This guest post was written by Dan Streible, Director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University, and James Irsay, host of “Morning Irsay” on WBAI-FM in New York City.
Dan Streible: While chopping down trees in Kentucky recently, I was enjoying the benefits of twenty-first century living, listening to music on my iPhone. It was a favorite radio program on New York’s WBAI-FM, Morning Irsay, hosted by raconteur-pianist and music historian James Irsay. Although his eclectic playlist is mostly classical, he specializes in historical recordings, monophonic stuff captured on discs in the early twentieth century. Often he veers into the eccentric. At the end of one segment he played a novelty 78 called “Violin Mimicry” (1914) by a performer I’d not heard before: Charles Ross Taggart.James Irsay: Can you say “cornball”? I recently checked out a short recording on the Library of Congress National Jukebox website, a three-minute vaudeville-style performance by one Charles Ross Taggart, who styled himself “The Old Country Fiddler” and “The Man from Vermont.” I’d run into Taggart’s popular art while tracking down acoustic (ca. 1900-1925) violin recordings for broadcast on Morning Irsay.
Hoping to find obscure performances by such recording pioneers as Maude Powell, Efrem Zimbalist, Mischa Elman, and so forth, I entered the word “violin” into the search field. The results produced no fewer than 762 recordings, all acoustics. First on the list was a Victor 10-inch called “Violin Mimicry,” first no doubt because its title contained my search term. I deferred all concern for Powell, Zimbalist, and friends, and started up “Violin Mimicry,” performed by Mr. Taggart.
The recording began with the voice of a WWI-era Victor Talking Machine Company announcer, in a tenor register well-matched to the frequency response of the early pre-microphone recording equipment: “Violin Mimicry – imitations of the human voice: ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, spoken by a little boy.” Now comes Taggart, slipping and sliding on the G string of his violin, producing speech-like inflections on his instrument, and yes! There it is: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are…” Now here was an artist who had truly been buried in the sands of time and taste!
I altered my search term from “violin” to “Charles Ross Taggart.” Thirteen selections came up. In some, he was billed as “The Old Country Fiddler.” He entertained his audience with homespun monologues and folksy violin playing. Further research of the not-very-time-consuming Internet variety led to a Wikipedia article. Taggart had apparently made an early sound film using the picture-sound synchronism process invented by Lee De Forest. A copy was held by the Library of Congress. I told my listening audience that I hoped the Library would digitize the film and upload it to the Internet soon, if they hadn’t already.
Dan Streible: Knowing that the Library had preserved De Forest Phonofilm shorts of pianist Eubie Blake and others, I thought I’d ask if the one with Taggart — The Old Country Fiddler at the Singing School (1923) — was among those. And if so, was it in line to be put online?
[Mike Mashon: Indeed it was, just waiting for a good excuse to post it. I sent Dan a copy of this public domain film and asked him to share it with James.]
James Irsay: Soon afterwards, regular listener Dan Streible, a professor of film history with some apparently great connections, sent me a copy of the three-minute-plus film in an email: The Old Country Fiddler at the Singing School. What a world!
The film opens with Taggart in “old country teacher” garb seated on a basic, cheesy-ornate wooden chair, before an equally cheesy, sparsely furnished interior set. A gray goatee appears to be glued to his chin. After checking the tuning of his fiddle Taggart addresses the camera, “I wonder how many of you folks ever attended an old-fashioned singing school in the country.”
Taggart lifts bow and fiddle to play, but instead exhibits his vaudevillian aesthetic as he interrupts the song after a few seconds, five times, with parenthetical comments before playing it through on the sixth attempt. He restlessly changes the position of his feet, and keeps time by bouncing or tapping various combinations of his four limbs. Taggart holds the bow more or less correctly, though he may or may not rest his pinky on the wood. I could not exactly make out all the song lyrics, but I can tell you that “the turkey’s on the fire.”
Dan Streible: All of the Taggart recordings on the National Jukebox are worth a listen for their novelty and occasional serendipity. In the 100-year-old cut “Old Country Fiddler in New York” (1914) Taggart ends with a riff from “Pop Goes the Weasel” – just like he does in his eccentric 1923 Phonofilm performance.
What a world indeed, Mr. Irsay. I’m happy to see the Old Country Fiddler and his nearly-forgotten film so well represented online. And it’s a delightful irony that twenty-first century radio helped place it here.
The Old Country Fiddler at the Singing School (De Forest Phonofilms, 1923)
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