The big difference between then and now is that pop music was intended to appeal to almost any member of the family. The industry had yet to stratify to more clearly resemble patterns in publishing.
Digging through a stack of old 78-rpm records can be a reminder that popular music in the 1920s and earlier doesn’t usually age well. These were records eagerly passed on to me from folks anxious to clean out their attics and perhaps guilty about tossing out pieces of family history. By and large, these are not recordings of great songs written by George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. Most featured music from dance and military bands, or unknown singers. Many are long forgotten vaudeville stars performing humorous songs that were part of their act.
In one sense, the short form of pop tunes hasn’t changed much. A song needed to be complete in just a few minutes, and offer an interesting “hook.” But the ditties folks were snapping up for their gramophones during and just after World War I were not quite the odes to teen angst that are still the norm today.
Then, the buyers were mostly adults. Formats were still in flux, but the emerging preference was for the 78-rpm 10-inch disk selling for a little under a dollar (the equivalent of about 30 current US dollars.) It played for about 2 minutes, with two recorded sides for pop music, but only just one side for anything highbrow enough to be recorded on Victor’s Red Label. Think of Enrico Caruso singing a folk song or an early Puccini aria. Aware of the importance of the phonograph, Puccini often planned big arias that were short enough to fit on to one side of a record selling for about five dollars.
The big difference between then and now is that early records of popular music were recorded to appeal to almost any member of the family. Today, music and recording resembles publishing. Every taste and age segment can become a viable audience.
As I’ve noted, most recorded music came from singers–mostly men–working in revues. This partly explains the songs gathered in the random archeology of my accidental collecting. My stack of discards includes, Oh! Those Landlords, along with And He Said Ooo-La-La! Wee Wee and Oh But I Hate to Go Home Alone, or the Sousa band playing the Second Connecticut March, or Bennie Kruger singing The Wild Gang of Mine. Bandleader Paul Whitman recorded constantly with pieces like Song of Songs and Irving Berlin’s then innocently named Lady of the Evening. Victor and Columbia dominated, but many other companies would soon follow. It seems that everyone wanted a gramophone; owning recorded music was becoming a thing.
The earliest of these recordings were made acoustically, without electrical assistance. Wax masters were made by a core group of players huddled around a large horn that condensed the sound onto a vibrating stylus. It etched the sound into the grooves. And like so many waffles, records were then pressed from the master recording into shellac duplicates. Vinyl and electrical recording would come a bit later.
Visitors intrigued to listen to my attic trove on my 1904 Victor gramophone shown above are usually satisfied to only hear just a few bars. Their entertainment value has long faded, in part because most were far removed from their theater settings. A few are still fun to hear, mostly because they remain alive to our times. One of my favorites is Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave, recorded electrically in the 1920s by Irving Aaronson and his Commanders.