Friday, August 12, 2016

The NRR Project #18: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company’

Cal Stewart as Uncle Josh.
'Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company'
Cal Stewart
America started off with barnyard humor, ‘cause that’s about all there was at the beginning – both as subject and stage. Americans were farmers principally for generations, and the minute port towns began to grow into cities, the classic division and mutual suspicion between country and city folk, long documented in human history, spring up here as well.

“Rubes” were figures of fun, and often were possessed in their native habitat with what used to be termed “foxiness” – the capability of outwitting the city slicker. Here lie the reputations of the “sharp” Yankee peddler and his battles of wit with his peasant customers, and the archetypal “Brother Jonathan” of New England.

An epitome of this tradition is Cal Stewart (1856-1919), who worked a prolific and widely loved hybrid of standup comic and village sage, Uncle Josh Weathersby, an inhabitant of the imaginary Punkin Center, a hamlet located somewhere in the then-wilds of New England. In countless stage performances and more than 100 recordings, the latter on cylinder and disc between 1897 and 1919, Stewart honed his jovial, skeptic, gentle, wisecracking persona.

He stole it from someone else. Denman Thompson wrote a sketch for vaudeville in the character of Joshua Whitcomb, a “hayseed” who goes to the big city. He first performed it in Pittsburg in 1875, and later developed it into a popular four-act play, “The Old Homestead.” Read RandyMcNutt’s marvelous essay, which accompanies the NRR listing, right here for complete details. Stewart evidently lifted the concept and adapted it to his own purposes, creating a whittling, tobacco-chewing, cracker-barrel wit that made him a major draw for decades.

It was a style most humorists of the time were using. Whether termed rural humor or dialect humor or ethnic humor, people such as Washington Irving, Mark Twain, “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne); “Petroleum V. Naseby” (David Ross Locke), and Bret Harte all practiced in this vein. Most of it, Twain aside, is not that funny now, but this was the gut-bustin’, knee-slappin’ kind of stuff that made Lincoln delay Cabinet meetings.

Stewart’s Uncle Josh represents common values – he is an advocate of plain horse sense, an enemy of pretension, and a scoffer at anything new-fangled. He functions in the Bergsonian sense of humor as a social corrective. His humor reinforces the status quo, and articulates what the attitude of the “normal” person inside it should be. And in truth, at the time who could make a living creating transgressive comedy, something no family would buy and play in their home?

Stewart has many descendants. Will Rogers, Charley Weaver, Lum and Abner, Minnie Pearl, Judy Canova, Parker Fennelly’s “Titus Moody” radio character, the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movie series, Jerry Clower, the antics of CBS’s 1960’s-era rural comedy shows, TV’s syndicated “Hee Haw,” Jeff Foxworthy, Garrison Keillor, and many more take up the Western/Southern/”hillbilly”/Far North axis of American rural comedy history.

Here Stewart recycles the old “barrel of bricks” routine, which has been traced by Snopes back to at least 1895. In it, a man hoisting bricks in a barrel gets hurt about five different ways. Here’s the routine:

In keeping with his persona, Uncle Josh frames it with another joke about the expense, impractability, and unreliability of an insurance company. He’s a master storyteller, and he stands equidistantly between Twain and Keillor as a brilliant practitioner of extemporaneous comedy, something developed roughly and varied in each telling. Uncle Josh’s soliloquies rises above mere satire by poking as much fun at himself as at anyone else.

Whether or not you find his signature chuckle ingratiating or not, listeners will find its homey gags and platitudes a familiar template.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The NRR Project #17: Canzone del Porter from ‘Martha’ (1903)

Edouard de Reszke
In 1903, a cultural arms race was on. The Victor and Columbia recording companies were battling it out for a dominant share of the “high-end” record market. At the height of the enthronement of Western culture as a beaux ideal, opera was considered the most prestigious of the arts. Its combination of music and drama was seen as the ultimate synthesis of forms, and opera singers were globally-known celebrities in a manner not seen again until the days of Pavarotti.

This recording was part of a set of releases by seven Metropolitan Opera stars – Suzanne Adams, Antonio Scotti, Giuseppe Campanari, Charles Gilbert, Marcella Sembrich, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and Edouard de Reszke. The Victor company had sent its representative to Europe to obtain recordings by continental opera stars. Columbia beat them to the punch by commissioning recordings in New York. The singers were well paid, and the discs were correspondingly more expensive. Avid listeners shelled out $2 a disc, twice what the going rate was for a record in 1903, and the equivalent of more than $50 today.

De Reszke was a bass from Warsaw; his strong singing and acting skills propelled him through an illustrious three-decade career (he often sang with his brother, the equally talented and noted tenor Jean). He sings this aria from Act III of the once-popular romantic/comic opera “Martha” by Friedrich von Flotow, which premiered in 1844. The bass plays the hero’s best friend, and gets to implement a little comic relief here and there. It’s a drinking song, rendered here in Italian, as many German and French operas of the 19th century found themselves translated into Italian for the convenience of the predominantly Italian-trained singers.

Though Columbia won the battle, Victor won the war. Under its Red Seal label, most of the first half of the century’s great artists would choose to record for them – starting with its superstar, Enrico Caruso. Caruso would make “Martha” a huge hit for the Met in 1906, and very familiar Flotow melodies such as “Ach, so fromm” and “the Last Rose of Summer” would become familiar cultural staples of the period.

As an aesthetic record, it’s lacking. The same year de Reszke recorded his three sides, of which “Canzone” is his best effort, he retired from singing. His breath support is wobbly, his tone is flat. Only his phrasing and trills remain to remind us of what he must have sound like at the peak of his career.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Agent.'

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...