Old-timey mass evangelism and the phonograph

The Grammy nominations were announced today and along with Beyonce, Drake, Adele, and Kanye there was a nomination that went to music recorded by Ira D. Sankey, Winfield Weeden, Silas Leachman and the Rittersville Singing Club. No, those are not artists from today… In fact, those performers lived 125 years ago and their recordings have been newly compiled by a husband/wife team dedicated to bringing back to life the music of the post-Industrial Revolution 19th century.

Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey have one collective dream, and that is to preserve, expose and celebrate the earliest eras of recorded sounds for new generations of listeners. Their label Archeophone Records has produced dozens of releases showcasing music created even before electricity got in the way. These are acoustic recordings created when the music industry was still "cutting wax" and "the business" was in its infancy. John Phillips Souza's marches were chart toppers, along with sappy ballads and jocular tunes. The world was introduced to "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," and of course, "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

Richard and Meagan collect the cylinders for each release, digitize the music found in the 100+ year old grooves, painstakingly master the tracks, rabbit-hole copious amounts of research about the recordings, the artists, and the era, and bring forth a truly amazing product that takes any listener back to a time long forgotten..an almost alien world.

And while in many circles they are known for their Grammy-winning expert work, nothing can prepare an enthusiast for their latest epic deep dive. Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph is an incredible study of gospel recordings made from 1890-1900. Yes, two centuries since the earliest recordings were made, and ten years since Richard and Began began collecting and researching the material, they present 102 to be recordings and over 400 pages of notes telling the story of the birth of recorded gospel music and the true pioneers who recorded them. A few songs are still familiar even today, like the 1894 version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot or the 1895 version of Rock Of Ages. The the former, by the Standard Quartet, is an unfortunately rare early recording by an African-American ensemble.

The set contains beautiful orchestral pieces like Holding's Parlor Orchestra's Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep, with an arrangement that almost sounds psychedelic as it comes alive 124 years after it was originally recorded. The same goes for the organ sounds in Frank Butts' Almost Persuaded. The set also features hauntingly beautiful vocal quartets and captivating sermons that seem almost a drone mixed with captivating noises from the cylinders, reminiscent of Current 93/Nurse With Wound sound sculptures.

Waxing the Gospel is definitely one of the highest musicology achievements of 2016. Regardless if you are a believer or an atheist, a sinner or a grinner, pure of heart or just plain funky, the music presented here — much of it for the first time since it was released — is an incredible sonic pulpit that makes history truly come back to life.

"Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900" (Amazon)