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The first audio advertisement for a soda. A vaudeville act about sneezes. A home “exercise tape” from the 1920s, featuring a man giving calisthenics instructions accompanied by an orchestra. One of the first live music performances recorded, a 4,000-person choir in London singing Handel. A 1913 recording where a scoutmaster demonstrates all of the patrol calls used at the time by the Boy Scouts (you will not believe how well this man could imitate a bird).
For the past year, we have been working at our podcast, The World According to Sound, looking to archives like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library to dig up and curate old recordings like these. We are making an experimental audio show that celebrates sound recordings made before 1923, many of which have not been listened to in decades by more than a handful of people.
Many of these recordings have been lost. Others are buried in archives. But as of January 1, several hundred thousand are going to enter the public domain.
This is a major change in the world of audio.
It’s a big moment in history for sound archivists
Until recently, sound recordings were not covered by federal copyright laws in the same way as film, literature or photographs, which all enter public domain after a set of time. Then in 2018, the federal government passed the Music Modernization Act. The law changed copyright laws for recorded sound and, among other things, it mandated that every commercial recording made in the US before 1923 enter the public domain on January 1, 2022.
This is a huge amount of material. The Association For Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) estimates that some 400,000 recordings will be entering the public domain.
In anticipation of this event, archivists around the country have been digitizing and uploading commercial audio, as well as eccentric and amateur recordings, making it all more accessible and available to the public. It’s their big moment to showcase the recordings they have preserved for all these years, and to share them with individuals and media outlets, who can now take this material, remix and re-release it. This is making new projects possible, like the show we are working on about the origins of recording sound.
At The World According to Sound, we make a series of live listening events. Each show has a different theme and a collection of work made by us and other radio producers, musicians, and sound artists. The audio is spatialized for headphones and streamed live to people listening all over the country. We mail attendees an eye mask and an invitation to settle into a meditative evening of intentional listening.
This trove of very old recordings entering the public domain seemed like a perfect fit for one of our evenings. For the past year, archivists have been sharing sounds with us from their collections, some of which are about to enter the public domain, and others that are historical gems they have been working on for years to digitize.
The Library of Congress has one of the largest collections. For years, it has been uploading recordings online to its National Jukebox. Their archives hold a lot of historically significant musical works, like early recordings by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, a group that popularized Spirituals and is still active today. This is a 1909 recording of Little David, Play On Yo’ Harp.
Little David, Play On Yo’ Harp
There’s a lot more than music in the Library of Congress collection. There are children’s stories, dramatical performances, vaudeville acts, how-to records, and other genres that companies were experimenting with as consumer commodities at the turn of the century. One of those experiments is this recording, which might be the first ever home “exercise tape”.
One of the first home exercise tapes
The Jukebox has an entire section dedicated to spoken word and recitations. This is a poem by Edgar A. Guest titled The Old Wooden Tub. It was recorded in 1929, when much of the country still lacked electricity and telephones, yet the speaker in the poem is yearning for a simpler time.
Edgar A. Guest’s The Old Wooden Tub
Not only could the Edison home phonograph play back recordings, it allowed people to make their own. People would record on blank wax cylinders, or take a commercial cylinder, shave it down and make their own recording over the top of it.
Archivists estimate that Americans made several hundred thousand home recordings over the first few decades of the 20th century. Most are lost. The UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Archive has more than 650. This is one of our favorites. In it you can hear a man calling for his dog Mugsy, who also accompanies him on a musical number.
A man calls for his dog Mugsy
The cylinder archive has more than 10,000 wax cylinders, which were the recording medium for devices like the Edison home phonograph. Curators have created thematic playlists of everything from Tahitian field recordings to popular songs from World War I.
For our live show, The New York Public Library digitized a record of a scout master demonstrating patrol calls. It is the first time this record has been digitized. We’d share it with you here, but the audio can’t be made public until January 1.
The New York Public Library also let us listen to a trove of recordings made by Lionel Mapleson, who was one of the first people to try to systematically record a series of live musical performances. He was the librarian at the Metropolitan Opera House and from 1901 to 1903 he made recordings of the opera. We made this story about Mapleson’s recording endeavors for Radio Diaries.
Archivists have been essential to preserving these old recordings. The media is fragile, and without protection from the elements, the wax cylinders and records can crack and become unplayable.
At the same time, many of these recordings were first saved by private collectors and then acquired by archives. That is the story with the Mapleson cylinders, which the New York Public Library got from a private collector, Mr. Herbert Bretnall. The same is true for the home recordings and some of the other cylinders at the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Archive. Many were donated by David Giovannoni, who has set up his own online repository for sound recordings that he has collected.
Online you can find lots of old cylinders and records that individuals have uploaded. Archivists at the Library of Congress told us about what is believed to be the first ever audio advertisement for a soda. They did not have it in their collection, but we were able to find a version online. Someone with an old Edison phonograph had taken a video of the cylinder being played, which is an ad not for Coke or Pepsi, but a favorite soda brand from the state of Maine.
An advertisement for the soda, Moxie
Archivists also told us about the existence of an early advertisement for the Edison home phonograph. In it, you can hear the hopes companies had for recorded sound to be a major commodity.
An ad for the Edison home phonograph
This advertisement actually became the narrative backbone for our live show, which we’re streaming on January 6. For the show, we remixed lots of old audio like the pieces above, added some new recordings of our own, and sprinkled in a little context here and there to help you sink into all these old recordings.
The whole show would have been impossible if the Music Modernization Act had not put these recordings in the public domain. If you want to listen to some of the other sonic gems that will become public on January 1, you can check out this list of recordings put together by the ARSC.
Sam Harnett is a co-founder and co-host of The World According to Sound, and a former technology and labor reporter. Chris Hoff is an independent audio maker based in San Francisco.