John Cowley: Despite residing in England, John Cowley has done extensive work on African American music in the Carribean and the United States. He has spent many hours in the Library of Congress, sorting through and annotating the many hours of field recordings of blues and other related forms of music. His doctoral dissertation on Trinidad and carnival music was published, to rave reviews, in 1995.
Kip Lornell: Kip Lornell has been in Washington, D.C. for almost ten years working at the Smithsonian Institution (now part-time) and teaching at local colleges. He has lived in South for almost 25 years working on projects--radio documentaries, books, records, festivals, related to Southern American music. His next major project is a book on go-go music in Washington, D.C.
Dick Spottswood: A reformed librarian and a lifelong resident of the Washington D.C. area, Dick Spottswood began collecting records, mostly of American vernauclar music, in the very late 1940s. His interests, both in collecting and music in general, have expanded to include blues, jazz, hillbilly, and ethnic music. Among his exploits are: being one of the guiding souls behind BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED, a series of documentary records for the Library of Congress to celebrate the Bi-Centennial, and a massive mulit-volume discography of ethnic music.
KL So you think blues started in the Piedmont and not the Delta, huh?
KL Why's that?
DS 'cause of that particular phraseology. I'm looking at pieces like "Lonesome Road Blues," and "Careless Love" and some of those as being sort of early transitional lyric songs that have complaining elements to them.
KL "....going down that road feeling bad?"
DS Well, that's "Lonesome Road Blues."
DS "Lonesome Road Blues" I guess is the revisionist title. And I think in the 19th century a lot of those songs were in three quarter time a la "Down In The Valley" or "Birmingham Jail" and that they began being in four quarter time, and once you drop the third line of the stanza, instead of singing "Going down the road feeling bad" three times, you only sing it twice. Or "Takes a worried man to sing a worried song" which you always have to sing that line three times too, right? As soon as you drop that third line you've got something approaching the classic blues stanza.
KL I also think of those songs as having roots in white culture too.
KL I think there was a very strong shared repertoire in the nineteenth century between blacks and whites, especially in the rural South, and a lot of songs we think of as blues songs now, and certainly that's true of black fiddle and banjo playing, they have common ancestry in both black and white rural traditions.
DS Yeah, it almost seems as though those two worlds sort of split apart and became the musics that we know them around the twentieth century. Ma Rainey telling John Work that she encountered the blues in southwest Missouri in 1902. She maybe had heard something like that before but clearly she encountered something at that point that she experienced as something entirely new musically.
KL And I think a lot of that has to do with the Jim Crow laws of the 1890's kind of reinforcing what was once freedom or a semblance of freedom for blacks, all of a sudden the Jim Crow laws come in in the mid 1890s and zap, it's like being back towards slavery again. I think that really signals a seachange in American culture.
DS Well the desired effect was to push the races apart physically and it certainly had that effect. Maybe that gave black culture the chance to put some flesh on those skeletal blues bones.
KL It certainly happened right around the turn of the century and that seems to be the main legal and social impetus for that happening at that time.
DS But even after that blues was always sort of crossing the street of the racial divide. Hart A. Wand's "Dallas Blues" and all the Handy's "Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" of the teens kept pushing those songs back towards white culture again still even with the earliest recordings that we know, which is actually all that we can still hear. Mamie Smith is still singing something that has a distinctively racial component and it's not really until you get to Jimmie Rodgers in 1927, and this time exclusively via phonograph records, that you have somebody deliberately dragging blues back across the racial street again.
KL Yeah, there are a few earlier examples but Jimmie Rodgers was the one who put blues in the American mainstream.
DS I think you'd have to say Handy and Rodgers both.
KL And Handy especially through the publishing...the sheet music starting about 1912, 1913, really helped, for people who could afford sheet music, who were interested in sheet music and I'm willing to guess that was many, many more white people than black people.
JC Well actually 'cause they can afford to pay for the sheet music.
DS And for the musical tutoring and for the pianos.
JC The same thing applies in Trinidad, all the records and the music that circulated is to those people who can afford it, and those people are not necessarily the performers.
KL And if there's no marketplace or perceived marketplace for it, the companies, whether they're vendors of sheet music or new phonograph records are not going to go after that market if they don't perceive the financial wherewithall there to purchase their products.
DS Well, they could be experimenting just to find out. The other thing is, you've gotta remember, that record companies, the standard practice was: get phonographs into houses. How do you get phonographs into houses? Record local music first, then you can sell them anything. And if you look at the pattern across the world, that's exactly what happened. So that's one of the reasons why there's a lot of very interesting 'ethnic' music recorded very early on, 'cause it's commercial policy.
