Here are some selections from the film and audio collection to help you celebrate The Fourth of July. The audio comes from the Library’s National Jukebox which includes over 10,000 streaming recordings dating from 1900 to 1925, a time when patriotic music was extremely popular and accounted for a significant percentage of record sales.
Our first recording, a Victor 78 by Frank C. Stanley and Byron G. Harlan, features this popular comic duo as the District Judge and Squire Ezra Doolittle addressing Fourth of July revelers at the fictional town of Jayville Center. The recording is an example of a “rube sketch,” a popular vaudevillian genre which often leaned on negative stereotypes for its humor. In Stanley and Harlan’s hands it avoids such excesses and becomes a light-hearted, humorous routine that evokes sympathy and nostalgia for the rituals of rural Americans celebrating the nation’s birthday. The team made some fifty recordings together which included more comedy routines and several Civil War standards.
“The Grand Old Rag,” our next number, is surely one of the most rousing of patriotic songs penned by George M. Cohan, himself one of the most enthusiastically patriotic of composers. Known as “the first president…of the republic of Broadway,” Cohan was a multi-talented singer, songwriter, stage and film actor, playwright and producer. Theatergoers in New York would have first heard “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as the indefatigable Cohan marched around the stage holding a tattered flag in his production George Washington, Jr. The song was originally titled “The Grand Old Rag” in reference to the action of the play: the singer addresses a tattered but respectfully treated flag. Nonetheless, some critics found the comparison of Old Glory to a rag to be unpatriotic and Cohan accordingly changed the title to the current version.
The rendition here is performed by Billy Murray, and it proved to be Victor’s fasted selling disc of the era. Murray, one of the most successful recording artists of the early twentieth century, had made a specialty of performing Cohan’s songs with the same rapid vocal delivery and energy that Cohan brought to his live performances.
To keep the party going here’s the backing track to our National Anthem so you can sing along while waving your sparklers high.
Because it will take a strong effort to match the patriotism of the early record buying public and the denizens of Jayville town center, here is an illustrated version of “America the Beautiful.”
And if all this isn’t enough to get you in a lather of patriotic fervor, here’s a stirring film from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company called Spirit of ’76, registered for copyright in May 1905. It’s a dramatic tableaux version of Archibald Willard’s famous painting of the same name, considerably enlivened by Ben Model’s piano accompaniment. According to Ben,
I usually avoid recognizable music if I can help it, as it’s a distraction to the viewer unless there’s someone playing a record or piece of sheet music shown in a close-up. However, this was a case when not playing the two pieces that pop into everyone’s mind when seeing this image would be a distraction. From old cartoons, to the opening gag in Ernie Kovacs’ 1959 television show Kovacs on Music to today’s TV commercials, the songs “Yankee Doodle” and/or “The Girl I Left Behind” are practically synonymous with the image of these three musicians. Given the fact that it’s nearly wall-to-wall music, there’s an explosion in the middle, and the lead drummer drops his sticks in the final chorus, one wonders what people must have thought of this silent motion picture in 1905 while peering through a Mutoscope machine. And the hardest part of scoring Spirit of ‘76? Staying in synch with the marching.”
Spirit of ’76 (American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1905)
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We wish you a very happy and safe Fourth of July!