10,000 wax cylinders digitized and free to download

The University of California at Santa Barbara library has undertaken an heroic digitization effort for its world-class archive of 19th and early 20th century wax cylinder recordings, and has placed over 10,000 songs online for anyone to download, stream and re-use.

There are 2,000 more cylinders to come, and you can adopt a cylinder for a tax-deductible $60, which covers the rehousing, cataloging and digitizing of the cylinder.

UCSB’s own trove has grown threefold over the past decade. The new online database now boasts recordings from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and they range from hit singles to operatic arrangements to vaudeville songs. There’s also spoken word — including speeches and readings — and everything is searchable by title, genre, instruments, region, and even subject.

Interested in sounds related to disasters? Check out this old-timey song about a 1926 freight wreck. Perhaps you’re in the mood for some jazz — the archives offer plenty to sample. Or if you’re eager for some truly unique recordings, enjoy this man’s bird imitations from 1902, journey to the South Pole in the early 20th century with Ernest Shackleton, or explore home recordings from decades ago (my favorite: these bizarre animal noises). The library also presents curated thematic playlists — one of the website’s new features —  from “Central European Mix Tape” to “Tahitian Field Recordings.”

UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive [UCSB]

An Archive of 10,000 Cylinder Recordings Readied for the Spotify Era [Claire Voon/Hyperallergic]

(via Beyond the Beyond)

Notable Replies

  1. Drew_G says:

    I'm guessing these are old enough to be public domain, now.

  2. KipTW says:

    I see "Uncle Josh" as an example at the UCSB page. Oh, the memories that brings back, of a small museum near a campus in South Dakota (where I was visiting), which had a cylinder player. I asked the nice ladies there if it worked, and they weren't sure, so I asked if I could try it, and they didn't see why not. I carefully loaded up a Sousa March, and it played all right, but I got impatient (geez, a whole two minutes…) and took it off and tried "Uncle Josh at the Bug House."

    The first thing I noticed was that I had to keep a finger on the needle assembly, applying gentle pressure so it would advance and not play the same revolution over and over. Like the disk of "No News: Or, What Killed the Dog" that James Thurber wrote about, this had been played to death.

    The second thing I noticed was that "Uncle Josh" (aka Cal Stewart) provided his own canned laughter, hooting annoyingly after almost every line he spoke. The joke of this piece was that U. Josh had spent a night or so at a rooming house run by a man named Bug. So it was the Bug House, see. The story from that point was a series of puns, or rather, the same demi-pun, over and over. "He seed the lightnin', Bug did! A-HEE-HEE-HEEEE! He took a tumble, Bug did! A-HEE-HEE-HEEEE!" And so on and on, for the full two minutes. Two long minutes. (As my friend Mike likes to say, when confronted by the alien behavior of our forebears, "It was a simpler, more natural time.") Humor-wise, he started to stink, Bug did. Hee.

    Stewart's character was so popular he had books (I think they collected newspaper stories Stewart wrote in character), and short Edison movies (which can be found at the Library of Congress's "American Memory" page: brief tableaus of Josh seeing a ghost, and I don't know what else), in addition to the records. "U.J. at the Bug House" was so popular it had to be re-recorded. Presumably, the master wore out from pulling so many copies. The fictional "Punkin Center" locale lives on in some real towns named after it, like the one I used to see on Colorado maps, down near Limon and Karval.

    I didn't know all this at the time. I was actually interrupted before I finished listening to the cylinder. My aunt came to get me, having finished some errand she was on, and I never got back to the museum, though I caught up with Uncle Josh a while back, finding a long playlist of sound files from his ancient hits at archive.org, which has a terrific collection of 78s in their sound recordings archive.

  3. enso says:

    and if things are digitized, we lose them forever too because we have no plans for real data preservation or forward protection! :slight_smile:

  4. 50 years... It gets copied from harddisk to harddisk.
    A decent backup and upgrade policy.

    100 years... It'll need a smart IT guy to mass convert mp3's to whatever form is current. And onwards, endless conversions and duplication.

    We only have a tiny fraction of literature from the Greeks and Romans. The stuff considered worthy of copying before they crumbled or turned to moldy mush.

  5. enso says:

    We have no digital media or formats that can last as long or as well as these wax cylinders have.

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