Graded on a Curve: Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900

Frankly, archival sets don’t get much better than Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900; the latest admirable undertaking from Archeophone Records of Champaign, Illinois. It serves up three CDs comfortably tucked inside a 408-page hardback book, and anybody intrigued by the sound of music at the birth of the recording industry will find copious satisfaction in its contents. Holding nearly four hours of listening accompanied by valuable insight into how late 19th century life differs from and echoes our own, it’s a vital and quite affordable slice of history.

Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey are the owners of Archeophone as well as the label’s in-house production team, and adorning their website is a motto: “saving history one record at a time.” The slogan underlines perseverance and focus along with a bit of a double meaning, as their dedication to the industry’s “acoustic era of sound” frequently finds them interacting with the one existing copy of a recording.

Acoustic era of sound? That’s when recordings were made sans electricity, directly into the horn. For many, this is a period with hazy definition at best, often reduced to a shorthand of received wisdom or faulty generalizations. But the period of Archeophone’s expertise encompasses nearly four decades, from around 1888 until about 1925; in rock music terms, that length of time takes us from the launching pad of “That’s All Right” to the doorstep of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Only an utterly obstinate subscriber to the notion of olden times equating to slower times will disagree that 1888-1925 brought considerable changes around the world, and said developments and shifts provide the baseline for Waxing the Gospel’s intermingling of sheer enjoyment and functional knowledge; as Archeophone’s very name attests, its digs for musical artifacts directly relate to the study of human culture overall.

Waxing the Gospel’s audio is thematically divided to maximize pleasure and learning, disc one containing Commercial Recordings, disc two holding Celebrity Recordings, and disc three representing Vernacular Recordings. To briefly elaborate, the first CD features the byproduct of professionals, the second is devoted to music that’s retail value derived more from who made it rather than the actual contents of the recordings, and the third explores the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs.

Naturally this results in interesting contrasts, but it’s important to recognize that Waxing the Gospel’s presentation differs from many more contemporary multidisc compilations, where the selections are regularly sequenced in a manner not far from the aesthetic of the mixtape. The contents here aren’t defined by great stylistic range, but instead richly portray Victorian America, immersing the listener in the period and heightening the experience through scholarship.

If disc one spotlights pros, the individuality of stardom in recorded music had yet to become commonplace, and as has somewhat persisted in gospel music to this day, the focus was on the message rather than the messenger. Cornerstone hymns such as “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep,” “Rock of Ages,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” are here, some frequently and in their earliest versions, as is the case with the recently discovered 1894 performance of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by African-American vocal group the Standard Quartette.

And here is a good place to insert a word of warning to curious newbies regarding surface noise; it proliferates (to differing extents) across these 102 tracks, which are sometimes further compromised by technical problems such as wow and flutter and in a few instances are incomplete. But one simply has to acknowledge and adjust before listening, and in the case of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (which was plucked out of a trash can!) adjust again and then really listen.

With this said, the engineering here is magnificent, rescuing the content and opening a fascinating doorway into this era. If not about stardom, the first disc remains quite concerned with skill in service of religious practice, the singers and to a far lesser extent the instrumental bands (which include Baldwin’s Cadet Band and on the Celebrity disc the United States Marine Band) sharing the Christian faith even if the budding record companies sometimes didn’t.

In terms of talent, The Mozart Quartette’s powerful a cappella rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” is a standout, contrasting with how conviction largely trumps ability (though competence persists) during the Celebrity portion. The disc’s stars mostly derived from the late 19th century revival business, with Rev. Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey described by Archeophone as “the Beatles of the 1870s”; the latter half of the pair takes up the vast majority of the runtime either solo or through the Sankey Quartette.

It’s also necessary to note that much of what’s here is aptly labelled not as songs but as recitations, as is the case with Moody’s two selections. Along with the aforementioned United States Marine Band, a prime mover for Columbia Records in the label’s early days, celeb status also extends to the chimes of Manhattan’s Trinity Church; choral leader Prof. John R. Sweney rounds out the subsection, and his presence carries over to the third disc in connection with his role as musical director of the annual camp meeting in Ocean Grove, NJ.

1897 was Sweney’s final year in that capacity, and it produced a duet recording with an unknown female counterpart on “The Wayside Cross.” In a positive turn, as the focus moves to the amateur, women become more of a factor; indeed, the Vernacular disc begins with the second of Waxing the Gospel’s major discoveries, unveiling the only existing recording of the blind hymnist Fanny Crosby.

Having composed over 5,000 hymns, by the end of the 19th century Crosby was famous, so it would seem she’s a better fit for the second disc. But as her reading of “Threescore Years and Ten,” like Sweney’s duet, was recently discovered as part of 16 field recordings made by New York optometrist Henry Albert Heath at the aforementioned Ocean Grove camp meeting, it well serves as the kickoff to the Vernacular.

Of the discs, the third is the most engaging, a surely deliberate maneuver on the part of the compilers. Along with a deep immersion into the social custom of religious worship as modernity dawned and the Victorian era drew to a close, the highlights include “Just Tell My Mother” by Adjt. Edward Taylor (and notably, his guitar) and “Barnyard (Quiet in the Country), and The Holy City,” with Heath’s animal mimicry delivering an unexpected and endearing conclusion. However, Waxing the Gospel is overflowing with humanity throughout; it’s a shoo-in for the short list of 2016’s finest archival releases.


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