A stentorian voice announces “The Passing of the Circus Parade, by Len Spencer and Gilbert Girard!” Next comes a fanfare on a trumpet. Then, while a band begins to play in the background, you hear a confusion of voices, including what sounds like the declamation of an evangelist. After a few seconds, one speaker drowns everything else out: “Attention, people! You are now about to witness the grandest pageant that ever graced the streets of your beautiful city—the passing in splendor of a carnival from ancient Rome, costing over two hundred thousand dollars! Witness this pageant of all its glorious magnificence! Follow it to the circus ground, where its snow-white canvasses covering six thousand square feet will be thrown open to the public at one o’clock today! Don’t forget the grand balloon ascension by Manzilvosky! Also Signior Spaghetti, the king of wire walkers, suspended between the earth and sky by a slender wire!” At this, the band grows suddenly louder for a few moments. As it begins to fade out, you hear a loud voice shout: “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming!” An ear-splitting trumpeting immediately follows, at which a spectator pipes up: “Oh, gee, see de elephants—one, two, t’ree, oh, dere’s ten of ’em!” Murmurs of admiration ensue. An artificial-sounding “ma-ma!” is answered with: “Oh, don’t cry, Willie, don’t cry, the big elephant won’t hurt little Willie.” Then a rube interjects: “Hey, here comes the cowboy band!” It plays once through the refrain of “Creole Belles” and then starts to fade out as an Irishman shouts: “Aw bidevil, look at the funny clown on the donkey!” Laughter and a blast on a party horn are followed by the hee-haw of a mule. After a pause, someone admonishes: “Here, boys, keep away from that lion’s cage.” You hear the growling of a lion and more murmuring. Next, a shout of “aw gee, here comes the dog fight!” introduces a few moments of yipping and laughter. Then some whinnying: “Oh, look at the little pony!” Next: “Ach lieber, here’s the German band, haw haw haw!” An out-of-tune brass ensemble plays Lauterbach’s Yodel Song, better known as “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone,” ending on a mirth-provoking discord. Finally: “Make way for the steam calliope, hold your horses!” The calliope plays through its piece and then wheezes away comically on the last note. You can hear someone enthusing over the cheers: “Oh gee! Hey, Jimmy, that was a great parade, oh gee, that was a great parade, I’m a-goin’, yeah!” The noises of the crowd fade away to nothing, and then the needle hits the locked groove at the center of the disc.1
* * * * *
The phonogram, or sound recording—of which the above is a description of one example—arose in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as a medium capable of representing speech, music, and other sounds in a radically new way. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of academic interest in the early history of phonography, which I will define here as covering the period up through 1908. Among other things, scholars have now reexamined the policies of the early recording industry with an eye towards issues of class, race, and gender;2 explored connections between the phonogram and other forms of inscription;3 and identified phonography as one part of a broader, emergent culture of mediated listening.4 For all the attention early phonography has been receiving lately, however, a significant blind spot still remains—or maybe I should call it a “deaf spot,” because it involves a failure of hearing rather than of seeing. Apart from the few exceptions that go to prove any rule, academic scholars of early phonography have not been doing much close listening to actual phonograms. Imagine for a moment what early film studies would be like today if the watching of films were done, if at all, in only a haphazard and casual fashion, without any methodical effort to discover, either from the films themselves or from contemporary writings about them, what their representational strategies and conventions were and how these changed over time. There would be plenty left to do in that field under such conditions, but much of its current richness would be lost. At present, research into early phonography unfortunately finds itself in an analogous position. The early phonogram has received precious little in the way of serious formal scrutiny, leaving us basically ignorant of its rules, its goals, its aesthetics—and, ultimately, of how early phonographic communication or “performance” worked in practice.
This neglect of early phonograms is all the more striking when one considers the special communicative watershed they mark. The phonograph was the first medium by which a live performance (other than, arguably, the tapping of a telegraph key)5 could be mechanically recorded in fixed form and then “reproduced” automatically from that record at another time and place. Today this feat is taken pretty much for granted. We are surrounded by prerecorded sounds and moving images, and it is hard to imagine a world without them. When now-forgotten pioneers first put the “talking machine” to such uses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, they were entering uncharted cultural territory. Indeed, this was the principal context in which the dichotomy between mediated and “live” performance was first practically constructed in anything resembling its modern form, marking the signal moment at which “live” oral storytelling could become an entity distinct from mediated oral storytelling, or “live” musical performances from “reproduced” ones. The initial, exploratory stages of phonography should therefore be of interest not just to media historians but also to students of those “live” forms of expression which both furnished its subject matter and were afterwards defined, to some extent, in contrast with it.
