Moody & Sankey returning to the US after their phenomenally successful campaign in Britain, 1873-75. Both gentlemen made records in the 1890s. (Library of Congress)
The middle CD of Waxing the Gospel is actually where the project began more than a decade ago. Our friend, “Cylinder Doctor” Michael Khanchalian, an avid collector of the extremely rare cylinders of evangelist Ira D. Sankey, asked us if we would be interested in issuing a collection of Sankeys. Little did we know when we set out on what seemed a simple and straightforward project that it would grow into such a thoroughly documented and expansive audio overview of sacred phonograms from the dawn of recording. CD 2 is a collection of celebrity sacred recordings.
But what is a “celebrity recording”? It’s a phonogram (i.e., disc, cylinder, or other type of recording) that is marketed and sold more for who made it than for the contents on it. Then as now, people have wanted to hear the voices of famous individuals. But there were almost always problems: either records of this sort were inferior specimens made by startup companies, or the celebrities themselves—neophytes to the recording process—gave poor performances, or they were distributed in tiny quantities, making them especially rare. The 32 selections here demonstrate these challenges.
For instance, how rare can it get? When Prof. John R. Sweney (music director at Ocean Grove and elsewhere, composer of “Beulah Land”) was in Washington in April 1892, Columbia made souvenir records of the famous choral leader. Probably no more than a handful were made, and the company would have used them as a way to attract more customers into their parlor. The Sweney cylinders were never issued commercially. We had the good fortune of meeting noted folklorist Joe Hickerson, the great-grandson of Sweney, and it was only through him that we were able to procure transfers of the Sweney records that had passed down in the family.
There are six different artists here: Sweney, the United States Marine Band, Dwight L. Moody, Ira D. Sankey, the Sankey Quartette, and the chimes of Trinity Church (Manhattan). All of these are prize-worthy trophies that collectors of early records dream about. Below is the tracklist and some commentary. Over on our website you can hear the sound samples.
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!