Mom treasured her grandmother’s 78s of a popular early 19th century comedian named “Uncle Josh.” They made an unfortunate tumble from a closet shelf thirty years ago, however, and were subsequently destroyed. Losing the only physical links she had to her grandparents broke my mom’s heart.
After a recent retelling of the sad story of the lost records, I got curious about this “Uncle Josh,” so I did some research about the comedian.
I found Uncle Josh (né Cal Stewart) more easily than I expected. Although “Uncle Josh” was a precursor to the Green Acres genre of comedy: old time curmudgeons with no concept of words that end in the letter “G,” Uncle Josh proved to be more of an early 1900s Dave Chappelle, taking topical subjects and spinning it into his own brand of humor. He tackled World War I, social changes, and the massive technological onslaught of the early 20th century (including the “talking machine”).
His comedy also included an interactive spin. There were certainly the wax cylinders and 78s I sought, but there were also “Uncle Josh” books, stereoscope cards of skits that you could gaze at while cranking the Victrola; there were even short movies about him made by Edison. I was shocked at the breadth of “Uncle Josh’s” marketing – very modern by today’s standards. His material, although archaic, remains quite funny.
I was able to find the specific recordings Mom had accidentally destroyed almost 30 years ago. One day, as a surprise, I called her and played the WWI-inspired “I Wish I Was A Belgian”…on my mobile phone. She remembered all the words after so many years and sang right along. To her delight, it was one of her destroyed recordings, so I made her a (unshatterable) CD.
I never met the people whose memories she wanted to preserve, but we finally both had a link to the entertainment our ancestors enjoyed.
It amazes me that I can still be entertained by the material that entertained people three generations ago. The tinny voices of their long-dead era may still be heard faintly through the crackles of scratched shellac: an audio time machine.
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