They Start the Victrola by Billy Murray
This post was written by Recorded Sound Reference Specialist David Sager
Recorded dance music needs no introduction, it has been a staple of the recording industry for decades. Whether techno, disco, rockabilly, or ballroom – records are for dancing!
When Billy Murray described the dancers on the recording above in 1914, new styles and steps were spreading like never before, as you’ll see and hear in this dancing tour of the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.
Looking backwards from the early 21st century, dance music on record has had a rich history; the twist, rhumba, swing styles (Lindy hop, etc.), Charleston, fox trot, and so forth, have all earned a venerated place in cultural and social histories. Given its enormous popularity and prominent position held in modern culture for over 100 years, it may surprise us that the genre was at one time incidental, as far as contemporaneous catalogs and advertising would lead us to believe.
Looking at catalogs and companies’ “advance” lists of new titles from the early years of the industry, one cannot help but notice how differently recordings were marketed. Genre headings familiar to modern-day audiences may seem arcane or confusing. Recordings were categorized more by performance types rather than a broad genre and tended to be grouped by particular artists or ensembles. For instance, prior to Victor’s introduction of the Red Seal series, there was no “classical” section in the catalogs. Instead, operatic selections were listed as “Operatic Selections, Bands,” and such, which featured members of some of the current professional concert bands of the time. There was no section for Comedy, but rather “Comic Talking Records,” or “Comic Songs, with piano.”[i]
Recordings of Dance Music, pre-1914
Since the Victor Talking Machine Company was the largest and most successful record label of its day, it is being used here as a gauge for the general trend of recording tendencies during the early 20th century.[ii] And in 1906, Victor captured the phonograph market with the introduction of the Victrola. In answer to public objections to the large and inconvenient playback horns, Victor’s design engineers developed a horn that was concealed inside an attractive mahogany or oak cabinet.
Monthly catalog supplements, issued between 1904 and 1906, announcing new Victor releases barely mention the phrase “dance music.” However, the August 1904 supplement lists records for dancing; primarily old-fashioned dances such as a medley of lancers by Pryor’s orchestra, in “strict dance time,” as the copy proudly states.[iii] Victor had been offering these old-fashioned, courtly square dances, often with calls, since its inception in 1900.
Dances such as lancers, schottisches, and quadrilles would have appealed mostly to an older demographic. Victor had yet to explore the value of effective marketing targets, but not for long.
Glimmers of Change
By 1904, Victor seems to have recognized that a distinction was needed that separated old from new, and assigned the old-time dances to a special “Standard Dance Music” series; Standard meaning well-established, old-fashioned dances such as waltzes, schottisches, and lancers. Notably, one recording of a contemporary dance – a two-step – was included. All in all, only 20 titles, including remakes, were issued in this series. “Standard” implies that perhaps another series, featuring more up-to-date dances, was being planned, but no such category appeared.
This representative recording, a waltz titled “La Gitana,” from June 1904, was available as both a 10-inch and 12-inch disc. Allowing us 1 minute more of gliding across the floor, here is the 12-inch version:
Further changes appear in January 1910: Victor’s new catalog showed two full pages, in very small print, of “Dance Records,” without the “Standard” designation. However, the offerings are mostly pretty staid, save for a few marches and two-steps, which were danced to in essentially the same manner. Otherwise, it’s the same old fare.[iv] Take note that the “Victor Orchestra,” first announced in the February 1906 supplement, is now called the “Victor Dance Orchestra.”
The blurb accompanying the listing explains clearly the Victor’s goal and criteria for these recordings –
The numbers have been carefully selected from the works of eminent composers and will be found melodious and characterized by that strongly marked rhythm which is indispensable in dance music. The arrangements have been prepared and directed by Mr. [Walter B.] Rogers in such a way that this rhythm has been perfectly marked and the tempo of each dance given with absolute precision.
Professor Sydney S. Asher, of Asher’s Academy of Dancing, a member of the American Society of Professors of Dancing, New York, has tested these records and says: “I have listened to your records of dance music and find the tempos to be perfect in every respect and the records well adapted for dancing.”
Perhaps, by omission, the Victor catalog was confirming the existence of a social stigma that surrounded popular dancing. Contact dances, with a host of associated animals, i.e. grizzly bears, turkeys, and bunnies, were looked upon as suggestive and lewd. Victor, not following contemporary fads, offered little in their catalog to accommodate such moves. While they did offer some related titles, there was no overt promotion of such. They did cash in by delivering vocal selections of songs about the turkey trot and grizzly bear.
The pre-1913 catalogs offer neither acknowledgement, nor hint, that an element may exist in society – polite or not – of unabashed joy in dancing. The only inklings of such an element are the listing of several ragtime-flavored two-steps by Arthur Pryor.
