Old voices, preserved in wax

The forgotten voices and neglected songs of old California cling to life at the Southwest Museum on several hundred Edison cylinders of Spanish-language folk music -- the earliest collection of its kind.

Museum founder Charles F. Lummis made most of the recordings between 1904 and 1906, but they have never been widely available, largely because of the technical challenges of re-recording about 400 old, primitive wax cylinders, and the labor and expense of transcribing, translating and publishing so many songs.

Now, nearly 70 years after Times columnist Ed Ainsworth asked, “Why couldn’t somebody get out successfully a book of old Spanish folk songs from the Lummis record collection?” a sample of the items will be on display through July 5 in “Sounds From the Circle,” an exhibit by Kim Walters, head of the Braun Research Library.

The cylinder project is a telling portrait of its maker. According to musicologist John Koegel of Cal State Fullerton, who is preparing a published edition of the songs, Lummis was trying to capture a romanticized view of California that never actually existed.


Most of the recordings are love songs and ballads that would have been sung in the parlor for entertainment, Koegel said. Lummis recorded only one narrative corrido and interrupted the singer, evidently because the song was too coarse and working-class.

“Like many English speakers in California and the Southwest at the end of the 19th century, Lummis espoused a romantic view of ‘Spanish’ culture and society that was not completely based in historical reality,” Koegel wrote in California History magazine. “Though almost all of his Spanish-speaking informants were Mexican Americans of working- or middle-class backgrounds, he tended to idealize them and the music they recorded for him as representative of Spanish rather than Mexican culture.”

A larger-than-life scholar-adventurer, Lummis was the first city editor of The Times, hired after filing regular dispatches for the paper as he trekked from Ohio to California in 1884-85. (Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s publisher, met him at Mission San Gabriel, and they finished the final miles to downtown together.)

Lummis had learned some Spanish songs during his travels in the Southwest in the 1880s. In 1903, as he began what would become the Southwest Museum, he acquired an Edison machine, a windup device in which sound was channeled into an acoustic horn and etched with a needle into a rotating wax cylinder.

In addition to about 150 Native American recordings, Lummis made cylinders of Spanish-language songs performed by friends or employees in Los Angeles. He often featured the cylinders in his lectures and became friends with American composer Arthur Farwell, who made piano-vocal arrangements of many of the tunes, including the 14 published in 1923 in “Spanish Songs of Old California.”

After Lummis’ death in 1928, the cylinders attracted sporadic interest from a few scholars and history buffs and were re-recorded on aluminum discs, reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.

The new recordings were more accessible, but they introduced another layer of noise and distortion with every generation.

The years were also unkind to the wax cylinders. Some became severely worn through repeated playing. Others shattered in earthquakes or from being moved, and their pieces were carefully preserved in the original boxes.

Although the collection languished for decades, it never entirely faded away. In 1940, several songs were revived for the dedication of the restored Palomares Adobe in Pomona. Times columnist Ainsworth wrote: “One of the most extraordinary features of the dedication . . . was the singing of songs which in some cases had not been heard at the old place for 75 years. . . . Mrs. Bess Adams Garner went to the Southwest Museum and got the words and music made by the late Charles F. Lummis. ‘Que Juro Bien,’ the American equivalent being ‘A Faithful Pledge,’ and ‘El Sueno’ ‘The Dream’ were among those brought back to life.”

In the late 1980s, several members of the California Antique Phonograph Society began helping to restore the broken cylinders and re-recording the collection. Volunteers are still digitally recording the songs directly from the cylinders and enhancing the audio.

About the same time, TV host Huell Howser featured the cylinders in one of his programs, drawing the interest of musicologist Koegel, who wrote about the Spanish-language songs for his dissertation at Claremont Graduate University. Since then, Koegel has researched the lives of Lummis’ performers and contacted their descendants, who have provided additional details about the singers’ lives. In at least one instance, a family had saved a songbook with the lyrics, although the melodies had been lost.

Today, we may see Lummis as a shortsighted visionary who romanticized the past by sifting out the less refined music, but he had the wisdom in 1905 to counter Eastern critics who said that recording these songs wasn’t true archaeology.

“No, it isn’t,” Lummis wrote. “But in 10 years it will be, and as dead and gone as the rest. Out here we think it would be rather sensible and scientific to catch our archaeology alive.”

The Southwest Museum is at 234 Museum Drive in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles. Visiting hours are noon to 5 p.m. on weekends during continuing renovations to repair damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.