Broken warnings from beyond the grave


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edited excerpt from “Distant Music: Recorded Music, Manners, and American Identity” by Jacklyn Anne Attaway (

As relics of the past, older phonograph recordings demonstrate the hauntological aesthetic effect simply by being replayed and heard in the present. Because 78 RPM phonograph recordings sound old and of the past, they seem ghostly and strange.

In “The Revenant,” an essay accompanying Revenant Records release American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939), Dean Blackwood describes what an acoustic recording session was like. Blackwood says:

[…The operator of the] machine that is connected to the horn, [winds] a small handle in the machine‘s side. A platen at the base of the machine has a flat wax disc on it. The man releases a lever and the disc starts to spin. […] When the [operator] likes way the wax disc is spinning, he lowers [the recoding apparatus] in place […and signals the performers to begin…]. A sharp wire connected to the narrow end of the horn traces out a circular pattern in the spinning wax surface, vibrating all the while, etching a code of tiny zig-zags within each groove. The singing men can see little wax shavings falling like snow onto the floor. […] After three minutes of singing, the [operator signals them to wrap it up…]. The singers know they have 15, 20 seconds, tops, to finish.
Acoustic recording processes involved a great deal of physicality and technological imprecision. The spinning motion of the wax disc is triggered by a cranked lever that begins too fast and is then monitored and measured by a recording technician in order to begin at the moment of the most correct speed and end when the disc begins to spin too slowly. If the disc is spinning too fast when the recording begins, the voices will sound too high-pitched and sped up. If it is spinning too slowly, the vocals will sound too deep and too slow. If one of the performers or technicians makes a mistake, the record reflects it.
Any extra noises made in the recording room are captured on the disc. While the recording device is preserving the voices and musical accompaniment, it is also preserving other sounds: the space and the air in the room, the people‘s breath, the movements of the performers and record technicians, and the sound of the technology working itself.

Accompanying the 1997 reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Greil Marcus‘ essay ―The Old, Weird America, notes  that the pre-amplification singing style—articulated through the acoustic recording processes of eliminating extreme highs and lows —made singers sound like prophetic spirits, shouting broken warnings from beyond the grave.

Marcus, observing the strange sound of early recording artists, notes, ―”[…One] quality that unites the singers here is that they sound as if they‘re already dead.”


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