At 11:35 in the morning, we left Charlottesville, Virginia and watched the blacktop of US-29 swallow up the city in the rearview mirror. We were headed south thirty miles or so to the small town of Faber to meet 78-rpm record collector, writer and a sound engineer, Christopher King. The two-lane highway was quaint, but wild. The farmhouses, churches and antique stores that dotted the lush scenery were contrasted against the sunbathing blacksnakes that lay motionless on the roadside like fragments of rubber tires and the dead trees, which, engulfed by undergrowth, loomed like surrealistic hedge sculptures. Staring out the windows of the car, we practiced interview questions. The advice we had been given upon meeting King was simple but ominous: listen carefully and don’t say stupid shit.

King is a prominent figure among the kind of private collectors who reissue early 78-rpm recordings, and is a highly sought after sound director and engineer. He keeps a steady job at County records and Rebel records, he runs his own historical music production company, Long Gone Sound Productions, and collaborates with a variety of other labels including Tompkins Square, Bear Family Records and Revenant (he earned a Grammy in 2002 for his work as sound designer on Revenant’s box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton).Last spring, he was featured in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s New York Times article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – a marathon article that traces the story of a rare and influential 78 recording with a mysterious background. King, owner of one of the two known copies of “Last Kind Words/Skinny Leg Blues,” could be seen in the article’s videos, spinning and talking about the record in his home studio.

Although he is known for his collection of pre-war country blues, Cajun and rural string band music, he has more recently produced material from his collections of ethnic performances from Albania, Greece, Ukraine, Turkey and Poland. His latest release, Alexis Zoumbas: a lament for Epirus 1926 -1928 (Long Gone Sound/Angry Mom Archives) featured ethereal, solo violin adaptations of the traditional music of Northern Greece.

King was waiting for us when we arrived, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He was offering calming words to Betty, his bug-eyed Boston terrier, who had likely alerted him to our conspicuous arrival. (Because his house was set back away from the road, we had rolled past it a few times before confirming his address.) Although a young man, his figure appeared as though from a different era; his pomaded hair, thick-rimmed glasses, wool trousers and suspenders, more matched aesthetic of his depression-era farmhouse. After introductions, he served us coffee from a stovetop percolator, smoked another cigarette, and marshaled us into his dimly lit office. On the walls of his office hung black and white photographs of various blues and hillbilly musicians as well as a tasteful array of vintage ephemera. Three shelves with thousands of manila envelopes containing records were illuminated by a soft yellow glow. “Well, what would you like to hear?” he asked us.

Picking out our requests from the unmarked shelves he shuttled the records one by one over to his stereo system across the room. In speaking to us about his collection, King described himself, not as a collector of records, but as a collector of raw, emotive (preferably unhinged) performances. “There is something that runs through certain types of music,” he elaborated, “that is mysterious and beautiful and frightening and terrifying and yet it’s bound up with us, with our humanity.”

King is paradoxically both manly and sensitive. He speaks directly and with an intense growl that suggests – let’s cut the crap and talk about music as it relates to life and death. We listened intently with a mixture of terror and fascination as though watching a hammer fall slowly, but inevitably toward a coffin nail.

At times, his seriousness would yield to humor, but often when we were least expecting it. He told us a story about hunting 78s at the house of a man he met at a swap meet. It took him three years of persisting with the man until he received an invitation to junk through them. Upon arrival, however, he saw that the records “were in his fucking chicken coop covered with chicken shit. Thousands of 78s and roosters shitting all over them.” He smirked while telling us this. “But that was a pretty good find,” he concluded.