The present work aims to describe and account for the ways in which phonography was actually applied to a wide assortment of subjects in the United States between 1877 and 1908, ranging from minstrel shows to auctioneering chants, from sales pitches to vaudeville acts, and from band music to dance calling. I have chosen these subjects not for any characteristic they intrinsically share in common, but rather for the complexity of their initial adaptation to the phonographic medium and for the correspondingly rich insight into early phonographic strategies of representation their study can offer us. While much of the evidence presented here will come from written sources, I find that some of the most interesting practices and adaptations in early phonography left little or no trace in writing. They are, however, there for the hearing in the form of mimetic sound effects, spoken announcements, revealing abridgements, simulated audience responses, peculiarities of wording, and a host of other meaningful aural cues. My overarching goal here is twofold. First, I want to demonstrate that close listening can be a valuable methodology for understanding early phonography more broadly—one that warrants a more prominent place in current critical discussions than it has so far received. Second, I want to help make the experience of listening to early phonograms a richer, better informed, and more rewarding one in which auditors can assess not only the “content,” but also the nuances of its representation and their significance for the culture that generated them.
Before proceeding further, I would like to clarify a few terminological issues. The word phonography itself has been used historically to mean several different things. I will use it myself only when referring to what is commonly known as sound recording and reproduction,6 as opposed to “phonetic spelling” or “phonetic stenography,” two of its most common alternate meanings. Besides these, there have also been some more restricted definitions according to which “phonography” is only one subcategory of what I will mean by it. Eric W. Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters have proposed to redefine it as analog sound recording and reproduction in contrast to digital,7 and it has also been adopted as a self-designation by an artistic movement centered on the recording of environmental sounds in which “the capture of sound is privileged over its production,” reflecting “an attempt to discover rather than invent.”8 Both usages involve much narrower definitions than mine, although I certainly acknowledge what they refer to as kinds of phonography. I will use phonograph as a generic term for any machine used to effect phonography, even though this word has sometimes been used to distinguish Thomas Edison’s proprietary technology from rival graphophones and gramophones. Granted, it specifically means a cylinder machine in Great Britain, where analog disc machines are still “gramophones,” and in American English it is coming to have an antiquated flavor, like “Victrola.” However, there is also a long-standing tradition of treating it as a generic term for the whole category, and it will be a simple matter to qualify it as needed for clarity: “cylinder phonograph,” “tinfoil phonograph,” and so forth. I will call the inscription used in phonography a phonogram, a term well established in the nineteenth century but now rarely used. The more common alternative, record, is slowly becoming synonymous in American usage with the long-playing discs of the latter part of the twentieth century and has other drawbacks I will explain momentarily. In line with my transtechnological definition of phonography, these definitions would recognize an iPod as a digital phonograph and an mp3 file as a digital phonogram. This usage might strike the reader as odd, but I consider it vitally important for us to continue identifying the general terms with the general classes rather than squandering them on individual historic formats or technologies and so jeopardizing our ability to articulate what it is that cylinder phonographs and iPods have in common.
Listening Through Phonograms
University-based students of the early history of the phonograph have not been doing much close listening as part of their research, but there is still a venerable academic tradition of studying phonograms for other purposes. The “stuff” the phonograph is able to record, preserve, and play back has now occupied researchers in various fields for many decades, enabling them to examine fleeting aspects of human expressive behavior, to reveal their formal and aesthetic complexity, and to open them up for new kinds of analysis, appreciation, and respect. A number of disciplines and popular analytical approaches are supposed to owe their very existence to the availability of sound recording technology as a research tool. Comments by established practitioners imply that, had it not been for phonography, we would not now have ethnomusicology,9 ethnopoetics,10 oral-formulaic theory,11 or discourse analysis,12 and I am sure this list could be expanded. Nor has phonography necessarily been limited in its impact to the status of a tool in the service of preexisting ends: in her 1998 essay on the “crisis” of folklore, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the very category of orality was initially conceptualized in phonographic terms. Folklore, she claims, “is a discipline made and defined by technology and especially by technologies of communication,”13 a process she believes occurred twice. Initially, folklore had been formulated largely in contrast with print culture, as the traditions of people who lived in isolation from writing and printing, but these traditions were also thought to be entextualizable as print, for instance in published volumes of national folktales. The introduction of phonography, in turn, “made it possible to conceptualize orality, not simply as transmission, as conduit, as something other than writing and print, or as a type of literature and stage in its history, but as a phonic event and constitutive process, as performance,”14 i.e., instigating a shift from the printed text to the phonogram as a tangible model for the material of oral transmission. From this perspective, phonography did not just facilitate research into folk performance but created its object of study by allowing scholars to “imagine a phonic artifact, the recording,” and through it the anterior “phonic event.”15 Indeed, it is to the phonographic construction of orality that Kirshenblatt-Gimblett attributes an alleged “acoustic bias in folkloristics” and a corresponding neglect of the other senses.16 Complaints now abound among ethnomusicologists and folklorists that phonograms, even when accompanied by visuals, do not capture the synesthetic and social qualities of an event: the phonogram, like the printed “text” of a folktale, is not an objective or holistic representation of its subject. Whatever their shortcomings may be as documentation of reality, however, “phonic artifacts” have proven interesting and complex enough to engage generations of investigators.
