There’s a big misconception about the recording artists of the earliest days. Because the industry was centered in the Northeast, particularly around New York City, Philadelphia, and parts of New Jersey, the idea has persisted that it was a lot of “elite” artists and musicians making records to suit the tastes of sophisticated urbanites. Only when the industry began scouring the country for “authentic” musical traditions did they find the real America—or so the thinking has been.
It is true, to some extent, that the companies desired to put what they considered the best of mostly Western musical tradition on record. That’s a discussion for another time.
But the idea of the artists being “elites”—that is a concept that needs to be stamped out. If becoming a recognized personality on records sounds like making it to the big time—it wasn’t. Consumers early on weren’t particular about who was on their record; they just wanted the song or comedy routine or whistling solo. That means that the performers were simply hired hands, but if they were good and reliable, they could keep the gig going for months or years. It was a better life than most of them had had up till then.
Funnyman Cal Stewart was a railroad brakeman in Decatur, Illinois, who lost a finger and two toes in an accident before he made it to the stage, and then into the studio. Irish emigré George J. Gaskin spent many years in the Midwest as a carpenter until he finally made it in New York as a popular tenor. Comic singer Dan W. Quinn was an iron moulder. John Bieling was a stained glass maker. J. J. Fisher ran a “dyeing and scouring” company; there was a benzine explosion at his shop in 1894 (fortunately no injuries). African American artists such as Charles Asbury and the Unique Quartette were hotel workers and entertainers by day who managed to make a few extra bucks at the recording studio.
Earning a living by the sweat of their brow, these folks had more in common than might seem apparent with southern hillbilly artists, many of whom worked in fields, or in cotton mills or coal mines.