Tag Archives: henry burr

Canadian Music Archive Resource – The Virtual Gramophone

Press play.

Are we rolling?

Harry McDonough and Raymond Dixon perform in an a cappella recording of ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. The credited composer is Thomas Morley (1557-1602).

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Elsie Baker singing ‘One Sweetly Solemn Thought’.

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Paul Dufault performing ‘When Twilight Comes’ by Anton Strelezki.

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Albert P. Quesnel sings this French-language Easter song, ‘Hosanna’. Music composed by Jules Granier. Poem by Julien Eugéne H. Didiée.

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This recording features The BlackFeet Tribe, the same Navajo Indians recorded by Geoffrey O’Hara as discussed in previous post ‘Navajo Indian Songs’. This is their ‘Gambler’s Song’, performed by Medicine Bull, Sleeps Long Time, and Big Top.

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The song at the top of the entry is ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ performed by Knickerbocker Quartet and New York Military Band. All the songs featured here were recorded or released in 1914.

Columbia Mixed Quartet will play us out with ‘O, Canada’.

I visited Canada a few years ago. It was late 2008 and it was beautiful. There were red maple leaves everywhere. And I saw a squirrel. Earlier this year I visited Canada again, this time it was in 1914. While researching Canadian tenor Henry Burr, I discovered a wonderful resource of Canadian recordings online. The Virtual Gramophone project was discontinued in 2006, with only sporadic updates since then. There’s a lot of good stuff there, and plenty of material from 1914. It’s a pity it’s not still being added to regularly, the recordings available on The Virtual Gramophone represent only a portion of the 78-rpm and cylinders collection held by Library and Archives Canada. There’s good music in collections all over the world, music that’s being preserved but not enjoyed. I hope some discussion around archives might revive projects like The Virtual Gramophone. Musicians can cover some of these Canadian gems from 1914 to show that the archives are still relevant, a hundred years later. I’ve enjoyed lending my ear to these voices from history, and I’ve picked out some highlights. If listening to these songs isn’t enough for you, there’s loads more that you can discover for yourself.

On The Virtual Gramophone there are biographies of prominent Canadian performers of the time, chronologies of sound recording technologies and the sound recording industry, and collections such as ‘Songs of The First World War‘. According to the ‘About’ page on the site… In choosing the titles for digitization, only those recordings having Canadian content, such as a performer, composer or lyricist were digitized. Recordings where the music and lyrics are still under copyright in Canada or for which the copyright status could not be determined are not available on The Virtual Gramophone. In other words, it’s all in the public domain just waiting to be enjoyed by modern audiences and rediscovered by modern musicians. That’s what music is for.

Due to the nature of Hundred Years Late (the focus on a specific year), I had to find a hack to search The Virtual Gramophone by year. If you click on Search/Advanced Search and enter a comma between inverted commas as a search field and Year = 1914, you can browse the content available from that year.

Now if only you could find a link to The Virtual Gramophone!

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Happy Birthday Henry Burr

My research into the music of 1914 has turned up a lot of interesting figures. But I find none more compelling than Henry Burr. I found biographical information and partial discographies on a lot of websites. A full discography of Burr’s output would be almost impossible to compile. Henry Burr in 1918, picture from WikimediaHis career spanned over thirty years and by his own estimate he made over 12,000 recordings in this time (under a variety of pseudonyms). What grabbed me most was the music itself. Though we’re separated by a hundred years and music has undergone profound stylistic changes, I find many of his song choices to be truly timeless, songs I’m compelled to play and sing and work out for myself. I referred to him in a previous post as the Elvis of his day and, like Elvis, the songs he sang were written by others. Burr even sang ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. He was one of many artists to record the song that year but this was not at all unusual for the time. Most new popular songs were covered by several artists.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1927) and
You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away (1914)

Born Harry Haley McClaskey in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada in the 1880s, he had been singing in public since the age of five. His first notable concert was in St. John’s Opera House in April 1901 with Scottish soprano Jessie McLachlan. Later that year, again in St. John’s Opera House, his talent was noticed by Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Campanari, who insisted he go to New York for musical training. McClaskey moved to New York in 1902 and began taking lessons and singing with the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church choir. One of his teachers was Kate Stella Burr, in whose honour he adopted his most famous pseudonym. His recording career began (as Henry Burr) in New York in 1902 with Columbia Records. In 1904 he began recording with Edison Records as Irving Gillette. In 1905 he also recorded with Victor Records, again as Henry Burr and later as Harry McClaskey (his real name). He also released music under the names Henry Gillette, Alfred Alexander, Robert Rice, Carl Ely, Harry Barr, Frank Knapp, Al King, and Shamus McClaskey. These different names seem to have initially been used for releases from different recording companies, though I can find no consistent pattern in their usage throughout his career. Perhaps the purpose of his many pseudonyms was to frustrate future researchers and retain an air of historical mystique. Figures of this era are often wrapped in mystery. For example, one source claims he was born in 1882. Another says 1885, making him still a teenager when he embarked on his recording career. Whatever the year, all sources seem to agree on his birthday. It’s January 15. He would have been 132 (or 129) today.

