Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Whenever I hear about vintage record collectors, I think of “MCMLXVI,” a comic-book story by Daniel Clowes that features a shaggy-haired, retro-hipster Luddite who believes popular culture peaked in 1966. The character, a precursor to Steve Buscemi’s character in the Clowes-written graphic novel and film Ghost World, hilariously oozed snobby superiority and disdained modern technology and music. There are probably some technophobic purists out there today who still listen to nothing but ceramic cylinders played through an Edison phonograph. But in 2007, it became clearer that many archivists of old-time music are receptive to modern technology—and that the technological differences between then and now aren’t as big as you might think.
The name of the label that released The Art of Field Recording: Volume I, Dust-to-Digital, indicates its philosophy toward technology and music. The first of three planned volumes, the four-CD set features “ballads, blues, spirituals, work songs and slave songs, religious singing such as the African-American ring-shout, and other traditional folk music from Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan and New York.” The common denominator is that all of it was recorded between 1956 and 2007 by Art Rosenbaum (the “Art” of the title), an art professor at the University of Georgia and American folk archivist who clearly admires the work of his predecessors, Harry Smith and the Lomaxes.
It’s an impressive package, featuring a 96-page booklet illustrated with paintings and photos collected by Rosenbaum and his wife, Margo Newmark Rosenbaum. The Art of Field Recording makes no claims to be an academic project—Art’s father even shows up on one track, singing a blue variation on a Child Ballad called “One Saturday Night When I Come Home.” But what the set lacks in comprehensiveness, it makes up for in idiosyncratic charm. The collection is often engaging, whether it’s the haunting rendition of an unrepentant hanged man in “Fred Adams” by a 7-year-old migrant worker named Ray Rhodes or the bouncy, offbeat Christmas tune called “What You Gonna Name That Pretty Baby,” sung by the octogenarian Laethe Eller in 1978. Among the most poignant songs is the a cappella “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain,” sung by “Big Boy” Terrell. The track opens with an inadvertent recording of a dog yelping; Terrell, a churchgoer, refuses to sing the word “damn,” leaving pauses in its place. In a spectacular bit of overly literal interpretation, the percussion is Terrell and “Doc” Barnes swinging a pickax.
The set also reveals the debt that field recordings owe to technology. Rosenbaum respectfully lists the various devices that he has used over the years in his noble endeavors—from “monaural machines” to a “heavy-to-lug Pioneer open reel deck which made lovely stereo recordings” to a Tascam DAT to his latest, a Tascam stereo flash-card recorder. Without that kind of mobility and flexibility, these songs would never had been captured. The songs are old, but they reflect a persistently forward-thinking spirit.
“It’s foolish to think of digital tools as the enemy,” says Richard Martin, co-founder of Archeophone, an Illinois-based archival label. The label releases recordings dating back to the 19th century and relies heavily on the process of digital cleanup. “Even the old records in great shape need some work to get rid of the pops and clicks,” he says.
Martin and Doug Benson, an archivist, had their work cut out for them for The Complete Hit of the Week Recordings: Volume 3, the latest in a CD series collecting the releases of the Hit of the Week label. Started in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, Hit of the Week records were cheaply produced by creating micro-grooves on a substance called Durium, a patented blend of resin and paper that was sprayed in a thin layer on a piece of cardboard. Most records in the early ’30s were made of shellac, but Durium discs could be made for less, selling for 15 cents apiece at newsstands. Even so, sales were slow for Hit of the Week, and its parent company, Durium Products Inc., filed for bankruptcy in 1931. At one point, Durium was in debt for owed royalties; in response, the company argued that it made paper products, not records per se, and thus wasn’t obligated to pay up. Cheap, ubiquitous, poor sound quality, and existing on the fringe of the music-industry economy—Durium’s discs were the MP3s of the Great Depression.
But considering the flimsy source material, the sound quality of the Hit of the Week compilation is amazing. The sweetly plaintive rendition of the Tin Pan Alley tune “Shine on Harvest Moon” by Phil Spitalny’s Music is warm and transcendent. That’s topped by Eddie Cantor’s preternaturally cynical “Cheer Up,” which features such acidic Depression-era gems as “Sunny smilers we must be, the optimist asserts/Let’s hang the fat-head to a tree! Cheer up, smile, nerts!” It’s hard to believe these treasures never migrated to a less disposable format.
Durium was eventually incorporated into the Irwin-Wasey Advertising Agency, a move that led to two major changes to the Durium disc. First, there would be more recordings of advertisements and, second, technological advances allowed for the one-sided disc to contain a five-minute track, almost double the average commercial release. There are pitches for recognizable brands like Westinghouse, Chevrolet, and Redbook, as well as for some companies that didn’t stand the test of time. On one track, a chirpy announcer extols the virtues of the Len-a-dor from Leonard Refrigerators: “Think of being able to walk up to your electric refrigerator with both hands full of dishes and, with a touch of your toe on the pedal, see the door swing open of its own accord.”
But the discs’ extended length proved to be more of a burden than boon. Most songs and arrangements were written to fit into a three-minute span. When the musicians had the extra space, they seemed at a loss as to what to do with it. For instance, “Pardon Me Pretty Baby” by Sam Lanin’s Orchestra moves pleasantly along until the three-minute mark, when it absurdly, jarringly segues into the melody of “Tell Me Pretty Baby,” for no apparent reason other than it has a similar title. After a minute of nonsense, the orchestra returns to the original tune for the outro. It’s a precursor to prog-rock—and the tendency of bands to fill a CD’s extra space with subpar B-sides.
Durium tried to economize by releasing public-domain college fight songs and traditionals. As an owner of a small label who knows that licensing fees can add up, Archeophone’s Martin can relate. He tries to get songs released prior to 1923 that are public domain, and he’s no fan of Sonny Bono, who, as a California congressman, co-sponsored legislation that extended copyrights. It passed a year before he died in 1998. “He hit the tree a little too late,” Martin says.
Keith Abrahamsson’s concerns are slightly more current, and his attitude is considerably more serene. The Kemado Records A&R staffer runs Anthology Recordings (anthologyrecordings.com), which specializes in making hard-to-find releases available via digital download. Abrahamsson mainly stocks what Martin would call “brand-new music”—songs from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. He follows his tastes: The catalog is primarily dictated by Abrahamsson’s love for dub, punk, vintage psych, and doom-metal classics. He says he was inspired by “the fact that most online retailers were not carrying many obscure titles,” and since founding the site in 2006, he’s worked out deals with other archival labels like Morpheus, Sundazed, and Subliminal Sounds to be their exclusive digital source.
It’s a wonderful resource to obtain discs like Black Vinyl Shoes, the 1977 album by power-pop act Shoes, 1986’s Off the Beaten Track by dub-revivalists African Head Charge, or an unreleased early-’90s album by Moondog, featuring Walter Schreifels from Gorilla Biscuits and Quicksand. Me, I’m impressed by the opportunity to get hold of vintage doom-metal gems like Warpig’s self-titled debut, Witchfynde’s legendary Give ’Em Hell 7-inch, and the classic early songs of Pentagram. “I think that’s the really cool thing about doing stuff digitally,” Abrahamsson says. “There doesn’t really need to be any style restraints.”
Collector scum tend to have an anti-tech bent, which is ironic now that curators of old-time music are open to the benefits of the digital age. And that makes sense: If you’re already a music nerd, why not take the extra small step to becoming a tech nerd as well?