‘Nimble Innovators’ by Alice Grundy


Alice Grundy at the Sydney Review of Books writes about the spate of new Australian literary journals including Contrappasso:

Contrappasso, edited by Matthew Asprey and Theodore Ell, released their first issue without external funding. They did so by taking advantage of short-run digital printing, controlling their costs by starting with a small print run. They organised their own distribution and held their first launch at Sappho bookshop in Glebe, Sydney. Their ‘Noir’ themed issue is a testament to the ability of literary journals to cater to niche subject matter and to establish personal networks. Their events in Sydney, which have had a particular focus on poetry, have been well patronised and their flexible publishing model – using print-on-demand systems, they can produce a single copy which bypasses the prohibitive expenses of shipping and warehousing – means that they can guarantee international distribution for each issue, which is particularly important in this case, given Contrapasso’s emphasis on publishing work in translation, as well as international poets and writers.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Marco Sonzogni

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr


Bye Bye Blackbird


……………………………………I know noble accents
……………………………………And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
……………………………………But I know, too,
……………………………………That the blackbird is involved
……………………………………In what I know.

……………………………………—Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways to
……………………………………Look at a Blackbird’ (VIII)


……………………………………I’ve seen the waterdipper
……………………………………rise from the lightning rod:
……………………………………I knew him from his pride in flight,
……………………………………by his flutelike trill.

……………………………………—Eugenio Montale, ‘From a Tower’


…………………………………..Pack up all my care and woe
…………………………………..Here I go, singing low
…………………………………..Bye bye blackbird

…………………………………..—Mort Dixon, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’


SINCE HIS DEATH on August 30, 2013, tributes, memories, readings, poems and translations in memory of Seamus Heaney have been continual and rightfully so. Yet, one wonders what the man himself would have made of such attention. His “mixed feelings” about the celebrations for his 70th birthday—the sense of “elevation” and “obligation” weighed upon him—suggest he would shun this appreciation, distancing himself from the attention, reminding himself and others that the Antaeus in him could be outsmarted any time by Hercules.

Now, among the sincere praise and grateful remembrance, off-key notes have also been heard—the echo of a karaoke rather than a keening.

So here I remember Heaney as a gifted literary translator from Irish. The original text is a “weird little scrap of Irish syllabic verse” (Ian Sanson) probably from the IXth century. Consisting of just three syllables for each of the eight short lines—Heaney referred to its “staying power”—it epitomizes the challenges of writing and translating poetry:

……………………………………Int én bec
……………………………………ro léc feit
……………………………………do rind guip

……………………………………fo-ceird faíd
…………………………………..ós Loch Laíg,
…………………………………..lon do chraíb

There are many modern interpretations of this poem by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and more recently Ciaran Carson (who chose ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ as the emblem for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University of Belfast). This is Heaney’s version, with my literal—but longer (five syllables per line)—translation into Italian:

……………………The small bird…………..Un uccellino
……………………chirp-chirruped:……….trilla e ritrilla:              
……………………yellow neb,……………….dal giallo becco
……………………………a note-spurt.……………..fiottano note.

…………………..Blackbird over…………..Eccolo il merlo
…………………..Lagan water.…………….
sul lago Lagan
…………………..Clumps of yellow……….Spruzzi di giallo

……………………………whin-burst!………………..della ginestra!

The blackbird features regularly in Heaney’s poetry. In Field Work (1979: 52), for example, the title-poem opens with a landscape snapshot where we find both “the small bird” and the “whin”:

…………….Where the sally tree went pale in every breeze,
…………….where the perfect eye of the nesting blackbird watched,
…………….where one fern was always green

…………….I was standing watching you
…………….take the pad from the gatehouse at the crossing
…………….and reach to lift a white wash off the whins.

The blackbird appears several times in Sweeney Astray (1983: 37, 43, 82), where the maddened king-turned-bird describes “green watercress in thatch on wells / where the drinking blackbird goes” and admits to preferring “the elusive / rhapsody of blackbirds / to the garrulous blather / of men and women”; and “the blackbird singing on the hill / and the stag loud against the storm / to the clinking tongue of this bell”.

Also, the ghost of Terry Keenan—the young missionary priest whom Heaney had met in his youth and whom he reencounters on his purgatorial stations in Station Island (1984: 69)—is likened to the shining black livery of the blackbird:

……………….I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
……………….as if he had stepped from his anointing
……………….a moment ago.

Heaney was clearly very familiar with the blackbird and its behaviour, taking notice of both its “composure” (‘Drifting Off’, Station Island, 1984: 104) and its “dart and dab” (‘Alphabets’, The Haw Lantern, 1987: 2).

It is thus no surprise that the blackbird is the protagonist of two of Heaney’s key-poems: ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (The Spirit Level, 1996: 20-21) and ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ (District and Circle, 2006: 75-76). Heaney describes the extraordinary, miraculous story behind ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry (1995: 20-21):

“Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry which is true to all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
………..St Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas.” 

The ordinary, autobiographical genesis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’—set in his home at Glanmore Cottage, where he “found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable”—is described in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll collected in Stepping Stones (2008: 198, 408):

“The last poem in the book, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, contains a memory of my young brother Christopher. The first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when he was just about two or three, he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me forever and came up more than fifty years later in the poem.”

When translating Heaney’s translation of ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ I was mindful of all these associations and especially of Heaney’s definition of himself as “something of an earth man”, “somebody with his poetic feet very much on local ground”. So when the multisyllabic nature of standard Italian made it plain obvious that it would be impossible to match the three syllables per line of the Irish original and of Heaney’s translation, I went back to my home ground—to its landscape and its language.

The water of the Lagan—river-water as well as lake-water (Belfast Lough or Lagan: Loch Laoigh in Irish; Bilfawst Loch in Ulster-Scots)—thus became the water of the Cavone, the stream that winds its way across Cergnago, the small village in North-western Italy where I grew up. The curt clusters of syllables of both the Irish and the English texts matched the staccato of my dialect (cergnaghese). And the sight and sound of the blackbird, black feathers and yellow beak, gold-yellow like the flowers of the whin (or gorse or furze or broom) are familiar presences in Cergnago—and in the Italian literary turf too.

This little exercise in literary translation exemplifies what translation is expected to do: to shift words and meanings from one place to another.

So here is my version in dialect, in grateful and loving memory of the Bellaghy Bard:

…………………………………fa l’uślìn:
…………………………………spüda nòt.
…………………………………………..’l bèch giald.

…………………………………’n mèral
…………………………………sül Cavón.
…………………………………Sprüss d’or dla




Marco Sonzogni (born in 1971) lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from the University of Pavia (Almo Collegio Borromeo), University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. He is a widely published and award-winning editor, poet and literary translator, now Senior Lecturer in Italian with the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, where is also the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. His literary translation projects include Swiss-Italian poets (Oliver Scharpf, Alberto Nessi, Pietro De Marchi, Fabiano Alborghetti, Giorgio Orelli), New Zealand poets, and the collected poems of Seamus Heaney (Meridiano). 

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr


I’VE SPENT THE BETTER PART of the last six years devoted to Seamus Heaney’s work and thought. I say devoted, but, as for many, Seamus was first an object of study, a lofty mouth who moved and shook us with his persuasive eloquence, who stood on the mountain of his own saying. Perhaps because of that loftiness and because I was striving to master his prose writings in some measure, the name Seamus Heaney made me fluctuate, sometimes wildly, between praise and het-up, over-emphatic critique; it was the occasion for a measure of self-knowledge of my prevarication and academic disingenuity.

            But in our brief meetings, mostly to talk over small matters about his history and past reading, the object of my study became a subject proper, a person to whom I found myself answerable, even as, taking him at his word, I weighed and criticised his prose writings. More than once I came away moved by his largesse, and resolved to ensure the act of criticism was more fundamentally an acknowledgement and honouring of the poet’s integrity.

            June this year found me in Dublin to look at manuscripts, and Seamus very graciously invited me down to Strand Road. I can’t gloss my afternoon there a great deal more than I have already tried to in ‘Grace note’, except to say that I found myself subject to my subject, and in that, was appeased. Most profoundly, Seamus addressed me as a poet, an address that I now can’t shake off. I left all teared up, and wandered home rather aimlessly in the high summer light, pausing for a breather with Kavanagh by the Grand Canal.

            I meant to write in thanks, and delayed too long. The postcard I meant to send, a reproduction of one of impressionist James Nairn’s paintings of Wellington Harbour, for me came to frame Seamus’s absence after his death. Surprised by grief on the 30th of August, I found myself a day or so after out at the line, getting in the washing under a dusk of high-blown, underlit cloud. The blackbird spoke up. Delighted, and remembering Seamus’s love of the bird, I waited for its regular benediction to come again. It didn’t, and that absence keeps on going through.





Grace note

17 June 2013

……………………………………The walls stepping back apace;
……………………………………the late, high, western sun
……………………………………declining any impulse to grace

……………………………………ourselves, be otherwise than
……………………………………our falling shadows, our homing faces
……………………………………reveal we are. And then:

……………………………………a drink? A whiskey? The capacious
……………………………………front room, quiet talk, the telly
……………………………………cutting to Obama in Belfast,

……………………………………while the critic in me
……………………………………is weaned. Dublin Bay
……………………………………takes up the slack—the

……………………………………incarnation sets us free for play
……………………………………(sure, no truer word spoken);
……………………………………I’m suitably censered, you might say.

……………………………………Poet, bless me three times, even!



James Nairn, Wellington Harbour, 1894

………………………..Dear S, meant to send this some time back.
………………………..Thought you’d recognise the scene well enough:
………………………..in the foreground, a woman walks with a stick,
………………………..set in her own shadow as in her love,
………………………..the face a heavy dab of grief, a desire
………………………..to be elsewhere. Lately the waters rise,
………………………..and in brightness the sheds and the wharf lower
………………………..as the man, darkling, is held. What remains
………………………..is that a gulf exists; and the true poem,
………………………..our boat beyond all making, floats adjacent,
………………………..its shocking mast crossing the horizon
………………………..so that we might see, in this moment,
………………………..how truly the water gives us back the light.
………………………..Hope all well; not sure if you’ll get this alright.


Touch and go

i.m. Seamus Heaney

……………………The day remembers itself to a sky-blown dusk,
……………………light still coming off the small cloths which ride
……………………the sagging line. Inside, the family play hide and seek,

……………………all our early numbers mounting so confident
……………………to the coming ready or not, while everybody scatters,
……………………loses themselves so easily. And with this: blackbird,

……………………his brief wise-o exile song, a smatter
……………………of grace notes struck out at the gable-end.
……………………So: we’re held, heart-pegged, hung in the matter

……………………of things counted out, and hid, and found—
……………………appeasing knowledge of song, and of our folly.
……………………Wait here over-long for what doesn’t come again,

……………………translates away, across, and up the gully.




John Dennison is a poet and literary critic, and a chaplain at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young family. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of St Andrews, research which forms the basis for a forthcoming monograph on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics. Recent poetry by John Dennison has appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Poetry Proper and Broadsheet (NZ). His poems also featured in New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011).

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Iggy McGovern

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr


I WAS MIDWAY in a letter to Seamus Heaney when I learned that he had died. I was writing to invite him to the launch of a new book, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th century mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. I was aware that it was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters that pled for Seamus’s presence, an endorsement of this or that event. I had some hopes of a ‘yes’ for he had come to a related event of mine the previous year. This was a seminar called “Science Meets Poetry”, part of the European Science Open Forum, the centrepiece of Dublin City of Science 2012. Seamus had contributed to the seminar discussion and had read his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (see Marco’s piece, a few pages ahead). I had talked about the Two Williams, Hamilton and Wordsworth, and when I had finished, I was cheered by Seamus’s “Bravo!” from the front row.

My first contact with Seamus was in 1997, when I was, in his phrase, “newly cubbed in language”. I wanted to obtain a Visiting Fellowship in Physics and Poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Mutual friends had advised that my chances would greatly increase if Seamus, an Honorary Fellow of the college, would provide a reference. Although we had not met, Seamus obliged; he also added some generous comments on the poems I had enclosed with that first letter to him; the last will have to be sent in a different way.

Seamus had been billed to give the opening address of the “On Home Ground” poetry festival, part of the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrations. After his untimely death the organisers converted this event into a tribute, in which a dozen or so Irish poets read their favourite Heaney poem. I chose to read ‘The Haw Lantern’, the title poem of his seventh collection published in 1987. This beautiful sonnet begins memorably –

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people

– but the small light then morphs into the classical image of the lantern of Diogenes, who is seeking one just man. It is a poem about being tested and Seamus was himself tested and not found wanting. I was pleased to find that this is the Heaney poem on the official website of the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org). It seems so appropriate given Seamus’s complete lack of hubris, his dignified bearing of the heavy load of fame.

The organisers had also asked for a second choice, to avoid possible duplication. I had nominated ‘Fosterage’, the penultimate poem in the sequence ‘Singing School’ from the collection North (1975). This poem is the bridge between four hard-hitting pieces (‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ and ‘Summer, 1969’) about his (and my) sectarian home place and the more contemplative poem ‘Exposure’, his magnificent hymn to his refuge south of the border. ‘Fosterage’ recounts a meeting with his mentor (and former employer) the teacher and writer, Michael McLaverty. Seamus is offered the timeless advice “Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” before being sent out “with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols”. It is also the source of the phrase “newly cubbed in language”.

Which brings me back to the beginning. An act of kindness and the start of an unequal friendship. Where we might have found the balance, a chance to centre the bubble in the spirit level, was in the swapping of jokes. And I was all set to sweeten the latest request with such, one that I was sure he would have loved. So I put that in the poem, as well.




To Seamus Heaney in Heaven

When word came I was midway
in a letter to yourself…
“What’s he after now?” you ask.
I had begun like Kavanagh’s swan,
“head low with many apologies”,
As Hamilton once wrote to Wordsworth
Occiditque legendo!
And keeping to the last
The joke I knew you would enjoy,
The one about the Greek tailor:
Euripides? Eumenides?
But you were already beyant, like Gunnar
Sharing poems with The Greats
Miłosz, Brodsky, Lowell, Auden, Yeats.