KL Like getting the vernacular into the homes so that they will purchase the products. It just happens that blues didn't really hit that until the early 1920's.
DS Which may be partly to do with what we were just arguing earlier with respect to the Jim Crow laws, if you take some of the evidence, Laughton's "Aaron Harris" is a sort of a blues ballad from the early turn of the century, some of the field recordings that Lomax made with Sid Hemphill are blues ballads, all date from roughly that period. They also parallel the oratorical calypso in Trinidad. It's the same kind of word-based thing, so it may actually be a world wide English speaking movement in terms of the Americas. I mean that's difficult to tell.
KL All at around the same time, late nineteenth, early twentieth century.
DS That seems to be a pattern. In Trinidad the movement is from French Creole to English. That's the switch. But at the same time there's a much greater emphasis on words. That's what the blues ballads were, which of course gets you into songsters repertoire.
KL Which, of course brings us to what were once perceived to be as old blues musicians like Leadbelly and more recently, of course, someone like Mance Lipscomb, but in fact they're much more than just simply blues singers.
JC I don't think anybody of an earlier generation argued that Leadbelly was a superior blues musician. And, if you actully look at the original documentation for Mance Lipscomb, he was never argued as a blues musician. It was accepted by people as a blues musician, but I mean in terms of say Paul Oliver or Chris Strachwitz attitude towards him; well, he wasn't a blues musician at all. He was a folk performer, a songster, to them at the outset.
DS And those are distinctions that tended to be imposed on elderly performers way after the fact, too.
JC Well, those terms were actually used contemporaneously at the ... You know, people were called songsters by black people. I believe.
KL Yes. Yes. So many references to Leadbelly early in the twentieth century are of being called a songster. You know because of his white repertoire. And of course, part of that got, perverted in a way I guess by the so called blues revival of the mid...starting in the early/mid1960's, where there was such a... a strong movement to look towards or for blues singers to the exclusion of other kinds of American black vernacular music. People like that in other traditions I think tend to be overlooked.
JC Or...or... or carried along with the... with the tide.
JC Elizabeth Cotton. Shes... she's just as much an example of a broad base repertoire as anybody. KL Uh huh.
JC Oh that is a North Carolina link. Back to the Piedmont.
KL Yeah, and to the Seeger family.
KL And with Leadbelly , of course, to the Lomaxes--another interesting collecting crew. And of course a lot of the Lomax stuff ended up in one of our favorite repositories -the black hole of the Library of Congress.
KL As more than I have just referred to it over the years. You know that I was thinking the Library of Congress is such a ... a mixed bag 'cause there's..., there's so much good material there but they make it so difficult for normal human beings to access.
DS Well, that's the... the problem isn't it? If you...if you make it easy to access, uh, pretty soon it isn't around anymore. And if you don't make it easy to access, then you can't it's... it's there and it's safe but , no one, but no one can , enjoy it.
JC Well, it's not necessarily safe. (laughs).
DS Publication is the best means of dissemination. I decided a long time ago.
KL And publication in it's broadest sense.
KL Publishing records. Publishing articles. Publishing books. Publishing films.
DS And broadcasting and any other means by which duplicate copies are made and get out to where they belong. And to the extent that access is restricted and duplicating can't be done, then there's another sort of a danger imposed on the material. But, on the other hand, you can't have it on open shelves either. And, much as people will argue that, I'm not sure if private collectors are always the safest repository for rare and valuable materials, too. I mean, if my house burns up, the sound recordings I have downstairs, including all of the foreign language things I have and then the occasional blues and hillbilly records that form unique or next to unique copies, they're gone! So the chance of destruction in my hands of that material is a lot greater than they would be in LC's hands.
JC OK.OK. I mean any institution is susceptible to some kind of damage. I mean, that huge Romanian library...(was it Romania?) which was one of the best in the world was destroyed in the troubles leading up to its recent independence.
DS But, its all relative and not an absolutely guarantee...
