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Review: Charles A. Asbury, 4 Banjo Songs

Earlier this year, Archeophone Records released what may be the earliest known banjo recordings in existence. The archival specialty music label restored four songs by minstrel-era musician Charles A. Asbury, who was originally recorded in the 1890s on wax cylinders. The result is a 45-rpm, 7-inch vinyl record, titled 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897.

The songs presented are "Haul the Woodpile Down," "Never Done Anything Since," "New Coon in Town" and "Keep in de Middle ob de Road." Judging by those last two track titles, it may already be apparent that there are some racially offensive lyrics on this album. These were typical of blackface minstrelsy, which began in about the 1830s and rose to international fame.

Asbury is an interesting case, as his race is somewhat disputed. The Archeophone release highlights this mystery in the 16-page color booklet included with the album. The packaging is especially handsome, worthy of the historical significance of these songs. In addition to the booklet, the album is presented in a gatefold cover with liner notes by and an inner sleeve with lyrics.

Two traits of this album make it especially significant. First is the fact that the songs were recorded on wax cylinders. The delicate nature of this media made them prone to damage, so it's remarkable that these have survived. Wax cylinder recordings were not mass produced, but rather made in small batches with the musician having to record the same number over and over again, which sounds like something hipsters would do today. Furthermore, wax cylinder players were more often used as coin-operated jukeboxes and not in-home use.

Secondly, Asbury played stroke-style, and contemporary banjo luminaries like Dan Gellert have called these songs the "missing link" between stroke-style and clawhammer banjo playing. "Haul the Woodpile Down" survives today in the old-time repertoire.

In fact, Gellert helped bring that very recording to prominence when he discovered it in 2010 while perusing the online Cylinder Audio Archive at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The Washington Post has a great writeup about the find and its significance. The cylinder was in the collection of John Levin, who developed a playback machine (called the CPS1) to digitize the recordings. The results are impressive, as the recordings sound clear and full.

Archeophone has produced a limited run of 1,000 copies of the Asbury album. It's unclear whether demand will spur them to make more. The price ($16.99, plus shipping) may seem a bit high for such a brief record, but the packaging is exquisite and robust. The vinyl has a good weight and is well-pressed. The only flaws you'll hear are the originally pops from the wax cylinder.

If you are a devoted fan of the banjo and its historical significance, you can't pass this up. Visit archeophone.com to purchase.

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