Cover Story

July 8, 2007

There Once Was a Record of Smut ...


IN 1997 Bruce Young, a collector of memorabilia from the early phonograph era, placed a newly acquired 100-year-old wax cylinder record on his Edison Standard Model D player and heard a surprising sound: a young man saying filthy words. It was a 2 minute 25 second poetic recitation, suggestively titled "The Virtues of Raw Oysters," written in the voice of a sexually voracious woman. "I never had it but twice in my life/Make me, just for tonight, your dear little wife," went one of the few lines suitable for newspaper quotation on a recording laced with curse words and hair-raising sexual slang.

"My wife and I just stared at each other in disbelief," Mr. Young said, recalling that first listening session. "We were just amazed that that kind of language - what you think of as very naughty late-20th-century schoolyard talk - would exist in the 1800s." Mr. Young realized that he had stumbled on one of the earliest examples of audio indecency: a 19th-century record worthy of a parental advisory sticker.

Today it has one. "The Virtues of Raw Oysters" is one of 43 profane monologues, skits and other spoken-word curios on "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s," the newest release from Archeophone, a small label devoted to early sound recordings.

Archeophone Records

Classic ditties, dirty jokes: The phonograph was an outlet for both in the 1890s. Some of the lewd material is part of a new collection.

The album provides a new vantage point on sound recording history and offers some contemporary lessons as well. The zeal with which phonograph pioneers took to indecent material is a reminder that, from the Victrola to the Internet, smut peddlers have always been among the earliest and savviest adapters of new technologies.

These days there is a seemingly permanent culture war over pop profanity. Episodes like the recent controversies surrounding offensive speech by shock jocks and rappers are invariably viewed as evidence of America's moral decline. But "Actionable Offenses" shows that the good old days were not all that squeaky clean: that the brash, bawdy forebears of Don Imus and Snoop Dogg flourished in an age of horseless carriages and whalebone corsets.

The past several years have seen a burst of scholarly interest in the music of the so-called acoustic era: the rags and minstrel songs, parlor ballads and opera arias, novelty tunes and vaudeville comedy ditties that companies like Edison and Columbia pressed onto wax cylinders and 78 r.p.m. discs in the years before the advent of electric recording. But until now few people were aware that the story of the record business's 19th-century origins was told, in part, in four-letter words.

"Actionable Offenses" features several other pieces donated to Archeophone by Mr. Young, starring the same anonymous narrator of "The Virtues of Raw Oysters," almost certainly a hobbyist who made the recordings at home. And it includes a dozen commercially released cylinder records, which mix coarse language and sexual farce with topical references to Grover Cleveland and the Spanish-American War.

"We have long thought of the phonograph as something that simply reproduced music," said Patrick Feaster, a historian and co-author of the "Actionable Offenses" liner notes. "But early uses of the phonograph were incredibly experimental. People were trying pretty much everything, trying to figure out what they could put on these recordings to make a buck, everything from hymns and prayers at one extreme to obscenity on the other end."

And occasionally a bit of both. "Actionable Offenses" includes a version of "I Sit Here Thinking, Will, of You," a staple of 19th-century anthologies of bawdy verse that tells of a church parishioner's deflowering in "Deacon Foster's pew." That poem is recited by the home-recording artist, with the barely contained glee of a man who knows he's making mischief.

Prankster he may have been, but he performed a valuable service, leaving behind the earliest oral renditions of texts well known to folklorists. His repertory includes "He'll Win in a Walk, B'Jesus," a scatological ballad about a day at the horse track; several dirty variations on "Mary Had a Little Lamb"; and off-color limericks like the one that begins "There was a young lady from Alaska." (Let's just say the punch line involves John Jacob Astor.)

The recordings from Mr. Young's collection are charmingly rough, and not just because of a century's worth of accumulated crackle and hiss. They are audibly the work of an amateur experimenting with a new machine. The other dozen cylinder records on "Actionable Offenses" are a good deal more polished. Made in professional studios and commercially released sometime at the tail end of the 19th century, the cylinders languished unheard for at least 50 years in the vaults of the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J., one of the world's largest repositories of early recordings.

The cylinders were packed away in a box with a handwritten tag attached: "Not for mixed company." Other jottings identified the performers as Cal Stewart, Russell Hunting and James White, three of the best-known turn-of-the-century recording artists, famous for their humorous monologues and ethnic dialect comedy.

