THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

12 June 2017

Recording of the week: an encounter with an orangutan

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Coming face to face with a wild orangutan is something most nature lovers can only dream about. In this evocative interview extract, wildlife sound recordist John Paterson vividly describes a chance encounter with a curious female in Borneo's Danum Valley.

An encounter with an Orangutan_John Paterson (C1627_3)

7971889392_0526870aab_hOrangutan illustration from Brehms Animal Life (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

These critically endangered primates can only be found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra and are the subject of several conservation programmes whose work attempts to counter the effects of poaching, habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade.

More interviews with wildlife sound recordists, from scientists to hobbyists, can be found here.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 June 2017

Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue revisited

Label crop

Original disc label (BL shelf mark 9CL0043737-9CL0043738)

A previous blog on murdered Chicago pianist Marion Roberts garnered a considerable amount of attention.  One reader supplied information from a local Chicago paper stating that Roberts was a composer and also a pupil of none other than the great pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  She performed his works, opening one recital in 1925 with Godowsky’s recently published transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor.

In order to put Roberts’ recording of the Prelude Chorale and Fugue by Cesar Franck into context I listened to contemporary recordings of the work.  I was familiar with those by Alfred Cortot, Blanche Selva and Marcel Maas but had not heard the one by Yvonne Lévy.  While musically not in the same class as the Roberts recording, Lévy’s is still of interest and makes for fascinating comparative listening.  However, the comparisons don’t end there – both were young women whose only solo piano recording was of the Franck work and it is possible that both were murdered, in Lévy’s case by the Nazis.  Extensive research has not been able to confirm this as there were a number of people with the same name born around the same time in France.

There is very little information on Lévy and she does not appear in the standard reference works.  Yvonne-Elisabeth Lévy was born in Paris on 24th July 1894.  From the age of fourteen she studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the preparatory class of Madame Chéné winning a troisième prix medal in 1908.  The following year she gained a premier prix.  Chéné, was a respected teacher of young students whose pupils include Blanche Selva, Marguerite Long and Jean Doyen.

Towards the end of 1911 Lévy was accepted into the piano class of one of the most famous professors at the Conservatoire, Isidor Philipp, gaining a deuxième prix in 1914 and a première prix the following year. 

Export (1)

Résultais des concours de piano (femmes) Comoedia 28th June 1914

During the 1920s and 1930s she performed with violinist Edmond Bastide and the Bastide Quartet primarily programming modern French works.  At the Theatre Marigny in 1921 the Bastide Quartet performed the String Quartet by Ravel during the Festival de musique moderne française.  Later Lévy joined them in the Quintet in F minor by Franck and accompanied Bastide in the Violin Sonata by Lekeu leading a critic to describe her as an ‘excellente pianiste’.  In 1932 they broadcast the Franck Quintet but disappear from view around 1938.  An Yvonne Lévy died in Paris in 1977 and one hopes it is the same person.  If any reader has information on Lévy the pianist, please contact me jonathan.summers@bl.uk

The only other recording Lévy made, for the same label, was of the Piano Quartet in A major Op. 30 by Chausson with the Bastide Quartet. 

Nick Morgan, who had donated the Roberts recording to the British Library, also donated the Lévy recording which was published on the unusual Tri-Ergon label.  He supplies some information on the label here.

Shortly before the end of World War I, three German engineers invented a ‘sound on film’ system. Typically, early talkies used ‘sound on disc’ synchronised with the images. In the German system, sound waves were captured by an electrostatic ‘Kathodophon’, converted by a photoelectric transducer and written onto the film itself. Baptised ‘Tri-Ergon’ (‘Work of Three’), the system had a difficult birth amidst post-War inflation. The inventors found German and Swiss backers to launch the system in Europe, where it enjoyed some success. They also sold rights to an American entrepreneur, who waged prolonged commercial and courtroom campaigns against big US concerns such as Paramount and MGM – and lost.

