Lost Sounds

lost.jpgTitle: Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922
Artists: Various
Label: Archeophone Records
Catalog No.: ARCH 1005
Date: 2005

I hope that all of you are familiar with the fabulous book by Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, published in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press as part of their Music in American Life series (now available in a paperback edition). The 634 page tome, the result of more than thirty years of scholarship, not only details the role of black artists and their commercial recording activities, but offers fascinating biographies that are meticulously researched with abundant footnotes.

In his Introduction, Brooks discussed how many of these historic recordings have been inaccessible to students and scholars because of stringent U.S. copyright laws. As Brooks explains, “Not only can present-day record companies decline to reissue this material themselves, but they can—and do—prevent others from doing so by legal action or by demanding exorbitant fees.” We can be grateful, then, that Brooks decided to take matters into his own hands. Working with Illinois-based Archeophone Records, a company specializing in acoustic-era reissues, a 2 CD set was released late in 2005 as a companion to the book and recently received a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.

With 54 tracks by 43 artists (and over 2 ½ hours of music), Lost Sounds provides numerous early recorded examples of spirituals, minstrel & vaudeville songs, art music, rags, jazz, and blues performances by Black composers and musicians. Many of these recordings were meticulously transferred from wax cylinders, some of which are extremely rare and quite fragile, preserved largely through the efforts of private collectors. Included are a number of vocal quartet performances by groups such as the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers, as well as lesser known ensembles. George W. Johnson, the first Black recording artist (who merits four chapters in the book), performs his most famous work, “The Whistling Coon.” Other notable tracks include Booker T. Washington giving a portion of his Atlanta Exposition speech, the Afro-American Folk Song Singers and the Right Quintette performing works by Will Marion Cook, art songs performed by Roland Hayes and Florence Cole-Talbert, and R. Nathaniel Dett and Clarence Cameron White playing their own compositions. The set concludes on the brink of the Jazz Age with the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” as played by Jim Europe’s [i.e., James Reese Europe] 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band, “Camp Meeting Blues” with Ford Dabney’s Band, and the “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

The CD is accompanied by extensive program notes (60 p.) by Tim Brooks and David Giovannoni, which provide detailed information about the performers and original sources. If you want to hear more about Brooks’ research, including some fascinating stories about these early recording artists, an interview from the public radio program “The Story with Dick Gordon” is now available online.

Archeophone has issued other CDs that compliment Lost Sounds, including Monarchs of Minstrelsy (2006), three volumes devoted to early African American recording star Bert Williams (2001-2004), and their most recent effort, King Oliver: Off the Record- The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (2006). A complete catalog is available through their website. These CDs are “must haves” for every research library.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss