How a Librarian Helped a Sharecropper Change the Course of Music

How a Librarian Helped a Sharecropper Change the Course of Music

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how good a singer you really are. Well, at least until you record yourself and hear what you sound like. Some might be pleasantly surprised by their vocal chops while others, well, might just keep their singing voice confined to the shower walls. Hey, that’s okay too, the shower can provide a fantastic acoustic environment!  

WURRLYedu makes it easy to record songs and immediately hear yourself back, allowing for you to fine tune your musical abilities. This ready access to recording is a relatively new development. Let me tell you, being able to reflect on your musical talents wasn’t always this easy! Nevertheless, it was this combination of recording and reflection, for the Library of Congress archive, by an aspiring blues musician, that helped to lay the foundation of rock and roll.

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The Library of Congress begun recording the folk songs of the American people at the very end of the 19th Century. Their now “old school” recording process demonstrates the remarkable progress recording technology has made! Initially they used wax cylinders to record on, based on technology developed by Thomas Edison. These recordings might have sounded scratchy, but the act of recording music at all was completely new and exciting. If you’re dying to hear a wax cylinder recording, which you probably are, you can listen here. With advances in recording technology in the late 1930s, which allowed recordings to be made directly to discs, the Library stepped up their efforts to collect folk songs with the help of Alan Lomax as Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song. Lomax used a Presto recorder, which he considered a “mobile” unit. I know what you’re thinking... it’s mobile, so it obviously fits in my pocket... Nope! Although technically still mobile, the Presto recorder needed a CAR to be transported. If you’ve been wondering your entire life what a disc recording sounds like, it can be heard here, and a brief segment on the Library’s folk recordings can be seen here!

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In 1941 Lomax made his way to Stovall, Mississippi, where he recorded Muddy Waters, a local blues musician and sharecropper. Up until this point, Muddy Waters had never heard a recording of himself, and commented that “when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues." The experience of hearing himself on record gave him confidence and let him know how he sounded compared to other musicians, inspiring him to pursue further his career in music, recalling “Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on, he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, 'I can do it, I can do it.'" These recordings were eventually released on Testament Records as Down on Stovall’s Plantation, as well as being found in the Library of Congress but to make things easier, you can check them out right here!

Music education/muddy waters

In 1943, with a new-found confidence gained from loving the sound of his own voice, Muddy Waters moved to Chicago to work as a full-time musician and eventually signed to Chess Records, releasing a whopping 20 albums in his lifetime! His music had a massive impact on rock and roll, through his innovative guitar playing, early use of distortion, and powerful songwriting, which lead the Rolling Stones to name themselves after one of his songs #FunFact. In Lomax’s effort to preserve the past by recording it, he provided Muddy Waters with the opportunity to hear himself back and reflect on his years of practice, which led to him creating music that inspired the future!


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