Listening to Diamond Discs

There are now approximately 5,000 digital transcriptions of Edison Diamond Disc recordings, dating from 1910 to 1929, available on the website of the Discography of American Historical Recordings, with more to come in the future. For those who choose to listen, this vast sonic archive has much to tell us about American music and culture in the early twentieth century. Of course, one can simply click "play" and be entertained by music that served that same purpose a century ago. Sentimental favorites like "I'll take you home again, Kathleen," (one of Thomas Edison's personal favorites), [Disc #80160] sit alongside feistier fare, like "Doo Wacka Doo" [Disc #51420] and the operatic arias of great composers of the past, such as "Ah! Mon Fils," by Giacomo Meyerbeer, [Disc #80766]. As several other essays posted on this website make clear, the Diamond Disc repertoire includes hidden gems from early jazz musicians as well as important performances by classical artists.[1] But those records, while significant, do not really typify the collection as a whole. Traditional mainstays of popular music dominated both the catalogue and the company's bottom line, and it is this music - remarkably unremarkable as much of it is - that best exemplifies the Diamond Disc offerings.

From brass bands to vocal solos, artistic whistlers and ukulele strummers, the collection presents a sonic cornucopia of American popular music. Selections range from the sublime to the absurd, with the majority constituting a "middle-brow" repertoire of the tunes and light classical selections favored by the comfortable class. Only the families of white-collar professionals, of reasonably prosperous farmers or businessmen, could afford the $250 phonographs required to play these records at a time when that sum represented several months' salary for unskilled factory workers.

What did these families get for their money? In addition to the aforementioned entertainment value, Diamond Disc customers got the best-sounding acoustical phonograph of its day. Thomas Edison was a master of hype, but in this case, the product lived up to its publicity. Compared to other phonographs and records of the early twentieth century, the Diamond Discs offered a rich, clear sound that was superior to that produced by its rivals.[2] Nonetheless, while millions of Edison's disc records were sold, they were never as popular as those of the industry leader, Victor, for Victor had a lock on the famous artists that people most wanted to hear. Since it is likely that only a small number of Edison customers were as obsessed with sound quality as was the hearing-impaired inventor himself, it follows that the repertoire - the songs - of the Diamond Disc records accounted for much of their appeal. What can we learn about America then, by considering these songs? If we listen carefully to them, not just as entertainment but as documents of their day, what do they have to say?

At first glance, a listener might assume that early twentieth-century Americans were a pastoral people. Numerous song titles evoke tales of birds, breezes, and flowers in a perpetual springtime kissed with dew in the daytime and moonlight at night. Listen, for a typical example recorded in 1912, to tenor Albert Shaw sing "In the Valley Where the Bluebirds Sing" [Disc #50062]. Or enjoy a duet by Vernon Archibald and Helen Clarke, "When the Twilight Comes to Kiss the Rose Goodnight" [Disc #80145].

Many of these sentimental songs harken back to "Old Dixie" and conjure visions of peaceful plantations populated with happy "darkies." Such records - which were not exclusive to the Edison label - perpetuated a longstanding minstrel tradition in American popular music, whereby (mostly) white performers sang songs that embodied degrading racial stereotypes of African-Americans while often simultaneously exploiting aspects of African-American music that were becoming increasingly compelling to listeners of all races. One of the earliest "hit records" in the years just after the phonograph's invention, "The Whistling Coon," was recorded for numerous companies by numerous artists in the 1890s. It still echoed forth twenty years later on a 1918 Diamond Disc record by the Empire Vaudeville Company [Disc #50478]. In sharp contrast to this sonic continuity, in 1918 the racial geography of the United States was in the midst of sweeping change. A great migration was under way, as Black farm families in the rural south pulled up stakes and headed toward new opportunities in the industrial cities of the north. But Diamond Disc records like "Little Pickaninny Kid" [Disc #80651] seemed to deny this fact and attempted to preserve within their grooves a past where such people knew their place and stayed put.

