A time portal is a curious thing. In the north St. Louis County town of Ferguson, it takes the form of three nondescript brick bungalows in the Patricia Park neighborhood. Walk through the front door of Alan Carell's house, or Richard Tussey's, or Bruce Stinchcomb's, and you breathe the air of the past. (The smell is a jumble of musty cardboard, shellac and dust, mixed, in Stinchcomb's case, with the living scent of dog.)
Behold row after row after row of shelves rising from floor to ceiling, packed with 78s. Tussey even has platters on the ceiling of his living room, screwed in through the holes in their centers.
"It's my Sistine Chapel," he says.
Try not to knock into the horns that bloom from the Victrolas, Graphinolas and Gramophones, all of them nearly a century old, all still in working condition. Let Stinchcomb rummage through the drawers of his Edison phonograph cabinet and pull out a wax cylinder: six inches long, about the size of an empty toilet-paper roll and a slightly darker shade of muddy brown. He slips it onto the spindle of the phonograph, cranks the handle and adjusts the steel needle. If you lean in close to the horn, you can hear a rhythmic crackling as the needle settles into its groove. Then, emerging beneath a veil of static, comes the sound of a man's voice, high-pitched, with the pinched diction of the early-20th-century upper crust, his words slightly sped-up and barely intelligible.
"There is no body of our people whose interests are more inextricably interwoven with the interests of all the people than is the case with the farmers...."
"That's Theodore Roosevelt," Stinchcomb interjects, sounding much like the geology professor he was before his retirement. "From 1908."
Visit Carell's or Tussey's house and the experience will be much the same. Close your eyes and it's 1906, and Ada Jones and Billy Murray are crooning a duet of "Cuddle Up a Little Closer." Carell's voice intrudes from the present, sounding like your most enthusiastic high school teacher (which he was): "Ada Jones was the first female performer on disc. Billy Murray was one of the most recorded voices ever."
A pause, another record lands on the turntable, and it's 1916 and the writer Sholem Aleichem is rambling in Yiddish. The record spins on until Aleichem asks (Carell's pretty sure), "Are we done?" (Alas, no. Records are two-sided now, and you have another two minutes to go!)
Skip ahead a year, to "Livery Stable Blues," a foxtrot in a syncopated style so new that the group who performed it was still calling itself the Dixieland Jass Band.
And now the U.S. is in the thick of World War I — Carell's album War Talk chronicles the buildup, from "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" to "We Are All Americans Now" — and Irving Berlin and Enrico Caruso do their part with "Oh, How That German Could Love" and "Over There." ("That's the only record published of Irving Berlin singing," Tussey confides. "That's because he couldn't sing.")
Moments later it's 1924 and Vernon Dalhart is twanging "The Wreck of the Old 97," and country music is born in Tussey's basement.
Follow Stinchcomb up to the attic and, with a turn of the crank of another machine, back to 1907, when the original cast of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance reunited 25 years after the premiere to record the operetta for the Pathé label.
"I'm a huge fan of Darwin," Stinchcomb confesses as the finale of Act I begins to play. "I like thinking about how Emma Darwin would take her husband to the premieres. She loved music, and he could barely carry a tune. I love hearing the same performers Charles and Emma heard." And now it's 1880 and the father of evolution is fidgeting quietly in his seat in a London opera house as his wife listens, enthralled, to the bellowing of the very model of a modern major general.
The needle reaches the record's outer edge — Pathé, alone among major record companies, etched its grooves from the inside out. Stinchcomb guides the tone arm back to its cradle and grins, solidly back in 2012. "They're like little time machines!"
Between them, Carell, Tussey and Stinchcomb estimate they own more than a quarter of a million 78 records, plus about a thousand cylinders. They're not sure exactly how many they have — they've never performed an official count. The closest they came was three years ago when Carell moved his collection here from Portland, Oregon.
It weighed 37 tons.
"We've cultivated a core sample that's been frozen in time," Tussey says. "You can go back and listen to things from a hundred years ago, the way they were. I would like to call it archeophono discology. It's a study of history. It's a study of the development of advertising. It's about the development of musical instruments. It's about the history of dancing."
