Such a life!? A collection of shorter rambles by a field recordist at the end of his travels (part two)
If there ever was a method to my researching methodological madness, it was to do nothing but record whatever an individual felt like presenting to me at the time. Blues was my point of entry, certainly, but whatever they were comfortable with then was fine by me! Rarely did I request specific songs (witness all the versions of “John Henry” I gathered [or ignored]!) of a performer – once I did ask Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue) to do the dirtiest piece he could come up with, and he did. Amusing at the time, it has not aged well; I also asked banjoist John Snipes for his version of “Fox Chase” many times and got at least two really great performances of some length! Beyond that, very occasionally I might ask for a re-do, but that was extremely rare. I let the artist decide what to play, when to re-do, and when to be satisfied. It was not me or my aesthetic (at least I thought so at the time!) doing the deciding, and it consistently gave me decent to excellent results from one and all.
Most of the people that I met/located were often initially puzzled by my interest in their “old time” musical past, but soon accepted my interest as real and took it to heart. Not everyone was interested in recording for me and that was OK, as I did not want to be obnoxiously pushy with anyone. Most were willing to talk with me, though, sharing their stories; my innate shyness always came through! Some were just flat-out not interested for whatever reasons; some were just being too difficult (or often too drunk) to convince them it was a good idea; some had had medical events that interfered with their playing or singing; some had been screwed in the past by someone of my ilk. I just went along with whatever they felt like playing for me (or not) and that was that. There were some performers with glowing reputations who were not locatable or were not agreeable once located, in spite of efforts by myself or the other informants to convince them otherwise. Frustrating though that might have been, life just be’s that way sometimes and one must accept their judgement on the matter!
I have mentioned the equipment I used to record folks already (see O&S articles 35, 36, 57, 66, 78, 80, 83, 85, 86, 90 on this web site) and made mention of my guitar possibilities as well. I went out with two instruments on my first trip, one a 12-string, gotten at a NYC pawn-shop on 10th Avenue in NYC with the help of a friend. Others were later accumulated by hitting southern pawn brokers on my “route”, and I still possess two of them here in Oz: the two main recording instruments, in fact. One is a Gibson SJ flat-top that I bought in a pawn shop in Charlotte, NC ca. 1971 or so while Bruce was digging through city directories in the nearby library. It seemed brand new and un-played at the time and was priced accordingly. The man behind the counter knew even less about guitars and I got it eventually for $160.00 US. Baby Tate thought it was a fantastic instrument; “It’s in tune all the way down the neck and the action is nice and low”, perfect for finger-picking. It also recorded beautifully at all times and was played for me by most of the guitarists I met over time for those very reasons.
I also temporarily borrowed a National from a former elementary school classmate for one early trip ca. 1997 (the late Eric/Carl Blackstead) who I stumbled across while working at Atlantic Records (O&S # 15)! So was he, working on the production of the Woodstock film and albums). The National guitar was the recording and busking guitar of choice before amplification took hold in the late ‘30’s with artists from the South East, a.o. Listen to any Blind Boy Fuller recording for proof of that statement! I ended up buying a chrome-plated one with a single resonator of my own from a former college student of mine around 1972 who had a low draft lottery number and was selling all his worldly possessions and going to Canada. A fit and proper thing to do in those Viet Nam War days. I have since been told by an expert that it was made in 1939 – it has a very mellow tone as opposed to the normal plangent, harsh sound of the more common (and less expensive) painted models. It records beautifully as well, and can be heard on many a Trix release and seen in a number of the photographs on them as well.
A few people I recorded had their own guitars and usually liked to record with them; Henry Johnson had a DanElectro, for example that he played through my Fender Princeton amp. Willie Trice had his late 20’s National rehabilitated for him (and me) by Bob Gear in Boston over a winter, and also bought himself a nice Gibson flat top. That was OK by me if what they had was in decent shape – Guitar Shorty had a massive Kay acoustic that he’d decorated with flower stickers! – but many really liked my instruments and preferred them to their own. The Gibson and the National also gave me two distinctly different tonal possibilities so that a potential record by a solo artist did not have a boringly similar sound throughout as often happened with LP’s of others in the past. Not for me the “record a dozen songs and you’ve knocked out an album” approach to production… I took some time and often many sessions… that approach paid off in the quality and variety of performances obtained, on the issued LP’s in my opinion!
