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Making Up For Lost Time: Technology, Digital Musics and Recovering the Past

Jonathan Crane
Associate Professor, University of North Carolina Charlotte

Introduction: All Things Must Pass

The recording industry is in a state of crisis.  This is not an abbreviated downturn in sync with the fiscal ills currently hobbling global, national and regional markets. Well before the Great Recession began, sales of prerecorded music across world markets began a precipitous decline (DeGusta, 2011; Haile, 2012; Jones, 2012). The emergence of new formats and digital networks in lieu of the physical distribution of pre-recorded compact discs has not brought substantial relief to the industry (Andrews, 2012; Eijk et al. 2010; Krukowski, 2012; Rosoff, 2012; Sears, 2012). Whenever moribund economies and soft business sectors eventually rebound, a radically reordered recording industry is unlikely to exceed or even near previous sales records and profit levels.

Powerful economic insults along with decisive shifts in the technologies that enable recording, transmission, distribution and consumption have regularly impacted the music and recording industries. The Depression, the scraping of sheet music as the dominant vehicle of musical transmission, the advent of wireless broadcasting and consolidation of the radio industry, pod-casting, the dawn and maturation of FM, the shuttering of Tin Pan Alley, internet streaming, satellite radio, the transition from shellac 78s to long-playing record albums and 45s as well as the rise of cassette culture and home taping in the seventies radically altered the production, distribution and consumption of popular musics throughout the globe (Garofalo 2010; Hogan 2010; Hull 2004; Jasen 2003; Kenney 1999; Pettit et al. 2008; Pollack 2011).

Contemporary audiences continue to consume music, but a substantial portion of the listening audience, especially the youngest cohort, is not willing to pay overmuch for the pleasure of satisfying musical appetites (Imam, 2012; Kafka 2009; Music Industry Blog, 2012; Smith 2009).  At present, that portion of the recording industry still dedicated to marketing physical and digital product for individual purchase looks posed to share the slagheap with the ill-fated manufacturers of typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, 35 mm film and other terminal media.

Yet, even as a shrinking number of recording industry titans struggle to make contemporary sound creations fungible, old musics, long forgotten performers and vanished genres are becoming ever more widely disseminated,.  In making an unexpected return to our time, very old records function as evocative artifacts that rework contemporary listeners’ experience of time past in newly kindled relationships with musicians whose voices and instruments are audible once again after decades or even a century or more of complete, utter silence.

In contrast to accounts of the contemporary moment as a postmodern period characterized by cultural fragmentation and semiotic exhaustion, this paper argues that while those descriptors are suitable for some zones of cultural production and consumption, there are also significant sectors of cultural praxis, in this instance the recovery and distribution of old musics, that restore the historical record, revive the past and return long silenced voices to the present(Connor 1997; Lochhead and Auner 2002; McGuigan 2006; Reynolds 2011). Postmodernity has long been synonymous with the implosion of history; in a reversal of time’s arrow, the moment for old, old musics is now. And, unlike the post-modern predilection to incorporate bits of the past into contemporary productions across media through sampling and other forms of cut-and-mix pastiche, the historic return of old musics to our day is routinely accomplished without subjecting by-gone cultural artifacts to the acid bath of ironic quotation and wholesale symbolic deracination.

Everything Old is New Again: The Return of Dated Musics 

Offered up by a tremendous number of tiny boutique labels and modest sole proprietorships, dated musics of astonishing diversity are now available for all who care to listen and possess the minimal technological wherewithal to seek out such releases.  Some issuing FLAC files only, others hard CD copies solely and still others releasing material in a variety of formats across the analog and digital continuum, including cassette and vinyl, and even 78s, these minuscule labels, including Trikont, Subliminal Sounds, Old Hat, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Dust-to-Digital, Soul Jazz, Strut, Numero Group, Revenant, Lion Productions, Secret Stash, Marston Records, Tompkins Square, CaseQuarter, Archeophone, West Hill Recorded Archives, Evangeline, Buda Musique, Analog Africa, Soundway, Reboot Stereophonic, Sutro Park, Honest Jon’s, Atavistic and countless others, share a common interest in taking the long view of recorded music history.  Raiding record company vaults, mining the public domain (especially in territories not subject to U.S. copyright law), and returning private pressings to circulation, these labels are redistributing old and marginal musics that have been, until now, lost to time.  A substantial portion of the material issued by these purveyors never traded under a corporate imprint and was peddled by the recording artists themselves in highly limited runs of cylinders, albums, cassettes, and 45s. Some labels release one-off private recordings never intended for public sale or broadcast.