JC Yeah, but I can forsee, if you looked at the matter fair enough, London, the basement, below street level, is just full of shellac. What's gonna happen if a spark ignites there? Then everything's gone. So, I don't think that one can be... it's exactly the same argument. I'm not argueing for the hands of private collectors but I think anything... there's always the chance, which is really bolsters Dick's statement with respect to getting the things distributed. You can't... I mean, one of the reasons I got involved with researching, trying to diseminate information from the LC collection was that very reason. I believe that if you've got something vegetating in a public archive, it's vegetating. And nobody knows what it is. There's no context to it. You just... you might, as per chance there was a list of sorts of what might be there, which looked interesting. Yes. OK. But how is it interesting? Why is it interesting? ... comes back to the same thing -- access, distribution, 'proper' and analysis of the material. And that can only be done by a public disemination, by release. And yet, it depends on the political era you're in. But, at this present moment, public institutions such as that are all threatened (It's not simply exclusive to the United States) by funding, justification for their existence, they aren't seen to pay their way... How does an intitution like that pay it's way? It's there because it's there. It's not supposed to make money. It's supposed to be an archive for the culture which it represents. And other cultures for that matter, if you take the Library of Congress or the British Library. They all have a sym.... well, it's more than symbolic. It has a practical purpose which politicians turn to their advantages or to the dis-advantage of the institution as the phases of political ideals change.
DS One very helpful sign is something that the Smithsonian has officially instituted with it's latest catalog "Smithsonian/Folkways" where all of the old long-play record albums from the Folkways catalog plus the material from the Cook catalog and other smaller labels that have gravitated to the Smithsonian are available on CD. Whereby, I assume they have made CD masters. And, when an order comes in for a record somebody just strikes off another CD. It's a fairly safe and long lasting method of publication. And it's done so that you can have it in your home for a small amount - $20.00 or thereabouts - what has been here-to-fore an out of print album. And so we've reached the stage where we are able to publish something in a kind of a desktop fashion for sound recording and create one published item at a time. And with the possibilities that are being opened up on the 'net and through satellite technology, I'd like to think that this is going to grow and perhaps we might hope that in another ten years or so this will be an academic question. Everything will start to become available to everybody that wants it on a one per time basis.
KL My guess is that in the near future, this won't be a problem.
JC Just presuppose that the archive has a staff member to do that. And it's willing to do it - some archives are not. They think that they've got to put on paper some sort of accounting procedure to justify their existence. So therefore, accessibility is that much more restricted. I know that occurs at the National Sound Archive in London and it's to some extent the same with the Recorded Sound Section at LC. And I heard of another archive in Texas where there's a similar problem in terms of access to what they stored. I mean, their charges for using what they hold is so enormous that it isn't worth actually using their... (laughs).
DS But I like to think that what Smithsonian Folkways has done is a first very major and very positive step in that direction.
JC We'll see what happens.
KL It underlies the whole imports of technology because all of the out of print Smithsonian Corporation material, whether it's blues or whatever it might be, has been available "on demand" on cassettes. And now that technology costs less, it's going to be "one-off" CDs which are not that much more difficult to produce. And the cost has gone down enough in the last couple of years to make that affordable.
JC And they're more durable. I mean, a cassette can get twisted and break or what have you, whereas a ...
DS Having a cassette is the same as not having anything.
JC Here. Here. Shake hands! (laughter)
KL But, you had intimated something about safety. Were you talking about physical safety with the Library of Congress or accessibility safety?
JC Well, I was mainly thinking about physical safety because nothing absolutely secure. But, I mean, accessibility safety is also a problem. It's the same thing where you're controlling it just by money with this other archive (I don't know who it was. It was somebody from Texas. ) And, I suppose this applies to any institution. The institution has to trust the people that use it before necessary extra accesses are allowed. And sometimes a rogue can get in anyway. But the institution itself doesn't necessarily know the value of what it's got. How can it? Because there's so much there.
KL And the value changes.
KL According to trends and interests of people as well.
JC Absolutely. So, I mean an institution... Which is why it should be careful about everything. And it's not. It doesn't necessarily happen. I mean I think in terms of LC over the years ( you know, how many years? Since 1973 off and on) I detect to some extent there's a broader based concept there in terms of what they save and how they save it and how they look after it. Although, no doubt, that's always been conditioned by standard library attitudes. And there's certainly a greater commitment to accessibility (files or various finding aids and what have you) which were never there when I came across first in 1973. On the other hand, there's also a kind of take it or leave it ambience (Laughs) (I don't know how to define it.) which I find a little bit upsetting.
KL As in, these are our policies. If you don't like it, tough beans.
JC Well yeah, but also "we can go so far but we can't go any further".
KL For example.
JC Well, if you're looking for something quite often there are people there that know a bit more about how you might find out where something is. And sometimes only a chance mention in a conversation and you suddenly find there's a whole stream of information in another direction that you never even knew existed. And this could open up the whole subject, mayhap. I certainly have had that happen to me once or twice. And I don't know about Dick - when you were the bicentennial this year, I would quess the same.
DS I don't know. I was spoiled. I had the key to the candy store. I could listen to anything that I wanted.
JC Well, I wasn't thinking just ...
