On November 2, 1923, African-American Blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver sat in front of the large horn/”microphone” of the acoustic recording machine in the New York City studios of OKeh Records. He played and recorded two original instrumental guitar pieces that day: “Guitar Blues” and “Guitar Rag.” The resulting 78-rpm record stands as the first recordings of solo acoustic Blues guitar music.
Two weeks earlier, on October 23, 1923, in the same studio and also for OKeh Records, Sylvester Weaver was the guitarist on the session that produced the first record by a Classic Blues singer where the only accompaniment was an acoustic guitar. The singer was Sara Martin and the songs were “Longing For Daddy Blues” and “I’ve Got to Go and Leave My Daddy Behind.”
The success of these initial recordings led to Sylvester Weaver cutting 25 more sides with Sara Martin, making 24 more solo recordings and recording several duets with guitarist and occassional-singer Walter Beasley. In 1927, Weaver’s recording career ended and he returned to his home town of Louisville, Kentucky.
Sylvester Weaver, born on July 25, 1987, passed away, in Louisville, on April 4, 1960.
That’s pretty much all that is known about Sylvester Weaver.
But it is enough.
When I listen to “Guitar Blues,” all I need to know is: this record is the beginning.
When I listen and the first notes start creeping up through the dense fog of scratches, pops and surface noise from the original 78-rpm record, I find myself turning an ear towards the speaker or closing my eyes, putting my hands over the headphones and leaning forward, straining to catch every glimpse of the music. Listening to this music feels like stepping into the frame of a faded, sepia-toned photograph. Old recordings such as this are the sounds of ghosts.
I’ve seen re-enactments of what it was like making records in the days before electric microphones and long before tape recorders. In these films, there is a Jazz band or small orchestra being recorded and the musicians are positioned in careful proximity to the sound-capturing horn, softest instruments in front, loudest further back, so that the resulting record has a full and balanced sound.
I can thus picture Sylvester Weaver, the lone guitarist, sitting right up close to that horn and playing loud, pulling the notes from his instrument and pushing them up towards and, hopefully, down into the gaping mouth. I imagine that it took several test recordings and “takes,” this being the first time for recording this kind of music, before everyone was satisfied that a releaseable “best” of each piece had been made.
The actual 78-rpm records were made of shellac: thick, brittle, easily broken and record companies reserved the highest quality record-making material for their serious, Classical music releases. It’s a wonder that any copies of “Guitar Blues” or similar music from the 1920’s survived into the digital era.
But thanks to a small, passionate (yes: obsessed) group of record collectors who started back in the 1940s building and sharing collections of these fragile gems, we can still hear this music. They saved these recordings from certain extinction and allowed the music they contained to be preserved for future generations of enlightened listeners.
Check it out.
How fortunate we are to have had folks who had the vision, the sense of historical preservation, and simply the love of music, to make the effort to preserve these old recordings. We take so much for granted today; recordings are easy to make, to store, to share, whatever. How many younger folks today appreciate the fact not long before their grandfathers were born, there was no recorded music.
Listening to ghosts…yes, exactly what it is. 87 years ago. And we’re fortunate to sit here and listen to it.
This is a great post Eric. Thanks for sharing.