The routines on "Actionable Offenses" are striking for their similarity to the period's straight comedy records; they are blue burlesques of the performers' signature acts. Stewart earned wide fame for his character Uncle Josh Weathersby, a bumbling rube from the fictional backwater of Punkin Centre, Vt. "Actionable Offenses" includes "Learning a City Gal How to Milk," in which Mr. Stewart voices the parts of two farmers marveling at a city girl's cow-milking prowess and speculating on her related skills in the amorous arts.

Both Hunting and White specialized in Irish dialect routines, and they can be heard on several tracks, reeling off ribaldries in exaggerated brogues. The most brazenly pornographic record on the CD is White's "Dennis Reilly at Maggie Murphy's Home After Nine O'Clock," three-plus minutes of simulated intercourse, complete with comically dirty banter, cries of ecstasy and squeaking bedsprings.

Tintype from The Giovannoni Collection

Think of it as an 1890s jukebox: An early phonograph allows listeners to hear cylinder recordings via headphones.

Record companies were discreet about such material, issuing the cylinders pseudonymously (Hunting's aliases included Manly Tempest and Willy Fathand) and marketing them to saloons, amusement arcades and other gathering places with nickel-in-the-slot phonographs. But the recordings did not go unnoticed by guardians of public morality. Journalists railed against "the abuse of a great invention." Soon Anthony Comstock, the crusading founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was on the trail of indecent cylinders, chasing down distributors and even performers. On June 24, 1896, one of Comstock's detectives came to Hunting's Manhattan home, posing as a fancier of naughty songs. Hunting custom-recorded two cylinders for his visitor, was promptly arrested and was sentenced to three months in prison for violating obscenity ordinances that normally governed written literature and visual images.

In 1899 a new law was enacted, promising stiff fines and lengthy prison terms specifically for purveyors of phonographic profanity. The scarcity of the recordings today is in part explained by the chilling effect of this legal crusade. "People went to jail for making these cylinders," said David Giovannoni, the co-producer of "Actionable Offenses." "These are the artifacts that caused the law to change."

The album's liner notes include a photograph of Comstock glowering above a mutton-chop mustache, the very picture of Victorian rectitude. But the CD debunks the cliché of Victorian America's pervasive primness. You won't hear a smuttier record this year than "The Whores Union," an extravagantly detailed menu of brothel services ("All night, with use of towel and rosewater: $5"), bellowed by Hunting in the voice of a prostitutes' union president.

Ribaldry may even have surfaced in that sanctum of audio science, the Edison workshop. Thomas Edison claimed that the first words he ever recorded, in 1877, were "Mary Had a Little Lamb." But conflicting accounts have Edison and his assistants shouting "Mad dog" into the machine, then running it backwards to hear the phrase "God damn." And others have claimed that far more colorful language flew around Edison's all-male laboratory and wound up on those earliest recordings. It's known that Edison's rival, Alexander Graham Bell, proposed developing a "swearing top," a spinning toy that would blare curse words. Beneath their funny hats and furrowed brows, it seems, our Victorian cousins had minds as dirty as ours.

But "Actionable Offenses" offers something besides history lessons: laughs. Once you get past the records' shock and novelty value - and acclimate your ears to the primitive sound - you'll hear some very funny stuff. Stewart and Hunting were terrific joke tellers and raconteurs, bringing years of trial-by-fire training in vaudeville to the creation of a comedic art in a new medium. It's hard to resist routines like Mr. Hunting's "Gimlet's Soliloquy," a gonorrhea-theme riff on Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech, delivered in a mock-aristocratic British accent full of lustily rolled r's. The best jokes on "Actionable Offenses" still kill.

The most haunting voice, though, belongs to that nameless amateur whose home recordings Mr. Young unearthed a decade ago. It's an odd experience, listening to a record that was in all likelihood made for private delectation; you feel at times that you're invading someone's privacy. Then again, maybe the guy had heard the cylinders of Stewart, or ones like them, and figured his filthy routines were as funny as the pros.

Would he really have bothered to preserve his act if he didn't want someone to hear it? More than 100 years after uttering the unspeakable into a phonograph horn, he has his audience: a 19th-century potty mouth, with jokes to scald 21st-century ears.