Recordings of hymns and sacred music from wax cylinders
Discover Sound - Posted 16-08-2021
The evolution of recording owes everything to Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), who invented the phonograph in December 1877. The concept of wax cylinders as the best medium to reproduce sound on disc came about through healthy competition between Alexander Graham Bell and Edison, who eventually pipped Bell to the patent post by releasing his 1888 ‘Perfected Phonograph’.
[Photograph by Daderot, available via Wikimedia Commons –https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wax_cylinder_set,_c._1895,_Edison_-_Museum_of_Science_and_Industry_(Chicago)_-_DSC06677.JPG]
Although the phonograph’s initial use was either archival or for transcription, the turn of the 20th century opened a market for musical recordings with the advent of moulded cylinders, and hymns enjoyed a heyday at this time.
Sleuthing through some of these recordings was engaging, although the audio quality is understandably poor having been digitised by the Sound Archive from the original wax cylinders with all their imperfections. While the collection description identifies the type of music and the method of recording, there is no information about when these cylinders were recorded, by or for whom. Subsequent information provided in the recordings’ introductions brought some of the picture to light with snippets gleaned from between crackles of wax.
The collection consists of 4 sound files; the original wax cylinders have not been catalogued at National Library of Wales yet. Those cylinders may have more details written on them, identifying performers and dates, but in their absence, the fun of this exercise was in listening and then identifying the hymns before researching the poets and composers, as follows:
Hymn 1: “I am praying for you”, sung by two people with small orchestral accompaniment – mostly obscured by crackling. The announcer is unidentified and the names of the singers partially obscured although the tenor is clearly named Anthony. There is a reference to Hereford, either as place or patronym, but it was impossible to work out the name or the gender of the second singer. Although Hereford suggests the recording was made in the UK, the announcer is clearly American.
This is a Methodist hymn written by Samuel O’Malley Cluff (1860) and set to a tune by Ira David Sankey (1874).
Reverend Cluff was born in Dublin in 1837. He attended Trinity College and became an Anglican minister, pastoring at various locations in Ireland. In 1884, he became the leader of the Plymouth Brethren after which he married Anne Blake Edge, had four children and wrote over 1000 hymn texts and songs, composing many of the melodies as well. Ira Sankey came across “I am praying for you” while holding crusades in Scotland. Inspired by its words about prayer, he composed music for it and it became popular during subsequent crusades. The author credit was given in Sankey’s 1878 publication of Sacred Song & Solos as ‘S. O’M. Clough’.
Although the full hymn has four verses, this recording features only the first verse with a repeated refrain.
I have a Saviour, He’s pleading in glory,
A dear, loving Saviour, though earth-friends be few;
And now He is watching in tenderness o’er me,
But O, that my Saviour were your Saviour, too!
For you I am praying,
For you I am praying,
For you I am praying,
I’m praying for you.
Hymn 2: “Pass me not, O Gentle Saviour” – with this second recording, the announcer gives us a bit more information about the singers, who are the same as in the first recording. It is likely this is a husband-and-wife duo, Anthony & Ann Hereford of Hereford Records, but there is still no geographical location with which to find out more about them. It is also likely that the announcer is Thomas Edison himself because he has a distinctive voice, which can be compared with other online sources; whether Edison was recording in the UK, or if the Herefords were based in the USA is still unclear.
This hymn text was written by Fanny Crosby, who published her poems under an incredible number of pseudonyms, both male and female. Frances Jane Crosby was born in New York state in 1820 and was blinded during an illness at 6 weeks old. She subsequently received an excellent education from the New York Institute of the Blind. This was where she started writing hymn texts for her teacher of music, Dr Geoffrey Root. Between 1864 and her death in 1915, Fanny wrote over 8000 texts, making her the most prolific hymn writer in the English language. The hymn tune was composed by William Howard Doane – prolific composer, American industrialist and philanthropist who supported the work of evangelical campaigns, including those headed by Ira D Sankey, mentioned earlier.
Although another four-verse hymn, the Herefords have chosen to record verses one and four with repeated refrains and an instrumental interlude between verses. There is a charming outro featuring brass and percussion.
1 Pass me not, O gentle Saviour
Hear my humble cry,
While on others Thou art calling
Do not pass me by.
Hear my humble cry;
While on others Thou art calling,
Do no pass me by.
4 Thou the Spring of all my comfort,
More than life to me,
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in heav’n by Thee [Refrain]
Hymn 3: “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”, sung by tenor, Mr William McGillis. Unfortunately, his geographical location is obscured completely. The announcer’s voice is American, but different to Thomas Edison, so this cylinder may have been recorded by someone else working in the industry, or on Edison’s behalf.