It's also about the collective knowledge of the three collectors, each of whom has his own area of expertise: For Stinchcomb it's wax cylinders, dating from the 1870s until the 1920s, when record companies stopped manufacturing them; Carell occupies the so-called acoustic age, from 1900 to 1925, when electricity finally entered the recording studio; and Tussey owns the electric age, from 1926 until 1960, when 78s finally succumbed to LPs. Stinchcomb, now 73, and Carell, 67, have been amassing records since they were boys; Tussey, 61, didn't start till he was in his thirties.
And they're growing older. Tussey saved three separate collections after their owners left their homes for assisted-living facilities. But he's not sure who will save his. Or Carell's. Or Stinchcomb's.
"I hear that a lot," says Tim Brooks, a historian of the record industry and current president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, a coalition of professional archivists and amateur collectors. "You have to be realistic. The worst thing you can do is leave the collection to your children. Big, general collections are not generally sought after by archives or the Library of Congress. Those places have a lot of the records already. And even if you donate something somewhat rare, the archives will usually want money to pay for the housing."
Carell and Tussey have considered solving the problem by building their own archive. But that costs money, which they don't have. Carell is optimistic that the project will find an angel someday. Tussey's not so sure.
"It's a sad thing to spend time and effort and money and not be able to share it with posterity," he says. "The real stuff is in the grooves. There's a lot of lost information in the grooves."
Sam Brylawski, the former head of the Library of Congress recorded-sound section, now an archivist at the University of California Santa Barbara, agrees. He also believes that in time scholars will take more of an interest in old records, at which point Tussey's, Carell's and Stinchcomb's collections will suddenly become important — as will the collectors themselves.
"The real experts on recording artists are collectors," Brylawski says. "There are not a lot of academic courses on recording history. Pop culture was looked down upon. Music was late to be recognized. Collectors keep preservation alive. Thank God for them."
From the beginning — the night in October 1877 when Thomas Edison recorded himself reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a cylinder covered with tinfoil — phonograph records functioned as time machines.
"The phonograph was Edison's favorite discovery," says Glenn Sage, a self-described preservationist who posts sound files of wax-cylinder recordings (many of which were donated by Stinchcomb) on his website, Tinfoil.com. "It worked the first time. It scared him. It was like a miracle the first time a disembodied voice was ever heard. You could hear dead people, your uncle's dying breath. The idea of hearing something that had already happened — it was more than just a painting or an ancient artifact. It had a humanness to it."
The earliest recordings were powered by the human voice. The sound waves, concentrated by a horn, traveled through a diaphragm to a stylus that etched the sound patterns onto a revolving piece of foil. Then you could move the stylus back to the beginning of the etched groove, start the cylinder spinning again and play back what you just said, just as you said it. (Or backward, or at a different speed, as Edison and his friends discovered the same night they first got the phonograph up and running.)
Gradually, foil evolved into more durable wax cylinders, and the phonograph became the world's first home-recording device. By the turn of the century, people were using phonographs to document their own lives, from a baby's first sneeze to a grandparent's last words. (Tolstoy had one; the author of War and Peace used his phonograph to record messages to his family.)
"You could buy a blank cylinder, put a horn on the machine and then stand around the piano and belt out a song, and you had a homemade record," says Sage. "If you didn't like it, you could shave it down."
Among the home phonographs was the Edison Fireside, a petite model first manufactured in 1908. Bruce Stinchcomb first stumbled across one in the 1940s while on an antiquing expedition with his parents. He was six years old.
"I spotted it," he recalls. "I knew what it was, and I was fascinated. It cost five dollars with a box of cylinders and a horn. It's weird, but when I was a little kid and I spotted that phonograph, it wasn't out. It was in its case. Someone said that maybe in a past life I had something to do with this thing. I don't know. Maybe I just saw a picture."
Stinchcomb still has that little Fireside, and it still works. "If machines aren't played, they don't play well," he says. "I'm like a steward of it."
Naturally, the phonograph companies realized there was money to be made in prerecorded cylinders. Edison was obsessed with collecting the voices of famous figures, but Victor and Columbia decided the phonograph's future lay in music.
The earliest commercial recordings were made one or two or three at a time, with a band or a singer standing before a row of phonographs and belting as loudly as he could. (Usually it was a he; the frequency of a man's voice was better suited to the phonograph than that of a woman.)
"There was no volume control," says Sam Brylawski, the record archivist. "It was up to the artist, coached by the technician. I've heard stories of clutching artists around the waist and yanking them back when they hit high notes. It was very primitive, more trial and error."
