Reclaiming the Past, One Cylinder at a Time Richard Martin and his wife Meagan Hennessey grew tired of their favorite rock 'n' roll records. Now they scour flea markets and antique stores for old cylinders and 78s on their Archeophone label.

Reclaiming the Past, One Cylinder at a Time

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's the story of a record label that's making a name for itself selling old recordings, really old recordings. We're talking wax-cylinder-old here.

Archeophone Records specializes in music made between the late 1800s and the early 1920s, music that is virtually ignored by the big labels in this era of the iPod. Archeophone has been praised by scholars and won a Grammy for its efforts.

Jeff Bossert of member station WILL reports.

JEFF BOSSERT: Richard Martin spends several hours working from home each week, but his new PC is about as close as Martin gets to most home office workers. And that's only in appearance. His is equipped with audio-editing software, and hooked up to a turntable, a CD recorder, and a small wooden box about 100 years old.

Mr. RICHARD MARTIN (Record Producer, Archeophone Records): What we have here is an Edison Standard two-minute cylinder machine, and I've got a two-minute celluloid Indestructible on it from about 1909 or �10.

BOSSERT: Martin locks the cylinder in place and turns the crank and we hear Ada Jones, arguably the most successful female recording artist of the pre-1920s era.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ADA JONES (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

BOSSERT: Richard Martin and his wife, Meagan Hennessey, found the cylinder on eBay a few years ago. They'd already been collecting old recordings for nearly a decade.

Mr. MARTIN: We would hit flea markets, antique malls. We'd make special arrangements with owners of houses that were dilapidated but had thousands and thousands of records stored in them.

Ms. MEAGAN HENNESSEY (Richard's wife): Scary places where they'd lock you in a barn for a day and come back at 5 to fetch you and you're just hoping they don't have an axe in their hands.

Mr. MARTIN: And, you know, you start snapping up these records.

BOSSERT: Martin says they began collecting after the rock �n' roll they grew up on just wasn't enough.

Mr. MARTIN: There has to be something before this. 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.

BOSSERT: By that, Martin means the commercial music industry and the way its fascination with the flavor of the month relegate its past to record company vaults, or worse, the trash bin.

Tim Brooks is an author who's collaborated with Martin and Hennessey.

Mr. TIM BROOKS (Author, "Lost sounds: Blacks and the birth of the recording industry, 1890 - 1919"): The record companies themselves who, by and large, still own the rights - it's just incredible the copyright system we have in this country - but still own the rights to these hundred-year-old recordings had absolutely no interest in them. They weren't commercially viable. They wouldn't sell a million copies, so they didn't care.

So they weren't going to release them. In fact, they destroyed almost everything in terms of master recordings from that era. They've even destroyed the files that indicate what they recorded. So the only way you can find this is in actual existing commercial copies that somehow have not been destroyed over the years.

(Soundbite of music)

BOSSERT: With the collection of hundreds of cylinders and thousands of �78s, Richard Martin and Meagan 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Real Ragtime")

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

Sam Brylawski, former head of the Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, is currently working with the University of California at Santa Barbara to post all of the recordings made for the Victor label online.

Mr. SAM BRYLAWSKI (Archivist, University of California): One of the great services that Archeophone has done is they reissued the complete Bert Williams.

(Soundbite of song "Nobody")

Mr. BERT WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) When life seems full of clouds and rain and I am full of nothin' but pain. Who soothes my thumpin', bumpin' brain? Nobody.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: People say Bert Williams was our first great black recording star. But Bert Williams transcends race the way, you know, you won't say Caruso(ph) was the great Italian star, it's much more than that. Bert Williams was one of the most important artists of this era and to see all that recorded complete for the very first time is a real contribution by this record company.

(Soundbite of song "Nobody")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) I ain't never done nothin' to nobody. I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time.

BOSSERT: Brylawski says these recordings are like an oral lens into our past, allowing us to hear exactly what our grandparents heard. Meagan Hennessey says that's the point.

Ms. HENNESSEY: We've heard from people whose fathers had seen Bert Williams way back when. By way back when, I mean, the man died in March of 1922, so it was way back when. Yeah, we've had people order CDs because their favorite record as a child was on it. And they ordered copies and had them sent to their siblings because this was the record that grandpa used to play.

(Soundbite of music)

BOSSERT: 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.

Mr. BRYLAWSKI: There are a number of small labels, some in Europe, that indicated some interest but Archeophone was a small label that specialized in early acoustic recordings and really did quality work, not only in the transfers and then in the CDs themselves, but in the packaging and the notes that went with them and the care that they put into these things.

So I knew I wasn't going to get much interest from a major label and something like Archeophone, which really makes its whole reason for being these early recordings seemed like a perfect fit and it was.

BOSSERT: Despite the acclaim, Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey continue to work out of their home, scour flea markets and eBay, and Hennessey has capped her day job. But both feel they're on a kind of mission, one that Hennessey says they may not be able to complete.

Ms. HENNESSEY: I think there's going to be stuff left unissued in our lifetimes. There's just so much, so much to put out and so much to work with, and there's still be records turning up for the first time.

BOSSERT: The latest releases from Archeophone include "The Great War," an audio account of American efforts, musical and otherwise, in World War I.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Bossert.

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