Smut: The Earliest Recordings

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IN 1997 Bruce Young, a collector of memorabilia from the early phonograph era, placed a newly acquired 100-year-old wax cylinder record on his Edison Standard Model D player and heard a surprising sound: a young man saying filthy words. It was a 2 minute 25 second poetic recitation, suggestively titled “The Virtues of Raw Oysters,” written in the voice of a sexually voracious woman. “I never had it but twice in my life/Make me, just for tonight, your dear little wife,” went one of the few lines suitable for newspaper quotation on a recording laced with curse words and hair-raising sexual slang.

"My wife and I just stared at each other in disbelief,” Mr. Young said, recalling that first listening session. “We were just amazed that that kind of language — what you think of as very naughty late-20th-century schoolyard talk — would exist in the 1800s.” Mr. Young realized that he had stumbled on one of the earliest examples of audio indecency: a 19th-century record worthy of a parental advisory sticker.

Today it has one. “The Virtues of Raw Oysters” is one of 43 profane monologues, skits and other spoken-word curios on “Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s,” the newest release from Archeophone, a small label devoted to early sound recordings.

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