"You get a sense of time, in the immediacy of the voices," adds archivist Tim Brooks. "In 1895 there was literally someone standing in the room, literally speaking or singing to you."
Around the turn of the century, wax cylinders were supplanted by shellac discs, which offered better sound quality and were easier to mass-produce and store, but the recording process remained unchanged. Carell has a photo of a group of singers and musicians, all dressed in formal attire, huddled around a single phonograph, leaning toward the horn. He cues up an opera disc to demonstrate the immediacy of the old recordings. "This is from Lucia [di Lammermoor]," he explains. "The title translates as 'What Restrains Me.' It's a nice orderly piece of music, and they're all going ape!"
Alan Carell received his first three 78s in 1953, when he was eight years old, as a gift from his grandmother. "A minute and twenty seconds later," he recalls, "she had a serious collector."
One was a song called "Apple Blossoms," another the violinist Jascha Heifetz's rendition of "Waltz of the Flowers" and the third soprano Alma Gluck singing "Listen to the Mocking Bird." He still has them.
It wasn't just the music. "I liked the boxy, wooden sound of earlier recordings," Carell says. "I thought, 'It sounds like the inside of my head!'"
As the youngest member of a four-generation household, the eldest of whom had been born in the 1850s, Carell grew up among people who had lived through the acoustic age. His grandmother and uncle indulged his taste for old records and took him to junk shops, where he bought as many as he could. By his teens he had firmly established his mission to collect what he calls "a document of things that no longer exist." The things he was documenting weren't the records themselves, but the bits of culture they contained: the songs, the slang, the historical references, the way people sang and spoke.
This wasn't hard to do. By 1914, annual production had increased to 25 million platters. Not even the threat of radio — it was free! — could stop the record industry. Stealing its rival's amplification technology, recording went electric in 1925. Overnight, everything changed. Singers no longer had to belt their songs. The electronic recordings allowed for a much wider range of pitch and tones.
"Music from the 1920s sounds modern," Stinchcomb reflects. "The world changed from the early to the late '20s because of electronics. It got noisier. People born in the 19th century complained about the noise."
The noise stopped, briefly, during the Depression. Record production and sales, particularly at small labels, dwindled. Some records sold as few as 200 copies, of which only one or two might survive today. If Carell and Tussey had intended to make money off their collection, those were the records they should have sought.
But Tussey, the electronic-era expert, first became interested in records in the form they took after World War II: as fodder for jukeboxes.
"I would go over to a friend's house," he remembers, "and he had all these jukeboxes and pinball machines in the basement. I asked if I could play a song on the jukebox. I thought it was neat. I'd never heard a song on a 78 before."
Jukeboxes were the last gasp of the 78s. Vinyl LPs emerged in 1947, smaller and lighter and able to hold a lot more music. "Between 1950 and 1956 was the end of 78s," says Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl and the house specialist in 78s. "There was a big switch to 33s. The last 78s were on Southern jukeboxes: jazz, Chicago blues, Hank Williams, rockabilly, because that was what those people listened to."
Tussey's first 78, which he still has framed on his wall, falls neatly into that category: Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." He got it from the friend who had the jukeboxes in his basement. He quickly became an obsessive.
"I used to go out and take a record with me and stop at every store and ask, 'Do you have any of these?' I bought a lot of records I knew nothing about. At first I wanted to collect rock and Elvis, because that's what I knew about. But then I started to travel back in time." He collected Ada Jones. He collected ethnic dialect songs. He collected European versions of Tin Pan Alley hits. ("Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" translates to Swedish as "Halluluja I' A' Koling.") He collected a roomful of kiddie records. He collected British music hall (a cousin to American vaudeville) and novelty records, including a dozen songs about snoring. He's working on a book about the history of record labels and sleeves.
Tussey and Carell met in Portland in 1996 — but not over records. Tussey'd answered Carell's classified ad offering VHS movies for sale. The two got to talking, and Carell confessed he had a basement filled with 78s. "We fast became kindred spirits," Tussey recalls. "I was happy to find Al. People who are serious record collectors are few and far between."
In 2000 Tussey returned to St. Louis, where he'd grown up, and became acquainted with Stinchcomb through the Gateway Antique Phonograph Society. They realized they shared an important philosophical difference from other members of the group: They didn't care about the machines. They believed, as Tussey puts it, that "the real treasure of collectors of records and phonographs is in the grooves."