King collects the music that moves him. As the records played, he either bowed his head or smiled in silent wonderment. He likes records that contain riveting performances as well as a snapshot into the artist’s life. Of the compilations he produces, King said, “What I’m doing is more of a storybook. It’s a presentation of what its like for me to be engaged with the music.” As we started playing records, we saw what King meant by being engaged. He sat behind his consul, constantly micro adjusting the mixing boards (the manila jackets to his records have individualized settings for EQ and gain). Beside his turntable lay what appeared to be popsicle sticks of various sizes that he would balance on the stylus to achieve optimum pressure on the record. After listening to Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” he drew our attention to a second voice that mumbled between the verses. Patton was known for his gravelly voice and manly themes of drinking, brawling and women, but King’s theorized that Patton needed a friend at the recording session for encouragement. “Imagine playing your whole career in grimy juke joints of the delta and then having to travel to a strange city and record in a studio,” King empathized. “I think it means he was actually just a big pussy.”  

The way he listens can humanize even the most mythical of performer. To convey this form of listening to his audience seems to be King’s goal. His transfers are done with sensitivity to the ambient sounds that occur before, during and after the performance. “I’m interested,” he said, “in the audio information present in the studio such as a grunt, taking a breath, the slice of the rosin over the fiddle strings.” King’s work is to make a reissue record that expands the story of the source material and connects us more profoundly to the musicians. He does this not just with more sensitive hardware but with a new approach to listening that combines both the scholarly and the emotional attentiveness.

There is a breed of 78 collectors who are as equally concerned with preserving musical cultures as with connecting it back to modern ears. King, I believe, is one of them. The albums he produces from his collection such as People Take Warning! (Tompkins Square, 2007), a collection of pre-war murder ballads and disaster songs, as well as Five Days Married & Other Laments(Angry Mom Archives, 2013), a compilation of recordings from Northern Greece, use notes to describe the feelings and reactions to the records in addition to the facts and backstory of the recordings. He described his work perfectly when he said, “It does not make sense to put on rubber gloves and sterilize yourself when you’re trying to discuss music that you yourself are overwhelmingly in love with. Why try to divorce the narrative of the music from the narrative about why you love that music?” 

 

--- Jonathan Shifflett 

After interviewing Nathan Salsburg, we went out for lunch and sat among the cheering locals at the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot and Smokehouse, wolfing pulled pork sandwiches and sipping on local beer. The World Cup game between USA and Germany drew the crowd’s interest, but we were too exhausted to pay much attention, focusing instead on satisfying the hunger brought on by the interview. Digesting his comments along with the sweet and salty pork, we exchanged awed and envy-laden thoughts about Nathan’s work. He is a record collector, a music writer and a professional guitarist in addition to his duties as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. A badass. And an eloquent one at that. Our inspired exchange, however, was juxtaposed against an uninspired performance by our nation’s soccer team. Germany scored against USA, the bar groaned through their fingertips and, we, along with a bar-full of dejected fans, made the universal gesture for the check.

Earlier that morning, we paced out the walking directions to Nathan’s studio and stopped underneath a light-up sign that said “Clovene.” A group of construction workers had just finished a job and were loitering outside. They nodded. We nodded back. Louisvillians seemed like welcoming people, I inwardly concluded. We knocked on the door and Nathan answered it expectantly, beaming at us. Tall and fit, his fashionable, workman’s clothes, closely cropped hair and superhero chin defy the stereotypical image of an archivist. Accepting our gift of lukewarm, to-go coffee, he gestured us in through the weather-beaten threshold, introduced us to his studio, a converted grocery store, and to his greying redbone coonhound, Ruby.

“She’s a bit skittish around cameras,” he informed us as we set up the tripod and arranged the room. Shifting uncomfortably on her red couch, Ruby followed our cautious movements with concerned eyes before slowly settling back down. Nathan patted her reassuringly and politely sipped his coffee.

We knew Nathan Salsburg from his work as a solo guitar performer - his two solo releases, Affirmed (2011) and Hard for to Win and Can’t Be Won (2013), showcase his lithe, fingerstyle technique – and from his folk and vernacular radio program, Root Hog or Die (East Village Radio, ARTxFM). At just 36 years of age, he contributes regularly to the Oxford American magazine and runs his own label, Twos & Fews, a folk and vernacular music imprint of the Drag City record label.

