“Uncle Josh Stories”: Cal Stewart’s Other Book (1924)

Many people who know about the phonographic storyteller Cal Stewart are likely also aware of his book Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” Stories, first published in 1903, which contains texts of most of the selections he was then performing for the talking machine.  That book sold well and is easy to find on the antiquarian book market today, as well as being available in ASCII through Project Gutenberg, in digital facsimile, and in several low-budget print republications by Nabu Press and the like.  Less well known is a second book, Uncle Josh Stories, that was issued by theatrical publisher Walter H. Baker in Boston under Stewart’s byline in 1924, following the comedian’s death in December 1919.  Original printings of that other book are hard to come by; as of this writing, I don’t see any being offered for sale anywhere at any price.  In the biography Cal Stewart: Your Uncle Josh, Randy McNutt quotes a letter he received from Baker representative John B. Welch (p. 93 of 1981 edition; p. 145 of 2011 edition): “In checking our files, we note that the collection of his [Stewart’s] selected works, Uncle Josh Stories, averaged sales of 150 copies per year in the later part of the 1920s and declined steadily thereafter.  The work stayed in print for thirty-nine years.”  Thus, it never sold well and has apparently been out of print since around 1963.  Meanwhile, given its 1924 publication date, its term of copyright narrowly ended up being extended nearly twenty years by the Copyright Term Extension Act, placing it among those unfortunate works that weren’t free for public use but were also too obscure to warrant commercial exploitation.  That was the situation when I first learned about the 1924 book as part of my own research into the life and career of Cal Stewart.  For a long time, this was one of the considerations that led me to postpone publishing most of that research (the main exception being the album notes I wrote for the Archeophone CD The Indestructible Uncle Josh).  It was never clear to me how free I was to quote Stewart’s routines as intensively as I needed for my analysis of them, and since I had plenty of other things to write about anyway, I opted just to wait out the clock on Punkin Centre.

Uncle Josh Stories finally entered the public domain in the United States at the beginning of 2020.  Towards the end of that year, however, I found that the only digital version of it that had yet been made available online left a lot to be desired.  Specifically, it’s a scan of a bound photocopy held by the Indiana University Libraries (see Google Books; HathiTrust).  I know that version well in its hard-copy form, since it’s the same one I first consulted myself years ago as a graduate student.  It’s perfectly legible, but it’s unattractive and unpleasant to read.  Meanwhile, a library stamp on page 5 reveals that the IU photocopy was sourced from a copy held by the University of Georgia, and WorldCat lists other exemplars at the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Ohio State University, and Brown University—all presumably original printings rather than photocopies.  Still, it doesn’t look as though anyone has been in a hurry to scan one of these other copies for online distribution, maybe because the IU copy is already in the system, with nothing to mark it as in any way deficient.  Fortunately, I have an original printing in my own collection, which I scanned back in 2019.  I recently processed the scans using ScanTailor and published them online at Archive.org on December 25, 2020, as a Christmas present to all and sundry.  I hope you’ll agree that the result is a big improvement on the scanned photocopy.

There’s no duplication in content between the 1903 and 1924 books, which makes sense, since Stewart’s 1903 book was still in print in 1924.  The earlier book had been announced and advertised in the Edison Phonograph Monthly for October 1903 as “distributed to the talking machine trade” by the Penn Phonograph Company, an arrangement Stewart might have undertaken to repay money he’d borrowed from that company in connection with a failed theatrical venture (documented in an undated letter from T. W. Barnhill to the “Edison company,” cited in the McNutt biography at p. 12 in the 1981 edition and p. 35 in the 2011 edition); significantly, Stewart even shared the copyright with Walter L. Eckhardt, who was long active in the talking machine trade in Philadelphia and was presumably also affiliated with Penn.  In 1905, a second copyright notice was added naming “Thompson & Thomas”; an advertisement from about that time identifies the book as part of the Charles C. Thompson catalog.  Later, in the 1910s, we find the same book being advertised by John R. Stanton, apparently corresponding to a “Stanton and Van Vliet” title page imprint.  It still seems to have been a decent seller towards the end of that decade, judging from advertisements found at the back of known library copies: one for John B. Rathbun’s Gas, Gasoline and Oil Engines (1919), and another for records including Victor 18595 (released in October 1919).  It was still reported to be in print on January 1, 1928, with the publisher given as “Stanton”; and Stewart’s widow Rossini Waugh Stewart went on to renew the registration on June 11, 1930, demonstrating a continued interest in exploiting Uncle Josh as intellectual property.  The aggregate 58-year copyright term would have endured until 1959.  Insofar as copyright was concerned, then, anything in the 1903 book was safely covered, although possibly also constrained by the terms of some prior agreement with a publisher or creditor.

