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In a tiny, bare-walled back room a man sings into a huge metal horn. The sound causes vibrations in the air, which travel down the horn, compressing into a smaller point, causing a diaphragm to vibrate. The diaphragm pushes a metal stylus, which cuts a minuscule groove in a brown wax cylinder turned by a clockwork mechanism. No electricity is involved – the force cutting the groove is the sound wave itself. As the cylinder turns, the wax shavings have to constantly be blown away to avoid the device skipping.

The cylinder is made of “brown wax” – actually a metallic soap. With time it becomes extremely brittle, and can split or shatter if not handled with care. Even stored carefully, oxides or oils tend to migrate to the surface, and this attracts a black mold which eats away at the wax, making playback impossible.

To play the sound back, the operation is reversed – a lighter stylus moves through the groove, vibrating a diaphragm which resonates out of the horn. It is a matter of cutting edge precision engineering to get any sound out at all, so the reproduction of voices and instruments is still something of a miracle. 120 years later, with all the wear and tear that means, sticking a needle into these artifacts seems downright insane. But still, the sounds are sitting there, and it’s a race against time to get them out.

There are a few different ways that these recordings can restored. The best way is to use a microscopic range scanner to make a 3d image which can then be reconstructed on a computer. This costs an impractical amount of money and is only done for a small number of historically important recordings – for everything else the cylinder is actually played, and the sound imported into a computer. Purists will leave it there, pointing out that any further recovery is liable to do further damage. I can sympathise with this, but feel that the mixes are challenging enough in this area already, and any improvements in listening quality are welcome.

The easiest way to get better quality is with graphic equalisation. Cylinders only recorded on a narrow band of frequencies, so removing anything outside that area is a good start. If the noise or the music is focused in on certain frequencies then even better. Higher-impact restoration involves taking a ‘noise print’ of a section at the start of the track and running a program to identify this sound throughout the track. The problem here is that even the best technology is significantly worse than our own ears. Where noise is removed, edges are smoothed out, and even a moderate amount of this sort of treatment can give the recording an unnatural, robotic, underwater quality. Unfortunately many of the mp3s available on archive.org have had excessive treatment of this sort, and are consequently unusable. Here is an example of the worst uploader on there – I had to eventually exclude all of his uploads from my song-gathering phases.

Preservation efforts always involve difficult compromises. Let’s say we could use a time machine and a state of the art recording studio – would the resulting recordings be a better historical record than what we have now? While I am in a constant war with noise, the noise holds the sound as much as the sea holds fish. Mitigation must be balanced by acceptance and ultimately appreciation.

I hope you are now ready for quite a noisy mix (though to be fair the middle section is much clearer.) We start with the usual minstrel show opening, followed by George W Johnson’s other big hit, The Laughing Song. Of the tens of thousands of recordings he made of this piece in the 1890s, this sadly seems to be the best-preserved. With Ragtime now emerging, Johnson’s street-corner entertainments already seem outdated, but his laugh is still hearty and infectious even after so many performances, and he could rest assured at being the biggest-selling performer of the decade. His story, including his trial for the murder of his common-law wife, is covered well in Tim Brooks’s ‘Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry’.

After a short clip from soon-to-be-US-President William McKinley on the disastrous recession currently being suffered by the country, we have another virtuoso banjo performance from Vess L. Ossman, and a parody of political speeches on economy from George Graham.

Now onto some Ragtime, or more like Cakewalk, and mediated through the white musicians of the Columbia Orchestra, who felt the need to add minstrel-style imitations of black speech throughout, and name the thing after the original and most famous white minstrel troupe. Still, it’s one of the loosest, most expressive performances I’ve heard from one of these groups.

The rhythms of the auction house were often reproduced as a novelty in these days – here the appeal is increased with toy noises. Then more lightning-paced violin virtuosity, this time from Steve Clemens.

Cal Stewart was one of the most prolific pre-WW1 recording artists, and we’ll be hearing quite a lot more of him. A friend of Mark Twain, he performed his Uncle Josh routines (a sort of vaudeville Garrison Keillor) around the country for a decade or so before Edison Records got him in to put some of them down on wax in 1896. His monologue about a trip to Coney Island is broken up with an instrumental excerpt from a French ‘opera-comique’ and followed by an instrumental excerpt from an American ‘musical comedy’.

Next we have a home-recorded monologue from a Bill Nye (not that one) about how much he hates eating tripe, followed by a performance from one of America’s greatest cornet players (and later band leader) William Paris Chambers. The cornet was the foremost brass instrument of its day, and would be even as far as the start of the jazz era. Then another beautiful Wagner piano piece from Josef Hofmann, on a Julius Block cylinder.

A couple of cheeky vaudeville skits – a John Terrell monologue on drinking, and another bit of Irish ethnic comedy from Russell Hunting – are mixed around a less beautiful brass band attempt at a Wagner piece, a comic song about hair restorer from Dan W Quinn, an obscure overture from the Edison house band and another comic song from Russell Hunting.

In our final section Sousa’s Band AKA The United States Marine Band make their inevitable appearance, there’s another novelty auctioneer (this time played by the ubiquitous Len Spencer), a bit of the old civil war marching music from the Peerless Orchestra, a bit more from Sousa’s Band, this time with an unfortunate racist title, George Graham does another of his slightly-comic imitations of real life, and Dorothy Hoyle performs a well-known piece for cello.

In the end we sink back down into the noise from which we came, dust to dust, scratches to scratches. See you next time.


Imperial Minstrels – The Old Log Cabin
George W. Johnson – The Laughing Song
William McKinlley – Speech to Republican Convention
Vess L. Ossman – The Stars and Stripes Forever
George Graham – Talk on Money
Columbia Orchestra – Virginia Skedaddle
W.O. Beckenbaugh – Sale of Toys, Dolls and So Forth on Christmas Eve Night
Steve Clemens – Darkys Patrol
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Trip to Coney Island (Excerpt 1)
Brand’s Concert Band – Chimes of Normandy
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh’s Trip to Coney Island (Excerpt 2)
Empire State Concert Band – Belle of New York March
Bill Nye – On Tripe
William Paris Chambers – The Seraph
Josef Hofmann – Wagner-Brassin- Magic Fire Music From Die Walküre
John Terrell – a Few Words in Regard to Drinking
Gilmore’s Band – Grand March From Tannhauser
Russell Hunting – Casey at the Telephone (Excerpt 1)
Dan W. Quinn – Still His Whiskers Grew
Russell Hunting – Casey at the Telephone (Excerpt 2)
Edison Concert Band – Ouverture to ‘Der Tambour Der Garde’
Russell Hunting – I Wonder Why
United States Marine Band – the Directorate March
Len Spencer – Sale of Pawnbroker’s Goods (‘by Harry Spencer’)
Peerless Orchestra – Yankee Doodle Dandy Lancers
Sousa’s Band – The Darkie’s Temptation
George Graham – Street Fakir
Dorothy Hoyle – La Cinquantaine

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