Such a life!? A collection of short rambles by a field recordist at the end of his travels (part one)
I’ve been “doing” something musically appropriate with these various pages since the early sixties with little to no remuneration (as expected!), but with much good feelings about my efforts and love for the music. Sadly, not too many folks have gone along the regional focus that Bruce Bastin and I started on back in 1970 and accomplished in the subsequent decade. But, few to none followed in my tire tracks, as it were. Tim Duffy and his Music Maker Relief Foundation is the one with the greatest temporal longevity and social impact out of the SE, beginning rather late in the game. A few folkloric researchers have nibbled at parts – only Kip Lornell (in VA and NC), and Germany’s Axel Küstner (mostly further South) come readily to mind. George Mitchell is the sole field-working individual with whom I’ve crossed tracks more than once in the field and freely shared information, but he tended to work away from his personal southeastern home-ground.
There are a few reasons for this as I understand it, much of it due to the region’s lack of desirable focus for hard-core record collectors, et al. Most of my “finds” were not Mississippians, much less of the Delta persuasion, which makes them of less interest to the 78 addict! Save for Blind Blake, no artists from the southeast recorded for the sainted Paramount label back in the twenties/thirties. Also, too many of the SE artists that did record back in the day were commercially successful in their time (Blake, Moss, White, Fuller, McGhee/Terry) so that their recordings were not all that rare and therefore less valued by collectors. The so-called “Piedmont” style of playing blues guitar hit the imaginary charts for over a quarter of a century – it lasted in the black public’s record buying tastes from the mid-twenties into the 1950’s! Total impact was over forty years of some kind of success in its intended marketplace – remarkable. The big band era, for example, was appreciably less in its length of its success (about a decade, partially hindered by WW II and the AFM strikes). Not bad at all for a form of African American popular secular music without any radio exposure. It then became looked upon as folk music by whites in later days, creating a new marketplace for the music and its musicians! They were part and parcel of the great folk music scare of the sixties, actually!! Like I say, remarkable.
The act of doing field-work in the 70’s was rather daunting for me back in the day before computers, etc, not being a terribly outgoing person by nature. There was much loin-girding before actually acting as a folklorist, and the expectation of being turned away was with me all the time. That that wasn’t the case in most instances was wonderful, but that was my expectation, especially at the beginning before I had had any experience to bounce off of. It all began with meeting Buddy Moss in 1969 at The Electric Circus (and getting his telephone number for reference) and later being in Atlanta on a Sunday with nothing planned to do as most sources of 78 record interest were closed that holy day. So, I called Buddy, and Bastin and I went by his place on Richardson-SE to speak with him one afternoon. This was truly the lead-in to the massive history of Southeastern blues: a man who was there and who had sold lots of records in the mid-thirties, one who had not been interviewed much by the likes of us (and who was often cited as an influence by other musicians later on). It all went very well, the three of us with Buddy (Bruce and I, and Godrich & Dixon!) and we learned much from him about which we hadn’t a clue or had guessed wrong. Buddy was a wonderful host/informant and patiently answered our questions no matter how stupid they may have sounded to him!
Buddy also gave us some very vague hints on where we might locate the likes of others he had known in North Carolina. People such as Floyd Council, brothers Rich and Willie Trice were eventually located further North in the Durham, NC area, thanks in part to Buddy. We had the brilliant idea (thanks to Gayle Dean Wardlow!) to go to the local black cab company to ask for help once in town and that turned out to be a brilliantly useful suggestion. One Thurman Atkins ran The Carolina Cab Company, and he had a bunch of drivers who knew the lay of the local land and where folks might live. All three of the above-mentioned were located through their good graces – Mr. Atkins was fascinated that we were interested in older local musicians he knew, or knew of, and was much help to us. This 1969 jaunt was first-off just another record-buying trip for Bruce and I with musical research as an occasional sideline, but like Topsy, it jes’ growed from there.
We gathered together our information on return to my parents’ place in NJ and wrote six pieces for BLUES UNLIMITED (“Tricks Ain’t Workin’ No More: Blues from the Southeast”) that were published in 1970. There were a couple of areas of fallout from that before we went South again that following year: Bruce was asked to write a book for the blues paperback series published by Studio Vista; I bought a tape recorder, as I figured I should do more than drive us about! Thus, was born a new life’s work for the both of us as we left our respective field of teaching (Geography for Bruce, Biology for me) to focus on this new shared interest. Bruce went to Chapel Hill in 1973 for a Master’s degree in Folklore, and I started doing field recordings. We both did interviews, usually together at first, and the ball started inexorably rolling until today.
We became “experts” in a realm that had been strangely ignored by others. My reasons for thinking thusly are enumerated above a few paragraphs away! Whatever the case may have been, the two of us became world authorities on a form of secular black music in a large region mainly by default! There wasn’t anybody else “doing” it or even slightly interested at that time.
Now, if you’ve gotten this far in all this verbiage, you’ll have seen names you’ve never seen before, much less heard play music. That is to be expected. Some time ago, I put together a selection of some of the unreleased material I’d recorded to pass on to those few interested which I entitled “An Unrepresentative Sample”. Now that may seem snarky, but it was also true in its intent: what I “got” was more the result of serendipitous sheer dumb luck than anything else! There was so much more that I didn’t “get” in my decade doing field-work, which was truly way less than the iceberg’s tip of then still active black secular musics. No matter: there would have been an even greater lacuna of unknown musical performances and performers that we outsiders would know about today without my limited and lucky activities of a decade’s messing about!
As I’ve indicated time and time again, being recorded by anyone at any time was mostly an act of luck on the part of all parties, both in the past commercial sessions, and when I was actively in pursuit of same sort of music in the 1970’s. What was recorded was what was “there” at a single point in time, plucked out of the general stream of secular music styles/approaches of African Americans in general and documented by non-members of the African American population. Any recording at any point in time was an unrepresentative sample of the possibilities then and nothing more. We outsiders have pigeon-holed like crazy to create categories that we can relate to and not necessarily categories held by those creators of the music. It’s nice that John Cephas picked up and ran with my “Piedmont Blues” label coinage, but he probably would not have thought of it on his own without contacts with folks like us. John could live with it, it “worked” for him, and so he used it… but it was (and still is) a label that is etic in nature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!!
Therein lies a great general difficulty with outsiders trying to deal with “foreign” cultural forms of expressive behavior. WE have at our disposal vocabulary and understandings that are NOT necessarily those of the culture being examined. Up there with Frank Zappa’s “dancing about architecture” comment, the use of one form of expression to describe, etc another is always flawed! But we do the best we can and hopefully don’t make too many mistakes! But we do and we have to live with them, hopefully being positively criticized emically. It’s seldom a win/win situation between different and differing cultures, so we all pretend we know what the other means by it and fake it!! And it kind of works well enough for some sort of cross-cultural communication to occur. For a good discussion of that sort of cross-cultural problem with black music and white outsiders, I’d highly recommend Albert Murray’s recently republished in an “anniversary” edition, STOMPING THE BLUES, originally McGraw-Hill (1976) NYC.
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney (2018)
 You know, the sort who go into their cellar twice a day and sticks a 78 needle into their arms!