Pioneer at Work

As one of the few blogs on the Internet that’s ever written about the Pioneer Era of recording (pre-1920), I feel obligated to point you to a St. Patrick’s Day post at Salon’s Audiofile featuring “Irish Wit,” a bit of vaudeville from 1910 starring Billy Murray and Steve Porter.

By any reasonable method of accounting, Murray is probably the third- or fourth-biggest recording star of the 20th century, in the company of Bing Crosby, Elvis, and the Beatles. According to chart guru Joel Whitburn, Murray charted 169 different records under his own name between 1903 and 1927. He charted another 44 with Ada Jones (herself the biggest female recording star of the Pioneer Era) and appeared on dozens of recordings with several enormously popular groups: the Haydn Quartet, American Quartet, and Heidelberg Quintet. He was, as Whitburn observes, “the official interpreter of George M. Cohan,” the author of such American standards as “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “The Grand Old Rag,” better known today as “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” all of which Murray took to Number One, at least by Whitburn’s retroactive accounting. Other Murray monsters released under his own name included versions of “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” (inspired by the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair), “Come Take a Trip in My Air-Ship” and “In My Merry Oldsmobile” (both recorded in 1905, when such technological marvels were brand new), and the largest-selling version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908). I don’t think it’s true anymore, but during much of the 20th Century, any American even semi-literate musically would have known most of these tunes. They once seemed as much a part of the landscape as the weather, and it was as if they’d always existed. But once, they were new, they were hits—and Billy Murray was the one who delivered them to large numbers of American listeners.

Steve Porter started as a vaudeville comedian who first came up in the 1890s. His most famous song was “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” recorded in 1900. (The only reason I know it is because a snippet of it was once sung by Tweety Bird in a Warner Brothers cartoon I saw as a kid. See, it’s not just classical music knowledge that our generation gets mostly from Bugs Bunny cartoons.) Later in his career, he scored several hits doing an Irish character named Flanagan. (“Irish Wit” is from this period. Porter has the deeper voice; Murray’s is higher.)

As fashion nearly always does, fashion passed Murray and Porter by after a while. Porter was a relative rage only between 1898 and 1900—a handful of hits followed, including the “Flanagan” records, the last one coming in 1910. He died in 1946 at age 81. After scoring 14 Number One hits between 1903 and 1910, Murray would notch only three more in the next 17 years, although he continued to rack up the hits fairly steadily until 1927 without reaching the top again. He died in 1954 at age 77.

“Irish Wit” isn’t an especially funny record to our ears, as Salon’s David Marchese indicates, but it’s worth a listen anyhow. Once, Billy Murray was an artist who could move product like nobody else in the industry. If you’ve ever hurried to a record store to pick up a new release by a hot artist, or eagerly downloaded something to see what it sounded like, you’re only engaging in the modern incarnation of a practice that’s been going on for a very long time.

(To hear more Murray, Murray with Jones, Jones by herself, Porter, and literally everybody who was anybody during the Pioneer Era, visit UC-Santa Barbara’s astounding Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Its mission, to preserve and disseminate the largely ignored music of the Pioneer Era, makes it more worthwhile than about 98 percent of the sites on the Internet. Including mine, for sure.)

(This post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)

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