Wednesday, February 03, 2010

1914 mandolin club 78 is over-the-top amazing

I managed to get two decent label shots out of several--I chose this because it's closer to the label's actual color. It's aqua, but it refuses to come out that way. But this is not important. (Note: Improved hue courtesy of Bob, who tweaked things much closer to the actual color.)

What is important is the incredible performance we're about to hear--a two-selection medley by the Williams College Mandolin Club, 1914. The second strain, taken from Sousa's Corcoran Cadets March, breaks loose into plantation-orchestra territory, with a busy drum backing and (I swear) at least one banjo in the mix. I eagerly await listener feedback, since it's often hard to tell exactly what instrumental line-up you're hearing on an acoustical recording, especially one as casually recorded as this.

"Purely African-American," I decided on my first listen. Sure enough, though the Williams College Mandolin Club was very likely without a black participant, what we're hearing here seems to be imitation-African-American, as black mandolin clubs are described in Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895.

An initial check suggests that discs like this are rare as hen's teeth. Mandolins show up a lot on 78, but not mandolin clubs. This specific type of string band, from the looks of it, was way under-documented.

This 78 was included for free with an eBay purchase--the dealer figured I'd like it. I like it.

Oh, and dig the talking at the close of the disc--the last three words almost sound like "...carry the backbeat," though I doubt I'm hearing it correctly. Needless to say, the chatter was unintentional.

To the amazing music: The Royal Purple--Come Fill Your Glasses--Williams College Mandolin Club, 1914.



Anonymous said...

Thanks...that's my kinda music!


Unknown said...

Thinking Sousa and George M Cohan, it sounds very true to the era, when staccato and sharply punctuated music was all the rage for dancing and listening. Pretty interesting stuff for the technology - it's surprising that the strings are as sharply defined as they are. Never heard of a mandolin group, then or now!

Bill from Illinois said...

Hi Lee -- This is indeed a good one, and intriguing too. What a lucky find -- thanks a lot for sharing it! I'm especially pleased to have it because I'm an alum of Williams myself! Unfortunately, that doesn't give me any additional insight into the questions you asked. I just did a very quick search and found reference to a Williams mandolin club (and also a banjo club) as far back as 1894. There was also reference in the NYTimes in 1912 to a mandolin club from Cornell. And curiously, a banjo club was again mentioned in the same sentence. Which makes me wonder: was there a college fad around the turn of the century for musical groups imitating African American idioms? I don't know about Cornell, but Williams did have a few black students back then -- but only a very few. So it seems extremely likely, as you said, that these were all-white ensembles. But I'd love to hear if you or anyone else finds anything to the contrary.

Again, thanks!

Lee Hartsfeld said...


Mine, too!


It's unusually fast and (what's the word?) vibrant for the day. It doesn't have a mainstream sound. I wish the disc (which is in decent shape) wasn't so noisy, but it's partly the technology combined with the lack of high freqs in the instrumental combination. There's nothing to compete with the hiss (though I just managed to make a better file).

Bill from Illinois,

Yes, mandolin clubs and orch.'s were a major trend on and off campus. To what extent they were an imitation of African American styles, I don't know--a lot, I suspect, given that blacks made the massed-mandolin genre their own circa 1900. I just know that, in this particular instance, the sound is highly African American, and I can picture white college kids of the day doing a lot of these kinds of selections, as in, ragtime-inflected Sousa. (Some of his stuff was pretty syncopated to begin with....)

What I need are concert programs and other such documentation. I want to write Williams and ask if they have any archival data on their group, but I couldn't find a useful link at their site. I may have to resort to snail mail.

Anonymous said...

Lee, I'd for sure be interested in what you find out! Not only is my dad a Williams alum also, but my great-great-grandfather was a well-known blackface minstrel (based in Boston, but he toured nationally), just before the Civil War. So I've got a lot of white-blacking-up in my family already. If you feel like dropping me a separate line about it, you could at and I'd be very much obliged! My dad is still living (he's 90) and I think he'll get a kick out of the Mando Club!

John Tenney in California