Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 3

ARCH_1009So, as we said last week, Waxing the Gospel was originally a CD dedicated to the recordings of evangelist Ira D. Sankey. But then we decided to include the discs of his partner, Dwight L. Moody. And then the Sankey Quartette cylinders got added. Then we decided that the full commercial context was necessary. Now we had two discs.

The genesis for CD 3 came one day when our friend (now co-producer) Michael Devecka called. When we told him what we were working on, he said, “I’ve got a bunch of religious home recordings, if you’re interested in those.” He confessed he didn’t know anything about them but that several looked pretty fascinating. Indeed, they were. Spurred on by only the faintest of clues still included in the case that held the brown wax cylinders just as Mike had bought them, we undertook a significant research journey through old newspapers, genealogy websites, and archives to figure out what his records were.

The whole detective story is told in detail in the 408 pages of Waxing the Gospel, but in short: Mike’s cylinders were made by an amateur phonograph recordist named Henry A. Heath, a Manhattan optician, during the 1897 annual camp meeting at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Heath captured many major stars and shining lights of Victorian-era Christian evangelism during the week-long schedule of events at the camp. He took them home to Jersey City and played them at his YMCA’s rescue mission and at other church events around Hudson County in a program he called “Echoes of Ocean Grove.” Clearly, Mr. Heath saw the phonograph as a tool for bringing comfort to the needy and spreading the Word in a novel way.

This find is nothing short of historic, and we know you’ll agree when you read the complete story and listen to the tracks in full. These tracks take about half of the third CD, while the second half is given over to vernacular recordings of sacred material from the 1890s: some by other church organizations and ministers in quasi-public settings, and others by ordinary people who show us 120 years later the way in which they waxed their faith privately, surrounded by family and friends.

Maybe you didn’t realize that the early phonographs had the ability both to play pre-recorded wax cylinders and to record on blank cylinders? Early adopters were enterprising sorts, eager to dive into the new technology. Just like with Recordio discs, reel-to-reel machines, and cassette decks in generations past, our ancestors in the 1890s experimented with recording and left to us a treasure chest of weird and wonderful sounds. Sometimes there are technical problems like wow and flutter or over-modulation or someone getting cut off, but they all have their charm and tell us things about the past that are not reducible to printed accounts. Don’t worry if you can’t catch all of the words–we’ve included full transcriptions of all selections in the book.

You can hear samples on our website. Let’s see what’s in store:

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 2

Moody-Sankey-Farewell-to-England

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.

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Introducing Waxing the Gospel, CD 1

 

ARCH_1009You 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!

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“Nobody” as Trailblazing Comedy

Black History Month got off to a good start for lovers of acoustic sound when Vulture named “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” this week. There in pole position was “Nobody” by Bert Williams from 1906. The compilers note that they weren’t looking for “one-liners” necessarily, as much as for “a discrete moment of comedy.” They contend that Bert’s performance of “Nobody” gains its power from the tension between its upbeat musicality and its mournful lyrics. It seems a stretch to call the music “upbeat”—it’s fairly doleful throughout—but we’ll grant that the chorus has a certain whimsical flavor that adds irony to Bert’s lament. Of course, the biggest musical joke in the piece lies in the trombone swoops that imitate human wailing.

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)

Vulture got it right by saying it’s the self-deprecation of the unfortunate loser that makes “Nobody” so funny. The fact that a black man would give comedic voice to his trials and tribulations, the indignities and put-upons suffered at the hands of others really was revolutionary. Williams was the highest paid African American (well, Caribbean by birth, actually) in show business and had more leeway in what he did on stage than others who looked like him. When he spoke-sang the words of “Nobody”—when he made those irresistible mugging faces and did his shuffling dance—he worked his way with laughter into the hearts of white Americans who may not have thought much about social equality. Lots of other people recorded the song—from Arthur Collins to Johnny Cash—and those versions aren’t as funny as Bert’s.

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Thomas Lambert, Man of Mystery

This photo of Thomas Lambert accompanied his Freemasons obituary

As we mentioned in an earlier post, we are preparing a compilation of the earliest known Yiddish cylinders called Attractive Hebrews. Along with our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, we’ve been trying to find more information about Thomas Lambert, namesake of the Lambert Record Company, which made the records in the early years of the 20th century.

Everyone who knows anything about the Lambert brand knows about the Yiddish cylinders, although few have seen or heard one. We were hoping to find references to them in newspapers or magazines. No luck yet.

But what we have found sheds new light on the inventor, “Tom” Lambert. The biography we printed in our CD, The Pink Lambert, still appears correct, but now we’ve got some documents that help us understand Lambert’s later career and a good deal about his personality.

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Crowdsourcing: Name This Hymn

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.

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Yiddish Lamberts: An Announcement and a Call for Help

Remember those funny pink celluloid cylinders made by a man named Thomas Lambert during the first few years of the 20th century in Chicago? Our CD, The Pink Lambert, was only the second release by Archeophone, back in 1999. Well, we’re seeing pink again.

A large block of Yiddish selections were among Lambert’s first releases, around 1901—titles including show tunes from Yiddish theater, operatic arias, and sacred numbers. A collection of many of these very early Lamberts was recently acquired by the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and they have reached out to us to put them out on a new CD. In turn, we have asked Mayrent Director Henry Sapoznik to shepherd the project, providing translations and context for material that is foreign even to people knowledgeable about Yiddish culture.

10 Lambert Cylinders featuring the earliest Yiddish material (photo  courtesy of the Mayrent Institute)

Lamberts come in a variety of colors: pink, wine, and black (Courtesy of the Mayrent Institute)

That’s because apparently these are the earliest known recordings of Yiddish music. It’s not clear why Lambert chose to market this material, but presumably he had an “in” with Chicago’s large Jewish community. One other mystery we’re trying to solve is why all the cylinders are announced “Standard Record,” instead of something like “Record made for the Lambert Company of Chicago,” which is the usual formula we hear. Has anybody out there got a clue?

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