Stinchcomb was living in Ferguson, in the house he'd grown up in. One day while out walking his dogs, he noticed that a house on the next street was for sale. He thought he'd mention it to Tussey, who was looking to move from Maplewood to someplace closer to his job at Lighthouse for the Blind in Berkeley. (Tussey is legally blind; he keeps a modified microfilm reader in his basement so he can study his record labels.) When he called Tussey to tell him about the house, Tussey said he'd already bought it. Three years later, in 2008, when the house next door to Tussey's went into foreclosure, Carell bought it. With Tussey's help, he packed up his collection and hauled it from Portland to St. Louis. It took five weeks.
They'd planned to set up the Missouri 78 RPM Archive as soon as Carell arrived in Ferguson. They'd found the perfect building, and they thought they'd have the profits from Carell's Portland house, which had appraised at more than $600,000. Then the housing bubble burst.
One autumn morning, Tussey and Carell meet at the latter's house to mull their options. (Stinchcomb, who has promised to join in the archive only when it becomes a reality, is not in attendance.) It's a sunny day, but Carell's den, filled with records (and VHS tapes and Carell's stereo system and his despised computer), is dim.
"We're kind of blue this morning," Carell confesses.
The state of the fledgling Missouri 78 RPM Archive is not strong. The nonprofit's cofounders have their incorporation papers (which Tussey faithfully renews every year), a bank balance of $155 and a handful of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Waiting to Play For You, Waiting to Sing For You." The building they had their eye on for a repository is now the Ferguson Brewing Company.
And, stacked on shelves in their respective bungalows, they have a quarter of a million records nobody seems to want — or care about.
"The archive is a pipe dream," opines Tim Brooks of the ASRC. "Especially in the Internet age. Online you can find anything you want. You have to have something rare to get people to look at it."
Brooks comes by his skepticism honestly. He has met too many collectors with similar dreams, including a man in Pennsylvania who has been trying for five years to find someone interested in his collection of every song that was ever featured on the long-running radio (and later TV) program Your Hit Parade.
"He has the records that are most common in the first place," Brooks explains. "It's not special just because he has them all in one place. No one will want to pay for it. It's sad. The man put a great, great deal of his life into assembling that collection. It's sad no one wants to reward him for all that work."
Sounds a lot like the Ferguson trio's collection, which Tussey describes as "a core sample of everything in America."
Tussey owns the world's largest collection of Vernon Dalhart records. Dalhart was the first country & Western star — his recording of "The Wreck of the Old 97" with "The Prisoner's Song" on the flip side was the genre's first million-selling record — though his reputation was eclipsed by many of the artists who followed him, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
When Jack Palmer, Dalhart's biographer, was dying, he offered to bequeath his collection of Dalhart records to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a large archive of folk and country & Western music. Tussey says the university turned him down.
Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection, says Palmer decided not to donate the collection. "We were pursuing it," Weiss says. "Dalhart is a central figure in the early history of country music. But Jack was concerned that we already had a lot of what he had. We take 78 rpm records all the time."
Whatever the case, Palmer died soon after, and Tussey bought the collection, adding it to his own already considerable stash of Dalhart. ("My mission is to make Dalhart a household name," he declares. "It's a cause that burns in our breasts," agrees Carell, who happens to have the world's second-largest collection of Dalhart records and has written a scholarly essay — as yet unpublished — about his importance.)
Tussey's Dalhart collection rings his living room. That's due in part to the fact that Dalhart's oeuvre is vast and Tussey's inventory remarkably thorough, but also to the fact that unlike LPs, which accommodated roughly 30 minutes of recorded sound per side, a single 78 could hold, at most, five minutes per side. So a single album composed of 78s contains up to a dozen records and can weigh as much as ten pounds. ("The albums are really just books with the pages replaced by shellac," observes Vintage Vinyl's Lew Prince.) Cylinders, which can't be stacked or shelved, hog even more space and must be stored in a climate-controlled environment. And someone has to pay for it.
"It's hard to sustain and very challenging," says Sam Brylawski, the Library of Congress and UCSB curator. "[The archives] aren't running themselves. You're always fighting to raise money and pay the staff. The National Endowment for the Humanities gives out preservation grants, but those are shrinking every year. Preserving our heritage is a big challenge."
