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The First Sound Recording of a Joke?

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“Champion McKinley Opens the Tariff Battle”, Judge, vol. 18, No. 446, May 3, 1890.

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Kelly Revak.

I’ve recently joined the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as an archivist. One of my first tasks was to catalog Jesse Walter Fewkes’s Passamaquoddy recordings as a part of the Ancestral Voices project team. Made in 1890, these recordings are notable as they are largely credited as the first use of recording technology in ethnographic work. These recordings, as well as Fewkes’s Hopi and Zuni recordings, are fairly well known, and were cataloged and preserved as a part of the Federal Cylinder Project in the 1970s.

However, Fewkes made several other recordings in his earliest days with the phonograph which are far less well known. In the process of cataloging the Passamaquoddy recordings, I came across a group of cylinders that had been previously referred to as “Peabody, Miscellaneous” and were noted to hold unidentified ethnographic recordings as well as several experimental recordings by Fewkes. I listened through recently digitized transfers of these cylinders, and did find some things relevant to the Passamaquoddy collection, but I also found myself delighted by Fewkes’s personal recordings and discovered several items of folkloric interest therein. These include folk songs, whistles, narratives, recitations, and outright clowning around. As most of these have never been cataloged they represent a largely untapped body of data.

One particular experimental cylinder was clearly shaved and rerecorded a number of times, showing the remnants of several recording sessions on it. The remaining audio is informal, without introduction, and is a fascinating example of American humor at the end of the 19th century. I believe this recording is particularly notable because as far as I’ve been able to determine, it may be the earliest, or I should say, “earliest surviving” audio recording of a joke.

There are other earlier humorous recordings that survive, but I have found nothing that would clearly classify as a traditional joke of either a narrative or riddle-form nature. What exists is more along the lines of humorous spoken monologues. There is a particularly funny 1888 recording of  George Gouraud titled “Phonograph talks with Mr. Edison” in which Gouraud pretends to be a little person hiding inside the phonograph machine making the sounds you hear [1].

There are other references to early jokes recorded by Edison and his staff. An 1888 Pall Mall Gazette article comments on a phonograph demonstration party Gouraud had held in London at Edison’s behest:

I can assure you that six inches of Edison’s jokes and laughs on the cylinder properly conducted to your ear-drums by the little glass drops are no joke, sounding something like a thunderstorm among the mountains. You should hear him tell the story of the American man who went up to the gates of heaven, and asked to see Peter on particular business..

Another article from late in 1888 from the New York World comments:

A new cylinder was adjusted to the phonograph and Mr. Edison’s superintendent, Prof. Wangeman[n], assuming the part of interlocutor, with [Lew] Dockstader at his old place on the tambo end, they ploughed the shavings off the wax with a lot of bad jokes.

However neither of these cylinders nor any other jokes recorded before 1890 seem to have survived. Scouring collections, and inquiring with curators, collectors, and scholars on early recorded sound as well as humor historians, the earliest other jokes I could track down are a cylinder of ribald “conundrums”, or puns, from late 1892 [2][3]. Beginning during the mid-1890s, jokes and comedy did become common content on commercially produced wax cylinders published by Edison and other companies, as well as on Berliner discs.

Fewkes’s joke, which seems to have been recorded casually, is likely from 1890 or 1891.

Listen here:

An Englishman and an American were once discussing the McKinley Bill, and the Englishman said, “if you do pass that bill, we shall have to come over to your country and give you a thrashing!” And the American said, “what, AGAIN?!

If you are like me, and not deeply steeped in economic policy debates of the late 1800s, then this joke might not be immediately funny.

The late 1800s saw a protracted congressional and public debate regarding tariff law that has never really been totally resolved. The fierce “great debate of ‘88” was between Republican protectionists who wanted to institute heavy tariffs on imported goods to protect newly forming domestic industries and Democrats favoring “free trade,” who were pushing to remove trade restrictions altogether. In the election of 1888 Republicans were victorious electing President Harrison, and winning majorities in both the Senate and the House. William McKinley framed a tariff act which was passed in 1890, commonly called “The McKinley Bill”, which raised the average duty on imports to almost 50 percent.

