News/Thoughts

Before The Beginning

Over the years, we have told you many stories centered around those famous Bristol, TN recording sessions—those sessions held in July and August 1927 now often referred to as the Big Bang of Country Music. I fear that we may have caused some folks to believe that happening was the beginning of commercial recorded sound. This is an incorrect belief. A few of the artists that recorded during those sessions were already seasoned recording veterans (so called Hillbilly recordings were available as early as 1925 or before); and certainly all of the people that Ralph Peer recorded that summer were well schooled on recorded sound. The story we want to tell you here began 40 years before Ralph Peer discovered the commercial appeal of recorded country music and showed up in Bristol that hot summer in 1927 with his electric driven recording equipment. In fact, commercial recorded music and recorded sound in general dates back to that famous inventor, Thomas Edison. This back story about the acoustic era of recorded music is the story we want to tell as well as introduce you to some folks that strive to keep that story alive for future generations.

Archeophone Records is located in Champaign, Illinois and has been owned and operated since 1998 by Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey. It is a Grammy-wining re-issue label that preserves, restores, and publishes recordings from the acoustic era of sound. The reissues by this recording company feature top-notch audio restorations accompanied by well researched and well documented liner notes and illustrations. The original research they put into making these historic recordings accessible is extensive. Archeophone has produced 73 reissues to date, with material ranging from spoken word and comedy to all genres of music. Almost any type of music or spoken-word recording from the acoustic era is within their purview.

2020 New Releases
One project is titled: Before the Big Bang, and tells the story of the recordings that laid the foundation for the historic Bristol sessions of 1927. This release spans six CDs and features more than 125 recordings (many of them now one-of-a-kind) going as far back as 1890. As well as the many songs and music, the project contains extensive documentation about the time period, the music, and the artists. This Big Bang project is extremely relevant because it details the music that influenced those artists that flocked to Bristol in 1927. Further, If you have any interest in what was going on in the world of recorded music and sound in the 40 years before Ralph Peer and his electrified recording technology discovered country music, this is a must listen.

The other project is titled: At The Minstrel Show and tells the story of the 19th and early 20th century’s traveling musical variety shows on 51 tracks across two CDs accompanied with a 56-page heavily annotated booklet. As distasteful as that staged art form seems to us today, this is a must-hear project.

The focus of Archeophone Records is to preserve the era of sound recording done between 1899 and 1925. In these four decades known as the acoustic era, all sound recordings were made by mechanical means without the use of microphones or electrical amplification. Singers and players performed into a horn that captured their sound. An ensuing mechanical process etched grooves into a wax cylinder master. This master was then used to make duplicate cylinders from a more durable material. These production cylinders were sold to consumers. To play back an acoustic recording, a mechanical reproducing machine reversed the process and turned the recorded material back into sound for the listener.

The folks at Archeophone find these recorded cylinders (and later disks) that were recorded during the acoustic era; research and identify the recorded sounds contained on that media; employ modern technology to bring those sounds forward through time for modern ears to hear—almost always in a better fidelity than ever heard before; and re-issue those recordings on compact disks (CDs) along with the documented research.

What Is It Exactly
Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey met at Indiana University in the mid 90s while they were both working on advance degrees. While working to complete his doctorate in English, Richard felt the urge to drop from academia and start the Archeophone Records project. Meagan completed her studies with an MS in Information Science and joined Richard’s project. Richard told us that they decided that the acoustic era of recording was an era of American music that was completely overlooked and that no one was going to archive it if they did not do it. “Thus, we chose to do this rather than stay in the academic world,” says Richard.

Archeophone Records is a DIY shop with Hennessey and Martin doing all the work. Richard mentioned, “When it comes to the scholarship, I though when I left the academic world, I was done with that stuff but I am not. I have written much of the documentation myself and Meagan has done research and writing as well. We do attempt to find experts to write our documentation when possible. However, that can become tricky in that just because someone is an expert on Jazz does not mean that person is an expert on Jazz music produced in the acoustic era.” Richard tells us that he believes that Archeophone is now noted as much for the scholarship and depth of documented research as they are known for their re-issued recordings.

When asked how they decided what material to re-issue, Hennessey told us, “It is a mix of approaches depending upon the project. Sometimes, we might learn about specific artists who were once famous or important. Often, we have in our collection a few of their records. We might find that their whole body of work will fit on a single CD. Other times, we may have an idea for a concept and start a search for existing records that might fit that concept. Sometimes, we might have a collection of some artist’s biggest hits from a certain year. In this case, the job will be easier to complete.” Martin injected, “Our focus is the acoustic era when records were captured none electrically. To our knowledge, no one else is focused exclusively on that recording era.”

Finding Source Material
In answer to a question about the difficulty to find source material, Richard said, “It depends. If you are looking for specific recordings made by an obscure artist, the answer is very hard. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of thousands of recordings from that nearly 40-year period that have never been touched by any of the re-issue labels. It really is a matter of figuring out what are the critical issues that people might find compelling today. There are plenty of opportunities.” Meagan added, “In some cases, before the era of mass production, there are surprises that turn up. We have friends that are very serious cylinder collectors. They may find something that is part of a sale and discover that it is a recording by an artist of whom no one has ever heard. Sometimes a record will turn up and there is no documentation which shows it was ever made.”

Since it is apparent that the original cylinder recordings are the source material, we wondered where they were found. Richard added, “We have cultivated relationships with collectors all over North America as well as around the world and these people are at the top of their game. They hold the world’s most important recordings and they have a mission to share them and to help educate the public. Thus, these are very healthy relationships for us to have. Of course, we also collect ourselves and have a sizeable collection of cylinders in our possession.”

Labor Of Love
I mentioned that they seem to be operating with a unique business model and wondered how it was working for them. Richard laughed and said, “Yes, we are. We get accused of doing a labor of love but as soon as it is all love and labor with no proceeds we may need to rethink that concept. We have a lot of older customers; however, we are always trying to attract younger people—people who are interested in culture and history. Sometimes, material such as Broadway songs and unique personalities kept people interested and helps them find us.”

He continued, “When I was in grad school and had just started collecting records, and would discuss the material that these old recordings contained; the one thing that always surprised me was this: when the discussion would hit upon items such as the Harlem Renaissance or early Jazz, and I would mention that those folks made recordings and that we should find those recordings of that era and listen to them. By and large, the response was ‘Oh, no; I don’t need to do that’. I hope such a response would now be different since our Archeophone Records has found and re-issued that era’s recordings and documented the research material as well.”

As we mentioned above the latest projects available from Archeophone Records: Before the Big Bang and At the Minstrel Show have special interest to we fans of Americana string-music. You may find these nuggets to be must-haves in your music collection. Archeophone Records sells their products direct through their WEB site: archeophone.com or by email: sales@archeophone.com; or by telephone: (217)355-9883. Their products are also available through the on-line retailer: Amazon.com; and through traditional record stores. Their distribution is handled by Select-O-Hits (selectohits.com) in Memphis, TN. Select-O-Hits is one of the largest independent record distributors in the country. It services over 300 independent vendors; all key US music retail stores; and digital media sites.

By Edward Tutwiler

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