Some Thoughts on Charles Asbury’s Race and the Question of Passing

Archeophone’s 4  Banjo Songs, 1891-1897 by African American recording pioneer, Charles A. Asbury, is nominated for Best Album Notes, written by myself (Richard Martin) and Ted Olson. We’re very appreciative for this recognition, but there is a misapprehension floating around out Asbury’s background that needs addressing.

Some reviewers have summed up the notes by saying that there is uncertainty about Asbury’s race, and that I take the position he was black. Let me be perfectly clear: there is no uncertainty. Asbury was a light-skinned African American of Spanish origin. From the records we have found, he lived his entire life as a black man, in the company of other 19th-century blacks, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he ever tried to pass for white.

Charles A. Asbury (left) and Korla Pandit (right)

Left, Charles A. Asbury (Debbie Trice); right, Korla Pandit (Painted Wolf, https://jonmwessel.wordpress.com)

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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.

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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.”

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Records Never Made

New-Jersey-Catalog-1891-1

A ca. 1891 catalog for the New Jersey Phonograph Company (Library of Congress)

Back in March we attended the Society for American Music conference in Kansas City and got to catch up with Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry (both the book and the CD notes). Tim posed the following head-exploding question: Did we believe that all of the titles listed in the early phonograph company catalogs were actually recorded? That is, did a title on a list indicate that the artist had actually made said cylinder, which was then waiting for a hungry buyer, or did it mean that the artist would make the record if demand required it? What about the ones nobody ever requested?

Have we been hunting down records that never existed?

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