In most cases of a single artist LP, I would do at least three separate recording sessions over time – as I’ve indicated, not for me the single-session-equals-an-album for this little brown duck at all! Studio recordings were another thing altogether, and I had four albums created or in progress (two were released) for Trix: Eddie Kirkland (2), Robert Lockwood (1), Maurice Reedus (1). Two of them (Eddie’s last, and Maurice’s) never came out back in the day, much to my regret, mainly due to a lack of available time and funds. In general, the issued albums came together nicely and often even easily; the Roy Dunn LP was actually the most difficult one to do due to his lack of much musical variety in his repertoire and style. That one album is probably the definitive Roy Dunn album… good, tho’ and well received – there are additional later pieces that could go on anthologies of Atlanta musicians, or Georgia musicians… maybe collections of harmonica players, or guitarists!
From my present vantage point, I know that I recorded way more material than I realized and that the bulk of it ranges from good to excellent in quality. My time today (2018) is often taken up playing with cassette copies I made from the 5” field-recording tapes before moving out of Cottekill, and assembling logical potential compilations as reference for when I get the digital copies of ALL my stuff from UNC-CH. That will include all commercial my studio tapes (multi-track), “home” studio tapes (10” reels), 5” reel field tapes, 7” reel field tapes from others, misc. cassettes, and misc. interview tapes). I impatiently look forward to their arrival on these antipodean shores!
Who the hell is potentially the marketplace for such musical gems is a mystery to me, though, in the 21st Century. I was too early for the last blues boom and quit before it hit, and too late for its 70’s predecessor! A true master of timing, he said sarcastically. What you may have heard thus far from my tapes is less than the proverbial iceberg tip and I continue to amaze myself at the quality obtained by such a rank amateur as I. Much of what I recorded was done via rapid in-and-out sessions, quickly created & then moving on (especially in my final couple of years), and I never had time to listen back to most of it at the time of initial recording. Nor did I have too many opportunities to record someone on great depth… breadth it was über alles for me. I lived elsewhere than the Southeast on purpose and could not conveniently drop by whenever the spirit struck me! [Peg Leg Sam, Baby Tate, Willie Trice, Elester Anderson, George Higgs, the Foddrell brothers being mild exceptions to that.] In general, I only listened to stuff while considering appropriate items for Trix LP programming, so I’ve discovered that there’s a bunch of “new” good stuff in there, folks. More than I ever expected – even others who have heard snippets from the tapes think so at this point in time. If only I had had today’s technology… I’d have traveled much lighter and I’d have video’d everybody!
So, what’s the state of affairs here? Damifiknow! I once had a record label that consistently lost money in its decade of existence except when I sold the LP masters to Joe Fields of Muse Records. Economically, it was a disaster, but artistically, I can hold my head way up high. A few performers attained or regained new musical audiences for their music: Robert Lockwood, Eddie Kirkland, Peg Leg Sam, Tarheel Slim, John Cephas, Big Chief Ellis, the Thompsons, all come to mind. That’s not at all bad for a shy white guy from northern New Jersey who hadn’t a clue what he was doing when he began and remained much that way the whole decade! The work was physically and mentally difficult in so many ways, but the outcomes gave me a degree of satisfaction with them of which I am rather proud. In the words of Thomas A. Waller, “One never know, do one?” Thanks Fats!
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney (2018)
 This was the song most guitarists learned to play – open-chord tuning, barre chords and/or bottleneck sliding to play a melody. Finger picking came later in most cases. I find repeated versions of that piece boring – they pretty much sound and are alike!! Save for Henry Johnson’s version on his Trix LP… that even stopped Lomax in his listening tracks.
Another great story Peter and I do hope to hear more of your recordings in this lifetime!