The Dance Reform
During the period of circa 1905-1913, when the notorious “animal dances,” such as the grizzly bear, bunny hug, and turkey trot became popular, they were rarely identified on labels, except in the cases of songs about those particular dances. Then, suddenly – as if social dancing was newly invented – the situation changed. Beginning at the end of 1913, advance lists and supplements from all the companies, but especially Victor, now listed many recordings to accompany the latest special dance steps.
What happened? Naturally, trends come and go. But the sudden and profound shift in recording policy was directly related to the enormous fame and influence of a certain husband and wife dance team, who created steps that were elegant, smooth, and free of the vulgar element. And above all, these new steps were fun and easy to learn. While not the only force behind the dance evolution, Vernon and Irene Castle (1887-1918 and 1893-1969), were the most pivotal.
The Castle’s made a profound impression on the American dance scene. They streamlined dancing by making bulky, awkward moves, more elegant. Most importantly, they brought an air of class and respect to social dancing. Soon, there would be far less buzz about scandalous “animal dances.”
1914, the year in which it all shifted, saw a sudden proliferation of new recordings to accompany the steps for the latest dance crazes. For instance, in June, Victor issued several tangos and the soon-to-be megahit “Too Much Mustard,” a composition by British orchestra leader named Cecil Macklin,[v] originally titled “Très Moutarde.”[vi]
Victor quickly put out its own version, played by the eponymous Victor Military Band. It was recorded in February 1913 and released the following April. It was so popular a recording that Victor kept it in the catalog for nearly 10 years.
Surprisingly, the following October, Victor rerecorded the Victor Military Band playing “Too Much Mustard” at a slower tempo and in a different key. It was released with the same catalog number – an obvious replacement for the earlier version.
Inexplicably, the new version was significantly slower than the earlier
recording. The February version, played in the key of B-flat, was taken at a jaunty 146 beats per minute, while the October version, in the key of F, sounding considerably more deliberate, was played at approximately 128 beats per minute. Why the two versions? Did the public demand a slower tempo? Not content with the Victor Military Band’s two renditions, Victor soon recorded another, in December, played by James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the Black ensemble recently hired by the Castles as their fulltime accompanists. Europe’s version, also in the key of F, was at a compromise tempo of 134 beats per minute.
“Too Much Mustard” was used by the Castles to illustrate their “Castle Walk,” which may account for the
slower tempo versions.[vii] The Castle Walk also inspired a new composition, so titled, by Ford Dabney, one of Europe’s associates.
Major Changes in 1914
A vital and important change took place at the time of the Europe Victor releases: the old catalogs often underscored the importance of dance records being in “strict time.” Not only should they not speed up or slow down during the performance, but within each measure written rhythm was paid the strictest attention, often sounding stilted and inflexible. Europe’s orchestra played in part from written scores and in part, apparently a large part, from memory. As a result, rhythms were less formal, less clipped; with a relaxed and conversational flow unheard in the older recordings.
Victor’s March 1914 catalog supplement opens to a page of selected dance records in the latest styles, i.e. one-steps, waltz Boston, hesitation, and maxixe, played by various bands and orchestras. The customer is informed with a typical run-on sentence,
The demand for dance records, for which Victor vainly hoped to meet with its Special List, early in February, has become more insistent than ever, and an unusually large and fine March list has therefore been prepared…
The supplement lists thirteen new dance releases (26 selections), including four titles by (James Reese)
Europe’s Society Orchestra. This was dramatically different than previous catalogs and other advertisements. Perhaps most significant was the accompanying illustration: an ink drawing of elegantly-dressed young couples dancing in close, but respectable, proximity. Contemporary social dance and sound recordings were finally united.
The popularity of the new dance records is evident in the full Victor catalog, issued May, which lists five pages of dance selections, in small type; all in all nearly 300 selections.
The Europe Orchestra was a breath of fresh air for dancers. But,
despite their verve and energy, they only made a handful of records for Victor. However, the way had now been paved for more natural-sounding and exciting dance records, such as those by Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra.
With the dancing stigma abated, polite society could rest easily, at least for a while; the “jazz age,” with its objectionable terpsichorean innovations, was just around the corner!
Learn more about the Library’s collection of recordings and how to conduct further research in the Recorded Sound Research Center, including further recordings and the original catalogs from which the pages above were reproduced. Any inquiries to dig deeper into the history of dance music recordings or other sound recordings may be directed to the Recorded Sound Research Center or the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.
[i]New and Selected Records for the Phonograph,” The Ohio Phonograph Company, ca. 1895.
[ii] Columbia was consistently several steps behind during this period.
[iii] For the dancers convenience the fourth figure, which was then seldom danced, was included anyway, for those who “may wish to dance to it.”
[iv] It is also instructive to note that the catalog, which was basically an alphabetized index of types of records, listed few genre headings. “Dance Records” were an exception.
[v] Not to be confused with R. C. MacPherson, better known as Cecil Mack, an American composer and associate of James Reese Europe’s.
[vi] Translates as “Very Mustardy.”
[vii] A “walk” would, of course, require a moderate tempo.
David, very nicely written. I greatly enjoyed the history. Take care. Dale