Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recording machine first became commercially available in 1888. Almost immediately, researchers used it to study folk culture.
Although disc recorders eventually supplanted the cylinders, thousands of cylinders preserved the only record of many important projects. By the 1970s, many had begun to deteriorate. The American Folklife Center initiated the Federal Cylinder Project in 1979.
Recording technology, like all modern media, presents preservation challenges quite different from printed material or manuscripts. I have briefly described them in an earlier post on digital preservation.
The beginning of recorded sound
In 1877, Thomas Edison conceived the idea of transcribing telegraphic messages, which could then be resent multiple times. As he worked, it occurred to him that it should also be possible to record a telephone message.
After experimenting with paraffin paper, he decided to wrap tinfoil around a metal cylinder. Once his mechanic John Kruesi made a machine to his specifications, Edison tested it by reciting “Mary had a little lamb.” And the machine played it back.
So in January 1878, Edison established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. Writing for the North American Reviewin June 1878, Edison proposed ten possible practical uses for his invention. Reproduction of music was fourth on the list. Much of the rest of the list had more to do with historical preservation. For example, families could record reminiscences or even the last words of someone dying. Only later did anyone conceive of the phonograph as an entertainment medium.
The new phonograph proved more of a novelty than anything else. Most users found it difficult to operate, and the foil only lasted for a few playings. Edison turned his attention to the light bulb and only returned to development of the phonograph in 1887.
The next advance in recording technology came from Alexander Graham Bell, who used a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle and substituted wax for the foil. Edison introduced an improved wax cylinder recorder in 1888. Only in 1901 did the Edison company put a process for mass duplication of cylinders into effect.
Also in 1888, Emile Berliner invented the phonograph disc, which eventually supplanted cylinder recording, but Edison continued to sell cylinders until the Great Depression put his company out of business in 1929. So cylinders existed as a recording technology for about 50 years.
Cylinder recording technology
The size of a sewing machine, cylinder record machines did not operate on electricity. Instead, they required a hand crank to tighten a spring. The spring turned a spindle that held the cylinder. A blank cylinder had one long spiral groove. To record on it, the operator attached a recording horn, in which a cutting needle was attached to a diaphragm.
The horn intensified the soundwaves that entered it. The soundwaves in the horn changed the pressure on the diaphragm, and thus on the cutting needle.
Playing back the recorded sound required exchanging the cutting needle for one that would bounce along the cuts in the groove. It would excite the diaphragm, and the horn would magnify the vibrations into an audible sound.
The technology had some inherent limitations. A single cylinder could hold only about four minutes of low-fidelity sound. The performers had to shout directly into the horn, so recording any kind of group was awkward.
The fragile wax melted and broke easily. It was also susceptible to mold. The sound began to lose quality after multiple playbacks started to wear out the grooves. By the time the Federal Cylinder Project began, the sound on many cylinders had deteriorated into a harsh hissing sound with a human voice faintly discernable in the background.
The Library of Congress and folk recordings
Harvard anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes became the first to use the cylinder recording machine for ethnographic field research in 1890. He recorded the songs and stories of Maine’s Passamaquody Indians and used the cylinders in his office for study.
These recordings, the earliest extant ethnographic recordings, are now part of the American Folklife Center collection.
Many other people soon followed in his footsteps. Some worked for museums or government agencies. Many were simply private individuals who had a passion for recording folk music.
The Library of Congress first became involved with folk music in 1928, when Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam invited Robert W. Gordon to become “specialist and consultant in the field of Folk Song and Literature.” Gordon eventually persuaded the Library that the public would respond better to a different title: Head of the Archive of American Folk Song.
Gordon, a Harvard graduate, had been collecting folk music for more than a decade by that time, using a wax cylinder recording machine. He had abandoned an academic career because it hampered him from what he considered his true mission, collecting folk music. He supported himself writing magazine articles about it.
Besides recording nearly a thousand wax cylinders, he solicited texts from readers of his articles and acquired nearly ten thousand. Like everyone else, he eventually gave up recording on cylinders in favor of discs.
Eventually, freelancing became too burdensome for his family. In 1926, Gordon contacted the chief of the Library of Congress’ Music Division, Carl Engel, and asked for institutional support. Engel, already interested in establishing the Library as a research center for music, responded with enthusiasm. As no government funds were available, Engel needed to solicit funds from private donors before Putnam could officially appoint Gordon to his post.
