Various Artists

Phonographic Yearbook: The 1890s, Vol. 1

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More than one expert commentator has mused that posterity will likely never know very much about the recording industry of the 1890s, the medium's crucial first decade. The 1890s marked the introduction of sound recording as a means of public entertainment, but phonographs were expensive and few citizens had one to call their own. Most came into contact with recorded music in phonograph parlors specially outfitted with coin-operated machines equipped with earphones. Surviving records and machines from this era are few, and most sensible collectors guard such treasures, once obtained, with their lives.

Happily, the producers at Archeophone have managed to cull enough items from collectors and combine them with their own resources to assemble what may well be the first compilations devoted entirely to 1890s recordings. The Phonographic Year: The 1890s Volume 1 "Wipe Him Off the Land" is the first of a projected two volume series devoted to this rare period in phonographic history. All Phonographic Yearbook series releases include additional history and illustrations to help illustrate the period in which the recordings were made. Whereas the projected second volume is to deal with the spirit of invention in the 1890s, "Wipe Him Off the Land" addresses the social issues of the decade. Or at least the notes do -- one thing that seems strangely off kilter here is that most of the musical selections chosen relate to the given theme of the notes only in a glancing respect. But if you're curious about the homespun humor of country bumpkin Cal Stewart, or would like to hear 19th century minstrel legends such as Billy Golden and George W. Johnson, the loud, echt-Irish vocalizing of Dan W. Quinn, or even the early Sousa Band in its prime, then you need to get this disc.

No one who cannot endure the scratchy surfaces and noisy sound of ancient phonograph recordings should go near this disc. That said, there are individual tracks that jump forward with surprising clarity, such as a 1901 recording of Cal Stewart's "Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry," or an 1896 cylinder of the United States Marine Band in Sousa's rarely heard "The Directorate March." Sometimes, the digital audio filtering used is a little too aggressively on these tracks, as you can hear the chemically treated sound of digital artifacts, most often during the customary spoken announcements found at the beginning of early recordings. These tend to be the most worn-out parts of 1890s and early 1900s records and cylinders, so that in itself is not too surprising. But this is a minor matter when taken into account with the sheer wealth of ultra-vintage recordings presented here. For those interested in early records, The Phonographic Year: The 1890s, Volume 1 "Wipe Him Off the Land" is a must. The packaging is beautifully laid out, and the notes about the individual artists are highly informative.