Frank Banta’s Greatest Hit

A question that phonograph collectors and historians often get asked is, “what was the most popular song to be recorded in the 1890s?” This question can be difficult to answer depending upon the criteria, and the sort of analysis you want to do. In this period, there was a distinct structure of the class of each type of popular music. Opera and classical were always the highest on this scale, and ragtime was the lowest, but even though people would almost always claim opera was their favorite, the reality of what was most popular could come as a surprise to some. The record that almost always shows up in lots of brown wax is some version of “The Laughing Song” (or “The Holy City” if you really know your cylinders). People often speak of this song in terms of its obvious popularity, as it can be found all over the place on the internet nowadays. While this can come as a little annoying to seasoned collectors, it continues to be rightfully placed in history. The piece was initially recorded by the first black recording artist George W. Johnson, and soon he became known for this very song. Whil
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R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.

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