Home recording didn’t really take off until after 1941 when those relatively inexpensive Wilcox-Gaye Recordio machines made homemade records a reality without blowing a bunch of dough. But for those who could afford them, electronic disk recorders had been around since 1930. The first disk I’ve encoded for this post was actually made in 1939, making it one of the earliest amateur recordings I’ve gotten my hands on.
This World War Two era set of disks is a collection of audio snapshots capturing a few blissful moments in the lives of Edward Engel and his son John. The first is a dispatch from dad spending yet another day at the New York World’s Fair
in Queens. It’s a crisp autumn afternoon, and ol’ Edward sounds to be a guy at the top of his game. More to the point, this brief greeting has a visceral cosmic quality I occasionally hear in old amateur recordings. Perhaps inspired by the futuistic theme
of the fair itself
, Edward intimately understands that talking into this state-of-the-art device puts him in direct communication with posterity (i.e. you and I). And for a minute and half you can let go of the illusion of linear time and lend an ear to Mr. Engel.
I can’t help but think of how much I wish I could find myself on the other side of this little rift in time. I mean, just how fantastic would it be to to back to "The World of Tomorrow"? And stroll around Flushing Meadows checking out wonders like the "Radio Living Room of Today" and the "Hall of Television"? The future was just a lot more fun back then.
But aside from the daydreaming potetial, what makes this recording so special to me is how graceful and genuine it is. It’s not a religious blessing he offers, but a real and human one. He wishes the listener good health, happiness, and a long life. Imagine, an antidote to irony…
The next one is a little different. It’s Edward again, this time offering a toast or testimonial to a couple hosting a gathering which has provided him the relaxing blood-alcohol level evident in this recording. It’s 1941 here. And notice how impressed he is with Tony’s home audio technology– the beautiful radio and the "rekkids are perfect." It’s not hard to imagine, is it? Glowing dials in wood cabinets. Tube-warmed jazz. It must have been a good night.
Now we move on to the son, John L. Engel. I believe dad makes the introduction. John praises bachelorhood and makes funny with the microphone. Running out of material in short order, he gets lost setting up a convulted joke for the rest of the recording. Of course, disks aren’t like recording wire or magnetic tape. You can’t rewind and re-record a bad take.
This next one is an artifact from John’s engagement party, which should place its creation to some time in the mid-40’s. The formula here– booze + friends + love = one loud-n-sloppy serenade. It’s congenial and cacaphonous. A lotta love. Again, this sounds like it was a swell party too.
While these records were all made during the course of WW2, there’s no mention of it except for on this one recording. John certainly seems young and healthy enough to assume he had some role in the war effort, but this pile of records offers no clues. Like most folks back then, John was caught up in the weighty issues of the day and this recording finds him prognosticating on how history is about to unfold. He guesses the Allies will win in Europe in six months (it only took two more). And his other two big predictions are right on the money.
On this next record you get Mr. John Engel over the top and quite pleased with himself. He’s "sings" “Mairzy Dotes,” probably the most popular novelty song of the era. At the time of this recording, it was a big hit for the Pied Pipers. Engel adds a bit more nonesense to a tune that’s already pretty silly. Quite a set of lungs on this guy.
Okay, here’s the last disk. The sweetest of the bunch. John and Jane have been married for exactly a year, and they still sound pretty darn happy about it. It’s December 1946 and they’re doing their part to get the baby boom underway.
It appears that John has warmed up to matrimony just fine. And they’re so damn sincere, it almost makes your teeth hurt. The "little angel for Engel" is due in June.
Jane imagines this recording is a private affair, made solely for their own enjoyment. But like his father, John is all too aware that futuristic strangers might pick it up one day and have a listen. Hello stranger!
It’s easy to wax nostalgic listening to captured moments like these. After all, people don’t generally archive the hard times and the grief, and all the plans gone wrong. Snapshots are inherently created to generate nostalgia as well as offer a little eternity to moments in time. As much as they’re not unfiltered or random, these audio images give you a flavor of time and place you won’t find in an old book or a movie. They speak to you.