Pining for the blues
WHEN THE WHITE STRIPES RELEASED THEIR early album De Stijl in 2000, nobody was paying a lot of attention. Blues aficionados, though, regard it as unique for its covers of tracks by two musical legends - Blind Willie McTell's Your Southern Can is Mine and Son House's Death Letter.
Six years and three global smash albums later, most of the band's fans happily rock out to such tracks, oblivious to the vast heritage that their hero, Jack White, was laying claim to when he screamed out House's paean to terminally lost love. For those to whom the racked slide guitar lines are more familiar, though, these recordings show that Jack has "class".
The blues, that most simple and unpretentious of musical genres, has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past few years. The soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, Nirvana's haunting rendition of Leadbelly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and the huge success of the aforementioned White Stripes have all led a resurgent interest in the source material, and in artists such as Son House, Bukka White and Charlie Patton. Strangely, in an age of high-tech recording techniques, of CDs and iPods, there is a growing audience for dusty, hissing recordings made with the most primitive equipment in hotel rooms or front porches.
But why? Certainly, there is a mystique trapped in the blues. For a musician to name Robert Johnson as an influence - as so many guitarists have - is to place their hand on his legend: a musician living in the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s, he was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming one of the greatest blues guitarists ever heard. His rise to fame was as meteoric as his fall was sudden. Aged 27, he was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend while playing at a juke joint and was buried in a pine box in an unmarked grave. His legend sealed, he became the benchmark for countless guitarists since then: Led Zeppelin alone co-opted it wholesale for the basis of their career.
What is perplexing, though, is that we still hark back to these musicians. If the record industry has been driven by anything, it is the advancement of recording technology; every decade sees some new development that allows ever more pristine and "realistic" performances: quadraphonic discs, CD technology, mini-disc, Mp3. Yet there is a growing market - a niche one, admittedly - for whom crystal-clear recordings are anathema. For them, the pops and hisses of a 78 rpm shellac disc, even if it is one that has been transferred to CD or Mp3, communicates so much more than anything recorded in the past 60 years, and will continue to do so well after the Kaiser Chiefs' polished offerings fall into the seventh circle of music hell that is Golden Oldies radio.
What, then, is the attraction that feeds the reissue market, that sends people to junk shops and collectors' fairs, has them spending long hours reading up on matrix numbers, exchanging e-mails with labels and collectors on the possible discovery of a long-lost Lightnin' Hopkins track? The best way to find out is to speak to those who are truly committed to the genre, the ones who started out as fans, became collectors and finally accepted the mantel of archivist by running record labels catering to like-minded spirits and spreading the word of the blues.
Gary Atkinson and his wife, Gill, run Document Records, a small label based in Bladnoch in Dumfries. The couple hold the world's largest archive of pre-war blues, jazz and country; set up in 1990, Document was the brainchild of Austrian collector Johnny Parths, the aim being to gather and release as many acoustic blues recordings as possible. Having come on board as researchers and liner note writers for the releases, the Atkinsons eventually transferred the project to Scotland, and in a stroke created a Shangri La for blues nuts across the country. Fans of Document include big stars such as Jack White and Van Morrison, and Atkinson is in talks with several famous musicians with a view to them compiling new releases of archive material.
"We do get those fans who collect obsessively," explains Atkinson. "The ones who own, say, volume one and two of somebody but it's the idea of volume three that keeps them awake at night. In some ways, it's a form of pilgrimage for them, they can't afford to get to the Mississippi so they come here instead. We look upon them as kindred spirits, invite them in, give them a cup of tea and show them around the warehouse. We understand what drives them. There is the type of fan out there for whom the matrix number of a record is just as important as the music itself, and I'm more than happy to share a pint with them, but for me, above all, it's the music."
There is no doubt that chasing old blues tracks, whether in their original 78 form, or on a reissue label, is a challenge. The thrill of the chase, as any record collector will admit, is almost as great as finally holding the trophy in your hands. Only reggae comes close in terms of collectibility and both share many similarities: musicians steeped in poverty willing to record for under almost any conditions; tracks appearing on different labels, under different names, released in minute quantities.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the genre attracts obsessives, some more concerned with possession of a disc than what's stored in its grooves. But as Bernard MacMahon, owner of reissue label Lo-max Records, asserts, such people are vital for the genre: "Essentially, the two strands can't exist without each other. Just as there are those who are into the music, there are those for whom the mere act of collecting has become an end in itself. Their pleasure comes from finding something that nobody else has, then writing to a specialist magazine to inform other collectors of this fact.
"I'm also pretty sure there are people out there who have records that they will never play. It has to be said that they're a pretty small body. For me, it's the music, the raw punch that it holds, and getting it out to the wider public. But we need the obsessives to find the record, so we can make it available for other obsessives.