"Most university archives are focused in printed material," adds Brooks. "The preservation of film is more prominent. Phonographic collections never had that kind of cachet. There are no advocates in the industry like [Martin] Scorsese. Shame on the record industry."
Even if some established archive or library were willing to take on the Ferguson collection, Carell, Tussey and Stinchcomb would likely have to pay for shipping — and maintenance.
In 2008 the Library of Congress began assembling the National Jukebox, a collection of acoustic recordings online. "The best way to preserve old records is to make copies and put them in people's hands," reasons Brylawski, who worked on the project. The effort involved its own set of headaches, in that record companies still hold the copyrights on many old recordings and are loath to give them up.
Stinchcomb has begun converting his cylinders to digital audio files and burning them as CDs. They sound better that way, instead of piped through an old phonograph horn. But he doesn't find the conversion entirely satisfying. "As a collector," he says, "I like physical objects. It's part of the collector disease."
But 78s and cylinders — not to mention LPs and 45s — weren't made to last forever. "I've looked at a needle going through a record under a microscope. You can see the shavings coming off," Lew Prince explains. "I can look at any record and tell you the number of times it's been played. It will show gradations of wear. If you play a record, it degrades its value."
Increasingly resigned to the fact that the archive is a dream that's never going to happen, Tussey has been selling some of his rare holdings in order to pay off his mortgage. "I want to have a few years to live after I pay off my house," he says. "I want to travel. I want to see Washington, D.C."
A few years ago, Tussey put his most remarkable artifact, a seventeen-inch Pathé — the largest phonograph record ever manufactured — up for auction on eBay, hoping it would attract the attention of a major investor. He got no response. "That told me what I needed to know," he says forlornly.
Clearly, something is required to lighten the mood. What better way to cheer up than with a record? Tussey has the perfect one in mind and trots off across the lawn to his house to fetch it.
"That's why we're feeling blue," Carell explains as his friend departs. "It's going to take twenty years for academia to catch on to what's here. It's a completely coherent sociological document! It's what I deliberately assembled from the time I was a teenager. And in 50 years I won't be around.
I've painted myself into a wonderful corner," he concludes. "I love it here. In some ways it's enough. But it becomes hollow. The central purpose was to do this for the world."
When Tussey returns a few minutes later, he's clutching a 78: "There's a Hole in the Iron Curtain and the USA Is Peeking Through," recorded in 1950 by Mickey Katz with sound effects by Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.
The record begins with a solemn rendition of the Soviet anthem and a man with a bad Russian accent proclaiming, "Attention comrades! National emergency. Important message from Uncle Joe. Attention commissars!... Attention glorious army!... There's a hole in the old Iron Curtain! Americans peeking!"
There follows a discordant blurting of horns, cymbals and God knows what else (maybe a balalaika?), a Cossack folk dance filtered through Looney Tunes.
"There's real musicianship here — to do this this badly!" Carell marvels with obvious glee. Even the glum Tussey chuckles.
Over Blanc's Soviet-inflected farting noises, Katz explodes into fake Russian nonsense:
Everything is hotski-totski
Swing your butler head cazatzki!
Now the music's getting hotski...
Heigh-ho Silver, zykovy!
Carell and Tussey can't hold back giggles.
Immediately, Tussey puts on another record, "Essen," by Billy Hodes with Ray Carter's Catskill Cowboys. The song mocks the endless eating at Jewish Catskill resorts. It doesn't crack up the collectors like "Iron Curtain," but after a brief debate, Tussey identifies its musical origin: Though it was recorded in 1947, it follows in the Jewish vaudeville tradition that thrived in the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century but vanished as soon as Broadway got big.
"There's a whole history of performance these records have," Carell exclaims. "There's texture without end. At a time when primary source material was nonexistent!"
He can't help thinking about what will happen to "Essen" and the rest of that history when he and Tussey are no longer around to tend to it.
"It's like in Blade Runner," Carell says, "when at the end the robot says, 'I have seen things no one else has dreamt of. When I die, they will die.' I feel the same way. There's so much of the culture tucked away. When we die, we'll have no heirs. It all goes bye-bye. We won't even be using it to shoot skeet."
If you'd like to visit the Missouri 78 RPM Archive, call 314-522-8333