Tales of the Pioneers

(Pictured:  a 1903 advertisement for Columbia cylinders.)

If this blog is about any one thing, it’s about the ways we have listened to music, how it affected us in the past, and how it affects us still. I’m interested in this not merely as a reflection of my own life and my own experiences, but the way music resonates for everybody. It’s partly for this reason that I have a long-standing fascination with the Pioneer Era of Recording.

The Pioneer Era began in the middle of the 1880s, when Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph was sufficiently refined so that it could be operated by non-experts, and entrepreneurs developed a market for sound recordings. A colorful era followed. There was a battle between competing technologies: the Edison cylinder vs. Emile Berliner’s flat gramophone discs. Giant recording companies such as Columbia and Victor rose to prominence, and their names remained familiar for the next century. The Pioneer Era also had a Wild West aspect, where the line between innovation and infringement, of both copyrights and patents, was blurry, and where gambling entrepreneurs made and lost fortunes.

The Pioneer Era is generally considered to have ended around 1920 or 1925 with the development of electric recording, which brought greater fidelity than the old acoustic methods, making older records sound tinny and dated. The styles of the Pioneer Era faded in popularity as jazz began its two-decade rise as America’s most popular musical form. Succeeding waves of popular styles drove the styles of the Pioneer Era deeper and deeper into obscurity.

Although many of the Era’s songs remained familiar as time went by, the artists who performed them were largely forgotten. This is understandable, given that the Pioneer Era was a time when a song itself was almost always more important to the audience than any specific performance of that song. Nevertheless, some stars of the Pioneer Era were important innovators who blazed trails that other stars would follow. They were the first to record some of the most enduring songs ever written. Some were household names, at least among households wealthy enough to own a cylinder player or gramophone, as ubiquitous in their time as Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley would become. The forgotten styles of the Pioneer Era—from ragtime to barbershop to bombastically declaimed patriotic songs and operatic arias to the infamous “coon songs”—open windows into the American spirit and psyche in the period from the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties.

For a long time, students of the Pioneer Era could only dig around in attics, basements, antique stores, and junk shops, looking for century-old recordings and the equipment to play them on—and then they had to hope that all of it was in playable condition. They had to pore over record company archives, old catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, concert bills, and other printed sources to find information about the stars and the songs. The Internet made Pioneer Era scholarship more accessible, putting ancient recordings and documents within a couple of clicks of amateurs such as I. Improvements in technology have made restoration of old recordings possible, minimizing noise, boosting fidelity, and enhancing the listening experience.

But it wasn’t until relatively recently that students of the Pioneer Era could easily own these old recordings. In 1998, Archeophone Records began issuing compilations devoted to particular stars and years of the Pioneer Era. It’s a cliché to say that their releases are lovingly produced, but they clearly are. Not only do the packages look great, the booklets accompanying them are remarkable works of scholarship. They often represent the only significant research that’s been done into the lives and works of their subjects.

Archeophone has received 11 Grammy Award nominations and won one for their historical reissues, and their latest is an anthology of songs by a man who, in the 1890s, would have been the first recorded singer many Americans ever heard. He began singing on record in 1894, and 10 years later was one of the most bankable stars in recorded music. I’ll tell you more about him, and about the new anthology of his songs, on Monday.

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