120-Year-Old Recordings Of Black Singing Quartet Auctioned

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November 25, 2013 ‐ By Ann Brown
Early 1900's phonograph cylinders like the ones that would've housed this early recording. via Terence Mendoza / Shutterstock.com

Early 1900’s phonograph cylinders like the ones that would’ve housed this early recording. via Terence Mendoza / Shutterstock.com

In 1893 the Unique Quartet recorded a song called “Mama’s Black Baby Boy.” This pre-dated vinyl and was recorded on a wax-covered cylinder using technology invented by Thomas Edison. The 120-year-old recording, along with a second Unique Quartet song, “Who Broke the Lock (on the Henhouse Door)?” from 1896, are copies of the oldest known recording of a black vocal group in the U.S. And they were auctioned on Saturday for $1,100 and $1,900 respectively.  There are only two copies left of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy,” a recording so rare and delicate that the auctioneer doesn’t dare try to play it, reports the Associated Press (via The Grio).

The recordings can only be played on a special cylinder player that was a predecessor to phonographs, said Troy Thibodeau, manager of Saco River Auction Co. Not only are cylinder recordings becoming rare,  recordings of black artists are even rarer. One appraiser had estimated they’d go for $25,000 or more — apiece.

“They’re in fantastic shape,” Thibodeau said pre-auction. “All it takes is a little bit of heat or a little bit of cold, and these things are junk. So, for more than 100 years, someone really took care of these things and treasured them.”

The recordings were up for auction along with a number of other items, including a shirt owned by General Custer, the captain who famously died at Little Bighorn in 1876.

Finding rare music by black groups is extremely hard. “All pre-digital black sacred music is at risk. The cylinders are made from pressed, hardened wax and grow brittle and chipped with age. Vinyl 78s, 45s, and LPs were melted down and recycled as part of the war effort during World War II,” said Robert Darden, who’s a professor at Baylor University in Texas and working to save the music by digitizing existing vinyl recordings through the Black Music Restoration Project. He estimates that 75 percent of gospel music recorded on vinyl from 1940 to 1970 has disappeared.

Listen to the song “Mama’s Black Boy” below.

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