Messiah.

Albert Spalding
Leading Edison artist Albert Spalding gives a violin performance of Caprice Espagnol here. Born in Chicago, Spalding studied violin in Florence and Paris, and made his American debut as a soloist with the New York Symphony Orchestra in 1908. Another violin soloist included here is Mischa Vi—lin performing Pablo de Sarasate's Introduction and Tarentelle.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist and composer, made his first records on the Edison label, including his renowned Prelude in C Sharp Minor. Rachmaninoff left his native Russia after the revolution of 1917 to live in Switzerland until 1935 when he moved to the United States. He made frequent performance tours of the United States and Europe while living in Switzerland. Signing Rachmaninoff to the Edison label was quite a coup for the company which was not known for hiring many famous performers. Thomas A. Edison, though, disliked Rachmaninoff's style which he likened to "pounding," and Rachmaninoff was kept for only ten Edison recordings. Rachmaninoff was subsequently signed by Victor.

*Opera and Concert Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)--Selections:

Religious Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)—Overview

Rev. William H. Morgan

Religious songs were a popular staple of the Edison catalog. In the nineteenth century, the United States witnessed a resurgence of religious fervor through revival meetings and temperance gatherings. The religious selections found on the Edison label, for the most part, reflect these nineteenth-century Protestant leanings, featuring hymns and gospel songs sung at churches and revival meetings. Scripture readings were also occasionally included on the recording before a musical selection.

Other religious selections on the Edison label included classical pieces, such as The Trumpet Shall Sound from Handel's Messiah, which in this presentation are grouped under the Opera and Concert category.

*Religious Recordings on Edison Diamond Discs (1912-1929)--Selections:

*No actual production or release dates are available for these recordings. The date given is the date that coupling orders were prepared by the Music Room Committee. This information is taken from Edison Disc Recordings by Raymond R. Wile. He writes, "Before the 1920s there might be as much as a six month lead in time between matching and eventual issue dates. By 1924 production had been so speeded up that it became unnecessary to utilize that date. Thus from 1924 on, this date means official listing date."

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