August 5, 1979

Discography of Historical Records on Cylinders and 78s. By Brian Rust. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.  327 pp.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

As the number of Brian Rust books in print has increased it is an unmistakable fact that their quality has begun to decline. This is especially lamentable because the author was, only a few years ago, setting new standards in what made a first-rate and highly usable discography. In the past three or four years he has expanded into several new fields, each time, it would seem, with more haste and less precision. Jazz Records, now in its fourth edition, remains his masterpiece, probably the finest general discography ever compiled. The Victor Master Book was a treasure within its 1925-1936 field of coverage. The Complete Entertainment Discography and The American Dance Band Discography opened vast new fields of information, but nevertheless fell short of the author’s previous high standards of thoroughness and accuracy. (Corrections to the 1975 ADBD have been running ever since in collectors’ journals.) The American Record Labels Book was a disappointment. Now we have the Discography of Historical Records.

This is not to say that the book is not useful; it is. Much interesting information is included, and most of the data is accurate. But the gaps are so obvious and so needless that one wonders how the world’s leading discographer could have let such an incomplete work get into print.

The purpose of the book, as stated in the introduction, is to list notable spoken word recordings. It is a “summary of all known recordings made in English by all kinds of speakers with the exception of actors delivering lines.” In addition a few popular songs about famous people and events are also listed, although very incompletely. The entries are predominantly British, with endless Lords and Earls who have left their words to posterity; however quite a few American public figures are included as well. The period covered is 1888 to 1953.

The layout is one subject per page. For example the first page is devoted to Sir Francis Dyke Acland, a British politician of the early 1900s. At the top of the page appears his name, followed by his date of birth, where educated and positions held during his career. Since these are listed in separate one-line entries (rather than in paragraph form) and double-spaced they take up most of the page. As a matter of fact the bulk of the book consists of long lists of positions held, honors received, book titles published, etc., rather than the subjects’ recordings! At the bottom of the page we learn that Sir Francis made two recordings in 1929, “The Liberal Land Policy” and “Care of the Teeth.” More interesting entries for the U.S. reader might be the various presidents who recorded, beginning with Benjamin Harrison; Charles Lindbergh; Thomas A. Edison; Carrie Nation; and the like. At the end of the book is a useful chronological index of all listed recordings.

There is a great deal here for the collector interested in historic recordings. However there are some serious errors and a great many important and well known recordings have been left out. Most of these mistakes were avoidable; the recordings have been discussed and documented fairly widely in such collectors’ magazines as APM, Record Research, Hillandale News, Hobbies, etc. Apparently the author does not follow the current literature. Too many errors and omissions were found to list them all, but a sampling will give the reader–and hopefully the author–an indication of the problem.

How can we explain, for example, the omission of the oldest surviving recording, one that is bound to be of special interest to readers and which has appeared on half a dozen LPs? This is a recording made by Lord Frederick Stanley, Governor General of Canada, in September 1888 on the occasion of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition. (Lord Stanley is not to be confused with Henry Morton Stanley, the British explorer, who recorded later. See APM Vol. II, No. 6 for an unraveling of this long-standing mixup.) [Editors note (2007): Recent research has questioned the provenance of the Stanley recording, albeit inconclusively; see the detailed article in Antique Phonograph News, Sept./Oct. and Nov./Dec. 2005.]

The section on Edison will be a major disappointment to Edison buffs. After a page of simplistic and sometimes inaccurate statements about Edison’s life, we are told that his “one record” was–you guessed it–“Let Us Not Forget,” made in 1919. Jim Walsh, who spent two issues of Hobbies in 1972 trying to clear up that misconception once and for all, will groan at that! Must such erroneous information be perpetuated forever?

Edison in fact made at least six recordings, seven if you count a 1921 “message” entirely in Morse Code, recorded for a telegrapher’s convention. The others are his speech opening a 1908 electrical convention which was released on Victor (!) in the 1940s, and has been on many LPs since; his short talk on “Greetings from the Bunch at Orange” (1924), which is familiar to most collectors; his recreation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for a newsreel in 1927, which has been on several LPs; his 1928 speech accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor which recently appeared on APMs “A Century of Sound” flexible disc; and, according to editor Allen Koenigsberg, yet another recording called “The Liver Story,” made in 1906. You’ll find none of these listed in the Discography. Edison’s son Charles, who was Chairman of the Board of the company and later governor of New Jersey, also recorded, but he is not listed at all.

The book lists Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan as having recorded speeches for Edison in 1900, which they did not; the speeches were “faked.” Bryan did make two little-known brown wax cylinders for the Polyphone Co. in 1900, which are not listed (see APM, Vol. II, No. 1). At least the notorious McKinley recordings are acknowledged here as fakes. A number of songs about these and other presidential candidates are listed, but the list is woefully incomplete. For example, recordings from the 1892 and 1896 elections, some of which have survived, have been left out entirely.

A sampling of other notable speech recordings not in this book:

– Aimee Semple McPherson, 1926 (a common item, and in many discographies).

– Booker T. Washington, 1908 (details by this reviewer in Record Research, August 1975).

– Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, 1910 (Hobbies, November 1974; Record Research, August 1975).

– Harry Lauder’s appeal for the Scotish soldiers’ and sailors’ relief fund, World War I (Reissued on Rococo LP 4010).

– Emile Berliner. A number of his very earliest commercial discs were spoken by the inventor himself. One of these, the Lord’s Prayer (1889), is on the Canadian Recording Industry Association’s seven-inch LP “100 Years of Recorded Sound.”

– None of the many movie stars who recorded little talks to their fans for Talk-a-Photo records in 1921 are included. These include Mae Murray, Bert Lytell, Gloria Swanson, etc.

– Kenneth Landfrey, bugler at the charge of the Light Brigade, in 1890 (on several LPs).

– Bugler Cassi of the Rough Riders, whose 1898 recreation of the charge up San Juan Hill is listed here on Columbia and Berliner but not Edison.

– Sir Arthur Sullivan, October 1888, long thought to be the oldest surviving recording. (This is listed but is dated 1895, for no apparent reason.)

– William Bailey Aldrich, the author, ca. 1890 (Hillandale News, June 1974).

– Harry Hayward, the convicted murderer who made a commercial recording on the night before his hanging in 1895 (the full story was told in an article by this reviewer in APM, Vol. I, No. 6).

As far as songs and skits about famous people and events are concerned, the omissions are too numerous to even begin listing. The Lindbergh section alone could be expanded by three to five times. The World War I and World War II sections each list only a very few British recordings, and none of the hundreds of American efforts such as “Fun in Flanders,” “Departure of the American Troops for France,” etc. Under such headings as aviation, Henry Ford, MacArthur, Eisenhower, etc., there are only a few samples, nothing resembling a complete list.

The physical appearance of the book must be mentioned. The pages are reproduced directly from typewritten copy but for some reason the printing came out extremely light–so light you may find yourself literally squinting to read it. I have never seen a book with a problem quite like this, especially not a $35 hardcover.

In summary the flaws of this book are certainly numerous, and needless. Much could have been corrected simply by following the current collectors’ press. The Discography must therefore be recommended with reservations, a useful start in an untilled field, but one that needs a lot of improvement.


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