“Progress, until now (cont’d)”
So, I began with what I figured was something medium-difficult to start with, to get my programming chops together once more. It had been a few years! I started now with two sacred collections, one showing off guitar-players doing that portion of their repertoire, and another with a more “holy” sense of it all – usually those who no longer did secular music, though! Since then, I have concentrated in the main on single-artist collections which are fairly easy to assemble – in most cases, one gathers the selections that sound the best sequentially and you got an album! A rare few have been of an artist’s recordings in the order of their recording, something I normally do not do. This is done for best impact in those few cases… they “work” well. Also, I have a couple with two or three performers who play the same instrument: banjo for one, piano for another.
Usually, I’ve found a bit of movement is best with the selections – most people begin to sound a bit “same-y” when doing a lot of material at one time. I also try to have them use different guitars on sessions to give a variable sound – no “Sit down, do 12 songs, and we’ll call it an album” for this little brown duck! I usually did at least three sessions per LP’s worth, if possible, picking the best, and programming it with an eye towards variety. Those with less to choose from must go on some anthology or another – James Putmon being the greatest example off the top of my head… he just vanished.
My main recording instrument has been a Gibson SJ that is “true” down the neck throughout that I got in a pawn shop in Charlotte, NC, near the library. Bruce was there digging up data and I figured on browsing nearby! I was fortunate in there being only one person behind the counter, a young guy who knew even less about guitars than I did! So, I said a bunch of hoo-ey about the bracing while futzing about inside the sound-hole, and talked him down to $160.00! Baby Tate later gave it his seal of approval; “It’s in tune all the way down the neck and it’s straight all the way, with easy action”. He meant it was in-tune the whole length of the finger-board and the action is also true throughout – a good finger-picking instrument all around. He even helped me with instruments!
Second-in-line was a 1939 National that is almost as good in its finger-board and does NOT sound plangent and tinny like most older ones (Stefan Grossman calls them “tuna-fish cans”). A mellow sounding instrument instead – beautiful! (A student of mine was blessed(?) with a low number in the draft lottery and was selling his worldly possessions and heading for Canada.) John knew of my (then) secondary interest and sold it to me quite reasonably (I think it was $400.00)! Something about the sound of it I can’t explain, but it is heard on many of the discs I produced!
There were some others as well: mainly a Gibson 335 electric that came from Brian Bristol. I had a Fender Princeton (without reverb) amp to play it through, so all bases were covered, so to speak! A bunch of others were picked up at various pawn shops along the way over the years… just in case. It was a time when they were useful in possibilities, and reasonable in cost. Fun! I’ve kept the National and the Gibson, and they still sound marvelous – they can be buried with me… or cremated! The rest went to the MMRF when I met with Tim Duffy in 2016 in NJ – I may have gotten less than market-value for them, but I had been holding them a long time! And Tim would put them to good use, either giving them to people in need of an instrument or dealing with a dealer for a sale… I was under time pressure to unload as much as possible as quickly as possible, and I did so!
That set me up with two,+ great instruments and so it was then up to me to find people who would play them! As I have said before, the death of Tate in the summer of ’72 was the force that goosed me along rapidly to find as many people as I could as quickly as possible before they all died. Bastin and I had had a decent start with Tate, and I spent the remainder of the decade looking for, listening to, and interviewing old musicians, and recording those who could still play and wanted to do so. I additionally took many photographs of players and former players.
My early efforts were with a Minox 15/16” miniature “spy” camera which was limited and limiting in its size. I wasn’t in the market for something bigger or “better”, but I couldn’t shoot album covers with the Minox! It was a matter of practicality as I tended on being the only one who could DO it! The Nikon F2 that I purchased filled that niche admirably; although it was a bit pricy, it turned out to be worth every last cent and made me become a photographer!
It may seem a surprise to some of you that there were individuals who weren’t interested or were too difficult to get to record! Some who had been affected by stroke (usually the hot guitarists), those who had gone “church”, those that could no longer sing (thanks, often, to cigarettes), and those who just couldn’t be bothered for what ever reason. But, most were as interested as I in being recorded! So, I did!
