The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

wax cylinder recordings

I think I've finally been hit by the sublimity--in the Wordsworth/Burke sense--of the power of the web. The TIMES today ran an article about the earliest days of "pop" music recordings--the wax cylinders that preceded gramophone disks, and mentioned that the University of California at Santa Barbara had digitized over 6000 wax cylinder recordings and made them available over the web.

So, as I'm preparing my lecture on popular music of the 1920s, and searching ITunes and my school's library for relevant music, I decided to check out the site. I really don't know any of the performers of the time, so I just looked up Bert Williams, a vaudeville performer who is fairly well-known because he was extremely popular and also was probably the best-known black blackface performer. I put the search terms in on my Powerbook, and in one minute I've downloaded a 1906 recording of Williams singing "Nobody," a song I've never heard of but can quickly tell is a predecessor or ripoff of "I Ain't Got Nobody." It was like being transported back into 1906, and hearing that things weren't all that different.

How difficult would it have been to hear, much less obtain a personal copy of, this recording five years ago? How much closer does this bring the past to us? I don't know if I can make this clear to my students, who not only aren't really aware of a pre-web world but have only the most rudimentary understanding of history and the difference between 50, 100, and 5000 years ago.


  • At 2:53 PM, Blogger zp said…

    I think that is so cool, but then, I am so low tech.


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