Here are some recordings to remind you of a time when "pandemic" did not equate to "social distancing" and "self-quarantine" and "stay at home order"--with disastrous results. The so-called "Spanish influenza" first made itself known in January 1918, three and a half years into the hellish conflagration that was World War I, at a time when contagion and the properties of microorganisms were not well understood and when dubious sanitation combined with massive international movements of combatants and non-combatants alike ensured it would quickly spread to all corners of the globe. By the time it subsided, the Spanish flu had infected about a third of the world's population, and its fatalities exceeded those from all the battles fought in the trenches. Oh, and here's a cheerful thought: the end date for that pandemic came a good two years after it began. Hunker down, folks--we're in this for the long haul.
World War I was Hell on earth in ways by no means limited to the influenza pandemic, but it did spawn some rousing good songs. Herewith, as we wrestle with our own viral onslaught, a medley from the era of that earlier pandemic for your entertainment. It ends with remarks by one of the great men of the age. All are from contemporary records played on contemporary machines. A few words about each:
"Over There," by George M. Cohan, perhaps the war's iconic song in the United States. The singer, Enrico Caruso, needs no introduction; his name remains pretty much synonymous with "operatic tenor" nearly a century after his death. Collectors have always loved his heavily accented English here as he "does his bit" to boost US morale and patriotism. I don't speak French, but I'm guessing his in the second verse is just as Italianate as his English in the first--at least, I don't recall hearing Francophone singers rolling their "rs quite as enthusiastically! We hear him on a Victor V (i.e., Roman numeral 5) with oak speartip horn probably dating to around the beginning of the war or maybe a little before. This model was in production from 1903 through 1920, at first with an elaborately decorated cabinet that Victor greatly simplified in 1906. Mine is of this latter type. It sports a Victor Exhibition model reproducer, the standard type for Victor machines from 1906 until introduction of the larger Victrola no. 2 model in 1917. Playback, as with all Victor machines, was with interchangeable needles, usually steel. Propulsion was by a powerful three-spring motor, and the turntable was 12" in diameter, corresponding to the 12" records first introduced concurrently with the machine. In everything except cabinet decoration, this machine was Victor's top open-horn model for the home.
"It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," usually credited to Jack Judge (but definitely written at least in partnership with Henry James "Harry" Williams). What the first song was in the United States, the Tipperary ditty was to soldiers of the British empire and later to Americans once they got "over there." The singer is Albert Farrington, about whom I have located little information beyond that he appears to have been an active performer in Broadway and other musical theater around 1900 and may be buried in Canada. As far as I know, for Edison he made only three records. The male chorus joining him is anonymous but, if Edison's usual practice is a guide, probably included any number of "regulars" who sang for the label. My copy is on an Edison blue amberol cylinder. By the time it was made, Edison had adopted a practice of recording all masters as discs for issue in that format and mechanically dubbing those for parallel cylinder release. Some of these dubbings are better than others; this one is among the better such records I've heard. It's played on the very same Edison Triumph Model B phonograph about which I wrote in another recent TNT article. As with the Victor V, the Triumph was the top of Edison's regular line for the home, also powered by a big three-spring motor. This one originally would have been for two-minute cylinders only but has been retrofitted with an accessory gear kit to play four-minute cylinders as well. Its reproducer is a Model O with trimmed floating weight, a turnover design presaging those flip-over cartridges once fitted to 33/78 hi fi turntables, and the horn is an oak cygnet type finished to complement the case.
"The Further it is to Tipperary" (Dudley, Godfrey, and Byrnes) presents the reverse of the previous entry: there, I had little information about the performer but knew plenty about the machine, whereas here I know some about the performer but little about the machine. First the singer: Jack Norworth was an important and popular vaudeville singer/songwriter in his day. His biggest claim to historical fame is having written the lyrics of the celebrated baseball anthem "Take me out to the Ball Game," supposedly despite never having actually been to a major league game in person! As to the machine, I can only guess it would date to the later 19-teens or early '20s; production statistics about Pathe machines are not readily available. It carries two names. The cabinet is labeled "Diamond, License Pathe"; the reproducing mechanism is labeled "Pathe Diffusor." The latter is a large paper cone, like a speaker cone, but with a Pathe sapphire ball stylus at the apex. Acting via the stylus, the record directly excites the cone to produce sound for the listener. Diamond refers to an inexpensive Pathe subsidiary line; this machine would not have been a top line model and has a weak single-spring motor barely powerful enough for one record. The record's production method reverses that of the Edison above, too; rather than recording to disc and dubbing cylinders, Pathe recorded everything to oversized cylinders and mechanically dubbed them to masters for its discs and commercially issued cylinders alike.
"Let Us not Forget" and "National Airs of the Allies" are the two sides of a single Edison diamond disc. In the former, we hear the voice of Thomas Edison in his sole commercially issued recording. He delivers a short address admonishing listeners in the United States to remember that the other allies also fought hard in the war, and at the end he refers to the allies' national airs, heard on side two; thus, the spoken side is in some sense an introduction to the musical side. Such a coupling was not out of character for the label, which often backed an operatic selection with an "explanatory talk," usually by elocutionist Harry E. Humphrey. Of the five selections on the musical side, three are likely to be familiar to most listeners today: the French "La Marseillaise," the British "God Save the King" (as it was then, George V being the reigning monarch), and the US "The Star Spangled Banner"--which, please note, would not become officially the US national anthem for better than another dozen years. Probably much less familiar, at least to listeners in the English-speaking world, is the Belgian anthem, "La Brabanšonne." The least likely to be recognizable outside Italy, and maybe not even to all that many in Italy itself, is the "Marcia Reale d'Ordinanza," which was the official march of the Italian monarchy before its abolition in 1946. A real period piece, then.
I hope you enjoy this musical trip back to another troubled time as much as I did putting it together. Perhaps, if we all learn from the mistakes of that era, we can more easily pass through our own troubles. Meanwhile, a good tune is timeless!
DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions.
After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear.
Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative,
reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.