Monday, January 7, 2013

My Contribution to Western Civilization

As you may recall, I collect records, with an emphasis on coarse-grooved records—what we used to call "78s." The hobby started when I was five, soon after I got my first real record player. It was a Show'N Tell, the deluxe one with the AM radio.

It was my first radio as well. Mine looked just like this. Funny, I don't recall its being made by GE, but there it is right on the top. This was one of the best presents I've ever gotten, in terms of the joy it brought me. It's kinda almost my Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

Anyway, Mom came into my room one morning with a stack of about two dozen records, saying, "Here, these have been floating around the house for a long time, and I thought you might like them."

I recognized the records as 78s, because they had only stopped making them at about the time I was born, and my parents still had some in their collection. These 78s, however, were a lot different from those I had seen. Most noticeably, they were not at all shiny; moreover, they were heavier, with bigger labels, and some of them were a swell brick red. I had no idea exactly how old they were, but they seemed positively prehistoric. I was intrigued.

So, I added them to the playlist, and I found that I liked about a dozen of them, and half of those I absolutely loved. Mom had planted a seed. She was always doing that, working subtly to introduce me to the things that she had loved when she was young. Dad did that too, but he was not subtle about it. Both approaches were effective.

Once I grew old enough to travel out and about by myself, I began to add to the collection. Back then, it was easy and quite inexpensive to do so; Honolulu Avenue was lined with junk shops, and they all had vast repositories of old records for a dime or so each. My initial motivation was simply to get new music to hear, but after a time I became interested in the historical aspect as well. I had heard of such illustrious performers as Caruso, Jolson, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff for as long as I could remember, and I was thrilled actually to be able to hear them perform—especially the last two, whose compositions Mom played all the time on the piano.

Once I hit teenhood in earnest, I put this interest aside for many years, until it re-emerged at age 40 with a vengeance, a consequence of the Farm House effect. To review, the Farm House Effect is the extension of one's historical purview that occurs as a result of the activity involved in the restoring of an old house. In other words, when you restore an old house, your mind naturally extends your sense of contemporary familiarity with daily life back to the time in which your house was built, as if you'd lived through it all. Put more simply, your grip on reality weakens.

Adding to my fervor for old records was my deep boredom with contemporary music at the time; it had been nearly a decade since I had found any new performers whose music interested me, and I was desperate to have some new-to-my-ears music to digest.

Thus, my motivations to collect records are the same as they ever were: to listen, and to learn. A significant obstacle to the learning part, however, is the fact that old records have very little information on them: usually just title, composer, performer, and maybe the name of the vocalist or a featured soloist. And so, I rely upon discographies to fill in the blanks.

A discography is a listing of recordings with all available relevant information noted for each recording. They can be organized by pretty much any relevant category, but for the most part one finds them organized by performer, label or musical genre.

Discographies are usually very expensive, because many of them are considered library reference books, and most of them are pretty large. I bought all the basic discographies used, and Lydia has given me some of the more scholarly ones. I duly record all relevant information in the catalogue of my collection, so that I can relate that information to what I hear on the records.

While I now have full discographical information for a great many of my records, there are still lots of them for which I don't know much more than what's on the label. Thus, I'm always looking for more information wherever I can find it on the Internet.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (EDVR) online a few months ago. It's precisely what it's called, a comprehensive discography of all recordings on Victor and related labels, combining a thorough examination of the Victor ledgers with all the best scholarly research in one handy place online.

I was insanely elated. There are more than a few discographies covering Victor, and they're all pricey, and I don't have any of them. I had planned to get them eventually, because I have a great many Victors in my collection. Anyone who collects 78s has a lot of Victors, especially if he collects the period prior to 1920, because for most of that time there were only a few labels, and Victor was the biggest of them. And now, here was all that information for free! Well, to be precise, there were a few of our tax dollars at work in there.

And so, I immediately got out my own ledgers and went through them, updating all the Victors. This included the crown jewels of the collection, two dozen Victors dating from late 1900 to 1903, family heirlooms handed down from my great-grandmother. See, this collecting thing is hereditary (as is the packrat thing, apparently). Some of these records pre-date the incorporation of the Victor Talking Machine Company itself.

I have great affection for these records, for they are a connection to an ancestor whom I never met, but who has always been spoken of with great affection in my family. The records are not particularly valuable price-wise, but to me they are priceless.

Naturally, I was particularly interested to learn the history of these recordings. As I mentioned, the EDVR represents pretty much everything known about the discography of Victor. As it turned out, actually, I knew a few things about Victor discography that they didn't know.

You see, I found three of my great-grandmother's records that weren't in the discography. To be more precise, there were three releases not represented; the actual recordings were listed, but these releases weren't. I notified the EDVR staff, and after asking me a few questions about the records, they confirmed my findings and asked me to send some pictures for their files. The changes will be reflected in their next site update.

But you won't have to wait.

Two of the records bear altered labels. At one point early on, Victor changed their numbering scheme, retaining many if not all of their issues under new numbers and re-recording each for the new issues. In some cases, they pasted the new number on the old label and released the old recording under the new number, but until my discovery it was not known that this was done with these issues.

The first was "I Want to Go to Morrow" performed by Dan W. Quinn, recorded February 27, 1901; it was first issued under catalogue number 3150, but here issued with an altered label under catalogue number 12:

Note the obviously pasted-on catalogue number.

