It’s only been a little more than a year since Colin Hancock first wrote us up with a rough idea about reissuing the six personal records made by Gus Haenschen and his banjo orchestra in 1916. We’d already released one of them, “Sunset Medley,” on our 2003 issue, Stomp and Swerve—and we’re big fans. So, had Colin located the other five discs?
Well, not exactly.
He had a line on four of the six, thanks to David Sager and Mike Kieffer, with a strong likelihood of the fifth. When that fifth came through, from Rob Chalfen in Boston, we were all getting pretty excited. So close! There was one more, elusive, with rumors of it being in the collections of two mutual friends: “Maple Leaf Rag,” the legendary piece by Joplin, performed by one of his students while the master was still alive. Sager knew where to find it. He told us to go to Joplin’s one-time home, St. Louis, and there we would find it in the collection of the late St. Louis Ragtimer, the great Trebor Tichenor.
Trebor’s daughter Virginia and son-in-law Marty Eggers took David’s advice, went searching among his thousands of 78s and found it! Marty and Virginia, who are spending time between Oakland and St. Louis, graciously worked out a time for us all to meet, Colin drove up from Texas, and we were joined by the fantastic musician T. J. Müller to do a transfer session.
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.)
Tonight we’re attending a screening of Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Logan Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Chicago. Filmed in 1913 but never released, the film was thought lost by the few who even knew of its existence, and it has taken decades to identify and put together the version now before us.
Seven unidentified reels of silent footage had sat in storage at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art (MoMA) since the museum’s first curator, Iris Barry, had obtained them in 1939 from Biograph in a hoard of 900 negatives—saved from sure destruction, as the company was just then going out of business. Rushes from the hoard were printed on safety film stock in the 1970s, and restoration began in the 1980s. Someone noticed the existence of a film portraying middle-class pleasures being enjoyed by an all-black cast—including legendary vaudeville star Bert Williams. The only reference to the film in print that has been found is a 1914 obituary of a crew member; fortunately, it’s a match.
A still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Courtesy of MoMA)
MoMA’s curatorial team began assembling the film in 2004. They’ve taken the rushes (or what are often called “dailies,” the raw, unedited footage) and put them together, including some multiple takes, into a rough narrative. We get to see not only the genius of Williams and his acting peers from the Harlem arts circle of the early 1910s, but also—because of the rough nature of the product—the mechanics of early film-making, the subtleties of direction and acting, the humor and rapport among the cast members. Besides that, the subject matter—African-Americans depicted enjoying life carefree, independently, and intimately, with only a few stereotypes imposed on them—is a stunning revelation for its time. MoMA speculates that the film was never released because of the impact that D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had both on race relations in America and characterizations of blacks in the cinema. That film “poisoned the well for progressive filmmakers,” reasons Ashley Clark, in an article that provides a good overview of the project. In a way, the historical record has been corrected, as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry added Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day to its list last year.
As George Harrison beautifully sang, “All Things Must Pass.” It’s a sad realization of which we are constantly aware in the field of ancient audio, and life feels—on a daily basis—like a race against the clock as we try to preserve and contextualize the world’s oldest recordings.
A brown wax cylinder that was not saved in time. The original cotton batting has now permanently blanketed the wax. (Archeophone Records)
The Library of Congress understood it had a role in saving our aural history when it instituted the National Recording Registry at the beginning of the 21st century. Now up to a total of 400 items, the Registry is a list of recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” Further, “the Library is identifying and preserving the best existing versions of each recording on the registry.” But by their own admission, they don’t have copies of everything on the Registry, and so it’s up to the individuals or institutions that *do* possess originals to join in the mission of preservation.