DS And I would make informal copies for study or something so that I wouldn't have to play an ancient acetate disc over and over again. But, by that time I was an employee. If I had come in ... And that was going to be my next question to you. You and Charlie Wolfe set out to do the Leadbetter book ten/fifteen years ago ( however long it was).
KL Not that long ago. About eight years ago.
DS Really. OK. Well, I admire you 'cause that came to fruition pretty fast. You, presumeably, had a need to hear a lot of material that only the library had. Because outside of a handful of commercial 78's the library is sitting on the vast portion of Leadbelly material. How were you treated? Or did you decide that the institutional barriers were such that you just had to go around them rather than try to work through them?
KL Well, that was more a matter of happen-stance because at that time Rounder had just initiated a reissue of Leadbelly material. So I had access to what they had already gotten from the Library of Congress and I ended up annotating six CDs for them. So, I actually was able to listen to all of the Library of Congress material pretty easily. Of course, it's not that hard to go to listen to the Library of Congress if you want to just sit there and listen. But, if you want to actually make copies to take home for reference and to transcribe that's when it becomes problematic, as we all know. Because, then it becomes ridiculously expensive. So, I was lucky because I had all the Rounder tapes to listen to and could transcribe what I wanted too. But that was unusual circumstances and also my affiliation with the Smithsonian allowed me to total access to all of the Moe Ash/Leadbelly stuff. All the files, all the recordings, all the un-issued stuff was there and I was at the right place at the right time. If it would've been somebody else, it would have been much more difficult. No doubt about it.
JC Well, I was just going to say ... Not, that it related directly to the Leadbelly thing. It reminded me of an example. There had been mentioned an Alabama LP in the Flyright Library of Congress series. Bruce Bastin and I worked on this for quite a long time and it never was released although some of the material has now come out on CD. And one of the barriers was that we kept ordering a track by Blind Jesse Harris (I think it was. It may not have been but I think it was him.) and we kept being supplied the wrong item. And this is likely that the cataloging or the marking on the disc was wrong. And we could not get anybody bureaucratically, especially from abroad, to realize that they had to flip over the record, probably, and that was what we wanted. And this is the difficulty. I mean it's one of the problems of having a recorded sound section and an office that looks after the discs and an archive of folk culture that has all the reference materials for it. Because how do you communicate one between the other that there's probably some discrepancy between what's on the disc and actually... Or how the disc is not and what's on the card.
KL And what you really need at the Library of Congress is to go to one of those wankers and say "Listen,...
KL "flip this disc over for these guys and see if it's on the other side."
JC And if it's being paid for... So I mean you were actually paying for something which you've ordered which you understood was correct and it's not your documentation that's wrong, it's their documentation that's wrong.
KL And I'm sure that was lot's of fun to try to get that straightened out and probably...
JC It never was straightened out and that's one of the reasons why the record never came out. It just never happened.
KL And the three of us are sitting here. None of us are shaking our heads in amazement that something like that could possibly happen at the Library of Congress because we've all had our own experiences similar to that.
DS Well, it's why I traffic in commercial published sound documents rather than field recordings which only sound half as good and are quite often by inferior performers anyway. I mean, you never caught a Blind Lemon Jefferson making records for the Library of Congress and Blind Willie McTell only did by accident. And the Breaux Brothers who made all those Cajun records they clearly cut one side for John Lomax and they discovered that they were only being paid with gratitude and repositude at the government in Washington (as he always said, Washington). That was not quite enough, thank you, and so he came away with exactly one cut by Amadie Breaux. So if I want to hear them, they cut a ton of Vocalian/Columbia records that were done under state of the art conditions at the time and hold up pretty well today. Old shellac discs don't peel from an aluminum base, do they?
KL No, indeed.
DS I was telling John last night... It was really too bad that someone dicovered how to coat aluminum discs with acetate because if they just kept recording on the straight aluminum those records would sound as good today as they ever have.
KL That was an unfortunate happenstance, I'm afraid.
JC Well,the only argument against that was the signal to noise iratio 'cause you couldn't such fidelity from...
DS That is true. But in the long run it's shelf life that counts.
JC Well, that's true. That reminds me of a storage thing. I went to a lecture by Peter Copeland who'se the technical man at the International Sound Archive in London and there were all these arguments about what the best means for long term storage because they have the same sorts of problems including the commercial discs. And his argument was (and I think it's... right and I were talking about this the other day) that in fact it's the CD. It is the best means of storing large amounts of audio information. Because you've got effectively the groove which is engraved into the disc and grooves engraved into discs from the shellaced discs onwards have proven to be very durable. And, even if the coating peels, you can recoat it. And so the potential... I mean, OK, it's flammable (like all of these things) but the potential for maintaining the audio signal for the longest period is probably the CD. Although, last time I was in the States I went to the University of North Carolina. Those archive people amaze me. They had a mylar of all the base tapes they had agreed was their standard means. They thought it was better than the CD. And I'm not convinced by that argument by one jot.
