San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

October 22nd, 2008
Hap Mansfield’s Blog: Remembering Mr. Edison’s machine

“Every girl wants to marry a soldier.
Somehow the girlies all know–
They’ll be true
And they’ll do
Anything that you say–
A soldier’s been taught how to love and obey.
A soldier can stand any hardship,
Even a mother-in-law!
They’ll feed and clothe the babies oh so tenderly
Because they’ve been a member of the infant-ry.
Oh yes, they all want to marry a soldier
And you can’t blame the girlies at all!”

Arthur Fields
“You Can’t Blame the Girlies At All”

When my dad was a kid, he spent countless hours in front of an old gramophone listening to the records at his uncle Charlie’s farm. I suppose that’s what made him such a huge fan of Al Jolson, a fading entertainer when my dad was a boy. The old gramophone was the only source of entertainment out in Lohrville, Iowa, with its landscape of corn, sheep, mud, pigs, chickens and cows. Imagine how amazing it was to hear recorded music in this environment back in the 1930s. The radio station his uncle listened to was rife with sermons and farm reports, ending its broadcast day at 9 p.m. The only way a pre-teen could get a lick of music around there was those old, heavy, brittle, out-dated recordings.

Dad inherited that gramophone and we were often regaled with the tunes that brought back his youth: the above quoted rousing WWI song “You Can’t Blame The Girlies At All,” the loopy prohibition ditty “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar,” the ribald “Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private with a Chicken on Your Knee?”  and “If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Good-Night Germany!”

Of course, the ubiquitous Jolson’s “Mammy,” “Sonny Boy” and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” were also played, just to name a few. Arthur Fields, Harry Lauder, Jolson and the waltzes and German drinking songs of Rudolph Friml plied our ears with their tinny scratchy-sounding music.

The playing of these records induced much eye rolling from me. I grew up at my own grandfather’s house where Bluegrass ruled the radio and I found my dad’s tunes dated and silly. Such is the evolution of musical taste with kids. I still love my Rocket From The Crypt CDs but Bluegrass always brings a tear of familiar joy to my eyes. Perhaps someday the Kaiser Chiefs or George Strait will bring a tear from your own children. Perhaps the Beatles or the Statler Brothers or Metallica already have.

My brother inherited that dratted gramophone and he diligently kept all the records. I say “dratted” because when we moved to San Marcos, getting that heavy thing out of the old house and into the new one was a hernia waiting to happen. That thing weighs a ton. My cell-phone, light as a feather, was in my purse waiting to play all the music I wanted as we dragged in “gramaphonus rex” and its accompanying heavy recordings.

Yet it behooves us all to remember that Thomas Edison and his machine-made music changed the texture of our culture just as dramatically as Henry Ford’s infernal horseless carriage. Edison’s first machine played cylinders, back 1877, rather than the familiar (well, not so familiar now) flat record.  Edison, at the time, felt the machine was more suited to the spoken word than to music.

You can learn all about this and hear an actual 1909 cylinder phonograph at Doug Skinner’s lecture Thursday at the Texas State’s Music Building Recital Hall. Skinner will give the free lecture twice, once at 6 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. His presentation will trace the development of the first phonograph from concept to reality, highlighting America’s fascination and demand for music in the home.

If recorded music on the radio, or on your “Close and Play”, or on your Hi-Fi or on your IPod, has ever moved you, this lecture will trace the path of how that music got to your ears. Only a hundred years ago the idea of a kid in North Dakota being able to immediately hear and buy the newest tunes from London seemed like science fiction.

Imagine a world with no recordings of Chick Webb, Bix Beiderbeck, Mildred Bailey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Caruso, David Bowie, the White Stripes, Hank Williams or Bob Wills or…well…anyone you can listen to now, thanks to Mr. Edison’s Machine. He made all that, and so much more, possible. All of it started from the machine Skinner will be playing Thursday.

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One thought on “Hap Mansfield’s Blog: Remembering Mr. Edison’s machine

  1. This is fascinating. It’s great to know when lectures like this are happening in San Marcos. By the way, this site has the best calendar of local events I’ve seen.

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