Blues bring joy to tiny Scots record label as US archive secures future

A SMALL Scottish record label has managed to secure an archive of rarely heard pre-war recordings by the American Edison Company to help guarantee the future of the world's largest acoustic blues archive.

Document Records, based in the village of Bladnoch, Wigtownshire, has secured the rights to release more than 360 hours of recordings made by the American inventor of the phonograph, Thomas Edison.

In doing so it has helped to allow the label - which was set up 15 years ago to collate and archive thousands of shellac and vinyl 78rpm recordings and transfer them into digital format - to continue its work.

It currently has the rights to more than 22,000 tracks, containing work by almost every significant name in early blues, jazz and country, including Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Son House, Lightnin' Hopkins, Duke Ellington and Leadbelly.

According to Gill Atkinson, who owns the label with husband Gary, the value of the archive stems from Edison's unconventional approach to his record label. "For Edison, the label was really a side-issue to his inventions, but he was persuaded that he should do this in 1914," she said.

She added: "Every so often he would go in and would ask what was being recorded, and they would play him all this opera, jazz, blues and popular tunes, and he would turn his nose up at it and insist that it was all dumped unreleased.

"The label went bust in 1929, and this meant all these recordings were just locked in a cupboard in the factory and left to rot. It's estimated that barely 10 per cent has ever even been heard outside a studio."

It was only in 1976 that Merritt Malvern, an avid Edison record collector, discovered the existence of the collection, the condition of which he described as a disaster: "Records were piled haphazardly into badly decaying boxes in this poorly insulated room," he said.

Using the best technology available at the time, the records were transferred on to studio-grade tape and stored in the American Sound Archive.

But the deterioration of the oxide tapes over the past 30 years has renewed the threat to the recordings.

Larry Tedder, of American Sound Archive, said: "The recordings have deteriorated over time the time and they could have been lost forever if they weren't preserved now.

"This was true even of the recorded output from the studios of Thomas Edison, the most significant innovator in the early phonograph industry.

"We approached Document because their experience and reputation in restoring archive recordings is known worldwide."

The material has helped to secure Document's immediate future.

"Things were on a knife-edge," admitted Mrs Atkinson. "This is a labour of love. Generally, we have survived by licensing out our tracks to other labels. The invention of the iPod has saved us though.

"We've uploaded all our tracks, which means people can just take what they want. But it will take time for this to return to us financially."

The Document project was set up by John Part, an Austrian blues enthusiast, in 1991. Both he and fellow fan Paul Oliver planned to create an authoritative collection of acoustic blues songs based on what is considered to be the definitive pre-war blues discography written by Robert Dixon and John Godrich. Since taking it over in 1996, Gary and Gill Atkinson have widened the archive's remit to take in jazz and country.