The goal of using older “artifacts” of this kind intelligently in new research has required some reflection on the historical dimension of phonographic practice itself. While Erika Brady was working in the 1970s as a technician on the American Folklife Center’s Federal Cylinder Project, she discovered that scholars who sought to use early field recordings in their research were often drawing incorrect conclusions because of their lack of familiarity with the media involved. She thus resolved to compile “a kind of ‘retrospective manual’ for users of wax cylinders: a summary of the characteristics of the early phonograph and its use in fieldwork that would enhance the understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the machine as an ethnographic tool.”17 Such a manual would help researchers to identify and factor out those aspects of early phonograms that were imposed by the medium itself, rather than by the performance tradition a given ethnographer was attempting to document. A recorded performance might last for three minutes simply because that was the maximum duration of the format used; voices and instruments might have been chosen or specially arranged for recordability, not fidelity to the norms of live performance practice; a repeated “thump” audible today might not represent a drum, but a crack in the surface of the cylinder. This project evolved into Brady’s 1985 dissertation,18 and from that into her book A Spiral Way (1999), both of which comprise a general history of the use of the phonograph in ethnography rather than the “retrospective manual” she had originally envisioned. Even if Brady had produced such a manual, however, this approach to the conventions and exigencies of early sound recording is inherently negative: the point of learning about them is so that they can be factored out, leaving behind a residue of meaningful data. Still, her work does represent an effort to develop informed listening skills for the interpretation of early phonograms, and in that sense it is an important step in the direction I am proposing here.
Although Brady’s study concerns ethnographic field recordings made specifically for research purposes, scholars have also listened to commercial phonograms as documentation of live performance practices in which they have taken an interest. In 1979, Cathleen Flanagan surveyed what had been done so far in this direction and found commercial phonograms being used to study subjects ranging from the oral interpretation of actors to stylistic variations in jazz, blues, “hillbilly,” popular, and classical music.19 Efforts to use commercial phonograms as windows on live performance practices have continued to the present day. Thus, Timothy Day’s A Century of Recorded Music (2000) centers on the author’s appeal to musicologists to start listening seriously to commercial phonograms as documentation of western art music on a par with the written score.20 Focusing on a different kind of content, verbal humor, Robert Cogswell’s dissertation Jokes in Blackface: A Discographic Folklore Study draws on commercial phonograms of comic “blackface” (i.e. minstrel-dialect) dialogues made between 1908 and 1932 as sources for the study of traditional jokelore. He acknowledges, however, that the comedians heard on commercial phonograms
wove elements of folk humor into the larger fabric of monologues, dialogues, and skits which reflected the patterns of vaudeville stage performance. In effect, the traditional jokelore in comedy recordings is a step removed from the folk mold. Unlike performances of folk music, oral joking could not be strictly reproduced in the studio, for much of folk humor is dependent upon the informal settings of everyday speech.21
Cogswell goes on to downplay the disparity between phonograms and traditional jokelore by noting that performers “attempted to simulate” traditional settings and that they “likely remained attuned to oral sources.”22 Still, he treats it as a minor disadvantage that his source material is two steps distant from the folk humor of oral tradition, having been refracted in unpredictable ways through vaudeville and the commercial recording industry. As Risto Pekka Pennanen observes of the use of analogous sources for the study of live musical traditions, “it is axiomatic that such surviving commercial recordings, far from being direct and/or accurate documents of contemporary living music culture, are documents, several times filtered, of the culture of recorded music.”23 Erika Brady’s work shows that early ethnographic phonograms often involved particular adaptations of live performance practices to the medium; commercial phonograms are presumed to involve, if anything, more adaptation. The distinction between the two types is generally articulated more or less as follows (in this case, by Archie Green): the aim of ethnographic recordists is “to document complex cultural patterns and perhaps to test rival hypotheses about expressive life,” whereas that of commercial recordists is “to obtain products that can be sold across music store counters or on supermarket display racks.”24 When the goal in recording a phonogram was something other than “documentation,” one supposes, the researcher should exercise more caution than normal in using it that way.
