Collective Impulses

A couple of years ago, a venerable regional chain of record stores closed its doors. One of its locations was quickly bought by a distributor of cut-out records that had done quite well buying pallets of CDs from the labels for about a quarter each, and then selling them for many times that amount on eBay and

Needless to say, what had once been a deep-shelved indie enclave became a clearing house for whatever these guys found rotting away in dark corners of their warehouses. For those with the patience to sort through rack after chaotic rack, some finds could be had — if you could ignore the sheer soul-sucking depression of it all.

There’s something about these old recordings that gets folks to putting together big, ambitious collections. Here are a few that stand out.

Various Artists, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (Yazoo)

Rating: 8

Covering blues, country, string bands, and everything in between, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of worships at the altar of obscurity like few other collections. Heck, some of these songs never even saw official release, and many others come from the only known copies. In song selection and packaging (with artwork by Robert Crumb and an essay in praise of the collective impulse courtesy of Richard Nevins), TSTDAMO is a testament to the fever that infects record collectors.

Various Artists, Goodbye, Babylon (Dust-to-Digital)

Rating: 10

Goodbye Babylon‘s 135 songs, 25 sermons, detailed 200-page book, wooden box, and pieces of cotton make this the ultimate fetish object. It’s the music — in this case, gospel — that matters, though, and this box covers everything from the hymns many of us sang every Sunday morning to more obscure treasures, perhaps peaking with Rev. A.W. Nix’s lengthy sermon “Black Diamond Express to Hell Pts. I & II”, a fire-and-brimstone, modern-day companion to Dante’s Inferno.

Various Artists, American Primitive, Vols. 1 and 2 (Revenant)

Rating: 7

When we lost John Fahey, we lost not only a great musician but also a tireless archivist of American music. His Revenant label definitely opted for the quality-over-quantity approach, and the American Primitive discs mark some of the last work that Fahey did before his death. Opting for a hiss-and-pops-and-all approach, these songs venture into the quirkier pages of America’s secret, forgotten songbook.

Various Artists, R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, & Country (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)

Rating: 7

Crumb’s name pops up a lot when the discussion turns to early 20th-Century American music, and this hardback book revisits a series of trading cards he illustrated around 30 years ago, reprinting them along with accompanying brief biographies of seminal musical figures. There’s also a CD of obscurities, perfect for listening to while you read.

This outfit then bought out another storied chain, one known for its vast stores of vinyl, and promptly began trucking crates of LPs up to the local store. Suddenly, we were flooded with multiple copies of highly collectible albums for a buck apiece, regardless of previous prices. Predictably, there was a feeding frenzy, and by the time I got there, the cream of the crop had been picked over. But I was still able to find some stray not-so-terribly-rare oddities that I’d always wanted — the grey marble copy of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Split Enz’s laser-etched True Colours, the dual-groove edition of Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief, etc. From the misfortune of two defunct independent chains, record geeks throughout the county reaped the benefits.

It could be argued that collecting music — especially if you’re playing catch-up on established rarities — often depends on someone else’s misfortune. The wife disposing of her ex-husband’s collection. The estate sale. The stash of records sold for pennies on the dollar because someone’s water bill was overdue. It’s been that way since the start, since slick talkers with ironclad contracts called on bluesmen, hillbillies, and rockers; since Smithsonian-sanctioned archivists and amateur musicologists descended on countrysides everywhere; and since record collectors canvassed the South for rare 78s.

OK, that might be stretching it a bit. Not everyone recorded by Alan Lomax and other field recorders was in prison or suffering — some of them “merely” worked their fingers to the bone to feed their families, traveled from one seasonal job to another, or staved off the worries of the world through the power of a gospel choir. And not everyone who sold a valuable 78 rpm record to a collector was ripped off. And some good came of it, too. In many cases, there are songs that would have been lost forever if records hadn’t been preserved and catalogued, or if they’d never been recorded in the first place.

Of course, one of the most well-known preservationists is Lomax, who, in the ’30s, helped compile what’s now known as the Archive of Folk Culture. Along with his father, famed musicologist John Lomax, and later on his own, Lomax traveled the country recording everything from chain gangs to Appalachian grandmothers to field workers. Lomax was one of those rare individuals whose work was also his love, and other musicologists of the time fondly recalled rolling into supposedly untapped towns, in much the same way a fisherman thinks he’s found a secret fishing hole, only to find out that Lomax had already rolled through, recorded, and gone. He’s widely regarded as one of the fathers of the preservation of American Music.

There was also Harry Smith, whose pioneering work compiling recordings for the Smithsonian resulted most famously in 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which influenced generations of musicians from Dylan, Baez, and onward. The recent tribute The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited featured modern and unlikely luminaries like Beck, Sonic Youth, Beth Orton, Wilco, Elvis Costello, and Nick Cave.

A lesser known figure in the field is Art Rosenbaum, whose efforts are preserved for posterity on a new collection, Art of Field Recording. Inspired by the work of folks like Lomax, Rosenbaum got his start in 1956 and is still at work today, mainly in Georgia. Over the years he’s produced two books and over a dozen records and CDs. This single disc is a sampler meant to raise interest in a larger box set put out by Dust-to-Digital (those responsible for the heavenly-in-form-and-spirit Goodbye, Babylon set). Art of Field Recording‘s release also coincided with an exhibit of Rosenbaum’s artwork at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Art of Field Recording is an impressive collection that shows Rosenbaum to be a firm believer in the ever-changing nature of folk music. One potential downside to the decades’ worth of recordings we already have is that some songs run the risk of locking themselves into specific, dominant versions. In Rosenbaum’s experience, however, his subjects are always good for pulling something out of their memories’ “back 40”, something he’s never heard before. As a testament to both traditional music’s constant growth, as well as to Rosenbaum’s untiring efforts to record as much as possible, Art of Field Recording kicks off with a 2006 recording of Sista Fleetah Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhardt tackling “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”. It’s not an obscure song by any means — heck, Uncle Tupelo recorded it — but Mitchell and Eberhardt’s ominous tambourine-and-piano-based approach is a revelation, as if Nick Cave had been dropped behind the piano during a church service.