Reportedly devised as a further money-spinner, ‘Tri-Ergon Photo-Electro-Records’ were made and sold in several European countries. Outwardly conventional, these 78s were mastered by transferring Tri-Ergon film strips onto wax at one hundredth speed, taking four hours per side. The quality was variable, but an ambitious catalogue was built up, mainly popular music plus a little folk, classical and speech. In France, Tri-Ergon’s talkie technology was unveiled in 1929, and adopted almost immediately by the great director René Clair. But the first locally recorded Tri-Ergon discs were apparently released only in 1932. Only two classical French Tri-Ergon sets are known, both with pianist Yvonne Lévy – a fascinating if flawed echo from an earlier age of technological innovation, competition and globalisation.

Lévy’s recording of the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue can be heard here.

Yvonne Levy

05 June 2017

Recording of the week: surviving an oil rig disaster

This week's selection comes from Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator Oral History.

In this moving testimony recorded for ‘Lives in the Oil Industry’ project, oral historian Hugo Manson talks to Bob Ballantyne (1942-2004), a survivor of the Piper Alpha North Sea oil rig disaster in 1988 which killed 167 people.

Bob Ballantyne - surviving the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster

Piper_Alpha_Disaster_Memorial_-_geograph.org.uk_-_681091

Piper Alpha Disaster Memorial (Elliott Simpson)

The full interview can be consulted at the British Library and is part of Lives in the Oil Industry, a joint National Life Story Collection/Aberdeen University project, begun in 2000, to record the major changes which have occurred in the UK oil and gas industry in the twentieth century, focussing particularly on North Sea exploration and the impact of the industry on this country.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

31 May 2017

Remembering beliefs

The programme and booking form for this year's Annual Conference of the Oral History Society - Remembering beliefs: the shifting worlds of religion and faith in secular society has been released. The deadline for bookings is Friday 30th June.

OHS 2017

The papers on offer range across the world - taking in Finland, Zimbabwe, China and Australia - and are concerned with very varied forms of belief and non-belief. There are sessions on Catholicism and the Female Body, Environment and Climate Change and Religion and its place in LGBTQ lives and individual papers that certainly invite curiosity, for example: 'Parson’s Pleasure, 1845-1992', 'oral histories of niqab wearing in the UK', 'Nuns Talking: Emotions, Belonging and Social Change', 'I’m made in the lesbian image of god’: intersections of faith, belief and sexuality' and 'An accidental utopia in Wales'.  

My own contribution to the conference draws on recent life story interviews with British scientists, science journalists, theologians, philosophers and others who, since the 1970s, have written books, made radio and television programmes and taken part in debates on relations between science and religion. They were recorded in a collaboration between National Life Stories (NLS) at the British Library, and the research project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum, led by Newman University, Birmingham and York University, Toronto. 

The life stories of these very public commentators on science and religion (including Desmond Morris, Peter Atkins and Mary Midgley) join the collection of over 150 life story interviews with British scientists recorded by the NLS project An Oral History of British Science (OHBS).

The award winning website Voices of Science, which draws on OHBS interviews, includes the themed page 'Religion and Belief'.  Among the clips featured here is this from the life story interview with Sir John Houghton (C1379/45) - former Director General of the Met Office and the first Chairman of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - in which he describes God's help with a particular experiment.

John Houghton - help from god in life and science

Fellow atmospheric scientist Joseph Farman (C1379/07), who found the hole in ozone layer in the mid 1980s, speaks from a very different position:

Joseph Farman - talk about god is meaningless noise

An equally striking contrast exists in clips from interviews with two physicists, John Nye and John Glen, both working on ice (and both called John):

John Nye - unravelable nature

John Glen - ice as a part of God's creation

You can listen to more extracts relating to religion and belief at Voices of Science. Full-length interviews with over 150 scientists are available on BL Sounds.

Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, the British Library

30 May 2017

Finding television at the British Library

It's not always realised that the British Library has a substantial moving image collection - around 170,000 items. A great many of these are television programmes in digital form and instantly accessible for researchers in our Reading Rooms on any Library computer. All you have to do is find the record on our Explore catalogue, click on 'I Want This', and play. Because of rights issues, we cannot make our television holdings available online offsite, but onsite there is much to discover, of which below is a quick guide.

Howto

If you are in a British Library reading at one of our computer, choose your subject through Explore, pick Online: Reading Room only under Access Options, select Moving Images under material type, then at the next page click on I Want This. If an instant access copy is available it will say 'Play this (at British Library only)'

Television news

We have been recording television (and radio) news programmes since May 2010. Currently we record from 22 channels, adding around 50 hours per day. This includes all the main news programmes from the BBC, ITV, Channel and Sky News, plus selected programmes from CNN, Al Jazeera English, RT (Russia Today), France 24, China's CGTN and Nigeria's Channels 24. We make extra recordings of breaking news stories and major stories such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, general elections and the EU referendum.

We aim to record the same programmes each day, so as well as the main news broadcasts we have good runs of series such as HARDtalk (BBC), Daily Politics (BBC), Listening Post (Al Jazeera), Dispatches (Channel 4), and The Pledge (Sky News). We also record satire shows such as Have I Got News For You (BBC) and News Thing (RT), and just now we're recording many extra programmes relating to the UK general election, including party election broadcasts, debates, speeches (given in full on BBC Parliament) and manifesto launches.

There are currently around 90,00 programmes available, all of them instantly accessible onsite. You can view the programmes within hours after broadcast on our Broadcast News service, available on any British Library terminal, or we upload new programmes to the catalogue at the end of each month.

Broadcast news

Our onsite Broadcast News service provides instant access to tens of thousands of news programmes, and a growing number of non-news programmes as well (see the Other Television option, bottom right)

Other television

We have many other television programmes, mostly relating to sound and performance, which we have collected since the 1980s. From 2015 onwards these are all available digitally with instant onsite access. Currently we focus on what are our main moving image collecting areas: current affairs,  performance and oral history. We also record programmes relating to other areas of curatorial interest, including wildlife, literary adaptations, and programmes that connect with major exhibitions that we have held (e.g. Magna Carta, Shakespeare).

Programmes you will find include Later with Jools Holland, Storyville documentaries, Arena and Imagine arts documentaries, Gogglebox, Stacey Dooley Investigates, broadcasts from festival such as Glastonbury and Reading, BBC4 music documentaries, SpringwatchUpstart Crow, Wolf Hall, docudramas such as Damilola, Our Loved Boy, all of BBC4's Keith Richards' Lost Weekend, awards ceremonies, the Proms, the Eurovision Song Contest, and much more. If you want to find them all in one place, visit the Broadcast News service, available on any British Library terminal, and click on the 'Other Television' option.

If you want to know more, or have any problems accessing our instant access videos, contact our Listening & Viewing Service. They can also tell you about accessing our analogue TV collection (search for titles on the SAMI catalogue). We're also adding more and more archive video titles, which will need to be the subject of another post. But please remember, we can only offer access onsite, and on British Library terminals, not your own devices.

29 May 2017

Recording of the week: Rock Island Line

This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music Recordings.

‘Rock Island Line’ was the hit single that sparked the Skiffle craze amongst British youth in the late 1950s. Skiffle was a pared-down mixture of jazz, blues and folk influences played on a mixture of tea-chest bass, washboard, guitars and banjo. Its simplicity made it accessible and appealing to the new generation of British teenagers. Lonnie Donegan’s recording of ‘Rock Island line’, an American folk song popularised by Leadbelly, inspired a host of British musicians including Cliff Richard, Jimmy Page, John Lennon and Paul McCartney to form their own groups and laid the foundation for decades of successful British Rock and Pop music. 

Rock Island Line_Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group

Disc label  side A  Decca DRX 19299 1

The Skiffle phenomenon is the subject of the forthcoming book 'Roots, Radicals and Rockers: how Skiffle changed the world' by musician Billy Bragg.

