Analog Ephemera and the banged up 78rpm

The GIF that you see above was made using a Hadda Brooks Trio 78rpm from Modern Music, a Los Angeles based label known for releasing R&B in the mid-1940s and 1950s. The label distributed recordings by such luminaries as Etta James and John Lee Hooker.

Putting aside the lustrous recording history of Modern Music, my Hadda Brooks 78rpm is virtually unplayable (like it was previously dragged across the floor), let alone having a more recent crack (meaning: I dropped it) that runs from the edge to the center.

But the label/trademark is impressive, along with the irony of a label/record approaching senior-citizen age that denotes the “modern”. Some titles issued by Modern Music are most assuredly still “happening”, even in our era, but the label’s iconography bears the attractive look of another, long-gone era. I can’t let it go, despite it being useless, unless I use it in another way.

I’m sure most Americans have more than a few useless/semi-useless things lying around, stuff that can’t be tossed, for subjective, sentimental or idiosyncratic reasons, or perhaps you have a “real” reason (beyond simple hoarding), a rationale for hauling the junk from one place to another. (Someone off in the wings, shouting, “Honey, just throw it away!”)

A 110+ year old, extant 78rpm acoustic recording

My modest collection of 78rpms started off as a way for me to accumulate a format that I had yet to consume. One can find 78rpms lying around, out of reach of the well-trod used-vinyl record store, the item sometimes ditched in junk shops and trash heaps, as well as, well, on Discogs. The above (78rpm on a pedestal) was bought for one euro in one such junk shop in Antwerp, Belgium (the pedestal resting on a kitschy Mozart doily that I found on the curb). It’s pretty scratched up but it is playable, but perhaps you can gather from the title (“The Light of the World Is Jesus” by Whitney Brothers Quartet b/w “He Leadeth Me” by Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler) it’s not exactly “happening”, in fact, it’s dreary.

But . . . I believe it’s the oldest extant recording in my collection, having been released in 1910 (over 110 years old). It’s also a pre-electronic-microphone acoustic recording, with the vocals bearing the hallmark of the sound going down the cone (or tube) and reverberating on the inscribing needle. All that making it worth one euro, let alone allowing me to daydream about how it ended up in Antwerp, how it survived all those epochs (seeing as it’s not exactly “collectable”), and who appreciated this utterly un-danceable non-foot-tapping selection (as part of a home-based Sunday morning service?).

The ratty falling-apart generic 78rpm paper sleeves still maintain a kind of preciousness that I tuck away in protective plastic. I might lift the graphics for my own uses.
Additionally, a previous owner wrote the title in their own hand in one corner of a sleeve, something that brings the resale price down on a 33 1/3 rpm record but which, speaking for myself, evokes another kind of daydreaming (for instance, see here)
Record companies also advertised their artists on their generic 78rpm paper sleeve. Here we have a run-down of names you might recognize along with the gone-and-forgotten. This would seem to indicate what was selling or, at least, what was worth promoting, as well as indicating a continuum as far as “the mainstream” as opposed to its alternative, those less-popular names that made it through history’s market-grinder and who now outshine what was “popular” in another era.

Ephemera (cited in my title) is defined as: “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time” but has come to mean (at least to my mind) things that are slight, fragile and prone to disappearance (“ephemeral”). Of course, ephemera can also be “collectable”, not number-one-on-the-list, but something like a ticket to a Beatles’ concert rather than a pristine copy of the “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.

While 78rpms might be considered obsolete, just as vinyl records as a whole were at one time considered obsolete, they stand for an entirely different era — “the past”. But 78 rpms were being produced right into the time that 45 and 33 1/3 rpm formats first came on the market. One high-end collectable are The Beatles’ 78rpms that were produced in India, as that country, at that time, was yet to catch up to the newest technologies (find the details here).

Here’s the anomaly: A 7-inch 78rpm of Dean Martin produced by Capitol Records released in 1954.
Here you see RCA advertising the new 45rpm format on the generic paper sleeve of one of their 78rpms.

Speaking of formats, and/or the 7-inch 78rpm, the time constraints of the 10-inch 78rpm set the standard for the three-to-four-minute single, but some companies experimented with 12-inch 78rpms long before your LP (long-playing 33 1/3) arrived, allowing someone like the incomparable Art Tatum to stretch out on the improvisational jam. One of my arbitrary protocols when collecting 78rpms is to compile as many different labels as well as musicians (Jazz or whatever). Here we have (seen below) a New York City-based Asch label 12-inch 78rpm featuring Art Tatum. Asch, which was owned by Moe Asch, was known for running things on a budget while being out-of-the-ordinary-fair when dealing with his recording artists. Asch later switched over to solely producing folk music when that boom emerged in the 1950s.

Art Tatum 12" 78rpm released in 1944 backed by one Slam Stewart; the octave-above humming bass player appeared on many Jazz sessions including ones with the upstart Be-Boppers

When you find yourself stuck on a desert island with your desert island discs, I hope you also brought a wind-up gramophone because I doubt you’ll find an electrical outlet, otherwise, follow the power lines back to so-called civilization. We all need to adapt to the given circumstance, and here (below) you find a Jack Guthrie (brother of Woody) 78rpm that I bought on Amazon, but which arrived with the obvious divot. I notified the seller with a “what?” and was reimbursed (it hadn’t happened in transit). Yet I still enjoy it (free-of-charge) by placing the needle at the end point of the divot and then starting the engine. As James Brown said, “You’ve got to use what you’ve got, to get what you need”, this being an excellent example of country-swing or indeed boogie, which curiously includes the otherwise pejorative “Oakie”.

The final selection in this survey of reprieved (temporarily or otherwise) detritus, is a 78rpm I saved from my parent’s house after they had both died and we, the survivors, were tasked with pre-empting what someone else had settled on saving. Believe me, there were many moments when I closed my eyes and threw things in the bin.

My parents were far from recorded-music aficionados. When we came to their so-called record collection and a record player, that probably hadn’t been played in thirty years, it wasn’t so difficult to pack it all up and haul it over to the Goodwill. But one of my uncles kept bringing up the possibility of my parent’s having a 78rpm collection (which might indeed have been inherited from my father’s parents). This turned out to be all of two records.

Here’s the one that I saved (“Hallelujah! I’m A Bum” b/w “The Bum Song” by “Mac” Harry McClintock):

Given my parent’s leftist inclinations, this 78rpm provides for an appropriate totem. Supposedly written by an IWW (The Wobblies) organizer in the early 1900s, the song dispenses with the derogatory connotations of the term “bum”, as the lyricist preferences low-budget idleness over the possibility of being bossed around.
I do remember my parents occasionally picking up the refrain within my earshot. Released in 1928 and becoming enough of a “hit” to make a pop as well as political impact on my parents, the release date is still a little early for my father’s acquisitive instincts as a toddler. Let alone, his parents hardly having (at that time) expendable income via an allowance for their children. Which leads us back to: who originally owned it and where was it purchased?

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Musical music, historical and cultural connections

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Musical music, historical and cultural connections

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