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.