Protect U.S. From John Bull: Protection Pictures from Judge, 1888

Protectionists drew on heightened Anglophobia making anti-British themes a central part of the campaign. The quest for protection, as Joanne Reitano writes in The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age, was viewed as a continuation of the “protracted struggle for complete independence from the days of colonial rule.” England was labeled “our most aggressive, active, dangerous, and deadly enemy,” who was responsible for “every great crisis in our history as a people.”… in the same vein, the satirical magazine Judge drew the Democrats with their British ideas surrendering to the English instead of kicking them out as during the revolution. The “fight of 1888,” Judge declared, “is the fight of the American against foreign invasion. It is home industry against unfair competition… It is a platform against King George in new words but old form.”

Though there is this implied threat of foreign invasion in the joke, the implication is that Britain would fail to reclaim its recalcitrant territory, as it had in multiple preceding conflicts.

Although Fewkes’s version is a stand-alone joke, every other version I could find in print uses the joke as part of a larger narrative context. These other versions illustrate the variations inherent in this kind of narrative joke, and also demonstrate its use as a gloss for various aspects of protectionist viewpoints. The earliest version of the joke that I could find in print appears in a collection of letters of Sir Stafford Northcote from 1890, edited by Andrew Lang. Discussing Stafford’s appointment to a commission that would result in the 1871 Treaty of Washington, Lang uses the joke to illustrate why an Englishman would be willing to serve on the commission at all:

The answer is, I fear, that necessity knows no law. England is a country which practically cannot fight on points of honour and delicacy. In regard to America, especially, she would have to fight a most powerful people which is at home, while she is at an immense distance from her base. She has to fight with a vast undefended and indefensible flank — the whole frontier of Canada. She has to fight the country by whose corn her own huge and agriculturally unproductive population is nourished. Though she might do the States a good deal of harm, she could not cripple them nor dream of subduing them. “We shall have to give you a beating,” said an Englishman once to an American. “What! Again?” said the other. The question was an answer. With starvation and probable rebellion at home, with certain loss abroad, is it likely that England will fight America if she can possibly evade the war? … As to there being no alternative at that moment but war on one hand or apology on the other, Sir Stafford wrote to Mr. Disraeli (January 24, 1873): “Our work has not been made more palatable by persons who have spoken as though the alternative had been war. There was no such alternative.…[4]

England, he says, in effect, cannot realistically back up her threats. Bear in mind, that although Lang is talking about a situation in 1871, he is not quoting Stafford, only using an “old joke” to illustrate a point he is making (in 1890). So this doesn’t definitively show that the joke existed before the late 1880s.

Well after the McKinley tariff issues were decided (at least for the moment) the joke continued to be used to illustrate repeated threats that are never followed through. A New York Times article in 1896 entitled “What, Again?” opens with the joke:

It is an old, old story, that of the Yankee’s reply to the blustering Briton. Some international dispute was the subject of conversation and the Englishman observed that if Uncle Sam didn’t behave himself John Bull would have to come over and whip him. “What, again?”

Interestingly, the article itself is discussing another of McKinley’s efforts, to oust the then leader of the Republican party, Tom Platt. It seems to indicate that like the Brit in the joke, the threats of the anti-Platt Republicans are empty. Often made, and never followed through. “Kick him out?” it continues. “Just the same as last year, and the year before and all the other years.”

The joke remained in popular consciousness for decades, in familiar contexts. A 1913 article in American Economist uses the joke to discuss the consequences of the 1894 Wilson tariff legislation, which replaced the McKinley Bill:

Shortly before our war with Spain an Englishman talking with an American resented our interference in Cuba and said: “If you Yankees don’t mind your own business, we may have to go over and give you a D— good licking.” Whereupon the Yankee replied: “What, again?” So when free wool is advocated as a stepping stone to great prosperity of the wool and woolen trade we can only say: “What, again?” [5]

It is interesting that even though this version describes the imagined conversation between the Englishman and the American as over American interference in Cuba, the joke itself is still being used to advocate for protectionist tariff policies, and the timing of the occurrence just before the “war with Spain” again links the joke to McKinley, who was president at the time.