For example, Marston Records, a label committed to finding, restoring and reissuing the earliest recordings of classical music has compiled a multiple disc set of the Julius Block cylinders (Various Artists 2008). The Block recordings were inscribed between 1890 and the mid-1920s. An early adopter, Julius Block was a Russian magnate and music enthusiast who purchased his phonograph directly from Edison on a visit to the inventor’s storied East Orange laboratory. Block used the machine to record renowned nineteenth-century pianists and other classical musicians in Russia, Germany and Switzerland. Many of his cylinders account for the only instance these notables ever recorded and provide a timeless cache of instrumental and vocal performances from the earliest moments in the history of recorded sound. Block also recorded writers and other artists, including Leo Tolstoy, reading aloud and in conversation with members of their celebrated salons. These recordings, which Block played for the delectation of his elite social circle, scientists and members of the public in occasional symposia were never commercially available, although Block did enlist Edison’s assistance in trying to ensure his transcriptions were preserved for future auditors.  Their alliance came to naught as the Block cylinders in Edison’s possession were consumed in a fire (Maltese and Maltese 2010).

Also working to reproduce the past, Archeophone Records markets an extensive run of releases in their Phonographic Yearbook collection. The series commences with the year 1890 and has reached, to date, the early nineteen twenties. Each disc comprises the biggest Stateside hits of the year and promises listeners an orderly break down of mainstream musical culture from way back.  In contrast to most collections of oldies, Archeophone releases neither stoke nor sate the nostalgic impulse to revisit the time of your life.  Save for a dwindling handful of superannuated seniors, there aren’t any listeners alive for whom these songs and performances composed the actual musical backdrop of a halcyon youth. These are virtual oldies that can be encountered only in historical review.  Archeophone recordings offer proxy anamneses for those with an archival interest in musics past. Auditors can’t revisit their own seminal musical favorites via an Archeophone release, but they do have the opportunity to steep themselves in a matrix of alien airs that captivated untold numbers of listeners in a shared musical bond.

Unlike the present, with Nielsen Soundscan, Billboard and other commercial entities charged with accounting for those artists and groups who move product, there are no remotely reliable means of calibrating the top hits from a century past.  As Archeophone releases cannot offer anything close to a precise reckoning for exactly those songs that mattered most–-these collections approximate what some people heard in listening posts across the United States and elsewhere. These are some of the songs middle-class amateurs with a spinet in the parlor sang and played in intimate gatherings with friends and family.  Anyone with spare change could have channeled one of these tunes through a set of gutta percha ear tubes at a coin operated “automatic phonograph” found wherever the public mingled.  For those with greater means (by the mid-twenties almost sixty percent of American middle-class households owned a record player and more than twenty percent of working class households had their own variety of phonograph), these are some of the cylinders or discs that were spun by music aficionados unwilling or unable to strike up their own cover versions (Suisman 2009, 249).  In fabricating sets of chart toppers from the gay nineties forward, Archeophone’s collections document a sample of the musics that mattered to our forebears while also presenting the past with a knowing wink, as if Ryan Seacrest or John Peel were on hand to crank up the Victrola and dedicate Sophie Tucker’s latest platter to our one true flame.

In the early days of recording there were no fixed, target audiences for recording companies to service with a consistent diet of predictable hits.  Well-regulated audiences, those contemporary market fractions whose every demographic indicator and psychographic tic is categorized and subject to big data analysis have not yet been fashioned by commercial agents chasing a share of the public purse. Inchoate audiences, from an epoch when important coalitions of the mass media are just coming into organization, are difficult in the extreme to clearly discern. As Michael Chanan wondered in Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music: “Who bought and played these millions of records? We cannot answer from contemporary press coverage or reviews. The record industry received very little attention in the general press at the time” (1997, 206). Even as the records continue to speak, knowing how and by whom they were received is a query with no straightforward answer.  Listening to dated recordings calls for contemporary audiences to interpret not only vanished modes of playing, recording and transmitting music, but to try and bridge the gulf between ourselves and anonymous auditors from a time when recorded sounds were fresh.

Even with the proviso that these are oldies for an unknown audience, any session of concentrated listening with a Phonographic Yearbook selection or Block cylinder promises a period of empathetic reverie. Archival recordings allow for a spell of imaginative contemplation that grants contemporary auditors fleeting access to some archaic scintilla of phenomenological experience, some evanescent sense of the feelings sparked by the hits of the day or the magically preserved genius of a classical savant.  Even if our distant predecessors remain ultimately unfathomable, we can consort in the soundscape formerly occupied by a large cohort of listeners from another time and place.

