HEAR THE SOUNDS!  A Selection of Songs, Sketches, & Recitations

Alan Trachtenberg wrote of the "double-edged tradition" in the Protestant imagination that gave contrasting images of cities to Americans in the Gilded Age.1Images of Vanity Fair with its corruption, commerce, and entertainments opposed to images of a celestial city of God informed American opinions and ideas as the nation experienced the rapid and often turbulent process of urbanization. Cities raised mystery to the "level of spectacle" with "parades of obscurity, of enigma, of silent sphinxes challenging the puzzled citizen" and reformers reacted with collective efforts to reshape the metropolis to the ideals of a "secular Celestial City."2Vaudeville, a primarily urban mass entertainment, used spectacle itself to decipher the mysteries of the city and control urban reality. Theatre owners, like "the father of American Vaudeville" B.F. Keith and his partner Edward F. Albee, strictly maintained order and propiety in their theatres, bringing an atmosphere of refinement and gentility to the entertainments of Vanity Fair.

The rapid pace and broad diversity inherent to a vaudeville show mirrored the lifestyles, tastes, and composition of urban audiences. Caroline Caffin wrote: "[vaudeville] is a very catholic and hospitable entertainment, embracing more forms of amusement than we could enumerate. . ."3The vaudeville stage brought together acts of every description, origin, and style just as cities in the nineteenth-century brought together more people of various backgrounds then ever before. These early sound recordings, primarily recorded for Edison Records' Vaudeville Series in the early twentieth century, present just a small sampling of that diversity. Interestingly, the majority of sketches on this page rely on dialect comedy and ethnic caricature. This type of act formed the bedrock of a great deal of vaudeville comedy, highlighting the form's deep roots in the traditions of blackface minstrelsy. Like minstrelsy, the ethnic caricature presented in vaudeville was a complicated phenomenon that transcends simple interpretations. The vaudeville stage often featured whites in blackface, blacks in blackface, Jews mimicking Italians, Italians impersonating the Irish, the Irish performing as Chinese, New Englanders pretending to be Southern "rubes," and so on and so forthad infinitum.Although critics quickly point out the inherent racism of such skits and maintain they function as assertions of the superiority of the dominant group, the broad base popularity and widespread ethnic participation in this type of comedy points to a far more tangled process. The portrayal of various ethnic groups by performers often praised for the realism in their acts served as an attempt to shed light on the dark mysteries of the city. Residents of cities in the nineteenth century suddenly found themselves surrounded by peoples whose languages, dress, customs, and lifestyles often drastically differed from their own. Spectacular investigations of living conditions for the "other half" filled the daily papers, providing a safe orientation to unfamiliar and "menacing spaces" for a curious public.4Arguably, the ethnic sketches on the vaudeville stage served a similar purpose, allowing performers and audiences alike the opportunity to safely explore their own identities in regard to "the other" through stereotype and pantomime.

New York Blues
Accordion solo
Pietro Frosini, 1917
Edison 50454
"Frosini is considered one of the best accordion players now before the public. His success in vaudeville throughout the United States has been, as they say, terrific.' This selection he wrote himself. He calls it a "classical rag." -Edison Catalogue circa 1927.
Though technically not a blues or a rag, Frosini's piece serves as an example of the wide array of musical styles presented on the vaudeville stage.
Meet me Down at the Corner
Vaudeville Sketch
Ada Jones & Len Spencer, 1907
Edison 9552
Jones and Spencer recorded several sketches for the Edison Company in the early twentieth century featuring short songs and various ethnic dialects. This particular sketch features "Barney" and "Kitty," two Irish lovers. Len Spencer also performs inHickory BillandUncle Josh at the Dentist'savailable on this page.

Hickory Bill

Talking & Banjo
Len Spencer & Fred Van Epps, 1904
Edison 8580
This bit serves as vehicle for Fred Van Epp's virtuoso banjo playing. Spencer portrays Hank and Van Epps fills the title role as Hank's long-lost brother returned from the Civil War. Van Epps plays excerpts fromThe Arkansas Traveler,Dan Emmett'sDixie,and Stephen Foster'sOld Black Joe.The banjo enjoyed a great deal of popularity on the vaudeville stage, often associated with "rube" characters, in minstrel skits, or showcased in instrumental music features.


Dramatic Recitation
Harry E. Humphrey, 1919
Edison 50575-L
Humphrey gives an extremely melodramatic reading of Frank Deprez's poem of western romance. Both western themes and dramatic recitations enjoyed popularity on the vaudeville stage.

The Arkansas Traveler
Descriptive Specialty
Steve Porter & Ernest Hare, 1922
Edison 51010-R
This "rube" sketch dates back to at least 1852 possibly to a Currier & Ives lithograph depicting an encounter between a country fiddler and a "city slicker." The sketch appeared again and again on the variety stage throughout the 19th century and the original wax cylinder recorded by the Edison Company in 1890 was one of the most popular of its type. Steve Porter also appears inThe Model Minstrelspresented here.

The Model Minstrels

Man with guitar


Minstrel Sketch
Steve Porter, Byron G. Harlan,
Arthur Collins & Billy Murray, 1909
Edison 10135
Minstrel shows, an earlier type of variety theater, profoundly influenced the development of vaudeville. Vaudeville retained many features of minstrelsy and blackface performers remained popular fixtures on the variety stage well into the 1930's. This particular recording closely follows the format of other recordings in Edison's minstrel series. The selection's closing chorus,In the Good Old United States, speaks of equality for all, regardless of ethnicity.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Romantic Ballad
Walter Van Brunt, 1913
Edison 50083-L
Tenor Walter Van Brunt sings Ballard McDonald and Harry Carroll's popular song of Old Virginia in the typical overwrought style of the period. Romantic and sentimental songs were a constant on the vaudeville stage.

Hebrew Vaudeville
Julian Rose, 1904
Edison 8383
This selection features Julian Rose delivering a comic monologue impersonating an Eastern European Jewish immigrant. Dialect comedy was a staple of many vaudeville performers and imitations of Jewish people ranked only below African-Americans and the Irish in popularity.
Uncle Josh at the Dentist's
Cal Stewart & Len Spencer, 1909
Edison 10111
Cal Stewart's recorded numerous bits featuring his popular "rube" character, Uncle Josh Weathersby, an old-timer from "Punkin Center". The humor in many of these skits stems from Uncle Josh's experiences navigating urban New York. This particular sketch features Len Spencer as the dentist. In his search for the "tooth carpenter," Uncle Josh is introduced to the drill, gas, and other wonders of modern dentistry.
Street Piano Medley
Street Scene
August Molinari & Billy Murray, 1907
Edison 9615
Street pianos were small barrel pianos played by turning a crank on the side. Around the turn of the century, stereotypically Italian immigrants often played music on these street pianos or barrel organs and passed the hat. Although August Molinari was of Italian descent, vaudevillian Billy Murray provides the voices in the scene.