“Nobody” as Trailblazing Comedy

Black History Month got off to a good start for lovers of acoustic sound when Vulture named “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” this week. There in pole position was “Nobody” by Bert Williams from 1906. The compilers note that they weren’t looking for “one-liners” necessarily, as much as for “a discrete moment of comedy.” They contend that Bert’s performance of “Nobody” gains its power from the tension between its upbeat musicality and its mournful lyrics. It seems a stretch to call the music “upbeat”—it’s fairly doleful throughout—but we’ll grant that the chorus has a certain whimsical flavor that adds irony to Bert’s lament. Of course, the biggest musical joke in the piece lies in the trombone swoops that imitate human wailing.

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

Vulture got it right by saying it’s the self-deprecation of the unfortunate loser that makes “Nobody” so funny. The fact that a black man would give comedic voice to his trials and tribulations, the indignities and put-upons suffered at the hands of others really was revolutionary. Williams was the highest paid African American (well, Caribbean by birth, actually) in show business and had more leeway in what he did on stage than others who looked like him. When he spoke-sang the words of “Nobody”—when he made those irresistible mugging faces and did his shuffling dance—he worked his way with laughter into the hearts of white Americans who may not have thought much about social equality. Lots of other people recorded the song—from Arthur Collins to Johnny Cash—and those versions aren’t as funny as Bert’s.

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A Trip to Ocean Grove

Back over the July 4th holiday, we found ourselves with friends Mike and Carolyn at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where, every August for nearly 150 years, Methodists have held the largest annual camp meeting of probably anywhere in the world. By the late 1860s, the old-style exuberant camp meetings staged out on the American frontier had largely died out of favor, but the Methodists held on. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association formed in December 1869 and carved out a large tract of land right along the ocean, next to Asbury Park, to be a permanent destination spot for evangelicals and their families to spend a wholesome summer vacation and to renew their conversion commitment. Some felt that God had ordained the land for this purpose, as it was just about the only place on the Jersey shore curiously devoid of mosquitoes.

Meagan, Rich, and Mike walking towards the auditorium at Ocean Grove. The large houses at the left and right are a mix of residences and guest lodging.

Meagan, Rich, and Mike walking towards the Auditorium at Ocean Grove. The large houses at the left and right are a mix of residences and guest lodging.

“God’s square mile” they called it—or an earthly “Beulah Land,” like the hymn that was written there in 1875. And it is indeed a remarkable place. Having seen old pictures of the grounds, we had an idea of what to expect, but we were amazed by how little seems to have changed—and not in that way that some places never change because nobody cares. Ocean Grove looks the same, if not better, because it is still a living, breathing town, hosting events, full of vacationers and sight-seers. The houses, hotels, and association buildings—many of them original—are bright and clean and well-kept. People are sitting out on their porches reading or having conversations, never too busy to say “hello” to passers-by.

The tends as depicted in a 1904 postcard.

The tents as depicted in a 1904 postcard.

A view of the tents today.

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Thomas Lambert, Man of Mystery

This photo of Thomas Lambert accompanied his Freemasons obituary

As we mentioned in an earlier post, we are preparing a compilation of the earliest known Yiddish cylinders called Attractive Hebrews. Along with our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, we’ve been trying to find more information about Thomas Lambert, namesake of the Lambert Record Company, which made the records in the early years of the 20th century.

Everyone who knows anything about the Lambert brand knows about the Yiddish cylinders, although few have seen or heard one. We were hoping to find references to them in newspapers or magazines. No luck yet.

But what we have found sheds new light on the inventor, “Tom” Lambert. The biography we printed in our CD, The Pink Lambert, still appears correct, but now we’ve got some documents that help us understand Lambert’s later career and a good deal about his personality.

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Play that Barber-Shop Ad

There’s a new commercial for DIRECTV starring Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Denver Broncos. As with other ads in the series, we have two versions of the star—Manning in this case: one is a suave, well-adjusted customer of DIRECTV; the other is a pathetic version of himself who is a cable customer. In this new ad, the pathetic Manning’s defining characteristic is his freakishly high voice. Instead of being able to watch all the NFL games on his mobile device like DIRECTV Peyton, really-high-voice Peyton sings with the Four Tunesmen—a barbershop quartet, appearing complete with Shakey’s uniforms. We get to hear them sing “The Camptown Races.” Well, that got our attention.

