2. First exposure to 20th century music
What was your first exposure to early 20th century music and what attracted you to it? Was there a ‘click’ similar to you making experimental music?
I started working in record stores when I was 16 and had a voracious appetite for music, and music that other people around me weren’t aware of. My first exposure to early 20th century music was through my grandfather, because he was playing me recordings from the 20s and 30s by Jimmy Lunsford, Chick Webb, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw
. I was hearing the stuff from the 30s-40s, the swing bands, you know, all that kind of stuff.
Then, when I was 14 or 15 my first job out of the house was at the local library shelving books, and my father bought at a library sale there a copy of the second volume
of the Anthology of American Folk Music
, the Harry Smith set; the social music volume, which is one record of dance music and another record of religious music. He didn’t really listen to his albums, but he knew that it was cool. He brought it into the house, and I really got into that record. I kind of stole it from him. I stole a lot of records from him as a matter of fact - that Stockhausen
record didn’t stand a chance!
At 19 years old, that same period where I’m improvising and stopped songwriting, I was at a flea-market in New Castle, Delaware, where I bought three 78s and a little portable schoolroom record player that played 78s. The 78s were 10 cents apiece and that began the process. It was a Carter Family record on Montgomery Ward, a record by The Bagelman Sisters who were sort-of the Jewish Andrews Sisters, singing in Yiddish, but doing the Borscht-Belt pop - some klezmer influence, but you know, pop. And a Japanese record made in Hawaii in the late 40s (I think) called “The Song of Arriang”
which was a 12-bar blues and a waltz about leaving home and about nostalgia. I went, “OK, I understand several of the elements here,”
but there was for me a sense of wonder about “how did all these elements come together?”
So then, I felt “OK, I might as well keep doing this ‘cause obviously these things are interesting and odd, and if I can keep finding more of these kind of things…”
The sound of the record was interesting, because it was a different sound than you’re used to coming from records. You can’t believe how heavy the thing is, you can’t believe the sound coming out.
I kept finding things in foreign languages. In a big box of Russian records I found by accident at a yard sale in Connecticut a Lemko record. It was “The Gypsy Wedding”
, which wound up on Black Mirror (which came out in 2007).
I worked at a software company where it was half Indians and half Russians who were the programmers. The Russians were able to get me feedback on all these songs. I didn’t know “Black Eyes,” or any of these famous folk songs. One woman told me, “Oh this is a gypsy song”
, and then they would say something horribly racist about gypsies, and I would think “Oh, that’s interesting; you’re a prejudiced person.”
The actual comment I still remember to this day is “oh, gypsy song - steal and sing, two things gypsies can do well.”
Then somebody at that same company, said to me offhandedly what a slob their mother was. You know, she would throw her clothes all over the floor, on the Victrola, everywhere. I said, “Wait, the Victrola? You got any records in that thing? “Oh yeah, there’s a whole pickle-bucket full of them.”
They invited me over; I bought the Victrola and the records. They were a combination of Ethel Waters (who was from Chester, Pennsylvania, a great jazz singer along the lines of Bessie Smith but a little more middle-class, acceptable…light-skinned, let’s face it, and cute) and there was a bunch of gospel quartet singing - Birmingham Jubilee Quartet, the Virginia Female Jubilee Quartet. Those records were like hearing something from Mongolia; they were crazy sounding to me. I loved them immediately; they were so good. And I had never heard of gospel quartet singing. It’s masterful, wonderful, beautiful stuff, and pretty much ignored and kind-of an extinct form now, but you know, rather middle-class. The big group was the Golden Gate Quartet in the 40s and 50s, but before that, back to the 20s and earlier, African-American middle-class (or aspiring) folk had this amazing quartet singing form, that still kind-of exists in pockets here and there. So I started looking for more of that kind of stuff on eBay - right around the time eBay starts.
I started doing Internet searches, sending away for catalogues and lists, and bidding on things that were cheap. I could never afford good records, but $5 here, $6 there… I paid $30 for a Moondog
78 at one point. I thought that was really extravagant. (It came with a sleeve on Brunswick).
A whole world opened up that I had access to but that other people around me didn’t know about. It became fun to play records and talk about them at that point. I started hanging out a lot with this guitarist in Philly named Jack Rose
and playing him records and he was collecting really heavily. By that point we’d already heard the Yazoo
and Origin Jazz Library
and Herwin reissue
records, and now and we were studying them like they’re the Torah - really reading the notes.