Charles Asbury’s Top “Hits”

April 1894 New Jersey catalog (Library of Congress)

We said on Monday that maybe by comparing the early catalogs of cylinder companies we can figure out which titles were recorded for certain because they continued getting listed month after month and year after year. A title that appears in a catalog once and then disappears—perhaps that title never actually got made because no clients showed interest in it.

In the case of Charles A. Asbury, whose work we release today on 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897: Foundational Recordings of America’s Iconic Instrument, there were 16 selections by him in the October 1892 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company. That number decreases to nine in early 1894, but all nine were titles included among the 16 from earlier. So these are the “winners.”

Later that year, the United States Phonograph Company (successor to New Jersey) kept the core nine and added five new titles to make 14. Another list from a year later has the same 14. In 1897, Asbury went to work for Columbia, which offered 12 selections by him. The previous core nine are among the dozen on offer. These nine titles lasted in the nascent industry for six years: through two companies (and one reorganization) and from the exhibition and arcade days through to the dawn of vigorous home consumption of records.

What are these “core nine” Asbury titles? “Black Pickaninny,” “Haul the Woodpile Down,” “Court House in the Sky,” “New Coon in Town,” “Going Back to Dixie,” “Colored Band,” “Coon that Carried a Razor,” “Lock on the Chicken Coop Door,” and “I’m the Father of a Little Black Coon.” As you can see, as an African American, Asbury was not spared from having to perform the demeaning “coon” song repertoire so popular in the 1890s. In fact, it was the bulk of his trade.

These nine are the ones to keep an eye out for especially. They have the likeliest chances of being discovered (and, in fact, we already have some leads on a few of these), given that they stayed popular for several years. That’s not to say that others will not be found. For instance, “Keep in de Middle ob de Road,” which we date to 1891 and appears on 4 Banjo Songs, is not in any catalog that we have located. Was it a one-off? A special request? An item that just never took hold?

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