Iggy McGovern was born in Coleraine and lives in Dublin, where he was Professor of Physics at Trinity College until retiring recently. He has published three collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia (Dedalus Press 2005), Safe House (Dedalus Press 2010) and the new sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4, based on the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press, autumn 2013). Awards include the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Iggy edited the anthology 2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines

A few words with Clive Sinclair on ‘Death & Texas’


Clive Sinclair‘s new story collection, Death & Texas, has just been published by Halban in paperback and for Kindle.

Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey exchanged a few words with our regular contributor by email.

MATTHEW ASPREY: Clive, it’s been more than a year since our long interview was published in Contrappasso and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In the interim Contrappasso was thrilled to publish two of the stories now included in Death & Texas. Those two stories alone jumped all over the world—Atlanta, Israel, Germany, the USA. Where else does the new book take us?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: As you say, the stories you published in Contrappasso had itchy feet: one rambles from Atlanta, GA, to Brinkley, AL; while the other starts in London, looks in upon New Mexico, then moves to Jerusalem, Passau, Germany, before finally coming to a halt back in London. Other locations in the book include Texas, as you might expect, New Orleans, Machu Picchu, and Shylock’s Venice. Perhaps I am best characterized as a travel writer too shy to embrace the locals, therefore forced to people the exotic locations with my own inventions. This has been my MO for many years now. So that when I glance at my older stories I am no longer certain what really happened and what I made up. Addressing one of the narrators a character sums it up nicely: “Did we really do all the things you said we did, or was it just wishful thinking?”

MA: I was happy to meet Kinky Friedman and Fess Parker in “Death & Texas”.

CS: Not half as happy as me. I first saw Fess Parker on a big screen in a grand old cinema (long since demolished) on Oxford Street, in the heart of London’s West End. In those days there were long queues to see popular movies, which only sharpened the anticipation. Of course movie stars are called stars for a good reason; their images are transported on rays of light, and they live light years away from ordinary mortals. Or at least that was how Fess Parker appeared to me as he defended the Alamo in the guise of Davy Crockett. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that, having quit acting, he ran a winery and a hotel a few hundred miles from my temporary residence in Santa Cruz, CA. How could I not go? And how could I not include the encounter in my story about Davy Crockett? Looking back upon it, the occasion still seems as unlikely as an ancient Greek taking tea with Achilles.

Fess Parker as Davy Cricket

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett

I first came across Kinky Friedman much later, by which time my critical facilities were fully developed. So I felt we both inhabited the same planet at least. Moreover, I felt that our world views had similarities; both of us being mordant Jews of the opinion that our Achilles heel does not reside only in the backside of our foot, but in every pore of our bodies. I visited the Kinkstah on his family ranch, near Medina (the one in East Texas, not Saudi Arabia). Needless to say, after the visit I played his songs all the way to San Antonio: “No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,/ We don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.”

MA: How did you connect with the publisher Halban?

CS: Well, the Adam & Eve of my writing career were Clive Allison and Margaret Busby. We had a lot of fun in those early days, especially with Hearts of Gold and Blood Libels. In a way I’m looking to repeat the experience with Martine and Peter Halban, another bookish duo. When I was with a larger outfit there was an expectation that everything—from book design to marketing—was assigned to professionals, who would handle everything  with the flair of Savile Row’s bespoke tailors. This was not always the case. Now, if the book doesn’t read well or look good I have only myself to blame. I am looking to recapture that sensual experience—that bibliosexual moment—you are never going to get with a kindle.

MA: Still, I’m glad to see the book is available for e-readers. In the last dozen years you’ve published a pair of novellas (Meet the Wife) and a travel narrative in your patented mode of ‘dodgy realism’ (Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West). And now you’re back with your fourth book of short fiction. What brings you back to the short story?

CS: I have been thinking more and more that the short story—or the novella, at a stretch—is my natural form. At any rate, it is what I do best. By which I don’t mean better than anyone else—God forbid—but better than my own longer fiction. When I write I try to thread together well-made—even beautiful—sentences. I do this because I remain enamoured of my raw material: viz words. And the way they strike the five senses: the sight, the sound, the smell, the feel and the taste of them. But there is a constant balance to maintain between the felicity of the prose, and the efficiency of the narrative. In the short-story the scales can be more pleasingly biased toward the former. What makes The Great Gatsby so great is that Scott Fitzgerald found a way of so vitalizing his exquisite prose that it actually motored the narrative; each image being not only decorative, but also functional. But The Great Gatsby is a rarity: more often such hyperactive prose in a novel tends to bedazzle the reader, until in breathless admiration or sheer frustration they lose the plot. This is less likely to happen with a short story. The same applies to the intensity of emotion a short story can contain. Put all that in a novel and the poor reader would be in great danger of sensory overload, like Barbarella in the Orgasm Machine. So I write short stories as an act of charity; to save lives and preserve sanity.

MA: You’ve dropped tantalising hints at a detective novel in the works. What else have you been up to and what can we expect in the future?

CS: You know, of course, what happened to the man who knew too much. So I feel a certain responsibility toward both questioner and reader as to what might happen if I were to reveal too much too soon. What I can say is that I have a detective, whose singular vulnerability is his USP (as I learned to say in my Mad Men days). The trouble is that he’s still in want of a client. And he is in want of a client because his creator is short of one master criminal, a Moriarty de nos jours. What I need, in other words, is a suitable crime to solve. So if there are any crooks manqué out there with a seemingly perfect caper ready to green-light please give me a clue. Though I do have a few caveats. A few years ago I taught a course on detective fiction at the University of East Anglia, and took the opportunity to acquaint myself with a few fiends who had achieved both commercial and critical popularity. My response, I confess, was less enthusiastic, prompting me to eschew any thoughts of serial killers, sex maniacs, psychopaths, cannibals, or any other perverted dispatcher of young women, however high their IQ. Such characters invite a form of  erotic sentimentality. All of which is not to say that the book will be over-cerebral. The one thing for sure is that blood will flow.

Here is the trailer for Death & Texas:

from issue #4: ‘Painting Women’ by Elisabeth Murray

Photo (CC) eschipul @ flickr

Photo (CC) eschipul @ flickr


THE MUGS MADE AN UNSAVOURY STILL LIFE, lipstick on the rims, brown watermarks, grit up the sides. The women looked as if they belonged so much to the scene that they had to be painted in along with the objects. It had the look of Saturday night waste but it was a Wednesday before-school staff meeting and as the women stirred it became clear that it was the pitiless light of a spring morning that made such a still life.

A lady came in with a perforated shoebox asking for silkworms for Kai Fletcher. Her hair fell golden down her back. From where the women sat on red plastic chairs, knees at their breasts and thighs distended, the lady’s beauty was unearthly. One of the women said if she left the box she would move the silkworms in today.

“Where were we.” Mrs Singleton gazed at the student teacher, Miss Archer. Mrs Singleton had sulphur-coloured hair slicked into a knob at the bottom of her neck. She wore an icing-pink shirt with the top button undone showing a nut-coloured triangle of skin. The final touch was thick black-framed glasses. She could have been a send-up of a schoolteacher.

The student glanced away under Mrs Singleton’s scrutiny but a stamp of the woman was in her head. Her square jaw, teeth like a grid of nougat. Good precise lines to cut into a canvas.

Mrs Singleton straightened her shoulders and said, “Oh, the Waddington reading tests,” and the student knew it hadn’t been a gaze or scrutiny and that she was as unseen as a drift of smoke on the sky.

“I think I’m running low on copies,” said another woman.

“Oh, the student can do that,” said Mrs Blunt, to whose class Miss Archer was assigned. “It’ll give her something to occupy herself.”

Miss Archer’s skin felt tight as she smiled. She watched how the light fell in claws on the carpet and on the women’s faces making everything look sore. It was the hardest light to get out of paint. It was supposed to be the most hopeful kind, spring morning dazzle, but it was the cruellest. They decided it was time to get going and filed out of the classroom to meet the morning which had become yellower and noisier since they had shut themselves away.


MISS ARCHER followed Mrs Blunt across the Covered Outdoor Learning Area. Mrs Blunt was wearing a black gypsy skirt that now Miss Archer came to think about it looked like the skirt she’d worn yesterday, and the day before, and maybe back through the previous term, but the student wouldn’t know because she’d arrived on Monday fresh as the children but far more naive.

There were builders sitting inside a wire barrier watching one of their crew hammer a strip of metal over two pylons. A covered walkway was being bestowed upon the school, along with a new hall and probably several other contraptions if the clutter was anything to go by. It was as if a vision to turn the school into some loftier site was being carried out slapdash.

This morning hadn’t been so bad. Newstime was the most vivid slice of the day. She knew how she’d paint it. Her sitting in the huge armchair, the child standing but their heads level. The quiet of waiting for the next sentence. She would show that as soft light in a painting. Toys of the kind she hadn’t touched in fifteen years, hard, fleecy, bright. Photos, shells, rocks. This was a life, these children had families and homes and sadnesses and futures. She was thin as clingwrap, all her texture and colour drained into the objects. And pricked by the clicking of Mrs Blunt’s laptop at the back. She looked in her loose black garb like the ogre custodian of the classroom. But a painting is selective, it could just show the children, just colour and texture thick as cake. Only now they were at Music, it was Release from Face to Face until morning tea time, she was following Mrs Blunt to the library to hunt down books about rainbow serpents or witchetty grubs or something. What would have been more useful was Release from Face to Face from the teachers.


“IF YOU INITIATE IT it’ll be a girl. Are you telling me you’ve been trying without knowing that?”

“We haven’t started trying yet. Needless to say I don’t think it’ll be a girl.”

The woman snorted. “I know, I’ve got four boys.” She ran her fingers through her hair. She wore a ring that looked inlaid with a block of ice. She started on a mini quiche from the staffroom table where leftovers from a parents’ morning tea were laid out. “But even more important, don’t forget what I said about—”

Miss Archer bit into her apple. The voices were discrete and impossible to ignore but unified in a cacophony that began to sound meaningless. It was the way converging bird calls reach a pitch of madness. The advice went on, even less inhibited.

She reached for a quiche and considered if she was on her way to being submerged in these sawdust-coloured armchairs and partaking in such discussions. The baldness of their talk stung her. Well, wasn’t she young, supposed to be blithe, shameless? She told herself it was the age of these women, for God’s sake: it put a gruesome picture in mind. She couldn’t help feeling that it hacked all beauty off the concept. It was as concrete as the hanging wing of a swan shot down in flight, wet, red—and as abstract.

On the other side of her Mrs Blunt said, “Do you think they bonk?”

“Oh, yes! They went away together and when we asked him what they did he said they didn’t leave the hotel.”

“Oh, yuck!”

“We tried to think what you’d do all day in a hotel and we could only think –”

“Bonking. Yes, it’s got to be bonking.” Mrs Bell looked transported.

Another teacher leaned over the back of a chair between two of the women. She looked like an acorn with hair a lighter shade of brown than her corduroy suit.

“Who are you talking about?”


The acorn woman looked over her shoulder. “So he’s divorced and this is his lady friend?”

“No,” said a woman with a doll’s mouth. She lowered her voice. “Brian’s never been married.”

At that moment the only male teacher walked in and the circle fell silent. The student stared at the man. His hair was so black and neat it might have been drawn in permanent marker. He wore narrow tan pants and a red jacket and stood before the microwave with a hand on one hip.

“My God, ladies, I knew there was a reason I shouldn’t have been arsing around all holidays. How’re the reports coming?”

“Like a wet week,” giggled the doll-mouthed teacher.

He took a plate of sweet potato from the microwave and with a wave of his fingers left the room.

The student stared at the women. They carried on speculating about the sweetheart for the rest of morning tea time, what she did for a living, why she never came to the Christmas party, saying they’d have to organise this one around her, they were burning to meet her. On the screen this would be a skit too farcical to elicit more than winces. This was a separate world where none of the rules of appearance applied. The bell rang like a swan’s cry made ugly by a bullet.


THERE WAS AN AIR of parody the way the children trilled, “I’ve been to cities that never close down.” Some shouted, some mumbled, some seemed to be using the logic of snatching off a bandaid as quick as possible. Mrs Singleton’s lipstick was as crisp as it had been before morning tea. The student hadn’t seen her in the staffroom. Mrs Singleton’s lips went over the words of their own accord, her eyes concealed behind her glasses.

They went through the song what felt like a dozen times until the jubilation of doggedly referring to Australia as home wore thin. The song may have been about the state of the sharemarket for all the sense it seemed to be making to the children and to Miss Archer for that matter. She remembered she was teaching before lunch and there came a weariness complete as fever. She didn’t know whether she would rather this singing practice run on or finish now so she could get through her plan and not have herself and the children scrambling about like residents before a river breaks its banks. What would happen if she disintegrated into tears? As the thought occurred to her a pain came to her throat and a chain of blows to her stomach. The song was a scratched record. Mrs Blunt made them repeat one line where the children couldn’t match the syllables to the melody. The highest note of the song was parroted again and again. Mrs Singleton roamed about tapping fussing children on the shoulder and at intervals her lips would stop then start like a clock once somebody happens to pass and wind it.

“Mrs Singleton, how about we get them to wear boots or Aussie flag thongs –” Mrs Blunt said.

“I have some of them,” Hayden called out.

“Or those hats, what are they called?”

Mrs Singleton tapped Kai and he stopped pulling Mikayla’s shoelace. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Sort of brown rabbity fur cowboy hats. Or the ones with the corks. You can get them in tourist shops. Or the mothers could make them.”

“Sure,” said Mrs Singleton. She folded her arms. Her shirt rose revealing only another centimetre of black trousers. She was inscrutable but Miss Archer felt as she did before a particular work in a gallery, held there while everything told her to move on or she’d be late for class or the bus or the assignment on her desk.

“Yes, and we can stick little Aussie flags in them. Wouldn’t that be sweet?”

“Very sweet,” said Mrs Singleton. She led her class through the partition to their room.


THE LUNCH BELL went and on a swell of pain Miss Archer sent the children out, though the room resembled a Jackson Pollock. She went around gathering the paper cakes she’d used in the multiplication lesson. She recalled this from some university lecture or other of which she could no longer remember the purpose: was it an attempt to salivate the children into comprehending multiplication? Many had flocked to the floor and she felt ungainly as a pregnant woman and was glad she was alone in the room. Then she heard Mackenzie say at the door, “Mrs Blunt, Hunter said he didn’t want to play with my Barbie. And he said he hated them.”