In a sense, one might say that such uses of phonography, whether commercial or otherwise, involve researchers seeking to listen through phonograms to anterior events, rather than to them as cultural products in their own right. This can be a valid, theoretically sophisticated, and valuable approach if properly undertaken, and I do not mean to disparage it in any way. However, what I am interested in is exactly the other side of the equation: what was done differently because of phonography, how forms of expression were adapted to the phonographic medium, and with what results. The epistemology of close listening that has been lavished on the “documented” content of phonograms has hardly ever been applied to the question of how phonography itself was originally developed as a mode of communication. In short, what the other approach treats as regrettable “distortion” I take here as my principal object of study. At the same time, I believe that those disciplines that have historically engaged most intensively with “phonic artifacts” have a valuable contribution to make to the type of study I am proposing. Not only have their practitioners developed the skills and patience necessary for analyzing recorded sound in detail, but they also possess much of the available knowledge about the specific cultural forms undergoing phonographic adaptation as well as an essential appreciation for the pertinence of context to all aspects of performance.
Academic students of early sound media have tended not to prioritize listening as a research methodology, but I must stress that this does not mean nobody is listening seriously to early phonograms or writing insightfully about them with the goal of better understanding the early history of the medium. An independent community of enthusiasts has been fostering the study of early phonography for many years, disseminating its findings through various specialty publications and organizational gatherings. “Enthusiasts” is not really a satisfactory word for referring to members of this community, but other terms are equally problematic. The point is that whether they are tagged as specialists, experts, amateurs, or hobbyists, they have collectively developed a distinct and coherent body of knowledge and common experience which is not the subject of formal teaching or credentials but which must be taken into consideration by any researcher seeking to work responsibly in the field of early recorded sound. There is no commonly recognized name for this body of knowledge, but for purposes of discussion I will call it phonographics, and I will refer to the people whose relevant expertise is grounded primarily in it rather than in some academically established field—such as history, American studies, media studies, or English—as phonographicists. Some phonographicists are interested mainly in collecting and restoring vintage machines, but the definitive characteristic for a large subset of this community, the “record collectors,” is a shared enthusiasm for early phonograms.
Two books first published in the 1950s may reasonably be regarded as a starting-point for the historiography of the phonograph as recognized by phonographicists today. The first was Roland Gelatt’s The Fabulous Phonograph (1955), a chatty, popular overview that was updated for new editions in 1965 and 1977. The author was a critic and connoisseur of western art music, an orientation that is reflected in some of his value judgments, but he did attempt to cover the whole of sound-recording history to the best of his abilities.25 The second book was From Tin Foil to Stereo (1959), by Oliver Read and Walter Welch, a thick volume densely packed with technical details, facsimile documents, and source citations, reprinted with minor revisions in 1976. This book has a reputation for its unabashed pro-Edison bias, but its unprecedentedly encyclopedic scope makes it a milestone in the field.26 Although these two books seem to be the ones best known to non-phonographicists, who often cite them, it is important to realize that they are now almost half a century old, and that further research has since rendered them largely out of date. Some of this research has involved establishing finer technical details that may only be of interest to people who collect and restore vintage machines. However, one “technical” book that stands out is Allen Koenigsberg’s Patent History of the Phonograph (1990), a directory of every known phonograph-related patent issued in the United States through 1912, illustrating the rich diversity of uses to which inventors and entrepreneurs sought to apply the principle of phonography during its first thirty-five years.27 Other recent books in the field defy easy categorization, such as the annual collaborations between Tim Fabrizio and George Paul for Schiffer Publishing, which combine the format of full-color coffee table books with substantial new research on all aspects of early phonography—and price guides thrown in at the end.28
Some topics of research in phonographics pertain directly to my subject, the early phonogram. The most prominent of these is discography, the phonographic equivalent of bibliography. The discography, as a kind of writing, serves two interrelated but distinct goals. First, it typically provides an account of what was recorded, by whom, where, and when within its chosen parameters, so far as the information is known. Second, it allows researchers to look up specific phonograms and to find out more information about them. Much of the data in a typical discography consists of unique identifying numbers found on the labels or surfaces of phonograms: catalog numbers, used by companies in marketing and the public in ordering; matrix numbers, used for internal record-keeping purposes; and take numbers, used to distinguish between successive “masters” associated with the same matrix number.29 To illustrate how this information is used, I can look up my copy of The Passing of a Circus Parade in a Victor discography by its catalog number, 1382, and find out that the master phonogram from which it was derived was recorded on May 9, 1902. My copy is a ten-inch disc, and two takes of that size were recorded that day along with two twelve-inch takes that seem not to have been released.30 Different discographies may contain different kinds of information based on the strengths and weaknesses of the available source base. In the example just given, the date May 9, 1902, comes straight from the original Victor recording ledgers, but equivalent information would not have been available for a Columbia disc of the same period because that company’s early ledgers do not survive.
