March 19, 2006


How Pop Sounded Before It Popped (JODY ROSEN, 3/19/06, NY times)

FOR a couple of months now my iPod has been stuck on Stella Mayhew's "I'm Looking for Something to Eat." It's a lurching little waltz-time pop tune, drawled over brass-band accompaniment. The lyric is hilarious, the lament of a gal on a diet who can't stop eating, and it climaxes with a glutton's soul cry: "I want some radishes and olives, speckled trout and cantaloupe and cauliflower/ Some mutton broth and deviled crabs and clams and Irish stew." I can't get it out of my head — so far, it's my favorite record of 2006.

As it happens, it's also my favorite record of 1909. It is an Edison Phonograph Company wax cylinder, recorded 97 years ago by Mayhew, a vaudeville star who liked to poke fun at her considerable girth. In certain ways, the song is up to date: the satire on dieting is plenty relevant in the early 21st century, and Mayhew's slurred talk-singing is a bracingly modern sound. But the noisy, weather-beaten recording is unmistakably a product of the acoustic era — the period from about 1890 to the mid-1920's, before the advent of electric recording — when musicians cut records while crammed cheek-by-jowl-by-trombone around phonograph horns in rackety little studios.

Mayhew's record is just one of several thousand cylinders, the first commercially available recordings ever produced, that have recently become available free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection and some spare bandwidth. Last November, the Donald C. Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, introduced the Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project Web site (, a collection of more than 6,000 cylinders converted to downloadable MP3's, WAV files and streaming audio. It's an astonishing trove of sounds: opera arias, comic monologues, marching bands, gospel quartets. Above all, there are the pop tunes churned out by Tin Pan Alley at the turn of the century: ragtime ditties, novelty songs, sentimental ballads and a dizzying range of dialect numbers performed by vaudeville's blackface comedians and other "ethnic impersonators."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 19, 2006 10:33 AM

This looks way cool. I love vintage records.

Posted by: ted welter at March 19, 2006 11:43 AM

Thank you!

I mostly listen to podcasts since they're free (excepting Ricky Gervais now). I'll be sure to download tons of this.

Posted by: RC at March 19, 2006 2:21 PM

Forgive the self promotion, but I use the cylinder site a lot for the podcast my wife & I do. My favorite song there might be "I Love You Just Like Lincoln Loved the Old Red White and Blue." It's a great site.

Posted by: Timothy at March 19, 2006 10:31 PM

Anything before 1926 (or thereabouts?) is free of copyright and will live forever. Everything subsequent will die and never be heard again.

Anyone see something wrong with this picture?

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 20, 2006 4:02 AM

Everything worthwhile was completed by the end of the 19th century anyway.

Posted by: oj at March 20, 2006 8:06 AM

Very, very true, but that sad fact is also (I believe) a result of our misguided notion that ideas and the expression thereof are property.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 20, 2006 8:22 AM