One Mic, One Take, One Dollar

The World of Fonotone Records

by Whitney Strub

30 May 2006

In these days of easy file-sharing and unlimited access to information, the Fonotone box set provides a welcome respite, a point of entry to a bygone era when people had to put effort into chasing their passions, when the thrill of the hunt meant more than a Google search, and when the mechanics of record-trading meant more than an IM conversation on Soulseek.

Editor’s note: All the audio samples in this feature are in streaming Real Audio format. You can download the Real player here.

eature are in streaming Real Audio format. You can download the Real player here.

Fonotone Records issued its first releases in 1956, charging exactly one dollar (plus shipping) for its 78 rpm records. When it closed shop in 1970 it was still charging a single buck for its products, despite an inflationary decade-plus that left the purchasing power of the dollar reduced by over a third. This monetary fixity was the least of Fonotone’s intransigencies; from its perversely obsolete format to the musical sounds etched into that vinyl, the label held firm and fast to a backward-looking vision of musical authenticity uncorrupted by the consumerist tendencies of the contemporary rock and pop worlds.

The Fonotone Box
Samples of each song

That vision came from Fonotone founder Joe Bussard, who has compiled the Fonotone Records box set in collaboration with Dust-to-Digital, the Atlanta label known for its acclaimed 2003 Goodbye, Babylon collection of gospel music. The earlier collection drew off Bussard’s massive personal holdings of early 20th century recordings, and so for Dust-to-Digital’s next large-scale project it must have seemed natural to recover Bussard’s own personal label.

But the Fonotone box set has higher aspirations than merely calling attention to an obscure basement label from Frederick, Maryland. Instead, it seeks to recreate an entire lost world, giving us a tangible feel for the disparate constellation of musicians who constituted the Fonotone galaxy, ranging from backwoods mountainfolk to studious college boys, with Bussard and his local pals serving as the median between the two categories. To that end, the set delivers not just five discs worth of old-time blues, country, gospel, and assorted other genres (up to and including bluegrass, the most recent musical trend Bussard could stomach), but also 17 postcards, some loose record labels, a bottle opener, a stunningly detailed 162-page book, and a crumpled-up invoice sheet, all lovingly packaged in a cigar box. Whatever one thinks of Bussard’s crusty demeanor (“Rock is a cancer on music,” he declares at one point in the book), it’s impossible not to be drawn into the Fonotone world.

That world was a giddy vortex of tooting jugs and clanging tablespoons, hyperactive banjos and restless mandolins. The first Fonotone record came out in April 1956; “Hillbilly’s Guitar”, played by the Hillbilly Boys (Bussard and a friend), was a simplistic little instrumental jaunt. Another early effort, Bill Hoffman and Bussard’s willfully sloppy take on Ray Price’s contemporary country hit “Crazy Arms”, represented an apparent effort to gain some market attention. None to speak of followed, and Bussard quickly developed a specific DIY ethic every bit as militant as that devised a quarter-century later one state over at the Dischord house. In Fonotone’s case, the law was one mic, one take, no electric instruments (“Ain’t no electric basses,” Bussard staunchly declares in the book; “I won’t allow none of that s**t”). Most of the label’s efforts were recorded in Bussard’s parents’ basement (he began Fonotone while a young man in the National Guard) and consisted of Bussard and friends, along with the occasional random visitor (sometimes truly random: the credits for one 1964 track include “unidentified 78 record collector” on guitar). To fill out the roster Bussard also undertook field-recording expeditions into rural towns in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and elsewhere, as much to score old 78s from the locals as to record them.

Joe Birchfield
“Cackling Hen”

Personalities quickly emerge upon listening to the set. Bussard himself holds court at the center, playing a variety of instruments with numerous permutations of his core group of friends. Bob Coltman and Ted Kreh are two of the most commonly-recurring figures, and Jolly Joe’s Jug Band and the Georgia Jokers provide two of the motley crew’s favorite band names. These names could vary depending on time of day or mood of song; when Bussard, Coltman, harmonica player Oscar Myers, and mandolinist Jerry Marcum sought righteousness in 1964 on “Lay My Armor Down” (“I’m gonna stand on the word of God, ‘til he comes”), they released it as Gabriel’s Holy Testifiers. Two months later, the trio minus Marcum recorded the traditional “Sugar in My Gourd” (whose title is described as “a euphemism for completed coitus” by Andrew Kuntz’s comprehensive Fiddler’s Companion), and this time it went out under the winking name Bald Knob Chicken Snatchers.

Among the musicians present here, Bussard recedes to the background despite his ubiquity; he’s a better fan and collector than artist, and the tracks on which he leads tend to be the most anonymous of the bunch. Bob Coltman emerges more vividly, playing a sprightly mandolin. Though his voice lacks the weight and grit to carry the classic blues song “The Crowing Rooster”, he ably croons his way through the delightful country-folk of “Got to Get a Little More”. Oscar Myers, described in liner notes as “not very bright… a little retarded”, unobtrusively occupies the background with his harmonica on a plethora of tracks, and it’s a testament to the box set’s narrative pull that when he finally steps to the fore with a solo harmonica track on disc four it’s a high point of the collection—not because the song is particularly notable, but because a favorite bit player gets his moment in the spotlight.

