Before the record industry set upon the rubber pellets that now make up the vast majority of humanity’s record collections, music was pressed on shellac, a much more brittle product—it is often made out of a resin literally from bugs. Shellac was mostly too brittle to try to print a full LP on, so most of the records made from it are 78-singles. Owing to that fragile quality, and for how utterly disposable the single was in the pre-1960 era—a lot of 78s were pressed by furniture companies trying to sell record cabinets, with records as an add-on—78s are some of the most sought after records in all of the crate digging universe; the subject of books, $37,000 purchases, and New York Times Magazine multimedia projects.
And 78s are also insanely rare on the internet, as converting them from their original source—which often was to a pressing plate itself; recording studios were non-existent back then—leaves a lot of the digital files with a fuzzy hum, making them unlikely to be purchased by someone taking a chance on iTunes. However, an amazing project just came online this month that aims to put as many 78s as possible up on the internet for free download.
The Internet Archive and New York’s ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) have partnered to put as many 78 recordings as possible out on the internet by means of preserving them for future generations. They’ve already put up more than 30,000 recordings, ranging from yodeling to Hawaiian music, and to some of the first synthesizer recordings ever. There are plans to archive close to 200,000 total records when it’s all said and done.
So, where should you start trying to listen to this? Well, there’s ample gospel music like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, blues (Joshua White, Sonny Boy Williamson, Leadbelly, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and country from Hank Williams. There’s also an absurdly deep selection of jazz, largely the dixieland version popular before bebop, Yiddish lessons, and probably the oldest version of “House of The Rising Sun” ever recorded (came 25 years before the Animals). There’s a couple choice Christmas songs, a sound effects record of a wood planer for some reason, and Edith Piaf’s masterpiece. But I had the most fun this weekend poking around the Hawaiian music archive, since a lot of this stuff hasn’t made the leap to the world music canon.
All that said, here’s my favorite find so far: the sample that formed Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.”
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.