Discography lays essential groundwork for certain kinds of research, and yet it is often perceived as separate from that research, perhaps something like the computer programming that allows us to use word processors for writing dissertations. The folk music discographer Will Roy Hearne was thus described in 1964 as a “peripheral folklore scholar,” one of “a host of nonacademic workers who have been delving into areas peripheral to the study of folk song.”31 However, it is important to recognize that discography, in the sense that parallels bibliography, is actually only one of the tools used to identify early phonograms. Such work also shares some similarities with the paleography of written documents—paleophonography might be a good word for it. Physical characteristics of cylinders, label types on discs, and even the wording of spoken announcements can all be just as important in identifying the origin and date of a phonogram as the numbers, which in some cases do not exist and in other cases have never been adequately researched.32 Again, this kind of work may seem somewhat removed from the analysis and appreciation of what is on phonograms. “Discographers have been derided as ‘musical bookkeepers,’ and label enthusiasts as ‘philatelists more interested in the label on a record than in the music in the grooves,’” as discographer Brian Rust has observed.33 But discography—or paleophonography, in a larger sense—is not as easy to separate from other branches of phonographic study as might at first seem to be the case. An awareness of discography is ideally not just a matter of knowing what we know about a given phonogram or recorded repertoire, but how we know it, and with what degree of certainty. When drawing conclusions based on the supposed date or circumstances of a phonogram, it is crucial that we know how solid that information is, where it comes from, and what its possible range of error might be. Furthermore, discography determines the specificity with which we can designate given phonograms as discrete, distinguishable units; thus, “Columbia disc 21” refers to a range of recorded performances of Arkansas Traveler by Harry Spencer, whereas “Columbia disc 21-3” refers to a single, unique take, and “Columbia disc 21-12” to a different one (and, to avoid ambiguity, I would also need to specify whether these are seven-inch or ten-inch discs). Knowledge of this sort is vital for comparing variants, or even just for realizing that most early commercial phonograms should be thought of as existing in multiple versions rather than as single, invariable items. Discographies also allow us to survey what was recorded, by whom, and when, and so can provide insight into the output of particular record companies and, through them, of the recording industry more generally.34
Along with discographies and company histories, phonographicists have also done research on many of the individuals who performed commercially for the phonograph in its early years. The major early contributor in this line was Ulysses “Jim” Walsh, a Virginia journalist who spent many decades of his life tracing the careers of performers he called “pioneer recording artists,” many of whom he discovered in retirement and befriended. He is best known for a regular column he published in Hobbies magazine from 1942 through 1985, “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists,” based largely on his personal correspondence and interviews.35 More recently, there have been books published on the individual performers Cal Stewart and Billy Murray,36 along with two other books devoted to multiple performers: Tim Gracyk’s Popular American Recording Pioneers (2000), which provides information on over a hundred artists, combining much of Walsh’s information with substantial new research by its author;37 and Tim Brooks’ long-awaited Lost Sounds (2004), which surveys the lives and contributions of black phonograph performers active from 1890 to 1919 and raises the bar considerably for scholarship of its kind.38
Until recently, phonographicists in this tradition had the history of phonography pretty much to themselves. In 1979, Tim Brooks observed that “most serious users of recording source materials are not professionals in the music field, or even degree holders in the fields they are researching…. Probably no area of cultural research is so ‘democratized’ as that of recording history.” Meanwhile, he also noted that the quasi-amateur status of publications in the field often made communication among researchers difficult.39 Fourteen years later, Guy Marco published an Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States with alphabetically arranged entries seeking to consolidate all current knowledge of developments up through the year 1970. In his introduction, Marco suggested that synthetic work in the field might have progressed at a slower pace “because the scholars have almost invariably been amateurs (occupied full-time in other work). The field has not had the typical base of scholarly endeavor found in other disciplines, the university department.”40 Today, there is still no university department dedicated to the history of recorded sound. However, by the mid-1990s book-length histories of phonography by academically situated scholars were beginning to appear. The first of these sought mainly to collate and repackage the content of scattered secondary writings for new constituencies interested more in broad cultural issues than in understanding particular machines and phonograms. Michael Chanan’s Repeated Takes appeared in 1995,a general consideration of the historical impact of phonography on musical practice. “This book is modest in its endeavour and I make no claim to original research,” Chanan explains, “yet the story is in many respects unknown.”41 That same year saw the publication of a new general survey history, Andre Millard’s America on Record. Millard presents his work as a “concise narrative” of the development of the commercial recording industry and its cultural implications, written specifically for students of history and American studies.42 “I have not provided a full account of the technology or its cultural effects—I leave this to the experts,” he writes, and I presume it is the phonographicists he has in mind.43