"One such person I know is Joe Bassard, who lives in Maryland. He owns 30,000 records, but his passion for collecting is matched by a passion for the music. A visit to his basement is a trip into a wonderland for any collector, but even a phone conversation with him is amazing. He isn't precious at all, he's the type of guy who will slap a $1,000 record on a turntable and play it down the phone for you."
Of course, when that needle hits the groove, no matter how expensive the hi-fi is, the sound will be at best marginal. Stick on a Charlie Patton CD and, even after extensive sonic burnishing, it still sounds as if it was recorded in a room full of washing machines on spin-wash. And, to be honest, if there's one thing that puts people off, it's the effort needed to get past the hiss and crackle.
For the hard core, though, it is an integral part of the music: a stamp of authenticity that also acts as a test for the listener to see if they enjoy it in spite of the wall of static. In fact, in the face of increasingly sophisticated technology that can produce perfect performances, even the level of static is a bone of contention among collectors, as Atkinson explains.
"The crackle was present in the early days because there were no filtering systems to clean them up," he says. "Then there was a heavy debate in the late 1970s when this equipment started to become available: should you leave it as it is? Should people hear it as it was found? But then as the 1980s progressed this debate turned into: should we leave it at that, or should we clean it up further? And that went on for quite some time. Now it has reached the point at which if you look at the review of a reissue, points are more or less given for how well they're restored. But then again, I've got the second 78 that Muddy Waters recorded. It's in mint condition, never been played, and it gleams, you could see your face in it, but it sounded rough as hell because of the poor quality of shellac."
The absence of sonically perfect reissues would suggest that neither record labels nor collectors want them. But, Atkinson points out, it is for different reasons: "I think collectors are all incurable romantics; an awful lot of stuff that's on Document sounds very scratchy and that attracts a certain type of person. We have to place warnings on certain records as being sonically difficult. You can do a lot to bring up a track, but you can't get rid of all of it, because every crackle and pop has its own frequency. You get rid of it and you remove that frequency throughout the music. There's quite an art to getting the balance right, so you save the integrity of the music, but make the quality as good as you can. It's down to hours of listening and knowing when it's starting to take certain edges off the music."
Atkinson and MacMahon talk as record-label owners, production engineers and businessmen, but you don't have to scratch very hard to find the same strain of romanticism that Atkinson identifies with collectors . "I started very young," says MacMahon. "As a teenager, I spent a lot of time at the Phonographic Institute listening to all sorts of stuff - Motown, a bit of jazz, avant-garde - but everything I listened to and read referred back to this music. And as soon as I heard it, I realised that this was the pulse of the music.
"The likes of Dylan, the Grateful Dead, all the Greenwich Village singers from the 1960s and the Haight Ashbury, this is what they were referring to. The way these musicians, and those who followed, presented themselves was based on the musicians who created this music."
Thirty-odd years on, the first burst of enthusiasm is still with MacMahon. He is about to release the Lomax Project, a collation of pre-1930s recordings that has taken a decade to gather.
Atkinson was also caught in his early teens: "It caught me at a very mentally fertile point in my life. East Yorkshire turned into Mississippi and the Humber turned into the Mississippi River - they used to call me the Mississippi Sheikh. This is a music from a hard world, a bleak treacherous world, and people are leading hard lives but you're drawn into that and you want to be there.
"And there's certainly something about the look of it. Because you're looking at 1920s, '30s, '40s design on the labels, and it's from an era well in the past.
"Plus I think that when you begin collecting, the first thing you do is read about it. There wasn't much to read at the time, but they would refer to recordings and you'd hear about labels - Brunswick, Columbia, Paramount - and as a kid, these things are already Holy Grails. You're reading about mythological people recording, how it happened, and so when you eventually come face to face it's an unbelievable moment."
For the true archivist, the one to whom both Atkinson and MacMahon defer, the attraction of the blues recordings is something altogether different. Oxford academic Paul Oliver is one of the foremost experts on the genre. Not only has he collected and written about the blues since the 1940s, he has met and recorded its biggest names. He is responsible for creating some of the dusty, crackling 78s so sought-after by others.
"For me, it's all about the immediacy of the music," he says. "These are people who have the ability and talent to take what's happened to them that day, place it into a musical structure and turn it into a song. It's incredibly exciting. There wasn't the mythology at the time. The people I met , the mythologies surrounding them, weren't in place. I met Bukka White and stayed with Muddy Waters at his house. Ultimately, I was more interested in meeting and recording those people who hadn't been documented, the ones who sang and played for self-expression."
It was blues legend John Lee Hooker who pinpointed the real attraction of these records when he said: "You can hear a certain type of record playin'. You can be feelin' very normal, nothing on your mind, period. But it's somethin' on that record hits you. It's something that has happened in your life."
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