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

Marshall Wyatt

Marshall Wyatt

THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
Matthew Asprey

3. MARSHALL WYATT

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.

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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)

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

Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward

THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
Matthew Asprey

2. JONATHAN WARD

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.

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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.

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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

THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
Matthew Asprey

1. IAN NAGOSKI

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…)

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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…