Is it FESTIVUS time again?
OK, it’s year’s end for 2016 and I missed Festivus once again (another senior moment!), but there are still complaints I’d like to vent regardless, even if out of season. I have managed to live over three quarters of a century and spent at least a third of that time doing what I have been doing regarding the history of a type of black music. I have a track record! All well and good, you might say, but, to borrow from Rodney Dangerfield, I don’t get no respect. That’s not completely true, but is still basically correct as I see it at this juncture. Granted, what I was up to was pretty esoteric to many acquaintances, if not downright flaky! There are a solid few (you know who you are!) out there who appreciate and understand what I’ve been doing all those years, but, generally … no joy.
A solid decade (1970-1980) of serious field-work through the SE (MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, GA, eastern AL, KY, TN, northern FL) was a large part of what I did. It has resulted in some serious and often important recordings in the region conducted by yours truly. Over three hundred reels of tape were used and over 1500 musical selections were gathered during my decade “out there”. Not to mention many an interview, plus two file drawers full of my negatives. It may all sound romantic as hell to many of you “armchair-ites”, envious and jealous-making, even, but, believe me, it wasn’t pretty out there. Putting at least 20,000 miles each year on my van for ten years may not sound like much, but it produced my personal road burn out after a decade. It was WORK. Accompanied by my dog(s) with little human accompaniment* during most of that time, I wandered around this large southeastern geographical territory on my own, meeting lots of older African Americans (almost always positive experiences for me – Buddy Moss being the major exception – see O&S #8), recording some, photographing others, and interviewing as many as possible in great breadth if not always great depth. I was possessed.
Therein lies a source of much of the problem for me – pressure of the self-imposed kind. That edge began in 1972 with the unexpected death of Baby Tate in SC, both an important early informant starting in 1970 and my first black southern friend. This pushed the buttons that control the “I’ve got to ‘get’ as many folks as I can before they all die off and we are left with nothing but silence” reflex. That may have been an unintentional romantic act on my part, but I’m too closely involved with myself to know for sure! SO, there I was for much of ten years, this shy white guy driving up and down I-95 and its branching blue highways chasing after as many leads as I could. A few people were dealt with in some depth, but mostly it was in-and-out as quickly as possible and then move on to the next individual – grab and run. It was a less than ideal method to use and it eventually became personally debilitating (and underappreciated).
It’s not like I kept my ongoing results close to my chest hidden from all others, unlike some folks I have known in the field! That which I gleaned would be willingly shared with one and all – all one needed to do was to ask! But deafening silence resulted back in the day. Some of the people I met could have become a career focus for for any number of folklorists. (With folks like Peg Leg Sam, probably a dozen different careers!) There were other informants, especially around the Chapel Hill area, where there was a folklore department; there should have been too many people to count lining up to take them up after myself. Since I had been involved with Bruce Bastin there in ‘72/’73, we laid out our data and gave directions to people to the others, but almost nobody came to the ball. Bill Phillips helped with Willie Trice for a while (thanks Bill, wherever you are!), but none of the Folklore departmental students seemed too interested. Basically, nobody struck when the iron was hot.
My protégé Kip Lornell picked up some of the pieces after that when in Chapel Hill himself, and did more digging later in Newport News and Ferrum, VA. Glenn Hinson had done good work around Durham before coming to Penn while working for the state, and Danny McLean kept up with Guitar Shorty, but that seems about it to me. (I could be wrong.) As I saw it then (and now), it was an underwhelming response to many great opportunities! In late 1980, Axel Küstner and Siggi Christmann came through the SE from Germany en route further south and west, recording as they went. A number of their subjects were those previously located by me (or Kip). George Mitchell came back to a GA focus and effectively worked the Chattahoochee region of western GA/eastern AL. That was basically it until Tim Duffy rushed in later with his NC-based Music Maker Relief Foundation in a worthy seeds-and-stems gathering exercise that continues to the present. (By then, most of those I had located WERE dead.)***
On another personal/professional level, I have never been considered as an invitee to any folklore or black music related conferences once I procured some academic credentials and was still living in the States. Nor have others in the field requested assistance and/or used me as a resource****. Even my working with The Ayatollah (Alan Lomax) at the Library of Congress’ folklife archives didn’t stir up any interest in me, or my work, or raise my profile.
There are additional deeper “intellectual” factors involved as well. The SE regional focus of my work was not de rigeur, then or now, in the general world of blues research. It’s one of the hidden reasons why George Mitchell and Roger Brown headed west from Atlanta to Memphis and Mississippi in the 60s, rather than work their home turf more early on. (They might have located Curley Weaver before he died in 1964 had he done so!) The so-called “delta” region was the be-all-to-end-all blues magnet in the minds of most folks who actually gave a damn or liked the music, if only superficially. This at the expense of other equally important regions!
