Chinatown

October 5, 2009

sheetmusiccoverIn 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he envisioned a machine that would be used primarily as a business tool, to aid in stenography. He also considered educational and historical uses, such as recording the last words of the dying (very important in the Victorian culture of death). He did not realize that widely-distributed commercial recorded sound would become a touchstone of modern popular culture, and for a time he fought against such uses. He lost this fight, though, and within twenty-five years, wax cylinders and phonograph records were hugely popular and widely available. Instead of aiding secretaries in dictation, the phonograph was carrying all the latest music.  In addition to light opera, speeches, band music, ragtime, and polkas, “ethnic” recordings were common.   These trafficked in extreme stereotypes and casual racism that are shocking to our sensibilities today: Irish drunks, subservient plantation coons, and tight-fisted Jews are among the characters and subjects in these recordings. That leads us to today’s tune, In Blinky Winky Chinky Chinatown, recorded in 1915 by the Peerless Quartet for Victor Records. It begins with a few seconds of comical “Asian” sounding music (still familiar to us today, I would guess partly through cartoon music).  Later, we also get gongs, flutes, and nonsense Chinese-sounding syllables. In full harmony, Schwartz and Jerome paint a vaguely exotic, opium-addled Chinatown, where Sing and Hop pick poppies and dreamy dreamers dream sweet dreams. It fits nicely in a long tradition of musical Orientalism, filtered here through the popular musical tastes of the time. And on a technical note, despite being made in the acoustic recording era, the sound is remarkably clear.

Sheet music with lyrics

In Blinky Winky Chinky Chinatown – Peerless Quartet (1915)

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