Over the past several years, the focus of academic writing on the history of the phonograph has sharpened and turned increasingly to new research using primary source material. William Kenney’s Recorded Music in American Life (1999) exemplifies a more rigorous engagement with the social history of phonography, linking various developments in the marketing of phonographs and the subject matter of commercial phonograms to broader issues of class, race, and gender.44 David Morton’s Off the Record (2000) seeks to expand the usual boundaries of the subject in another direction, to include telephone answering machines, dictaphones, and other rarely-foregrounded aspects of what he calls the “culture of recording.”45 Other recent scholars have explored the history of phonography as one part of a larger field of inquiry—thus, Lisa Gitelman’s Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines (1999) situates the phonograph among other automatic inscriptive technologies including shorthand, motion pictures, and typewriters,46 while Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past (2003) charts the emergence of a modern “sonic order” based on the isolation of hearing through the use of such media as stethoscopes, telephones, and phonographs.47 John Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes (2003) and Steven Connor’s Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (2000) both contain substantial and insightful sections on early phonography.48
From the point of view of phonographicists whose engagement with the subject predates the new “academic” interest developed since the mid-1990s, recent developments have been a mixed blessing. As Tim Brooks has observed:
The early history of the phonograph is finally beginning to attract serious attention from professional academics. That can be a good thing, to the extent that they bring rigorous analysis, a broad contextual view, and thorough documentation of sources—factors often missing in articles by collectors. Unfortunately, since they are usually strangers to the field, it can also mean misunderstandings, garbled facts, and over-reliance on flawed secondary sources.49
These faults are by no means universal, and the above quotation actually comes from a generally positive review of Kenney’s Recorded Music in American Life. In a review of another recent academic work, however, phonographicist Tim Fabrizio still chides the author for his apparent lack of first-hand experience with phonographs and other “technologies that he seems to understand only ‘on paper,’” suggesting that he would “benefit from a visit to his friendly neighborhood collector.”50 But the differing perspectives of academics and phonographicists can result in difficulties even when attempts to build such bridges between the two do occur, as Steve Frangos observes:
Interactions between academics and collectors are reported, by both groups, as almost inevitably ending in open argument. For the academic focusing on particular musical, historical or cultural problems evident in music, the record collector’s attention to collectible detail is simply too removed from the academic’s own set tasks to be taken seriously. Collectors are usually labeled “too difficult to work with,” and academics are reported to be totally ignorant of whole areas in the history of commercial music. Collectors contend that academics simply don’t listen very well. The academics are also said not to adequately credit the collector’s contributions in the scholar’s final printed works.51
Frangos’ typical academic lacks the familiarity with phonographic history that the collector enjoys from long-term first-hand exposure to its artifacts. Meanwhile, the collector is supposedly unaware of the “musical, historical or cultural problems” that connect his or her specialty with the broader concerns of a given academic field. The collector is, instead, infatuated with “collectible detail,” perhaps including the arcane science of discography. Frangos considers collectors potentially valuable as informants and collaborators, and not merely as sources for hard-to-find records, but he also implies that the collector and the academic will not ordinarily be the same person. In fact, that has not always been the case. Robert Cogswell not only reports positive experiences from his contacts with the collecting community, whose interests he fully respects, but he effectively became a member of that community himself in his effort to obtain both material for study and insight into its significance—he calls his dissertation a “discographic folklore study” and asserts that his topic required “a merger of discographic and folkloristic procedures.”52 I see no particular reason why an academic researcher cannot also be a fully engaged phonographicist. However, these two identities do not as yet seem to be overlapping to any great extent, creating an unfortunate gap between what phonographicists and academic researchers know respectively about the field and impeding the formation of shared discourses and constituencies.