Fans and Collectors Make Sound History

The labor of small labels returning marginal works to print and byte is mirrored by the actions, oftentimes illegal, of countless individual collectors and technically savvy music enthusiasts who have digitized their collections and post long unavailable commercial recordings on-line.  They also upload independent recordings of live performances for others to recover via filehosts, cyberlockers, blogs with direct downloads and a vast number of other web locales. Internet enabled networks are cyber-extensions of the analog tape trading networks that developed around the Grateful Dead and other rock bands lionized for the exceptional spontaneity of their live performances with dedicated fans committed to preserving and sharing special moments of artless invention.

Electronic “sharity” networks are also digital augmentations of the long-time mail coalitions maintained by hard-core jazz fanatics who surreptitiously recorded and swapped unauthorized recordings of bands and performers for decades.  Finally, these emergent avenues of high-tech exchange are the latest medium of trade for obsessed disciples of orchestral music and opera.  Classical music enthusiasts were the pioneer bootleggers (Marshall 2005). Starting with acoustic recordings, they were the first sound outlaws to stealthily employ music technology to record snippets of arias, recitals and operas featuring favored divas, conductors and orchestras in performance.  These treasures were then distributed among a tight coterie of fellow buffs.

There are also a formidable number of websites, some affiliated with museums, private and state sponsored educational institutions, and independent historians who archive and disseminate a vast range of disparate recordings of old musics. Sharity is not new to music fans and legitimate authorities dedicated to music preservation and education, but there has never been a time prior when near the entire breadth of recorded music is instantly available to those with Internet access.

Apart from the considerable legal questions in play as new technologies and new forms of musical appropriation and dissemination conflict with international and national copyright provisions, new labels and institutions with a commitment to preservation along with an army of enthusiasts dedicated to disseminating and archiving their preferred musics are making an interest in popular and classical musics an archeological enterprise. New formations of musical distribution work to arrest cultural amnesia and the planned obsolescence of musical heritage.[1]  Amounting to more than just the token opposition, despite the laughable differences in scale between mammoth multinationals and kitchen table start-ups, new musical collectives are successfully resurrecting long-gone musics.

In exploring the significance of the historical zeal with which collectors and their labels are reclaiming and reordering the audio past, it is important not to assume that these nascent practices have surfaced as the direct expression of the inherent teleology of contemporary recording and dissemination technologies. A preoccupation with the time and place from which musical formations are born(e) is not a necessary property of new music and information technologies. The same technology can simultaneously work to liberate musical consumption, transmission and production from any niggling concern with the niceties of historical context and musical provenance.[2]

The group venture between listeners eager to recover something of the distant auditory long-ago and under-capitalized start-ups and generous collectors (if giving away that to which you hold no legal title is indeed generous and not criminal), strongly parallels what historian William Howland Kenney identified as one of the primary motives for listening at the birth of the recording industry.  Kenney contends that early “recorded musical performance from the past stimulated collective memories that helped Americans reenvision themselves simultaneously in different spheres of their country’s and their own past, present and future” (2007, xvii-xviii).  And while an engagement with memory matters when listening to old recordings, collective memory is not stirred when returning deep into the nether reaches of auditory annals. Hearing sounds, voices and melodies from generations ago is akin to overhearing impossibly advanced elders reminiscing about what once had been. Listening to old, old, oldies is an act on par with leafing through yellowed diaries and other antiquarian ephemera in lieu of revisiting familiar memories cobbled from personal experience. Listeners are granted access to memories, as a recording is always a memorial archive, but these are recollections of a past to which we have no lived connection. 

Historians have long documented the raft of popular recordings predicated on ethnic stereotypes and racial prejudice in the wake of the minstrel era and periods of national anxiety over immigration from the wrong shores, but it is bewildering to hear these freshly remastered sentiments blasting from a car stereo or through a pair of ear buds (Lott 1995; Strausbaugh 2006). No amount of scholarly preparation can adequately prepare first-time listeners for an auditory engagement with vanished forms of exceptionally coarse vocal disparagement. Another down-tuned ode to Satan or a syncopated barrage of F-bombs has nothing on brassy “Coon Shouter” May Irwin’s ebullient 1907 version of the “The Bully” (Various Artists 1998). May Irwin sounds like Kate Smith’s brash, tippling cousin as she swaggers through lyrics that make her a confederate of Weezy and Bushwick Bill. Upon hearing “The Bully” it becomes just possible to imagine Mrs. Miller teaming up with The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron to lay the groundwork for future experiments in what it means to sound black.

Harry Smith: Reanimater and Time Bandit

Old recordings resurrected through new modes of distribution and new vehicles for sound transmission alter the perceptual experiences of individual listeners and inspire new modes of collective musical consumption and new formations of communal listening.  Looking back to previous alterations in the soundscape, it is possible to more accurately demarcate the specific particulars unique to the present change in musical reception and Internet-fueled plenitude.

