Even though my work doesn’t afford me the opportunity to use antique technology–vintage microphones, preamps and processors aside–I can’t imagine I will ever lose my fascination with it. With this in mind, I especially loved watching “The Winding Stream,” a superb new documentary about the Carter and Cash families, and by extension the story of American music. The film was directed by Beth Harrington and edited by Greg Snider, who I’m fortunate enough to work with from time to time via my work as a composer.
The original Carter Family recorded from 1927 through 1941. Though there were significant advances in recording technology in that era, all of these recordings predate the use of magnetic tape, at least in the United States (more on this later). Thus, it can be difficult to place their work in the context of “modern” recordings; to my ears, all of their music sounds as though it were transmitted from a faraway, even extraterrestrial source.
The film touches a bit on the recording methods employed by roving talent scouts in the 1920s, and after the screening I chatted with Greg about the crude means of recording the Carter Family’s earliest work. In his words:
“I don’t recall where in my research I heard this story or even if it’s true, but my recollection is that when they were recording the acts for the Bristol Sessions (The Big Bang of Country Music), the electricity was not consistent enough to turn the wax recording platter at a consistent speed. So they attached a weight to a rope, cut holes in the ceilings/floors up through a couple of stories and powered the platter by dropping the weight. It took around 2 and a half minutes for the weight to drop. I’ve often wondered if that is why the 2:30 length became the norm for recorded songs for so long. Perhaps not, but it’s fun to theorize.”
I don’t have any additional insights, but I love the imagery!
Better recording methods evolved, but 20-odd years later, the playback media of the day–78rpm discs–were still noticeably lacking in fidelity. In a confluence of events seemingly designed to blow the as-yet-unborn Seth Lorinczi’s mind, GI (and classical music fan) John T. Mullin, preparing for D-Day from an English base, hears something unusual coming from Nazi Germany. He writes:
“In 1944 — like thousands of other GIs just before D Day — I was in England. Because of my background in electronics, I was assigned to the Signal Corps, troubleshooting problem the Army was having with radio receivers that were picking up severe interference from the radar installations that blanketed Britain.
I became so intrigued with what I was doing that I would work until two or three in the morning. I wanted music while I worked. The BBC broadcasts filled the bill until midnight, when they left the air. Then, fishing around the dial in search of further entertainment, I soon discovered that the German stations apparently were on the air twenty-four hours a day. They broadcast symphony concerts in the middle of the night — music that was very well played, and obviously by very large orchestras.
I had some experience with broadcast music and knew what “canned “music sounded like. The American networks wouldn’t permit the use of recordings in the early 1940s, because they claimed the quality was inferior. You could always spot the surface noise and the relatively short playing time of commercial 78-rpm discs.
Even transcriptions had some needle scratch and a limited frequency response.There was none of this in the music coming from Germany. The frequency response was comparable to that of a live broadcast, and a selection might continue for a quarter of an hour or more without interruption.
In Germany at that stage, of course, Hitler could have anything he wanted. If he wanted a full symphony orchestra to play all night long, he could get it. Still, it didn’t seem very likely that even a madman would insist on live concerts night after night. There had to be another answer, and I was curious to know what it was.”
Eventually, Mullin not only made it to Germany, but discovered the source of these mysteriously hi-fi recordings. What’s more, against strong odds, he brought two German Magnetophon tape recorders back to the United States, where they were examined by the nascent Ampex Corporation, and the rest was history. If you are anything close to as obsessive and damaged as I am, I strongly urge you to read his full story here.
As I write this, I remember with a jolt my father telling me about listening–covertly, for very real fear of arrest, or worse–to radio broadcasts on a receiver hidden in a safe house in wartime Budapest. After news of the D-Day landings was broadcast, his father turned to the family and said: “We’re going to make it.” And, incredibly, he was right: My grandfather, grandmother, and their two children–my father and aunt–survived the war, barely, and made it to the United States. I can only wonder if my father heard the same broadcasts as John Mullin, and if he too wondered what their source might be.