NYCD: The Blog

Friday, February 03, 2006

I LOVE THE '90s... THE 1890s

With a few notable exceptions, just about everything worth reissuing has come out on CD at some point in the last 20 years. From '60s garage bands to forgotten Broadway shows, disco one-shots to old klezmer hits, a century of musical history is out there, waiting for someone geeky and/or obsessed enough to buy it. And in a lot of cases, I was that obsessed geek. Lester Lanin's big band doing a twist version of "Turkey In The Straw"? Got it. The Shadows Of Knight's promo flexidisc that was given away with bags of potato chips in 1966? FIled under "S". Sinatra doing Eric Carmen covers? Hell yeah! But until a couple of years ago, no matter how hard I searched, there was one thing I could never find, except for a stray track here and there -- records from the 1890s.

I know, I know -- what kind of market is there for CD reissues of records that nobody who's alive remembers firsthand, that sound distorted and scratchy at best and all but unlistenable at worst? How many people even know, or care, that records were being made back then? For a long time, I felt like I was the only one. And then... along came Archeophone. A label devoted to reissuing records from the early days of the industry, mostly pre-1920 and including not one but TWO collections of pre-1900 hits.

This stuff is not meant for casual, check-it-out-on-the-iPod-while-riding-on-the-subway listening. Believe me, I've tried it. But once your ears adjust to the limited fidelity and scads of surface noise, it's a pretty amazing experience to hear voices (and, in some cases, hear instruments) recorded before the turn of the last century. Is it just me, or is it incredibly cool to hear anything recorded in the 1800s, even if it's just "Testing, testing... is this thing on, Mr. Edison?" But this collection gives you more than just the novelty of voices speaking to you from the Grover Cleveland administration. At its best, you'll hear music that still has the power to move your mind, heart and feet.

There's a lot of discs on Archeophone I'd recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff, but the real 19th century shiznit can be found on the incredible two disc compilation "Lost Sounds: Blacks And The Birth Of The Recording Industry 1891-1922." Only about a quarter of the 54 tracks are from the 1800s, but most of them are choice. The gospel numbers, especially, are astonishing in that you can hear hints of how black music would evolve over the next hundred years.

Also included are a bunch of records by the very first black recording star, George W. Johnson (what, you don't remember "The Laughing Song" or "The Whistling Coon"? What's wrong with you?!). Even if his songs don't hold up that well, he has a strong, soulful voice, tinged with an Irish brogue. In fact, most of the African-American singers on "Lost Sounds" seem to affect an Irish accent. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it was cool to sound Irish back then.

So what are you waiting for? An "I Love The 1890s" special on VH-1? Check out for more info on their CDs, and then email us at to order them at the best prices around!


Blogger soundsourcenyc said...

i know your gonna find this hard to believe but there are in existence early recordings of the the seminal version of the cool jerks from well not the 1890's but i believe about december of 1901. now i was not a member of the band then but founding members john "have they invented the tube yet" peden and steven "foster" feldman can be heard along with the famous whistling goldfarb family of holly springs, MS. these recordings are available on archeophone as well and certainly worth searching out

12:54 PM  
Blogger Michael in New York said...

I got a similar thrill out of the American Primitive Vol. II on Revenant, which is excitingly subtitled Pre-war Revenants (1897-1939). I got the feeling the scratchier and more banged up the recordings were, the more excited they got to include it. (Some sound pretty darn good but it's like listening to music playing on a Victrola in the next room with your ear pressed against the wall.) They charge extra for dust. And the stuff is so obscure I had the genuine sense they'd barely been rescued from the ash heap of history. Besides, who can resist the timeless advice of The Bubbling Over Five, who urge "Don't Mistreat Your Good Boyfriend." (It's the "good" that wins me over.)

4:47 PM  
Blogger The Reaper said...

A ton of old 78s are available for download here:

2:28 PM  

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