Consider the profound effects, both immediate and long-term, that Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Various Artists 1997) had on individual auditors and the wider culture when first issued by Folkway Records in 1952. The impact of Smith’s work provides an ideal case for exploring how the convergence of sound technology and archaic musical practices transform the individual experience of listening as well as altering the broader musical horizon that individuals share as a collective.[3]

The Anthology appeared just four years after the introduction of the 33 and 1/3 rpm long-playing record album. Initially, the new recording format had an immediate influence upon the reception of classical music. The LP made it feasible to offer complete, uncut performances of long movements on one side of a recording.  Previously, long movements had been scattered across multiple records in cumbersome omnibus packages.  Not only could classical enthusiasts access performances as they unfolded in real time, absent jarring breaks, LPs also made it easy to return again and again to a rapidly expanding canon of recordings to study the direction of the conductor and the skilled labor, individual and collective, of the assembled musicians (Elborough 2009; Katz 2004).

In contrast to the good standing of the masterworks collected across long-playing classical releases, Smith’s collection was a weird and rowdy gathering played by the untutored and unwashed. This deeply idiosyncratic anthology had a transformative effect on American musical culture through the recovery and circulation of performances that had slipped from time (but not from copyright –- it is not insignificant that this pirated production was once wholly illegal).  Smith’s six album gathering, a motley selection of crackling relics from his legendary personal collection of 78s, assembled black and white country singers and bands, blues artists, Cajun combos and cowboy singers recorded early in the twentieth century. And while the compilation gave listeners aural entree to a mysterious past, Smith engineered his production in such a way that not all historical forces were allowed to return full force.  For instance, the Anthology leaves the color-line unstipulated in otherwise detailed liner notes, as Smith never identifies the race of the singer or accompanying musicians on each track. It was an individual call which singers and pickers were black, who was white and who may well have had a foot either side of the color line. In this regard, Smith’s telling omission of the racial identity of the collected musicians offers a sharp contrast to the typical postmodern appropriation. Smith’s calculated absence does not cleanse the work of historical nuance, instead the erasure quietly underscores the function of race in the creation and apprehension of sound recordings.

The arch patriarch of the mix-tape, Smith arranged his collection thematically with songs sorted into the general categories of ballads, social music and songs, but each selection, as with any carefully considered soundtrack, comments on and is, in turn, in dialogue with neighboring cuts. Depending on the edition, the records came in color coordinated sleeves and boxes festooned with mystic and musical arcana. The collection also housed an extensive set of annotated notes for each track. The booklet of letter-pressed notes were themselves part of a larger collage which melded photographs, snippets of advertisements for musical instruments and the original 78s, alchemical arcana, an idiosyncratic index and other visual and literary ephemera. No matter what sense anyone might make of the set, it was a unique assortment of singular riches.  Every subsequent box set larded with exhaustive liner notes, unpublished photos and all the ups and extras that acquisitive musos find tantalizing owes a debt to Smith’s total design.  The package was a highly personal construction, no one but an obsessed auto-didact like Smith could have produced anything remotely like it.  At the same time it was not so decidedly eccentric, so exclusively hermitic, that listeners immersed in Smith’s extraordinary appropriation were barred from working up personal interpretations for what the songs meant as part of their particular soundscape (Cantwell 1996; Marcus 1997). And, like today’s small labels, educational institutes, and individual collectors, Smith had the technology to do the work that heavily capitalized majors refused to entertain.

The Anthology of Folk Music was a cardinal point of reference for the American folk revival of the fifties and sixties.  The record led a pantheon of now iconic performers, including John Cohen, Bob Dylan, Peter Stampfel, Ralph Rinzler, Dave Van Ronk, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, Al Wilson, Henry Vestine and John Fahey, among scores of notables, to incorporate Smith’s selections into their respective repertoires and to become newly fired archivists and disseminators.  Smith’s records contained a total of just eighty-four tracks, but together those selections led to the restoration of thousands of antique tunes to the shared corpus swapped between folk musicians looking to enlarge their stock of authentic numbers and audience members searching for old/new tunes to play on no instrument other than a turntable.

Smith’s record also inspired collectors to search for the actual men and women whose voices were captured on junked 78s. (Calt 2008; Schmidt and Rooney 1994).  In this quest, Furry Lewis, Dock Boggs, Son House, Elizabeth Cotten, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Victoria Spivey, Bukka White, Clarence Ashley and a great many more musicians were returned to the stage and recording studio.  A Field of Dreams (1989) for the folkie, beloved ghosts from beyond were magically returned to public life in a secular act of reincarnation.

