Recordings Offer Acoustic Novels Of American Families Phil Nohl has collected home recordings since 1999 and now has about 4,000 records. He's made a visceral connection with the families behind the recordings, who loved singing and playing instruments for the sheer joy of making music.

Recordings Offer Acoustic Novels Of American Families

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

A decade ago on this program, we broadcast a series called "Lost and Found Sound." In that 1999 series, we asked you to tell us about your home recordings.

Some of those recordings and stories about them made it onto our air. And now we've learned that in that same year, 1999, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a writer and amateur filmmaker started doing much the same thing.

Phil Nohl didn't know about our series, but he shared our curiosity about homemade audio.

Mr. PHIL NOHL: My interest in home recordings started when I bought a bunch of records at an estate sale. I didn't know what they were, but I was attracted to the odd-looking labels that read: Duodisc. Turns out they were amateur home recordings made in the 1940s by a family from a small town in Pennsylvania.

I got home and dropped one onto my old record player.

(Soundbite of song, "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) How sweet and happy seem those days in which I dream when memory recalls them now and then.

Mr. NOHL: Many of the discs featured this 15-year-old boy. Others had members of the boy's family singing or playing the piano.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) One more tomorrow…

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of yelling)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) …and throw (unintelligible) each time I look at you…

Mr. NOHL: I listened to these records and made a visceral connection. Here was a family, like mine, who loved singing and playing instruments for the sheer joy of making music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: Now, I'm (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NOHL: Just an average American family, not overly concerned if they sang out of tune or hit the wrong chords. These were my people.

(Soundbite of song, "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) This world would end today if I should lose you. Oh darling, I'm telling you now.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Have I told you lately how I miss you, when the stars are shining in the sky? Have I told you why the nights are long when you're not with me? Well, darling, I'm telling you now.

Mr. NOHL: So I began collecting home recordings everywhere I could: estate sales, flea markets and even online. Now, 10 years later, I have about 4,000 discs, and I've listened into the private lives of people from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Mr. NOHL: It's an odd feeling being privy to the personal mementos of other families, people who, in most cases, are no longer around. And after listening to several home recordings from the same family, their lives become more defined, like a novel that becomes real and vivid in your imagination. And like most novels, the first chapter is often the same, the setup or, in this case, the record test.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #3: One, two, three, four. We are now making a test on the Wilcox Gay 9G10(ph). This unit lists at $169.50.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #4: Just a test recording, folks. One, two, three, four. Here, we all sit around, the day before we go to Rupenthal's(ph) enchilada party. It seems as though we can all sit down pretty good today. I hope I can say the same on Sunday. One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Ms. ESTHER WICKERT(ph): Hello, Kester Young(ph). This is Esther Wickert and mother Ida(ph) greeting you from home, sweet, home in the City of Sunshine on March 13. I, Esther, asked Mr. Heron(ph) from Miller's Music Store(ph) to bring out a recording machine. While it is being demonstrated here at home, we are making the first record for you.

Mr. NOHL: Once a cutter was up and running, you could record what mattered to you most.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #5: We're going to tell you some of our happy moments of our life. No, one of my happy moments was when I was driving a bus from West Duluth when I heard that the armistice was signed on the First World War, and I knew my two boys were coming back home.

Unidentified Woman #3: A happy moment of my life was when little Fritzy(ph) asked me to become his wife.

Mr. ADOLPH(ph): This is Adolph. Well, I guess one of my happiest moments was when I met my wife quite a few years ago.

Mr. NOHL: Or you could tell stories to the kids.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #6: Hello, kiddies. This is Uncle John, the Mystery Man. Gather around, I have a story to tell you today. It's the mysterious story of the lone wolf. The Mystery Man walks at midnight. All children sleeping shall be quiet. This is the story, the greatest story and the most lustrous star you have ever heard. Are you good? Have you said your prayers tonight?

Mr. NOHL: Once people got comfortable with making their own recordings, their true voices and talents were captured.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #7: Mr. George Bellshaw(ph) at the piano is going to play "Danny Boy," and George Foster(ph) is going to play along on the tin whistle with him, one of those expensive tin whistles.

(Soundbite of song, "Danny Boy")

Mr. NOHL: Occasionally, once the kids were put to bed, out would come an ingredient that helped many a performer achieve their maximum potential: alcohol.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Man #8: (Singing) I love to roam out yonder, out where the buffalo wander.

Unidentified Woman #4: Yahoo.

Mr. NOHL: And don't bother jotting down the address of this next lonely lady. Recorded in the 1940s, Lilian(ph) is well beyond the stage of opening mail.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Ms. LILIAN McDOWELL(ph): I'm Lilian McDowell.

Unidentified Woman #5: Not too loud. Not too loud.

Ms. McDOWELL: I live at 19 East 22nd Street in Baltimore, Maryland, Zone 18. If anybody feels like they want to write to a poor, old bachelor girl, why, just write me a letter.

Mr. NOHL: I don't know who all these people are. Although some record labels are annotated, many others are not, and thought it would be great to put a name to every performance, it's not crucial. Every record holds the promise of being a gem. I'm a voracious reader of these acoustic novels.

One thing I've learned over the past 10 years is the desperate need for preservation. Not all dealers bother with home recordings; many simply throw these records in the trash. For them, if it doesn't have a good book value, it's worthless, and there will never be a price guide for home recordings. There can't be. On what scale do you compare a harmonica-playing farmer to a man telling a dirty joke, to a couple of women singing a Roy Acuff song? Every record is one of a kind, a treasure and an essential piece of American history.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Woman #6: For our first song this evening, we're going to sing the currently popular "Managua, Nicaragua" requested by Bruce Lieberman(ph) of Chamberlain, South Dakota.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NOHL: For NPR News, I'm Phil Nohl in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of home recording)

(Soundbite of song, "Managua, Nicaragua")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Managua, Nicaragua is a beautiful town. You buy a hacienda for a few pesos down. You give it to the lady you are tryin' to win, but her papa doesn't let you come in.

Managua, Nicaragua, what a wonderful spot. There's coffee and bananas and a temperature hot. So take a trip and on a ship go sailing away across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua, ole.

ADAMS: You can hear more home recordings at our Web site, the still new npr.org.

(Soundbite of home recording)

Unidentified Woman #7: We're going to have to leave you now. This is the last show of the evening, and everyone has done their part. And we hope that you liked our little program. Good night, everyone.

ADAMS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from National Public Radio.

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