13 June 2010

Time Machine

We often can benefit from other people's obsessions.

Nowhere is this more truly or more often dramatically demonstrated than on the internet. How many times have you just discovered or been told about what to you was a new, bizarre, but fascinating topic, only to find that there is an extensive Wikipedia article about it, as well as a healthy selection of websites where variously driven people have explored the obscurantist subject thoroughly?

One of these came to me today by way of my brother, Roger, in Germany.

Roger is a big baseball fan. He also has a burrowing mind that delights in origins, in history, in the roots of things. Through an investigation of the source of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," Roger chanced upon a marvelous page of old recordings.

Here's where the obsession comes in. Glenn Sage, who apparently is behind the site www.tinfoil.com, is gloriously obsessed with and very knowledgeable about old recordings.

And when I say old, I'm not talking lps or 45s or even 78s. This is a site entirely dedicated to wax cylinder recordings, an early improvement on the very first recording medium, invented by Thomas Edison.

In case you have never heard of or seen these amazing, original recordings, there is an excellent, concise, illustrated history of them at the tinfoil site. But briefly, Edison invented the pioneer recording machine in 1877. With the first device, a needle scratched grooves in tinfoil strips wrapped around a 4-inch-diameter cylinder. This primitive and ephemeral tinfoil recording medium was replaced ten years later by a more durable standard: 4-inch-long and 2-inch-diameter waxlike cylinders.

[A brief detour back to my New Jersey childhood. Following a family outing to Edison's laboratories in West Orange, that same brother, Roger, maybe 11 years old?, built a replica of the original recording machine. It recorded on aluminum foil wrapped around a tin can. And it actually worked! I'm pretty much in awe of my brother!]

Edison used the machine to record hundreds of bands, performers, and speakers. And Edison's was only one of dozens of companies that recorded on wax cylinders during the last years of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.

The delicious, wondrous bounty of the tinfoil site, however, can be found at its Cylinders of the Month Archive. Since 1997, Sage has been posting detailed information about one interesting or special wax cylinder recording each month. So now we have this mammoth page, a compendium of all the past Cylinders of the Month. Just click on the highlighted date to the left of each entry's title and you are transported to a detailed page about that particular recording.

Best of all, though: from the detailed page it is only one more click to the recording itself. Yes, you can LISTEN TO any of these more-than-hundred-year-old audio documents!

And taken together, they compose an enchanted aural time machine! These are songs, speeches, comedy bits and musical numbers such as you have never heard, and that you'll never hear anywhere else. Just listening to the scratchy, ancient recordings takes you back to another time, and the content of the pieces places you firmly there. We're not in Kansas anymore.

Or, technically, we ARE in Kansas in one comic song that spoofs the violent temperance reformer, Carrie Nation. It's called "Carrie Nation in Kansas." There are "ethnic specialities" here that have long ago fallen to the axes of political correctness. Listen, for instance, to an Irish comedy bit, "Casey as Umpire at a Ball Game." (I found this piece--from 1898!--hilariously pertinent, considering the recent Detroit Tigers "near perfect" game debacle!) Where else would you be able to listen to several hundred-year-old "minstrel" numbers?!

The "category" column of the Archive page indicates the variety you'll find here. In just a random listing, there are selections tagged as "Band," "Clarinet Solo," "Hebrew monologue," "Talking & banjo," "Baritone," "Tenor solo," "Serio-comic song". . ."Minstrels." Here you'll find orations by William Jennings Bryan and William H. Taft, numbers by Sophie Tucker and "Sousa's Band" (Stars and Stripes Forever March recorded in 1901!). But mostly you'll see no-longer-familiar groups such as Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, Issler's Popular Orchestra, Herr Dr. Professor & George Donahue, and many individual performers.

Though there is tremendous variety here, I found that all the pieces I listened to worked mysterious magic on my nervous system, transporting me, for two or three scratchy, pop-punctuated minutes at a time, to a strange world of very different assumptions, ideas, and styles than our quotidian own.

It is a trip well worth the taking.

1 comment:

  1. My family has a collection of old, wax cylinder recordings that we got from my grandparents and which are probably melting up in my parents' attic. We also have the machine to play them on. This being my family, they, like everything that was old and dear, became sort of a fetish -- no one was allowed to play them because they were too fragile, so we treated them like objets d'art. My mom never could find a way to display them, so they have remained in storage for all these years.