Monday, June 27, 2005

Technology 01

Some people I respect a lot are very interested in music recorded in the era and/or employing the format of the 78-rpm shellac disc: Rich Remsberg, Robert Crumb, Joe Bussard, Harvey Pekar, and a host of others have spoken about the pre-vinyl period (roughly 1888-mid-1930s) as a kind of "Golden Age" of American vernacular music. These are interesting, sometimes eccentric people, with pretty sophisticated musical tastes, but for a long time I couldn't get a grip on precisely why they preferred the old recordings. Like every other white boy playing the blues in the 1970s, I listened to the obligatory Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson recordings (listen to "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down"). And, of course, in my own world of traditional Irish music and Mississippi Delta blues, the 1920s-30s are when most of the seminal styles got laid down. So I listened in order to learn, and also to be cool. But I didn't understand why someone might prefer to hear the scratchy, crackly originals versus the (sometimes brilliant) modern versions by revivalists like Eric von Schmidt, Martin Grosswendt, or Brian Conway.

What I've come to understand is something that all of the above collectors have commented about, in one way or another: that this relatively brief period represents a crucial boundary in the history of culture: that period when, through new technology, music was transformed from being a local, idiosyncratic, participatory, and live process, to a universal, gradually-standardized, passive, and alienated object.

In the period before sound recording, if you wanted to hear music you either had to make it yourself or go to a place where it was being made live. This meant that the ability to play music was far more ubiquitous in North American culture, and also that all music was "local music"; that is, all music was conceived, played, and heard in a local context. The music from this mountain holler sounded different than the music from the next, the music of that Irish county sounded different than another, and so on.

The advent of the Edison wax cylinder phonograph and then of shellac recording discs was the watershed moment when that all began to change. No longer was it necessary for musicians and listeners to even be in the same room--or even alive at the same time. No longer was it possible (or inevitable) that a musician could develop his/her approach in isolation. Now everything was potentially available, and the local idiosyncrasies began to erode. After Michael Coleman recorded his Sligo-style fiddle records in NYC in the 20s and early-30s, his 78s became one of the most popular gifts for Irish emigrants to send back home. And players in contrasting local styles, intimidated or merely impressed with Coleman's virtuosity, began to abandon their own tunes and their own approaches.

So sound recording--the incredible, millenial capacity to capture sound and play it back absent the players--was simultaneously a boon to those who wanted to preserve, study, or learn a regional or individual music approach, and the technology that would destroy those approaches, and even a listener's ability to hear the local style on its own merits.

Thus listening to a 78 is in a sense to listen through a brief historical portal to the sounds of myriad musical cultures which were already disappearing. How much we lost!

[Various people have gone to the trouble to make various 78s hear-able online. Two fantastic places to start are and the archives of the wonderful radio program (now tragically defunct) The Secret Museum of the Air.

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