|By Brett Weiss
BIDDEFORD, Maine — Vinyl record albums are a trendy collectible these days, but there’s an older form of pre-recorded music that is less well-known but certainly worthy of consideration in any audiophile’s collection. It is the wax-covered cylinder, which was the first commercially available form of media for recording and reproducing sound.
At a recent auction held by the Saco River Auction Co., an 1893 wax cylinder recording of the song Mama’s Black Baby Boy by the Unique Quartet sold for $1,100. It is one of only two known copies in existence – the other is in the Library of Congress. At the same auction, a copy of Who Broke the Lock (on the Henhouse Door)? from 1896, also by the Unique Quartet, went for $1,900.
Given the age and rarity of the items, and considering that these are some of the earliest recordings by any African-American group, the prices realized were underwhelming to say the least. Prior to the auction, an appraiser estimated their value at $25,000 or more apiece.
It’s hard to say exactly why the recordings, which were the property of an unnamed collector in Portland, Maine, didn’t go for more, but it could have something to do with the fact that the Unique Quartet – a New York-based vocal outfit – is hardly a household name in the modern era. In addition, the cylinders, though they appear to be in nice condition for their age, are so fragile that the auctioneers didn’t dare risk playing them, and that might have taken away some of their potential appeal.
Invented by Thomas Edison, wax cylinders were made available to the general public during the late 1880s. The user installs the hollow, wax-covered object on a cylinder player, which was the precursor to the phonograph. As the cylinder spins, a needle runs along the wax grooves. Unfortunately, the wax degrades each time the cylinder plays.
Unlike the more durable phonograph disc format, which became popular during the late 1890s, wax cylinders could record audio, in addition to playing it. Despite this advantage, the disc is the medium that took hold, and mainstream commercial production of the wax cylinder ceased in 1929.
According to Baylor University Professor Robert Darden, who works with the Black Music Restoration Project to preserve vintage African-American gospel music, recordings like these are getting scarcer every day.
“All pre-digital black sacred music is at risk,” he said. “The cylinders are made from pressed, hardened wax and grow brittle and chipped with age. As a country, we just don’t have a very good track record of recognizing, preserving and celebrating this music, this art form.”
On a more positive note, Bob Marovich, a gospel music historian in Chicago, believes the Portland find could lead to more discoveries. In a recent phone interview with The Associated Press, he said, “Finding this one (the 1893 cylinder) serves as a well of hope that maybe some more of them are out there.”