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Columbia Records' sound-rich legacy
January 4th, 2013
12:42 PM ET

CNN Profiles: America's new sound

Hosted by Michael Schulder

Follow on Twitter: @MichaelSchulder

Editor's Note: Listen to the full interview in our player above, and join the conversation in our comments section below.

(CNN) - I hope listening to this podcast will be like getting the door to your mind kicked open.

I wish I’d been the one to turn that phrase – getting the door to your mind kicked open.

But it was Bruce Springsteen describing a moment in a Bob Dylan song – a moment you’ll hear in this week’s CNN Profiles.

It’s one of the many delights delivered by our guest, historian Sean Wilentz, who has written “360 Sound,” a book on the oldest label in the recording industry: Columbia Records.

The story begins in the 1870s, with Thomas Edison, who was pretty obsessed at the time with the technology of sending messages long distances.

Edison was putting the finishing touches on one of his new machines, the telegraph, when, writes Wilentz, “he hit upon the idea of transcribing sounds on a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil.”

And so, the phonograph was born.

But even the vision of visionaries has limits.

Edison, Wilentz writes, put together a list of ten possible uses of the phonograph. Number one was dictation. Two: Phonographic books for the blind. Three: The teaching of elocution. And fourth on Edison’s list: recorded music.

In fairness, that first Edison phonograph could not reproduce music well. But Edison’s phonograph evolved, just as all great technologies must.

And soon, as Wilentz documents in his history of Columbia Records’ 125 years, listening to music at home – music made by professionals not created by family members and friends – would change the sound of our lives.

A godsend for parents who could afford it. As a Columbia ad touted in the early years of the 20th century:

“Parents find this great entertainer the best and most wholesome means of making home more attractive than the street.”

We’ll be sampling a lot of music in this show – from marching band master John Philip Sousa, whose father refused to let him pursue his dream, to Billie Holiday singing a blues standard I never realized she co-wrote, to Sinatra, Dylan, and more.

It’s striking how little uniformity there has been under the umbrella of this single label.

Which leads to a challenge that we in the journalism profession share with the music industry and many others– the challenge to create a distinctive voice.

How does a business that’s all about sound thrive when it doesn’t have a distinctive voice – an identifiable sound?

Sean Wilentz’s answer may kick open the door to your mind.

Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. And listen to CNN Profiles on our SoundCloud page.

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. 50on50

    oops – Sal – you're right - Lady Day wasn't in written piece - but she is in the audio podcast. A great clip of sound and backstory. Michael Schulder

    January 5, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. 50on50

    Dear Moose Lips - many amazing pix in the book. Sorry we couldn't use more.
    Sal – Lady Day in the written piece and podcast. Betty Carter's take on her is on my private playlist "Don't Weep for the Lady ..."
    Linda -thank you. And I'm still not sure. Something about the warmth of the sound of the LPs still gets me. But I can't use them when I'm running. So if I have to choose – digital it is.
    Russ – my impression was that, while Edison was a telegraph operator, he did make important innovations to that technology. I'll do more research or feel free to leave reputable link in comments - I appreciate it.
    Tim – that is quite a juxtaposition. Could do a whole show on that leap certainly.
    And Riddley – thank you for the compliment AND the insight about the low hanging fruit. To me - if it's fascinating and I didn't know it and it can change my perspective on something important it's breaking news. Amazing how few people chasing that definition of news.
    Thanks to all for listening. Michael Schulder

    January 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Moose Lips

    What no pics of the Minnesota Bard? Bob Dylan is like THE GUY for Columbia. Was very pleased to see two pics of Mile Davis... Where is Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus? Santana – VERY important to the American music catalog.

    January 5, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sal

    Don't forget Billie Holiday. Some of Lady Day's best work was recorded when she was with Columbia.

    January 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dave Kaspersin

    One of there Biggest Stars was Chuck Mangione.

    January 5, 2013 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. palintwit

    I looking for a recording of Sarah Palin's greatest speeches.

    January 5, 2013 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • JohnNmichigan

      There is no such thing....For there to be a great speech it must have been delivered by an intellect of historian proportion. Sarah Palin was an undereducated woman that used her past to become an opportunist for own wealth.

      January 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. lindaluttrell

    Good article! The book should be an interesting read. As much as I enjoy listening to records on my old "graphophone," nothing bets digital!

    January 5, 2013 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  8. Superiormind

    Thank God for JEWS!

    January 5, 2013 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  9. Russ

    Um, Edison didn't invent the telegraph, as inferred in the written story above, though he started out as a telegraph operator.

    January 5, 2013 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Mabel Schwartz

      Implied, not inferred.

      January 5, 2013 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Tim

    Wow from a tune called 'Whistling Coon' to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue in the span of a few decades. That's progress I suppose.

    January 5, 2013 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. Riddley

    In early recordings "stamina was as important as quality". Not unlike today, in some ways. Lolol.

    This is an amusing low-key interview of Sean Wilentz, who wrote a book about Columbia Records.

    Being a historian, but also a large contributor to Wikipedia, it bemuses me how much encyclopedic "low hanging fruit" is just a few decades behind us, while Internet adolescents focus on every detail of Lady Gaga concerts and recent TV shows.

    January 5, 2013 at 7:08 am | Report abuse |
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