When I first saw this label,  I was fascinated by it, because not only does it pre-date the "His Master's Voice" trademark with the dog ("Nipper") listening to the gramophone, but it even pre-dates the Victor Talking Machine Company itself, having been issued under the name of the man who would pilot that company for its first quarter-century. You will notice that Johnson is already using "Victor" as a brand name, however.

Thanks to the facilities of the wondrous National Jukebox (more tax dollars at work), I can link you to a copy of this recording right here on this page:

It's quite a funny song, and I believe its humor has not lost any potency with age; in any event, if you like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, you'll love this.

The other altered record is "Come Ye Disconsolate," recorded March 11, 1901 (hey, my brother Jon's birthday! That's the second time it's come up in these pages). It's credited generically, as a "Choir Record," but the EDVR reveals that it was performed by the Lyric Trio with Grace Spencer as the soprano. Its original catalogue number was 3196, but here we see it changed to 718:

Sadly, the National Jukebox doesn't have this one, and I haven't had a chance to dub it myself yet.

Take a look at the runout area right above "Monarch" on the label. Notice that the old catalogue number 3196 is handwritten in the shellac, and the new number 718 is stamped directly below. This indicates that the record was actually pressed after the number change, using the label made before the change and then pasting the new number over it. The other record above is the same way. I guess the labels, and the stampers for the old recording, must have been too expensive to waste.

Notice also that by this time "Victor Talking Machine Co." has replaced Johnson's name. By the way, "Monarch" was the designation for ten-inch records at the time; seven-inch records were simply labeled "Victor," and twelve-inch records were called "De Luxe." There were even some fourteen-inch records, that ran at 60 RPM and lasted up to six minutes; these were called "De Luxe Special."

The third record is by far the most interesting. 

Notice that Nipper has finally checked in; the Victor label would look basically like this until 1914, with "Victor" banishing "Monarch" for good in 1905.

The reason why this record is the most interesting to me is that, as far as the official discographical record is concerned, I discovered it.  The EDVR listed three takes, but each was noted "Believed not to have been issued." And yet, here it is, take 2 as indicated in the runout to the left of the label. You can't see that in this picture, but you can see under the label the recording date, 9-19-02; it's behind "RECORD". Here's a close-up of that area:

Can you see it now? The loop of the first 9 is above the E to the left, and its tail is touching the loop of the R. Once you find that, the rest should be obvious. If it isn't, well, just take my word for it. In any event, this agrees with the recording date noted in the EDVR for take M-2, the M prefix standing for "Monarch" to indicate a ten-inch master.

I hasten to add that omissions in the EDVR were not due to errors on the part of the scholars who created and maintain it; the errors were made by the Victor employees responsible for making the proper entries in the ledgers. The EDVR scholars transcribed the information from the ledgers as faithfully as possible. Recall that with the Arthur Collins record, they made the special notation "Believed not to have been issued" by each take; it seems safe to infer from the use of the word "believed" that they saw some anomaly in the corresponding ledger entries, and since none of their sources had reported seeing actual issues of any of the takes, they reported the situation as precisely as possible. My sighting was the first one that any of them had heard of.

That's one of the best things about collecting old records: every collector has the opportunity to contribute to the body of discographical knowledge. While the Victor production ledgers are the best single source for discographical information on Victor records, they are not enough by themselves. For one thing, they contain errors, as we have learned here. For another thing, no ledger notation can convey the information that the recordings themselves do—and after all, Victor was in the business of making recordings, not ledgers. A record label may contain errors that the ledgers can correct, but there is no trumping the physical possession of a record, no matter what the ledgers may say regarding its existence. Moreover, the ledgers might fail to mention the presence on a recording of a certain instrumentalist, but a trained ear might discern upon listening to the recording the unmistakable sound of his presence.

Yes, no scholarly discography can exist without substantial familiarity with the recordings involved, and there is no group alive today with greater familiarity with Victor recordings than the many scholars who have contributed to the EDVR. Nevertheless, with such a massive undertaking, involving tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of individual issues, certainly a few are going to fall through the cracks.

That's where the individual collector, the amateur discographer, comes in. By doing as I have, by assembling one's own personal discography of the records he has (and most collectors do), he can find the obvious errors and omissions, and make his own contribution to the general knowledge thereby. I am very, very happy that I've been able to make mine, thanks to my great-grandmother.

Oh, I nearly forgot: I've dubbed my "discovery" to the digital domain, and have given it the benefit of my modest restorative skills. I think you'll find it quite listenable; happily, the record is in phenomenally good shape, so it cleaned up quite nicely. You'll find it by clicking upon this sentence.

You will also likely find the lyrics mildly offensive near the end, but honestly I don't think it's anything terribly galling. Bear in mind that this recording was made in 1902, when the Farm House was only seventeen years old. Lots of stuff has changed since then.

Arthur Collins, the singer on the record, was one of the half-dozen most-recorded singers of the Nineteen-Aughts and -Teens. His sobriquet was "The King of Ragtime Singers." He's perhaps best known today as half of the team of Collins and (Byron G.) Harlan, whose long string of recorded hits can be heard at the National Jukebox and the Internet Archive. Besides this, Collins can be found in hundreds of recordings on all labels, under his own name or as part of the Peerless Quartet. That was all just beginning for him when he recorded this song.

* * *

"What an amazing sound! It's as if I could reach right out and scratch Caruso!"