On the other hand, the status of any works of authorship which Stewart had not included in his earlier book would have been less clear.  Under copyright laws in force at the time, distributing a work via phonograph records didn’t count as “publication,” such that many of Stewart’s compositions were technically “unpublished” as of 1924, in spite of their widespread circulation, and fell into the same class of intellectual property as unpublished manuscripts left behind by a deceased author.  I suspect that one important purpose of Uncle Josh Stories may have been to extend copyright protection to Stewart’s “unpublished” works as part of an effort by his widow to capitalize more effectively on the assets of his estate.

Two of the pieces in the 1924 book are ones Stewart had introduced phonographically before his earlier book had come out, but I can imagine plausible reasons why he might previously have omitted both of them.  In what follows, I’ll identify phonographic selections using a slightly modified version of what I call the “Petty code,” a convenient two-letter identifier for each Uncle Josh routine devised by the late Reverend John Petty.  For clarity, I like to mark Petty codes in my writing with a preceding asterisk, e.g., *Ho.  Petty codes are case-sensitive; thus, *AN and *An refer to two different routines (“Arrival in New York” and “Ananias Club”).

  • Uncle Josh’s Troubles in a Hotel (69), *Ho, introduced in early 1898 as “A Talk No. 3” (Berliner 6002).  This had thus been one of the very first pieces in Stewart’s Uncle Josh repertoire, and he performed it regularly for the talking machine throughout his career, unlike such ephemeral rarities as Uncle Josh at a Raines Law Hotel, *RL.  It’s therefore conspicuous for its omission from the 1903 book—which had been advertised as containing “all his humorous sketches as told by him in the various makes of talking machine records” (emphasis added)—and its insertion in 1924 can be seen as redressing the oversight.  The reason why it had not been published in print before then may be that it was the only selection Stewart had consciously adapted to promote different makes of talking machine depending on the company for which he was performing.  The 1924 text has Uncle Josh encounter a generic “talkin’ macheen,” but “Talk No. 3” on Berliner 6002 has him say “I think they called it a gramophone, near as I can remember.”  On Victor, it became a “Victor Talking Machine”; on Columbia, a “graphophone.”  Granted, Stewart adapted his routines in plenty of other ways that kept their texts fluid in practice, expanding or contracting them to fit the available duration, substituting new jokes for old ones, and so forth; and this fact doesn’t ordinarily seem to have kept him from preparing acceptable print versions of them, pinning them down on paper in uncharacteristically fixed form.  But if Stewart understood *Ho distinctively as a promotional vehicle, that might have placed the substitution of the names of different machines into a different and unique category of adaptation.  It might even have been politically risky in 1903 to call the instrument a “Victor Talking Machine,” a “graphophone,” or a generic “talking machine” in print, since any one of these choices would have alienated some of his employers.  I can think of no better explanation for why *Ho would have been left out of the 1903 book.
  • And Then I Laughed (105), *IL, introduced ca. December 1901 (Edison 7986).  This consists of the lyrics to a “laughing song.”  Stewart’s 1903 book had contained some poetry but no song lyrics—except for certain songs incorporated into spoken-word routines—so it may simply have been regarded as out of scope when that book was assembled, or else Stewart might have entertained hopes of publishing it as sheet music and so held it back.

A third piece in the 1924 book seems to have been introduced at roughly the same time as the latest pieces found in the earlier book—such as Jim Lawson’s Hogs, *JL, and Si Pettingill’s Brooms, *Br—attested in Stewart’s phonographic repertoire during the spring of 1903:

  • Uncle Josh and Aunt Nancy on a Visit to New York (29), *XN.  We don’t know exactly when Stewart composed his various routines, as opposed to when he first performed them for the talking machine, so it may be that this one simply came into being later than *JL and *Br, after the manuscript for the 1903 book had been finalized.  However, *XN also marked a departure from Stewart’s previous stories in its elevation of the role of Aunt Nancy Smith, who would go on to become Uncle Josh’s wife (and is so identified in the 1924 text of this piece, although she hadn’t been when it was first introduced via talking machine).  Thinking in the admittedly anachronistic terms of modern television shows, Stewart might have regarded this as the first episode in a second season.  Curiously, none of the descriptive routines in which the part of Aunt Nancy was assigned to another performer can be found in the 1924 book, even though other descriptive routines and dialogues were included.