“I suppose he would, being a boy. I’d be a bit worried if he didn’t hate them, wouldn’t you?”

There was a moment of silence then Mackenzie laughed. Footsteps receded across the veranda. Miss Archer stood at the opposite window. On the benches a batch of children she didn’t know sat eating lunch. The grass ran flat as a prairie until it was sliced into highway. A couple of builders sat outside the frame of the new hall in glaring vests. Apparently it was supposed to be finished months ago. She wouldn’t see it whole, she’d probably never see it again after these four weeks. But there would be other halls.

She collected the worksheets. It felt like something had been ripped from her abdomen. She knew she should have ducked into the bathroom an hour ago, that there was likely a monstrous bloom on her skirt, but if there was one thing she was digesting here it was that there was no time to duck out for anything. No time to catch your breath. No time to be still and admit the colour into your skin and the line into your blood. Even when your blood needed replenishing, when it leaked thin as cordial. She took up her bag and left the classroom.


THERE WAS NO BIN in the staff toilet. Good God, she thought. They can’t all be post-menopausal, can they? She tucked the shreds of plastic into her bra and as she returned to the staffroom and looked at the women she thought it was possible. The spite brought no satisfaction. It only made her feel more of an oddity. How stupid her idea of womanhood had been. She’d have to go home and wrench all her canvases into something truthful: dirty mugs, unsightly calculated sex, a chain of wedding rings. Or start all over again. No maestro could twist those old simulations into truth. She liked the brash scarlet of those canvases but when had reality ever been pleasing? Representing it was even worse.

She took some painkillers with her Vegemite sandwich. It was a sour concoction. When Mrs Singleton came in it was worse. The woman’s face was a sculpture. Perhaps her lips were so cold, like a statue in midwinter, that the lipstick stuck solid.

“Did you see your desk?” said the secretary.

“Oh yes, I did,” Mrs Singleton said. She was placing something in the microwave and sounded as if she was smiling but when she turned she just looked surprised.

“What is it?” said the acorn woman.

“Rob sent me flowers.”

A number of women made the sort of noises produced over a pram.

“What a catch!” said the acorn woman.

“He never does that,” said Mrs Singleton. “We had a bit of a…” She looked at the microwave which was emitting light the colour of fast food cheese. “…squabble last night. But I wasn’t that angry with him.”

“What happened?” said the secretary.

“Oh, well… It was just that once I got home from that meeting, Lynette”—she glanced at a teacher who nodded gravely—“it was almost seven and he’d been home all day—well, I found out he’d been at the pub—but he hadn’t done anything for dinner. I wasn’t even that angry.”

“Well, whatever you did, it worked,” said the secretary. She drank from her mug and the contents stayed on her lips and teeth. “They were white roses.”

Mrs Singleton sat next to the student, the only place available. Her back was rigid. She began to eat some sort of stirfry sure to strip her lipstick and catch like flesh in her teeth. Every time she raised the fork her ring flashed. It looked like three yoked together: gold, silver, bronze.

The women discussed husbands, housework, Herculean tasks. The student listened thinking that one day she’d be sitting in a replica of this room grumbling about some man or other and at last initiated.

Mrs Singleton stood up. Her pants brushed on Miss Archer’s. Under the voices the rustle was sharp. Viscose, nylon, elastane. But it was substanceless. Both of them may as well not have had any flesh underneath. She was above her now, a statue in a square. She went to the sink, rinsed her things and left.

Mrs Bell dropped into the seat. “You’re getting firmer. Well done.”

It was what she’d written on the feedback sheets in various guises since the first lesson yet the student was sure she’d write up a bad report. There was more to teaching than being with children and implementing lessons. Somehow she’d been too dense to notice this in three years of university and on other placements. She was to be exuberant as a puppy, avant-garde no matter how dyed-in-the-wool everybody else was. You had to be original but respect every hangover from the last century, calling Australia home, using dust-moist books on the rainbow serpent, witchetty grubs. When she got home she didn’t care how many lessons she had to plan she was going to pull out the vermillion and run it everywhere, violent as a murder message. Matisse’s Harmony in Red. If only she had a print of it now, she could slug it down until she felt life in her chest. The walls here were the mint of a dentist’s office, the armchairs oatmeal, the carpet curdled milk, mugs stained with sludge. The Matisse was scarlet enfolding something that was previously blue that was previously green. And the blue and green still detectable, shards of china in a swamp of blood.

The telephone broke out and the student thought it was the bell and was at first relieved and then aghast because she hadn’t set up the painting lesson. Mrs Blunt answered it and at the end of the call she let out a screech like a Valkyrie swooping over a landscape of slaughter.

“They’ve accepted the offer,” she said, breathless.

The staffroom was frozen, every eye trained on her. The student thought, The offer, the offer… for what?

“It’s more than we decided on at first, but it worked out!”

“Congratulations!” said the acorn woman. “Whereabouts again?”

“Oh, Fairview, same as we are now, but it’s like starting all over again.”

She jumped and the microwave shook. She sat down, let out a volley of applause, squealed like a balloon.

Miss Archer went to the classroom. When she’d covered the tables with the plastic sheets she realised they had wet patches on them and there was brown acrylic on her shirt. By the time she’d rinsed it out the bell had sounded and the painkillers hadn’t accomplished anything and she had a dark mark on her shirt. The children were mustering around the step. Mrs Blunt didn’t notice the tables weren’t ready. She sat at her desk and pushed buttons on her phone. Miss Archer began the discussion about witchetty grubs.

“That’s disgusting!” said Monique.

“They look like my silkworms,” said Hunter. “Can you eat those too?”

She was at the stage where pain exhausted you worse than a sleepless night. She didn’t know what witchetty grubs were and how could she expect the kids to? These kids whose worlds were parks and two storey houses and neat grey roads? She showed a clip of a British man in khaki eating a witchetty grub. They were enlivened by this, but when had an artist ever painted something she found merely intriguing, that may as well have been hypothetical? When she’d asked Mrs Blunt what she meant by Aboriginal Studies she’d handed her a set of blackline masters that included an outline of a man standing on one foot holding a spear and directions to “Paint Aborigine brown.” Then she’d pulled out a craft book that looked twice as old as Miss Archer and jabbed at this witchetty grub activity. Miss Archer didn’t know how her lecturers had come by their delusions. But it was easier this way.

She set them up with smocks and paper and as they were writing their names she went across the veranda to the storeroom. She looked through the glass pane in the door of Mrs Singleton’s room. Children were cutting and sticking and rolling newspaper into God knew what. Mrs Singleton was crouched on the floor, her waistband free from the small of her back, a stripe of alabaster. Miss Archer was in the storeroom, it was gone in an instant. It was no still life. When she passed with the paint Mrs Singleton had bent over another group. She went back for the brushes and then for the water and Mrs Singleton had gone to her desk and fixed an artwork to the window and finally disappeared beyond the frame.

The children mashed their brushes on the paper and flicked paint off them to make the texture of soil. It was like stepping outside on the first warm morning of spring to see this kind of joy in flicking paint on paper. Mrs Blunt was on the veranda twittering into her phone. Miss Archer sat on the corner of the teacher’s desk and scanned the room. So this was what it would be like. She supposed she’d tire of the children, they’d no longer seem cute, she wouldn’t feel any warm revival.

“Mrs Archer!” It was a high cry. She leapt off the desk, her heart in her throat.

“My tooth!” Hunter gagged. “My tooth came out!” A number of children wandered over in dappled smocks, brushes hanging at their sides.

“OK, OK!” called Miss Archer. “Everybody back to your seats. Go on with your painting, please.”

“My tooth came out!” said Hunter. It was tiny in his palm, craggy and red at the bottom. He poked his fingers into the hole in his gum. Miss Archer shivered.

“Go wash your hands, Hunter.”

He stood up and pressed his fingers on his painting to rid them of saliva and blood. A drop blotted the paper.

“Go and wrap your tooth in a paper towel so you can get some money tonight.”

He jogged off with the tooth like an overdue ring bearer. Mrs Blunt came inside and installed herself behind her laptop. Hunter returned conveying the tooth on a paper towel and didn’t take his eyes from it. The children stopped to watch. She saw the frame around the moment. She felt the luminosity that comes with an artwork discovered raw. Made of flesh and air and plastic. Luminosity not just of sight but of all the senses. Not just blundered upon but offered, as Hunter was offering her this calcium and phosphorous and enamel. But she saw he was headed for Mrs Blunt. The student saw not his gaze but his profile. Mrs Blunt put one hand under his and wrapped the tooth in the towel. She stood up and led him to the veranda. She gave Miss Archer a look that said, “Well, get on with it.”

Had she forgotten that the artist is never part of the raw tableaux that come up out of the world, that she constructs always from outside the frame? But she was no longer sure that was true. Miss Archer deposited a few paintings on the drying rack and repeated the directions about making witchetty grubs and eggs from corrugated cardboard. The clock ticked on. Mrs Blunt’s laptop clicked. A drill outside. A hammer. The pain in her abdomen.

“Time to tidy up.” Mrs Blunt’s voice was as sharp as the ache. There was another stained mug beside her, some kind of empty motif. Miss Archer was asking two girls to wash out the paint containers when Mrs Blunt called:

“No, we just bin those.”

“These?” The student held one up. The unending trio of little arrows, the recycle symbol, was swathed in red paint like an exhortation.

“Yes, these.” Mrs Blunt got up and swung out the bin and went through the room pitching the containers in. The student opened her mouth. Then she turned to remove the plastic sheets.

Finally all that was left was a carpet of multicoloured cardboard eggs made with a hole punch. It was like confetti, the giveaway the next morning when everything was silenced, respectable. Maybe they had little timers in them clicking away to one day hatch and die. She was slipping in the vast armchair holding The Twits.

“Wish I was a boy,” said Mackenzie. Miss Archer looked at Mackenzie with her head turned away. She was part of the sawdust-coloured upholstery to Mackenzie.

“Why?” said Alyssa.

“Because girls have to have babies,” said Mackenzie. “And it really hurts. It comes out of here.” She rubbed her stomach like a gesture of hunger.

“You only have to have a baby if you marry a boy. Just marry a girl and then you won’t have a baby.”

“That exists you know,” said Monique.

“Just marry a girl.”

“It comes out of here.” Mackenzie gestured vaguely.

Miss Archer started. The class was before her. Mrs Blunt caught her eye and said, “Better stop that in its tracks!” She thought she was speaking on a frequency the children couldn’t hear. There was another frequency too: mockery? Of her? Pain must come hand in hand with paranoia. She flicked through the book and began reading without calling for quiet. She would rather sit here and let the pain course through her while the children talked, currents that cooled her skin. But all was quiet and her voice was like a bad actor’s, shrill, threadbare. The bell broke her off. The children chanted: “Good afternoon Mrs Archer, good afternoon Mrs Blunt.”

Mothers mustered below, gripping prams, holding babies and the hands of toddlers. On every woman’s hand those compounds of gold, silver, bronze. The builders sat by the wall watching the sooner-or-later-to-be-covered walkway glitter in the sun. Mrs Blunt was deep in conversation with a woman in exercise garb and an iPod on her bicep. The student went back inside and collected some of the cardboard eggs in a container. When she looked at the carpet it was as though she hadn’t taken any away. They lay there ticking.

When Mrs Blunt got back inside her phone sounded. She turned to the window and talked to her husband about the house. She turned to the student and put up a hand like a police officer. When she put the phone away she said with a gravity that didn’t conceal her enthusiasm, “Don’t ever buy a house, it’s a fucking nightmare.”

“I won’t be,” said the student.

Mrs Blunt stared. “Of course you will. Who doesn’t buy a house?”

“Not for a long time then,” said the student.

Mrs Blunt gazed at her. She gave a shake of her head. “You got them doing some good craft, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“And getting firmer.” She handed over a sheet with remarks to that effect. “You can go now.”

She dallied across the veranda. No sound from Mrs Singleton’s room. What the hell was she listening for? She went down the stairs with a dull nausea. She would see her tomorrow, for however many days were left—she calculated: seventeen—and then she’d never see her again. The same with all the teachers and all the children. But one day—God, in a little over a year—she would return each morning to the same place and the same people. Batter out something solid for herself. Mrs Blunt said she was getting firmer. Growing a backbone perhaps. An outline. But she still didn’t know what she was doing here.

The builders had gone home. Blocks of metal stood as if placed at random. The oval was empty and dry as a worn blanket. There were children in the sandpit at after school care and by the gate while their mothers conversed. The afternoon sensation of snacks and TV and homework. Something of how she’d felt as a child came to her but now she saw it was no end, it would be here tomorrow, for too long to bear thinking about. Soon she could take more painkillers and maybe they would work. So she could spend the evening planning lessons. She took a lungful of air. The nausea remained. Was her body was too immature to deal with a simple expelling of blood?

The highway was jammed like a car park. She was walking breathing the smog when she saw down a side street a blonde figure on the bonnet of a car. It had its back to the highway, apparently contemplating the white houses and bottlebrush. The student stood for a moment thinking, Grey, black (bitter, boot-polish black), green, white, yellow. No, platinum. Sulphur? Lemon tart? She left the highway.

The woman was dragging on a cigarette. The car was slick as oil. The student watched the back of her head. She took a step closer and perceived as if she’d crossed a threshold of vision or sensation that the woman was crying. Then Mrs Singleton turned and the student found she was much closer than she’d thought and her eyes were cocktail-green behind her glasses. The student went around the car which gave off heat like a mass of coal. The buttons shone in a crooked line down her body. One hand rested on the bonnet, the nails lacquered like coconut ice, a trail diverging from the buttons. Another step and the woman’s eyes were wet. She put out her tongue to catch a tear. The student climbed onto the bonnet beside her. The lipstick was disintegrating. She held out the cigarette and the student took it as in a dream. The woman’s nails were cumbersome and the cigarette burned the student. She breathed it in once and handed it back. Now Mrs Singleton’s face was textured like clay to which too much water has been added. She dropped the cigarette and pressed it with her heel. She glanced past Miss Archer, in the direction of the school, then she looked straight at her so that Miss Archer thought she had never been looked at properly before. She flushed. Like a sketch filled in, coloured.

