The bulk of my active field-work was done over two decades, from 1968 to 1989, with recordings taking place between 1970 and 1980 – the results are 333 rolls of tape with around 1600 musical selections. It all began with a trip with Bruce Bastin on a trawl through the southeastern states for 78s (and occasionally, 45s) and we had multiple successes. There were goodly quantities of records to be found for auction purposes (after keeping what we each wanted first) and we also began our delving into the story of what was to become known as the Piedmont Blues. Finding ourselves in Atlanta one Sunday in 1968 with nothing to do, we called up Buddy Moss, whose ‘phone number I had gotten from him at his appearance at The Electric Circus gigs earlier that year. That is all it took; like Topsy, it just growed from there.
Buddy was, then, forthcoming and friendly (O&S #8), answering all of our questions as best he could and even telling us stuff we did not know about at that time… such as the personnel for The Georgia Cotton Pickers and The Georgia Browns! Being the first auslanders and probably the first White guys like us since George Mitchell and Roger Brown, I suspect that the novelty of such as W.E. was not yet gone. He also told us (roughly, but close enough) where he had last seen Richard and Willie Trice in North Carolina in 1950. Thanks to Thurman Atkins of The Carolina Cab Company, we were able to speak with the Trice brothers as well as Floyd Council. It certainly didn’t take much to kick-start the whole thing!
Bastin and I did a series of pieces to be published in BLUES UNLIMITED during 1969 and 1970 entitled “Tricks Ain’t Workin’ No More” (taken from a popular regional song). On the strength of those articles, Bruce was asked to do a SE monograph for the Studio Vista blues paperback series. So in the summer of 1970 we headed back South again, this time to try and follow up what little had been known regarding the SE, plus that which we had learned the previous summer. The fruits of our labors were another series of articles (by me), Bastin’s book CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES, and my first field recordings. I figured that I should do more on this trip than just drive the car and had purchased portable recording equipment… and so that began it for me.
Field recording equipment has changed greatly over the years – there are photos of the Lomax set-up crammed into the trunk (boot: UK) of a late-thirties sedan. They used disc recorders while working for The Library of Congress that meant that portability was a bit of a euphemism and very relative! All the work-song recordings for the Library were staged recreations done in a recreation hall or such similar space at the prison, according to what Alan told me in 1980 (O&S 24). The acquisition of his first tape recorder in the mid-forties allowed him to go literally into the field and work songs were the first things that he taped in situ. Ahmet Ertegun supplied Alan with his first stereo machine in the late fifties, which sparked the tapes of his “Southern Journey” and a set of LPs for Atlantic Records (and Prestige Records later in time). As the equipment got better and smaller, Alan went out there again!
In the seventies when I began, there were only a few possibilities for tape machines to take on the road. The Nagra (like Alan’s) or the Stellavox at well over a grand were well beyond my means. They could each be set up to take up to 10” reels of tape and be set to run at the speed of 15 ips*, then the industry standard. My budget could not take that sort of weight, so I purchased a Uher machine, a type used often by reporters (radio, television, and print). The 4200 that I got was a ½-track stereo version that filled my needs (and pocket) admirably and didn’t take up a lot of space (approx. 18”x24”x6”) – I also ended up with a 4000 mono machine later on for interviews (as it would run at 15/16 ips*) as well. I was fortunate when I made my purchase in NYC to be well and kindly advised by the folks at the shop near Union Square Park. They suggested totally appropriate and compatible microphones for my needs (two Sony ECM-21) that were incredibly inexpensive (US$20) and incredibly good. They didn’t take advantage of my inexperience, for I went in almost cold. After that, this total novice was ready with the addition of two microphone stands and a couple of necessary cables!
Today the equipment is all digital and truly portable, plus there’s video… I’m eternally jealous, but that’s the best that I could get back in 1970. My Uher took 5” reels of tape and had a high speed of 7 ½-ips (once the industry standard) so that I could record just over twenty minutes before needing another reel of tape. This ½-track uses one half of the ¼” tape for the left channel, the other half for the right one in a single passage of the tape. This is opposed to the ¼ track machines of the day (and there was a Uher, the 4400 that did so) that use a quarter of the tape for each stereo signal and allowed for the tape to be turned over. Fine in your living room, but not so useful in the field! The Uhers were exceedingly compact for those days and one could carry it via a shoulder strap – that’s why the mono version (4000) was so popular with reporters. I had an old canvas golf bag that had belonged to my grandfather for the two microphone stands and an old briefcase of my father’s for the mics
and some tapes. With that set-up, I was ready to rock and roll (as it were)! Now one can get a D.A.T. and a small digital video camera and fit all that into a smallish backpack!! An acquaintance of mine did just that as the first legal entrant into the island of Bougainville after the PNG blockade was dropped and peace broke out a few years back. I am especially envious of today’s video capability; if only I’d been able to capture all those I recorded on video tape as well. But I did the best I could with the best I could afford. The albums that I released on Trix (or had released on Flyright) are the proverbial or stereotypical iceberg tip… there’s enough top-shelf stuff for another 40 – 50 CDs, I’d say! Not bad for one guy essentially on his own for a decade, eh?!
* inches per second.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM