Thursday, July 16, 2009

Morbid Fascination

I recently came across the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at UCSB, which is trying to preserve and make digital transfers of late 19th and early 20th century cylinder records. It's one thing to read about Taft or Roosevelt in history books, and quite another to actually hear their voices giving a speech.

Not everything from that era is so noble, however... I find the patently offensive racist recordings morbidly fascinating, in the same way I find my bizarre old book collection morbidly fascinating. Fascinating not because I agree with or even remotely sympathize with their content, but because it's amazing to me that people used to think or behave in such a way, as these attitudes and beliefs were commonplace. We've come a long way in just 100 years, especially if you compare the last 100 years with the prior 1000 years.

One of the more offensive recordings I came across was Collins and Harlan's Bake Dat Chicken Pie. This is a "minstrel" song, meaning that it was sung by white men who were trying to perform with stereotypical black accents and mannerisms.

Collins and Harlan were not exactly south-eastern racists either; Collins was born in Pennsylvania and Harlan in Kansas. This suggests to me that racist attitudes in the early 1900's were far from confined to the south; even if black people were not hated, they were at least thought of as inferior and comic fodder, enough that "Bake Dat Chicken Pie" was a big hit for the comic duo. People of the time didn't think twice about their usage of what we now call "the 'n' word." (Modern day R&B and rap notwithstanding, but I digress.)

Humor from the 1907 can be a bit boggling in 2009 as well. Consider this "joke" from near the end of the aforementioned recording:
Speaking of chicken, an awful funny thing happened to me the other day.
What was that, boy?
I went in the store and bought a dozen eggs, and on one of the eggs was written a lady's name and her address, and underneath it said, "please write."
Did you write?
No, after I opened the egg, I knew by this time that she must be a very old lady.

It took me a few days to figure out why the pair was laughing so hard at their own joke, because our modern context is so far removed from the context in which the joke was told. Egg processing is done on such a massive scale now that it's unthinkable that someone would be hand-packing eggs on her farm for sale in a store, let alone writing her name and address on an egg and requesting a letter. We also have expiration dates on cartons of eggs and industrial refrigeration, such that a store would certainly never stock spoiled eggs. Few of us have ever cracked open an egg to find it already rotten.

(That's the joke, as best I can tell... he opened the egg and found it so rotten that he concluded the lady who left the message must now be very old. It wasn't necessary at the time to explain egg rot.)

For your amusement, a classic moment with a wax cylinder.

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