The University of California in Santa Barbara has done something wonderful, and I had completely forgotten about it until about a month ago.
I’ve had this short story sitting on my hard drive now for about three years (and yes, short is a relative term), and I finally had both the time and the inclination to get back to working on it. It went through one round of revisions after I’d initially written it, but it’s been so long since I’ve read through it, let alone actually worked on it, that I decided to go back to my standard revision practice of recopying the entire MS and making changes as I went. When I’m done, I’ll type it up and make a few more changes as I type.
But my revision process is beside the point.
Anyway, one of the focal points of the story is music and how our taste in music says a lot about our personalities. This particular story is something of a ghost story. I love ghost stories and grew up reading them by flashlight in the depths of the night, but my earlier attempts at writing them failed pretty spectacularly.
In this story, there are two sets of main characters: those who previously inhabited a particular house, and the woman who now occupies it. She keeps hearing this song, even though she’d never heard it before moving into the house, and it’s actually a song I really love. Turns out, the ghost in the story loved it, too—it’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, it’s one of the songs the string quartet plays on deck to keep peoples’ spirits up as the ship is going down.
I’d only ever heard that version of the song before I started writing this story, which got me wondering if there were actual words that went along with the melody. It turns out there are! And that’s where UCSB comes in. While researching the song for my story, I discovered a vast trove of early recordings from the turn of the twentieth century. Back when recording sound was the latest scientific advancement, they first used tinfoil cylinders as the storage medium. They degraded quite quickly, though, which is when the shift was made to using wax cylinders.
But wax cylinders are awfully fragile. The technology of the day was temperamental—and expensive—enough to discourage private ownership at first, so many of the cylinders ended up in arcades where you would pay to listen to the recordings through a listening tube. Frequent listening caused the cylinders to degrade, and many of them have been lost. But many also ended up in the hands of private collectors, some of whom have joined with the UCSB and other academic institutions to preserve these amazing pieces of history. The UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive contains more than 10,000 of these cylinders, including over 650 cylinders recorded by everyday folks at home who were excited by the possibility of recording technology.
The best part of this is that the digitized recordings in the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive are available to download and stream, and there are some incredible recordings there. They have all kinds of musical genres, from opera to military music to vaudeville. There are patriotic songs and speeches. There are also some things you would never hear today due to the negative minority stereotypes they portray, but the attitudes contained in some of the songs were prevalent at the time. To have left these out would have been to sanitize history, and sanitized history is untrue to the people who lived it.
This existence of this collection is nothing short of a minor miracle, and one I’m extremely glad to have stumbled upon when I started researching for this story. (I’m also glad that I had the presence of mind to bookmark the website!) When I’m not writing lately, I’ve been poking around the archive and listening to all the history it contains, including a song by a Civil War veteran from Maine. It sent shivers down my spine, and yet, I can’t help wondering what future generations will say of the recordings of our own time.
A hundred and fifty years from now, will the technology still exist to play CDs and mp3 files? Will anyone even be interested in such anthropological artifacts? And if they are, I wonder what they’ll say about us…
What inspires you?
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