Graded on a Curve: Charles A. Asbury,
“4 Banjo Songs,

Archeophone Records’ mission is the reissue of sounds from the early American recording industry, and after 20 years they’ve produced their first vinyl disc; “4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897” is a 45 RPM 7-inch featuring singer-banjoist Charles A. Asbury. Rescued from brown wax cylinders dating from the 1890s, per Archeophone the contents are the oldest recordings of banjo songs in existence. It’s a revelation with a significant caveat, as Asbury was a minstrel performer whose music comes burdened with racially derogatory language. However, the artist was identified at different points as black and white, and the accompanying text offers a fascinating examination of race and identity at the end of the 19th century.

Based in Champaign, Illinois, Archeophone Records is owned and operated by married couple Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey, and the results of their passion, often issued in gorgeous and extensively researched sets, have garnered numerous awards for excellence from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and won a Grammy (amid a bunch of nominations) for Best Historical Album for their 2006 release Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922.

Archeophone’s catalog includes ragtime, dance bands and orchestras, early jazz, gospel, Yiddish music, vaudeville, comedians and humorists, a series of Phonographic Yearbooks, and spoken word including Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s, a collection of dirty jokes and general smut, and Debate ’08: Taft and Bryan Campaign on the Edison Phonograph, which rounds up the wax cylinders cut by 1908 Presidential candidates William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft: for insight into what the USA sounded like from the 1890s through the ’20-’30s, their output is essential.

Though bitesize compared to much of their discography, “4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897” fits into the scheme quite well. And not merely adorned with the distinction of first banjo recordings, as it’s quickly apparent through the surface noise that Asbury was a considerable talent on the instrument; that his songs are described as having been popular in the phonograph arcades of the era is no surprise.

It’s one aspect of a larger story that’s intriguing if not astonishing. Asbury was born to Spanish immigrants (surname Alverez) in Florida in 1856 or ‘57. From there, his parents exit the story as the young Asbury turns up in a Freedman’s Hospital in Augusta, GA, where he was adopted by a biracial couple who worked as nurses there (enter the surname Asbury).

Jump forward to the late 1870s, and Asbury is documented as playing Sambo in one of the most prominent troupes staging Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with his wife Louisa (or Louise) also in the cast. Additionally, they were part of the all-black cast performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Well, except the Boston Post described the cast as entirely black with the exception of Asbury. Which is curious, given that he was an original member of the Unique Quartette, noted for later becoming the first black vocal group on record.

In this release’s outstanding notes, Richard Martin and Ted Olsen offer that Asbury may have been a member of the Magnolia Quartette or the Virginia Jubilee Singers, and if so, may have learned banjo from Horace Weston, who was internationally renowned as a virtuoso on the instrument. While these are maybes, the man picked up his dazzling technique from somewhere, and by the ’90s, at the birth of the recording industry, his name was known across the country, though the fame was ultimately fleeting.

By the latter part of the decade, he was out of vogue. On May 26, 1903, Charles Adam Asbury died of acute lobar pneumonia in Bellevue Hospital in New York City. His death certificate states he was white. The 1900 census lists him as black. Martin concurs with the later, though not everyone close to the story agrees. Specifically, there is Asbury’s great-granddaughter Debbie Trice, whose perspective that Asbury was white is included in a recent profile of this release by Geoff Edgers in The Washington Post.

The notes expand upon this story in further detail, likening Asbury’s story to those told by the writers Nella Larsen (Passing), James Weldon Johnson (Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man) and Charles Chesnutt (the short story collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line) Overall “4 Banjo Songs” is much more than just an uncovered jewel for banjo freaks.

That Asbury’s playing is something special doesn’t hurt matters, of course. The only previously released song here (via the internet) is “Haul the Woodpile Down,” cut circa ’92-’93, and it’s the best of the bunch, mainly because it matches his execution with singing of a comparable level. It’s also noteworthy that the song was later recorded by Uncle Dave Macon (as “Hold that Woodpile Down”) and later still by Doc Watson, the Holy Modal Rounders and others. Getting to hear this early version, recognizable but distinct, is a treat.

Asbury’s vocals aren’t as strong elsewhere, but his delivery in “Never Done Anything Since” does reinforce his background in theater. It complements what’s essentially a lightly comic tune foreshadowing early 20th century pop developments. And if the playing on it doesn’t connect as spectacular (he’s an adept of the “stroke style” of banjo rather than the subsequent Appalachian “clawhammer style”) it’s a good fit for the song; with repeated listens, subtleties do emerge.

Moving to the second side, the aforementioned racially derogatory language does put a damper on things. Current events reveal the USA to be an ugly place, and so it’s always been. But frankly, regarding this release, it could’ve gotten a lot uglier. “Keep in de Middle ob de Road” is saddled with minstrel dialect (written by William Shakespeare Hays) on what’s described in the notes as a tune modeled on jubilee hymns of the period. The aura of caricature is undeniable, but the religious gesturing keeps the mean-spiritedness at bay.

By the very nature of its title, “A New Coon in Town” is the locus of the racism on this release, though again, it could be worse. As detailed in the notes, the rise of the “coon song” in the late 19th century USA was a reactionary thing, specifically a backlash to the strides of African-Americans post-Reconstruction, and by the point of this song’s recording (1897) the lyrics could get quite vile.

However, the subject of this song is very much a high-living, sharply dressed, games-of-chance-partaking individual: a swell or dandy as per the release’s track notes. Listening prior to reading, I thought of a pimp or a mack. This doesn’t vindicate it but does make it easier to swallow. Like Asbury’s story, the song deviates from the norm and certainly from what I was braced to expect.

Altogether, “4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897” is another sharply designed and thoroughly researched release from Archeophone, and through uncovering a dose of Charles Asbury’s early banjo artistry and painstakingly transferring it from cylinder, it more importantly illuminates the life and art of this mysterious figure as he navigated a complex, and as said, often ugly era of American history. Far from just a peak into the past, it has much to offer the present.


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