78-rpm recordings from the American recording industry are becoming highly prized artifacts. The “good ones,” I mean. Rare blues, gospel and hillbilly recordings, printed on labels like Paramount, Black Patti and Gennett, have attained a mythical status and become the subjects of intense bidding wars among collectors. As you can imagine, many collectors have started to question the point of it all and wondering if there isn’t an area of 78-rpm collecting designed for the obsessive and dogmatic. Jonathan Ward’s solution to this problem has been to pursue the rich musical content found on ethnic 78s.
Apart from enjoying the music contained within the foreign disks, Ward appreciates that inflated value hasn’t rendered ethnic recordings as physical objects to be lusted over. “I’m tired of people telling me what’s good,” said Ward of the American 78-rpm recordings. “I’m waiting for the day that someone says Vernon Dalhart and Kessinger waltzes are pretty fantastic. I really am.” It’s easier to form your own opinions about music, he realized, if your discs come from a forgotten corner of the world.
Born in a diverse musical household, the Massachusetts-native developed a worldly ear at a young age. Ward recollected moments from his childhood where his mother would be playing classical piano and his father, exiled to the driveway, would be droning away on his bagpipes. “Meanwhile, I’d be sitting with headphones on listening to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery!’”
In his Echo Park apartment, Ward showed us how hearing an African one-string fiddle solo or a Mexican string band for the first time could be a lesson in empathy. He explained, “You have to be humble because these records were not made for you.” But it was hearing the strange and beautiful sounds of Madagascan music that first gave him the bug to start collecting African 78s. Ward described his collecting interests as a journey of the ears. “It has nothing to do with anyone else’s tastes. It’s really about new sounds – new to me!” he exclaimed.
In an effort to share these new sounds, Ward compiled Opika Pende: Africa at 78RPM (2013, Dust-to-Digital) to demonstrate the musical heterogeneity of the African recording industry. For this effort he received a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Historical Album.
His records are neatly organized by country and, despite their inherent antiquatedness, represent the globalizing effect of online connections and auction sites. The delicate, shellac disks are shipped halfway across the world to his Los Angeles doorstep and for all he knows, each could be one of a kind; if one breaks, there’s no telling if another may ever surface to replace it. This explained why earthquake chains anchored each of his record shelves. He showed us a record that had broken upon arrival and a mended seam that stretched across the lower half. The repairman is a well-kept secret among a select group of 78-rpm collectors.
Since 2007, Ward’s ongoing project has been the blog Excavated Shellac where he posts mp3 transfers of pieces from his collection. Scrolling down his blog, you’ll see excavated music from South America, India, Pakistan, Yemen and Scotland to name a few. A photo of the label and an informative article about the style, musician(s) and origin gives context to the recording. Written in a well-informed, dry-humored voice, Ward discusses the birth of recording industries on a global level, his commentary often focusing around small local labels and their role in preserving the idiosyncrasies of traditional performance practices before the homogenizing effects of mass communication technologies set in.
Sitting in his listening room and hearing his records was like experiencing a live version of Excavated Shellac. For each disk, he supplied answers to questions about style, date and geographical location. We were most blown away by the range in dates of 78-rpm distribution across the globe – in the States we set the bar for 78-rpm production between 1924-33, but in countries like Colombia, 78s were being produced as late as the ‘70s!
Though self-promotion is still the primary means of exposure for ethnic 78rpm collectors, archival labels like Dust-to-Digital have started giving a larger spotlight to their efforts in the form of fancy box sets with photographs and extensive liner notes. Ward’s accomplishment with his collection - to bring the corners of the world together in the form of early-recorded music - merits such fancy box sets and the resulting awards and nominations. However, his lesser-heralded accomplishment with Excavated Shellac has been to unite information from the isolated fields of ethnomusicology, discographical history and record collector fandom into one resource (a free one I might add). Perhaps the fact that he is also a super-kind, generous and non-obsessive human being should be thrown in there as well. At any rate, we hope you enjoy the video and join us in applauding Excavated Shellac for inspiring young collectors and for suggesting that greater possibilities still exist for the collecting and enjoyment of music on the 78 medium.
Thanks so much to Jonathan Ward for taking the time to interview and for sharing with us his collection. Keep updated with his work at excavatedshellac.com.