Celebrated—what it is, and what it isn’t

At the time Tim Brooks published Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) in 2004, he was aware of three extant cylinders made by the Unique Quartette. First was “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy,” made ca. 1893 for the North American Phonograph Company. Two others were made ca. 1895-96 for an unknown company: “Who Broke the Lock” and “Down on the Old Camp Ground.”

The first two, “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy” and “Who Broke the Lock,” we included on our Grammy-winning companion CD to Tim’s book, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922. The third was far too rough to be included on the set.

Since the 2005 appearance of Lost Sounds two collaborators have unearthed several additional cylinders by the Unique Quartette that date to this 1895-96 period, again made by unknown companies, but very likely by Walcutt and Leeds or the United States Phonograph Company. Five one-of-a-kind recordings by the Unique are heard on Celebrated by the public for the first time.

The version of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” (spelled like the sheet music this time) on this vinyl record is NOT the same one on Lost Sounds. The selection was a popular seller for the group, and they recorded it several times over the course of a few years. In fact, compare the two versions put out by Archeophone, and you will find that the one released now on Celebrated shows the piece at a more developed and satisfying stage.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By the way, has anyone noticed that the composer of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” is Charles Hunn, the same man who composed “I’m the Father of a Little Black Coon”? Hunn was a well-known African American performer who for some time had an act with his brother Ben Hunn. Ben later became a member of the Unique Quartette for a brief period. And, of course, “I’m the Father of a Little Black Coon” was one of the most popular pieces recorded on brown wax by African American banjo player and singer, Charles A. Asbury. As you may gather, all these performers seem to have been part of a tight-knit black entertainment community situated in the metro New York area.

In fact, we think it may be Ben Hunn singing lead on “Who Broke the Lock.” This is the same recording that appears on Lost Sounds. However, here we have been able to do a much better restoration in 2020 than was possible in 2005. And—a real bonus—we have transcribed all the lyrics, so you can follow along.

As for the other four records on Celebrated . . .

“I’se Gwine Back to Dixie” is notable for having a piano accompaniment. This was very unusual for the time, as the Unique and other vocal groups usually sang unaccompanied. “Old Oaken Bucket” was a number usually performed by white quartets, such as the George Gaskin-led Manhassett Quartette, but it entered the repertoire of the Unique in the 1895-96 period. “Jubilee: Down on the Old Camp Ground” is another version besides the one Tim Brooks wrote about, is in superior condition, and includes unique lyrics not on the other cylinder or in the famous recordings by the Dinwiddie Quartet. Finally, “Hot Corn Medley” includes “Old Oaken Bucket,” “Old Simon, the Hot Corn Man,” “Hear dem Bells,” and an unspecified “Yodel in ¾ time.”

Yes, a group yodel. You gotta hear it.

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