By Michael Gray
DIGITAL — Imagine that you want to hear the latest hit by Taylor Swift, the newest recording by the Berlin Philharmonic, or a reissue of Glenn Gould’s classic 1955 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Buy a physical CD or a digital download, or tune into one of the dozen or so streaming services on your phone, computer or iPad, and the music is yours.
But imagine instead that you want to hear country singer Jerry Irby’s version of his tune, “Don’t Know Where I’m Going,” recorded by Irby and his Texas Ranchers in Houston, Tex., on Nov. 9, 1949, and issued on MGM 78-rpm 10595, for which a Billboard review stated: “Irby’s simple, direct statement carries weight in his pleasant warbling-conversation rendition.” That number’s not on YouTube, you don’t want to shell out the ten bucks somebody on eBay wants for a copy, and the fool producer of Jerry Irby & Link Davis: Texas Swing left it off his CD reissue. A library somewhere in America does have a copy, but chances are you’ll have to visit its collection to listen to it: Getting a copy, even for your personal use, and without the permission of the record company, Irby’s estate, and his publisher will be an all but insurmountable task. And all you want to do is hear the song.
A few years ago, it would have been impossible to hear Irby’s song without buying that copy or visiting a library or archive. Today, you have better options. Thanks to Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive, Irby and his boys — like thousands of other glories of the 78-rpm music era — can be heard anew in state-of-the art digital sound, transferred from their original shellac discs through what Kahle has enthusiastically christened The Great 78 Project.
Kahle created the Internet Archive in 1996 as “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites and more.” The vast majority of the Archive’s books and other printed materials, for instance, have come from partnerships with libraries and institutions, such as The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the University of Toronto.
Building the Internet Archive’s collection of sound recordings has until now, however, depended on submissions from individuals or organizations wanting an open, non-profit platform on which to share what they’ve found or created. Some 57,000 78-rpm records and cylinder records have already been uploaded to the Archive’s website. But in creating the Great 78 Project, Kahle wanted to directly target partners who collected records, and who were willing to share their popular music collections with the Archive for digitization and access via the web.
Some of these partners have been institutions, such as the Batavia Public Library in Illinois and New York’s Archive of Contemporary Music. Many, however, are private collectors; some just like to collect records regardless of what they contain; others specialize in particular kinds of music, such as David Chomowicz and Esther Ready, whose collection is Latin American and Caribbean. Twenty partners have thus far signed up, and in early October, the Archive entered into an agreement with the Boston Public Library that promises a digital rebirth of some 200,000 78s and LPs from the silence of decades-long, inaccessible dead storage.
Kahle and Bob George, head of the Contemporary Music Archive and curator of sound collections at the Internet Archive, admit that in spite of screening, the collection contains inadvertant duplications. And while the Great 78 Project plan is not focused on classical, George confesses that “there is the abundance of classical sneaking in.” Even without much classical, however, the Great 78 Project delivers a long-overdue, audible dive into our great and glorious musical past.
Fans, of course, have long used the internet to share their recorded treasures. In Europe, national libraries and organizations have digitized thousands of old recordings and added them to their websites. In America, copyright law is more daunting, and before Kahle’s Great 78 Project, only the Library of Congress had stepped up to share some of its recorded treasures via the National Jukebox, a path-making collaboration between the Library, its collection of 78-rpm Victor recordings, and Sony Music. (Sony held the rights to the musical performances on Victor discs produced before 1923, the cut-off point chosen for the Jukebox.) George Blood Studios in Philadelphia was chosen to undertake the industrial-sized task of creating digital files of thousands of discs the Library provided for the Jukebox. When Blood was asked by Kahle if he wanted to tackle the Archive’s Great 78 Project, he jumped at the chance.
Blood’s experience with the National Jukebox proved invaluable in ramping up and streamlining the workflow as Great 78 Project discs were shipped from collectors, unpacked in Philadelphia, labeled, cleaned, and barcoded. As records arrived at the transfer stations, their labels were scanned and basic metadata was created. The old shellac records were now ready to be digitized. A key decision was made to settle on a consistent playback speed of 78.26-rpm.
For the digital format, the standard archival sampling rate (24 bits/96 kHz vs. the CD standard of 16 bits/44.1 kHz) was selected for all the files created. However, the choice for the size of the reproducing stylus and the electrical equalization format has been left, in effect, to the end user: You can select the sound delivered from four different reproducing styli mounted on four separate tone arms. These completed files are uploaded to the Archive’s servers and placed on the Great 78 Project’s web page. (Here’s an example of the variety available for Caruso’s recording of “Recondita armonia.”) The digitization continues at a pace of roughly 8,000 sides per month aimed at preserving about 250,000 discs over the term of the project.
Besides Irby’s tune from 1949, exactly what can you hear on the Great 78 Project? Thanks to the Project’s metadata, fans can search by the year, topics, subject, collection, creator, and language for each song. It’s no surprise that Bing Crosby stands at No. 1 (586 songs) and Frank Sinatra comes in at No. 11 with 109 tunes. But there are also 54 Enrico Caruso recordings, and you’ll find Toscanini, Flagstad and Melchior, too.
Maybe the real fun starts with artists who may have made just a few, or maybe even more than a few records, but were never big sellers.
Listen to the 78s:
Earl Lebieg’s “Sleep,” sung by the Frisco Syncopators, from the 1920s:
Chinese “Spring Song” performed by Chen Qi, from a Japanese 78, 1940:
Enrico Caruso: “Recondita armonia” from Puccini’s Tosca; with the Victor Orchestra, 1909:
Jelly-Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers: “Original Jelly-Roll Blues,” 1926:
Michael Gray has been writing about music and recordings since the 1980s. His work previously appeared in Musical America, Fi magazine, The Absolute Sound, Classic Press, and other venues. Most recently he contributed liner notes and commentary to several retrospective box-sets from Decca Records, Deutsche Grammophon, and Sony Classical. When not writing, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of Classical-Discography.org.