Mrs Singleton’s mouth turned up at one corner. She nodded at the student as though they had settled a business deal. The student got down onto the footpath and the woman opened the door of the car. In the shine off the roof Mrs Singleton’s face was glazed but Miss Archer saw now the briefness of this kiln. The student watched the car swing around and wait to turn across the highway. The indicator was dim, without rhythm. The car sheered onto the road narrowly missing an oncoming truck.

The student went down the street and turned the same way and waited at the lights. The traffic had cleared and there was no sign of the car. Children accompanied by mothers with schoolbags over one shoulder were coming along smiling and comfortable. She suddenly felt the burn from the cigarette like a tooth driven into her palm. The smoke had infiltrated her mouth, bit into her gums and teeth. She pushed her tongue around. She was tasting what Mrs Singleton was tasting right now.

A horn blared. A fox-faced man was hanging out the window of a truck like something in the sky. He shouted some kind of witticism. She made a face and waited for the light. She could have made something out of those plastic containers smeared with colours of the earth. She looked down the highway the way the car had gone. Cars were coasting past one after the other and the things in her were going the same way. When the walk light came on everything stopped for her and she was going crosswise feeling the pain as a blooming and the colours in the early afternoon were bright. As if the world was young.

© 2013 Elisabeth Murray
from Contrappasso Magazine #4, December 2013

* * * * *


ELISABETH MURRAY is a student at the University of Sydney, studying for a Bachelor of Arts and majoring in English. She is interested in representations of interiority and everyday reality, writing the natural world and spaces of intimacy outside conventional power structures. Her academic and creative interests include US literature, modernism, nature writing and feminist and queer theory. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and the University of Sydney anthologies Margins, Sandstone, Sparks and Perspectives. Her novella, The Loud Earth, will be published in 2014.

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (4: Mike McGonigal)

Mike McGonigal

Mike McGonigal

Matthew Asprey


Mike McGonigal compiled Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare, & Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (2007) and This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45rpm 1957-1982 (2011); both were released by Tompkins Square. He is also editor of YETI.

ASPREY: Did you grow up listening to gospel?

McGONIGAL: Ohhhh, no. I myself, I was raised Episcopal Lite—my personal churchgoing experience was more about animal crackers and cool stories at Sunday School with I suppose a smattering of sappy white people hymns here and there. I stopped attending regularly before I was ten years old.

My first real musical love was Electric Light Orchestra in the third grade (still love that group—very much, and unironically).

Getting into gospel—that happened slowly. I can trace a lot of my interest to picking up the Fred McDowell LP Amazing Grace: Mississippi Delta Spirituals By The Hunter’s Chapel Singers Of Como, Miss.. I had no sense of the history of sanctified blues. I just assumed that McDowell wrote or adapted these songs by himself. It’s no less powerful a recording later, now that I know that this kind of music dates back to before modern gospel. Thankfully, this Testament recording was reissued on vinyl recently by my friend David Katznelson.

ASPREY: How do you define ‘raw gospel’? In what ways does it differ from the postwar gospel people most people know? And what is its appeal?

McGONIGAL: ‘I know it when I hear it,’ is my first answer — and it’s definitely not the Winans. It’s not even classic gospel acts such as the Caravans, or the latest critically-acclaimed record by a gospel artist from the 1960s who’s now collaborating with Ben Harper and someone from Wilco. I’m interested in feeling like my gut got punched, but that doesn’t need to happen with caterwauling guitar or heavy shouts. It can also happen with something incredibly ethereal and with a feather-light-sounding accompaniment.

I’m definitely drawn to the more rough-hewn sounds of, say, the anachronistic 1950s-recorded street performers the Two Gospel Keys, or the husband and wife team the Consolers (who recorded strictly for Nashboro and are featured on a compilation I produced which is soon out on Tompkins Square). Cole Alexander from the Black Lips—a gospel enthusiast in a popular, skuzzy garage-punk band—he told me that he got into gospel simply because he wanted to find the best shouters on record. I love that. He went on to produce a reissue of ‘Hurricane’ Johnny Jones, an Atlanta preacher/singer, for the Dust-to-Digital label.

One of the things about gospel is that it’s first and foremost a utilitarian music. The purpose is to spread the word—’gospel’ of course translates as ‘good news.’ That’s what it’s actually about. So, while there is an ever-expanding gospel/Christian music industry, which is something of a mirror world to popular music. If one is of a cynical bent, one might state that you can take alt-rock, country, R+B or pop sounds from eight years ago, replace the word ‘baby’ with the word ‘Lord,’ and you will have a hit in the CCM world. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not raw gospel.

ASPREY: One of the most conspicuous tracks on Fire In My Bones is Elder Beck’s ‘Rock and Roll Sermon’. He’s denouncing the devil’s music but his guitar player is rocking it out. Can you discuss the divide between the sacred and the profane in this era of African-American music? Did the secular stuff simply replace ‘lord’ with ‘baby’?

McGONIGAL: Ray Charles is of course the much trotted-out example for what I said there—’I Got A Woman’ being not at all loosely based on the Southern Tones’ ‘Must Be Jesus.’ ’Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ by Elder Charles Beck is just such a killer song in so many ways. Elder Beck could always swing. He began his recording career as a gospel singer and pianist, later adding trumpet, vibraphone and even bongos to his musical gamut. Beck’s smooth, gorgeous recording of ‘Jesus, I Love You’ is regularly cited as the likely precursor to Elvis Presley’s version, while a song from his very first recording session with Curry, the deliriously rollicking and oft-anthologized ‘Memphis Flu,’ has, ironically, been referred to as an antecedent to rock & roll.

That song—when you get to part two, the flip side, wow. “Rock & roll is filling up the dope dens!” Elder Beck shouts, and from there he gets real gone, hammering home the fate of those who would succumb to the dreaded evil music with impassioned, beyond-hepcat fervor. “Rock & roll… Rock & roll all night long… Rock… One o’clock rock… Two o’clock rock… Three o’clock rock… Four o’clock rock… Five o’clock roll… Roll into the patrol wagon… Roll in before the judge… Rollin ‘out of the courthouse… Rollin ‘into the penitentiary… Rollin ‘into the electric chair… Rollin ‘out to the undertakers… AAAAAWAGGGH! WHOOO! ROCK AND ROLL! YEEEEAAAHHHHH! You better get readyyyy!” Sorry for going off on it like that! And then, just as the band really heads off into raw, revved-up rock, the guitarist peeling off bluesy licks that would make Keith Richards explode with jealousy, the song just fades out. You only get a taste, and you want to hear at least an hour’s worth. It’s the perfect, teasing end to a fiery sermon that ostensibly denounces rock & roll and yet shows that the right church is more raucous than even the heaviest rockers.

I’d argue that ‘Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ is entirely aware of what it’s doing, of its own ironies and contradictions. I’d argue that gospel itself is more of an influence/root of rock & roll than the blues. This song is exhibit A.

ASPREY: Does the music hold a spiritual significance for you?

McGONIGAL: Ohh, of course. It’s so deeply that. You can never forget that gospel music exists to spread the ‘good news’, and that’s the entire reason that this beautiful thing is there for you. I can love it for so many reasons but I never want to disrespect that. My own religious/spiritual beliefs only mean anything to me; I hope I never throw anything onto them.

The Burden Lifters (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

The Burden Lifters (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music you pursue? What kind of regional differences do you find? What are the key cities—or even specific churches?

McGONIGAL: Very loosely speaking, you will find the best music at a medium-sized COGIC (Church of God in Christ) on the outskirts of town. This has been true for decades. So if it’s a self-released 45 and it came from a small church and especially if that church looks to be from the Pentecostal/holiness tradition, then I’ll definitely give it a whirl.

The gospel I’ve been concerned with thus far is from the Midwest (gospel’s birthplace), the Northeast, and all over the South as well. There have been a couple West Coast tracks on these compilations. There certainly is a strong gospel tradition in California, particularly from the mid-1950s onward, but it tends to be centered on Rev. James Cleveland’s booming mass choir sound. I’d love to find some killer gospel from the Pacific Northwest. Outside of Rev. Louis Overstreet spending his last years in Portland, OR (where I myself lived the last 9 years), I’ve found zilch, however.

The best places to look for gospel records are economically depressed areas that are historically black. This is a bit of why I’m moving to Detroit, MI, by the end of 2013—to not only get closer to the artifacts but to the musicians themselves.

ASPREY: What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found rare records?

McGONIGAL: I’m not nearly as lucky as friends of mine. I don’t find amazing records peeking out from behind a dumpster while waiting for the bus, or in Goodwills. I’ve been to so many Goodwill thrift shops in my life, and I’ve only ever found cool coffee mugs at them. Always look at the records there, but it’s always the usual—Andy Williams Christmas LPs, scratched-up classical, ‘80s country, Barbara Streisand, and maybe Ashford and Simpson.

A lot of the records I’ve gotten are online, but most are just from digging through boxes of 45s stashed in the back of a record store.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations (in gospel or other genres) that provided you with a template?

McGONIGAL: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is so crucial, and its deluxe 1990s reissue really inspired me a lot. I had already done quite a few compilations by then, though. I made my first vinyl compilation in 1986, a 7’ record that came with my fanzine Chemical Imbalance. There were the two best bands from Miami (where I was in high school then)—Broken Talent and the Chant—plus this great indie pop act called the June Brides from London, and Sonic Youth from New York City. I paid for it with a bit of money borrowed from a guy named Rich Ulloa who had a terrific record shop in Miami, FL called Yesterday + Today, while the rest of the money came from mowing lawns.

It took me years to realize it, but David Evans’ vernacular gospel collection Sorrow Come Pass Me Around (recently reissued by Dust-to-Digital) is a 100% perfect record. Evans made the recordings himself in the field, and it’s stellar, flawless. He even manages to have different versions of the same song appear on the record in succession and you do not get confused or tired while listening—that is a total magic trick I’d never try to pull off not even on a mix tape for a friend.

ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of secret history (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of African-American music?

McGONIGAL: It depends on the project, really. In general I’ve been working under different constraints in terms of what can be licensed and what cannot. Some of the projects I’d like to do are more geared towards trying to ‘fix’ certain perceptions, what I’d consider to be misperceptions. Mostly I’ve just been like ‘You have to hear this stuff it’s so great,’ operating from the superfan level.

Certainly a lot of people told me they had no idea that the kind of music on my first CD gospel compilation, Fire in my Bones, even existed, which was nice. It was also a bit strange to me, since that’s the kind of music I listen to so much—and that record was just a weird, scattershot collection. There’s still so much amazing gospel music that’s never been reissued in any form.

ASPREY: Can you walk us through some of your favourite cuts on Fire In My Bones?

McGONIGAL: Sure. Here you go:

‘Swing Low,’ Theotis Taylor. My friend Amos Harvey, who’s been in touch with Taylor himself, turned me on to his music. Brother Theotis Taylor recorded three spellbinding singles of his keyboard playing and falsetto singing for the Pitch label in the mid ‘70s. Keyboards and vocals—that’s all it is, but it’s so ridiculously timeless and lovely. I had to end the entire collection with that song.

‘Power Is In The Heart Of Man,’ Brother & Sister W. B. Grate. This is the best song on the compilation, one whose message is remarkably open-minded and not an ordinary evangelical message. I love the name—reminds me of sanctified singer Rev. I. B. Ware, that name. The record was released on the Port City label, which was likely based in Wilmington, NC.

Rev. Lonnie Farris (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

Rev. Lonnie Farris (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

ASPREY: A large portion of the cuts on This May Be My Last Time Singing were originally self-released 45s. What can you tell me about the economics of these records? How were they produced and distributed?

McGONIGAL: Actually, they all were—that was the main limit I set for myself when I came to assemble that compilation. The music on that compilation was all originally released on small label 45s, mostly in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of these records were self-released, paid for by a church congregation or the artists themselves. Others were on regional labels (typically run by one single producer) little known today outside of a small circle of collectors. So, I chose to source this compilation entirely from 45s because of their democratic/DIY nature. The idea is that almost anyone could raise enough money to release a 7’ single. It might cost as little as a few hundred dollars to make a 7’ record back then.

I’m obsessed with the vernacular tracks, especially the solo-guitar-or-keyboards-plus-vocals numbers and the a capella songs. Stylistically, those recordings refer to sounds many decades old. On the Fire In My Bones compilation, the tracks in that vein had all been recorded by these great folklorists such as William Ferris and George Mitchell. And if released, it was on preservationist labels. Here, those recordings were presented as commercial artifacts within the local gospel community. And whether they were successful in the marketplace or not, that difference, to me, is huge.

ASPREY: What are your favourite cuts from This May Be My Last Time Singing:

McGONIGAL: ‘God Is Taking Care,’ Deacon James Williams. This one is so rad. A fine example from 1980 of mildly psychedelic drum machine gospel, it went through at least two pressings. Deacon James Fred Williams is the singer, while Brother Eli Taylor plays the organ, on this self-released Midwestern 45. I almost wish I hadn’t included it so that I could assemble an entire compilation of drum machine driven gospel at a later time.

‘Stop Now,’ Willie Cotton. This song is very straight-ahead, but I felt like it really fit somehow. And it often pops into my head without warning—it’s a real earworm. Cotton released a handful of 45s and two LPs for Brother Henderson’s L.A.-based label Proverb, from the mid 1960s until the label ceased operations when Henderson died in ‘72. On this 45 for the Ball label, Cotton was backed by his own brother Harold on drums and Prince Dixon on organ.

‘Stop Living On Me,’ Rev R. Henderson. What a revelation this 45 was! I bought it on eBay based on sound clips. It’s a totally strange, amazing record. Nothing is known about Rev. R Henderson. I now have three 45s by him, one of which is about the most I’ve ever paid for a 7’.

This track, side two, ‘Stop Living On me,’ was recorded really quietly, and is a total noodling guitar driven dirge. Meanwhile the A-side, ‘The Lord Will Make A Way,’ sports a backing band and congregational accompaniment, and it sounds super distorted as it was recorded entirely in the red! The backstory I’ve created for the record is that someone in Henderson’s church got their cousin, fresh out of rehab but still messed up on methadone, to man the controls.

