Sam Mayo - "Things are Worse in Russia" (Sprigs Of Time: 78s from the EMI Archive)
"Another and totally strange world of music and people was opened up to me. I was like a drug addict now, ever longing hungrily for newer and stranger fields of travel." Even without context, this is a statement to which many of us can relate. (I can only assume that the average Dusted reader is addicted to the culture of music discovery just as much as, maybe more than, the average Dusted writer.) The words were actually written by recording engineer Frederick Gaisberg, the man hired in 1898 by Emile Berliner of the Berliner Gramophone Company to establish a vast catalog of music recordings. This endeavor, along with the rampant technological advances in sound recording and playback in the first decades of the 20th century, sprouted the music industry as we know it today. By 1931, when the company merged with UK Columbia to form Electric & Musical Industries (EMI), an ever-expanding archive was housed in Hayes, Middlesex (just outside London), where it still accumulates today. That’s the fantastically large and diverse collection of music Honest Jon’s Mark Ainley sifted through to compile Sprigs of Time: 78s from the EMI Archive. He rewards listeners with 30 tracks that paint a wonderfully colorful portrait of a burgeoning record label with a world’s worth of music at its disposal.
Ainley’s choices range from 1903 to 1957 and span the globe from Tokyo to Constantinople, Baghdad to Bali, New York to Uganda. As far as I can tell, the music is sequenced in no particular order, and with such loose thematic constraints, it makes for a random but entertaining listen. For example, a string of songs on the B-side includes: a sultry female singer from Beirut performing with a talented and seemingly professional band in the mid-’50s; a cheery American singer from 1926 fervently strumming his ukulele; a recording from the turn of the 20th century that features a female Indian performer from a time when such things were only associated with the surly underbelly of society; and finally a Lincolnshire folk singer captured on acetate in 1908 reciting the poem "Sprig O’Thyme," which inspired this compilation’s namesake.
This appetite for diversity never waned for Berliner and company. The EMI Group continued to expand well past the early ethnomusicological studies displayed with this compilation and today ranks as one of the music industries four monolithic forces. Currently under the EMI umbrella sits the Capitol Music Group (Capitol, Virgin, Apple, Astralwerks, Priority), the Blue Note Label Group (Blue Note, Mosaic, Real World), Caroline Distribution (Caroline, DFA, Definitive Jux, Mute), Harvest, His Master’s Voice, Parlophone, and a good deal more. It’s hard to tell exactly which merger solidified EMI’s transition from honorable independent label and evil major empire. They lost sight of the commitment to bring a diverse selection of music to the public, which slowly mutated into the gluttonous acquisitions and redistribution of whatever happens to be selling best at the moment.
Luckily, with every major force in the music business comes an undercurrent of upstarts trying to improve on the system. And as labels like Honest Jon’s continue to show us, it is possible to grow gracefully within the industry. Sprigs of Time gives us a glimpse into the curious beginnings of Electric & Musical Industries, the Berliner Gramophone Company, and in turn, the popular music trade that seems to enrapture us all. Not only does it make for an enjoyable and interesting listen, but it also feels slightly important in the further understanding of what makes this runaway train chug on so incessantly.