Fonotone’s field recordings document a sizeable cross-section of under-the-radar mid-1960s rural music. The performers come from perspectives a bit different from Bussard’s; whereas the young label head looked backward to the 1920s through a lens of romanticization, some of these artists simply remained steeped in the folkways of the past, far removed from Beatlemania and other contemporary trends. Some even acted as living relics of bygone days, such as Uncle Bern of the Pleasantdale, West Virginia Whitacre Family, who wields a mean fiddle at the age of 92 in a 1965 recording. Bussard followed the music wherever it took him; one great spiritual, “My Savior Died for Me” by brothers W.R. and W.E. Barnes, was recorded in a basement boiler room at Eastern Kentucky College, where the Barneses worked as janitors, in 1964.

Virginia Mountains No. 1

Then there are those who sought Bussard out, either because of Fonotone’s well-known reputation in collector circles or simply to barter for selections from his 78s archive. Several relatively well-known folk and blues artists contributed, always under assumed names that fit the Fonotone aesthetic. Thus folkie Stefan Grossman recorded some tasteful, sober sides as Kid Future, while experimental guitar legend John Fahey cut his wilder 78s as Blind Thomas. Though the box set intersperses such name-brand acts among the rural musicians and the Bussard posse, the Blind Thomas tunes are clearly a main attraction here, as we get an insight into Fahey’s youthful development. He does some craggy blues singing and impressive five-finger picking, but he also leaves the Fonotone framework behind on the 1961 cut “Weissman Blues”, where he undertakes some jarring slides that portend the shape of experimentation to come.

For the most part, all three facets of Fonotone are exemplary. Every now and then Jolly Joe’s Jug Band will lapse into a sloppy mess of a recording (see “Trestle Blues” on disc four), but for the most part these songs keep self-indulgence in check, recreating old styles not as ossified museum pieces to be experienced through display-case windows, but as raucous barn-stompers ready to throw down a hoedown. Indeed, only occasional references to current events break the spell, as songs about Apollo 8 and the 1968 Pueblo incident in North Korea remind the listener that this is not the 1920s but an elaborate simulacrum. Sometimes these tangents work; Coltman and Bussard’s simplistic but touching “The Death of John Kennedy”, written and released quickly in November 1963, actually holds up better than comparable material like the Byrds’ maudlin take on “He Was a Friend of Mine” (it also shows the limited scale of the Fonotone project: liner notes describe it as selling 500-1,000 copies). Other times they don’t work so well; Bussard’s 1962 tribute to astronaut John Glenn earned him a letter of thanks, but the song is painfully trite and laden with knee-jerk Cold War nationalism.

One would be remiss in failing to note an unsavory element in the Fonotone parade of fun: the paucity of black participation. Clarence Foss, an elderly black West Virginian who lived in an “old shack” without electricity, cut a few potently raw tracks for Fonotone, but the faces that populate the photo-heavy book are overwhelmingly white. Certainly Bussard knew much about African American musical traditions; among the points of pride in his personal collection are not just the complete works of the lily-white Jimmie Rodgers, but also extensive Louis Armstrong jazz recordings, and his recordings often cover songs written or popularized by black artists. But black musicians find very little direct representation here, and at multiple points in the liner notes white Fonotone artists emphasize that their music provided a passport of sorts into black parts of town other whites couldn’t access—as clear and unself-conscious a construction of African Americans as the Other one is likely to find.

Possum Holler Boys
“Sugar Tree Stomp”

Granted, race relations in American history, particularly as mediated by pop culture, constitute an intricate set of (largely unilateral) fetishizations and reifications too complex to unpack here. But while Bussard and crew never fall prey to the sanctimonious “soulfulness” of, say, Eric Clapton’s fixation with Robert Johnson, they certainly partake in what ethnic studies professor George Lipsitz labels “the possessive investment in whiteness” as they appropriate black traditions from the comfort of their racial privilege. The Fonotone ideology of authenticity bears a manifest content predicated on musical style, recording technique, and product format, but beneath this lies an undeniable racial component that can be explained, but less easily excused, as a product of the times (it’s easy to forget in listening that this wasn’t Jim Crow America but rather the heyday of the civil rights movement). When Bussard recalls telling Fahey to “sing like an old black guy and sing rough as hell and we’ll call you Blind Thomas”, he remembers it as “a joke, really”, but what separates it from some of the blackface minstrel songs preserved at The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project is difficult to ascertain.

Such concerns operate under conditions of analytical listening, but they melt away, if one so desires, with pleasure listening, whisked from mind by the strains of the Adcock Family’s 11-year-old mandolinist or W.E. Barnes’ hearty yodel. Or Brother Smith and Brother Amos’ persuasive sales pitch for Jesus, “Everlasting Joy”, or Lee Moore’s heart-rending country lament, “I Hear Mother Calling”. Or a bevy of the other tracks on this wonderful 131-song collection. The fact that Fonotone reflected social imbalances and a legacy of “love and theft”—emphasis on the latter—imposed by white musicians on black ones shouldn’t be overlooked, but neither should an overly grim stridency detract from the pleasures to be found here.

Joe Bussard’s notion of old-time 1920s music (“the purest form of music, there wasn’t any outside influence or commercialism”) is, of course, demonstrably false, but like Christmas or the Fourth of July, the Fonotone world is an invented tradition whose artifice need not cancel out the enjoyment it can offer. In these days of easy file-sharing and unlimited access to information, the Fonotone box set provides a welcome respite, a point of entry to a bygone era when people had to put effort into chasing their passions, when the thrill of the hunt meant more than a Google search, and when the mechanics of record-trading meant more than an IM conversation on Soulseek. It would be blindly reactionary to embrace it as a “better” time, but just as foolish to forget what’s been lost in the mad rush of technological development. Fonotone helps us remember.

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