The Archive of American Folk Song became part of the new American Folklife Center in 1978. In the meantime, it had received more than ten thousand wax cylinder recordings. The Library’s Recording Laboratory began to copy some of them to disc immediately. It began to transfer them to magnetic tape in the 1950s. But most of them remained untouched through the 1970s.
The Federal Cylinder Project
This large collection presented three major challenges.
First, the wax had started to deteriorate, so a large-scale preservation project was necessary to save them.
Second, donors often included only scanty—or wrong—information about the contents, so a large-scale cataloging project was necessary to provide access to them.
Third, visitors and researchers were beginning to ask for copies.
The Center estimated that about three fourths of the collection of cylinders contained Native American music and folklore. Most of the increase in interest in the collection came from younger Native Americans seeking to connect with their cultural heritage. The Center held both the largest and earliest collection of recorded information about these cultures. And in many cases, the voices on the recordings were some researcher’s grandparent or great-grandparent.
So in 1979, the Center started the Federal Cylinder Project, an especially challenging and ambitious project. It was called the Federal Cylinder Project because it encompassed not only the holdings of the Library of Congress, but also collections within the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and the National Park Service.
First, the Center had to devise a way to preserve the cylinders and catalog their contents. Preservation included transferring the sound on the cylinders to magnetic tape, the most suitable medium at the time.
Then, in close cooperation with Native American communities, it devised ways to return copies of the music on the cylinders. By 1996, the Center had duplicated its entire original collection of wax cylinders on magnetic tape, cataloged about three fourths of it, and returned copies of about two thirds of it to Native American communities.
The Native American viewpoint
Early ethnologists were interested only in preserving the sounds, often in disregard of the traditions in which they occurred.
Some songs, for example, were considered sacred, to be heard only in the context of ceremonies not open to the uninitiated. Therefore, some collectors transported singers from their tribal homes to Washington, where tribal elders who objected to recording the songs could have no influence.
With today’s greater cultural sensitivity, many songs never should have been recorded. Now that the cylinders exist and the Federal Cylinder Project intended to release them back to the community, which songs should be released and which withheld from publication?
As a federal agency, the American Folklife Center made its first contacts with recognized tribal governments. Even local governments, however, do not necessarily have the greatest interest in historical materials. So the Center reached out to smaller and more traditional groups in several communities. These dissemination meetings resulted not only in an acceptable finished project, but also some updating and correction of the cataloging.
Nearly everyone in every community responded with enthusiasm to the idea of receiving recordings of their heritage. Despite some disappointment with the sound quality of the finished cassettes, they have proved valuable to communities in several ways. For one thing, they verify how accurate oral tradition has been in passing down traditions. Descendants can hear the actual voices of long-deceased family members. Young people can connect with their heritage in ways otherwise impossible.
The documentary cycle
One particular event illustrates what the Center’s Alan Jabbour calls the “documentary cycle.” Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche had made a large number of wax cylinder records of the Omaha Tribe. The acoustic quality of their work was especially good. After the Center made the presentation tapes, they wanted also to publish a selection and make it available to the public.
Jabbour traveled to Macy, Nebraska to make a proposal to the Omaha Tribal Council. The council thought it was a good idea, but they wanted the Center to take care not to publish anything the tribe had considered secret or sacred. They asked him to consult with John Turner, a tribal singer who was born about the time Fletcher and La Flesche had made their recordings. He knew the older traditions.
When Jabbour and Turner met, Jabbour recorded the conversation. He played the tapes made from the cylinders. Turner commented on what should and shouldn’t be published. In the process, he sang some of his own renditions. Over the course of the conversation, younger people stopped by to listen. Eventually, they became a small crowd. They occasionally made their own comments. Jabbour’s new tape therefore captured the original singers, Turner, and a generation younger than Turner all interacting with the same music.
The Federal Cylinder Project and the Documentary Cycle (1996) / chapter 66 of Music in the USA: a documentary companion, edited by Judith Tick (Oxford University Press, 2008): 357-60, which is an excerpt from The American Folklife Center: a twenty-year retrospective, part 2 / Alan Jabbour. Folklife Center News 18, no. 3 and 4 (Summer-Fall 1996)
History of the cylinder phonograph / Library of Congress
A national project with many workers / American Folklife Center
Returning music to the makers: the Library of Congress, American Indians, and the Federal Cylinder Project / Judith Gray, Cultural Survival. December 1996
Robert Winslow Gordon / Library of Congress