Burr’s long and distinguished career included many collaborations. Vocal duets were common at the time and Burr sang with the most famous and celebrated female singers of the age, Ada Jones, Helen Clark, Elise Stevenson, Elizabeth Spencer, Elsie Baker, Marcia Freer and others. Male vocal duets were also common and Burr shared billing with Frank C. Stanley, Will Oakland, Joseph Belmont, Frank Croxton and others. Burr recorded many songs with Albert Campbell, who was also a collaborator in the vocal groups Peerless Quartet and Sterling Trio. These names are all searchable on National Jukebox, whose songs I’m unfortunately finding impossible to embed in WordPress. Not to worry, Henry Burr’s Herculean musical output has left in its wake some wonderful recordings in many other sources online.

Burr’s later career was spent as Director of the Artist’s Bureau at CBS radio, and from 1935 he continued to perform as a regular on the WLS Chicago National Barn Dance which was broadcast on NBC on Saturday evenings. He remained a featured performer on the show until shortly before his death in 1941 from throat cancer.

It was stumbling across a Henry Burr song in the archives that initially gave me the idea for this blog. Figuring out the music and singing it in my own voice convinced me that there are music archives full of gems waiting to be rediscovered by modern musicians. Now that I’m in a bit deeper and have been poring over these resources for months, I’m more convinced than ever. Unfortunately I haven’t recorded my own versions of the Henry Burr songs yet, you’ll have to wait a few months for them. Perhaps after recording an album of songs from 1914, I’ll attempt an entire album of Henry Burr covers. With over 12,000 recordings to his name (or rather, his many names), being short on material wouldn’t be a concern. And though what I’ve listened to so far could be considered a drop in the ocean, Henry Burr hasn’t disappointed. The songs he chooses to sing are inventive and interesting, his performances brimming with emotion, his voice smooth and warm and clear, cutting through the static of the last century. Happy birthday, old man.

Let’s Make Music. Let’s Make History.

There are many projects in Digital Humanities which need active participation from a community of users in order to grow. The most famous and staggering example is Wikipedia, a vast Encyclopedia of human knowledge produced, edited and updated by its own users, generously donating their time and expertise to make it an invaluable resource for millions of people. New technology has enabled the interconnectivity of scattered users throughout the world, based not on geography but on the interests of those people. Clay Shirky spoke of ‘cognitive surplus’, the generosity of these scattered users uniting for a common goal, contributing to a collaborative project of some kind, using their own free time, resources and expertise to build something for the common good.

There are also many projects in Digital Humanities which seek to digitise archived material to give it new value. Once text is digitised and collated in a computer system, it becomes possible to perform text mining and other technologically advanced techniques to obtain new meaning and insights from the material.

Music is a special case among these archived materials. A computer algorithm cannot analyse and extract meaning from a sound recording to the same degree that it can ‘understand’ text. For archived music, human ears and listening is required. Metadata is often attached to a music file. In the case of a wax record from a hundred years ago being transferred to .mp3 or .wav format, the kind of dry information that is typically attached will not answer the kinds of questions a musician, or indeed a casual listener, might want to ask.




Four very different interpretations of
When You’re a Long Long Way from Home
performed and recorded since 1914.

I would contend that music itself is alive. Songs are not static and unchanging, good songs are malleable things. A strong melody can be transposed in style from jazz to classical to rock. It can survive and thrive in different time signatures, at different tempos, on different instruments. A good song can be reinterpreted and reimagined to suit the sensibilities and peculiar gifts of the musician or musicians reworking it. A hundred different singers will sing it a hundred different ways. Just listen to these strikingly different versions of the same song. It was recorded by influential R&B outfit The Orioles in 1951, by Bing Crosby and The Paradise Isle Trio in 1954, Buffalo Bills in 1961 and the final version was performed by The Fralinger String Band earlier this year. Across these different versions the song went from soul to soft jazz to barbershop to bluegrass banjo/string band. And the first recording I can find of this song is by Henry Burr in 1914. Interestingly, Henry Burr recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. You could say he was the Elvis of his day.

