The guitarist, Henry Whitter, slid his chair across the floor to bring his instrument a little closer to the recording machine’s sound-gathering horn. A harmonica dangled from his neck on a wire truss; he made a tentative puff on it and looked over to the man behind the controls.
Next to Whitter was Kelly Harrell, a singer who’d traveled down with him from the same part of Virginia. Harrell tugged absently at his shirt collar. He cleared his throat.
“You boys ready?” the engineer asked. The men nodded. They shouldn’t have been so nervous—they’d made recordings before, after all—but then, you never got used to it. Making things worse was the fact that the room was so damn hot. They’d been in here for just a few minutes, but already their shirts were soaked through with sweat.
And now it was time. The engineer made a three count and tilted a finger their way. On the bed of the machine before them, a wax platter began spinning. As it turned, a metal blade sliced into it and trimmed a delicate rind from its surface. Whitter led the song off, puffing the melody out on his harmonica once around before Harrell squared his body to the horn and began to sing:
I was borned about ten thousand years ago
There was nothing ever happened I don’t know
I saw Pharaoh and his daughter shooting craps for a quarter
And I heard him say, ‘Oh girl I’ve won your dough.’
The voice was an odd quantity. Phrases spilled from Harrell’s mouth in a long and lagging way. He inserted dips and swoops in his verses, beating words that didn’t have an obvious relationship with each other into something like a rhyme. It was strange voice, but it sold records.