Monday, December 10, 2012

Newsboys Spasm Band, 1899


Newsboys Spasm Band, from The Railroad Trainman
Vol. 16, 1899

Imagine my joy when researching old newspaper articles about the Newsboys Spasm Band (the first Jazz band some say) I turned up a fuzzy photo of the lads published in the Sunday Vindicator in the February 15, 1903 issue. Six cocky New Orleans street Arabs, some barefoot, gaze directly into the camera, like some turn of the century rock band bearing their home-made instruments with pride. The boys were well-known throughout the South, particularly on Canal Street, and, to my delight more photographs of better quality would come to light. Stale Bread and his Newsboy Band seem to have understood the basics of advertising and promotion. Their colorful look appealed to newspaper photographers and their readers.

Sunday Vindicator, February 15, 1903
The leader of the Spasm Band is described as “the little fellow,” and the little fellow is third from right in the photograph. However, theatrical gent Harry Huguenot, also from New Orleans, claimed (Dramatic Mirror, Feb. 8, 1919) Stale Bread, for that was his name, played the bass fiddle which was “the center of attraction.” The boy had started as a harmonica soloist, attracting crowds, nickels and dimes with his “originality,” before starting the Newsboys Spasm Band. Huguenot said the instruments were made from cigar boxes and half barrels.

“This band grew in proportion and played all the latest airs of the period with an attempt at all the latest jazz effects. Stale Bread became blind and was cared for and educated by Miss Olga Nethersole. At this same time there was a social organization in New Orleans composed of young business men, numbering about one hundred. An orchestra was formed by some of the musical members, consisting of the piano, guitar, cornet, and bass fiddle, played respectfully by Gus Shindler, Yellow Nunez (a Spaniard), (cornetists name forgotten) and myself. The addition of Frank Christian, another guitarist, prompted Yellow Nunez to purchase a clarionet, and then from the clarionet began to flow the weirdest blue notes one ever heard. After a week of practice Nunez had these blue notes arranged as cadenzas, and I am firmly of the opinion that this was the first “jazz” effect in an orchestra.”

At this time the Dramatic Mirror’s columns were filled with letters anent the birth of jazz with a variety of contenders and claimants to the elusive “first.” Huguenot’s band was known as “Right At ‘Em’s Razz Band,” and performed popular songs of the period including ‘Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home’ and ‘Frankie and Johnny.’

The Vindicator photograph above accompanied the following article, in which “Stale Bread” is referred to as “Dry Bread.”

“Spasm Band,” of New Orleans.

The most bizarre musical fraternity on record is the Spasm Band of New Orleans. It is composed of six urchins who divide their time equally between mischief and selling papers in the day time, but as soon as night falls they blossom forth as full-fledged members and active players of the Spasm Band.

Born in the South and reared on the street, as it were, these little fellows all lead nomadic lives, now taking a day off to pick cotton with the pickaninnies, now lending a hand on the levee, running errands for the steamboat captains etc. In this way they have caught the inimitable darky dialect, gestures and even voices, with soft, velvety tones. Their musical instruments are home manufactured, and, strange to say, the sounds they emit are not inharmonious.

In front of the Tulane Theatre or the French Opera House when an especial attraction is playing the audience upon coming but are greeted with a burst of plantation melody which goes something on this order:

As I was gwine down below
Wid a fiery team and heavy wid de load,
I caught de lines and de leaders sprung,
And de whip got caught in de wagon tongue;
Oh, chu, chu, chu, chu, chu.

Perhaps the smaller members will supplement the verse with a double shuffle or a few steps of “buck” and “wing.” Then, while “Dry Bread,” the little fellow, passes his hat, in which a shower of nickels and dimes fan from daintily gloved hands, the remainder of the sextet will ring out with great spirit the rollicking “Way Off Down in Dixie, Away, Away!” and perhaps wind up with “My Country.”

The bass viol, rigged up from a dry goods box, croaks in a dignified manner, while the smaller instruments sound very much like Chinese fiddles. The six members of the Spasm Band are firm comrades, and as conservative about themselves and how they came to play as a secret society is about its password.

According to an 1906 article in Everybody’s Magazine (HERE) the Spasm Band, “bad boys of the city,” the “standard of toughness,” led by Stale Bread, showed up at the door of Sophie Wright’s New Orleans charity school to learn to read and write. “He led them as one might lead a horse to water but could not make them drink. One by one they dropped away again, Slew-foot Pete, Warm Gravy, and Zu-Zu, and the strong arm of Miss Sophie could not drag them back. Only Stale Bread – he had no other name – remained, displaying remarkable ingenuity in mathematics but struggling vainly with his alphabet – Miss Sophie, too, found this wayward youngster one of the most fascinating of her charges, so that it is with a catch in her voice that she tells how blindness came upon him, and how the leader, fallen, goes about where his mates may choose to lead him.”

1939, Gloversville Morning Herald
The 1899 Railroad Trainman photograph of the group was repeated HERE, identifying the group as the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. The text lists a different membership than the 1906 Everybody’s article, with only ‘Warm Gravy’ a constant, which suggests the band had a fluid line-up. Stale Bread’s real name was Emile Lacoume, and he was probably a Creole. In 1936, at fifty years of age (thus born c. 1886), Lacoume spoke to the Daily Freeman of New York.

“Stale Bread” Lacoume Traces Jazz Back to ‘90s

New Orleans, La. -- “Stale Bread” Lacoume says New Orleans gave “hot” music to the world, and that he should know because he started it all.
Now fifty years old, fat, jolly, blind for 35 years, Lacoume has spent most of his life at music after organizing his own “Spasm Band” of newsboys with homemade instruments.

A group of newsies became familiar with barroom ballads here before the Spanish-American war. Turning a half beer keg into a bass fiddle, a cigar box into a violin, a soap box into a guitar, and so on, the little urchins roved about town for two years playing for handouts.

William Farnum showered them at the opera house with nickels. A police court judge once ordered them to play before him, and he dubbed the boys a “spasm band” at the “command performance.”

“Ragtime? No, we didn’t play ragtime,” said Lacoume. “our stuff was entirely different. I don’t think we got it from Negro music. We just started putting in the hot stuff all of a sudden.”

Newsboys Home in New Orleans, from The Messenger of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Vol. 34, 1899, courtesy Gary Golio
The band was never recorded but it seems they were primarily a string band. “Dixie” was one of their numbers so they were probably close to minstrelsy or jug bands in spirit. In fact poor white and Negro boys had roamed the streets, docks, and railroad stations playing cigar box banjos, guitars, and fiddles since the end of the Civil War. According to various newspaper accounts urchins played anything that would make a noise including washboards, dishpans, bones, French harps, stovepipes, jugs, kazoos, gourds, comb and paper, cowbells, harmonicas, whistles and drums. 

Stale Bread's Spasm band met with a small measure of fame and spawned many imitators. When known as the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band they had their name stolen by an adult group of untutored musicians who changed the name slightly to The Razzy Jazzy Band and played at the Haymarket Dance Hall. In the thirties Spasm bands become popular in medicine shows, spreading as far as Hawaii and New Zealand. Stale Bread Lacoume was still alive in 1939, living in a “trim house” in New Orleans with his wife and two children, still playing banjo, piano and guitar. 

“Today’s music,” he said, “my music, is different from the music of my father’s time. We make ‘em holler and jump. In his day everybody just wanted to sit down and cry.


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