BIDDEFORD, MAINE – A 120-year-old wax-covered cylinder containing the earliest known recording of a black vocal group in the U.S. was sold at auction Saturday.
Discovered in a private collection in Portland, Maine, the 1893 recording of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” by the New York-based Unique Quartet was one of only two copies known to exist and sold for $1,100. The other resides in the Library of Congress.
A second Unique Quartet song, “Who Broke the Lock (on the Henhouse Door)?” from 1896, sold at the same auction for $1,900. Both predate vinyl records.
Another black group, the Standard Quartet, is credited with making earlier cylinder recordings than the Unique Quartet, but none of those recordings exist today, said Bob Marovich, a gospel music historian.
The recordings were so rare that auctioneers at Saco River Auction Co. had no idea how much they might fetch. An appraiser had suggested they were worth $25,000 or more each before the auction.
“They’re in fantastic shape,” said Troy Thibodeau, manager of Saco Bay Auctions. “All it takes is a little bit of heat or a little bit of cold, and these things are junk. So, for more than 100 years, someone really took care of these things and treasured them.”
The cylinder recordings were played on an early-style phonograph that had the appearance of a Victrola-style player. But the music was etched in wax on cylinders instead of in the grooves of vinyl records, which were popular throughout the 20th century.
The wax was so fragile that auctioneers didn’t dare try to play them.
Robert Darden, who is working to save black gospel music by digitizing existing vinyl recordings through the Black Music Restoration Project, said all pre-digital black sacred music is at risk, including music on cylinders, vinyl 78s, 45s and LPs, and cassette recordings.