ASPREY: How do YETI magazine and Verse Chorus Press fit into your activities?

McGONIGAL: Steve Connell from Verse Chorus Press is my business partner in YETI. I’ve known him for some time because he used to edit and publish the great ‘zine Puncture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. VCP was already set up with its own book distribution so the first number of titles were partnerships with them. VCP is actually not part of YETI and I’m about to buy out Steve so it will just be me doing YETI. I might rename my label Social Music as just YETI. Not sure? Initially Social Music referred to the third volume in Harry Smith’s Anthology; now, people think ”Facebook?” I started to work on YETI in 1999, a year after moving to Seattle to work as a music editor for Amazon. I spent much of the 1990s as a low level hack writer, scribbling wherever I could for ten cents a word and also supporting myself as a bookstore clerk, museum guard, bicycle burrito delivery boy and a grant writer. When I found myself at a ‘real’ job, even though I was often working ten to eleven hours a day at that job, I found I still wanted to do my own fanzine. I really missed that curatorial thing, the satisfaction I got from putting together an entire issue of a magazine myself—just stuff that my friends and I were interested in, no other considerations aside from that. I’d started my first ‘zine Chemical Imbalance with lawn-mowing money when I was fifteen years-old. YETI needs to be run more like a business and less like a compulsion; we’ll see what happens in the future but it’s been fun to work on. Basically, I always have something to do. I’m always behind in my work; there are dozens of projects at a time.

I remain obsessed with this music, and in 2014 I’ll make my own documentary film working with Jeff Economy. It will be on surviving vernacular traditions in contemporary gospel. We’ll be hanging out with a fellow who owns one of the last surviving gospel-only record stores (New Sound in Chicago) and also covering hard shouting quartets, sacred steel music, preacher/ singers, fife + drum gospel, churches where they sing lining hymns, a capellas sung in various ways, a gospel blues singer, shout trombone groups and what I would call visionary gospel in the guise of Rev. Raymond Branch.

ASPREY: What’s next? Which of your gospel discoveries most needs to be rereleased?

McGONIGAL: The Nashboro compilation is out in two months. It’s amazing music! I’m so glad I got to produce that reissue for Tompkins Square. A licensed collection of Jamaican gospel I’ve worked on for years which was to be on Honest Jons fell apart last month, and that was a big letdown. I’ve done two bootleg LPs, where I only made a few hundred copies of each and when I was able to track artists down later (as happened with the patriarch of the music, Otis Wright) I paid him very well, so that was cool—and will lead to further LP reissues on my own label licensed directly from the artists. But I want this Honest Jons record to be the best it possibly can, and I am disheartened that we now have to work from a smaller pool of talent.

Have you heard Jamaican gospel?

ASPREY: Not yet.

McGONIGAL: It’s really unlike anything else I ever heard. There are clearly Caribbean and Jamaican elements to the songs, as you’d expect. What might be a surprise is how closely the music hews to Southern gospel and country and western music. I’m told that part of the reason for this stems from the fact that radio stations throughout Jamaica used to shut down early in the evening, allowing high-wattage AM stations from the American South to waft in unimpeded.

I hope to produce a handful of Staple Singers reissues on vinyl. The fact that their very best and most important records have incredibly poor availability is very strange to me. Among those projects I hope to reissue their very first 78 from 1952, for the first time.

The first of (hopefully) many contemporary gospel recordings I hope to release is a collection of new and archival recordings by Rev. Branch, who I got in touch with after his 45 from the 1960s was included on Fire in my Bones. His voice is now a lot harsher and he used to have great facility with the guitar but his use of his hands has diminished. So he plays this electric harp thing instead, an omnichord. It has affinities to me with the great Washington Phillips. I find it really lovely stuff. Not sure how much of an appeal it has, but I am willing to gamble. I think the record will have to be named for this song, ‘Radio Television in my Heart.’


from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (3: Marshall Wyatt)

Marshall Wyatt

Marshall Wyatt

Matthew Asprey


Marshall Wyatt is a Grammy-nominated producer and the founder of Old Hat Records, a small label based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that reissues traditional American music of the prewar era. Old Hat is known for its CD anthologies of early recordings, carefully remastered from the original 78 rpm discs and presented in historical context, with extensive notes, rare photographs, period artwork, and full discographical details.

Old Hat anthologies have won the Living Blues Critics Poll for best reissue album on three different occasions. The 2005 album of medicine-show music, Good For What Ails You, earned two Grammy nominations, for best historical album and for Wyatt’s comprehensive album notes.

ASPREY: You’re a North Carolina native. What music did you grow up with?

WYATT: If I said that I grew up listening to my old granddaddy sawing away on his homemade fiddle, I’d be lying. In fact, none of my ancestors were musicians. My early musical tastes were typical of a white, urban, middle-class American upbringing of the 1950s. My listening habits were shaped more by national trends than local folkways, although it’s true that most of the national trends were driven by artists from the American South. I was in the second grade when I became aware of rock ‘n’ roll. That was the year I heard ‘Short Fat Fannie’ by Larry Williams and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis. The first record I ever purchased was Elvis’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the 45 rpm single on RCA-Victor. I still own that very disc, which tells you something about my compulsive collecting habits. My older brother was always two steps ahead—his record collection had instrumentals like ‘Run Chicken Run’ by Link Wray, and novelty songs like ‘Flip Top Box’ by Dicky Doo & The Don’ts. When everybody else was playing ‘The Twist’ by Chubby Checker, he had the original by Hank Ballad.

When the British invasion hit, I fell in with Beatlemania, like everyone else I knew, and I was also partial to the Kinks and the Yardbirds. I was aware of the folk revival movement. I certainly remember ‘Tom Dooley’ by the Kingston Trio, but it would be years before I heard the original 1929 recording by Grayson & Whitter. Eventually I discovered Bob Dylan. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was considered too long for radio, so the DJs would fade it out halfway through. Decades later, when I read Dylan’s Chronicles, I learned that he’d spent countless hours at the New York Public Library reading 19th-century newspapers. That seemed to make sense. In high school, I became fixated on Andy Warhol, whose aesthetic was so different from Dylan’s. When I saw Warhol’s deadpan face staring through a tambourine on the inside cover of a new record album, I bought it immediately. The Velvet Underground & Nico, the ‘banana’ album, was riveting, and I played it obsessively. It sounded so alien at the time, but as it turns out, that album predicted many of the trends that followed. Even so, I soon began to focus more on music’s past than its future.

I was still in high school when a couple of friends, hipper than I, gave me Sam Charter’s LP anthology on Folkways, The Country Blues. This opened up a rabbit hole that still has no end. The LP was meant as a supplement to Charter’s book of the same name, although I didn’t read the book until much later. I first heard the album cold, with no historical context or biographical information. The music was stunning. ‘Careless Love’ by Lonnie Johnson I played over and over again. To this day I love Lonnie Johnson. There was ‘Fixin’ To Die’ by Bukka White and ‘Statesboro Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell. Masterpieces! These performances knocked my socks off. And Gus Cannon’s ‘Walk Right In’—I remembered that as a radio hit by the Rooftop Singers, only this was a thousand times better. The Country Blues anthology gave me an appetite to hear more of this stuff, and to find out more about these musicians.

I started picking up 78 rpm records at local flea markets. In those days, it was a shot in the dark, because a lot of the research and writing on blues and old-time music was yet to come. If a name or song title seemed interesting, I’d gamble fifty cents and take it home with me. ‘M & O Blues’ by Big Bill And His Jug Busters—that sounds promising. ‘Banjo Sam’ by Wilmer Watts & His Lonely Eagles—OK, I’ll give that a try. I found a record called ‘Beaver Slide Rag’ by Peg Leg Howell & His Gang. The label had a descriptive subtitle that said ‘country dance.’ That record made a deep impression—it was my first exposure to black fiddle music, and it’s still a favorite. I was also fond of ‘Mississippi Heavy Water Blues’ by Barbecue Bob, which must have been a big seller in its day, because it still turned up often in the 1970s.

I went off to art school in Rhode Island and lived there in New England for four years. I’d often take the train to Cambridge, Massachusetts to visit friends, and I discovered that Harvard University had its own record store, the Harvard Coop. This is when I started buying LPs on a regular basis, and most of them were blues reissue anthologies. That store had endless rows of bins filled with labels like Origin Jazz Library, Herwin, Roots, Mamlish, Blues Classics, Biograph and Melodeon. And I discovered the gold standard of blues reissue labels, which was Nick Perls’ Yazoo Records. It was quite an education. After I moved back to North Carolina, I finally discovered the corresponding world of prewar hillbilly music, and that was largely through David Freeman’s County label. Freeman brought back the music of Charlie Poole, and that alone was a great accomplishment. But he also put out countless anthologies of obscure old-time music that were a revelation to a new generation of listeners. I still regard Yazoo, which continued under Richard Nevins, and Freeman’s County Records as the two most important reissue labels.

ASPREY: When did you realize you were going to be a music anthologist? And are there any other compilations that excited your interest in the practice early on?

WYATT: In 1982 I moved to California and lived in the Bay Area for about a decade. It seems like every time I move away from the South, my interest in Southern music is refuelled. Funny how that happens. I fell in with a group of 78 collectors who were passionate beyond anything I’d encountered. There was nothing casual about it. And they exposed me to a lot of great music from the 1920s and ‘30s that had never been reissued. To hear it, you had to own the original 78, or know someone who did. I once spent a week house-sitting for a collector friend who had a fabulous collection of 78s, all thoughtfully and laboriously put together over many years. It was intense, with no dross or filler. There was lots of great and rare string band music, white and black, obscure early jazz, guitar blues, jug bands, ethnic material. And he said, ‘Feel free to listen to records while I’m gone, and if you want to tape any of it, go right ahead.’ So I did. At the end of a week, I took away two cassette tapes filled with tracks that I’d selected from his record shelf. ‘Texas and Pacific Blues’ by Frenchy’s String Band, ‘That’s It’ by Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers, ‘When The Moon Drips Away Into Blood’ by Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers, and on and on. Without realizing it, I was putting together an anthology of a sort, based on his collection.

In the 1980s it was common for 78 collectors to share material on cassette tapes, favorite tracks distilled from their collections. I started doing the same with my own 78s, and I started to group them thematically. I put together one cassette called ‘I Heard The Voice Of A Porkchop,’ and it included a lot of music typical of the medicine shows. I did another one called ‘Violin Blues’—that title speaks for itself. These homemade cassettes gave me some practice in putting together anthologies. At the time they were mostly for my own amusement, but I’d revisit these ideas in a serious way when I started my Old Hat label.

Just north of San Francisco, in El Cerrito, California, there was, and still is, a record store called Down Home Music, which surpassed even the Harvard Coop. It was an entire store filled with nothing but roots music. Chris Strachwitz operated his Arhoolie label from the same building, and filmmaker Les Blank had offices there as well. That address was an intense enclave of enterprises devoted to traditional music. At Down Home Music there were whole bins containing LPs on the Document label, with those stark white jackets and black lettering. Often the sound quality on those discs was very rough, but the label provided access to a lot of obscure music, and did so in a relentless, systematic way. Often it was The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order of (fill in the blank). There was usually no attempt at thematic interpretation. The label’s name says it all—it was an ambitious project to document all of recorded prewar blues. Years later, Document reissues would become an invaluable research tool for my own projects. How do you know you’ve picked the very best example of someone’s music unless you’ve heard all of it?

In 1984, a new collection arrived at Down Home Music that was a real game changer. For me, without question, the greatest reissue project of the LP era, the one that would influence me more than any other, was Paul Oliver’s anthology on the Matchbox label, Songsters and Saints. It was subtitled ‘Vocal Traditions On Race Records,’ and it came in two volumes, each volume containing two LPs in a gatefold sleeve. One sleeve was pale blue, the other mustard yellow, each with the same vintage photograph of two black musicians. Even now, I pull these records from the shelf with a sense of awe. It’s a brilliant, thoughtful survey of prewar race music informed by ground-breaking scholarship, and it revealed a much wider spectrum of music than blues alone. Oliver’s book of the same title was published simultaneously. The book and the LPs together opened up genres that had never been subjected to serious study—the worlds of sanctified preachers, gospel evangelists, black string bands, pre-blues balladeers, minstrelsy and medicine shows. This project still serves as a roadmap for ongoing research, and it seems as fresh as the day I first heard it.

I’m aware that Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is generally considered the greatest trail-blazing set of all time, which is probably true. But I missed the boat on that collection—it was already out of print when I started collecting. I never even heard those volumes until the 1980s, when I checked them out of the San Francisco Public Library—and by that time, I already knew most of the music from subsequent anthologies, or from the original 78s. So, for me, Songsters And Saints was the real inspiration.

String band musicians at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Left to right: Roe Greene, Bert Jenkins, Clay Reed, Ralph Story, Grayson Story. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

String band musicians at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Left to right: Roe Greene, Bert Jenkins, Clay Reed, Ralph Story, Grayson Story. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Once a month, on the second Sunday, there’d be a 78s swap meet out in the parking lot of Down Home Music, open to any collector who wanted to show up with some boxes of records to sell or trade. It was loosely organized, but there was one strict rule—78s only, no other speeds allowed. Ya gotta love that! Another pivotal discovery happened for me in that parking lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a discovery that would set me on the path to start my own record label. I pulled a 78 from a box, on the familiar Columbia Viva Tonal label of the 1920s. It was Columbia 15280-D, ‘Don’t Get Trouble In Your Mind’ by Frank Blevins And His Tar Heel Rattlers. The flip side was ‘Nine Pound Hammer.’ The term ‘Tar Heel’ told me that this artist came from North Carolina, and the price was right, so I paid five dollars for the record and took it home. Hearing that music had a profound impact on me. It’s hard to say exactly why. The music had the mystique of a lost world, it was exciting to hear, unaffected and deeply emotional. It seemed very old, but fresh at the same time.

