I am a record collector. The type of disc with which I am obsessed, the 78-rpm phonograph record, is made of slowly decaying organic materials, bound together and coated with synthetic compounds. John Blacking, a pioneering ethnomusicologist of the twentieth century, proposed that music is a “humanly organized sound,” a pat yet inclusive definition. Like most of the music he studied in the fifties, the 78-rpm phonograph record is a relic of the past, a fossil.
These curious black discs are all that connect us with the best part of our musical past, with the rapture that we were once able to convey through deep song and dance. These records are fragile, yet they were the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for roughly the first fifty years of the twentieth century.
When I was young, I discovered that 78 recordings—unlike so many other parts of contemporary culture—needed no outside validation, just an attentive, appreciative listener. I was the listener, and the artists that made them were my friends. They were constant. People would betray you, institutions would fail you, but this, this old music, a music lacking all pretension, would never change.
Old performances on 78s transformed me. They became a singular point of reference. I understand my musical surroundings, perhaps even my physical and cultural environment through this antiquated medium. These recordings form an aperture through which I make sense—or perceive the senselessness—of the world.
These vessels of sound—the 78-rpm discs—harness something transient and sacred: vibrations in the air. The instantaneous and the inexplicable—a halting breath between bow strokes, the whispers by a musician in the studio that “time is up,” a train whistle etched in the grooves in a studio too close to the tracks, ghost echoes—were captured on this nascent technology. Real culture is etched within these recordings: artifacts of the way we used to navigate the world and of how we used to interact with music. They are vehicles of something fleeting but also something that begs you to follow, a Siren in a paper sleeve.
These discs loom before me like the black monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am one of the groping, awkward hominids, and the disc is the mysterious source of knowledge. Despite my undying affection, the phonograph disc is simply a tool to capture vibrations in the air: a record of humanly organized sound.
In this phonographic-cinematic metaphor, both the mint 78 and the stone monument possess an aura of perfection and potency to me. The grooves of the 78 disc may seem to contain flaws, but the flaws are in us, not in the music contained therein. The imperfection is in the exchange: we cannot see the musicians or shout encouragement to them while dancing. We cannot live within the disc. We can only listen. The crude technology distances us from the context that first prompted and then nurtured these musical activities. Without the context, one loses touch with the original intention of the music.
Whatever Kubrick was conjuring with the first act of his film, “The Dawn of Man,” I am confident that he intended the metaphor to be both universal and specific—universally applied to our ceaseless quest for explanation and specifically applied to the resolution of his film, “The Jupiter Mission,” where the tool of our creation, HAL 9000, turns against its human progenitors. A tool that we created becomes an instrument of our own destruction. And in truth, the phonograph record all but killed the authentic folk music that I love.
Christopher C. King, a Grammy-winning producer, musicologist, and prominent 78-rpm record collector, has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post and has written for The Paris Review and the Oxford American. He lives in Virginia.
Excerpted from Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music, by Christopher C. King. © 2018 by Christopher C. King. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.