Inside of his studio, shelves of LPs and vintage musical ephemera commanded the eye. Nathan invited us to look around and shoot b-roll while he stood at his computer to wrestle with his Comcast subscription. The World Cup match had just started and he was eager to see the progress.

Thousands of LPs surrounded his workstation and on the other side of the room stood his collection of 78-rpm records (“atavistic”) and CDs (“even more atavistic”). Shelved in thick, vintage binders and heavy-duty file boxes, his 78s represent mostly hillbilly performers, accompanied by country blues and black sacred material. Interestingly, Nathan had never intended to become a collector of 78s. Rather, they just fell into his lap. Back in 2010, a friend tipped him off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home. Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.

Even so, this didn't make his job any easier. As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”

Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax's vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist. In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.

As a teenager, Nathan opened a record store in Louisville, specializing in underground music. Early on, he saw how reissue labels such as Yazoo, Biograph and County effectively used detailed liner notes, photographs and excellent transfers. Nowadays, with reissue records becoming somewhat vogue, Nathan is critical of those that carelessly release content. He said, “When you see a bad reissue, it’s just a record that’s been reissued and there’s no further contextualization, which I think is sort of the point. Granted, the music should affect you first, true, but part of the joy is knowing where the stuff came from.” Making information accessible isn’t difficult, he indicated. It’s making sense of that information through an educated narrative.

A testament to his work, Nathan’s influence reached us long before we knew of him. Through the Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube, we had admired the footage of R.L. Burnside, Tommy Jarrell and Dennis McGee. We had seen, too, what Lomax shot of low riders in 1983 (they awkwardly pass by a static camera, a thumping bass conspicuously absent), which not only increased our respect for Lomax’s vision but also wised us to the range of material that Nathan has yet to produce. In short, it will be exciting to see what he comes up with next (we were told that up next is a new set of sacred music from Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers)!

Back at the smokehouse, a mass exodus was happening. Having transformed our pulled pork sandwiches into piles of grubby napkins bloodied with BBQ sauce, our moment of reflection seemed all of the sudden like an intrusion. We haggled our check from the flustered waitress, tipped, signed and followed the dirge of disappointed World Cup fans out into the hot summer evening, mildly pleased that our hopes and dreams rested not on sports that day, but instead on vinyl collectors.

 

---Jonathan Shifflett

We left the car near the campus park and, using our visitor map, wandered our way toward building 20, the number that indicated the location of the Mississippi Blues Archive. The bright green lawns and red-bricked buildings had a startling effect on driving-weary eyes. We scanned the archways of the uniform colonial buildings until the etched words Library appeared and we entered into the air-conditioned lobby of the J.D. Williams library at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.

Greg Johnson, curator of the archive, agreed to interview with us despite his heavy workload and preparations for his upcoming wedding. We located his office on the second floor, made introductions, and seated ourselves in the school-standardized furniture allowing our eyes to adjust to the flicker of fluorescent lights.

“The blues archive became available in 1984 to the public,” Greg began. “It contains 70,000 sound recordings of Edison wax cylinders, 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassettes. We have books, business records and recording contracts of artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. We even have a collection of blues clothing like old festival T-shirts and hats.” Our opening question having been sufficiently answered, we continued on.

He seemed to enjoy answering our questions and listened to each new one with patient nods that caused his waist-length hair to ruffle. Curator of the collection since 2002, he has an authoritative grasp on the contents and has had a significant hand in bolstering the collection further.

Greg’s role as curator requires him both to acquire and catalogue materials. It is a meticulous job that requires not just an interest in the material but in the regimented preservation of delicate and rare items. He elaborated, “If it’s records, we’ll place them into an acid free archival record sleeve. If it’s for paper based collections, we remove staples and paperclips because those rust. We put UV filters on all of our light bulbs. We have a walk in cold room for photographs. It’s about 41 degrees. Like a big meat locker.”