The first selection whose talking-machine debut definitely came after the publication of the 1903 book was released by Columbia in November 1904:

  • Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company (51), *IC.  This is Cal Stewart’s version of “The Barrel of Bricks,” which was analyzed as an urban legend by Jan Brunvand in Curses!  Broiled Again! (1989, pp. 180-188), and which is traced by Snopes back to a newspaper appearance in 1895.  The 1904 Columbia disc take was added to the National Recording Registry in 2006.

Other selections found in the 1924 book date from later periods in Stewart’s career.  Several had been introduced from 1906 through early 1909:

  • Uncle Josh at the Skating Rink (107), *Sk
  • Uncle Josh’s Second Trip to the Metropolis (96), *2N
  • Uncle Josh and the Labor Union (41), *LU
  • Uncle Josh at the Bug House (55), *BH
  • Uncle Josh at the Dentist (100), *AD
  • Uncle Josh in an Automobile (103), *OA
  • Uncle Josh Joins the Grangers (33), *Gr
  • Uncle Josh Has His Photo Taken (35), *Pt
  • Uncle Josh Keeps House (31), *KH
  • Moving Day at Punkin Center (26), *MD
  • Uncle Josh and the Sailor (46), *Sa
  • The County Fair at Punkin Center (53), *CF
  • A Busy Week at Punkin Center (90), *BW
  • Uncle Josh and the Billikin (98), *Bk, properly “Billiken”

Others had been introduced from late 1910 through 1912:

  • Uncle Josh’s Rheumatism (92), *Rh
  • Revival Meeting at Punkin Center (94), *RM
  • Fourth of July at Punkin Center (39), *4J
  • Automobile (37), *BA
  • Show Troupe at Punkin Center (43), *ST
  • Uncle Josh in the Barber Shop (48), *Bb

Two had been introduced in 1915:

  • Moving Pictures at Punkin Center (11), *MP, 1915
  • The Village Gossips (87), *VG, 1915

And several more had been introduced during mid-1919:

  • Uncle Josh and the Honey Bees (20), *Be
  • Uncle Josh in the Cafeteria (24), *Cf
  • Uncle Josh Buys a Talking Machine (16), *Vi as “Uncle Josh Buys a Victrola.”
  • Train Time at Punkin Center (109), *TT
  • The Opera at Punkin Center (9), *OP
  • Uncle Josh Takes the Census (13), *TC
  • The Chautauqua at Punkin Center (18), *Cq
  • Uncle Josh and the Soldier (22), *So

There may be a temptation among scholars and others to treat the 1924 print versions of these pieces as definitive texts, as has sometimes been done with the 1903 print versions of other pieces.  It’s easier and more straightforward to quote a print publication in print than a phonographic one.  But I would caution against this approach, which doesn’t do justice to the complex tensions we can find between manifestations of Stewart’s work in live performance, phonographic performance, and written language.

I’ve compared the 1924 texts to some of Stewart’s recordings of the same selections.  In a number of instances, I find that a recorded word or phrase has been replaced in the 1924 book by some similar-sounding word or phrase that no longer makes sense, or that is otherwise suspect.  This situation implies that the texts must have been prepared, at least in part, by someone who listened to Stewart’s recordings and tried to transcribe them but didn’t always understand them.  The following list presents the most egregious blunders I’ve noticed (acknowledging, of course, that I might have misheard something myself—but I don’t think I have).

  • *BH: “I was due down to the county seat, to Sanford” for “I was goin’ down to the county seat to attend court.”
  • *IC: “it thought a good deal of me and went down with me agin” for “it took a good deal of me right down with it agin” (cf. Columbia).
  • *BW “New Whipstitch” for “New Ipswich” (a town in New Hampshire).
  • *Rh: “a pigeonhole full” for “a peg and awl full” (likening a syringe to similar-looking traditional tools).
  • *Sk: “don’t forgit to skate, boy” for “don’t forget the skate boy” (i.e., to give him a tip after skating).
  • *Vi: “Hickory Corner got the telephone call to connect them with our house” for “Hickory Corners got the telephone gal to connect them with our house.”
  • *Sa: “a little nigh scarce” for “a little mite scarce”; “ploughin’ on side of hills” for “ploughin’ on side hills” (cf. Edison).
  • *LU: “he wanted the United States as an example” for “he quoted the United States as an example.”
  • *MP: “about cherry pickin’ time” for “about fair time” (probably misheard as “cherry time” and elaborated); “Joe Winnis” for “Joe Innis“; “hed whiskers” for “red whiskers”; “Jim Wilson” for “Jim Lawson“; “they ain’t heerd of Damon and Pythias” for “they ain’t heard from Damon and Pythias.”
  • *BA: “I’d make a fool of myself or soon would” for “I’d made a fool of myself or soon would”; “started off across lots and everything with it” for “started off across lots and took everything with it.”
  • *Pt: “he put my left foot over on my right foot” for “he put my left boot over on my right boot” (in all takes I’ve consulted).
  • *MD: “a lot of hay” for “a load of hay”; “aidin’, and a bettin’ of him” for “aidin’ and abettin’ of him.”

