Gauging the Popularity of 1890s Recordings, Part 2

Businesses are always in a hurry: they need to know this week, this month, this quarter, this fiscal year—is my product a success? With the mystifying exception of the latest iPhone, this is not a concern for consumers. You’ve been meaning to read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for 30 years but only got around to downloading it on your Kindle last week. You hope to start reading it by Christmas. Or this one:

“What happened to that new fusion restaurant we were going to try out?”
“They closed six months ago.”

Sometimes businesses bend us to their will, sometimes they go bankrupt. In the case of the recording industry, for decades they’ve managed to get us to check out what’s new on a weekly basis, and trade magazines have devised popularity charts to quantify what we like—on a weekly basis. That’s not how it worked in the 1890s.

For most of the first decade of the commercial industry, the record companies had to figure out in a trial-and-error manner what kinds of records the public wanted to hear. After all, there was no roadmap, and music consumption in those days was more active than it is now: a typical household owned a piano or other instrument, and family members learned and played music. Did consumers want to hear the standards they’d played on the piano? Or the latest hits coming off Broadway? Or some kind of music with which they would ordinarily have no contact? The companies tried a smorgasbord to see what would stick.

Today we talk about “catalog” items vs. “new releases.” Back then, everything was a new release. You can’t discount the popularity of a song like “The Old Folks at Home” simply because it was already “an old chestnut”—it’s not like consumers had ever had a chance to buy it before! But there are two problems with our trying to rationalize popularity in the ’90s: first, you can’t tie a title’s success to a specific date; second, you can’t usually tie a title to a specific artist or performance. To understand what the real hits of the ’90s were, we have to realize that the business worked much differently back then. What qualified as a hit was the record that kept selling month after month, years on end—because consumers wanted the song, regardless of whether it was written a month ago or a decade ago, and they didn’t necessarily care who was singing or playing it. And don’t forget, in the era before permanent masters, the talent had to come in and make fresh recordings of titles in demand on a regular basis.

We’ve looked at a lot of collections and a lot of catalogs. And in working on an upcoming release, we’ve found an item that we think has to be considered among the most popular of all songs of the decade. Now, you wouldn’t be able to pin it down to the Number One position for any particular week or month: it sold and sold and sold. Bands did it. Solo vocalists did it. Brass quartettes. Vocal quartettes. It was on every company’s list, right from the start, cylinder companies and disc companies. The title?

“Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep.”

It’s tempting to say that this light devotional number bespoke the pieties of the 19th century, and if it were one of many very popular hymns, we might agree. But in the earliest days, very few hymns were recorded. This one stands almost entirely alone. Does anyone know why this song was so popular?

If there were one song that was popular by one artist pretty much exclusively—well, let’s make it two—they would be “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon,” both by George W. Johnson. He owned those two songs, and early consumers came to recognize his distinctive laugh, and no substitute would do. But again, you can’t say they were #1s for several weeks or months in 1890 or 1891 or whenever. Honestly, they were probably the biggest sellers or very near the top of every month of every year for the entire decade. Johnson had to record the songs thousands of times for every company in existence. The back-breaking work seems so antiquated to us today, yet in a very real way Johnson was the first “personality” on record and thus the first modern artist. People wanted that guy, not just the song.

Sheet music for The Laughing Song

Sheet music for The Laughing Song (Archeophone Records)

Finally, as the decade of the 1890s wore on, a few individual professional recording artists did become in-demand: most notably, George J. Gaskin, Len Spencer, J. W. Myers, and Dan W. Quinn. It didn’t matter to record enthusiasts what they were singing as much as the fact they were singing it. So much bad product flooded the market, and the reputations of these four were some of the very few assurances of quality. They knew what they were doing in front of the horn.

So early on, consumers patronized the song when they listened in the parlor, and later they preferred the highest quality records by the best talent. In the 20th century, they would ask that the two concerns be joined together.

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