Music, more than most literary forms, can have an immediate emotional impact. It is a uniquely personal and emotional form of human expression. I recently read a thought-provoking post entitled ‘Emotion, Archives, Interactive Fiction, and Linked Data’ on Mark A. Motienzo’s blog. In it, he examines the idea that archives can be repositories of emotion, appealing not merely to the academic or the intellectual parts of our minds, but connecting very powerfully with our emotional cores. It occurs to me that music archives have the power to move us like no other archives.

You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away
Sung by Manuel Romain in 1914
A fine example of emotion in the archives.



File embedded from
The Internet Archive (archive.org)

As a musician and songwriter myself, I’m very interested in old songs. What made them different from songs today? What makes a song timeless? The archived music from 1914 is fascinating. In terms of sound quality, it’s sometimes grainy and muffled. The old recordings are scratchy, the bass end is missing, the overall sound fidelity leaves an awful lot to be desired. Apart from the sound quality, I’m struck by how different the vocal stylings are from what’s common today. Most singers then were accustomed to performing without electrical amplification, they projected their voices to fill large rooms in an operatic style. Backing music was typically ornate and orchestral. The modern drum kit barely existed yet, most songs had none, and the rhythm would slow down and speed up in response to the crescendos and mood of the vocal performance. All of these features make these songs very different from most modern songs.

Part of my exploration of music archives has been to find songs that still feel relevant, though they were being performed a hundred years ago. The process of finding these songs has been quite organic. I don’t have specific criteria, I’m just looking for songs that I like. I want to undertake a project that allows me to indulge my passion for music in a hands-on creative way. The idea of methodically cataloguing music archives or some such other typically-academic project was intimidating in its scale and would likely never be completed. There are thousands of archives on the Internet, some in private collections only available to certain academic institutions and/or paid subscribers. I found the idea of reinterpreting one song at a time much more exciting. The idea becomes more exciting still if lots of people decide to do it – it can become a community of curators and creators. When I sat down at my piano and figured out the chords to some of these songs, they came alive again. Immediately, as musicians do, I was thinking about how I would rearrange and rework them to suit my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. Compositionally, I found the chords interesting, sometimes jazzy, sometimes presciently modern in feel. Some very sophisticated musical ideas were hiding behind those scratchy old recordings. I felt like I learned a lot in the process of reinterpreting them. And I found it so enjoyable, I thought perhaps other musicians would enjoy it too.

Picture of The Edison Phonograph Player

The Edison Phonograph Cylinder Player, an early record player. In 1914, cylinders were losing out to the new disc format in the first commercial format war of recorded music.

Music recording software has allowed many people to have a functional recording studio in their home. There’s a legion of bedroom producers out there who are making incredible music across all kinds of genres. I began thinking how brilliant it would be to harness some of that talent and creativity and direct it to an archive-revival project, taking those old songs and reworking them into something new and unique. Picking a hundred years ago as a starting point will ensure most songs are out of copyright, allowing musicians to experiment with them however they please. In 1914, recorded music was in its infancy. That’s a good place to start. That narrow time-frame will make this a focused cohesive blog. Hundred Years Late will be a forum for musicians to showcase their talents and share the songs they found most interesting. Contributors will be encouraged to write about what they have recorded, why they picked the song, any historical background, links to the archived version (where possible), lyrics, score, chords etc, anything the musician wants to include. Other visitors to the blog can comment, perhaps contributing other historical information or links to further resources on the song.

As the collection grows, the links to various scattered archives will start to amass as contributors and enthusiasts find more archived material. Ultimately this will make the blog a valuable resource about where to find music from this era. If this project aims to mirror the archives a hundred years later, it will be an incomplete picture. Not every archived song will grab the attention of modern listeners and inspire musicians to record a cover version. But it will encourage engagement with music archives and salvage from obscurity some absolutely wonderful songs that have a lot to offer modern audiences and a lot to teach modern songwriters. If it works like I’m hoping it will, it can be a vivid, creative and vibrant community. The more musicians, contributors, followers and enthusiasts we can attract, the better the resource will become.

To get the ball rolling, I’m going to upload a couple of songs I’ve recorded. Each blog entry will include background info contributed by the musician, a link to the source version in an archive (where available), the contributor’s version of the song in some streamable format (YouTube video, Soundcloud widget, anything WordPress-compatible). Hopefully other user comments will provide further metadata. This ‘music-blog’ style arrangement allows the contributors to host the Be Creative!music however they please and retain control of it. It also seems to be a manageable format from my point of view. If musicians email me with their work, I can compose the posts in a consistent format and maintain the focus of the blog as a Digital Humanities project and a resource on archived music. I’ve posted a video on YouTube that introduces the project and outlines its objectives. It would be good of you to share it, especially among Digital Humanities practitioners, lecturers and students and most importantly, musicians who enjoy a challenge.

If you like this idea, please help me run with it. Tell people. Tweet and talk.