Audible Ghosts: Mechanical Reproduction and the Sound of Immortality

The dream of full recovery continues to animate the act of listening and collecting for many music fans and even for those whose consumption of music is something less than certifiably compulsive.  The apotheosis of high-fidelity, wherein the spirits haunting magnetic tape, vinyl grooves and encrypted bytes are restored to life is one of the magical features of all music technology. Every time a major recording star dies, their catalog sales explode and, as with the passing of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, Elvis Presley and Tupac Shakur, fans seek to commune with the departed through the purchase of discs, tapes and files bearing a voice that can be resurrected at will.

This is not a novel observation, critics and inventors have long asserted that technologies of reproduction render recording angels immortal. Otis Ferguson, writing in 1940, testified that a fatal chill never took Bix Biederbecke:

He got pneumonia out of it, of course, and died of that a few days later. That is, they buried the body. For those who had been around and for those to come after there was something, grown in this country out of the Iowa dirt, that didn’t die and could not be buried so long as there should be a record left in the world, and a turntable to spin it on. (Chamberlain and Wilson 1982, 31-32)

Bix lives and so too does everybody else caught on tape, groove, or byte.          

Not every encounter with recorded music comes larded with theosophical baggage; sometimes we turn to music solely for distraction. But there are occasions when technologies of musical fidelity are deployed to do more than provide temporary relief from the pressures of the workaday world. In an intentional act of occult negation, for the duration of a recording death is not the end.

When we desire the presence of those musicians who matter most, the mediating record, disc or corruptible file must typically suffice. We can summon the voice, but the body remains out of reach. It was a gift of providence that the close period between the time when Smith’s legacy records were initially released and then reissued for a newly receptive audience was short enough to ensure that some aural apparitions had not yet departed this plane.  Had a little more time elapsed, no survivors would make their return from oblivion and audiences would have been left with nothing more than immaterial voices emanating from spinning circles of black vinyl. Tantalizing indexical tokens, moving voices could then invoke animated ghosts only and not fully present human referents. Yet, no matter how old the records, no matter how much time has passed since their original issue, the yearning to have a lived encounter with beguiling voices endures (Sconce 2000).

This is an elemental desire that wants from mediated communication the same deep union available to believers through communion and other divine rites of transubstantiation. Following John Durham Peters:

Eros seeks to span the miles, reach into the grave, and bridge all the chasms. It is the principle that seeks to transcend the limitations of our normal modes of contact with each other in the word and in the flesh. New media, by smashing old barriers to intercourse, often enlarges eros’s empire and distort its traditional shape. (1999, 137)

In allowing us to overcome the limits of face to face exchange and seek out partners with whom we are not physically and chronologically proximate, communication media cater to and spur fantastic desires. 

The distortion of eros to which Peters refers arises from a long-time concern with the appropriate limits of longing and communication. Should we chase after those with whom no physical connection is possible and from whom any return of recognition is unattainable? And from whom, as with Socrates’ complaint about the recorded word, we are presented with the same unaltered message ad infinitum.  If the possibility of genuine dialogue subtends all meaningful relationships, then what does it mean to take pleasure in repetitive communication with spectral voices?

If earlier we had invoked Lazarus to designate the allure of sound reproduction, as inert recordings do manifest electric signs of life when we play them, it might be more appropriate to think of Narcissus when assessing the relationship between listeners and the voices they love to reanimate.  What we hear in these aural exchanges may be no more than the amplified reflection of our own plangent desires echoing ceaselessly through speakers and headphones. Yes, a voice is reborn each time we hit play, but it reverberates in a never-ending echo. Unlike real voices, the mediated voice is an inhuman marker for irretrievable loss. Returning time and time again to the same recording, fetishistic listening may be an abject exercise in futility.

For those not counted among the Socratic faithful, there is something about a rich voice transported through time that is substantially more than an illusory figment of the embodied being who gave life to a recording. This intense desire to return the author of the voice to the soundstage (and not just a convincing replication of the voice itself), was understood early on by both manufacturers of recording and playback equipment and the audiences who bought cylinders and the machines to play them. Agents of the Edison Company promoted Diamond cylinders with comparison tests in which (shades of the much later “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” campaign featuring the weaponized voice of Ella Fitzgerald shattering a crystal goblet), listeners were challenged to distinguish between a recording and actual musicians singing and playing in the flesh. Eyewitness accounts suggest that audiences could not positively distinguish between the real thing and the recorded. Celebrating the uncertainly as to the counterfeit and the genuine, Edison’s pitchmen declared their recordings triumphs of fidelity--a signal feat for audio pioneers (Milner 2009). In light of this conviction, Edison could claim more for fidelity in recording than just accurate sound reproduction. Absolute fidelity in reproduction bonds listeners and musicians in a transcendent coalition as the rift that separates listeners from distant interlocutors is closed. High fidelity brings us together.

