Mystery Banjo Players Identified?

Last week we wondered whether record titles, such as those listed in a ca. 1891 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company, might not all have been actually recorded. Then we traced the offerings of Charles Asbury in New Jersey/U.S. Phono. Co. and Columbia catalogs from 1892 through 1897 to see which of his records were “hits”—cylinders likely to have been made again and again over that six-year period. Let’s revisit that 1891 New Jersey pamphlet.

New Jersey Catalog ca. 1891. (Composite; Library of Congress)

As we noted, the names of artists were not provided. This fact surprises many of us today, as we can’t imagine buying a record just to buy a record. It’s the talent that we’re interested in. But in 1891, the recording business was brand new, and the identities of the performers would have meant nothing to consumers. That would change quickly, as experienced exhibitors and arcade owners came to recognize and seek out cylinders by the best performers for their operations.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with a big gap in our knowledge. But maybe it’s not fatal. Just as we traced the catalog listings forward, we can trace them backwards too.

On pages 13 and 14 of the 1891 New Jersey catalog is a two-pronged list of “Vocal Solos, with Banjo”: 12 under the heading “Comic,” and 13 under the heading “Negro.” Every one of the 13 titles listed here with no artist attached is on the list (and in the same order) by Asbury in the 1892 catalog. Indeed, all but one of the “core nine” selections we spoke of in the last post are already included. It would be reasonable to conclude that Asbury is the artist on all 13 of these, but a couple more facts makes the case even more solid.

First of all, in newspaper advertisements as early as January 1892 for phonograph parlors from around the country, Asbury is found performing the very titles from the list, including four of his “core nine”: “The Coon that Carried a Razor,” “The Court House in the Sky,” “Black Pickaninny,” “High Old Time,” and “Haul the Woodpile Down.” They didn’t have priority mail or FedEx back then, so we can assume that quantities were produced by Asbury for New Jersey in late 1891, at the latest.

Secondly, and here’s the clincher: one of the titles listed under this anonymous “Negro” section is “Never Done Anything Since,” which is one of the selections on our 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897 EP. The song is a comic number, having nothing to do with the “coon” humor of many of Asbury’s other songs. So now get this: “Never Done Anything Since” is a “Negro” selection because it is performed by a black man—not because of the lyrical content of the song.

So, yes, we feel that Asbury is the mystery banjo performer of the “Negro” selections in the 1891 New Jersey catalog. What about the “Comic” banjo song selections? Who performed those?

Two selections under the “Comic” heading—“Lovely Woman” and “Saving It All for Mary”—overlap with the known output of banjoist Al Reeves. The former title is the only listing by Reeves included in a November 1893 North American Phonograph Company catalog, while an extant copy of the latter title is in the Library of Congress collection. It has no company announcement, which makes it a candidate as a New Jersey record (the company did not announce itself on its records). We are aware of yet another Reeves title that exists, “We’ll Never Turn His Picture to the Wall,” which also does not have a company announcement. With any luck we’ll be able to study this record and compare the announcement along with “Saving It All for Mary” and other known New Jersey records to see if a more definitive conclusion can be reached. It is worth noting that the “Comic” designation of banjo songs disappears from the 1892 New Jersey catalog, leaving only Asbury’s work available for purchase. If the “Comic” performer is Al Reeves, as we suspect, this accords with what has been surmised about his recording career to date. He was in and out of the recording business very quickly, making records of only a handful of titles: a few for New Jersey in 1891, fewer for Columbia in 1892, and perhaps only one for North American in 1893. And that’s it for Reeves; after all, he had a popular stage act!

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