THE CRATE-DIGGERS’ SYMPOSIUM
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.
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.
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.