The text for the hymn was written by Charles Wesley in 1740, published in a collection of Hymns and Sacred Poems. The eighteenth child of Anglican cleric and poet Samuel Wesley, Charles was the younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, and contributed the cornerstone of the Methodist hymnody; in fact, of the 770 hymns published in the Wesleyan Hymn Book, 623 were written by Charles, although this represents only 10% of his total output.
Recognised as one of Wesley’s finest hymns – also one of the earliest – it is thought to echo two life experiences of this so-called ‘Bard of Methodism’. The first was the arrival of a small songbird pursued by a hawk who flew through an open window and into Wesley’s arms as he was pondering spiritual difficulties: “let me to Thy bosom fly”; the second might relate to a faith-shattering tempest experienced by John and Charles while sailing on a missionary trip to the colony of Georgia in 1735. The brothers were impressed by a group of fellow passengers from Moravia who sang hymns throughout a raging storm. Wesley’s verses mention waters rolling, a “tempest” and the “storm of life”. But while the Moravians possessed the certainty of Salvation through their faith, John Wesley later confessed that they “had gone to Georgia to convert the people there, finding they themselves had need to be converted.”
This hymn was originally titled “In Temptation” and is a plea for sanctuary for all who are tempted, undeserving or requiring cleansing from sin because there is no other refuge. The tune used for this recording is now known as Celebration 167 in the Baptist Hymnal (2008). It was originally known as Martyn 220.127.116.11.D (reflecting the meter of the hymn) and was composed by Simeon Butler Marsh, who taught music to hundreds of adults and children in career spanning both New York State church and school system over the course of 30 years. McGillis sings verses one and three, with the accompaniment of a brass band.
1 Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.
3 Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find:
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick and lead the blind:
Just and holy is Thy name,
I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.
Hymn 4: “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus” – this recording is so badly damaged (possibly due to previous use of the wax cylinder for other recordings) that it was almost impossible to identify the hymn or its tune. However, one clear line led to a text written by George Duffield in 1858, and once the full words were on screen, it was possible to hear enough of the rest to confirm the hymn as above. From there the tune was identified as one known as “Morning Light” written by George J Webb on a voyage from England to the USA in 1837.
Reverend Dr George Duffield (son of a Presbyterian Minister) was born in Pennsylvania in 1818 and followed in his father’s footsteps. When Duffield wrote “Stand Up”, he was a pastor in Philadelphia, but had been pastor of a parish in New Jersey where Webb was living, so the two may have met. According to an entry in Lyra sacra Americana (Cleveland, 1868, p. 298):
“I caught its inspiration from the dying words of that noble young clergyman, Rev. Dudley Atkins Tyng, rector of the Epiphany Church, Philadelphia, who died about 1854. His last words were, ‘Tell them to stand up for Jesus: now let us sing a hymn.’ As he had been much persecuted in those pro-slavery days for his persistent course in pleading the cause of the oppressed, it was thought that these words had a peculiar significance in his mind; as if he had said, ‘Stand up for Jesus in the person of the downtrodden slave.’ (Luke v. 18.)”
After Duffield gave the manuscript to his Sunday School Superintendent, it was first published as a small children’s handbill, where it became known as ‘Soldiers of the Cross’.
As far as can be made out from the timing and meter, the recording is of the first two verses, but both the identity of the singer and the announcer are completely obscured by damage. The singer has a high voice, and although it is impossible to say whether they are female or boy soprano, if a guess at their name were allowed, the candidates would be either Iris or Idris Edwards. The announcer, likewise, sounds more British than American, so this wax cylinder might have been one of the first to be recorded in the UK – after all, the first Phonograph & Gramophone Society was established in 1911 in West London, with many forming over the next decade with Thomas Edison as their patron.
Stand up, stand up for Jesus
ye soldiers of the cross;
lift high his royal banner,
it must not suffer loss:
from vict’ry unto vict’ry
his army he shall lead,
’til ev’ry foe is vanquished,
and Christ is Lord indeed.
Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
the trumpet call obey;
forth to the mighty conflict
in this his glorious day:
ye that are men now serve him
against unnumbered foes;
let courage rise with danger,
and strength to strength oppose.
For those who wish to know more about the phonograph, there are many sources available in the library catalogue, including cylinder histories and personal histories of Edison and Bell, published by the City of London Phonograph and Gramaphone society; Ma Rainey’s phonograph – featured in an article looking at the legacy of black embodiment within the visual-sonic tradition; technical manuals for those who own or are restoring phonographic equipment; and phonographs and popular memory, a look at gathering oral history in America.
If it is agreed that the announcer of the first two cylinders held in this collection is Thomas Edison, and in keeping with other cylinders available to listen online of a similar religious nature, then it is probably safe to assume that these four recordings date from around 1908. By 1912, shortly after the UK caught up to the wax cylinder phenomenon, Edison was selling his commercial disc phonograph, and recording technology continued on its evolutionary path to the digital world we inhabit today.
Rasma Bertz, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer