A Matter of Record

I can check off another item on my life list of things. It took only thirty years, but someone finally donated a cylinder recording, a 1919 Edison Amberol of Vernon Dalhart. This is not terrifically rare, as Vernon Dalhart was one of the earliest stars of country music. Some people claim his two landmark recordings, Wreck of the Old 97 and Prisoner’s Song, really started the whole genre. If you have any complaints about that (you could say he’s ultimately responsible for Miley Cyrus), please pass those on to him. I wasn’t even there.

It came in with an actual Edison cylinder phonograph, which may stay in the library: some authors whose papers reside at the Newberry dictated material onto Dictaphone cylinders, and until some computer which can easily read phonograph grooves comes along, this is a way to play them. The phonograph has a backstory which enhances its lustre, and makes it truly deserving of its place in the building.

The donor mentioned in passing that his father picked up the phonograph in the back yard while living in New York. Their house backed onto the property of Homer and Langley Collyer, and the machine was tossed out when their collection was dispersed.

The fame of the Collyer Brothers is an iffy thing: some people appear not to have heard of them at all. And yet they are mentioned a couple of times a year by people passing through my work area. Some people think they’re mighty funny.

Homer and Langley seem to have led sort of normal lives for the first forty or fifty years. Homer practiced law, Langley was a concert pianist. They lived in a four-story home their father, a doctor, had bought. They were a trifle creative in the paying of bills, but didn’t miss the phone when it was cut off, nor the electricity or even the heat.

Things apparently slid out of control in 1933, when Homer’s eyesight failed. He seldom went out after that, while Langley gave up his job to take care of Homer. Langley decided on a special diet which would cure his brother, and read to him in the evenings. He liked to have lots of reading material around.

He died of this reading material in 1947. Paranoid about burglars, he had rigged up boobytraps amid the 140 tons of books, newspapers, toys, and other souvenirs (including a Ford). Triggering one of these, he was crushed under hundreds of pounds of newspaper. Homer, who had no way of getting out, starved to death waiting for someone to notice.

The Collyer Brothers are poster children for the Anti-Hoarder folks. Writer after writer points to the bizarre life of the Collyers, with the rats and decay and rusty baby carriages, to point up the horror of hoarding.

Picky picky picky.

Not every collector is QUITE so obsessed as Langley, and remember, if nobody saved the things other people throw out, there not only would be no Book Fairs, but no Newberry-type establishments. AND I would not now be selling a cylinder recording of Vernon Dalhart singing “Carolina Sunshine”. Okay, maybe the Collyers did not set out to make that little dream of mine come true, but we could at least give them a little credit for the way it turned out.

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