Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/6/09

Recording Without Electricity (1890)

As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, the age of easily recorded music had not yet dawned, but the technology was beginning to gain a foothold. More importantly, a new form of music – American music – was emerging, and the occasional flashes of brilliance that were captured on record hinted at what was to come.

Creating a record in 1890 was no easy affair. There were no electronic microphones at that time, so the recorded sound had to be played into a funnel-like apparatus and transferred directly by a stylus onto a wax cylinder. Percussion instruments like drums could not be used, because they would cause the stylus to jump. And analog recordings did not capture subtlety, so only loud, clear sounds like brass instruments could be heard. What’s more, there was no means of mass-producing the wax cylinders, so artists were forced to play the same song over and over again to create multiple recordings.

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1890 Headlines … Sherman Antitrust Act signed into law … Last major Indian battle occurs at Wounded Knee, S.D. … Idaho and Wyoming become 43rd and 44th states … First Army-Navy football game is played
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United States Marine Band conducted by John Philip Sousa
The Washington Post March
(multiple recordings on Edison wax cylinders, 1890)

I bet there aren’t many Americans who don’t, like me, wax patriotic at the sound of a John Philip Sousa march. Sousa is the soundtrack of all of our national holidays, whether played by a marching band in a Memorial Day parade, or by a full orchestra on the 4th of July. The songs are upbeat, infectious and inspiring, and I can’t help but hum along whenever I hear one being played. But for all its patriotic power, surprisingly this is not what I would call “American music.”

There is no doubt that Sousa was a gifted bandleader and composer. He created a fresh, new songbook for a fledgling country, and it is the quality of those songs that makes them endure. But he was working within an existing framework, using conventions that hearkened back to earlier European classical and popular music traditions. If Sousa would have lived and written his songs in Paris or Prague, they would have been every bit as brilliant, but Americans would have no special connection to them. Contrast that to styles like blues, jazz and rock and roll, which are “American music” at their core, regardless of where or by whom they are performed.

But we’ll get to those styles soon enough. There are two reasons I chose to begin the exploration of American music with this recording. The first is that it helps show the continuity between older traditions and the new styles being developed. Jazz may have seemed like a radical departure from what came before it, but early jazz was played largely on brass instruments – instruments that were plentiful due to the popularity of marching bands.

The second and more significant reason for including it is that it provides a snapshot of the very beginning of recording technology. Here is the result of one of the very first commercial recording sessions.

The sound is distant and somewhat distorted in this recording, and yet the sheer joy of the music is still able to shine through. Listening to the interplay between the instruments and their overlapping melodies, it is not hard to see how this resembles both the masterful symphonies of old and the freewheeling New Orleans jazz to come. The call-and-response exchange between the trombones and flutes near the end is priceless.

It would be another three decades before recorded music would really take off, but this is where it all began.

~ You may also like: Sousa's Band, "Stars and Stripes Forever" (Columbia 532, 1897)

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