I found out that Frank Blevins had a total of three releases on Columbia, recorded in Atlanta in 1927 and ‘28, and I made it a point to track down the other two. I was not disappointed because they were all equally great. One of them, Columbia 15765-D, is exceedingly rare, but it turned up on an auction list in a periodical called Joslin’s Jazz Journal. I put in an extravagant bid—that record cost me the same amount that I paid each month to rent a one-bedroom flat in San Francisco. But I had to have it, and now that price seems like an incredible bargain. So there I was in California, discovering music from my own home state. Before long, that music would form the basis of my first CD anthology.

ASPREY: What is so special about the traditional music of North Carolina? Who are the important musicians and how did they live?

WYATT: Every state in the American South can claim a great store of traditional music, but none can surpass North Carolina in my opinion, as biased as that may sound. Volumes have been written on the subject, and there’ve been some excellent reissue projects along the way, such as County’s Charlie Poole series. It’s impossible to summarize such a vast body of music, and some of it may defy explanation. To give an example, why did so much pivotal banjo music originate in North Carolina, and not elsewhere? The particular three-finger style that’s so crucial to bluegrass music came from two adjacent counties in the southwest section of the state, Cleveland and Rutherford. Maybe it was due to changing social and economic structures, the migration from farms to cotton mills—just the right combination of rural and urban, of old and new. Maybe it was part luck. Whatever the reason, that style was unknown in the next state over, Tennessee. When Earl Scruggs, of Cleveland County, first played his banjo on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, he said that people stared at him like they would an animal in a zoo!

Frank Blevins is usually regarded as a footnote in the history books, if he’s mentioned at all. But to me personally he was very important. Not long after I discovered his Columbia records, I found out, to my surprise, that Frank Blevins was still living. His music wasn’t from a lost world after all. In 1987, I took a detour on a road trip and headed for Greeneville, Tennessee, where Frank had been living for thirty years. It was the first of many visits. We used to sit out on his back patio where he’d tell me stories about growing up in the mountain wilderness of Ashe County, North Carolina, about learning to play tunes on an ancient fiddle handed down from his great uncle, Noah Barker. His stories gave shape to a whole community of Ashe County musicians who lived in the early years of the 20th century—his friends, his colleagues, his rivals. And some of them made records as well, string bands like the North Carolina Ridge Runners and the Carolina Night Hawks. Soon I was tracking down their 78s as well.

Fiddler Frank Blevins with Marshall Wyatt, Greeneville, Tennessee, 1996. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Fiddler Frank Blevins with Marshall Wyatt, Greeneville, Tennessee, 1996. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

I found more than just records. Using leads from Frank, I located other colleagues of his from the old days. Sometimes it was as simple as looking in the phone book. That’s how I found Fred Miller, who played banjo on those Columbia recordings by Frank Blevins And His Tar Heel Rattlers. Blevins had moved on, he’d travelled, seen the world, had a successful business career—but Fred was still in Ashe County, he was still a ‘Tar Heel Rattler.’ When I met him, he lived a stone’s throw from the place he was born. Over the years, he’d made a hardscrabble living as a farmer, musician, coal miner, and distiller of spirits. He told me, ‘I made moonshine likker in five different states, and never spent one night in jail.’ He played music for family and friends, for fiddler’s contests and folk festivals, for sheriffs and politicians, crooked and otherwise, for church picnics and liquor-fuelled dances at the Buffalo Tavern. And he played for Frank Walker, who was Columbia Records’ chief recording director in the 1920s. Fred learned banjo licks from Charlie Poole himself, and he played on a regular basis with the legendary team of G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Fred’s stories brought the music to life in a way I never thought possible.

I was still living in California at the time, but I kept making field trips back to North Carolina in order to interview these people and document this music. I finally moved back to North Carolina in 1993 for a number of reasons, including a desire to be closer to the source of the music. After a while I’d collected all of the prewar 78 records from the Ashe County region, I had countless hours of recorded interviews, and I’d gathered an excellent collection of vintage photographs and documents. At that point, it seemed like the natural thing to do—to create an anthology that combined all of these materials in a thoughtful way. I felt like the music and the history was worth sharing. In 1997, I put out Music From The Lost Provinces on my own label, Old Hat Records. That started the ball rolling for me.

ASPREY: Can you tell me about the early North Carolina recording industry? How were these records produced? How were they distributed? Who were their audiences?

WYATT: The recording industry did have a presence in North Carolina in the 1920s and ‘30s, but it was all implemented by companies who were headquartered in the north. These companies sent out field units to the Southern states to record regional talent in temporary studios. In August 1925, the General Phonograph Company sent its Okeh recording unit to Asheville, North Carolina, under the direction of Ralph Peer. This was two years before Peer’s now-famous Victor sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, where he discovered the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. In Asheville he cut masters by significant hillbilly artists like Fisher Hendley and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and he also recorded four sides by Emmett Miller. Don’t get me started on Emmett Miller! Let’s just say he was a minstrel singer who wielded a tremendous influence on American popular music, although most people have never heard of the guy. These records were made using the old acoustical methods, just before the electric condenser microphone was introduced. The wax masters that Ralph Peer supervised in Asheville were shipped north for processing and manufacturing, then the finished discs were sold by Okeh dealers around the country, although sales of this music would naturally be concentrated in the South. By this time, marketing strategies had become segregated—record companies created one catalog for white hillbilly music and another for race records. Even so, I’m convinced that once records reached the consumer level, there was plenty of crossover. Okeh returned to North Carolina in 1927, this time to Winston-Salem, where they cut hillbilly discs by Crockett Ward and Fiddlin’ Powers, among others, using the electrical process.

After Ralph Peer went to work for Victor Records, he set up field sessions for that company in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1927 and 1931, recording hillbilly and race artists. By 1936, Victor had a new recording director named Eli Oberstein, who helped create Victor’s budget label, Bluebird. Oberstein set up multiple Bluebird sessions in Charlotte over a five-year period, recording dozens of important hillbilly artists. It’s an impressive list, including J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, Cliff Carlisle, the Dixon Brothers, Monroe Brothers, Delmore Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Tobacco Tags, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Uncle Dave Macon, and others. Many of these artists also broadcast over WBT radio in Charlotte, the state’s most powerful station. Decca was also making significant recordings in Charlotte, including sessions by the Carter Family. For that span of time, 1936-1941, Charlotte was a vital hub for hillbilly music, just as Atlanta had been in the 1920s. Then, after World War II, the country music industry shifted to Nashville.

ASPREY: What are a couple of the more interesting places you’ve found records?

WYATT: In my own collecting experience, nothing trumps the stash of blues records that turned up here in Raleigh in 2007, right in my own backyard, so to speak. The records had been purchased new by an African-American family in the 1930s, and the collection had stayed in that family for 75 years. For decades, they were stored in a steamer trunk in a mobile home park on the east side of Raleigh. I’d driven by that site countless times over the years, never suspecting what was there. Finally they came to light, and I was able to buy them. I found out that the women of that family were the ones who had purchased the records in the first place, during the Depression years when money was scarce. To me, it indicates the high priority they gave to the music. And they had impeccable taste, I’ll say that! There were records on Paramount by Skip James, Ben Curry, Charley Spand, and Blind Blake—incredible rarities, in the original sleeves. My heart was pounding as I pulled them from the trunk. There was ‘New Stop And Listen’ by the Mississippi Sheiks on Paramount 13134, one of the greatest violin blues records of all time—hell, it’s one of the greatest blues records, period. The trunk’s rarest yield was Paramount 13123, ‘Night And Day Blues’ and ‘Sun To Sun’ by Blind Blake, recorded in 1932. It’s the only copy of that record known to exist. There were records by great North Carolina bluesmen, like Bull City Red, Dipper Boy Council, and Blind Boy Fuller, and female artists were also well represented, including Memphis Minnie, Lucille Bogan, and Bessie Tucker.

ASPREY: Can you take me through your compilations? There’s been a North Carolina focus all along. Has there been an overarching project with your label?

WYATT: I had lunch one day with two of my colleagues, George Holt and Wayne Martin, who are both great champions of North Carolina’s traditional music. George wondered aloud why no one had ever produced a comprehensive CD box set of the state’s early recorded music, and strongly hinted that maybe I was the one to do it. Wayne endorsed the concept, but voiced serious doubts that sufficient funds could ever be raised to make it happen. Later I kept thinking about our lunchtime conversation. I mulled it over. Maybe I didn’t have the resources for a huge box set, but why not continue with a series of single CDs, each devoted to a different aspect of North Carolina’s music? Over time, I could cover the same ground as a box set, or even more. I’d already collaborated with Wayne Martin on an anthology called In The Pines: Tar Heel Folk Songs And Fiddle Tunes. Modesty aside, every track on that CD is a gem, Wayne’s notes are impeccable, and we found some incredible vintage photographs that had never been published. After that, I collaborated with Patrick Huber on a collection called Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs And Hillbilly Blues, music by textile workers from the state’s Piedmont region. Right now I’m working on a CD that will showcase hillbilly music on North Carolina radio in the 1930s. I’m also planning a set that will include the state’s blues and hillbilly artists who were discovered by talent scout James Baxter Long. I consider these albums an ongoing series, concurrent with other projects that are not North Carolina oriented.

ASPREY: Do you feel like a historian when you compile your sets? Do your compilations help shape a history or narrative that has otherwise disappeared?

WYATT: My formal education focused on the visual arts. I have no academic credentials as a historian, I’m just a record collector who got curious about the back story. I do have some deeply ingrained tendencies that I got from my father, who was a lifelong collector, archivist, author, and illustrator. His specialty was Western movies of the silent era, and early baseball. He showed me the methods of systematic documentation, and the value of careful research. Since childhood, I’ve always had collecting passions. As any collector will tell you, it’s a disease that has no cure! Collecting prewar phonograph records opened up a fascinating world, and I knew that I wanted to explore it. Producing these anthologies has given me a way to contribute something beyond the mere accumulation of artefacts. If you have compulsive tendencies, at least put them to good use!

I produced an album called Down In The Basement that samples the music of a single collector, Joe Bussard. Joe’s fanaticism far exceeds my own. He not only has a vast and important collection of 78s, but he has the stories to go along with them, and a colorful personality. Another collector once offered Joe a million dollars for his collection. He told Joe that he’d bring the money in cash, in a suitcase! And this was years ago, when a million dollars was really worth something! Joe turned him down, of course. Anyway, making that album with Joe was a chance to juxtapose genres in a dramatic way, jumping from country music to Cajun to blues to jazz to jugband to gospel. It was also a chance to present some of the lore and iconography of record collecting. Private collectors do make a crucial contribution to cultural preservation, and sometimes they recognize the value of things before the higher institutions figure it out.

Combining the written history, the visual imagery, and the music in a thoughtful way is important to me. I still believe in the value of the album, even though it may be an endangered art form these days. A couple of my compilations highlighted themes that had not been widely explored, at least not as CD projects. My fascination with early African-American fiddle music started with my flea market find ‘Beaver Slide Rag’ and finally resulted in the anthology Violin Sing The Blues For Me. There had been many excellent collections of guitar blues, but never a CD that focused exclusively on recorded examples of black fiddling. And when musicians like the Carolina Chocolate Drops cite that album as an early inspiration, of course that’s very gratifying for me. I followed up with a second album of black fiddle music called Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow, which in many ways is better, or at least more fun to listen to. Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows was another anthology that seemed to strike a chord. So many of the prewar musicians that I admired, obscure and famous, all had experience playing in the medicine shows. This included black songsters like Frank Stokes and Pink Anderson, as well as seminal country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Even Hank Williams played the medicine shows. The shows comprised a musical patchwork, ‘the mixed and mongrel bloodlines of American music,’ to lift a phrase from Nick Tosches. My album was inspired by Paul Oliver’s Songsters And Saints, minus the saints, and I even included a few of the same tracks that he used twenty years earlier.


ASPREY: Has anybody written an adequate history of this music?

WYATT: No single volume can capture the entire scope of the music, but a good one to start with is Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather. On the surface this book is a biography of Emmett Miller, but it goes far beyond the music of just one man. Tosches grapples with the root and the essence of American popular music like no other writer, and his quest to understand Emmett Miller leads deep into the rabbit hole. I would recommend any non-fiction by Nick Tosches, and his books about music in particular. Once again, I’ll mention Paul Oliver’s ground-breaking Songsters And Saints. Then there’s Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown, which is filled with astonishing insights and metaphors. Just read the chapter about Bill Monroe and Dolly Parton! Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have put out two remarkable compendiums called Out Of Sight and Ragged But Right. These books trace the early history of African-American show business through a detailed examination of newspaper accounts and periodicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Reading biographies of individual musicians can also be very instructive, like Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers, or Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No. 1, about Gene Autry. Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta is a myth-busting study of Delta blues, and Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp proves the vital role of Southern mill culture to the creation of country music. And let’s not forget the discographies—these are some of the greatest history books that we have: Tony Russell’s Country Music Records 1921-1942, Godrich, Dixon & Rye’s Blues And Gospel Records, 1890-1943, and Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1897-1942. There are many others, but those are the great triumvirate, the ones that really get dog-eared.

ASPREY: Are you tired of the ‘Old, Weird America’ label?

WYATT: Not really. It’s Greil Marcus’ lasting contribution to the lexicon, along the lines of Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame.’ That phrase covers the greatest body of music this country has ever produced. But the secret is out, and now it seems like everybody and his uncle is producing ‘Old, Weird America’ reissue projects. Which is a good thing, but it’s also ironic—what was old and weird is becoming mainstream!

ASPREY: What projects are in the future?

WYATT: My current CD project is not quite so old and weird, but for me it seems crucial because it focuses on the transitional decade of the 1930s, the decade that changed American music forever. Bob Coltman wrote a brilliant essay in 1976 called ‘Across The Chasm’ that describes that transition. My project is called Crazy Barn Dance, named for a Saturday-night radio show of hillbilly music that broadcast over WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and from WPTF in Raleigh, my home town. It’s subtitled ‘Bluegrass Roots on Carolina Radio, 1933-1940.’ Stay tuned.

