BIDDEFORD, Maine (AP) — One of two copies of the oldest known recording of a black vocal group in the U.S. is up for auction — a recording so rare and delicate that the auctioneer doesn’t dare try to play it.
The 1893 recording of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” by the Unique Quartet pre-dates vinyl recordings. The song was recorded on a wax-covered cylinder using technology invented by Thomas Edison. It can only be played on a special cylinder player that was a predecessor to phonographs, which played flat, vinyl discs, said Troy Thibodeau, manager of Saco Bay Auctions.
The 120-year-old recording, along with a second Unique Quartet song, “Who Broke the Lock (on the Henhouse Door)?” from 1896, came from a Portland collector who amassed 3,000 of the old cylinder recordings.
“They’re in fantastic shape,” Thibodeau said Wednesday, carefully showing off the smooth cylinder covered in brown wax on which the music resides in etched grooves. “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.”
Both cylinders are up for auction on Saturday, along with hundreds of other items, including a shirt belonging to George Custer, the cavalry captain who died in 1876 while fighting Indians at Little Bighorn in Montana.
Cylinder recordings are becoming rare, and recordings of black artists even more rare.
There are so few cylinders that have the historical significance of the Unique Quarter recordings that it’s hard to know how much they might sell for. An appraiser believes they’ll go for $25,000 or more — apiece.