- Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919
In Lost Sounds Tim Brooks highlights the fact that accurate documentation about African American recording artists is seriously needed in order to preserve America's musical heritage. The impetus for Lost Sounds evolved from Brooks's concern that there were no books about George W. Johnson, one of the first African American recording stars. Brooks meticulously tracked information through tinfoil phonographs, wax cylinders, the "sturdier Blue Amberol celluloid cylinders" (201), 78 rpm records, microfilm of newspaper articles, advertisements, sheet music and song books, magazines, company ledgers and catalogs, legal archives, slave registers, obituaries, census records, and city directories.
Expert analysis of the recorded cylinders can reveal much information about "original issue and marketing practices[,] . . . the form of artist credit, characterization of the musical genre and approximate year of manufacture" (x), all of which would be lost with reissues. Brooks stresses that this information needs to be captured and recorded off the wax cylinders, which are very fragile and subject to deterioration, before the information contained is lost forever. The main reason, Brooks suggests, for the lack of publicly accessible cylinders is that many of the remaining cylinders are kept in private collections, often belonging to people who have no knowledge of how to store them correctly and thus ensure their preservation. Brooks acknowledges that projects such as "Save Our Sounds" have been set up to preserve field recordings and suggests that similar funding should be in place for projects on pre-1920s African American music: "A survey. . . of the five largest public sound archives in the United States revealed that they hold only a few hundred commercial cylinder recordings from the 1890s" (9).
The significance of recorded sound—a medium that allowed diverse people to project "their cultural values into many a genteel Victorian parlor" (2)—is never lost on Brooks or the reader. Whereas African American performers once would have been restricted to performing locally, recordings allowed them to be heard all over America and eventually the world. The variety in the types of recorded material is also surprising and extremely well documented by Brooks. The recordings referred to include "minstrel"-type performances (in which each act is introduced as though the performance were occurring at a theater);mock religious sermons; monologues; comedy routines; descriptions of fights by [End Page 417] Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion; and Johnson's 1914 recording about exercise and healthy eating called "Physical Culture" (250).
Although Brooks has certainly done his homework on research, his referencing at times could be perfected. Referring to a significant-sounding article, Brooks writes that "years later a publicity item mentioned that he [George W. Johnson] had recorded for Edison's original tinfoil phonograph" (6), but Brooks does not back this statement up with evidence. The "publicity item" in question is never cited. Sometimes Brooks's work is compromised by fictional accounts such as the murder trial of George W. Johnson, which Brooks believes to be a "reasonable representation" (532), yet this purely imagined story slightly detracts from the verisimilitude of the other reported research. A section in the book entitled "Rumoured Recordings" (514) is pure conjecture on artists such as Buddy Bolden and Ernest Hogan. The tracing of Johnson's family history, too, at times becomes little more than genealogical guesswork, where similar-sounding family names may have been corrupted. In another instance, a 1916 Chicago Defender article is referred to (7), but any interested future researcher would have to peruse the entire year's worth of newspapers to pinpoint the precise article.
Tim Brooks bizarrely describes Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake as having "sold out" in giving "the white folks what they wanted" (3), yet sympathy is astonishingly intoned for George W. Johnson's two best-known songs, "The Whistling Coon" and "The Laughing Song." I do not think Sissle and Blake should be disparaged with the words "sold out"—they were simply earning a living...