Fiddler Clay Reed and sons Howard (guitar) and Ray (mandolin). Laurel  Springs, North Carolina, 1949. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Fiddler Clay Reed and sons Howard (guitar) and Ray (mandolin). Laurel Springs, North Carolina, 1949. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (2: Jonathan Ward)

Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward

Matthew Asprey


Jonathan Ward is the founder of the 78rpm website and resource Excavated Shellac. A compiler and collector based in Los Angeles, his releases include the 4-CD box set Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm (Dust-to-Digital, 2011), a 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Historical Album, and the Excavated Shellac LP series (Parlortone). His writing can be found on his website, as well as in Cabinet, Perfect Sound Forever, and the ARSC Journal. He works for the Getty Research Institute.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist? What compilations inspired you?

WARD: It’s interesting, because I’ve never considered myself an ‘anthologist’. Maybe by definition it’s true, but it’s hard for me to take that title too seriously. What I do is basically just compile and co-produce—music and research—and I’m perfectly happy with that mantle. My releases seem more like a natural byproduct of my personal collecting interests, a furthering of whatever explorations I’ve done with the Excavated Shellac website, and the desire to share music and contextual information that might be thought-provoking for readers. I’d always set out to do this for free, with Excavated Shellac. I’m lucky that a record company (Dust-to-Digital) has liked what I’ve had to offer, and wanted to release LPs and CDs. It’s an adjunct to my normal career and job, not a drive or necessity. I don’t think anyone would misconstrue my work with the work of an ethnomusicologist, or true scholarly work, and the site and releases were created with that middle ground in mind. I don’t have a release schedule and tend to go slowly. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I can get pretty tenacious with all this collecting and searching for sounds. There’s a lot here that I’m dying to do something with, in time.

The main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.

ASPREY: How did you develop an interest in collecting African 78s?

WARD: Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me. African 78s aren’t all that I collect by any stretch, but I seem to have specialized in them mainly because I love much of the music, and the vast majority of African 78s have never been restored and reissued ever, by anyone, so each box that arrives in the mail is a new experience. I’m still occasionally coming across entire labels that do not appear to have been documented in print or online before, not just individual releases.

ASPREY: Where in Africa (or elsewhere) have you searched for this music? What are a couple of the more interesting places you’ve found the records?

WARD: I get asked this all the time. I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States. Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.

Of course, I’m not a stay-at-home, I love to travel internationally, and I look for records when I do. But 78s of all kinds were dispersed all over the world both because of the location of various cultural diasporas as well as the location of record pressing plants, and they turn up in random places (from junk shops to the bottoms of discarded gramophone players)—very often not at their points of sale—so most of my collecting consists of plain old international transactions with a coterie of friends, other collectors, and fast talking salesmen all over the globe, who know what I’m interested in. I’m an easy mark. But over time, honing and weeding, you can develop something unique.


ASPREY: Can you tell me about the economics of the African recording industry in the period covered by Opika Pende? How were these 78rpm records produced? Where were they pressed? How were they distributed?

WARD: It’s a convoluted history. Commercial recording in Africa began in stages, beginning at about 1902 in Egypt. In the years before World War II, nearly all recording on the continent was controlled by a few European multinational corporations: The Gramophone Company and Columbia in England, Polyphon and the Lindstrom labels based in Germany (Odeon and Parlophon), and Pathé in France. After recording began in Egypt and a dependable, lucrative market developed there, companies moved slowly eastward to Algeria and Tunisia, recording every year or two in Algiers and Tunis especially, proving that there was indeed a burgeoning industry. Commercial recording did not begin in Morocco until about 1911, and few commercial Sub-Saharan discs were issued during this time (there are, as usual, a few errant exceptions). A couple of independent labels active in North Africa also began to appear at this time, too. Usually, sessions were organized by local agents who were familiar with the music and the musicians (sometimes they were shop owners, for example), and European engineers would travel from the home offices and record the musicians onto wax masters. Engineers would often be gone for months, sometimes years at a time. The masters were regularly shipped back to Europe to be pressed at company pressing plants, and then shipped back to Africa to be sold in all manner of shops. Recording was made acoustically by all companies until about the mid-1920s—that is, without microphones or electricity—therefore the recordings, while beautiful in their own right, have a very narrow acoustical range. Electric recording was introduced at various stages by various companies immediately after 1925-1926 or so.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, things happened very quickly from about 1927, as if all these companies woke up to the fact that there was a new music market to exploit. The Zonophone imprint of the Gramophone Company shipped West African musicians to London to record hundreds of tracks from about 1927 until the early 1930s. This was in essence the first serious attempt to extensively record the popular and vernacular music of Sub-Saharan Africa—decades after the first 78s were made in Egypt. The Gramophone Company then began recording East African artists in the late 1920s, then West African artists in the early 1930s, South African artists around the same time. Odeon and Parlophon recorded in East and West Africa ca. 1930. Pathé shipped Kenyan musicians to Marseilles to record in 1930. Singer (later known as Gallotone), the first Sub-Saharan independent label, began recording in the early 1930s. A lot was happening—then the bottom fell out of the recording industry due to the Great Depression (forcing many labels to merge or fold), and recording was much more sporadic in Sub-Saharan Africa (though it continued steadily in North Africa) until about 1937 where it picked up once again…only to grind to a halt once again with the advent of World War II.

Some collectors opine that the best traditional music in the United States was recorded pre-1930s, but you can’t say that about music in Africa. While it’s true that some (but not all) music of urban North Africa got more slick after 1930s, Sub-Saharan recording was really just beginning to launch after 1945. This is when the big multinationals, still licking their wounds from those financial setbacks, more or less sat back and watched smaller, independent 78 labels pick up the slack (and sometimes they licensed their recordings to get in on the action). This is when the amazing Congolese independent labels began issuing the first rumbas, labels like Fiesta began recording in areas of West Africa like Mali and Burkina, Hugh Tracey began making excursions all across Central, East, and Southern Africa and releasing both popular and traditional recordings on Gallotone and Trek labels, and all manner of rural and popular styles were captured by anyone vying for a spot in the industry. Newly available train transportation to locations previously difficult to access by earlier companies now created new markets. The widespread use of magnetic tape made entrepreneurs across Africa as indie 78 labels popped up, sometimes pressing 78s in amounts of 50. A pressing plant opened in Nairobi after WWII, another in Kampala, another in Zimbabwe.

Eventually, 45s began to take over. While 78s were still being pressed with abundance in South Africa until the very late 1960s, and in East Africa until the early to mid-1960s, West Africa gave way to the 45 quite a bit earlier, as did North Africa. After slowly disappearing over the previous decade, 78s appear to have completely vanished in Africa by 1970 or so. The likely reason they stuck around as long as they did probably had something to do with access to electricity and new equipment.


ASPREY: You’ve said you were not trying to “construct or invent a narrative” with Opika Pende, but “there are important connections to be made.” Can you elaborate on that? What were the guidelines for inclusion and creating a structure to the presentation of the music? And has anybody written an adequate history of this diverse continent’s music?

WARD: Attempting to encapsulate the early music of Africa in 4 CDs is an impossible task—I never wanted to pass Opika Pende off as anything definitive in the slightest. Constructing a narrative under those circumstances could be considered hubris. Instead, my goal was just to present something to build upon, a collection that showcased diversity and rare recordings of lesser-known styles in the West, and one that sequentially moved, loosely and circuitously, from North to South, as the recording industry did, during those years. Ultimately, though, the sequencing was my own, and perhaps idiosyncratic. So, my guidelines for selection were simple: I had to like the music first, and second, it needed to add something to my general goal of showcasing a diverse array of styles and from as wide a geographic range as I could (and where recording was made…and from what I had available). As for the “important connections” statement, I hoped that people might hear continuity in styles and song types despite geographic and musical diversity.

There is no holistic history of early recording in Africa. In fact, there are very few histories of any non-Western country’s music that take into account the content and diversity of early commercial recordings, much less an entire continent’s. There are, however, some essential guides to African music from an ethnographic standpoint (the Garland Encyclopedia’s volume on African music, for example). Hopefully, these fields will overlap more.

ASPREY: Is the music featured on Opika Pende still performed and listened to in present-day Africa?

WARD: Absolutely, in some cases. Those particular recordings are probably not listened to that much or at all, mainly due to the unavailability or scarcity of the original records—though there are certainly circulating cassettes of older performers. But, many of the styles on Opika Pende are definitely still performed today, whether it’s praise singing on the one-string fiddles of Niger or Ethiopia, or the music of the Sheikhates in Morocco. A humbling experience when putting together Opika Pende was talking to native language speakers about certain songs, and even finding people who knew the performers personally. A type of music or a song that might seem incredibly obscure to people in the West is often considered commonplace by entire populations in other parts of the world—this was something I was constantly reminded of.

ASPREY: How did you become involved with Dust-to-Digital?

WARD: Dust-to-Digital contacted me a few months after I’d started Excavated Shellac, in late 2007. They enjoyed the site and the music and asked if I had any ideas for collections to release. I immediately pitched them Opika Pende, as I knew they loved to go all the way with design and quality transfers. Since that project would be huge and time-consuming, we also decided to start an Excavated Shellac LP series which would feature tracks around a given theme under the Excavated Shellac rubric (but hadn’t been featured on the website, or anywhere else, for that matter). Strings was the first. Excavated Shellac: Reeds will be the second in that series.

ASPREY: Opika Pende’s four CDs represent a tiny fraction of the African music you’ve rediscovered. Tell me about your other finds and what you are trying to achieve.

WARD: I’m really glad you used the term “rediscovered” rather than “discovered.” I’m always going down one musical rabbit-hole or another, but I keep my collection lean (well, for an obsessive collector type). Lately I’ve been really enjoying Caribbean jazz from Martinique recorded on French labels in Paris in the late 1920s-early 1930s, guitar players from Kenya and Tanzania on small, local labels like Mzuri and Rafiki, cumbias, string instrument soloists from India, and 78s from the Persian Gulf. Eventually, I hope to post more examples on the site, or use these records in projects. Most of what I listen to isn’t necessarily from the 78 rpm era, though. I mean, I like Black Sabbath and the Stooges, too.

I do have a number of ideas I’m working with now, for potential release, and I’m trying to see what sticks. In the meantime, I enjoy collaborating or helping out on others’ projects. For example, I did the transfers for artist Steve Roden’s i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, and contributed 10-12 discs as well as the 78 transfers for David Murray’s new Longing for the Past CD set of Southeast Asian 78s, both on Dust-to-Digital (and beautiful). Excavated Shellac is ultimately where I’ve unleashed the most music—something like 140+ tracks and counting, though I update it less than I used to. That’s about 7 CDs worth of diverse and sometimes extremely rare material right there, and I can freely get as long-winded, arcane, and as tangential as I want with the text. As long as it continues to be fun for me and people continue to enjoy it, I’ll keep going. I have no goals other than that—the site is entirely personal in that sense.

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (1: Ian Nagoski)

Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski

Matthew Asprey


Ian Nagoski is a musician, writer, and researcher. His compilations include Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, 1918-1955 (Dust-to-Digital, 2007) and To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929 (Tompkins Square, 2011). He runs a small LP label called Canary, which is manufactured and distributed by Mississippi Records. He lives in Baltimore.

ASPREY: What music did you grow up with?

NAGOSKI: I’m from a musical family. My mother was a piano and voice teacher. She gave me lessons in those. The family lore is that I learned to count to four listening to her give lessons. She’s been music director at a Unitarian church since I was a teenager, and is finishing her PhD in Music now. Her tastes ran toward M.O.R. 1970s AM radio kind of stuff; my earliest musical hero was, as a result, Jim Croce. One of my sisters is also a PhD, a music teacher, choral music specialist, a writer, and conductor. My father played Van Ronk/Baez type folk songs on guitar from time to time. He also kept a lot of instruments around the house and had an interesting record collection, including Partch, Stockhausen, Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, etc. (He was also a big thrift store and flea market hound, and I picked that up from him.) My grandfather was an amateur swing-era jazz drummer, who gave me serious, disciplined lessons in that. My sisters and I all took dance lessons of various kinds and, because the family business had to do with taking pictures of dancers, I spent a lot of time around them as a kid.

I fell in love with electro and hip-hop around ‘83 and with the radio generally, and the Beatles in particular around age eight or nine. My older brother turned me on to Peter Gabriel when I was an adolescent.  And an older cousin sat me down and turned me on to ‘college rock’ (Sonic Youth, Volcano Suns, Dinosaur, Dead Milkmen, Laurie Anderson) when I was thirteen or fourteen. My local library had a lot of interesting records—Art Ensemble of Chicago, Television, Weill & Brecht. I started playing in pop-metal (as a drummer) and quasi-shoegaze (as a guitarist) by thirteen or fourteen.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations that provided you with a template?

NAGOSKI: It’s not a choice I’ve ever consciously made. I was always a mix-tape maker and worked in record stores, book stores, and libraries. I tried to be a composer of electronic music in my twenties—did a lot of gigs and made a few records. When I was thirty my daughter was born, so I gave up my music because it was too time-consuming and only lost me money. But I’d been into 78s for about ten years at that point, and a buddy of mine suggested that I make a CD collection for his label. So that became Black Mirror on the Dust-to-Digital label. Then that lead to a relationship with Mississippi Records and got me interested in doing more research and writing about old music. I saw that there were some great stories not being told and saw a way to deal with some of the same concerns regarding memory and musical meaning that I’d had as a composer in a relatable form, so I started doing that.

By the time I started making compilations, I had a couple of decades of making mix tapes and about a decade of improvising and composing for tape under my belt. I was coming from Cage’s strategy of developing a piece of music by first deciding on a duration and thinking about how to arrange sounds within that time-frame. My initial exposure to early 20th century music was, of course, through jazz collections, which were either chintzy (bargain bin collections of Chick Webb or Jimmie Lunceford) or ridiculously elaborate and thorough (the Complete Billie Holiday on Decca, the Complete Robert Johnson, etc.) In my mid-teens, shortly after buying Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America book, I heard the ‘Social Music’ volume of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology (still my favorite volume) and began to take his premise of listening for the Big Picture (the “voice of God”?) seriously. From my late teens through my twenties, I studied the first generation of collector/anthologists of Americana (Pete Whelan’s Origin Jazz Library, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, Chris Strachwitz’s Folklyric and Arhoolie, Don Kent’s Herwin, etc, etc) and came to think of them as artists as much as the performers that they were presenting, as sculptors, bricoleurs, and composers in the same sense as Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Pierre Schaeffer, etc. I was at university and having a very difficult time finding my way when Pat Conte’s Secret Museum series was released and I felt that he had more to say about the truth of music than anyone in a hundred mile radius of the town where I lived. And, of course, there were collections of more-or-less contemporary music (or art or poetry, for that matter, including the Anthology of New York Poets, edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett, and Paul Bowles’ collection of Moroccan writers, Five Eyes) that were very important to me…

ASPREY: How did you come to compile To What Strange Place?