There are a few attributions of the retort to specific individuals including a version that claims Pierre Lorilard gave this famous answer in one of the great London clubs [6]. The witty retort is also attributed to Buffalo Bill Cody [7]. That version doesn’t stress the topic of the debate between the American and the Englishman so much as the wittiness of the retort. Several other versions also use the joke to illustrate American cleverness triumphing over British bluster.

In his memoirs, American painter Edward Simmons claims to have heard it occur firsthand. In a chapter outlining his trip back from working in England, he talks about playing bridge with a Canadian and two Englishmen.

During a heated conversation, one of them made the remark that we were getting quite cocky over in the States, adding that England would “have to be sending some ships and men over to settle America before long.” At that a little voice piped up (the Canadian’s) saying:

“What! Again?”

The steward was sent for and drinks ordered, for the British do know how to pay when they are beaten.

The timing of where this anecdote appears in the memoirs would also place it right around the time of the McKinley Bill and the tariff debate.

In some cases the discussants in the joke are personified as Uncle Sam versus John Bull. Even when the subject is distanced from any specific policy debate, the joke is still employed to illustrate American cleverness.

Picture of Uncle Same sitting and reading with his feet propped up
The “Jonathan” Reynolds refers to here is “Brother Jonathan” who is the national personification and emblem of New England – where Fewkes grew up [8].
In an 1895 book Samuel Reynolds, a British man, spends some time pontificating about humor and America’s precedence “after the death of Dickens.”

I am inclined to believe that the first prize for terse, smart, ready wit in conversation and in public speaking must be awarded to Jonathan. Here is a sample: — A proud Britisher, who had forgotten history, was conversing with an American upon a subject then under the discussion of the two nations, and, losing his temper, foolishly said, “If you fellows don’t know how to behave yourselves, we shall have to come over and teach you.” The threat only evoked two words of meek expostulation, “What, again!”

Returning to Fewkes’s version, without the larger context of how he might have used this anecdotal joke, it is difficult to tell what his aims were in telling it. But its very existence certainly says much about his politics, and actually hearing him tell it gives a sense of his personality and sense of humor. Hearing the audio is also extremely helpful, in this case of this particular joke, as the humor relies so significantly on intonation. It is the exaggerated incredulity in his voice that makes the sarcasm clear.

So is it the earliest joke? There is no clear date to the cylinder, however several contextual elements allow a reasonable placement:

  1. The cylinder came from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology miscellaneous cylinder recordings collection (AFC 1970/070). Fewkes was only working for Mary Hemenway and the Peabody Museum from 1889 to 1894.
  2. The “Mckinley Tariff” was officially the “Tariff Act of 1890,” and was introduced and passed in that year. After the 1892 election, in which Democrats won control of the Senate, House and Presidency, they immediately started drafting new tariff legislation. Because of the specific reference to this bill, it is probable that the joke was told in between those years.
  3. Contextually, all other cylinders in this record group that include dates are dated 1890 and 1891.

The next earliest known recording that includes jokes was made in late 1892. Regardless if this cylinder does in fact contain the earliest sound recording of a joke (and I invite anyone to prove me wrong), I hope this exploration has shown that that these experimental recordings are reflective of Fewkes’s own culture, even of his political beliefs. Further, I want to advocate for informal recordings such as these as rich bodies of data for late 19th century culture, as well as interesting markers in the history of recorded sound.

