A buried sound: the unanticipated visit to the Archive of Recorded Sound

January 28, 2015
Edison listening to wax cylinder 1888

About two months ago, I accidentally wandered into an antique shop in Fairfax, California. Inside there was a seemingly random arrangement of kipple which the shopkeeper clearly understood. It was as if I had discovered a surreptitious vault in an Indiana Jones movie filled with gleaming mounds of treasure, a glut of pearls and gold, a feast for the eyes*. I hesitated, unsure of where to start, slightly concerned that something would fall on me.

A friend who was traveling with me spotted a tattered myrtle green and gray tube, about the size of a small can of beans. Inside was an Edison Amberol wax cylinder record of “I Want to be Down-Home in Dixie” (1910). I knew the Archive of Recorded Sound (ARS) in the Music Library had an Edison Model A Home phonograph record player so I purchased the pint-sized time capsule.

The record sat in my desk drawer at the library for weeks. A storm in December flooded parts of the ARS and our listening appointment was delayed. Fortunately, nothing irreplaceable was damaged, and we were able to arrange a meeting shortly after returning from winter break. Benjamin Bates, Interim Operations Manager, graciously took the time to show us not only the Edison Model A phonograph but also a variety of other original phonographs in the collection. We also had a chance to see the inner workings of a player piano. Ben’s enthusiasm was contagious, and we eagerly waited for the song to start.

I wish I could say that the sweet sounds of history floated up to our ears as the needle touched the cylinder. I wish the fantasy were realized and a romantic notion fulfilled. What we ended up hearing were some muffled noises blanketed by the thick cobwebs of the past. Even though there was a mild feeling of defeat the trip was not tragic. Our tour guide led us past our disappointment into a delightful field of sights and sounds.

It was serendipitous that we went inside that inconspicuous store, with its recessed entrance and humble hand painted sign, overtaken by the offensive florescent light filled liquor store next door. Sometimes you just have to open your eyes and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a portal that will transport you to another time and place. Finding the Amberol record was the catalyst for us to visit and utilize the ARS, a happy accident.

Visit the Archive of Recorded Sound’s website for more information on how to set up a tour or listening appointment.

 

*The poem Coloured Money by Mervyn Peake came to mind.

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