JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
Coming up, a graduation speech to live, live, live by.
But first, the Victorian era usually evokes images of women in long skirts and high necklines and proper men with good posture, wearing top hats and tails. Civility abounded as did much, much modesty.
It's a shock then to listen to a new collection of previously unreleased recordings from the end of the 19th century. It's called the "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s." And it is as lewd and often obscene as anything Howard Stern has to offer. As the name implies, there's a lot on this collection that we can't play on the radio even today. This snippet should give you a good idea as to why.
(Soundbite of "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s")
YDSTIE: Oh, my. Even with the muffled audio, we had to bleep the obscene words, just in case. David Giovannoni is co-producer of "Actionable Offenses" and joins us on the line from NPR Studios in Hampton, Connecticut.
Mr. DAVID GIOVANNONI (Co-producer, "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s"): Thank you, John.
YDSTIE: Indiana University folklore instructor Patrick Feaster worked on the project as well and he joins us from the studios of WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
Mr. PATRICK FEASTER (Assistant Instructor, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University): Glad to be here.
YDSTIE: We must, by the way, warn listeners that this interview may contain audio that some people would find offensive so you may want to turn on your vacuum cleaner if you get - I'm going to turn mine on.
Well, anyway, these recordings really were indecent and they're from a century ago. Patrick Feaster, scholars like you knew that they existed?
Mr. FEASTER: We knew that they'd been made. Certainly, there were accounts of them that had passed down to us in newspapers from the time. But knowing that they survived and hearing actual examples of them, that's pretty new.
YDSTIE: And David Giovannoni, how were these recordings uncovered?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Well, they were never really lost. They had been in the archives of the Edison National Historic Site for many years. They were recently transferred by Jerry Fabris, a curator at the Edison National Historic Site. And we were able to acquire those transfers and the rights to produce this CD.
YDSTIE: They were originally on wax cylinders. They were digitized, then put on CD.
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Right.
YDSTIE: I understand that they hadn't been played on the wax cylinders. The originals hadn't been played for a long time because of fear of destroying them.
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Wax cylinders are a very, very fragile medium. They essentially self-destruct because of chemical properties of the cylinders themselves. But moreover, when they are played on period equipment with relatively heavy pick-ups - if you will - audio pick-ups, they can be very easily damaged. So much to the site's credit, they did not play these for years and years and years until the technology was developed to do so with absolute minimum wear or damage being done to the artifacts themselves.
YDSTIE: Patrick Feaster, the distribution of these recordings was indeed an actionable offense. It was illegal under the Comstock law. Tell us what is meant by actionable.
Mr. FEASTER: Actionable refers to the fact that people ended up in jail for allowing these recordings to be played in their saloons, at stands where they played phonograph records for anybody who came up and gave them a nickel and also for making the recordings and selling them to people who would play them at Coney Island and places like that.
YDSTIE: So who was Comstock and why was he behind this act?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Anthony Comstock, born in 1844, died in 1915. He founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice with the support of church groups and the YMCA in 1873. He was a very influential person and he influenced the U.S. Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it specifically illegal to send obscene, lewd and/or lascivious materials through the mail.
YDSTIE: So enough talking about it. Why don't we listen to a part of one of the recordings I would consider most risque.
(Soundbite of "The Whore's Union" from "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s")
Unidentified Man: The Whores' Union from the secretary's office, New York, April 1, 1885. It was resolved that we do not allow ourselves to be out (bleep) by anything that were there. Therefore, be it resolved that the following scale of prices be agreed upon.
YDSTIE: And it goes on from there and you can imagine what he says next. This gives us a pretty good idea of the kind of recordings that are included in this collection. Who was this actor?
Mr. FEASTER: In that particular case, we're torn. But there was one individual who we know made recordings like this for public exhibition and use, and that was a fellow by the name of Russel Hunting. If we look back at the people who were famous for performing for the phonograph during the 1890s, his name would be very close to the top of the list.
YDSTIE: But he was incarcerated. (unintelligible)
Mr. FEASTER: He was incarcerated. Yeah.
YDSTIE: Did that incarceration - did his going to jail slowed down the market for these kinds of recordings?
Mr. FEASTER: We believed it did. We don't find all that much evidence of this trade in indecent recordings after his imprisonment. Also his own career seems to have foundered after that point.
YDSTIE: So who was the intended audience for these recordings? Who was buying them? Who was showing up for the playing of them?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Well, for these recordings, it was primarily a male audience, of course, probably blue collar, what we call blue collar today - dock workers, construction workers. Any man who after work walked into a bar, say, where one of these phonographs would be there as the jukebox would be today, and put his dime on the bar, bought a nickel beer and with his change, he would put the other nickel in the phonograph and listen to a story while he was drinking his beer.
Today, we're listening to this and saying, this is awfully crude stuff, and it is. But when you ask about what is indecent, you have to ask yourself indecent by whose standards. And for the person who was listening to these performances back in the 1890s, these were in fact the stories they told each other at the bar, which itself was not an actionable offense.
YDSTIE: Well, let's listen to one more body sample. This is James White reciting "Dennis Riley at Maggie Murphy's Home After 9 o'clock."
(Soundbite of "Dennis Riley at Maggie Murphy's Home After 9 O'clock")
YDSTIE: Well, I guess there's no mistake in what's going on there.
Mr. GIOVANNONI: There's no double entendre on doing this. This isn't the blues.
(Soundbite of laughter)
YDSTIE: You know, there was a lot of social and even legislated modesty in Victorian era. Could this have been sort of a reaction to that?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Perhaps. But one thing that any scholar of the media will tell you is that indecent, perhaps even pornographic material is some of the very first content in the pipeline of a new medium. Imagine the media that have emerged in our own lifetime - the Internet, DVDs, Betamax. So actually we would have predicted these cylinders to have existed. The thing was, they were so fervently(ph) prosecuted, and that did cause such a chilling effect that only a few remain. These are the very few cylinders that Comstock's men missed.
YDSTIE: So let me ask you guys, did you learn anything from these recordings, any new words that you hadn't known before?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Scrouge.
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Yeah.
YDSTIE: What is scrouge?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Well, how does one say this? Scrouge is a euphemism for the act of copulation.
YDSTIE: Oh, it is?
Mr. GIOVANNONI: This is one of the more interesting etymological facets of what we learned in listening to these cylinders. Scrouge is a word that isn't use today. It means to essentially fit into a tight place. We have actually heard, for the first time, a colloquialism, which was well known. The performer would not have been using the word scrouge had not his intended audience known what it meant, but it's past out of use. So the phonograph has brought that use of the word scrouge back to life for better or for worst.
YDSTIE: Thank goodness for that. David Giovannoni was co-producer and Patrick Feaster was a writer on "Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s." It's from the Archeophone Records label. Thanks to both of you for speaking with us.
Mr. FEASTER: Thank you.
Mr. GIOVANNONI: Thank you, John.
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