Michael Dunn, fire captain of Milwaukee, and an avid fiddler. It was in Dunn’s former home that the cylinders were discovered, by his grandson David. (O’Neill, 1913: 360)
between reading a transcript and hearing a musician. “It’s the same tune, but each time they play it, it’s different. And that’s the magic of it,” said Spencer, who heads an Irish music study center at NYU. “What you see on the printed page is an ironed- out version of what they’re playing on those recordings. And if they were to play what’s written on the page there three times in a row, it would be really boring. But what you’re hearing in the recording is the magic between the notes, which really makes this tradition interesting and fun and vital.” He continued, “I’ve read the names and I’ve read the transcriptions that are on the printed page. And to hear the difference between that and what’s played in the recording is...I think that’s what’s knocking us all over.”
“It’s exciting to actually hear people play who mostly I only ever read about,” said Meade, a respected independent scholar, journalist, and musician. “Like that recording of Ed- ward Cronin. I’ve never heard Edward Cronin play. There are no recordings available. This may be the only one.” Moloney, who is an award-winning musician, an NEA National Heritage Fellow, and a folklorist on the faculty of NYU, commented on the quality of all the musicians: “It’s very, very good. I would say it’s the finest of what was around at the time; because those people are very calm, their rhythm is perfect. When you read O’Neill writing about these great players and you don’t actu- ally hear their music it’s one thing. When you actually hear them it’s another matter.” Groce, a folklorist and musician who recently joined the AFC’s staff after eight years at the Smithson- ian Institution, pointed out, “because of the mechanics of the cylinders’ playback, it’s hard to tell just how fast they’re playing. But their execution, at whatever speed, is very impressive.”
As an example of how the cylinders can give careful listeners insight into playing styles, the experts noted that the fiddlers
were playing the tunes the way pipers would play them. Meade explained, “McFadden’s letting the bow hit the D string when it resolves in an A like that, gives it a real pipey kind of sound.” This pipe-like style is a valuable confirmation of other available evidence about how fiddlers steeped in the pipe tradition play. “As the principal instrument for dance music in Ireland, the pipes preceded the fiddle and dominated,” Meade explained. “So [musicians would] pick up some of the elements of how it sounds on the pipes and try and transfer it over to the fiddle.”
The old-fashioned quality of the sound also impressed the experts. Spencer pointed out that players are “bending” the notes a little, “flattening things or sharpening things just a little bit,” while “modern-day players tend to play precisely in tune.” Meade commented on McFadden’s performance, “Some of the things that he puts on the tune you just don’t hear anymore… the slides are a really old sound. Fiddle players nowadays are looking everywhere to find older versions of things,” he added. “People will go nuts!”
“There have been rumors about these cylinders for years,” marveled Groce. “It’s remarkable not only that they were found, but that they made their way to two excellent archives, where researchers will be able to study them.” Stapleton agrees, and looks forward to continuing the Ward Archive’s research. “When the cylinders were transferred and we could hear each tune announced by someone, that was a magical moment,” he said. “Who was announcing? Who was record- ing? Who else was in the room at the time? Here I thought that getting the cylinders transferred would be the ending of a great mystery. It’s clear to me now that it’s only the beginning.”
Rare finds such as the O’Neill cylinders add a great deal to the treasure trove of musical and cultural heritage in the American Folklife Center’s archive. Scholars and musicians for genera- tions to come are sure to benefit from the preservation and pre- sentation of the thirty-two lost cylinders—now, finally, found. m
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