In another review this month I mention my 78 record-crate digging style; one part of my process is always to put aside Collins and Harlan records for careful consideration. They aren’t uncommon—they were top sellers in America for decades—but they achieved that celebrity by being wonderfully, rhythmically, entertaining.
Eventually, their style was overshadowed by changes in public taste during the jazz age; ultimately they were forgotten because so much of their material was racially derogatory or aimed at a rural demographic—and all of it was acoustically recorded. Even so, if you are setting out to understand the popular music of the early 20th century there is no more enjoyable way to do it than with Collins and Harlan. Happily, you won’t need to dig through crates of 78s to do so. Archeophone has released a choice collection of their material restored to the highest fidelity possible, with a carefully chosen set of 29 tunes that trace their musical evolution between 1902 and 1924.
This album is part of Archeophone’s Anthology series. The label is most recognizable for their Phonographic Yearbook series, which features recordings from a specific year: 1902, 1914, etc. It speaks to the prominence of Collins and Harlan that they are the most represented artists in that series. They were long overdue for the deeper dive taken here.
Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan were both successful on their own, and worked within a cohort of vocal stars in various quartets and duet pairs, but when paired together there was a special chemistry, and the public began to demand it. In the free-for-all that was the early recording industry, there is nothing comparable to their quarter-century partnership, from 1901 to the late 1920s. They were never tied to one studio the way many other stars were. They lived near Edison studios, but as Billy Murray gripes in the album notes they could “smell” a new recording studio and beat other popular artists to their door. They made thousands of recordings, on nearly every label of the period.
Arthur Collins was born to a sea captain father in 1864, sailing with him from a very young age, His father retired to New Jersey when Arthur was a teenager. He was known for both singing and imitations from a very young age. He left home to study opera and pursue a stage career that through the 1890s was unremarkable. His big break came when he was invited to record for Edison in 1898. He recorded primarily as a soloist, but was also paired with a succession of other singers, including his own wife. He was apparently considered hard to work with, and his partner before Harlan ended their partnership in late 1902.
Byron Harlan was born next to a covered wagon in Kansas in 1861 and his family eventually homesteaded in the Dakota Territory. Known for his singing around the farm, he was given lessons in Sioux Falls in 1879 and then pursued a career in traveling opera companies. In 1890, about as early in the recording era as you can get, he waxed several cylinders for the South Dakota Phonograph Company, but unfortunately none have been found. For the rest of the decade he toured with stage shows, eventually being invited in 1899 to record for Edison Records in East Orange, New Jersey. From that point on it would be the studio, rather than the stage, that was the focus of his career.
First paired by Edison in November 1902, Collins and Harlan took their act to every studio of the era, from Indestructible and Columbia to Zon-o-Phone and Lambert. The liner notes emphasize how they were at the fore of every subtle change in recording, including being among the first to appear on 4 minute records. The notes, stretching to 36 pages, go on to tell the story of their career together as the recording industry matured around them and jazz and then radio entered the scene. They made their final recordings together in 1924, though continued to appear on stage for Edison for several more years, and Harlan, at least, never wanted to retire at all.
The notes also include an interesting descriptive reprinted from the Columbia Record of April 1908, and a hefty paragraph about each of the selections. The tracks are in chronological order, and though they can be closely listened to as presented, this anthology is absent one thing you might anticipate. Moving from 1902 through 1924 you might expect, and accept, that the earliest recordings be grainy, even hard to hear. Between the availability of high quality source material, and the ever improving field of audio restoration, that is not the case here. If you put this album on shuffle, only an expert could sort the tracks by year, basing their decisions on factors other than the fidelity.
The titles demonstrate a variety of styles, from sentimental songs to the comedy routines they were best known for. Even if early popular recordings are not your interest, the infectious talent of this pair is unmistakable. This collection is not simply educational—it is also a pure joy to listen to, and I can see it becoming a personal favorite of many.
Archeophone has mostly, but not entirely, avoided the most problematic lyrics, including only tracks that allow you to appreciate the skill on display without hesitation. Several ethnic comedies are included including “When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band” and “Arrah Wanna” (about an Irishman’s courtship of an “Indian Maid”), but these are gentle for the time period.
The act they were most known for is Collins playing as “Henry” with Harlan acting the part of “Dinah.” The selections demonstrating this pairing are racially uncharged aside from the use of dialect itself. These include such delightful period hits as “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’.” They alter Irving Berlin’s lyric into a dialogue so they can play their male and female roles.
Many singing styles are represented, from the harder than it seems unison singing of chorus and lyric on “Out in an Automobile,” to the woven melodies of “I’m Dreaming of You,” from 1905. The accompaniment evolves from a simple piano backing to orchestration by Charles A. Prince to increasingly rag-a-jazz backing groups. Ragtime abounds, as it was broadly understood at the time to include any syncopated popular music that wasn’t a march or other obvious form. “That Sneaky Snakey Rag” from 1912 is a fine example. “The Aba Daba Honeymoon” is another one, and a fine illustration of their animal imitations, in this case a romantic pair of monkeys down in the jungle. Timing is everything, and Collins and Harlan’s timing, both musically and comically, was perfection.
The theatric spectacle reaches a high point in the mid teens with elaborately festive tracks like “Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner,” and “Charlie Chaplin’s Feet.” One three-minute side captures the feeling of going out to a full stage show. The album also includes their historically important recordings of “Memphis Blues, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” both brilliant.
The bunching of these recordings in the early teens, and their sparsity after 1917, illustrates Collins and Harlan’s inability to keep up with public tastes after a certain point. “That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland” and “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” both released in 1917, show their willingness, but by this time these were men in their 50s, champions of a style that had seen its peak 15 to 20 years before. The last track “Sister Hasn’t Got a Chance Since Mother Bobbed Her Hair,” recorded in 1924, sees the mother’s demographic, not the sister’s, as the target audience.
Their careers would wind down but their style of interrogative comedy would continue as a prominent part of American entertainment up to this day. Archeophone has produced a real gem here. Our forebears were not as tin-eared or corny as many might imagine them to be and listening to the recordings of this era can open us up to the universality of our shared experience. Titles like “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!” still bring a knowing smile. I heartily recommend this release to both the history-minded and anyone who believes talent is timeless.
Collins and Harlan Anthology:
America’s Favorite Entertainers
Popular Selections 1902-1924
Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan
Archeophone ARCH 5507