DS And those that know tell us that if you're going to make those CD ROMs, use the gold ones instead of the green ones. They cost more and last longer. So I say that for the record. Right?
KL For the record.
DS A commercial pitch here.
KL If we're going to be talking about the dissemination of recorded information by way of commercial companies does that mean that we should worship at the feet of John Parth and Shanachie and other companies that have taken the lead to make available blues and other related information on sound recordings
DS Johnny Parth has and he hasn't. He has taken the raw information but he masters from cassettes and takes cassettes from any source, and quality on those document releases is not a consideration. He just simply wants to have everything in one place. Shanachie trys conscienciously to get everything... they're not trying to organize things in that coherent a fashion because Rich Nevins is fond of doing anthologies. But he does do painstaking transfers. You may not always agree with his final decisions but that he does do conscienciously and he's right on the track the vast majority of the times. You can't argue with that. So, Shanachie's got one goal and Parth has another.
JC No, I mean Parth's goal in one sense is questionable in that... I mean I don't think coherent... I think that was a slip of the tongue on your behalf. I mean I don't actually think matrix order is necessarily the order of recording because you don't actually know how the blanks were allocated. The numbers. And you can't listen to half this stuff because it was all recorded at a similar pace. I mean this is the artist that recorded a lot of material of course for individual release. It wasn't recorded to be listened to like that. And it becomes quite an academic exercise. The only thing that you were saying an advantage to some of the Parth things is that nobody else ever dipped into say the vocal quartets or the what-have-you. I mean, none of that...
KL Or the female singers.
DS Wrong! "We have Warrior on the Battlefield." [a black gospel quartet cd reissue on Rounder programmed and annotated by Lornell and Spottswood, which is due out in the fall of 1997.]
JC Yeah but not in the...
KL Which we need to talk about ...
JC But not in the way that Parth's done. He's just put out ...
DS Well I should hope not.
JC A lot of it's material. I'm not argueing for the fact that he's done it, in that I don't like that approach. I'm sure what he's done is an instructive anthology and I'm more and more increasingly inclined that that's the best way to disseminate.
KL As opposed to the broad swath of... covering everything that Godrich and Dixon.
JC Well, I mean because that's as broad as it is long. For a start it depends on what's in Godrich and Godrich and Dixon is just as much a quirk of what peoples' tastes were at a given time. I mean the new edition (which should be out now in Britain) has got a lot more extra material in it. Is Johnny Parth going to turn 'round and start trying to find all these extra records?
KL Well that's after he does all the hillbilly stuff.
JC Yes. Right. It's a madcap idealism and it does not have any accepted credentials. And that's really what we're argueing about. I support the idea that, if you're looking for something and you're trying to show a particular musical start or what-have-you, you don't do that by showing every single track that a particular performer records.
KL But you could also argue it's important to have all that material out because number one, it's unattainable in many other ways. Number two its kind of the oral equivalent to the discography.
JC Yes. I agree. But it should... you're into quality versus quantity.
DS Well, the other unseen, or unmentioned element at least thus far here, is the changing nature of these storage preservation and dissemination media as we went from a 78 RPM... or from a single sided disc to a double sided disc in 1908. All of a sudden you could put twice as much music on one piece of physical material. As you went from a 78RPM disc to a 33 disc in 1948 and thereafter, you all of a sudden could multiply that factor by six to seven. As you went from a long play record to a compact disc in the mid and late 80's you were able to multiply that factor by about... Well, you could get about 50% more material on a compact disc than you could on a long play record. The more material that your object will hold, the easier these questions are. The less urgent it is not to put one inferior track somewhere in the middle because you're surrounded by other good things and the considerations...
JC Well, you could argue the other way around.
DS Well, I'm only presenting the arguement. I,m not...
JC I mean, you could argue the other way around.
DS And this is a sumation as much as an arguement. And as the compact disc gets replaced by other forms of more inclusive media (the theoretical computer chip you could implant inside your brain with the entire history of recorded sound on it) more and more it becomes our or the suppliers role to give you as much as possible and you're role to be selective about what you partake. And I think that's the ideal situation, isn't it? Because the more you can have the less selective you have to be about what you choose to present in terms of a publication. So these questions will take care of themselves more and more over the years. And I think the question then becomes not, should someone like Johnny Parth try to be encyclopedically inclusive but to pay as much attention to quality as to quantity. And I think that's what's coming down the line for us. I don't know. What do you think?