In making it difficult for listeners to distinguish between the real and its simulation, recordings present confounding metaphysical challenges that are both epistemological and ontological.   Epistemologically, recordings proffer, as in the descriptor “high fidelity,” a true account of the voice and instruments that author captured sound. Yet, no matter how life-like the reproduction, audiophiles know that reproductions are always missing some part of the original. Still, what remains in the soundstage can make for an extraordinarily convincing illusion.  The visceral truth of what listeners hear in a recording becomes apparent when feet tap, fingers snap and bodies sway in time with musical rhythms.  The body responds with equal fervor to live and recorded sounds making no distinction between reproductions and originals.

Ontologically, listeners are confronted with semblant sounds that are emanations from a living source. The air that is displaced as speaker cones vibrate is a motivated referent for the breath that passes from the mouth of the singer, vibrating violin strings or pneumatic saxophone honk.  Those who relish being overcome by loud music know hearing an orchestra reach a fortissimo climax or bouncing along with a thumping sub-woofer is an incandescent pleasure that is not less keenly felt when music is channeled through an inanimate sound system.

All venerable historical artifacts furnish a material connection with the past, they all possess some hint of an “aura,” some ragged end of the real, but old recordings resonate with greater intensity than many other types of historic artifact because they bear such an intimate relation to both the source of the signal and the recipient of sound. As Walter Ong recognized when comparing sound with other forms of sense data:

Sound cannot be sounding without the use of power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he had better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is `dynamic.’ (2002, 32)

This power multiplies as recordings age and the distance between the present day and the time of the original transcription grows. The longer the span for which singers and musicians have been silenced, the more miraculous the power of the vibrant sounding.

Dated recordings allow listeners leave to join those outside their immediate compass, a vast cohort that includes ever-growing armies of the long dead.  In fostering this uncanny alliance, old recordings also confound any ordered grasp of concrete experience as certain knowledge and fantastic illusion merge when Real and Memorex intertwine in a heterodox body of numinous sound. The result of this vertiginous blend is the creation of resonant “spaces for ecstatic regression” (Daniel Lopatin as cited in Reynolds 2011, 83). With reference to one of the oldest definitions for communication, archival records transport listeners.

Recordings Play Havoc with Time

Compounding the extent of this disordering of the senses, sound archives place auditors in a perplexing relation to one of the fundamental coordinates of existence: time. As Jonathan Sterne observes, recordings are created and listened to within “a three-fold sense of time that is: at once (1) linear, progressive, historical time, (2) the internally consistent time on a record and . . .the almost geologic time of the physical recording itself “ (2003, 310). Time is one of the primary mechanisms by which we order our daily lives, but time is also experienced as part of a musical composition, as in a hook-rich single that ends far too quickly or a longer piece that unfolds across leisurely movements stretching well beyond the limit of a three-minute single.

It is also the passage of time which accounts for the presence or absence of historical patina that listeners handily apprehend in new and old recordings. Listening to discs waxed in Baghdad just after the award of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia as opposed to hearing Gorillaz’ tracks laid down a couple of weeks back has an undeniable impact on the comprehension of recorded music.  Newly recorded sounds come bundled in daily background noise, while old recordings are, to borrow Gary Gumpert’s phrase, “talking tombstones”  (as cited in Sterne 2003, 309). One is just another enjoyable bit of the aural commons, as with the welcome lift delivered by a favorite hit on the jukebox, while ancient recordings have an oracular cast by virtue of eclipsing impossible stretches of the past.

No wonder we can find ourselves “lost” in an old recording as we are caught in the animated cascade of a musical performance that entwines our time, the here and now of the listening context, and the immediate and anticipated time of the performance (that delicious experience of time unfolding as a musician is about to bend a searing blue note, hit a killer riff or return to the tonic), and our knowledge of the original date of the artifact. Such a mess of times wrecks havoc with any straightforward comprehension of a regular and orderly division of life’s predictable rhythms and leaves listeners enveloped in a “whirlpool of historical contingency” (Storey 2009, 47). Adrift in horological chaos, listeners are unmoored from any time standard and free to lose themselves in temporal multiplicity.

The experience of context is also disrupted by old recordings. New recordings typically come to us as part of the perpetual now with no distinguishing sense of time and circumstance beyond belonging to the contemporary world market. Many old records are closely tied to local vernacular and folk traditions extinct for generations. Etched in the groove, these traditions regain currency whenever a old recording is played anew. Conversely, works informed by market imperatives not part of storied folk traditions, such as recordings of vaudeville entertainers, dance orchestras, marching bands and minstrel performers also carry perceptible traces of vanished social milieu. While the old recording plays, expiry dates are temporarily void and even ridiculously outmoded prescriptions for authentic performance are once more in full force.
For example, it is difficult to resist the woeful charm of a diffident race man contesting racial torts when listening to America’s first Black superstar: Bert Williams. Cylinders from Williams’ initial success on Broadway (at the turn of the 20th Century), to his last recordings made while the sole Black performer in the otherwise segregated Zeigfield Follies, grant him leave to join us while he remains immured in a vanished social formation.  Prejudice endures, but Williams’ signature song “Nobody” (Williams 2004) unites contemporary listeners with a Negro sad sack nobly battling particularly odious torments that, at least in part, have long been superseded. The social sphere of Williams’ records is not ours, but his recordings allow contemporary listeners the right of return and free association with a self-effacing champion of color.

Conclusion: Keeping Up with the Dead

Archives of old music drive listeners to establish a full-throated connection with the past.  Sometimes this compulsion leads to the gold standard for communication, the face-to-face-encounter, as Smith’s anthology propelled legions of collectors to reconnect with the living treasures responsible for making old-time musics.  In our time, archival music-makers are dead; we can’t bring anyone back for a set-down. All the while ever enlarging musical archives amplify the compulsion to close the breach between ourselves, the music makers and the men and women who listened in social settings that are no more.          
Steve Roden’s recent compilation “. . .  i listen to the wind that obliterates my name,” (Various Artists 2011) offers an object lesson for addressing the profligate return of old sounds absent the power to physically resurrect the dead. Roden, a well-known painter and sound installation artist is also a 78 authority and collector of flea market photos of old-time musicians and the first generation of music listeners to enter the world of recorded sound. Roden combines elements of these two collections, photographs and digitized 78s in a book/CD album that documents old modes of playing and listening, while simultaneously conveying how easy and difficult it is for contemporary auditors to try and imagine themselves among old souls and their pastime musics.  As the title of the collection suggests, listening is a temporal act that ends with extinction. Songs finish, compositions resolve, sounds fade away, and all that remains are fugitive recollections of musicians at work producing sounds that can no longer be heard. Whether the image is cached in memory or captured by a fly-blown photo unearthed at a jumble sale, sounds and voices carry just so long and so far before silence rules. Yet, in an historic act of unreasonable perseverance, recorded archives belie the plain truth that the past is finished.
As most all of the 150 photos assembled in the chronicle are presented with no supporting documentation, readers of the work are placed in an elaborate sequence of complex encounters with musicians and music lovers that encourage current listeners to manufacture back stories for the one armed guitarist, duos and trios brandishing banjos and pistols, endearing family ensembles and on.  Also part of the photo miscellany are pictures of devotees sitting with their Victrolas and other players at home and outdoors in tandem with companion shots of music aficionados and their cherished preserves of cylinders and disks. Finally the compilation includes photographs of instruments in a rich variety of contexts—including surreal prints of pianos ripped from snug parlors by cyclones and dumped far from home. In sympathy with the photographs of windswept keys, Roden’s entire project collects its varied subjects and carries them far from their native soil. Keepsakes from the past, mementoes dear to the dead are now held by the future.
The still images allow the living to witness people and playthings in compelling depictions drawn from a vanquished world, while the digitized 78s resonate in a dizzy nexus that includes antique sound effects, home-made acetates from the inception of amateur recording, parlor ballads, novelty hokum, gospel pleas, and much more. We can see and hear people at work and leisure, feel the varied rhythms they create, and find ourselves awash in sense data from another time and place. Yet, in the last instance, contemporary auditors must entertain dead envoys and their spirited culture across a formidable expanse of time.
Save for one slight morsel of deep background, Roden’s decision not to include any biographical data or musicological analysis in his collection, even when some of the musicians are not unknown, is in keeping with the general effect of so much old sound data returning in our time.  The avalanche of newly available recordings outruns any attempt at musicological annotation and historical interpretation. Even uncommonly catholic scholars and knowledgeable fans will find themselves in unfamiliar territory given the inundation of old recordings once more in circulation.
This boundless torrent leads to an absurd dilemma.  Archive fever, Derrida’s (1996) diagnosis for the drive to attain the complete, authoritative record, leaves fixated collectors with the daunting task of recalling spectral peoples through vehicles which cannot satisfactorily reclaim what has been left behind. No matter how large the archive, there is always more to collect, more to hear, and the constant imperative to enlarge the holdings is an admission that, indeed, the historical record is forever lacking.  Unable to fully recuperate the past, collections are, quite literally, monumental failures. Scarce and non-existent artifacts ensure that any archive is wanting; while the larger the archive, the more trouble and expense that have gone into amassing a superb collection, the less useful the store becomes. Infinitely large returns, or what may as well be considered infinite (no human can listen and appreciate all that has been delivered), ensure that as archives grow, and sound preserves multiply, they become progressively more daunting and less useful.
Nevertheless, brimming annals surely have some measure of utility and despite falling far short of an undiminished recovery of the past, digital musical archives and their attendant technologies of storage, dissemination and reproduction make do as serviceable time machines. In returning bits of time past to consciousness, old musics resurface as mysterious audio constellations akin to startling recovered memories. Unlike routine recollections, summoned up as part of orderly cognitive searches that come with a strong sense of the original context from which they originate, dated musical mementos come from places and times we cannot recall. They are rent from their birthplace and miraculously reconstituted in our time and our lives. For this reason, when Greil Marcus refers to the world conjured up by old-time musics from the States, he calls it “the old, weird America” (1997, 87).  Every historical recording is, in this sense, wholly alien, and yet, as pure sensory experience, instantly accessible.