One causal factor in that is the attitudes of record collectors from the git-go: this is a group that logically values rarity over all other factors. Garfield Akers and his recordings were more important to them than, say, Buddy Moss’. Blind Boy Fuller sold over 500,000 copies of “Step It Up & Go” in 1940 and was a cross over hit – too great a success meant lower “value” in their collector’s world. The well-known delta “Edsel” of the blues, Robert Johnson, had “legend” romantically appended to his name in the late 30’s by Alan Lomax and John Hammond. He was really a commercial failure from the standpoint of record sales to blacks, though!
Still in the collectors’ mode, save for Blind Blake (who sold lots of records) in the 20’s, none of the musicians from the SE recorded for the sainted Paramount label of Grafton, Wisconsin. Their stuff is highly collectable (see DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE by Amanda Petrusich). They were instead usually on major labels or their offshoots, often sold very well, and therefore were of lesser collecting interest. It’s complicated! One upshot was that nobody of that collector’s ilk was particularly interested in my decade’s work as it was in territory that many were not terribly interested, even actively ignored. In fact, commercial success was a kiss-of-death as far as collectors were concerned!
So, folklorists and collectors, generally different groups for different reasons, were underwhelmed by the concept/focus of my work over the decades, regardless of its quality or its importance in the grand scheme of black musical things. Such is life.
The big kicker later to it all was my being unemployable in academe (once I started in that direction) for being too old, too white, and too male! Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, to trot out a cliché. So here I sit in Australia in my personal latter days wondering “why”. I certainly tried to “matter” and be appropriate in a number of realms, but to no avail. (I never expected my record company to be a smash as I don’t really “do” business knowledgably… just not my shtick.)
So, what CAN I say I do (or have I done) over time that is worthy: quality field recordings; photographer of some ability; writer and old-style shoe-leather researcher; probably an all around decent person (at least I hope so). So much time at the right place with the right equipment and the right knowledge and a respectful attitude, but at the wrong time!?
Most recently, during my final trip back to the US in September, I thought that I was going to be negotiating with a respected southern-based record company that has recently been buying up catalogues in toto. I was told by a go-between that they were interested in buying all my recordings (field and studio) for proposed future release, as they have already done with other collections*****. The go-between was excited at this possibility and said that one of the principals would get back to me soonest and was willing to pay us a visit to me “on site” in northern NJ. He was frequently in the NY area and would be so imminently, making getting together simple. So, I waited for a call while doing all else we had to do there to shut down the storage space with all my worldly goods. Nothing for at least a week or so and no explanation forthcoming – the go-between was surprised, disappointed, and then a bit annoyed by their deafening silence. The end result was that the face-to-face never took place and no explanation was properly forthcoming and much time was wasted “waiting”. Silence is not always golden.
I find such treatment to be extremely disrespectful of me, personally, given my age, experience, and my good reputation over the years as well as that of the people I had dealt with over that time. I feel my treatment was uncalled for and extremely rude at minimum… I won’t say my worst-case comment – so much for what was a tantalizing and logical idea. The net result is that my tapes are now in the safe and capable hands of The Southern Folklife Center at UNC – Chapel Hill (Plan B). This is no bad thing and it is where I had originally planned for them to go in 1995 until someone screwed up my plans completely (not from UNC; another story, not for publication).
Better late than never, I suppose, but I do not take being treated so cavalierly at all well – such disrespect was and is uncalled for******. On the other hand, I off-loaded my guitars, etc to the MMRF and I DID find a reputable dealer for my 78s and 45s – an occasional silver lining, as their sales will probably end up paying for our trip (according to my son, Julian!). End of this year’s rant! Now, let’s dance around the damn Festivus pole, and then eat, big time. Food is good!!! And calming.
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney, 2016/17
*Bruce Bastin helped kick things off in 1970 – 1973 with me, while Kip Lornell was around for a few weeks in ’73. Other than a relationship destroying week with a visiting girl friend, human company was few and far between. [Ruby Chewsday and Asta Blue were good company, though!] Besides all the artists I met, of course! Yes, even you, Buddy.
** (I always felt that department head Dan Patterson never took me seriously due to my then lack of academic credentials, and that hindered follow-ups, but I could be wrong.)
*** I could never have successfully done what Tim has done – hell, I wasn’t a very successful record company, either, no matter the high quality of the music I had captured might have been. Pax vobiscum, Tim… and thanks.
**** For example, CeCe Conway never asked to hear any of my tapes while working on her dissertation and later fine book on black banjo players. She knew me through the university and knew I had recorded some of the same subjects as she!
***** I still feel that there is somewhere between 60 to 80 GOOD releases embedded in my recorded materials.
****** This was not the first time that sort of disrespect has been paid to me in recent years. When I purchased our present domicile near Sydney about a year ago, we were treated badly by both the seller and their real estate agent. “Americans” buying an historically notable house not being flavor of the month was probably part of it, but hardly all. Not being used to such treatment, I took it badly – the “problem” with my tapes is of that ilk – and both were soul destroying.