KL I think there's room for both. I think if someone or whatever archive or individual would like to have for whatever personal or scholarly reasons wants to have everything that's ... or most everything that's considered to be blues or gospel material according to one reference book then that's the only way you're gonna do it. Most of the time, like I think many other people, I'll listen to more selective anthologies or to CD's or documentation of an individual artist or region.
DS Um huh.
KL Sometimes it's nice to have all of the collected works in one place to listen to or all of the recordings by Robert Petway in one place.
DS Are you're certain you wouldn't want to hear them all at once?
KL No, not necessarily. Of course, you're right, they were not meant that way.
DS But you want to know what they were and it's nice to be able...
JC (inserts) Well that's the other thing.
DS ...to go to the shelf. I mean you want your complete Old and New Testament text contained within one volume of the Bible it doesn't mean that you're going to go and read Leviticus through everytime you take the Bible. You want it there in case you need it.
JC Here's an example: Over the years I've been trying to track down all the recorded versions of "Ella Speed." I think I've heard all the ones at the Library of Congress. There's one that Paul Oliver recorded by Joel Long in Texas and I've never heard that 'cause that's one of his field recordings which was never published. That is the advantage of an approach such as the Parth technique. That way you can suddenly discover "oh yeah", this song turns up say as a post-war blues and you never knew what it was called as a pre-war blues. But, because you had material access to all this vast array of recordings, you can find out the one that the guy based his subsequent recording on. I mean, Jimmy Rogers' "Ludella" is a case in point, I mean it's Yank Rachel and there is another one. The one in fact Muddy Waters recorded for the Library of Congress, which was one of the ones I discovered when I was with Dick here way back in mid-70's. I was playing it and wanted to know, then discovered it was Dr. Ross that recorded it. And I thought - how did Muddy and Dr. Ross record the same song? And it turns out (I don't know the title of it) but it's another Yank Rachel [song] and they both recorded the same...
KL Based on Rachel's...JC Yes.
DS I remember that song - (sings) "Sweet Ella Speed, so dear to me." Isn't that the one?
KL I'm not sure because I'm...
JC What are you doing? He's ....
KL You are taking liberties and I shall have none of that.
DS The Blue Sky Boys have a version of it too. Now, what else are we supposed to talk about.
KL Well, let's see. Let's lastly, I think address the trite question - the one that I also like that Joel wanted to know about. What turned you on in the first place to music like this? We'll start with the man from across the ocean.
JC Ah, will ya.
KL From UK. Yes, indeed. You're on the spotlight Mr. Cowley.
DS Yeah. I'd like to know that.
JC I don't really know easily, I just... again it seems to be generational and something to do with a phase in cultural evolution that parallels across the Atlantic. But, in my early teens, some how or other I got... the Beatles had suddenly arisen and one was sort of looking at the British music press as interested in the local popular music scene which is a phase that most people go through in their teens. And I've always been interested in history since my childhood. So, naturally, I suppose I gravited towards history of some of the music which was being popularized at the time. And I don't remember exactly ... There was a small record shop in Watford (which is quite close to where I live) that I went into. And it had all sorts of odd records. And one of my first blues records was Volume 5 of Frederick Ramsey Jr.'s "Music from the South." Which can't be a very usual introduction (laughs) to recordings such as... people. So, there you are. I was interested in field recording. And, I also was interested in Snooks Eaglin at the time.
KL This would've been circa 1965?
JC 64-65. Somewhere around there like that. Yeah. And, then starting taking the jazz periodicals. Now there was a jazz periodical in Britain called Jazz Journal which had a column by Derrick Stewart Baxter in it. But it also had occasional newsy snipets from this strange magazine called Blues Unlimited and eventually one discovered it was actually a magazine. It didn't appear to be a magazine at the time. You know, I didn't quite understand it. And, I took out a subscription. And that was really one of the prime means of dissminating information across the world, it became.
KL First blues magazine I ever saw starting about 1968. Subscribed to BU.
JC Well, that started somewhere in like '63 I think.
DS Yes. That's 'cause I was corresponding with Simon Napier even before that got underway.
JC And how that ever happened with that small group of people in Bexhill-on-Sea all with the same interests, and somehow having the where-with-all and the time and the energy to put out a magazine is a mystery (laughs) to anybody I should think.
KL And now we have Bruce married to Simon's [Napier, one of BU's founders] widow. It all gets rather interesting. What about you, Mr. Spottswood?
