Long-forgotten old-time music finds new audience

Roots music from the early 20th century is experiencing a mini-revival with a series of new CD releases.

By Mark Guarino | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Entertainment galas like next month’s Grammy Awards are festooned with fresh faces, trim bodies, and the latest couture. Yet in a second ceremony, when the television cameras are off and the shrieking masses have yet to gather, The Recording Academy acknowledges the less glamorous side of the music industry, which includes awarding artists who not only did their best work before Justin Timberlake was born, they also happen to be dead.

The Grammy category for Best Historical Album was launched in 1978 to little fanfare and designed mostly for compilers of big band or opera recordings. But in recent years, as record companies mine their vaults more aggressively to repackage early recorded music in box sets, and patch together snatches of lost tape to create wholly new albums, the category has grown to represent not just the legacy of a certain era or artist, but also an important new revenue channel.

This year, the category is split among a group of independent labels that are innovating how we listen to and appreciate early-century music, some of it predating electrical recording and performed by entertainers whose names are largely forgotten. Instead of shoving the music into the marketplace and waiting for it to sell, these small operators have lovingly filtered it through an interpretive lens to discover thematic connections between where we came from and who we are today.

As a result, boxed compilations are not just bringing forgotten voices back to life, they are making them suddenly relevant. Here, African-American comedian Bert Williams and popular singer Billy Murray can finally be recognized as the greatest recording stars of the Edison cylinder era.

With technology allowing access to centuries of culture through the click of the mouse, having someone curate the past is becoming more essential.

“One thing we strive for are the historical liner notes and photographs and trying to recreate the time period you just don’t get with an MP3,” says Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-To-Digital, an Atlanta independent whose biggest seller is “Goodbye Babylon,” a six-CD collection of early Southern sacred songs and sermons, packaged with a 200-page book in a cedar box with pieces of cotton nestled inside. The box has sold 7,500 to date, a smash hit for a label with little overhead, no staff, and marketing the old-fashioned way: word of mouth and print reviews.

That kind of traditional business model works especially well, Josh Rosenthal says, when targeting the two audiences major labels tend to ignore: well-educated and culturally curious baby boomers and 20-somethings who ignore mainstream media channels and listen to college radio. Collectively they are the two groups that helped make “People Take Warning!” a hit for Tompkins Square, the New York City label Mr. Rosenthal has singly operated for three years.

Endorsed by Tom Waits, who contributes an essay, the three-CD set assembles hillbilly songs, blues, country, and general esotery between 1913 and 1938 into three categories: “Man V Machine,” “Man V Nature” and “Man V Man.” Followed in that order, the songs unfold like a news ticker detailing the hardships of the first half of the last century, when disease, shipwrecks, and floods shaped the nation’s character in the industrial age, and created its folk heroes, like Casey Jones, Stack O’Lee, and Tom Dooley.

Some songs double as historic documents, written in the immediate wake of the event they describe. This includes “Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post,” sung by West Virginian singer Bill Cox two weeks after the 1935 plane crash that killed the American humorist and his pilot. Seventy-eight years later, the tremors in Cox’s voice remain harrowing.

“All these forgotten stories” in the box makes it “a tribute to these lost people,” Rosenthal says.

The renewed interest in early recordings is connected to two landmark reissues of the 1990s: the “Anthology of American Folk Music” in 1997 and the box of complete works by the blues singer Robert Johnson, the latter which Rosenthal helped produce in 1990 in his former life as a vice president of marketing and sales at Sony Music.

Both releases benefited by arriving alongside the Internet explosion. As adventuresome music fans unplugged from the mainstream to hunt online, music that was long marginalized began to be heard by greater numbers.

Having a digital benefactor for such primitively recorded music is an irony not lost on Richard Martin, cofounder with his wife, Meagan Hennessey, of Archeophone Records, in Champaign, Ill.

Mr. Martin says the recordings on his label, which specializes in minstrelsy, early jazz, ragtime, and vaudeville singers from before the advent of electrical recording, can often be unsettling for listeners used to the sleek production standards of today. Before microphones and consoles to manipulate signal frequencies for intimacy and depth, singers were relegated to shouting into conical horns that etched physical imprints onto discs, a primitive process resulting in recordings that today can sound murky and distant.

“You don’t have lows or highs, it sounds like a telephone receiver. When you’re used to that, like we are, there’s a certain beauty. I like the sound of a good, clean record from 1912,” he says.

Younger musicians who are inspired by early century music are likewise not bothered by the primitive sound. For them, including Andrew Bird, the acclaimed fiddler-songwriter, the purity is in the performance.

“It’s good to remind yourself now and then what it is to be truly naturally musical,” says Mr. Bird. “A lot of that stuff is social music, it served a purpose and was not part of the recording industry. That’s a big thing for me. It’s not one person’s headphone symphony and not a personal ego project, it’s part of a living culture.”

Growing listener interest has created a demand for deeper excavation of sonic antiquity. Because Archeophone deals in the earliest era of recording, that process means salvaging archaic artifacts of a lost era (wax cylinders and heavy shellac discs), transferring them to CD, and packaging them with exhaustively researched booklets. The pursuit leads Archeophone and other labels through collector vaults, flea markets, and even eBay. But no recent discovery is as special as a 10-second recording of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune,” sung by a young child in 1860, 17 years before Thomas Edison’s recordings that, until last March, were considered the first document of the human voice.

Already a free stream via firstsounds.org, a site run by a collective of researchers and historians, which includes Martin, the recording will make its official public debut as a 45-r.p.m.–-vinyl single on Dust-To-Digital later this year.

Using a credit card over the Internet to purchase a vinyl record of a song recorded before the light bulb may just represent how far technology has come in cross-wiring history, making it possible for Polk Miller, a Virginian bandleader who died in 1913, to receive Grammy consideration the same year as Coldplay.

“This is part of the cultural subconscious,” Martin says. “Reminding us of our history is a very good thing.”

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