25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Professionally Digitized & Streaming Online: A Treasure Trove of Early 20th Century Music

Every record­ing medi­um works as a metonym for its era: the term “LP” con­jures up asso­ci­a­tions with a broad musi­cal peri­od of clas­sic rock ‘n’ roll, soul, doo-wop, R&B, funk, jazz, dis­co etc.; we talk of the “CD era,” dom­i­nat­ed by dance music and hip-hop; the 45 makes us think of juke­box­es, din­ers, and sock-hops; and the cas­sette, well… at least one sub­genre of music, what John Peel called “sham­bling,” jan­g­ly, lo-fi pop, came to be known by the name “C86,” the title of an NME com­pi­la­tion, short for “Cas­sette, 1986.” (Read­ers of the mag­a­zine had to clip coupons and send mon­ey by postal mail to receive a copy of the tape.)

Soon, how­ev­er, few­er and few­er peo­ple will remem­ber the age of the 78rpm record, the pre­ferred vehi­cle for the music of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. From clas­si­cal and opera to blues, blue­grass, swing, rag­time, gospel, Hawai­ian, and hol­i­day nov­el­ties the 78 epit­o­mizes the sounds of its hey­day as much as any of the media men­tioned above.

While cas­settes recent­ly made a nos­tal­gic come­back, and turnta­bles are found in every big box store, we’re gen­er­al­ly not equipped to play back 78s. These are brit­tle records made from shel­lac, a resin secret­ed by bee­tles. They were often played on appli­ances that dou­bled as qual­i­ty par­lor fur­ni­ture.

Thanks now to the Inter­net Archive, that stal­wart of dig­i­tal cat­a­logu­ing and cura­tion, we can play twen­ty five thou­sand 78s and immerse our­selves in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, whether for research pur­pos­es or pure enjoy­ment. Pre­vi­ous efforts at preser­va­tion have “restored or remas­tered… com­mer­cial­ly viable record­ings” on LP or CD, writes The Great 78 Project, the archive’s vol­un­teer pro­gram to dig­i­tize musi­cal his­to­ry. The cur­rent effort seeks to go beyond pop­u­lar­i­ty and col­lect every­thing, from the rarest and strangest to the already his­toric. “I want to know what the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry sound­ed like,” writes Inter­net Archive founder Brew­ster Kahle, “Mid­west, dif­fer­ent coun­tries, dif­fer­ent social class­es, dif­fer­ent immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and their loves and fears.”

You can hear sev­er­al selec­tions here, and thou­sands more at this archive of 78s uploaded by audio-visu­al preser­va­tion com­pa­ny, George Blood, L.P. Oth­er 78rpm archives from vol­un­teer col­lec­tors and the ARChive of Con­tem­po­rary Music are being dig­i­tized and uploaded as well. You’ll note the record­ings are often sub­merged in crack­le and hiss, and gen­er­al­ly lack bass and tre­ble (most play­back sys­tems of the time could not repro­duce the low­er and high­er ends of the audi­ble spec­trum). “We have pre­served the often very promi­nent sur­face noise and imper­fec­tions,” the Archive writes, “and includ­ed files gen­er­at­ed by dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes of sty­lus to facil­i­tate dif­fer­ent kinds of analy­sis.” Dif­fer­ent play­back sys­tems could pro­duce marked­ly dif­fer­ent sounds, and the record­ings were not always strict­ly 78rpm.

These con­di­tions of the trans­fer ensure that we rough­ly hear what the first audi­ences heard, though the records’ age and our pen­chant for 7 speak­er audio sys­tems intro­duce some new vari­ables. None of these record­ings were even made in stereo. The 78 peri­od, notes Yale Library, last­ed between 1898 and the late 1950s, when the 33 1/2 rpm long-play­ing record ful­ly edged out the old­er mod­el. For approx­i­mate­ly fifty years, these records car­ried record­ed music, sound, and speech into homes around the world. “What is this?” Kahle asks of this for­mi­da­ble dig­i­ti­za­tion project. “A ref­er­ence col­lec­tion? A collector’s dream? A dis­cov­ery radio sta­tion? The sound­track of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry?” All of the above. To learn more about The Great 78 Project, includ­ing the tech­ni­cal details of the trans­fer and how you can care­ful­ly pack­age up and mail in your own 78rpm records, vis­it their Preser­va­tion page.

h/t @Ferdinand77

Relat­ed Con­tent:

BBC Launch­es World Music Archive

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

DC’s Leg­endary Punk Label Dischord Records Makes Its Entire Music Cat­a­log Free to Stream Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bruce Miller says:

    found some rare gems there, such as “but­ter­ball brown and his orches­tra” per­form­ing “it’s drunk out tonight.” only place i’d heard that tune pre­vi­ous­ly, was on the Dr. Demen­to Show back in the 70s.

  • GLENN Slaby says:

    Lost with tech­nol­o­gy. How can I down­load this as a but­ton or some­thing or oth­er to my phone as link to con­nect. Help

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