Monday, August 01, 2011

Saving ancient recordings

Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey, Archeophone Records: Helping us rethink popular music.
By Forrest Wickman Updated: Jul 26, 06:52 AM

As co-owners and operators of Illinois-based Archeophone Records, husband-and-wife team Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey are almost singlehandedly rescuing the music of America's earliest recording era from the brink of extinction. By pulling together lost phonograph cylinders and discs from private collections, record shows, and eBay auctions, restoring them, and digitizing them for affordable release, they are bringing to light a vital chapter of our musical heritage that might otherwise be forgotten. These recordings of the acoustic era include everything from the earliest performances by "Red Hot Mama" Sophie Tucker to the dirtiest ditties of the 1890s.

Take Lost Sounds, Archeophone's 2005 retrospective on the role of black Americans in the genesis of the recording industry. The collection's recordings reveal sounds unexpectedly familiar—a bit of the blues, and is that a rock song?—and an unvarnished portrait of the racism (manifest here in minstrelsy and "coon songs") that's not as ancient as we might like to think. Their 2009 Sophie Tucker anthology chronicles a vaudevillian diva that Slate music critic Jody Rosen called a sort of proto-Beyoncé, while a 2010 compilation of Negro spirituals suggests that maybe these so-called "sorrow songs" weren't so sorrowful after all (as there was no standard speed for playback, previous restorations may have been pitched too low).

How do Martin and Hennessey do it? For starters, by staying small. As Archeophone's only full-time employees, Martin and Hennessey handle song selection, research, audio restoration, art direction, distribution, website maintenance, and —as this reporter found out—press inquiries, all themselves. (For Hennessey, this is also in addition to her full-time job: She's the University of Illinois's manager of business Web services.)

The work can be difficult. The earliest recording off the Lost Sounds compilation, African-American phonograph star George W. Johnson's 1891 rendition of "The Whistling Coon," was found in shards in a box at a record sale. "Cylinder Doctor" Michael Khanchalian, a dentist by trade, restored it for Martin and Hennessey, piecing it together as if it were a pair of shattered dentures.

But the work pays off. Lost Sounds snagged a Grammy for best historical album, and Archeophone has gone on to rack up a total of nine Grammy nominations, including for best historical album in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Hennessey told me that when their win was announced on television—it was one of the results announced in the bumper before the commercial break—they were amused to see that their faces happened to appear between megastars Justin Timberlake and Shakira. We're fond of FutureSex/LoveSounds and "Hips Don't Lie," but in our book Martin and Hennessey are a pretty big deal, too.

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