Hello Ma Baby

743 - Hello Ma Baby

Location:               Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:        Hello Ma Baby

Composer:            Howard, Joseph E.

Publisher:             T.B. Harms

Year & Place:       1899; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music #743

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:   hasm.n0743

Basic Description
The space of this lithograph is dominated by the text “Hello Ma Baby” written diagonally in large bold letters. In the upper left-hand corner is an African-American wearing a black jacket. He holds a telephone up to his ear and his mouth is slightly ajar indicating he is speaking. In the bottom, right corner of the pictorial space, a woman in a large hat, a printed blouse, a short black cape and a skirt fastened tightly around her waist. Holding a phone to her ear, the woman is engaged in a conversation. Visually linking these two characters are long, perpendicular faintly rendered wires lining the upper right corner of the image. These are connected to a telephone pole strengthening the notion that the male and female are speaking to each other. The title of the piece and its colloquial expression “ma baby” also suggests that the two subjects have an intimate relationship.

Personal Description

The apparent neutrality of this pastoral image stands in striking contrast to some of the grotesque, caricature-ish imagery of other covers from this century.  And one wonders where the humor and caricature-ish elements exist.  If this is apart of a performance that would accompany the music, one wonders where the performativity lies.

Reality Check


Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
Lewis Latimer was an engineer and inventor born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was the son of George W. Latimer, a barber, and Rebecca Smith, both former slaves who escaped from Norfolk Virginia in 1842. When not attending Phillips Grammar School In Boston, Latimer spent much of his youth working at his father’s barber shop, as a paper-hanger, and selling the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.  Latimer’s family was placed in dire financial straits when his father mysteriously disappeared. Latimer and his brothers were bound out to a farm school for unpaid labor.  They escaped and moved back to Boston, and Latimer enlisted in the U.S. Navy late in the Civil War. In 1865, he was honorably discharged and began a technical career in Boston as an office worker for Crosby and Gould patent solicitors. Through his assiduous efforts to teach himself the art of drafting, he rose to assistant draftsman and eventually to the position of chief draftsman in the mid-1870s. He met a young woman at this time, named Mary Wilson Lewis, whom he married in 1873. They had two children.
Latimer began to invent during his tenure at Crosby and Gould. His first creation was a water closet for railway cars He drafted the diagrams for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application, which was approved in 1876.
In 1879, Latimer relocated to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was hired by the U.S. Electric Lighting Company as a draftsman and private secretary. He was soon placed in charge of the production of carbon lamp filaments.  He was an integral part of the team that installed the company’s first commercial incandescent lighting system in the Equitable Building in New York City, in the fall of 1880.
In 1883, Latimer began working at Edison Electric Company. According to Latimer’s biographical sketch of himself for the Edison pioneers, he was transferred to the department “as a draughtsman inspector and expert witness as to facts in the early stages of the electric lighting business…[He] traveled extensively, securing witnesses’ affidavits, and early apparatus, and also testifying to the number of the basic patent cases to the advantage of his employers.” His complete knowledge of electrical technology was exemplified in his work Incandescent Electric Lighting, a Practical Description of the Edison System of 1890.
A stroke in 1924 forced Latimer to retire and he spent much of his last four years engaged in other activities important in his life, such as art and poetry. He died at his home in Flushing, New York, which in 1995 was made a New York City landmark.
(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004)

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One response to “Hello Ma Baby

  1. Like the author of the personal description above, I was struck by this songsheet’s invocation of a modern, genteel black middle class. The figures at the top and bottom corners of “Hello Ma Baby” model fashionable formal outfits (white tie and cuffs, embroidered blouse and merry widow hat), and wear expressions that seem to signify decorously restrained joy. The illustration, moreover, organizes these figures in a composition that seems to invoke concerns that were increasingly central to American middle-class life at the turn of the century–concerns raised by the continued development of communication technology and the mechanization of popular culture. Speaking into a tube that leads visually to a wire-strung pole at right, the male “caller” pursues courtship through the cutting-edge medium of the telephone. The song lyrics reveal that the male caller has in fact never met, or even seen, the object of his affection (“I never seen ma honey, but she’s mine, all mine”) and that the couple’s courtship has been conducted entirely from a distance, through the mediation of the phone (“Send me a kiss by wire, Baby my heart’s on fire”). The title-page illustration underscores the distanced and mediated character of the developing relationship: the figures appear at opposite corners of the illustration, separated by the intervening forms of the song title and the decorative frame underneath the man, and their gazes and bodies point away from one another, refusing any sort of connection across the page. These lyrical and visual invocations of distance and mediation seem to have complex effects. On the one hand, they implicate African-American figures in a humorous scenario of remote intimacy that might have allowed period audiences to vent their anxieties about the changes wrought by technology on modern social relations. On the other hand, this scenario framed turn-of-the century African Americans as comfortable consumers of cutting-edge technology, willing and able to employ devices like the telephone to forge social relationships over and above intervening obstacles.

    And I think the title page also reimagines black Americans as consumers of modern commercialized popular culture. It is, after all, the giant diagonal text of the song title that separates (and connects) the two figures–a compositional structure that invokes the ways that mass forms of popular culture, like ragtime songs, also enabled new modes of distanced communication. “Hello Ma Baby” was recorded on wax cylinder in 1899, the same year that this music sheet was published; easily purchased and transported, recordings of the song could convey the sentiments of a distanced lover as effectively as a telephone call. The divergent activities of the male and female figures in the title page seem in turn to signal the different communicative modes available to the modern consumer: while the speaking man invokes the active performance of the telephone caller, the listening woman (she has no corresponding speaking tube) signals the passive consumption of the music aficionado.

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