Friday, July 9, 2010

Wonder and Madness at 78 Revolutions per Minute

My record collecting has been out of hand for years. My wife just shakes her head when I come home with more recorded music. But until fairly recently, I could tell her, "Well, at least I don't collect 78s." Those who have read this blog regularly know that I can no longer make that claim.

Record collectors are a little nuts anyway, but collecting 78 RPM records is just over the top. In an age when an iPod can hold 1000 hours of music, filling your home with highly breakable pieces of shellac which hold six minutes of music is just ridiculous. And they will fill your home - 78s take up a lot of room. I'm up to seven boxes.

So why bother? Well, the reason I got into 78s is that there is still some music which can't be heard any other way. Not much, these days, with some exhaustive CD reissue programs around the world, but there are still 78s that have not been reissued in any other form. The Boyce Brown record on the Collector's Item label (discussed in an earlier post) is a prime example. I've got more than a few very cool records which are unavailable in any other form.

And even though most of the stuff is available in other formats, there is still something kind of magical about hearing the music as the musicians expected it to be heard at the time. I'm not saying that they wouldn't have preferred more advanced technology if it had been available, but most of the music issued on 78s was conceived to be issued in that form.

And a well-made 78 in good condition can sound wonderful. There is always some surface noise present, but the ears quickly adjust to that. Many LP and CD reissues of material from 78s filter out the surface noise, which also takes out frequencies of the music, removing some of the "life" from the sound. I never had any complaint about the sound quality of my CD reissue of the 1923 recordings by A. J. Piron's New Orleans Orchestra - until I found one of the original records in excellent condition. The 78 sounds much better than the CD. There are certain records in my collection that I cherish for their sound - I can hear Louis Armstrong's breath through his horn and hear Eddie South's bow on the strings of his violin.

There's more to my love of these old records - something less tangible. They are artifacts from the past - windows to a forgotten world. As I hold or play a 78, I often speculate on who originally owned the record - why did they buy this particular record - did they enjoy it? I recently bought a box of records from an antique dealer in Chattanooga. There were a few records in the box which "didn't belong" - they obviously came from another source. But most of the box seemed to be from a single collection. Whose records were they?

Well, the original owner was probably from the country, presumably somewhere in East Tennessee or North Georgia. The vast majority of the records are what we would now call country music, but the style was usually called "hillbilly" at the time. Most of the records come from a ten-year period starting in 1924; the earliest record is a real gem from that year - an Okeh record by Henry Whitter, the first "hillbilly" artist to record. The record buyer's tastes leaned, for the most part, toward the more commercial side of country music - Carson Robison is the most-represented artist, and his music was slicker and more "citified" than the more down-home hillbilly musicians. But there were plenty of amazing "real-deal" records in the box, too, by groups like the West Virginia Night Owls, the North Carolina Ramblers, and the Carter Family.

The person (or family) who accumulated this collection was probably fairly religious - there are quite a few "white gospel" discs in the stack. He (or they) was probably Irish, and not too many generations removed from the Emerald Isle. There are Irish songs performed in country style (like a Conqueror record by Mac and Bob), but there is one straight-up record of Irish dance tunes by the Four Provinces Orchestra, an Irish band out of Philadelphia.

My precursor's record buying tailed off around 1934, but there were a few later records in the stack, like the bizarre gospel song "Television in the Sky," recorded in 1939 by the West Virginia trio of Cap, Andy and Flip. The most recent record is a 1942 Roy Acuff.

I owe this mysterious person a debt for bringing together this fascinating collection of early country music. And I'll keep buying those ten- and twelve-inch shellac discs until I totally run out of room.

1 comment:

Drew Fields said...

Great blog post. I know what you mean. I have thousands of LPs, and I am very fortunate to have a wife who totally gets it and loves music too. Recently a 78 stare opened in Pittsburgh called Whistlin' Willie's, and we've gotten into 78s now too.

There is a stepping-back-in-time quality to listening to these recordings as they were originally heard. I've always agreed that the best noise-reducing technology is your brain, and as long as the LP or 78 doesn't have a scratch that causes repetitive ticks, the surface noise does disappear.

I also find that the act of playing them one-at-a-time causes me to listen more actively. Today, it is too easy to put in a CD that lasts for almost an hour and lose attention to what you are listening to. 78s just don't allow that.