PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Various Artists: Waxing the Gospel - Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph 1890-1900

A masterpiece of scholarship and curatorship, this collection sets a new standard for the presentation of early recordings.

Various Artists

Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism & the Phonograph 1890-1900

US Release: 2016-09-30
UK Release: 2016-09-30
Label: Archeophone

The history of commercial sound recording is, in many ways, a sequence of accidents and mistaken intentions. The technology was so radically life-changing that it couldn’t help but be a success, though its earliest proponents were usually wrong in their expectations. The first “talking machines” were a case in point, marketed with the thought that consumers would want to make their own recordings for posterity more so than purchase those made by others. Similarly, high-minded producers of the first pre-recorded cylinders looked to the classical arts rather than the common, seeking subjects for the first commercial recordings in the symphony hall rather than the church or community halls that, ultimately, produced some of the earliest commercial successes.

Archeophone’s Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism & the Phonograph 1890-1900 offers a fascinating and deep perspective into some of the earliest recordings of sacred music, the personalities behind those recordings and the early phonograph business, the collectors who have preserved that music, and the scholars who have uncovered the mysteries surrounding many of these fragile and forgotten sonic relics of an earlier time.

The collection is a triumph, a truly incomparable set of archival music. Producers Richard Martin, Meagan Hennessey, and Michael Devacka spent years gathering both the recordings and the necessary expertise to present them in their full context, working with consultants David N. Lewis and Kevin Mungons and audio technicians David Giovannoni and Michael Khanchalian on a project that grew from a single planned disc to three, housing it all in a 350-page book. The closest thing from the past 20 years of reissues is Dust-to-Digital’s 2003 collection of early commercial gospel Goodbye Babylon, yet that collection’s oldest recordings are predated by those collected on Waxing the Gospel by two decades! Furthermore, Richard Martin’s essays on the early commercial recording industry actually serve to reinterpret that history and overturn longstanding, inaccurate myths and assumptions.

As Martin explains, the commercial breakthrough of sound recordings was much slower than is often portrayed, and it took a while for the realization to set in that inexpensive players and popular recordings were the deepest source of consumer interest, or investor profit. In many cases, commercial gospel recordings were of secondary concern to the nascent recording industry and, for many, a sort of devil’s bargain. Producing sacred recordings offered merchants a counter to charges of ungodliness; similarly, for consumers, the sacred recordings could be displayed as objects of edification while popular, secular recordings were kept hidden, lest one’s reputation be besmirched.

The stories of the collectors and the against-the-odds survival of many of these recordings is equally fascinating. For instance, Mike Devacka acquired the 28 cylinders now collectively known as the Heath cache in 1992, but it took 20 years of research to identify just what it was that he had found. Twelve were of standard commercial recordings of the time, but the remaining 16 turned out to be field recordings done by Henry Albert Heath, a New York optometrist who took his recording machine to an 1897 camp meeting in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Among the cylinders was the only extant voice recording of the renowned blind hymnist Fanny Crosby, who composed well over 5,000 hymns between the years 1865 and 1905. The entirety of the Ocean Grove recordings are included here on disc three.

In total, Martin’s extended essays and individual performance notes are models of accessible and engaging scholarship. Martin’s clear prose flows effortlessly, making this a fast and fascinating read. The information about the early recording industry will be valuable to anyone interested in archival recording and sound. More importantly, the revised history of the foundation of recorded gospel will set the standard for all scholarship that follows.

Many of the recordings here are from single surviving copies and Martin does a wonderful job telling the stories of some of the collectors who have preserved them as well as of their performers who would be otherwise forgotten. Many of these cylinders sat for years, ignored and subject to crystallization in high heat or mold in dampness. As an example of their scarcity and delicacy, it is known that Ira Sankey, the most famous hymn singer of the age, recorded 53 phonograms between 1899 and 1900. These were released as highly prized collector’s items, yet only just more than half of those recordings survive, most as sole copies.

The sound engineers have done a commendable job of making these recordings accessible and coherent. It is impossible to remove the hiss and other ambient damage characteristic of this, ultimately, poor recording technology that would quickly be replaced by shellac discs. Nonetheless, the tracks here speak to us from across the void of a century’s passage. There are few such comparable experiences left to us. This is the true sound of the Victorian parlor; these are as close as we will come to hearing the hymn singing styles of the camp revivals that swept the United States, north and south, in the years following the Civil War.

Everything about the packaging is top notch. It is not uncommon for books with bound-in cards for holding CDs to be stiff, unwieldy, and hard to read. In this volume, the cloth binding and thick pages allow for easy reading. The vintage photographs, illustrations, and reproductions of yellowing catalog pages are all crisply reproduced. In plain, this is a comfortable volume to hold, and the care that went into its workmanship bespeaks the quality of all that it houses.

The sound proceedings are dominated, of course, by the famed partnership of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey. It was the good reverend and his singing accompanist who rose to international celebrity through their revivals of the last three decades of the 19th Century and the 1877 publication of their Sacred Songs and Solos.

Sankey’s surviving performances dominate the second disc of the collection, but there are many other significant contributors here. Emile Berliner, whose phonographic disc would overtake Edison’s cylinder, opens the first disc with the Lord’s Prayer. Popular performers Steve Porter, J.J. Fisher, and J.W. Myers also appear on the first disc of “professional” performers. The third disc, featuring assorted amateurs including those recorded at the 1897 Ocean Grove camp meeting may be of the deepest interest as it presents a window into the common worship of a representative American community of the time.

Waxing the Gospel is an imperative addition to the library of any student of sacred American song.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.