You may have heard us mention our upcoming album, but now it’s time to start filling you in with details. Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900 is unlike any other historical reissue album you’ve seen before. With a 408-page book and nearly four hours of audio on three CDs, Waxing the Gospel is the most in-depth look at the dawn of the recording industry ever issued. The lens through which we peer is the earliest sacred recordings and the evangelical traditions that promulgated them, but the story is as much about brown wax as it is about the ministry of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey.
Moody and Sankey “started the fire” . . . they were the Beatles of the 1870s, preaching and singing their saving word to millions in Great Britain and America. They and their compeers gave birth to a type of hymn called “gospel songs,” which were as popular in the late Victorian era among the masses as anything put out today by Rihanna or Beyonce. People embraced the gospel songs as personal anthems, stories of self-realization and awakening. They were so much part of the fabric of American culture that when the early industry started dabbling with a sacred repertoire, these were the pieces the record companies turned to. But as our extensive essay lays out, it didn’t happen immediately. At first the thought was, “Everybody has the hymnals and can sing the gospel hymns themselves, so why would they want records of them?” The story here is of how quickly our ancestors made the infant phonograph a tool of reiteration and remembering.
Our album is divided into three areas, with one CD devoted to each: commercial recordings, celebrity recordings, and vernacular recordings. The record companies and gospel practitioners were operating in several different ways throughout the 1890s and we zoom in to focus on what makes each area special. Today we are unveiling the contents of CD 1, the commercial recordings. Below are the list and some commentary. Over on our website you can hear the sound samples. Let’s get started!
Waxing the Gospel, CD 1: The Commercial Recordings
Titles and performers are followed parenthetically by record company and year of recording.
- The Lord’s Prayer—Emile Berliner (Grammophon, 1890)
- In the Sweet By and By–Anonymous (Grammophon, 1890)
These are two of the earliest commercial records in existence: the five-inch type discs Berliner first experimented with. Both are unaccompanied performances.
- Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep—Holding’s Parlor Orchestra (North American, 1892)
It’s fairly unbelievable this brown wax cylinder still exists, and it sounds amazing!
- Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep—Bison City Quartette (Ohio, 1892-94)
Vocal version of #3. This song was one of the three all-time greatest hits of early recorded Christian hymnody.
- Nearer, My God, to Thee—Baldwin’s Cadet Band (New England, 1893)
The second of the three “big hits.” Notice that the early industry put out a steady diet of sacred band selections, not vocals.
- Hallelujah Chorus, from Messiah—Baldwin’s Cadet Band (New England, 1894-95)
An absolute stunner. Check out the first trailer for WTG.
This one is too important to reveal right now. We need appropriate fanfare! Details coming soon. (We’ll give you a hint: it may have something to do with a blog post we made in April 2015).
- Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep—Thomas Bott (United States, 1895)
You may have heard of the eminent basso, Mr. Bott. But have you ever heard him? We located his family (they didn’t know he made records) and are able to share a portrait with you in the book!
- Nearer, My God, to Thee—Mozart Quartette (United States, 1895)
Led by George J. Gaskin, the quartet put an unusual spin on the arrangement.
- Medley: Psalm 100 / Old Hundred—David C. Bangs / J. W. Myers (Gramophone, 1896)
David C. Bangs was a Washington DC elocutionist and civil servant. He moved to Kansas City and made some records for the Kansas City Talking Machine Company.
- Onward, Christian Soldiers—J. W. Myers (Gramophone, 1896)
- The Home Over There—J. W. Myers (Gramophone, 1896)
Famous baritone John W. Myers was perhaps the first “hymn specialist,” because the “A&R” people at the labels didn’t want to give the sacred material to just anybody.
- What Shall the Harvest Be—Len Spencer (Chicago, 1896)
Len Spencer was another hymn specialist. Here he does the very popular temperance anthem.
- Calvary—J. J. Fisher (United States, 1897)
- Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior—Steve Porter (Gramophone, 1897)
John J. Fisher and Steve Porter were new to the business in 1897 and immediately became hymn specialists. For a couple of years, nearly half of their output was sacred. Listen to the outstanding piano accompaniment on “Calvary.”
- The 23rd Psalm & The Lord’s Prayer—Len Spencer (Gramophone, 1897)
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus—J. J. Fisher (United States, 1897)
- Yield Not to Temptation—Steve Porter (Gramophone, 1897)
- There Is a Fountain—J. W. Myers (Columbia, 1898)
You can see that the repertoire by our hymn specialists is getting much broader. That’s because consumers had begun requesting more. There’s a terrific piano solo at the end of “There Is a Fountain.”
- Almost Persuaded—J. J. Fisher (Columbia, 1898)
- Marching to Zion—J. J. Fisher (Columbia, 1898)
- Blest Be the Tie—J. J. Fisher (Columbia, 1898)
Evidence of how much a pro Fisher was. All three of these were huge in services: “Almost Persuaded” was used to inspire conversions; and “Marching to Zion” and “Blest Be the Tie” were often used as “farewell hymns.”
- Safe in the Arms of Jesus—Church Chimes (Edison, 1898-99)
Recorded church chimes were all the rage for several years. Because of the difficulty in acquiring them, they were considered a real “get.”
- Just as I Am—Steve Porter (Columbia, 1898)
- Rock of Ages—Steve Porter (Columbia, 1898)
Porter does “Rock of Ages,” the third of the three “big hits” of sacred songs in the 1890s. By 1898, more and more consumers had affordable talking machines in their homes.
- The Ninety and Nine—Frank C. Stanley (Edison, 1898
You may notice that the performance style is starting to shift away from an upbeat, “poppy” style toward a more reverential one.
- Hold the Fort—Len Spencer (Gramophone, 1899)
- Throw Out the Life Line—Len Spencer (Gramophone, 1899)
Spencer gently coaxes a lot of presence and nuance out of the famously noisy Berliner disc surface. Great, lively piano playing too.
- Almost Persuaded—Frank Butts (Kansas City, 1899)
One of the most prolific performers for the Kansas City Talking Machine Company was an evangelist (who also sang ragtime songs) named Benjamin Franklin Butts. Here he sings to his own organ accompaniment—quite an innovation.
- The Holy City (edit)—Roger Harding (Columbia, 1899)
- Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep—Greater New York Quartette (Columbia, 1900)
Both of these are really light devotional or recital pieces, so you can see how much popular practice had seeped into the sacred repertoire.
- The Mistakes of My Life—J. J. Fisher (Lambert, 1900)
A very early (and crystal clear) Lambert cylinder. The performer is unannounced, but there’s no mistaking Mr. Fisher by this point.
- I Am Praying for You—Steve Porter (Columbia, 1900)
- Safe in the Arms of Jesus—Harry Macdonough (Edison, 1900)
Organ accompaniment on both these final selections. The companies had been struggling to get the perfect organ recordings, and by the time Edison waxed Macdonough’s performance of Fanny Crosby’s famous hit, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” on this concert-sized cylinder, they’d gotten it down.
Come back Thursday, when we’ll introduce the contents of CD 2, the celebrity recordings.