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Humor is the emotional chaos remembered in tranquility,” James Thurber once wrote. Besides being able to turn misfortunes into songs, man has shown a consistent ability to turn them into jokes. Archeophone, an Illinois label that specializes in reissuing works from the earliest years of sound recording, turns toward the bawdy and the blue on Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s. What’s remarkable about the jokes included—besides the fact that they exist in a listenable format at all—is how utterly filthy our predecessors were. If the Internet has proven anything, people with dirty minds tend to be among technology’s early adopters, and that was no different in the 19th century. Thomas Edison invented cylinder recording format in 1877; within 15 years, one of its more popular uses was nickel-in-the-slot automatic phonograph machines, essentially early jukeboxes. They generally ended up in bars where obliging patrons—almost exclusively male—would pay to hear a filthy riddle or skit. Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, made these indecent phonographs one of his primary targets. He and his decency patrol would visit taverns and, with the blessings of church and state, seize and destroy the offensive recordings.
Luckily, some cylinders survived. Eric Nuzum, author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America, in his introduction to the liner notes, thoughtfully counts all the dirty words for us. “This compilation contains the word ‘cunt’ seven times, ‘fuck’ fifteen times, and twenty utterances of ‘shit,’” he writes. “Learning a City Gal How to Milk,” which is “believed to be by Cal Stewart” (pseudonyms were rampant at the time), is one of the less dirty bits of ribaldry. After fruitlessly manipulating an udder for minutes, a woman cries in frustration, “Why, I’m a-waitin’ for it to get hard!”
The smuttiest bit comes from a man “believed to be James White” on “Dennis Reilly at Maggie Murphy’s Home After Nine O’Clock.” The skit is every bit as salty as its title is specific. The protagonist fires off zingers in between thrusts, careful to make sure that his jokes can be heard above the sound of creaking bedsprings that are straight out of a porno’s audio track. “Oh, Denny, look out, look out, you’re goin’ in me bottom!” “I’m going in your bottom? Well, I may as well catch the diarrhea as any old disease, g’wan now, work ’er up again.” “Ah, Denny, I never could take that in the wide, wide world.” “Well, who the hell wants you t’take it in the wide, wide world, I want you to take it in your pee hole.” You’ll never think about the 19th century the same way again.
The salaciousness of “The Whores’ Union,” “believed to be by Russell Hunting” is more deadpan. Reading in the monotone of a meeting’s minutes, Hunting lists the prices of the offered goods, “Pudding jerking: $2…Wheelbarrow: $3…liver disturbers, kidney wipers, belly ticklers, bowel starters, etc. Anything above 14 inches barred out.”Now that, Mr. Bob Saget, is how you can be funny while talking dirty. It’s one thing to imagine our ancestors having such filthy minds, but it’s another to have proof. It’s actually refreshing to be reminded that humans have always been brutish and nasty—emphasis on nasty.