Reclaiming the Past, One Cylinder at a Time

Lost Sounds CD cover art

Lost Sounds traces the role African-Americans played in the birth of recorded sound. It earned Archeophone records a Grammy Award this year. hide caption

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Old recordings on cylinders i i

A collection of commercial cylinders from c.1897-1914. hide caption

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Old recordings on cylinders

Commercial cylinders (left to right): Columbia and Edison brown wax cylinders (c.1897-1899), Lambert (pink) molded celluloid cylinder (c.1903), Edison Gold Moulded black wax cylinder (1905), Indestructible celluloid 2-minute cylinder (1910), Edison 4-minute wax "Amberol" and 4-minute celluloid "Blue Amberol" cylinders (c.1909-1914).

Edison Cylinder Phonograph, ca. 1906

Archeophone owner Richard Martin connects his computer to an Edison Cylinder Phonograph from about 1906. hide caption

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In this age of iPods, earbuds and podcasts, the notion of listening to music on bumpy wax cylinders and lacquer discs seems very old-fashioned.

The history of recorded music dates back more than 100 years. Yet you'd hardly know those recordings exist today. The music made between the late 1800s and the early 1920s is virtually ignored by the major record labels.

But Archeophone Records, a small label that is run out of a house in Illinois, has committed itself to preserving the forgotten sounds of the past. Archeophone has been praised by scholars and won a Grammy for its efforts.

Richard Martin spends several hours working from home each week, but his new computer is about as close as Martin gets to most home office workers. And that's only in appearance. Martin's computer is equipped with audio-editing software, and hooked up to a turntable, a CD recorder, and a small wooden box about 100 years old — an Edison Standard 2-minute cylinder machine.

Richard Martin and his wife Meagan Hennessey scour flea markets, antique malls and e-Bay to find old recordings on cylinders. They have been collecting old recordings for nearly a decade, after the rock 'n' roll they grew up on just wasn't enough anymore.

"There had to be something before this," Martin says. "And you know, there's an entire industry out there dedicated to denying you the ability to find out what was before rock 'n' roll."

Martin refers to the commercial music industry and the way its fascination with the flavor of the month relegates its past to record company vaults, or worse, the trash bin.

With a collection of hundreds of cylinders and thousands of 78s, Martin and Hennessey realized they held the key to a generation of material that was all but lost. So in 1998, they founded Archeophone. Their first release was called "Real Ragtime" and they sold it mostly to friends and family.

Over the past decade, Martin and Hennessey have released 40 CDs, some focusing on individual styles and periods, others devoted to specific performers.

This year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized Archeophone with a Grammy for best historical album.

It was a companion CD to a book called Lost Sounds, written by Tim Brooks, which documented the role African-Americans played in the birth of recorded sound.

Despite the acclaim, Martin and Hennessey continue to work out of their home, and hunt for cylinders at flea markets and on e-Bay; Hennessey has also kept her day job. But both feel they're on a kind of mission, one that Hennessey says they may not be able to complete.

"I think there's gonna be stuff left unissued in our lifetimes," Martin says. "There's just so much to put out, and so much to work with, and there'll still be records turning up for the first time."

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Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry

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Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry
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2005

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Real Ragtime: Disc Recordings from its Heyday

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Real Ragtime: Disc Recordings from its Heyday
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