August 1999 (edited)
Cal Stewart and the British “Negro Laughing Song”
By Tim Brooks
In the course of compiling, with Brian Rust, The Columbia Master Book Discography, which covers U.S. Columbia disc recordings from 1901-1934, I encountered some real mysteries. Among the problematic recordings were several that were released in, or made exclusively for, England. This is the story of one of those recordings.
One of the most interesting personalities in the early days of recording was George W. Johnson, the first successful black artist, whose biography I am currently writing. He had a small repertoire, but two of his specialties, “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon,” were enormously successful in the U.S. He recorded them for numerous cylinder and disc labels between 1890 and 1910.
Johnson was one of Columbia’s best selling artists during the late 1890s, and when the company introduced disc records in late 1901 (on the Climax label), it promptly recorded him doing his two big titles. The numbers were 210 for “The Negro Laughing Song” (as Columbia called it) and 211 for “The Whistling Coon.” Judging by the numbers, early takes were presumably made during late 1901, although I have never seen a copy of either on the Climax label, which was in use until mid-1902. Both titles do turn up rather frequently on Columbia single face and double face discs, as well as on client labels. Toward the end of the single-face era “The Whistling Coon” was remade by Billy Murray (10-inch take 9), but all copies of “The Laughing Song” that I have ever seen or heard of are by Johnson. That includes six takes on four labels.
This is where the mystery begins. When English Columbia introduced double-faced discs in October 1907, one of its very first offerings was “Negro Laughing Song” on number D4—by Cal Stewart. The title was also available on single-face disc 210. On the reverse was Murray’s version of “The Whistling Coon” (211). The single-face numbers prove that these are U.S. recordings, but no copy of the disc has ever turned up to confirm the identities of the singers, or the takes used. A year later, when Columbia brought out double-discs in the U.S., it used Johnson’s version of the song. There was even a late take (take 12) issued in the U.S. on which Johnson’s original piano accompaniment was replaced with an orchestra.
It is a little strange that English Columbia chose to include these very American recordings on its inaugural double-face list. Possibly the fact that there had already been popular British versions of the songs by Burt Shepard and others led the company to think patrons might find U.S. versions amusing as well. Cal Stewart, who had previously recorded “The Laughing Song” for Edison in the U.S., was perhaps felt to be better known in England than Johnson.
To confuse the matter even further, matrix lists compiled by Columbia librarian Helene Chmura in the 1950s, from now-lost company files, identify the artist on 210 as Cal Stewart, not George W. Johnson. Oddly, Johnson’s name does not appear in these lists at all. Perhaps only the last artist to record a title was reflected in the files. Perhaps the Stewart take, whatever it was, was made especially for England. Until someone finds a copy of Columbia D4 we cannot be sure.
Poor old George, a former slave, suffered many indignities in his lifetime. Despite the fact that he had been one of Columbia’s best selling artists a few years earlier, it appears that the company had both of his trademark titles remade by others, while he was still alive. He couldn’t have laughed at that.
Following is a list of English versions of Johnson’s “Laughing Song” that I have identified to date. (Johnson’s own version was imported by Berliner in 1898, but was apparently available only briefly.) Additional information is welcome, as I am no expert on British recordings, and have probably missed some.
“The Laughing Song” (George. W. Johnson)
7” Gramophone 2-2030 (rel. Jan 02)
7” Gramophone 2-2164 (rel. Oct 02; also on Canadian Berliner 982)
10” Gramophone 2-2803 (rel. Jun 03)
7” Zonophone 42042 (as George Atkinson; rec. 5 Jan 04)
Zonophone 553 (1911)
HMV B468 (from 2-2803, rel. 1915)
Sterling cylinder 1102 (1907)
Pathe 1448 (8½-inch disc dubbed from the cylinder; rel. 1908)
Gramophone 2-2584 (rel. Feb 02)
7” Zonophone 42020 (31 Dec 03)
Edison Bell Winner 2060 (1912). “Johnson’s Laughing Song”
Scala Ideal 7025 (1923)
His widely recorded “Laughing Policeman” used Johnson’s melody with different lyrics. Among the recorded versions were the following. The 1934 Columbia catalog also contains a dozen “Laughing Policeman” sketches by Penrose.
Regal G7816 (as Charles Jolly, rel. Sep. 1922)
Regal G9391 (as Charles Jolly, rel. Nov. 1929)
Columbia DB 4014 (1926)
Columbia FB 1184 (1934)
Farkoa’s “Laughing Song” (“Le Fou Rire”) from An Artist’s Model is a different song altogether. The Syrian-born Farkoa (1864-1916) appeared in both the 1895 London and New York productions of the show and recorded this trademark number many times, in the U.S. on Berliner 1302 (8 May 1896) and Bettini (c.1896) and in Britain on 7” Berliner F2125/Gramophone 32125, 7” Berliner E2128/Gramophone 32128 (19 October 1898), 7” Gramophone 32651, 32654 (October 1899), Gramophone 32111 (1901), Zonophone X-2282 (1902), Gramophone GC 3-2261/HMV E325 (16 March 1905) and possibly others. Sung in French. Details on many of these can be found in Alan Kelly, His Master’s Voice/La Voix de Son Matre (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).
Sources: Jim Walsh, “In Justice to George Washington Johnson,” Hobbies, Feb. 1971;
Brian Rust, “British Berliner, G&T and Zonophone 7-Inch Records,” Talking Machine Review No. 63/64, Autumn, 1981;
Sydney H. Carter, A Catalogue of Sterling Cylinder Records (Talking Machine Review, 1975); and catalogs and records in the author’s collection.
My thanks to Frank Andrews for kindly providing a photocopy of “Columbia Double-Face Records, October 1907” (four page supplement published by the Columbia Phonograph Company, Gen’l, London). The record is also listed in Andrews’ valuable discography of British Columbia, Columbia 10” Records 1904-30 (CLPGS, 1985).