DS I was born in 1937 and in around 1947/48 I was visiting my extended family, my aunt and uncle and cousin, in rural Pennsylvania and Margaret Jane, my cousin, had just been to New York and brought back a 78 record album that she was playing and enjoying and it was the Bix Beiderbecke Columbia C29 which had been published first around 1940 but still very much in print after the war. And she was playing that music and it just made my eyes pop, ears too I guess, and I thought isn't that marvelous. I mean my musical diet (and I'd always liked music) prior to that time had been, you know, the kind of big band into vocal crooning pop that was around during the WWII era. I can remember the 1941 song (I would've been 4 at the time) called "I Don't Wanna Set The World On Fire" and I remember running to my mother and saying "why is this man talking about burning up the world?" Which is at the time that Hitler and General Tojo in Japan were setting about doing exactly that. That and the standard symphonic/operatic repertoire that my parents enjoyed was my musical diet. So hearing Bix Beiderbecke and his gang was like a real breath of fresh air. And she said "Oh, well if you like that..." ('cause my cousin was about eight or ten years older than I) "listen to some of this." And she had a couple of those green label Victor Jelly Roll Morton albums with "Sidewalk Blues" and "Burning the Iceburg" and "Ponchartrain" and those things on it and I thought that was much nicer than Bix Beiderbeck. And then she had the general album called New Orleans Memory, more Jelly Roll Morton. Well, that was particularly a bombshell for me because in the very earliest days of television then there was a little afternoon puppet show called Snarky Parker. It came over the old Dumont network. And there was a little sort of a Hoagie Carmichael puppet character who did the continuity at the beginning and the end of the program, doing the promo for the dramatic action tomorrow and at the beginning of the show recapitulating what had happened the day before. Took up quite a bit of this fifteen minute program. But sooo did the music that this little puppet played. He had a derby hat and a sleeve garter and everything and at the beginning of the television program he was playing the (sings) and at the end of the program he was (sings again). Well, it turned out when I heard the Jelly Roll Morton album that the theme music for my television show was "Mr. Joe" at the beginning and Tony Jackson's "Naked Dance" at the very end. Wooooh, that was some hot stuff for small children. So I was a Beidebecke and especially a Morton fan from the very beginning. And then I went to the library to read about early jazz music because I had already decided that the 1920's seemed to be a sort of a key to something here because there was something going on there that had been taken out of music ever since, even if I wasn't able to put my finger on it and tell you what it was. And the libraries had little books that would talk about Buddy Bolden and King Oliver and Freddy Keppard and that traditional heirarchy. But every once in a while names like Blind WIllie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly would come up as apropos of something or other. And so I tucked that into my little information bag and waited because I thought anyone who called himself Blind Willie Johnson had to be intriguing just because of the... seeing yourself in a way that you would put your physical defect out front and make it part of your billing. You know. Me being a white suburban Chevy Chase kid, you tried to hide that shit. You didn't let it precede you. And let it be the way that the world saw you. So, that was a new insight for me too. So, gradually I began hearing a little bit of blues and not only liking it but not ever really making a distinction between that and the jazz music that I enjoyed. It was all sort of part of what I would have carelessly called jazz at the time.
JC Spirit of the age.
DS Yeah. Yeah. And well, that age and my own age at the time where I was very eager to hear anything of the sort... I mean I wasn't entirely disinterested in the Benny Murray and Ada Jones music probably because I had sort of attached the era itself as being something sort of beyond recall and yet at the same something very much worth recalling. And following that it wasn't very long until the Harry Smith anthology came out. ["The Anthology of American Folk Music," which has just been reissued by Smithsonian/Folkways as a 6 cd set, including an interactive cd about Harry Smith] That was in 1952. And by that time I was already acquainted with some of the performers on that collection and there were some other people, like the Cannon's Jug Stompers and Furry Lewis, whose names I had heard and whose music I had very much wanted to hear whom I was hearing for the first time on that collection and whose music I thought lived up to what I thought it would be. And added to that was the whole new element of the white rural country. I had grown up in Washington with plenty of country music on the radio but all of it was of the Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb..., Lefty Frizzel, Hank Williams kind of thing which is a far different kind of country music than which I have since learned to love. But I did not at all like it at the time. It just seemed like just some kind of shit from the other side of the tracks or something. And, whereas, I could naively identify with the black people that I perceived as having made this ancient blues and jazz music, the hillbillies were something else. I mean, because I sort of despised them because I was actually or nearly one of them. Well, the Harry Smith thing changed that around and then very shortly afterwards a girl in high school played me the Lester and Earl "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the Mercury 78, and I knew I was gonna have to reconsider all of that too. So, instead of just having one sort of big blurred canvas that included the blues and what I thought of as jazz, there was this whole southeastern and eventually southwestern element that I added to it. And then in the 70's I made this concious choice to begin exploring the ethnic music too. Again, looking for what had been represented on sound recordings from all of these cultures from that particular era. And then eventually discovering, as John had said, the music from the very earliest days of the G&T, and Favorite, and Decca, and Odeon where even in the first years of this century they were conciously searching out wildly indigenous music forms in all corners of the earth years before anybody was doing blues or jazz in North America. I mean, if we had've had people doing in North America what the Gazeburg's and those people were doing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 1903, what would our understanding of music history be today. If we had been recording blacks and hillbillies...