These “incidental” recordings are far less rehearsed and as such less self-conscious than much of the commercially produced sound which would soon follow. Nancy Cassell, a staff member of the Cylinder Project at Indiana University, wrote about these kinds of “anomalies” in ethnographic collections as interesting glimpses into the ethnographers themselves:

Whatever their purpose, these recordings were not omitted from the collections by the researchers who recorded them. Unlike stray commercial cylinders, … the field-produced oddities have been boxed and labeled as ethnographic materials. We can be grateful for them. They make us stop and listen and think. They give us fresh insight into the human dynamics of ethnography. They are an aural testimony to the capriciousness of culture. [10]

Despite this, for a long time, these recordings have been given short shrift in catalogs and have been largely overlooked for subsequent research. They have historically been treated as less important because they were not formal ethnographic recordings. However, they are no less interesting as informal ethnographic recordings of the collectors themselves. They turn the lens on the ethnographer as informant.

Folklore has been intrinsically tied to the very earliest days of recorded sound, and there is still much to be learned about the culture of this transitional time period as archives across the world continue the work of preserving and cataloging these important recordings.

Notes and Selected References

[1] Wax cylinder: “Phonograph talks with Mr. Edison”, August 14, 1888, spoken by George Gouraud, Thomas Edison National Historical Park – Recorded Sound Archive, EDIS 94001.

[2] My particular thanks to Jerry Fabris, Patrick Feaster, David Giovannoni for sharing their knowledge of humor in early recorded sound, and directing me towards many of the sources used in this research.

[3] These conundrums are available on Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni’s compilation: Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s. Champaign, Ill.: Archeophone, 2007.

[4] Lang, Andrew. 1890. Life, letters, and diaries of Sir Stafford Northcote, first earl of Iddesleigh. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.

[5] “They seem to have short memories: Shouters for Free Wool Forget the Disastrous Consequences of the Wilson Tariff of 1894.” American Economist, 1913.

[6] “But the Yankee and the Briton will understand each other, exactly as the Englishman understood Pierre Lorilard when he gave his famous answer in one of the great London clubs. The Englishman had been boasting that in case we did not cease from interference in a certain matter they would come over here and teach us to behave. Lorilard threw up his hands and exclaimed: “What, again?” Commercial Law League of America. 1897. Proceedings of the … annual convention of the Commercial Law League of America. Detroit: John F. Eby & Co., Printers.

[7] “While on his European tour Will was entertained by a great many potentates. At a certain dinner, given in his honor by a wealthy English lord, Will met for the first time socially a number of blustering British officers, fresh from India. One of them addressed himself to the scout as follows: “I understand you are colonel. You Americans are blawsted fond of military titles, don’t cherneow. By gad, sir, we’ll have to come over and give you fellows a good licking!”

“What, again?” said the scout, so meekly that for an instant his assailant did not know how hard he was hit, but he realized it when the retort was wildly applauded by the company. “

Wetmore, Helen Cody. 1899. Last of the great scouts: the life story of Col. William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill”. [Duluth, MN.]: [Duluth Press Pub. Co.].

[8] Hole, S. Reynolds 1819. 2010. A Little tour in America. [Place of publication not identified]: Nabu Press.

[9] Carey, T. J. 1885. Brother Jonathan’s jokes, funny stories, and laughable sketches: an everlasting encyclopedia of wit and humor, interlarded with epigrams, conundrums, anecdotes, and droll incidents of the latest and best selections of the present day. New York: Excelsior Pub. House.

[10] Bloomington, Ind. : The Archives, Vol III, No. 4, October 1984

Comments (3)

  1. Fascinating! Isn’t the LC a treasure trove for the intrepid archivist/researcher! And isn’t it interesting that we still haven’t resolved the fundamental political differences in the USA.

  2. Thank you, Kelly, for this excellent presentation. It makes me especially glad that at the 1969 SEM conference I asked David McAllester if he had discovered any Fewkes cylinders labelled “Passamaquoddy” during his sabbatical at the Peabody Museum. He said “Yes,” which led to our acquisition of the Peabody cylinders at LC/FOLK, which led in turn to the revelation of 1890 as the year of Fewkes’s first recordings (previous reports had assumed the year to be 1889). I look forward to further revelations from the Fewkes corpus.

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