Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The NRR Project: Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music

Johnson's field recordings of music were saved on unstable wax cylinders such as these.
It is tantalizing and frustrating to listen to old, deteriorated recordings. So far in this epic sonic journey I’ve been on, flawed and incomplete reproduction is sometimes the only way to try and get a feel for what these messages from the past have to tell us.

Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music
20 songs, collected 1925-1928

That’s the case with this collection of cylinder recordings found after being mislabeled for 55 years. They are the sound equivalent of field notes, and they are thought to be the earliest field recordings of African-American music.

For information, I turned to the indispensable Brenda Nelson-Strauss, who meticulously analyzes the material in her “Tracking Down a Legend: Guy B.Johnson’s ‘Lost’ Cylinder Recordings” in the April 1989 issue of Resound. She gives as complete a sense of content and context that is possible to do in print.

In a nutshell, Johnson was a research assistant at the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, and worked on several folk-music projects, most notably his John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend in 1929. From 1925 through 1928, he gathered material at a number of locations in the American Southeast. These recordings served a purely non-commercial function, a research tool, something he could play back, study, analyze, and write about. The notes were, literally, his notes.

These were songs sung by ordinary people, primarily spirituals. Better ears than mine can peruse the excerpt posted at the National Recording Registry here and identify the pieces. Out of the underlying haze of scratch comes a call and response sounding like “Jesus on the Mainline,” incomprehensible voices echoing, choruses rising in rudimentary harmony. One brief phrase sounds like a precursor to “Wade in the Water.” 

The casual impressions in the wax are defaced by cracks, mold, and the pressure of use.The songs are trying to rise out of their matrixes, to come back to life. They are fuzzy and distant, but I play themagain and again. I am trying to imagine who was there, and what they really sounded like. 

The last excerpt sounds amazingly like shape-note singing, which is a primarily Caucasian Christian tradition. If anything was capable of permeating the boundary between black and white culture at the time, it was music.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order.


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