JC They went to South Africa in [the] early 1900's as well.
DS 1912 I think was the first one.
JC Yeah. Thats the Zonophone, but there's an implication that one of the German companies was there before them. But I've never actually seen any of the discs.
DS Me too. Haven't seen any. So anyway, that's the long answer to the short question. And it's why, you know for me, I love the blues but some of the most interresting areas for me are where it comes into contact with other things and where I have a little bit of a trouble with this distinction between bluesman and songster and the way it tends to limit one's perception of things.
JC That's the reason why I look to Trinidad because that has an exact sort of parallel tradition. It's a very good model to compare with the United States 'cause it's a very cosmopolitan society. It's there by almost as many cross cultural influences as the United States, in a very small island. And at the same time is influenced by the country of my origin, British culture, simply by virtue of the administration and the United States by virtue of proximity and the trading paternt established when slavery began. So you've actually got a parallel set of circumstances and you can look at differences and similarities in a way that you can't probably in any other culture in the Americas, in terms of English speaking black musical traditions and their relationship to white musical traditions. And that is in a sense another way of saying what Dick's saying with respect to looking at the bredth of everything. The new Blackwell guide, which I recently edited with Paul Oliver has an introductory section where we deliberately put in some of these commercial recordings from other ethnic groups found in different places. Simply on the basis that these recordings in terms of time and the cultures that they represented had a similar pattern to those developments in the United States. Now somebody, I think it was Neil Slaven, reviewing this in Blues and Rhythm could not grasp that. Just did not grasp the fact that (or may have grasped it but didn't wanta' grasp it) this whole thing that blues is exclusive. And it isn't. Just by virtue of this conversation today it's readily apparent that blues is not that exclusive. There are phases of interest and the period that Dick's describing vis-a-vis the 40's, and 50's, and into the early 60's there was a broader based approach by people that were interested then. So you would find... and if you see an entrepreneur of blues and jazz such as Ross Russell also recording calypso. You would find Moe Ash recording anything. He just didn't just record jazz and blues. Just have a look at his catalog. And there were people involved in the record business like the earlier generation that had started recordings in New York who were doing exactly the same thing. Just the same as Moe Ash. They were recording Jewish music, they were recording... You know, the different groups, they are aware of that. The average jazz enthusiast in Britain was not aware of that. But they were aware of bredth up until about 1960, around the time I got interested in the subject. Then it narrowed and you had a split between post-war and pre-war. And you almost had a split between the women singers who were classified as being part of that old fashioned jazz interest. And Leadbelly went out of fashion as well through the same process. I don't know whether that happened in the United States. Being somebody that's interested in history, it didn't affect me in the same way. I perhaps was antagonistic towards women singers, the Vaudeville side, when I shouldn't have been at one point. But I don't really remember being so disinterested in anything else. That wasn't normal. People of my acquaintance had much more focused passions or (patterns) of interest. So I suppose of us sitting around the table where we represented a different attitude to that. So it may be other interviews need to be undertaken with people who are much more highly motivated by a more individualistic overview of the subject.
KL Well, what got me interested in this was this part of the folk revival, hearing Mississippi John Hurt and Son House on recordings and then hearing Son House live about 1968. And that got me interested, fairly focused on blues and blues related music. But, of course, that's changed over the years and shifted to a much broader area of interest myself. That's what got me interested in listening to music like this. But also exploring roots of contemporary popular music as you were interested in the roots of songs by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and other similar groups. And finding out that in fact they were part of the skiffle movement in England and were heavily influenced by Black music.
JC The one I always remember is "The Pretty Things" named directly after the Bo Diddley song. (laughs) That immediately comes to mind.
KL Oh and there are myriad examples just like that.
DS Weren't the Rolling Stones named after the Muddy Waters song?
JC I believe so. Yes.
DS Weren't the Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane named after the Wright Brothers?
KL And the Wright Brothers Quartet too.
KL (I think we've tortured Joel enough.)