The cylinders rotate on a machine that looks like an early Victrola-style player. A needle fits in the wax grooves as the cylinder spins. Such players still exist, but the wax degrades with each playing. Later phonographs featured flat platters and vinyl recordings that lasted far longer than wax.
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 in Chicago.
Marovich said he holds out hope that more of the old music could turn up. “Finding this one serves as a well of hope that maybe some more of them are out there,” he said in a telephone interview.
It’s startling how soon music can be lost.
Robert Darden, who’s working to save the music by digitizing existing vinyl recordings through the Black Music Restoration Project, estimates that 75 percent of gospel music recorded on vinyl from 1940 to 1970 has disappeared.
“All pre-digital black sacred music is at risk. The cylinders are made from pressed, hardened wax and grow brittle and chipped with age. Vinyl 78s, 45s, and LPs were melted down and recycled as part of the war effort during World War II,” said Darden, who’s a professor at Baylor University in Texas.