Follow @BL_PopMusic and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

Blues trot text005

 

HMV label image

‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

25 May 2017

An Ode to Early Record Catalogues

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Thomas Henry is a collector of 78 rpm records based in Paris who has carried out extensive research on the history of sound recording through his blog Ceints de Bakélite and his interactive mapping project Disquaires de Paris. With a background in history and sociology of music from Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, he is originally a vinyl collector who converted to shellac a decade ago after finding a bunch of mysterious Armenian 78 rpm records at Yerevan’s flea market.

A member of Paris Phono Museum, he also holds the Vice-Chair position of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives’ (IASA) discography committee. One of the aims of the committee is to create a network of partners who will collaboratively create a bibliography of discographies including information about all current, out-of-print and in progress discographies published worldwide in print and electronic formats. Digital versions of discographies, including those which have thus far only been available in print, will also be made available through this bibliography. You can access it and add to it through IASA’s webpage.

A discography is a comprehensive and detailed compilation of musical recordings, particularly those of a particular performer or composer. It is also very common to find discographies dedicated to a music style or a label. Behind a discography, there is the will to provide more information about a body of sound recordings. Discographies are often created by a researcher, a collector or an institution. Some of them are printed and published, some of them are just excel sheets on the computer of private collectors, but all of them are created with the same purpose: increasing knowledge about an artist or an orchestra, a composer, a label, a music style, etc. Record catalogues, key sources for this type of research, are printed documents produced by record companies that can be used as valuable tools by discographers and music aficionados. They offer less information than a discography about the sound recordings, but are full of interesting elements that complement and enhance them. 

For this blog post, Henry takes a closer look at some of the record catalogues made available online by the British Library and through their rich visual iconography, illustrates their use and history. Thomas Henry would like to thank Jonathan Ward and Suresh Chandvankar for their assistance in writing this piece.

An ode to early record catalogues

While listening to a fox-trot from the mid 1920's, a Beethoven sonata from the 1930's or a calypso from the early 50's, one might want to learn more about it. Of course some information will be available on the record's centre label but this information can be quite limited or not directly comprehensible. The name of a performer or an orchestra, title of a song, name and logo of a record company, short description ("fox-trot", "piano solo", "tenor with orchestra", "birds imitation" etc...), language and some obscure figures and letters can still lead us to wonder - When was this recorded? Who is the singer? What did he/she look like? Was he/she famous? What were people listening to at the time? And how did they listen to their records?

Finding answers to all these questions might take time or even turn into a lifelong quest for some obsessive researchers. Such research can be somewhat akin to detective work and clues can be found browsing photograph, newspaper, poster or sheet music collections available in libraries. Another fascinating, often underrated but incredibly useful item in this research is the record catalogue. 175 record catalogues have been digitized and made available on the British Library website. They are focussed on the British market and cover the "acoustic era" - from the late 19th century to the mid 1920's - before the microphone’s invention. One might see these catalogues as just a simple listing of records, but they are actually much more than that and in this post, I'll try to show why.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVOX1925XXX-0000V0
New His Master’s Voice Operatic Records, 1925

From the very beginning of the phonographic industry, all recording companies published catalogues listing their published output: wax cylinders and later on, records. In most cases, "general catalogues" were published every year and these were sometimes completed by "supplements", published on a monthly basis. In addition, some extra catalogues were also published for specific repertoires or special occasions. Created for a commercial use, these catalogues firstly give an overview of a record company's output at a given moment in time and illustrate how this output was categorised and marketed. Indications on the label's colours assigned to each musical style and its corresponding price range give us a clear picture of what it was like buying records in the past.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-ZONXX1913X14-0000V0
Zonophone Record Catalogue, 1913-14

The very first catalogues from the late 1890’s rarely mention the name of performers and composers; potential buyers were more interested in the name of a popular melody or an opera. Their content gets more precise over time and later catalogues, provide much more detail.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-EDIGX1898XXX-0000V0
Edison-Bell List of Records, 1898