One of the most basic differences between the typical academic researcher and the typical phonographicist lies in the nature of their access to early recorded sound itself. Phonographicists tend to have their own collections of early phonograms, to spend a significant amount of time listening to them, and to know how to go about acquiring elusive items through auctions, record shows, private trading, and other sources. By contrast, academic researchers have often had to rely on public archives for their listening examples. For instance, William Kenney writes: “I have been able to listen to early disc recordings through the Rigler and Deutsch Index of 78 rpm records held by Syracuse University, Stamford [sic] University, Yale University, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress. At present, cylinder recordings are unavailable to the public.”53 Jonathan Sterne cites a similar encounter with audio artifacts with the endnote: “Based on a listening survey of descriptive specialties on file at the Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center.”54 In both cases, such institutional exposure appears to have been the researcher’s only contact with actual phonograms from the period covered by this thesis. Timothy Day writes as follows about the researcher’s typical experience in this kind of institutional listening environment:
Recordings are difficult to work with and to investigate; they are easily damaged and archives are reluctant to allow tapes and discs to be handled by researchers themselves. So recordings will usually be played back to listeners by staff, which is obviously inconvenient if the research requires the sampling of a large number of performances, though close individual supervision may sometimes be offered. But the provision of such services will necessarily be labour-intensive and therefore expensive. Copying material is difficult and time-consuming and so extremely expensive and copyrights will rule this out with certain categories of material.55 Of course, this situation is far better than not being able to hear the material at all, and I certainly do not mean to imply that sound archives are not doing vitally important work in terms of preservation and access—they are. Even under the conditions described by Day, researchers can probably get the gist of a number of phonograms, transcribe a few key quotations if appropriate, and leave the archive with a “feel” for a particular genre or period in phonography. Indeed, this is what Kenney and Sterne both appear to have brought away from their listening experiences. Here are a couple examples of how they respectively represent phonograms in their writing:
In [Ada] Jones’s solo record “Coming Home from Coney Isle,” she sang and talked about her working-class character’s blithe enjoyment of a day’s trip by trolley car to and from Coney Island, complete with belligerent ethnic stereotypes, fist fights, Chimmie and Maggie routines, a drunk, and general hilarity…. In a world of swiftly passing one-liners, her hardy deformation of a society lady’s decolletage as “de cold tea” stands out. When Chimmie explains that the Hippodrome is a dance hall, she quickly replies, “Oh, I’m hip.”56
Some recordings were essentially medleys of music interspersed with brief dialogue and sound effects. Others consisted mostly of dialogue, interspersing the fabricated noises of a horse race or yells of victorious soldiers. Still others re-created actual events such as Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration (which concludes with a spectator saying that he has seen “every inauguration since Andrew Jackson’s and this one beats them all”) or fictional scenes such as night in a clock store.57 Kenney and Sterne do both draw meaningful conclusions from their listening at this level; given the circumstances, however, it is likely that they did not have a chance to listen repeatedly to particular examples with pause for reflection in between, to prepare verbatim transcripts at leisure, or otherwise to engage with the material in a more intensive way. The level of detail is not very high. In an ironic disavowal of the revolutionary documentary properties of the phonographic “record,” these are the kinds of account an ethnographer might have given of a series of live performances based on hastily penciled notes, having inadvertently left the tape recorder behind. By contrast, phonographicists routinely include extensive verbatim transcripts of early phonograms in their work.58 And yet the phonographicists are writing for a constituency that is likely to have heard early phonograms before, whereas Kenney and Sterne are not: for a majority of readers, these written representations may be their only exposure to the material.
In fact, opportunities do exist for researchers who are not collectors to engage in more intensive forms of listening to early phonograms. Archives sometimes can and will duplicate such materials for outside use, and there are also a handful of commercial “reissues” on the market. Over the past few years, access to early phonograms has broadened significantly thanks to such major online repositories of digital sound files as the National Library of Canada’s Virtual Gramophone and the Cylinder Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara.59 It would undoubtedly have broadened yet more were it not for the hazy legal status of this material, which makes some established American institutions and record labels wary of disseminating it to the public. In most countries, intellectual property rights in recorded sound have a clear-cut limit of fifty years, but in the United States intellectual property rights in pre-1972 phonograms are presently covered not by federal copyright law but by a little-understood and mutually contradictory assortment of state laws not due to be superseded by federal public domain status until the year 2067. Many of these laws, as written, do not seem to apply equally to all early phonograms, but their finer implications have yet to been worked out publicly by anyone with legal credentials.60 In spite of this frustrating legal uncertainty, access has broadened in practice to the point that anyone who wants to listen to large numbers of early American phonograms can now do so through a web browser rather than having to make a physical visit to an archive. Moreover, the ability to download such sound files facilitates repeated listening and close, leisurely analysis. Certainly not every early phonogram one might want to consult will be available from these sources—it still helps to be a private collector, or at least to know one—but the opportunities to listen to such material are far greater now than they were just a few years ago. Perhaps the tide is now turning: Rick Altman, the leading scholar on sound practices in early cinema, states in an interview of early 2006 that the UCSB cylinder digitization project had finally exposed him to the phonographic work of Russell Hunting, “whose recordings, until now, were nearly inaccessible,” and about whom he had formerly had to write “without ever having heard him.”61
Still, it cannot be assumed that academic researchers with an interest in early phonography will necessarily take advantage of these expanding opportunities for listening simply because they exist. The emphases of much existing secondary literature actually tend to steer interest away from those areas in which the analysis of individual phonograms (as opposed to their transparently mediated “content”) might seem most attractive as an approach. One widespread tendency has been to equate phonography with commercial phonography, or, in other words, with the recording industry in its role of supplying “records” for home entertainment. As already noted, David Morton objects to this view, pointing out that it ignores the many other contexts in which phonography has become a part of everyday life, among them business dictation, prerecorded material for radio broadcasting, and telephone answering machines. Researchers who have listened critically to these recorded forms have found them to be analytically rewarding; the work by linguists, sociologists, and folklorists on modern-day answering machine messages is one example.62 As a random example of another vernacular phonographic form, I offer the following item recorded in 1948 (from my collection; I found it at a church rummage sale):
We’re all here in Martin’s house
and—we thought we’d make a record for you, everybody’s got their speech
So [laughing] I wanna start off the proceedings
by wishing you a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
And I wish you all—you were here—to enjoy the day with us.
