At this point in my career, I suppose it is unlikely that I shall ever be invited to give my lecture on Victorian Adaptations of New Communications technologies, in which I discuss, briefly, Thomas Edison’s career in pornographic phonograph records. It is not the best known of his inventions, but Thomas Edison was the originator of what used to be known as the Party record: records which were made well into the 1960s featuring songs and comedy routines which could not be played over the radio. Only a dozen or so of these survive from the early Edison cylinder days, but because Edison was also a pioneering businessman who kept data on everything he sold, we know there were many more.
It was one of several missteps Tom made in the marketing of his phonograph and the recordings. He thought home recording, not prerecorded stuff, would be the big moneymaker, he thought cylinders would eventually supersede discs, he felt faster playback speeds made for better and more saleable records, and he figured his naughty records (or, as one of his technicians labeled them, “SMUT”) would sell to the new Phonograph Bars, drinking establishments where you could buy a schooner of beer for a nickel and give another nickel to the bartender to put a particular record on the phonograph. Turned out this last was totally wrong: his sales records show exactly what came to be the norm, that people bought the naughty records to play at home, at parties for special friends.
Then, as now, what sold to the bars were the weepies, because men drinking late like to cry in their beer. The Victorian era was filled with songs of dead mothers, dead fathers, dead sweethearts, dead children, or at least people who were very ill (and would die after getting to see that loved one one last time). When that failed, songs of hearts broken beyond repair were a good substitute. We have, for example, this little number, about a little girl who has been crying because her Mama and papa are separated and now she can’t see her daddy any more.
(This song, from 1906, inspired by a line in the Book of Isaiah, was harshly criticized from the pulpit, as it misinterpreted the verse, implying that the little child mentioned in the prophecy would lead grown-ups, whereas she is actually leading only that lion and lamb that are going to lie down together. This still troubles some folks.)
The first pop song to sell a million copies (of sheet music) was “After the Ball”, about a man whose heart is broken and many years later discovers he jumped to the wrong conclusion and could have lived happily ever after all. (Twisting the knife in a final verse was also very lucrative.)
There are lots of postcards from the Postcard craze before World War I based on “After the Ball”. Oddly, for every one that weeps with the hero of the song, there are two showing drunks staggering home “after the ball” and three showing billiards players or baseball players or football players “after the ball.” Sad songs were so popular that of course cartoonists and comedians couldn’t help making fun of them.
Sweet Adeline, saluted above as the Bottle Hymn of the Republic, is just such a song of yearning, as a man wonders what became of his longlost girlfriend. It became practically the definition of men who had had a glass or two too many sobbing away at the lyrics.
But there were many others, perhaps best exemplified by this little number. “By the Sad Sea Waves” was a song of summer romance that ended, and you can see how effective it was: the man is crying, the waves are crying, the clouds are crying, and even the dog is crying. All of them are clearly ripe for a call of “Bartender! Set up another round!”