We need your help identifying the sound from a home recording made, we believe, over a hundred years ago. This test is quite distinct from the one we proffered in The Big Sleuth, where we knew the contents of the cylinder’s audio that is drowning in a sea of noise but wanted to see if you could figure it out. On this one, the sound is crystal clear, but we have no idea what the song is that’s being sung. We aren’t even sure it’s in English.
It’s a brown-wax concert cylinder (the large, 5-inch diameter type), which means it can’t be any earlier than 1898. Based on the group of cylinders it was found with, we believe it is a recording by the Rittersville Church Choir, from Rittersville (now incorporated into Allentown), Pennsylvania. In any case, it’s definitely a chorale of multiple mixed voices, and we know it’s a sacred selection because the one word that can clearly be made out is the double “Amen” sung at the end.
A horror story of improper 78 packing and a photograph documenting the carnage has been making the rounds on the phonograph group boards this week. It seems that, even with the buyer having described safe packing techniques, it all went wrong. Maybe it was the seller trying to cram 60 discs into one priority mail box. Our theory is that the seller didn’t like being told what to do and stomped them before tossing the shards in the box. One observer remarked that the seller probably dropped the box repeatedly until the crunching noises ended. A quick search of the groups will tell you that this situation is far more common than it should be, though most of the destruction is limited to a few records at a time. We’ve certainly had a few nightmares too—as well as a few really oddly packed records that made their way to us unbroken purely by miracle . One recalls an Arthur Collins Berliner, taped between 2 pieces of particle board and mailed to us inside a pizza box.
A box of broken records. (Image by Ric at Kahuna Archives, via the 78s and Phonograph group on Facebook.)
If you’ve done any looking at period articles that discuss the rise of jazz in the late 1910s, then you’re readily familiar with how serious musicians and musicologists condemned it as cacophonous noise. It’s refreshing to find contrary views from that time. One such piece comes from The Musical Monitor from June 1921, citing the opinion of Baltimore-born Elizabeth Gutman, a noted folksong expert. She makes the claim that jazz is America’s folk music.
A concert soprano, Gutman’s specialization was Russian and Yiddish folk songs. Her pioneering work in the field started when she met a political refugee from Russia who possessed a number of volumes unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. As a descendant of Jewish cantors, she received permission to copy the books and worked their contents into her repertoire (New York Times 13 Jan. 1918, Sec. 4, p. 8). She made seven recordings for Victor (including four unreleased trials and one rejected matrix) from 1916 through 1920. The two released numbers were made on May 29, 1918: “Main Harz Zugeiht in Mir” and “Zehn Brider,” issued as Victor 72169.
Here’s the piece from The Musical Monitor transcribed in full. Notice in the first couple of paragraphs a bit of resistance to Gutman’s idea from the presenting editor. Also witness Gutman’s complete ease with the entire world of musical expression, where there exists no moral imperatives. Finally, don’t miss the part where she says she’s seen the critics of jazz listen secretly to their jazz records in their homes.