NAGOSKI: There was a song on my first collection, Black Mirror, that I thought was especially powerful—a very intense Greek record with heavy Turkish (and, it turns out, Russian) influence from 1919 by a woman named Marika Papagika. I couldn’t find out much about her, so I started trying to figure her out. In the end, there’s still a lot I don’t know because not much of her life was documented, and she had no children. (She died in 1942.) But she left behind two hundred and fifty performances. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where she was from, what kind of world she had lived in, and why I had encountered her music but hadn’t been able to find out much about her. To What Strange Place is basically what I learned from that project/obsession as it expanded. I still consider that project ongoing.

ASPREY: What can you tell me about the economics of these rare Ottoman diaspora records? How were they originally produced and distributed?

NAGOSKI: It’s a long story. But in a nutshell, The Gramophone Company, as it was then called (later Victor/HMV/EMI) started recording in various parts of the world in 1902. Other companies joined them over the next decade. Recordings of immigrant musics in the U.S. were made starting in the last decade of the 19th century. In the first two decades of the 20th century, recordings made abroad were issued in the U.S. for immigrant populations, and in the mid-1910s recordings of ‘down home’ style musics from many parts of the world were produced and issued in the United States by the major record companies, Victor and Columbia in particular—hundreds of thousands of them by the onset of the Depression. The purpose of them was to 1) get some money out of the pockets of the immigrants who were flooding the country at a rate of more than a thousand a day for decades and 2) to sell some hardware—record players. Immigrants began founding their own small, independent record companies in the 1910s, and some entrepreneurial folks started importing physical discs that had been released back home.

ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music? What kind of regional differences did you find between performers?

NAGOSKI: Well, the performers on To What Strange Place cover a wide array of language and cultural groups. Of the American performers on the first two discs, there are Greek performers from  inland, coastal, and island Greece as well as Anatolian Greeks. There are Armenians from both eastern and western Anatolia. Assyrians of what is now southern Turkey and Syrians of western Syria are also represented. There are Arabic speakers (probably Christians) likely from present-day Lebanon or Egypt, too. To the best of my knowledge there are no Sephardic or Romaniote Jews, Bulgarians, or Albanians, not because they wouldn’t belong but simply because I didn’t find useable, beautiful records by them in time for inclusion, unfortunately. I’m not aware of any Turks or Druze on the first two discs, partially because relatively few immigrated and those that did hid their identities as non-Christians or -Jews. (America was not welcoming to Muslims.) The third disc, which comprises recordings made overseas but marketed in the U.S. for the immigrant populations, is more diverse and includes not only Jews and Muslims but also both performers of the very highest ranks of the Turkish and Arab classical worlds as well as socially ‘low’ class performers, including Roma women.

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Tell me about the hunt for rare records. What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found them?

NAGOSKI: The Greek records that started me down the To What Strange Place rabbit hole were dragged out of an abandoned house in Baltimore, Maryland. I bought that box of records having no idea at all what was on them for ten cents a piece—$5 for the box. They included not only several by Marika Papagika but also a beautiful 1907 performance by a Greek singer in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). Some of the best Arab classical (tarab) performances on the set were found in practically unplayed condition at an estate sale in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by my friends Paul Metzger and Elaine Evans. (They refused to take any money for them—bless them!) Those included one of the oldest and best performances on the set—the great Egyptian singer Yusuf al-Manyalawi, recorded November, 1905. A group of Armenian records were literally picked out of garbage left on the street in Boston, Massachusetts, including M. Douzjian’s great ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’. Those were given to me by my friend Angela Sawyer. I should say that although I did pay ‘serious money’ for a couple records on the set (and then had to sell them immediately after making transfers of them), the vast majority of them were either given to me or else I paid almost nothing for them. Many of them—including great ones like Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’—can be bought at auction for less than $10 in nearly perfect condition. Some are ‘rare’ in the sense of being collectable, but most are basically obscure junk that very few people want and even fewer are willing to pay for. Most of the records I’m most interested in “ride that fine line between priceless and worthless,” as my buddies Dick Spottswood and Steve Smolian say.

ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of ‘secret history’ (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of this music?

NAGOSKI: Primarily, I’m driven by a desire to respect the work of the people who made this beautiful music—to say simply and clearly that their lives mattered. I feel connected to them when I hear them play, and I want to know them and share the quality and meaning of their lives to the extent that I can know it. Secondarily, I want to shake people up a little, Americans in particular, and remind them (us) that we haven’t been told the whole story, that we don’t know enough about who we are, that the world is a big place full of beauty and wonder, and that simply agreeing on a few icons and symbols and songs is not good enough. It leads to amnesia and complacency and ultimately reinforces the devaluing of human life and creativity.

(The ‘secret history’ and, especially, ‘old, weird America’ tropes mean nothing to me. There’s nothing particularly ‘secret’ or ‘weird’ about any of it. It’s all perfectly normal, and the answers could be available if the questions were asked to the right people…)


ASPREY: What are some of your other favourite cuts on To What Strange Place beyond the performances of Marika Papagika?

NAGOSKI: On the first two discs, every track, except for two or three, was chosen because I’d fallen in love with it. (A couple are there simply because they’re good listening and an important part of the narrative.) M. Douzjian’s ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’ (one of the discs picked out of the trash on the street in Boston) blows me away every time I hear it—absolutely blazing. A monument. (Also virtually worthless. A perfect copy—on an indie label from ‘28 or so—sold at auction recently for $10 or something.) Achilleas Poulos’ version of ‘Her Yer Karanlik’, a song recorded many times, which like ‘September Song’ or a number of other standards kills me—has moved me to tears many times. Sotirios Stasinopoulos’ ‘O Korakas’ is about as good a record as I’ve ever heard—certainly up there with any of the delta blues masterpieces. I adore Naim Karakand—every note I’ve ever heard him play, from 1912 to 1958. Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’ is a great favorite. Zabelle Panosian’s ‘Groung’ is a mind-melting masterpiece and one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard in my life. On the third disc, the three Egyptian vocalists—Hilmi, Murad, and Manyalawi—are artists of the very highest order and leave me gasping for breath every time I invest myself in listening to them. And of course, Cemil Bey—what can you say? Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Charlie Parker, Abdul Karim Khan…He’s in that category of musician from whom music just flows with such devastating power and imagination that you feel grateful just to have heard him.

ASPREY: An early version of ‘Misirlou’ appears on To What Strange Place—a song that has had a long afterlife in American culture all the way to Pulp Fiction. What are some of the other after-effects or later incarnations of this music in America? Was it debased or trivialised in later popular culture?

NAGOSKI: This is something I’m still learning about all the time. To What Strange Place ends with the onset of the Depression when the major record companies in the U.S. essentially stopped releasing recordings of immigrant folk musicians. In the 1940s, those immigrants started releasing their own records, but they never stopped performing. In New York, a strip of ‘Oriental nightclubs’ (Greek, Armenian, Arab, Turkish, etc.) existed for decades along about ten blocks of 8th Avenue, and it became hip for some folks (particularly after the release of films like Zorba and Never on Sunday as well as Kazan’s America, America) to dip into that scene, and it was definitely a thing for some jazz musicians to go check out this modal music in ‘odd’ time signatures around the time that Kind of Blue and Take Five came out. So you find, for instance, that Naim Karakand, who recorded at the first-ever sessions of Turkish-language music for commercial release for Columbia in 1912, recorded his last sessions with Ahmed Abdul Malik in 1958 at a jazz-fusion session (with saxophonist Johnny Griffin) in 1958, and that Malik recorded just a few years later at the Village Vanguard sessions with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.

Meanwhile, two of the most influential American jazz record producers were of the ‘Oriental’ world. George Avakian (who was Armenian, born 1919 in Russia) signed Miles Davis to Columbia and was one of the most influential figures in 20th century American music. And then there was Ahmet Ertegun (Turkish, born in Istanbul in 1923), who not only discovered, championed, or produced scores of the most important artists on Atlantic’s catalog, but also recorded several interesting sessions by, for instance, the great Armenian Udi Hrant (who also recorded jazz-fusion performances for Riverside) and the Italian-American proto-free-jazz saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri, who was deeply influenced by Greek, Armenian, Arab, and Jewish music from his native Brooklyn. Interestingly, Ertugen shelved those sessions. So the ways in which those who knew the music best and then turned away from it are also deeply instructive. Certainly by the 1950s, Sun Ra was paying some attention to the independent and ethnic releases being made in the U.S. Meanwhile, the scenes in Michigan, where there is a huge Arab-American population, southern California, etc, etc, filtered into the consciousnesses of innumerable artists that we have yet to delineate. But there were Greek-oriental clubs also in the deep South—Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, where we know a belly dance scene took root in the 1950s and 1960s. In my own Baltimore, some of the great performers of the 1950s played in taverns catering to sailors, including the bouzouki virtuoso Yannis Pappaioannou….It goes on and on…

ASPREY: Is Baltimore a good base for your work?

NAGOSKI: It’s OK. It’s a small city (600,000) and very poor. I have a hard time finding work in order to simply keep body and soul together, much less to have money to buy records. But there were significant immigrant populations here in the early 20th century—Slavs, Jews, and Greeks in particular. So those records turn up sometimes. It’s close enough to some other major cities, where I can learn more—D.C., NYC, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. I still need to go to Chicago, Michigan, and L.A. to continue the work, but that hasn’t been possible so far. (I lived for a six months last year in Asheville, North Carolina in the Great Smokey range of the Appalachian mountains—very much bluegrass territory. I like that music and culture a lot, but there was not a lot of the left-behind Greek, Jewish, Slavic, or Asian cultures that have come to dominate my internal life. So I’m not sorry to be back, particularly because there are a lot of good libraries here. Libraries are key.)

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Have you been able to go crate-digging and researching in Turkey or Greece?

NAGOSKI: No. Everything on To What Strange Place arrived to me on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. A few records were found in the mid-West and were sent to me. None came even from the West Coast. I’ll finally go to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul for the first time in April 2014. (I’d also like to go to Lebanon; Israel; Izmir, Turkey; and Alexandria, Egypt. If anyone reading this can help, please write… a few years ago, I would have added Aleppo to the list, but that’s out of the question now, of course.)

ASPREY: I see you have been raising research funds through Kickstarter rather than through, say, an academic institution. Can you tell me about that?

NAGOSKI: After I toured Europe for To What Strange Place over several weeks in early 2012, I arrived home with a lot of unsold merch. I wound up selling it off by making more merch at home and running the Kickstarter campaign. After costs and two months of full-time work running the campaign, I had turned a profit of about $5,000, which I hoped to use to tour the West Coast of the U.S. and then buy a plane ticket to the Near East. But because I could not find venues that would pay enough for me simply to break even on those trips, I then spent the money paying outstanding bills and moving my wife and I to Asheville, North Carolina, where she wanted to live. But she then rather promptly left me. So I moved again, penniless, back to Baltimore. No hard feelings. Life is just hard.

I received a gift in 2011 from the Kindle Foundation, which nearly saved my life. I will remember that day with gratitude on my deathbed. But other than that, I have received no support from any institution. I have given lectures at many schools, and my fondest wish is to teach some day, but because I am a high school dropout without even an undergraduate degree, I am not qualified to apply for a teaching position at any American academic institution. I have been turned down for numerous fellowships and grants. I support myself by writing and record production on a for-pay basis, and at present, I am working three part-time jobs at near-minimum wage.

ASPREY: Can you tell me about the book project you’re working on?

NAGOSKI: There’s a collection of my writing and interviews on the subject of music from over the past twenty years called Music is a Hard-Working Thing that Transparency Press in Los Angeles has asked me to do. However, the funding that they felt they had when the offer was made has not come through. I hope it does.

I wrote 100,000 words for the notes to To What Strange Place, but Tompkins Square Records had me shorten those to 10,000 words (including the 20 minutes of spoken text at the end of disc 3). I have learned a lot since the publication of To What Strange Place and hope that I can finish the project by writing the book it always should have been. This depends on finding a publisher who can support the project.

ASPREY: What are your future plans?

NAGOSKI: By the end of the year the fifteenth and sixteenth releases on my LP label Canary will be issued. (So that’ll be sixteen LPs in four years.) One is a collection of Hindustani vocal art music from the period surrounding independence from the British Empire—the last of the old court singers and the first of the new public singers, all of them awesome. The other is of the great Greek star of the 1930s, Rita Abatzi. A gospel LP that I made dealing with both visions of the apocalypse and the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1930s to the early 1950s is nearly finished, but I have no one to release it. I’d like to finish that if there were a publisher.

I have definite plans to finish three more LPs for release in 2014. One has to do with laughter and animal imitation as entertainment as they existed on record in the early 20th century—my own entry into the world of hindsight-genre. Another deals with one of my deepest and oldest loves, central Javanese court gamelan. And another addresses the first generations of Arabic-language-speaking women on record.

I need to do biographical studies of two artists from To What Strange Place—the Syrian-American violinist Naim Karakand and the Armenian-American singer Zabelle Panosian, both of whom recorded incredible work in the 1910s in New York City—in the short term.

The great pivotal and colorful Greek-American bouzouxis Ionnis Halikias (Jack Gregory) is a project I wish to take on, and I am awaiting an angel to make that possible.

I mentioned the two books I need to do, my tour in April 2014 including Greece and Turkey, and my fascination with the 8th Avenue scene of ‘Oriental’ clubs and its cross-over into the world of jazz…

I have begun and will continue my studies in cage-bird song (canaries and nightingales in particular), as they relate to human culture. (My initial work on that was exhibited at the Post-Natural in Nature exhibit at the Museum for Naturkunde in Berlin earlier this year and will be published by a small magazine in Connecticut any day now.)

So, you know…everyone needs a hobby…