What Was the Original “Record Album”?

by Dick Bowden

click photo to enlarge

This Contest is Closed
The winners are:
Andy Bing
Al Gassman
Rob Lipton
Dick Stock

Nowadays you’ll hear band leaders talking about their latest “project”, meaning their latest recording project. Some still call them “records”, although “records” have long been out of production, or made only made for hobbyists/specialists. A few decades ago band leaders would plug their latest “album” (or in many cases, these old country boys, including Bill Monroe, said “albun”). After the late 1980s “CD” became the preferred product, and bluegrassers would interchangeably call them CDs, records and albums/albuns. And a few will remember in the 1970s and 80s when bands would sell their “tapes”!!

So where did the term “album” come from? What did it mean? Prior to 1956 and the arrival of the 33 1/3 rpm LP (Long Play), you bought either a 78 or 45 rpm “record” or “single” (even though it had two songs, one on each side…go figure).


What sort of recording product was first called an “album” (“albun”)?

A. A thick cardboard cover with a color photo on the front made a “record” an “album”.

B. A special new “record” product of the 1950s, a 45 rpm with 4 or 6 songs using very tiny grooves, was the first “album”.

C. 33 1/3 rpm Long Plays (LPs) were the first “albums”.

D. A collection of several singles (78s were first) in individual blank paper sleeves, all packaged in a printed cardboard carton or book, was the original “album”. Like Roy Acuff’s late 1940s square dance 10-song “album” of five 78s, or “The Harry Smith Anthology”. Named after a photo album!

E. Records with jackets that included detailed discographies as liner notes were the first “albums” because of the plentiful reading material.


Additional Bowden Comments
Well done to the four winners!

A record “album”, originally, was like a photo album. A cardboard book-like construction with individual “pages” which were paper sleeves containing one 78 rpm record with two sides of music. I understand it was also possible to buy after-market cardboard “books” with empty sleeves, to assemble your own “album” of individual 78s that you acquired separately.

It still tickles me to hear tapes of Monroe or Jimmy Martin talking about their latest “albun”.

The only original album I have ever seen was the Roy Acuff 5-record album (10 songs) of square dance tunes fiddled by Tommy Magness with Brother Oswald playing the banjo 2-finger style. About 1948-49. VERY VERY close to bluegrass! It had cartoon-like illustration on the cover.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

4 Responses

  • The answer is D.
    I have albums with a number of single songs, each on a 78 from the same artist dating back to the 30s.

  • D a folio of singles, originally 78s. Longer works of music such as symphonies or operas required multiple discs. So did collections of more than a few songs. A famous example, Merle Travis’s “Folk Songs of the Hills” album, which gave us “Sixteen Tons,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” was first issued on an album containing multiple 78s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *