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The Old, Weird, Racist America

Archeophone Records specializes in the country's earliest recorded music. That means ragtime, vaudeville hokum, and even "coon songs."



Monarchs of Minstrelsy: Historic Recordings by the Stars of the Minstrel Stage


One day in 1997 Richard Martin was browsing in an Indianapolis record store when he came across a stack of 78s. Out of curiosity he bought one of them, John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March," even though he didn't have a turntable that was equipped to play it--he had to spin it manually to hear the song at the right speed. But it hooked him, and within a week he'd bought a 78 player. Soon after that he was collecting in earnest. "It was this very electric feeling," Martin says. "Like being in a rare books room and someone brings you a book that's 600 years old and they let you open it."

Martin, like a lot of people in their 30s (he's 39), wasn't as fanatical about music as he had been growing up. But after he finished his qualifying exam at Indiana University for a doctorate in American and British 20th-century literature, he was "bored to tears," and collecting old music filled a gap. "I spent lots of time in old barns and falling-down houses all over Indiana and Missouri," he says. "You'd find out that there were people who had caches of these things that hadn't been touched in years, and so you drive 20 miles into the country."

By late 1998 he had the help of Meagan Hennessey, who was also a grad student at Indiana; they married in 2001, and together they own about 4,000 78s and a few hundred wax cylinders. Though they met many collectors like themselves, they noticed that little effort was being made to preserve acoustically recorded music--material dating roughly from 1890 to 1925, when musicians played not through microphones but machines that captured the vibrations of the playing and etched them onto discs or cylinders. So that year they launched Archeophone Records, which has since become the sole CD-reissue label dedicated to popular music of that era. Now based in downstate Urbana, Archeophone boasts a catalog of 34 CDs.

Its latest release, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, collects some of the rarest recordings from the blackface era, emphasizing songs from the first two decades of the 1900s. Both the liner notes and the tracks reveal the various elements of a minstrel show, presenting songs from two of the biggest such groups of the early 20th century, Lew Dockstader's Minstrel Show and Cohan & Harris' Minstrels; there's one Al Jolson tune and several by Billy Murray, one of the most popular singers of the era.

The jewel case has a warning on it--"contains racially derogatory language"--and unquestionably the lyrics are often painful listening. The comedy routines in "Mobile Minstrels" by the Victor Minstrel Company are sick with stereotyped diction and lyrics that drop the word nigger more often and more casually than a 50 Cent record. But many of the tracks are almost as hard to listen to simply because they're sentimental hokum. On "My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon," Manuel Romain employs a quasi-operatic wail on a trifle of a love song--a case study in the fine art of turd polishing.

Still, there's no denying the strength of Billy Murray's voice: his charisma, fierce sense of rhythm, and piercing nasality give a boost to otherwise forgettable songs like George M. Cohan's "Oh, You Coon." Most of the singers are supported by tame, brass-driven arrangements that have all the flexibility of a dead cow, but many of the songs are downright catchy.

Archeophone's first release was 1998's Real Ragtime, a modestly produced CD-R with a booklet printed out from a home computer. But the disc showcased the label's knack for highlighting surprising aspects of old genres. The tracks on Real Ragtime have a wide instrumental range, including solo banjo excursions, orchestral pieces, and songs with vocals, painting a much more detailed picture of a style of music that many people believe starts and ends with Scott Joplin's piano solos. There's an almost jazzy virtuosity to the banjo playing of Vess L. Ossman--it's hard to imagine he wasn't heard by the first bluegrass musicians--while accordionist Chris Chapman sounds like an eastern European trying to find his way in America on his "Cakewalk." The inclusion of tunes by Sousa and Arthur Pryor's brass band illustrates the widespread popularity of the form.

Among the label's most impressive releases are three discs dedicated to Bert Williams, arguably the most important black artist of the vaudeville era. Those CDs have helped restore the reputation of the oft-forgotten singer, who was the first black man to appear on Broadway and the first black man to join the prestigious Ziegfeld Follies. The discs make clear why he was so popular: on "Constantly" (from The Middle Years: 1910-1918) he dips his voice low, doing battle with the slinking trombone and employing the kind of phrasing Louis Armstrong would build on more than a decade later.

Martin and Hennessey's care for the material extends to the booklets, which are filled with detailed liner notes, photographs, sheet music, and other bits of cultural ephemera that place the music in context. The notes to a CD of big-band music by the Benson Orchestra of Chicago, for example, includes a fascinating study of the dance-band scene in Chicago during the early 20s. Bandleader Edgar A. Benson shrewdly controlled the music that was played at many of the city's hotels at the time, and Martin describes the group's rise to success despite civic concerns about the sinful behavior their music might inspire.

"It's not just about making a buck," says Martin. "It's about doing historical research." That can be tough work. Formal scholarship on the era remains scant, and copies of the actual recordings are rare. In some cases only a handful of known copies of a particular release exist, and it can be hard to find one in decent shape. Martin and Hennessey also sometimes struggle to get aficionados to part with their rare and fragile recordings, even temporarily. "There was one guy who had one of the Victors of the Bert Williams set, and from what we heard the record was in perfect shape," Martin says. "He has the worst, I mean worst, sound system: he sent it to us on tape and it was just awful. I finally pleaded with him to send it and I finally convinced him. It ended up being the best-sounding thing on the CD."

In most cases Martin and Hennessey produce the packages themselves, researching and writing the notes, designing the booklets, and engineering the transfers from the original sources, removing surface noise from the tracks with computer software. But the two have also collaborated with scholars for some releases; Martin and Allen G. Debus, a scholar of the early phonograph industry, coauthored the notes for Monarchs of Minstrelsy.

Martin still struggles with the question of whether the racist lyrics on an album like Monarchs of Minstrelsy keep those songs from being great. "I'm probably not going to go on record answering that question," he says. "It's still too thorny. But it does at least raise the question that you have something that's very catchy that you can't get out of your head, and guess what the lyrics are? There's a reason this stuff was popular beyond simply pandering to people's worst inclinations."

Martin declines to discuss sales figures but says that Archeophone has been successful enough to allow him to concentrate on the label full-time since 2003. (Hennessey works full-time as a webmaster at the University of Illinois.) They sell their catalog online ( as well as through a classical-music distributor. Though they haven't met their goal of releasing a new CD every month, they've gotten some impressive media attention--the New York Times and NPR have done features on Archeophone. And Martin says he's sure that discs like last year's two-CD set Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922--some of whose tracks presage the vocal-group sounds of gospel and doo-wop--will ultimately attract an audience. "We've got a lot of old customers, but I think something like Lost Sounds is a transitional product, where we'll get a younger audience--people in their 30s and 40s starting to get interested in the stuff," he says.

That's Archeophone's ultimate goal--to bring the music to the attention of people who aren't musicologists or hard-core collectors. "When I first got interested in the older music, it was all of a piece--I didn't distinguish between 1905 and 1945," Martin says. "It was all a big history book. If you took a kid today who was reasonably intelligent and curious, who had never seen a record, and you showed him the history of recorded music via 78s and cylinders and 45s and LPs, wouldn't he or she go nuts? They'd just dig in."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Wigdahl.

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