In December 2010, a mysterious banjo tune popped up on a website devoted to early recordings. Even by that definition, this song stood out. It dated to when Grover Cleveland occupied the White House, opening with a crackle before the steady voice of Charles Asbury introduces himself and his performance of “Haul the Woodpile Down.” Seven seconds in, Asbury was off, plucking out dazzling runs and singing with confidence.
Dan Gellert, a banjo player and amateur historian, stumbled upon Asbury’s performance during his periodic browsing of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s online archive. He was stunned.
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“Haul the Woodpile Down,” he realized, was a sonic time capsule, a musical missing link from the minstrel shows that dominated the 1800s before fading near the turn of the century.
Gellert immediately wrote to David Seubert, who oversees UCSB’s special collections.
“Think of what it would be like to have a recording of one of Bach’s solo violin pieces being played by one of Bach’s contemporaries,” Gellert gushed. “To a student of early banjo music, that is pretty nearly the sort of treasure you have here!”
Eight years later, “Haul the Woodpile Down” and three other Asbury songs — newly digitized and none of them likely heard for a century — are being released on a 45 record by Archeophone Records. And as is typical of the Illinois-based specialty label, the music is only part of the mix. The package includes a lengthy booklet detailing the story of Asbury, a once-prolific artist who died in obscurity only a decade after recording “Woodpile.”
It’s a story as much about race and identity as Asbury’s blazing technique. The musician himself was identified, at different times, as both black and white. Archeophone’s Rich Martin, who researched Asbury, concluded that he was black. Race also plays into the material itself. The minstrel era is a controversial chapter in U.S. entertainment culture, with songs meant to mock black people. And Asbury’s performances included slurs, which is why Archeophone is releasing the record with a warning for “racially derogatory language.”
“My Asbury’s work is full of ginger, and is always pleasing, his songs being rendered in the good old plantation negro style,” an 1894 catalogue entry unearthed by Archeophone reads, defining the music as “Darkey songs with banjo accompaniment.”
Debbie Trice, Asbury’s great-granddaughter and a black woman, says that it’s important to view the songs within the context of the times. She draws a comparison with 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”
“A lot of people were very upset with the actress Butterfly McQueen,” Trice says. “Hey, you need to earn a living, and if the dominant white culture is going to pay you a living wage to perform, you take your money and you go live happily and lucratively in your own community.”
Trice, who lives in Florida, didn’t know much about her great-grandfather until Martin got in touch with her. In the digital age, when liner notes have been reduced to a song name scrolling across a streaming playlist, the husband-and-wife team of Martin and Meagan Hennessey are an anomaly. They gather rarities from the earliest era of recordings, research the music and put out entire books of analysis alongside the music. They’ve won awards, including a Grammy for best historical album in 2006 for “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922.”
But they are clearly not in it for the money. Archeophone does small pressings that target music geeks, scholars and lovers of vaudeville. They’re starting with just 1,000 Asbury sets, which they’ll sell for $16.99. And Hennessey continues to work in information technology for the University of Illinois.
What drives Martin and Hennessey is the visceral feeling of discovering “the keys to the secret room.”
“There’s this artificial wall that’s put up by record companies, record labels, record stores, libraries and bookstores,” Martin says. “You can go back to Elvis pretty easily, but before that, forget it. But if you go to a record store and they happen to have 78s and you haven’t seen some 78s since your grandparents and you take a couple of them home, the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”
The Asbury recordings actually predate 78-rpm records. The earliest and first widely successful commercial recordings were made on brown wax cylinders, and the Asbury songs were among them.
The recordings were rare because not many were made and cylinder players generally were not in homes. They were used as coin-operated jukeboxes in entertainment arcades and were tossed when owners got new records.
So that made Los Angeles-based collector John Levin’s find even more notable.
Levin has a house packed with cylinders. He estimates that he has more than 1,000 from before 1898, which he considers the earliest era of recordings. Levin has also spent close to a decade creating a machine that will draw out sound that you couldn’t hear on an 1890s player. His CPS1, which stands for cylinder playback system, retails for about $20,000.
On a recent afternoon, at his dining room table, Levin sifted through an 1892 catalogue from the New Jersey Phonograph Co.
“What you see is page after page of titles that don’t exist anymore,” he said. “Artists we’ve never heard. This is like the incunable of books. For the most part gone. Not to be found. It’s not out there.”
He found “Haul the Woodpile Down” in a box of cylinders he bought for $600 a few years ago from another collector in California. He found the two other sides in the Archeophone release, “Never Done Anything Since” and “Keep in de Middle ob de Road,” in a box he brought at an auction in Pennsylvania. He can’t remember where “A New Coon in Town” came from.
Levin didn’t realize what he had until UCSB posted it and the banjo message boards went wild. But he wasn’t surprised.
“Anything that’s this early is by definition interesting,” he said. “Because it’s the first and little Rosetta stones, trying to give you information of how they recorded, what they recorded and what the world sounded like back then.”
That’s where Archeophone’s Martin came in. He asked Levin whether he had any other songs by Asbury. Levin offered three others. The fact that “Keep in de Middle ob de Road” dated to 1891 meant it may be the earliest surviving banjo recording.
Martin’s next step was to uncover the mystery of Charles Adam Asbury. He scoured old newspaper databases, record catalogues, public records and genealogy sites, especially Ancestry.com, which led him to Trice, 68, a retired IBM worker. Trice had been researching her family and had even stumbled upon the “Woodpile” recording but had real doubts about whether the Charles Asbury on the site was her Charles Asbury.
“A banjo player?” she says. “If anybody had told us at the time that he was a banjo player, we would have thought it was ludicrous.”
But Martin pressed on and determined they were one and the same.
Even after all of his research, there is so much they don’t know or, more specifically, holes in the narrative. Asbury’s parents apparently came from Spain, possibly in the 1850s, but how they got here remains a mystery. So does what happened to them. Because by 1867, Asbury is tracked to the Freedmen’s Hospital in Augusta, Ga., and soon after found to have been taken in by a Baptist preacher and his wife who worked as nurses at the Freedmen’s Hospital.
By the mid-1870s, Asbury is a performer, playing the role of Sambo in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and joining the all-black cast in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Which is when the issue of race emerges, as the Boston Post, in reviewing the show, notes that the “artists and chorus were all colored, with the exception of Sir Joseph Porter, [played by] Mr. Adam Asbury.”
That’s not the only time Asbury was said to be white. It’s also on his death certificate filed in New York in 1903 after he died of what is listed as acute lobar pneumonia. But Martin insists that Asbury was black, noting that is how he’s listed in the 1900 census, that he performed in all-black troupes, and that the New Jersey Photograph Co. advertised him as “the popular colored banjoist and comedian.”
Trice, who is black, says she doesn’t agree. She sees no logical reason her great-grandfather’s birthparents — if they were black — would relocate to the U.S. South before the Civil War. Still, Trice notes that her own family is blended with people of many races.
“At this point in our history, what’s black, what’s white?” she says.
Ultimately, for Gellert and other banjo lovers, the story of Asbury is less compelling than the sound he made.
“Asbury really knew what he was doing,” Gellert says. “Using the back of the fingers and the thumb and using the hand not to pick the strings but to transmit the energy of the arm to the strings, which is a very West African technique. When I heard that, my jaw dropped.”