Countertenor Will Oakland, one of two male pioneer recording stars with naturally very high voices. (Archeophone Records Collection)

Countertenor Will Oakland, one of two male pioneer recording stars with naturally very high voices. (Archeophone Records Collection)

We looked around to gauge the “buzz” on the ad and found a Fox program that seemed to be having a lot of fun with it, heaping on mock indignation about the slight against barbershop quartets. They even interviewed a barbershop expert who tried to look serious as he condemned the ad for erroneously having Peyton, in the job of first tenor, carry the melody. Now, we’re not aficionados of the genre—we just love our American, Peerless, and Haydn Quartets—but yes, the second tenor would usually be the one carrying the melody in most of the arrangements. That means second tenors Billy Murray, Henry Burr, and Harry Macdonough of the American, Peerless, and Haydn, respectively—instead of first tenors John Bieling, Albert Campbell, and John Bieling (he was in demand).

But that wasn’t always the case with all quartets. The most notable example we can think of would be the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. Director John Work II was the group’s first tenor on the records made between 1909 and 1916 for Victor, Edison, Columbia, and Starr, and he sings lead on a number of the arrangements. It is indeed a very odd thing to hear at first. Once you get used to it, of course, these songs have a beautiful, disarming quality.

The commercial really plays up the high speaking voice of Peyton. Some first tenors have higher-pitched speaking voices, but they are not usually so comically high-pitched (in fact, these days a lot of the first tenors are just regular tenors or even baritones who are faking it with falsetto). We wondered whether the ad-maker were really suggesting Peyton was a counter-tenor—that is, a male voice in the range of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano. The most famous counter-tenors of the early recording period were Richard Jose and Will Oakland. If you’ve never heard these two, they’re something else.

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Smith Arrives!

It’s new-release Friday and the beginning of Archeophone’s Fall Sale. Be sure to pick up your copy of our new double-CD set, Songs of the Night by Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra, and grab those other items you’ve been eyeing. Everything is at least ten percent off.

For today’s blog, let’s celebrate by taking a good look at Smith’s band—literally. Admittedly, the print size of a standard CD-sized booklet means we can’t always print album art as big as we’d like. So we thought it would be nice to blow up the size of some Smith catalog pictures for you to examine.

Here’s the first time Smith’s band was pictured in a record-company catalog supplement, from Victor’s June 1917 “New Victor Records.” The studio lineup at this time consisted of two violins, cello, string bass, bass clarinet, cornet, trombone, piano, and traps—but we see no bass clarinet here, suggesting it was added only for recording purposes. The string bass provided a lovely foundation for the music, but it did not record especially well, so the bass clarinet was used to help out. Smith stands in the middle, holding his violin and bow. That’s probably Hugo Frey at the piano. (click photos to enlarge)

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Thoughts on Labor Day

Here’s a treat for your Labor Day weekend enjoyment: “Everybody Works but Father,” by Bob Roberts on Edison 9100, released in October 1905. The Edison Phonograph Monthly had this to say about the number:

No. 9100, “Everybody Works but Father,” by Bob Roberts, is now being sung by Lew Dockstader in performances by his minstrel organization. This is one of the biggest hits that Mr. Dockstader has had. in years, being repeatedly encored wherever he sings It. The song humorously tells how the various members of the family work with the exception of father, who sits on the front porch all day. Mr. Roberts’s unusually clear articulation makes every word clearly understood. The Record will be found one of his best efforts and will b: one of the best sellers on the October list. Mr. Roberts is accompanied by the orchestra. “Everybody Works but Father” was written by Helf and Hager.

A favorite with record collectors, Cincinnati-born Bob Roberts (1871-1930) was a comic singer very much in demand about the time he recorded this cylinder. Victor, Columbia, Edison, and others all sought his services in the 1903-07 range, after which his output fell off sharply. Roberts recorded a lot of “coon” songs and other humorous selections, often the same material that Billy Murray was singing. In fact, Roberts famously took Murray aside when the latter was starting out, warning him not to muscle in on his territory.
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Crowdsourcing: Name This Hymn

We need your help identifying the sound from a home recording made, we believe, over a hundred years ago. This test is quite distinct from the one we proffered in The Big Sleuth, where we knew the contents of the cylinder’s audio that is drowning in a sea of noise but wanted to see if you could figure it out. On this one, the sound is crystal clear, but we have no idea what the song is that’s being sung. We aren’t even sure it’s in English.

It’s a brown-wax concert cylinder (the large, 5-inch diameter type), which means it can’t be any earlier than 1898. Based on the group of cylinders it was found with, we believe it is a recording by the Rittersville Church Choir, from Rittersville (now incorporated into Allentown), Pennsylvania. In any case, it’s definitely a chorale of multiple mixed voices, and we know it’s a sacred selection because the one word that can clearly be made out is the double “Amen” sung at the end.

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