These catalogues do not just consist of a monotone alphabetically ordered list of artists, they let us discover a very rich iconography - photographs, drawings, advertisements - complementary to the sounds themselves.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

Beyond their aesthetic dimension, these graphic elements provide interesting information on the ways in which  records and talking machines have been used over time. In addition, they often include technical tips on the best ways to play and store records, information that can be useful for people interested the history of sound recordings and talking machines.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-PATGX1910X11-0000V0
Complete Catalogue of Pathe Standards 10 Inch Double Sided Discs, 1911

These catalogues are also full of photographs and biographical elements about artists that can be hard to find anywhere else. They reflect consumers' tastes of the time, showing what the hits and who the big stars of the early 20th century were. This gives us some clues about the music our ancestors were listening to. No talking machine nor record collection from that time has survived in my family, so I can only speculate: were my great-grandparents fans of the French soprano Emma Calvé or the baritone Maurice Renaud? 

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRARX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of “Red Label” Gramophone Records, February 1904

Or were they listening to marches by La Garde Républicaine and comic monologues by Parisian “Café-Concert” artists? Or were they actually lovers of rare or upbeat - yet popular - repertoires, such as animal imitations, whistling or hunting horn recordings?

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1910X08-0000V0
New Gramophone Records, August 1910

 At a time where phonographs and gramophones were still considered by many as amusing curiosities rather than a way to enjoy “serious” music, convincing famous artists to make recordings was also a way for record companies to legitimize the talking machine. From very early on, The Gramophone Company understood that and some of its older catalogues feature pages where some popular singers express their admiration for the Gramophone and its capacity to faithfully reproduce their voice.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVCX1915XXX-0000V0
His Master's Voice Celebrity Records, 1915

In the same vein, record companies also used their catalogues to promote some of their “sensational” or unusual recordings and demonstrate the superiority of their products. Lacking Lolcats at the time, lambs and dogs were preferred to create a buzz.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

As an object, each of these catalogues has its own history. If you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they have many stories to tell about their former owners and the period during which they were published. They might include personal hand-written notes by their former owners or references to the historical and political background, as illustrated by the following reference to the Russo-Japanese War.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAMX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of Twelve-inch Gramophone Monarch Records, March 1904

​Early recordings made in some regions of the world are less documented than those made in Western countries. In some cases, there is no longer an existing archive allowing us to discover more about an artist and the context in which he or she was recorded. For these types of records, the work of discographers becomes absolutely essential. Based on a systematic inventorisation and analysis of cylinder and record details - performers, title, language, label, genre, matrix and catalogue numbers - discographical research provides valuable elements to find out the date and the result of a recording session. Record catalogues are a key resource for discographers, as they feature dating and background information. Browsing these catalogues is often the first step in discographical research, even though some of them are very rare - in some cases much rarer than records themselves! The opposite also holds true: records listed in some catalogues might never turn up and  their presence in a catalogue remains the only evidence that they ever existed.


As a collector of 78 rpm records “from around the world” - some might call them “world music” or “ethnic” records - I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some beautiful examples from this area taken from the British Library’s catalogue collection. They let us discover some very early Indian, Persian, Arabic and Russian recordings made in 1899 by the Gramophone Company in London.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAGX1901XXX-0000V0
Gramophone Record Catalogue, 1899

 As part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Program, a large collection of 1,408 Indian songs recorded on 78 rpm records were digitized and made accessible online in 2016. This unique material, focussed on the Odeon and Young India labels was sourced from private Indian collectors Suresh Chandvankar, Sunny Matthew and Narayan Mulan. Some very rare catalogues were also digitized, allowing us to enjoy their gorgeous illustrations and fascinating photographs while listening to some of the fabulous recordings available, such as this solo of Sundari, a double reed instrument, performed by Vithal More.

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Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
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Young India Catalogues - Gujrathi, March 1941

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.