Might you fancy a verse of “Clancy’s Wooden Wedding” from 1909? Or maybe you recall that “All I Want is Ma Chickens” was a hit song in 1898. Personally, I am drawn to 1904’s “There’s a Little Street in Heaven That They Call Broadway” sung by Bill Murray. (No, not that Bill Murray. It’s 1904.) As the old saying goes: “Over my head, I hear music in the air! There must be a God somewhere.”
The University of California at Santa Barbara is well-known for its physics and engineering programs, its five Nobel laureates, and its status among the top 10 universities in the United States as a “public Ivy.” UCSB additionally heralds an excellent film arts department, as well as its own student beach. However, these days my enthusiasm for my alma mater centers on its Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project dedicated to collecting, cataloging, and digitizing volumes of wax cylinder recordings – mostly of early American music.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, commercial recordings (songs, hymns, vaudeville acts, speeches) were all etched on wax or plastic cylinders and were the first commercial recordings ever made in the United States. UCSB possesses one of the largest collections of cylinder recordings in the world, and the only one accessible to music scholars, historians, and the public. Many of these recordings have not been heard by human ears for over a century. The CPDP digitizes these old recordings and makes them available at cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/index.php.
“When wax cylinders were worn out [from being played on phonographs], they were thrown in the trash. So, the fact that any cylinders survive from 1891 is kind of a miracle,” according to curator David Seubert.
Perhaps the miracle is music itself. Martin Luther proclaimed, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world." But, why are we human beings, throughout our history, so musical in the first place? From rhythmically banging sticks and rocks to composing soaring symphonies, humans have always been musically creative. Why? Anthropologists who study such issues carefully posit theories that remain unsatisfying at best, downright silly at worst. Suffice it to say that academics have no idea why humans are so instinctively creative and so naturally musical.
The Bible does. Genesis announces that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Not that God has two hands and two feet, but that a part of the nature and character of God resides in us. Genesis 1 shows that God is by essence creative. Thus, so are we. We simply cannot cease being creative in all manners of creativity. As Francis Schaeffer noted, “An art work has value as a creation because man is made in the image of God, and therefore man not only can love and think and feel emotion, but also has the capacity to create. Being in the image of the Creator, we are called upon to have creativity.”
Since its inception, the CPDP website has become a global sensation. Launched in 2005, Time Magazine named it among its 50 Best Websites highlighting it as a way to treat yourself to a truly remarkable collection of American musical history. I love hearing “Blest Be the Ties That Bind,” a vocal duet with orchestra from 110 years ago. As music is an expression of our essential humanity and an impulse given to us by our Creator, music really is a tie that binds across the ages.
Lastly, if you would like to hear “In the Right Church but In the Wrong Pew” from 1903, you can’t. It hasn’t been digitized yet. Funded by donations and grants, the CPDP doesn’t have the budget to digitize every cylinder in its library. However, through its Adopt a Cylinder program, I sent a donation to have it digitized and uploaded for the world to hear again. You, too, can adopt a cylinder to bring a time-worn tune back to life. Just visit the website and follow the adoption instructions.
Until we meet again, “Go slow on champagne cocktails, throw your cigarette away, and you’ll see that street in heaven that they call Broadway.”