Old Music For A New Year

Dear Mailing List,

As we stagger into 2021, I can suggest a couple of comforting musical crumbs.

For those of you in the UK, BBC2 is screening Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace this coming Saturday, January 2 at 2030 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qzvh). For Brits, this is, of course, free. For everyone else, the film is available on various digital platforms for a small charge. I wrote a newsletter last year about my walk-on part in getting this extraordinary performance filmed and released; your memory can be refreshed here:  http://www.joeboyd.co.uk/amazing-grace.

There are no geographical restrictions on a new release from the Dust-to-Digital label. I have collected a number of their great box-set reissues over the years, enjoyed the rare and wonderful clips they send out regularly on Instagram and recently became e-friendly with the label’s proprietors, Lance and April Ledbetter. Hearing about the subject of my (as-yet-untitled) book, they kindly sent me a wonderful 100-track global compilation called Excavated Shellac, assembled by their colleague, and collector extraordinaire, Jonathan Ward: https://dust-digital.com/shop/excavated-shellac. I reciprocated with a review/essay which they have posted on their blog and which I am herein sharing with you.

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78 rpm records conjure up a scratchy, lo-fi image for many, something for scholars and archivists to study, rather than for listeners to enjoy. Not for me; from the age of 12, 78s represented a romantic connection to the past, and besides, they sounded great! I first heard them on players designed for the purpose, with heavy tone-arms and graphite styli that sank deep into the grooves, delivering a vivid, punchy sound even as they wore out the disc. My brother Warwick once had a Wurlitzer 78rpm jukebox that produced audio as powerfully satisfying as anything today’s digital technology can manage.

A century ago, shellac 78s acted as both mirror and telescope, magically bestowing a glamorous modern iteration of different peoples’ own musical cultures while opening a window onto sounds from thousands of miles away. New discs often drew crowds, like the amazed gathering at a Harlem barbershop that listened over and over to Louis Armstrong’s scat singing on ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the day it was released in 1926, a scene echoed in 1940s Leopoldville when the first Afro-Cuban 78s arrived and people recognized their own Kongo rhythms transformed by time, distance and genius. Other styles from across the globe fascinated listeners: Hawaiian slide guitars on Jimmie Rodgers records, tango rhythms from Buenos Aires, Arabic singers from Cairo and Baghdad, Jewish and gypsy violinists from Eastern Europe. The allure of such sounds subtly (and not-so-subtly) re-set musical compasses across the globe.

Jonathan Ward and his Excavated Shellac project, in collaboration with Dust-to-Digital, have produced a collection by that name that transports us to every continent during the formative years of recorded music, before science got the upper hand, when music and technology could still meet on equal terms. Arguments have been made that field recordings by ethnomusicologists are somehow truer, more authentic, than commercial discs. I disagree; I always found music on commercial 78s had a different intensity than that recorded by academics. Perhaps the lure of fame and wealth, or at least recognition, brings out the best in a musician. Plus, as Excavated Shellac’s accompanying booklet demonstrates, they had far more beautiful labels.

The set’s running order isn’t academic at all. Is it disorienting to listen to a track from Kenya followed by one from Japan, then Colombia, then Norway? For me, this allows each to stand out and be considered on its own, to keep the attention from wandering. And the stories! Extraordinarily detailed research plus exquisite photos and reproductions make each track an adventure.

Like all Dust-to-Digital releases, it is impeccably mastered and produced. That such great work originates with Lance and April Ledbetter in Atlanta, Georgia constitutes poetic justice for me. A Boyd family trauma was suffered when my brother and I were in our early teens. While visiting an Atlanta-based cousin, we mentioned that we were interested in collecting blues and jazz 78s and he told us about a Salvation Army collection drive he had helped organize; among many other things, it had produced stacks and stacks of 78s donated from the African-American part of town. We rushed straight over to the SA’s huge downtown store only to find that the 78s had all been sold. Imagining we might have been beaten to the punch by one of those legendary blues collectors who loomed large in our teenage imaginations, we asked the manager who bought them. He told us the entire lot was sold to a man with a county-fair concession, one of those stalls where you got a prize for how many records you can break by throwing a baseball. Thankfully, Jonathan Ward and the other passionate and diligent collectors mentioned in the credits weren’t as easily deflated as we were; Excavated Shellac goes a long way towards assuaging a 60-year old wound.

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For further audio-visual stimulation and satisfaction, we can highly recommend The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, A Great Day In Harlem, a documentary about the famous photograph of New York’s jazz community and Lovers Rock, the musical segment of Steve McQueen’s wonderful Small Axe series of films set in Afro-Caribbean London. If you want an entertaining peek into the world of the obsessive 78 collector, you can’t do better than to rent Ghost World with Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson.

Wishing everyone a New Year that brings good health, better politics and live gigs!