From beeswax to digital and back to vinyl


Don’t throw those old records away.

A few years ago my daughter, Christy, was moving some things from a storage box with her daughter and came across some of her old vinyl records.

Her daughter asked, “What are these things?”

“Those are my old records, some great music,” Christy told her.

Her daughter said “No mom, what are they really?”

Christy told her that was how we listened to music. Her daughter just shook her head, not believing that those big round things would be a way to hear songs.

Her daughter was also not impressed with cassette tapes. Rewinding and fast-forwarding to get to a song seemed such a long process. Think of how the children of today can get music, audio books and video with a click on the computer.

Years ago, when the first recordings were made, manufacturers thought one of the main uses would be for people to record stories and wills for future generations.

The Library of Congress recently announced that 80 percent of the recordings made before 1930 are lost forever. It is sad to think of what has been lost, but just realize what we have been able to save with the invention of recording.

When the first records were made, they were cylinders. The records were tube-shaped and expensive. Later, the 78 rpm disc was introduced, and was used for over 50 years. Most early 78 rpm records were made of shellac and ground slate rock and are very easily broken. Since most people at the time did not have electricity, the players were wind-up crank machines.

Here is a basic timeline of music formats:

1877 - Edison cylinder record

1900 - 78 rpm record

1925 - First electric recording (microphones)

1948 - LP vinyl record

1949 - 45 rpm record

1957 - Stereo record

1963 - Cassette tape

1965 - Eight-track tape

1982 - Compact disc

1997 – DVD

Just think about the cost to buy a song in the early 1900s, when only well-off people could afford to purchase a cylinder player for what would have been a month’s salary for most of them. Nowadays most of us can afford a memory card, the size of a postage stamp, that holds thousands of songs.

What a change. What a difference.

I might mention again that the early players were wind-up, since electricity wasn’t widely available until the early 1900s. The cost of one of these could also easily be a month’s salary. At a time when the average worker made about $12 per week, paying fifty cents for a song on a cylinder record was a big expense, not to mention the cost of the player itself.

Many of the old cylinder recordings are now online. You can listen to some at

My grandfather gave me an old radio when I was in grade school that had a car battery hookup. That is how many got their music early on. The nation was still working on the power grid.

I wonder what our kids would do if they had to spend a day without electricity.

Most younger people today are too young to realize how much it cost to have music in our lives. When I was around 10 years old I worked in the onion fields for three days to make enough money to buy an inexpensive $24 transistor radio so I could listen to a very limited number of radio stations. It would take two or three hours of work to earn enough to buy an LP album. We can now listen to just about anything at any time.

When I was about 12 years old, I bought my first record, “Hound Dog,” by Elvis Presley. I remember my mother telling me that a man was going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they would only show him from the waist up because of his “gyrations.” Of course, we all had to watch. How times have changed. I don’t know if we have really advanced in that respect, but now we see it all.

When I was in about the eighth grade I started collecting records, and I measured my money by how many records it would cost if I used it to buy something else. LP albums were around $3.98 and 45 rpms were about a dollar. If we made a dollar an hour you can see how long it took to get some music at the time.

When playing in bands in high school, I bought as many records as I could afford — and I still have most of them today. The Ventures, Booker T. and the M.G.s’ “Green Onions,” Seattle’s Fabulous Wailers, the original “Louie Louie” by Richard Berry, Freddie King’s “Hideaway” and so many more.

Over the years I bought LP albums at the local stores on sale for as little as three for a dollar. I purchased many by the box at yard sales, always looking for blues and older rock albums.

Collecting records and music you like can be something anyone can do with a limited amount of money. Of course, like anything you can get into more expensive investments. However, the point is really not what it’s worth, but what it means to you.

From the Beatles’ butcher cover to “Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay,” presidential speeches, Buddy Holly’s “Chirping Crickets”, Mae West’s “Way Out West” and soundtracks to movies like “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” and “Night of the Hunter,” there are endless works to collect.

Many CDs are becoming collectible as well. Since many are put out for a limited time, this is also an area to keep an eye on.

Don’t overlook 45 rpm records and soundtracks. They can be worth more than most would think. A single record may be the only work that an artist ever put out.

Picture discs are another interesting part of collecting. Most are limited-edition versions and can have pressing problems, but are fun to collect. Promo or radio station records are usually worth more than the standard release as well.

At one time I bought all of the records a radio station had for five cents each. Since many labels would send a country station lots of rock records, it was a great source for some super deals. Collecting today is made much easier with eBay and the Internet.

Not all the record studio ideas were good ones. One very unsuccessful idea was the Phillips pocket record. It was a floppy vinyl disk with a song on each side that was designed to put in your pocket. I don’t think anyone ever tested actually putting one in your pocket before they made these little things.

In Walla Walla we have a great store to visit and find many strange and collectible records: Jim McGuinn’s Hot Poop. Jim has some of the most interesting and unusual collectibles anywhere. Getting him to part with them may be another challenge all together.

Years ago I worked alone in his store a few times when he went to Grateful Dead concerts. I bet that he still has those unopened green vinyl Yardbirds albums hidden away in a box somewhere in that endless collection. Who else could sell us such greats as “Fish Heads” picture discs in the shape of a dead fish head, or square white “GrandMothers of Invention” classic vinyl?

Vinyl records are experiencing a comeback, with many mainstream artists releasing their new albums on a format they feel is superior to digital. This gives collectors many options.

Today due to the Internet and other sources, CD sales are down, and many artists are putting out their release with collectible items in the package.

I realize that many consider music today as being almost free, as we can often get copies from friends — even a full collection on a memory card. However, please remember that if we do not invest in what an artist puts out, it limits what can be created. Buy a CD or download from a site that gives the artist something for their work. We will all benefit


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