350 Jersey Songs: Suzanne Vega does ‘Tom’s Diner’ at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Suzanne re-recorded a version of her hit, "Tom's Diner," using wax cylinder technology, in West Orange in 2012.

Suzanne Vega re-recorded a version of her hit, “Tom’s Diner,” using wax cylinder technology, in West Orange in 2012.

We started yesterday with “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” by the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir, under the direction of Alex Bradford, a 1960 live recording that is a great example of the vibrant music that can be found in Newark’s churches every Sunday.

Today, we’re going in a very different direction.

The video below is of Suzanne Vega performing “Tom’s Diner”; Vega is a New Yorker, and the song doesn’t have anything to do with the Garden State. (Tom’s Diner is based on Tom’s Restaurant, which is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.) It’s being included here because the video captures Vega recording a new version of it on a wax cylinder, in 2012, at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange.

Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” invented the phonograph in 1877. His original method was to record the sound onto tinfoil sheet cylinders; others started using wax cylinders, though, and Edison adopted this method as well. By the late 1880s, his Edison Records company and other leading record companies were all using it.

Soon, though, disc recordings were introduced, and by the end of the 1920s, they had become the dominant recording form, and cylinders were no longer used.

The sound of wax cylinder is not as pristine as we’ve come to expect from modern technology, but it has a certain sepia-toned charm to it, as you can hear at the end of the video below, when the actual recording plays.

(The man blowing on the wax cylinder, by the way, is not trying to cool it down, but is blowing off wax shavings so they won’t interfere with the stylus and distort the sound.)

The Thomas Edison National Historical Park occasionally does recording projects similar to this one. In 2003, I wrote an article for The Star-Ledger about a session that Peter, Paul & Mary did, recording “If I Had a Hammer.” (The session was filmed for a documentary that was going to show many musicians at similar sessions, but, unfortunately, the documentary was never finished or released in any form).

New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.

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