Friday, May 13, 2016

The NRR Project #6: Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings at UC-Santa Barbara Library

Cylinder with notes, UCSB collection.
Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings at UC-Santa Barbara Library
A vast panoply of individuals
More than 650 recordings
Ca. 1890-1920
Here’s a sterling example of how to preserve and curate recorded sound.

To date in this exploration, I have run up against the impossibility of listening to National Recording Registry entries only twice. In each case, they involved wax cylinder recordings, which have an extremely short replay life. In the first case, the Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings contain sacred songs and are the rightful property of the living members of the tribe. In the second case, that of the Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection recorded in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the material’s inaccessibility is mysterious.

Here is the solution. The University of California at Santa Barbara has amassed a most astonishing collection of “vernacular” wax cylinder recordings – that is, recordings not made by commercial artists, nor by anthropologists or professional collectors. These are home recordings, and UCSB has created a website that indexes and displays them all. Made between 1890 and 1920 by folks across the country, they contain songs, stories, speeches, jokes, sound effects, and sales pitches.

There are even primal “overdubs.” The wax cylinder phonograph was a two-way device; one could listen and record on the same equipment, and onto the same cylinders, and at least one person added his whistling and singing to commercial recordings. It’s instructive to see people wrangling new technology to meet their specific needs.

Blithely careening through the collection randomly is a real treat. Here are the wobbly singers, the shaky cornetists, the boring uncle’s advice, the prayers and homilies of another era. Here’s where the real culture lies, below the radar of commercial sensibilities and academic concerns. The real history is here, in the little sounds and forgotten voice of nobody in particular.

The digitization of a recording removes the need for further playback and opens up its content to anyone on the internet. The site also provides a masterful historic overview of the project, and deserves reading in itself and not my reiteration of it. There are thematic playlists, a history of wax recordings – complete self-education in one spot. And, brilliantly, UCSB offers a way for interested listeners to help. Through an “Adopt a Cylinder” program, one may choose an undigitized recording for “rehousing, cataloguing, and digitizing.” UCSB has more than 10,000 recordings from various collections online at this time, but states that there are more than 3,000 to go.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Stars and Stripes Forever.

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NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

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