Archaic recordings bring us to people and places we cannot readily recognize even as we have the compelling gift of appreciating their undiminished musical talents in the here and now. No matter how far gone, they abide. As Charles Babbage, one of the pioneers of analog computing, postulated in a reflection on the absolute permanence of sound and other sense data:

In fact, there is a great album of Babel. . . for all we know to the contrary, other worlds may be peopled and conducted with the images of personas and transactions thrown off from this and from each other; the whole universal nature being nothing more than phonetic and photegenic structures. (as cited in Gleick 2011, 377)

In accord with so many other inventors, critics and fans, Babbage asserts that recording engineers immortality. Going further than most, Babbage argues that the universe itself is a celestial archive that keeps us all in play forever(not just demi-gods like Bix, Left-Eye and Elvis). At this extreme, archives may not only provide glad access to human simulations, they may also replicate the enduring nature of all-encompassing creation in cataloging existence.

Following Babbage’s lead in likening great archives to towering Babel, our growing surplus of recorded transactions leaves us one with the Babylonians in a sea of cacophonous voices that cannot be mastered. We too are confronted with voices and sounds that are audible but not wholly comprehensible. Even when the singers employ our tongue, they do so in a fashion that is oftentimes utterly foreign. Unlike the Babylonians who are sentenced to struggle for purchase in a shattered world, where all are divided by incommensurable speech, sonic time machines present us with a significantly more harmonious prospect. In numbers that continue to multiply as collectors, laptop entrepreneurs and institutional archives return ever more musics to circulation; the multitude of ghosts that haunt us are appreciably more welcome than the audible misery visited upon the Babylonians. These sounds don’t separate us one from the other, instead they expand and repopulate our world with an unearthly number of sound encounters.  In lieu of division, they offer diversity. Recognizing you don’t need to speak the language like a native to visit foreign realms, we can inhabit multiple worlds and in so doing cast off the musical constraints marshalling the contemporary soundscape.

Countermanding the general thrust of postmodern aesthetic practice to eviscerate history, as past, present and future blur in an enervating slurry of circulating signifiers (time’s rich pageant now contempo dust devil), archivists disseminate musical exports that maintain their inherent alterity and historic singularity. Digital archives house ghosts who sing of what was, so that we need not be imprisoned in our time. Old recordings are not time capsules for the ancients; they are interchanges that spirit present-day listeners from the iron keep of the present. In the slipstream of distant sound alternatives, the noisy dead tender passage from home.


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[1] See Brooks(2005) survey of reissues of U.S recordings commissioned by the Library of Congress and the National Preservation Board. Brooks found that most music held under U.S. copyright law has not been reissued and that rights holders “ignore earlier periods, no matter how historically important recordings for those periods may be. It is difficult for third parties to reissue such material legally.” (8) Historical interest is musics past obliges most all listeners and digital archivists to break the law.

[2] Mash-ups, for instance, are iconoclastic sound creations made by combining seemingly incompatible works, say the songs of The Beatles and the raps of Jay-Z, into surreal amalgamations. See Gunkel(2008) and Shiga(2007) for the metaphysics of mash-ups. Hear Girl Talk(2010) by DJ wunderkind Gregg Gillis for the get-together. Appropriately, the album is available as a free download from Illegal Art.

[3] Revolutions are fomented by groups acting in concert and Smith did not engineer a nationwide interest in native music by himself(Skinner 2006; Street 2000). Countless folklorists, performers, promoters and other agents, including John Lomax and his son Alan made essential, if controversial, contributions to the return of old-time musics. Efforts to preserve traditional song and publicize gifted performers, most especially Leadbelly, along with other forms of public outreach were of inestimable value in preparing the ground for and furthering the American folk revival (Szwed 2010; Wolfe and Lornell 1992).

Many thanks to my friend and colleague Dan Grano for expert editorial assistance along with Erik Steinskog and the anonymous reviewers for their apt suggestions.