My time “out there” generally went like this. Drive down South until unlimited free “sweet tea” was normal at diners (usually as far north as the Carolinas) that I stopped at for food. And there was also a meat/three veg with biscuit and desert for a couple of bucks for lunch as well. That was usually a true marker of crossing the Mason-Dixon Line then – food never lies! As time progressed, I got more and more local leads, and more success with performers… as well as finding more and more good and cheap places to eat! By 1972 I was cookin’ big time and got a number of really good performers to sit for my tape machine… and I had a skein of great places to eat.
I went back to a few artists, but they were usually in a minority simply because I was stretched thin and went more for quantity rather than to focus of any one artist. A “lot of a little” was the outcome rather than any real depth on any one artist. It pained me to work this way, but I felt “who else was out there at that time” …it wasn’t “delta”! Each informant was a veritable fount of information and would support at least two more folklorists each, but I was “it” and did the best and the most that I could. Almost nobody followed in my immediate tracks, and it was an imposingly-sized row to hoe – VA, NC, SC, GA – with a few in slightly greater geographical regions. Nobody really cared until much later when it was basically just seeds and stems remaining. At least I was able to do SOMEthing, but it always felt insufficient.
As reported elsewhere, I burned out and stopped by 1980… I was beat and could do no more, but I had the music and nothing could take it from me. The interim was filled with some time with “Ayatollah” Lomax at the Library of Congress listening to anything “black” that he and his father collected. Later, they came out as “The Deep River of Song” for Rounder Records. I then attempted a Ph.D. at The University of Pennsylvania – this was stopped by incoming fatherhood, never to be picked up again. (The boy is worth it, though, and he’s been a great help in recent times! He partially believes in my life’s work, is a fine photographer, and is also my tech nerd. Thanks, Julian.) Life is what happens when you are not paying attention, and I was in a position of living my life and not pursuing my work which I placed on a back burner, seemingly permanently in nature at the time. But, the greed of the new owners of the storage space turned out to be a proverbial blessing in disguise for me, and I went to New Jersey in 2016 on what turned out to be a successful salvage mission!
I had relocated to Australia by 1995 and tried as best I can to keep up with things of a folkloric nature, not always easy at such a distance. I had some help in radio with Austin Harrison locally in Sydney, and in Adelaide with Mike Hotz (the late). I shouldn’t forget Lucky Oceans on Radio National, or Doug Price on WVKR-FM in Poughkeepsie, NY, and Jeff Harris on WGMC-FM in Rochester, NY. They kept the flame alive. Getting reunited with my tapes is the main event for me, though, and I hope I will be “finished” in a way that is satisfying for me. If not, then I’ll leave footprints to guide others… though they be a bit late to do any immediate good to the artists!
So, as they say here, good on ya’, mate. I have (hopefully) taken those last steps, and will get my stuff “out there”. How is anybody’s guess at this point! I have still tapped only a scosh of the whole, for being recorded at any point in time is at best a crap-shoot. My attempt to “get” as many still living artists on tape was actually impossible, and my response of the passing of Baby Tate in 1972 was a fantasy. But I tried. One must take it from the flip side and say that what I did was important, if incomplete. Had I not done it, we’d be woefully sparse in our knowledge of the SE/Piedmont regional blues. Essentially, I was alone with my dog(s) for a decade… although they were good company.
Now, it’s time to tackle the myriad of photographs in addition to organizing the tapes – they tend to go together! Hell, just a portion of my stuff upped the Folklife Archives at the Library of Congress and (later even more so) of the Southern Folklife Collection at Chapel Hill three-fold or more. And it’s also my life’s work, accidental or not… that must count for something. Just ask my friend Bruce Bastin! – it can be life-changing!
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney, Australia 2019
 Kip Lornell, Axel Küstner, George Mitchell are among the few “academics” to overlap my efforts in some way. A few locals helped, too – Danny McLean and Jim Pettigrew among the few. There were also a number of supporters in the UK, mainly Bruce Bastin, and Mike Rowe.ODDENDA & SUCH