There are no big names on Art of Field Recording, and it’s fair to say that the songs are equally obscure, even to folk music afficionados. One of the most fascinating tracks is Eddie Bowles’s “Blues”, which ends with an off-the-cuff discussion of how bluesmen embellished the songs they heard with other stories that they knew. Also fun is “Tony Gave a Picnic”, courtesy of Luxembourg-blooded fiddler Ralph Sheckel. Dr. C.B. Skelton offers the wavering, off-kilter ode to questionable parenting, “The Miller’s Will”; the Sacred Harp Singing Group raises the roof on “Eternal Day”; and the breakneck bluegrass of Golden River Grass’ “Goin’ Down the Road” would give an act like Flatt & Scruggs a run for its money. Through and through, Art of Field Recording is a testament to the fact that music’s still growing in the hands of people who probably never entertained serious thoughts of making money from it.

Harry Smith photo from the Notable Names Database Weblog

Naturally, though, commerce did follow in the wake of folks like Lomax, Smith, and Rosenbaum. Everyone from Robert Johnson to Charley Patton to Blind Willie McTell was recorded and transferred to the brittle shellac of 78s. Anyone who’s ever thumbed through a dusty box of scratched-to-hell 78s in a thrift store might think 78s aren’t especially rare. But it’s really a bit of a miracle that any of them survived their heyday at all. Not only were 78s easy to break, but many of them were melted down as part of the war effort during WWII. In many cases, there are only a handful of copies of certain songs in existence; in a few cases, there is only one known copy, or even no known copies of songs that people have seen listed in places like label inventories.

The collectors of 78s, the ones who are responsible for much of this material being saved, present a thornier issue than the folks who headed out into the hills with their recorders (although the legacies of the Smithsonian’s archival heroes aren’t without their own controversy, as anyone who’s ever studied the complex relationship between the Lomaxes and Leadbelly can attest).

That’s where Desperate Man Blues, the soundtrack to the documentary of the same name chronicling the adventure of Joe Bussard, comes in. Bussard was hardly the only person riding around the backroads of America looking for 78s. Even counterculture illustrator Robert Crumb spent time knocking on doors, and currently celebrates the music he discovered by playing with the Cheap Suit Serenaders. But Bussard is apparently really good at it; he’s possibly the king of the collectors, as evidenced by his 25,000+ collection of 78s and other records. In some cases, he owns the only known existing copies of rare platters. As a collector, he naturally displays a protective OCD streak, but he’s also been extremely generous with his finds, offering them to certain labels for inclusion on compilations, and even recording them for fellow music fans. From 1956-1970, he even ran Fonotone, the last label to make 78rpm records.

Bussard’s also a bit of a crank, one of those purists who believe there’s been no good music since some sepia-toned time in the past. He even went so far as to say that the best thing that could have happened to music was for the Beatles’ plane to have crashed in 1964.

But oh, the music he’s collected. Desperate Man Blues gives just a sampling: Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Charlie Patton, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, and countless others. Joe Hill Louis’s “When I’m Gone” is all echoey, knife-sharp blues guitar, while Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” kicks off with a frenzied blast of slide guitar and refuses to relinquish one ounce of foreboding momentum. Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” is looked upon with a little disdain by collectors of Bussard’s caliber, but only because 78 copies of it are (by their standards) relatively common. The recording found here, though, sounds like the 78 just came off of the press, giving serious competition to the quality of Columbia’s landmark box set years ago. In fact, one of the startling things about Desperate Man Blues is how clean much of it sounds, especially if you’re used to hearing 78s through a haze of crackle and dust-static. Without a doubt, Bussard’s to be congratulated for the quality of his collection, and for his willingness to share.

Alan Lomax photo from The Library of Congress

It’s kind of easy, though, to transfer some liberal guilt onto the adventures of Bussard and his compatriots. He, Crumb, and others are full of stories about buying stacks of 78s for, say, 10 bucks when the least valuable disc was worth 10 times that. Or of finagling quick deals with husbands before their wives, the records’ true owners, got home. Or of getting in arguments with old men or women who were fed up with city boys coming around trying to rip them off. Or of, gasp, actually having to pay a fair price for a record once in a while. I suppose that’s capitalism, after all, or at least the inevitable byproduct of the collector’s all-consuming addiction, but there’s always been a predatory aspect to this kind of collecting, especially in cases where the collectors knew that the sellers could use a lot more money than they were getting.

Of course, if someone had come up to my maternal grandfather and told him a record was worth $30,000, he’d have probably taken it into the back yard and blown it apart with a shotgun — out of spite — the moment his family started squabbling about who’d get the money or how they’d use it. So who knows? Most of the collectors you read about have tales of being fleeced by other collectors, so it sounds like there’s a little karma in there somewhere.

But, if nothing else, these collectors of music — both the ones who collected the discs and the ones who recorded the music in the first place — loved the music. Without their travels, a lot of musical history would have been lost. And how would music have turned out differently if these songs had never been heard? Genres like bluegrass and gospel, for example, might have remained arguably “purer”, allowed to mutate at a leisurely pace, free of commercial concerns. But the music would have reached so precious few people.