Thursday, January 8, 2009

Uncle Josh

A now-lost meme of a century ago, the concept of "Uncle Josh" is one that may take considerable unwinding to retroactively understand, rather like untangling a mass of spaghetti strand by strand.

Some of those strands are presented here in piecemeal fashion:

The above image is from the Mount Vernon Signal newspaper, January 14, 1910. A "Brown's Comedy Company" put on a three-act play called "Uncle Josh". Of this theatrical troupe and this play, we know precious little. But we do know that this show was concurrent with another Uncle Josh, a character played by famous vaudeville comedian Cal Stewart, who had a successful string of comedy records in this persona. Says the Wikipedia:

He is best remembered for his comic monologues in which he played "Uncle Josh" Weathersby, a resident of a mythical New England farming town called "Punkin Center."

Born in Charlotte County, Virginia in 1856, Stewart spent his early life working in circuses, medicine shows and vaudeville to great acclaim as "Uncle Josh Weathersby from Way Down East". It was on the road that he befriended Mark Twain and later Will Rogers, two men who shared similar wit in comedy.

Around 1897, Thomas Edison's studios hired him to cut several cylinder recordings of his famous speeches and songs. They were well received by the public, and launched an entire series of recordings based on the Uncle Josh character. Stewart's trademark on these recordings are the easily recognizable laugh that precedes his speeches.

Best-selling recordings included “Uncle Josh’s Arrival in New York” (1898), “I’m Old But I’m Awfully Tough (Laughing Song)” (1898), “Jim Lawson’s Horse Trade With Deacon Witherspoon” (1901), “Uncle Josh’s Huskin’ Bee Dance” (1901) and “Uncle Josh Buys an Automobile” (1903).

However, it's not that simple: although Cal Stewart supposedly developed the character (though most Vaudeville characters were pinched from even earlier, antiquated sources) of Uncle Josh, there were at least two other performers that recorded for Edison as Uncle Josh Weathersby. Someone named Dan Quinn recorded "Uncle Josh At The Midway" in 1987, and Andrew Keefe recorded three "Uncle Josh" cylinders ("I'm Old But I'm Awfully Tough", "Uncle Josh In A Department Store", and "Uncle Josh In A Chinese Laundry") in 1905. Decrepit-music scholars still argue to this day about whether some other Uncle Josh records are Stewart, Quinn, Keefe, or someone else entirely.

And then there were the "Uncle Josh" movies, which although created by Edison and feature a rural rube, don't seem to be the same character. Charles Manley played this variant of Uncle Josh in "Uncle Josh's Nightmare" (1900), "Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel" (1902), and "Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show" (1902). (Manley, incidentally, was one of the actors onstage at Ford's Theatre when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.)

Then there's "Uncle Josh" Graves, bluegrass dobroist who was born in the 1920s, and the century-old Uncle Josh Bait Company which, despite its name, was founded by a man named Alan P. Jones.

What does it all mean? Where will it all lead? And why must I know?

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