When searching for new materials, he prioritizes items that will broaden the scope of blues knowledge not to increase the collectible value of the archive. He was firm about this point when we goaded him to share “white whale” record stories. “Most of these rare recordings you can hear a copy even on YouTube,” he maintained. “It may not be a good copy or transfer, but that data is there. I’m looking for materials that will further the scholarship.”

Around about this time in the interview, our camera ran out of battery. Flustered we racked our brains for how to proceed. Without hesitating, Greg walked over to his desk and offered us a camera that he had lying around. He said, “We’ve got so much stuff in here. Occasionally neighboring departments come to us to borrow equipment, knowing we’ll likely have it.”

Back on track, camera rolling, he led us from his office to tour the physical archive. We padded down the carpeted hallway and glimpsed our last ray of natural light before descending into the library book stacks. Winding through the narrow corridors we reached a locked gate. Greg deftly unlocked the heavy security gate from his ring of keys and ushered us into the main section of the archive.

We walked past stacks and stacks of blues recordings and ephemera. The university now boasts perhaps the most extensive collection of blues related information, yet it has been a gradual accumulation. “The Blues Archive started when B.B. King donated his personal collection,” Greg told us. A large wall in the collection is dedicated to his 8,000 sound recordings of blues, jazz and a surprising amount of popular music. “He had a lot of foreign language courses,” Greg mused. Supposedly, he wanted to be able to greet his international audiences in their native language.

After the initial contribution from B.B. King, many more donations followed. Greg led us to the walls of LPs and boxes filled with 78s from various contributors. A notable contribution came from Sheldon Harris, music historian and author of Blues Who’s Who. When he passed away in 2005, his research files, 78s and LPs were all donated to the archive. “Going through his collection in Brooklyn, I was so nervous,” Greg recalled. “I went there to pack it up and ship it back to Mississippi and of everything that was shipped back, the only damage done was to a few Peggy Lee records so that was a relief!”

When we resurfaced from the library stacks, Greg explained that we couldn’t play the rare 78s he pulled for us, but offered to give them a spin in the laser player. The laser turntable is ideal for playing delicate records since it does not damage the disk with a stylus. Instead, it reads the disk by translating grooves, damaged or not, into zeros and ones.

He took a rare Robert Johnson copy of “32-20 Blues/Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, placing it gingerly in the tray, explained, “Sometimes the label catches so I have to lift it as it’s going in.” The tray shuddered closed. It waited a second. An LED display showed a block-shaped record and needle poised to meet. Slowly the image of the needle dropped with Pac-Man jerkiness and we all held our breath. The sound that emitted from the speakers was a harsh hiss interspersed with subaquatic guitar strums, as if Robert Johnson were thrashing against a current, his mouth filling with water every time he opened it to sing. Greg adjusted the sound using an equalizer, but once the static frequency was removed there was almost no audible sound emitting from the record. After a few more tries he admitted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get this to play.”

Greg had warned us beforehand that the laser player might not work. It’s a temperamental machine and can vary with each record played. The failure of the twenty-first century machine to play Robert Johnson, however, seemed appropriate given the mystique of the famed delta bluesman, and if anything made us appreciate the cultural and technological divide even more.

Special collections and archives are phrases we associate with exclusive corners of the academic realm, however, leaving the interview there wasn’t much in the collection that we weren’t able to see. Our visit to Ole Miss’ Blues Archive was a testament to the vision of archival curators: to make cultural histories and materials available to everyone. All year round, Greg shares his time and knowledge with blues scholars, filmmakers and fans alike. He never once rolled his eyes at our naïve questions, and never insinuated that our interest in vinyl was narrow. What he offered was a glimpse into a system that favors a broad perspective and an appreciation for the work that bridges the gap between mythical performers and the physical remnants of their legacies. 

---Jonathan Shifflett