Now I’ll start off by introducing you to the gang, first my sister,
Millie….63 Phonograms such as this one provide an aural equivalent to the vision-centered “home mode” of photography, film, and videotape, characterized by interpersonal, small-group communication.64 “Although the phonograph record speaks,” it has been said, “it is decidedly mute about the circumstances of its recording and the performers who gave rise to its sounds.”65 This may be true of many phonograms, but as the example quoted above shows, it is far less true of others which abound in reflexive gestures and so can shed light on the social complexity of phonography as a medium of communication. However, those who assume that the phonogram is a straightforward item of commerce whose one “use” (home entertainment) is already obvious might understandably see little reason to tease out such details.
A second factor tending to steer certain kinds of researcher away from listening-based research, which overlaps to some extent with the last one, has been the equation of the content of phonograms with music. “While the word ‘record’ has become virtually synonymous with music recordings,” David Morton observes, “these represent only a single facet of sound recording’s complex history.”66 However, even Morton does not question the correctness of this assumption as long as it is limited to commercial phonography; he himself writes about the “record industry…and its products, music records.”67 William Kenney calls his social history of the same industry Recorded Music in American Life andexplicitly attributes the phonograph’s connection with popular memory to the affective potential of music in general.68 I do not mean to single these two scholars out; in fact, nearly every historian of the recording industry or the phonograph has expressed the connection in a similar fashion and developed arguments in which it is taken for granted. It is true that “music” might sometimes be intended as a synecdoche for all audible forms of expression, including verbal art and sound effects. However, most scholars seem to mean it literally, and in a traditional sense, as when Pekka Gronow writes: “The message of records is usually music, and communications research does not know how to deal with music. But musicologists have been equally blind to music as mass communication, and, as a consequence, the relatively few studies on the record industry which are available usually fail to consider this aspect.”69 He was writing in 1983; Chanan, Kenney, Day, Millard, and others have since filled much of this gap. However, the assumption that commercial phonography is synonymous with musical recording itself limits the kinds of question that are likely to be asked to ones pertaining more or less directly to music.
A third factor, and probably the most significant of all, is the very notion that a phonogram “reproduces” something (usually music). In marked contrast to the elaborate conceptual frameworks and vocabularies we have for grappling with the distinction between writings or visual arts and the subjects they “record,” the language generally used for discussing phonography reinforces a naïve sense of transparency. When critics do notice phonography doing anything other than faithfully “reproducing” a subject, they tend to construe this as either a damnable failing or a surprising paradox. I will propose some alternative language later in this introduction; for now, suffice it to say that the conceit that the phonograph “reproduces” its subjects, whether one accepts it or not, has been allowed to dominate the discourse so exclusively as to discourage more nuanced inquiries into how it represents its subjects.
The history of phonography offers rich and, in many respects, untilled soil for interdisciplinary efforts of many kinds. Each of the recent contributions to this topic by academically situated researchers has enhanced our understanding of it in one way or another, and hopefully the current boom of interest will continue. However, there has not been as much crossover as might be desired between recent academic research and the essentially nonacademic area of expertise I am calling phonographics, grounded in direct and regular contact with the “stuff” of phonography. This is nowhere more apparent than in the hasty treatment academics dealing with issues of phonographic history have given to actual early phonograms. Without hearing these phonograms to begin with, such scholars rarely seem to be formulating the kinds of questions that would provide an impetus for seeking them out and spending time with them. After all, if one assumes phonography can be equated with the commercial “reproduction” of music and one is not particularly interested in the music as such, why bother listening? When they have listened to them, they have often had to do so under circumstances that have encouraged quick generalization rather than leisurely analysis. To reiterate my earlier analogy, it is as though only “film buffs” were watching and writing about specific films in detail, while academic film studies scholars were working from plot summaries and saw no reason to do otherwise.