Numerous records tapped into ethnic stereotypes, too, including "hillbillies" and recent immigrants like Italians and Jews. Listeners were entertained by the exaggerated accents, and no doubt laughed at the naiveté and ignorance of the characters in these portrayals, as the recorded voices puzzled over such mysteries of modern life as automobile repair as in "Goldberg's Automobile Troubles," [Disc #51179], electric lights, skyscrapers, and elevators as depicted in "A Country Fiddler Gets New Thrills," [Disc #51048/Cylinder #4734].[3]

Perhaps Diamond Disc listeners actually sympathized with these characters, even as they laughed at the malapropisms and mishaps on record. Perhaps they, too, were challenged by the rapid technological changes that the country was undergoing alongside the epic movement of people into and across the nation. Not just automobiles and skyscrapers, but subways, factory assembly lines, and other modern inventions were rapidly transforming the American landscape and populating it with new, fast-paced machines. Many Diamond Disc records speak to a deeply felt longing for a bygone era; they yearn for leisurely days and homespun ways. But in fact, this simpler version of America had never really existed. The artists who wrote and sang these songs were conjuring up a mythic past designed more to alleviate worries about the present than to accurately represent the past. Edison consumers, in choosing to be entertained by these kinds of songs, turned their front parlors into shelters from the winds of change that blew around them, sonic refuges where time stood still, as frozen in place as the sounds etched onto the hard, shiny surface of a Diamond Disc. By playing these records, listeners sought escape from the challenges of living in the present, if only for the four minutes that each song lasted.

This implicitly therapeutic approach to Diamond Disc music was rendered explicit when the Edison company developed the Mood Music marketing campaign in the early 1920s. Working with Dr. Walter Van Dyke Bingham, an applied psychologist at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Mood Music offered listeners a systematic index to dozens of Diamond Disc records, all organized by the emotional effect that each record was scientifically proven to elicit in its listener. Choose the mood you sought to possess - wistfulness, peace, joy, pep - and the guide told you which record would get you there.[4]

The Mood Music campaign never really captured an audience. Thomas Edison personally disliked it, and Diamond Disc consumers proved equally unwilling to embrace this overtly functionalist approach to listening. Perhaps the index was ultimately unnecessary, since so many Diamond Disc records were already effectively serving as a different kind of "mood music." By evoking an imaginary past when life was simple and change was slow, Diamond Disc records offered musical reassurance. They comforted middle-class listeners discomfited by the social and cultural changes that characterized their lives. The instigators and innovators behind those changes, as well as those who sought to leverage such change to improve their lot in America and to join the comfortable class, probably listened to other kinds of records.[5]

While each different Diamond Disc record has its own song to sing, its particular story to tell, the collection as a whole carries a larger message that speaks to American life - and how it was changing - in the early decades of the twentieth century. The titles listed so comprehensively in this rich discography hint at this message. By actually listening to these songs - a wonderful opportunity that this digital archive makes easily possible for the first time in over a century - this cumulative history is sounded loudly and clearly to anyone who cares to listen.

-Dr. Emily Thompson, Professor of History, Princeton University


[1] See Dr. Derek Katz, "'Classical' Music on Edison Records," and David Sager, "Jazz and Hot Dance on Edison Records."

[2] For more on the sonic quality of Diamond Disc phonographs, see Emily Thompson, "Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925." The Musical Quarterly 79 (Spring 1995): 131-171.

[3] While listed in the Discography of American Historical Recordings, "A Country Fiddler Gets New Thrills" is not currently available for listening there. It can be heard at the Internet Archive: or on UCSB's companion Cylinder Audio Archive, which has a version dubbed from the disc:

[4] See Michael Sherman's essay in this online collection, "Edison Mood Music," for more.

[5] At the same time that the Edison Company was presenting its Mood Music campaign, African-American entrepreneur Harry Pace was establishing Black Swan Records, a record company dedicated to offering recordings of performances by African-American musicians that transcended the stereotypes perpetuated by virtually all mainstream recording companies at the time. See David Suisman, "Co-Workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African-American Music," Journal of American History 90 (March 2004): 1295-1324.