These aren’t mistakes Stewart himself is likely to have made, nor for the most part are they mistakes that seem likely to have arisen from a typesetter misreading ambiguous handwriting.  Rather, most of them look like mishearings.  And if the texts in the 1924 book were prepared by someone trying to transcribe Stewart’s recordings by ear after his death, and not necessarily doing a very good job of it, then they should arguably have no more authority—at least with regard to Stewart’s own intentions—than any other transcription.

Incidentally, such errors in transcription weren’t limited to Stewart’s 1924 book.  One of my favorites appears on a paper slip sent out with Edison Blue Amberol 2326 (*4J, reproduced in Ron Dethlefson, Edison Blue Amberol Recordings, 1:130): “Gosh, the parade was fully twenty pawn-shops long!”  The 1924 book gives the line correctly: “Gosh, the parade wuz fully twenty corn shocks long!”  Meanwhile, one of the stories in the 1924 book, *MP, had previously appeared in The Phono-Bretto (1919, on p. 109), a publication expressly designed to let talking machine users read along while listening to records “the words of which are not quite clear to you” (p. iii).  The phrases given wrongly in the 1924 book, as cited above, are all given correctly in The Phono-Bretto, although the latter introduces at least one mistake of its own (“the Greek maidens stand before the king” for “the Greek maidens danced before the king”).  All these apparent mistakes provide evidence that contemporaneous listeners weren’t able to make out every word of Cal Stewart’s recordings, and that their popularity must not have depended upon perfect intelligibility.  If we have trouble making out words today, that need not have anything to do with the recordings having degraded over time.

But the genesis of the 1924 text seems to have been more complicated than what I’ve mentioned so far would suggest.  Different phonographic takes of the “same” Uncle Josh routine often differ substantially from one another—I can’t emphasize the importance of that point enough—and many of the texts found in the 1924 book adhere more closely to one particular recording than to others.  So, for instance, the 1924 text of *Cf follows Columbia matrix 78451-2 fairly closely, while the 1924 text of *So follows Edison Blue Amberol 4318.  But sometimes I haven’t been able to find any recording that follows the 1924 text closely enough to have served unproblematically as its source.  For example:

  • The 1924 text of *XN contains a passage in which Aunt Nancy Smith is confused at seeing an airplane in the sky.  Most recordings instead have her bewildered by an automobile, and the late Columbia matrix 78502-2, recorded June 18, 1919, substitutes a similar passage about a streetcar; but as far as I’m aware, the airplane variant found in the book never turns up in any issued take.
  • The 1924 text of *Ho seems to come closest to the text of Victor matrix B-4198-7, which was recorded on August 11, 1919, and used for later pressings of Victor 16193, replacing an earlier matrix from 1908 with somewhat different content.  And yet the two texts don’t match exactly.  One change, already mentioned above, was surely a conscious adaptation: where the recording has “Victor Talking Machine,” the 1924 text has just the more generic “talkin’ macheen.”  (A similar adaptation may be found in *Vi.)  But there are also numerous minor variations in wording that appear more like those found between different takes, e.g., “I put out every light in the durned tavern” for “I put out every light in the hotel.”
  • One joke about the number of drug stores and saloons in Punkin Centre appears twice in the 1924 book, once attached to *MD (page 26) and once attached to *RM (page 95).  Stewart sometimes recycled segments by attaching them to different selections at different times.  However, the duplicate line in this case doesn’t appear on the Edison or Albany Indestructible takes of *RM I’ve heard, and no other company issued that particular selection.

It’s unclear to me at this point whether some of the 1924 texts were prepared from test pressings of unissued takes, or incorporated manuscript material, or were reworked creatively for publication by someone other than Cal Stewart, or by Stewart himself marking up a transcription.  But something else must have been going on here apart from the straightforward (and occasionally bungled) transcription of readily available recordings.

