At the vide-grenier in Ceaux-en-Loudun on June 19th I bought a 78 rpm record of Gregorian chants from Solesmes. I don't buy 78s at vide-greniers very often, but as I already have a 33 rpm record of some different chants recorded much later at the same abbey, I couldn't resist it. I have a wind-up gramophone, probably dating from the 1930s, which I bought it in the mid-to-late 1960s for £4. Some time later, when I went overseas, I lent it to a friend. Two or three decades later, he died, and his widow asked if I would like it back.

The record was filthy and dusty, but 78s are tough, so I just washed it before playing it. Drying it was quite interesting: I balanced it on a spindle threaded through the hole in the middle. And then I played it.

The sound quality was astonishingly good, far better than most of the 78s in my collection, and I have several dozen. I don't buy them very often any more, though a few years back I bought a couple of Josephine Baker records, and my 78 rpm Lonnie Donegan recordings of Puttin' on the Style and Tom Dooley are better than anything I've ever found on line. 

The oldest of my 78s is on the turntable above. It's Queen among the Heather, by Harry Lauder, and it was almost certainly recorded well over 100 years ago. It's single sided, with The Recording Angel moulded on the other side, but single sided disks weren't discontinued until 1924. Rather more compelling evidence is provided by the fact that Harry Lauder was knighted in 1912, which I'm sure would have been noted on the label (shown at the end of this piece). It says very clearly "Mr. Harry Lauder".

He recorded the song several times, in both London and New York, on both cylinders and disks, as far as I can tell from 1909 to 1911.  You can hear a version here, taken from a cylinder recording. Each time, he sang the song into a horn and the sound energy was translated directly into mechanical energy which cut the grooves on the record. A master was then made via electroplating from the acoustically recorded disk, and this was used to press the records for sale.

It is not the case (as I once believed) that the originals were played; nor is it true that multiple horns were used to create multiple masters. Multiple horns were sometimes used, for example for orchestras, but they were connected (via rubber tubing!) to a single cutting head. There's a great account of early recording methods at the CHARM web-site. 

For me, the real joy of these recordings is that I'm using a machine that's maybe 80 years old to play recordings that are between about 50 and 105 years old; and although I wear the records out a little bit each time I play them, they'll probably outlast me by 100 years or more. When I listen to them, I'm handling direct, tangible links with the people who first bought them; I can in a way share the pleasure they had from those records, and pass that pleasure on to other people. Also, by pure chance when rooting through old records, I've discovered or rediscovered musicians (and comedy musicians) who are now largely and undeservedly forgotten: Spike Jones and His City Slickers, for example, playing Drip, Drip, Drip, also known as Water Lou (1945). It's not one of his best but it led me to more of his work. It's true that there was an immense amount of garbage recorded in all eras, but even the saccharine drivel now has a certain historical fascination: Che Sera, Sera (Whatever will be, will be, though mercifully not the Doris Day version linked) and Oh Mein Papa played by Eddie Calvert, "The Man with the Golden Trumpet". 

When I was a child we made plant holders out of old 78s, softening them by pouring boiling water over them. I don't even remember what they were. My parents kept very little for sentimental reasons or out of an idle sense of history, which is perhaps why I border on hoarding. But...Well, the important thing is to enjoy yourself, and to enjoy your music. My 78s help me to do that. 

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016