Drummers in silent cinema

“The days are passed when the activity of the trap drummer was a gauge of his usefulness, but effects, when they are novelties, work in well.”

March 24 1917 Moving Picture World


I’ve recently had access to a vast number of silent cinema publications (see my previous posts form these sources)—Billboard, Exhibitors Herald, Motion Picture Magazine, Picture Play, Variety, Motion Picture and Film Review, Motion Picture Classic, Photodramatist, Picture Goer, Reel Life, and Moving Picture World—and I’ve been scanning them all for anything to do with drums. Some of these publications span over a decade (and I’ve had a lot of help from OCR word-searching!). I’ve now read hundreds of articles on the role of the trap drummer in the cinema. It is well known that the drummer was often the one who provided the sound effects for these moving pictures; a train whistle every time a train appeared on-screen, a bird whistle/baby-cry/gun-shot, every time a… etc.

(See Nick White’s website for a great collection & demonstrations of these traps)

However most of the articles I’ve read, published at the time of these pictures, are more critical than complimentary. It seems that these effects were received at the time as  comical sound effects rather than legitimate on-screen sound. Trap drummers working these cinemas had an effect for almost anything, and were too eager to use it whenever the opportunity presented itself. Rather than the trap drummer enhancing these pictures, it seems that these were often misplaced, ill-judged, and provided the wrong response from the audience (especially as we moved closer to the end of silent cinema and these films strived for more than just novelty light entertainment).

Writers for these magazines as well, as members of the public writing in, all seem to say the same thing, painting a very different picture from the much simpler view of drummer’s role in the cinema that I’d had previously. I’ll share one of the longer, more detailed articles, that echoes what the others are saying, too.

Moving Picture News, August 23 1913, Vol VIII, No 8, p23

Pages from PT2


Poor trap drummers

This did make me laugh. In Exhibitor’s Times (March 24, 1913, p15), an entire page was given to ranting about inadequate cinema trap drummers. My favourite example is below:

In a 10-cent Broadway house the trap drummer did even worse. It was in a Colonial film. A man comes to the door of a house, and, taking hold of the old hammer, he raps on the door. The drummer paid no attention to the epoch of the picture, but he used the modern electric door bell. Needless to say that the audience had a good laugh.

Bandwagon Advertisement

I’m always keen to find photographs of early jazz bands playing outside on the back of wagons. What a great way to advertise! For some time now my favourite photograph came from Samm Bennett’s polarity records, and the photograph shows remarkable clarity for the time (photograph here).

It’s been some time since, but I’ve found another one! Published in Record Research , Sept 1971 Issue 112 (archives hosted by the amazing dinosaur discs):

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-20-16-07Caption: “Louis [Armstrong] in 1923 – The King Oliver band in a very rare photo advertising their OKEH recording of ‘Dippermouth Blues’

LK’s Suggested Personnel Identification: Johnny Dodds (Leg hanging over sign), Clarinet; Lil Hardin Armstrong, Piano; Baby Dodds (in white shirt), drums; King Oliver (in vest); Louis Armstrong (right next to the King), cornet. Who’s trombonist and other members of band? Research!! “