The 1924 book also employs fairly heavy eye dialect—which is to say, nonstandard orthography used to represent ways of speaking associated with particular social groups.  The motives for writing in eye dialect during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were both aesthetic and political.  On the aesthetic side, eye dialect could evoke characteristic sounds in the mind’s ear of the reader as a written substitute for oral aspects of linguistic caricature on the stage and elsewhere.  On the political side, it could mark a literary persona—and by extension whatever social group that persona represents—as semiliterate and incapable of speaking “standard” English.  I don’t mean to suggest that these motives can be easily disentangled; they can’t.  But practices that don’t make sense according to one motive may make sense according to the other, and vice versa.  So, for example, in the 1924 book we typically find sed for said and laffed for laughed.  These spellings seem consistent with the normative American English pronunciations /sɛd/ and /læft/.  So I’m unsure what to make of them.  Are they intended to suggest a greater-than-usual deflection of the vowels away from those in /seɪd/ and /lɑːft/?  Or is the point only for these words to be spelled wrongly as an index of Uncle Josh’s lack of sophistication—or phonetically in order to help keep the aural aspect of the language at the forefront of the reader’s mind?

Curiously, the eye dialect in the 1924 book doesn’t seem to overlap very closely with the words to which Stewart gave conspicuously idiosyncratic pronunciations in oral performance.  The book often has words such as keer for car, hed for had, hum for home, t’other for the other, ‘long for along, and jest for just, in passages that don’t appear (to my ear) to be pronounced in corresponding ways on recordings.  Meanwhile, some of Stewart’s favorite oral dialect affectations don’t carry over into the eye dialect, as with the a- in verbs such as a-goin’.  On the other hand, the eye dialect in the 1924 book is similar to the eye dialect in the 1903 book—e.g., frequent substitution of wuz for was—and may have drawn on it as a model.  My impression is that Stewart had treated eye dialect and oral dialect performance as two distinct expressive domains with distinct sets of conventions suited to the capacities of different media, and that the 1924 book does likewise.

Three pieces in the 1924 book never appeared as—or in—recordings, but at least two of them correspond to works performed on the stage by Stewart or members of his troupe.

  • Advertisement in Fort Scott (Kansas) Daily Tribune and Daily Monitor, January 17, 1919.

    Fiddled Out of House and Home: A Rural Sketch (71).  A “Pastoral Playlet” by this name formed the second and closing part of theatrical programs of early 1919, according to which Cal Stewart played “Josh Weatherby, Storekeeper and Postmaster”; Gypsy Rossini played the “Traveling Saleslady”; Marjorie Waugh played “Cindy Lawson, the Village Cut-up”; and James W. Waugh played “Jim Lawson, the Hack Driver.”  I doubt the text given here is identical with what was performed onstage, at least on those particular occasions.  For one thing, Cindy Lawson is shown singing “They Haven’t Got Me Scared a Little Bit” as part of the printed version of the sketch, while theatrical programs have Marjorie Innes performing a piece by that title at an earlier point, as one of several solo selections with which she opened the show.  Moreover, Jim Lawson doesn’t actually appear onstage in the printed version of the sketch.  Still, this version probably comes close to the “playlet” as it was being performed in early 1919 and might reflect the form it took on stage at some other time.

  • The Photoplay of Life: A Descriptive Monologue (57).  This piece appeared in theatrical programs of early 1919 as a reading entitled “The Photo Play of Life,” composed by Stewart and performed by Gypsy Rossini.  It consists of four “acts,” each preceded by an eight-line poetic introduction but otherwise made up of dialog between multiple characters.  Stage directions describe different settings as well as the physical appearance of different characters (although never of more than one character per act).  Gypsy Rossini presumably performed the piece as a monopolylogue, alternating among characters and maybe changing her costume from act to act.  She followed this piece in performance with a rendition of Stewart’s “Who Marched in ’61” as a pianologue.  The text of this poem had appeared in Stewart’s earlier book (at p. 169) with the note: “Cal Stewart, New York, Memorial Day, 1903.”
  • Gassed (112).  A comic poem about people in Punkin Centre avoiding getting “gassed,” in the sense of being subjected to empty and insincere talk (“hot air”).  The first verse alludes to trench fighting in the First World War, suggesting that Stewart means to make a pun on the gassing of soldiers—the same pun he develops somewhat differently at the start of War Talk at Punkin Centre (*WT).

These last three pieces are especially important because the content appears to be wholly unique, unavailable in any form anywhere else.  But the 1924 book as a whole should also be of interest to anyone who wants to engage with the work of Cal Stewart, so I’m pleased to be able to offer a new and improved online presentation of it.

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