A popular feature in the latter years of the late John Peel’s radio show was the ‘Pig’s Big 78’, a daily dose of pre-war esoterica introduced by his wife Sheila. It could be a classic old blues, jazz or hillbilly number, some music hall novelty or something quite bizarre and singular. Some of these were anthologised on a CD collection released by Trikont last year (John Peel And Sheila: The Pig’s Big 78s: A Beginner’s Guide). For those fascinated by the early years of recorded history, there is one website that has to be visited – Oregon-based collector Tyrone Settlemier’s huge Online 78rpm Discographical Project.
The site is nothing less than an ongoing attempt to catalogue every 78 ever issued from the format’s inception in the first decade of the twentieth century to it’s late fifties death throes. The list goes from Actuelle to Zonophone, and each label is accompanied by links to between one and forty large spreadsheets listing releases in catalogue number order. The Columbia listings alone contain more than 10,000 different records. The majority of entries are for US labels, but there are an increasing number being added from Europe and the Commonwealth. Currently there are more than 130 different labels on the site ranging from the familiar Victor, Paramount and Blue Note to obscurities like Nordskog, Lasso and Flexo.
Each listing gives the artist, A and B side titles, catalogue and matrix numbers, recording dates and composers (where available) and cross references to any other issues of the same recordings. The thing can be a little unwieldy, especially if you are searching for a list of records by a particular artist rather than wanting a label breakdown. There is, however, a link to an external cross-reference database at the Honking Duck where you can search by artist or song title. A search for “Tiger Rag” came up with 74 different recordings, as well as many others such as “New Tiger Rag”, “Old Tiger Rag”, “Tiger Rag Blues” etc.
It’s easy to get lost in this site, wondering what all these old records sound like, and who on earth Judson House, Gladys Wilbur and Adeline Francis were (all recorded for Columbia in 1917). Some of these recordings will no longer exist except, perhaps, in a distant childhood memory. Others will sit forgotten in the back rooms of dusty old junk shops. Very few will have been dusted down and reissued for the digital age. Perhaps that should be a new project. To preserve this material for posterity, and make it available via download.