Everybody’s an Ethnomusicologist

The practice of saving music before its lost

Alan Lomax (Image: Library of Congress)

For all our technology – and on some level because of it – we’re constantly in peril of losing integral scraps of our cultural heritage.

Whether it’s the indomitable need for condos and highways reducing old business districts to dust, or the march of some fashion telling us to throw off the familiar in favor of the fresh, our past is always under threat of disappearing. 

This is the present situation for wide swaths of music. Once upon a time, fledgling bands would pool their savings to create a physical product as a legacy of their time. But as music streaming pushes out all else, lots of music may be left behind, digitally inaccessible at a moment when convenience is king. If a song can’t be heard on the internet, how are you sure it exists? Where once there were gatekeepers, now nobody even knows where all the bodies are buried.

While YouTube provides an ersatz home for many orphaned tracks, it’s just a fraction of what’s been recorded but not digitized. What will become of all those classic homespun albums on small local labels ignored by majors before regional music scenes were plowed under in favor of a single, more readily-marketed national one?

There are earnest people trying to save our varied musical heritage in different ways at labels such as Omnivore, New West, Smog Veil, Fat Possum, Bible & Tire and Music Maker, like music lovers before them. Country music began in some part when traveling salesman A.P. Carter started collecting the old traditional songs heard on his travels to perform with his family. 

There was Alan Lomax who cataloged old folk and blues for the Archive of American Songs and later Folkways Recordings. Or part-time music critic/producer/music store employee Lenny Kaye whose classic Nuggets collection – which rescued many sixties garage rockers from history’s dustbin and contributed to the early sound of punk – began when he compiled a list of favorite obscure tracks for his boss.

Cheryl Pawelski has been working in this corner of the business for years, winning two Grammies assembling box sets/collections for the likes of Hank Williams, John Coltrane, Warren Zevon, Richard Thompson, The Beach Boys, The Band, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin and Wilco. 

“There’s an interdisciplinary nature to what I do – it’s everything from restoration and studio work to knowing how recording has worked throughout recorded history to design work, photo research, working with writers,” she says. “Every project is different; every project brings something new.”

Since 2010 she’s been working with Omnivore Recordings, which specializes in historic and lost releases. They’ve saved out-of-print records by major artists (Buck Owens, Laura Nyro, Little Richard, NRBQ), re-released (great) relative obscurities (The Rave-Ups, The Ethiopians, Unicorn), as well as other arcana such as Lone Justice’s 1983 demos before Jimmy Iovine ruined them or a collection of music from across Chip & Tony Kinman’s entire oeuvre (The Dils, Rank & File, Blackbird and Cowboy Nation) assembled after Tony’s passing. 



“I like to say I throw things into the future,” says Pawelski. “Because we’re living at a time where there’s this digital chasm: If it doesn’t get digitized, it’s gonna get left behind.”

Part of the challenge is you can’t release everything, simply due to monetary concerns. There’s a lot more intriguing albums out there than there is capacity to release them.

“There’s not a lot of labels still doing super deep dive catalog stuff. The majors do some of it, and then there’s some indies like us,” Pawelski says. “And it’s like it will be lost unless somebody turns their attention to it and actually spends the money to do at least the studio work, you know, forget about design and art and liner notes.”

Often the challenge isn’t just polishing up a master, but finding one or working out an alternative.

“I worked at New West for 17-18 years and there were lots of things that we wanted to do, where we couldn’t even find original master tapes,” says Peter Jesperson, one-time manager of The Replacements and co-founder of Twin/Tone Records. “We had to pull from the cleanest vinyl we could find and do the best we could to make it sound good.”

Another issue is that the connoisseurs and collectors often interested in old music also like it on vinyl, which creates additional challenges. There not enough vinyl capacity available, producing long lead times, adding to the cost and hence the risk to labels of getting stuck with unsold stock.

“If you’re a company like us, you kind of have to be everything to everybody,” she says. “For some bizarro reason, everybody wants everything on vinyl. Well, we can’t afford to make everything on vinyl. You know, everything doesn’t deserve to be on vinyl.”


AUDIO: Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint “Sign of the Cross”

Even if the music’s great and there’s a pedigree, sometimes the act’s too obscure. Jesperson remembers pitching Pawelski Lo and Behold, the 1972 third album of then-unreleased Bob Dylan songs by English band McGuinness Flint (featuring members of Manfred Mann and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers).

“It’s a tremendous record and one I just thought, ‘Oh, God, Cheryl is gonna love this idea,” says Jesperson. “She said, ‘I know those records. I love them too, but we can’t make it work.’”

For Music Maker Foundation’s Tim Duffy, the idea of saving the past goes beyond curation. A photographer, Duffy created Music Maker in 1994 to be more than just a label that was trying to preserve the indigenous music of the Carolinas. 

While studying folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, he stumbled across a pocket of lost Piedmont Blues pickers beginning with Guitar Gabriel, who like many aging blues artists suffered from a range of challenges. Duffy realized a normal label’s work of recording the music and helping to book shows was insufficient. 

“So I set up a nonprofit foundation with a sustenance program,” he says. “A lot of artists are living on $7000-$10,000 a year. Imagine that. So there’s food insecurity, medical insecurity, housing insecurity. So if we can help those needs with monthly grants for needed prescription, maybe do emergency grants to fix up a roof on the house; we give them a hand up not a handout. Then through our professional development program, we’ve issued close to over 200 releases and get the music recorded, documented and preserved so they can share it and make some money.

Duffy helped to midwife the Carolina Chocolate Drops when he connected some young musicians playing traditional music with wishboard and jug in local Triangle act Sankofa Strings with Piedmont Blues fiddler Joe Thompson. Duffy managed the band in the beginning and Music Maker released the Chocolate Drops’ 2006 debut Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind and 2008 live recording Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson before the band signed to major label imprint Nonesuch for 2010’s Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig

Music Maker continues to save artists and musics from obscurity though they’ve moved beyond Piedmont blues. They recently released discs by Fred Thomas, best known as James Brown’s bassist for 30 years, a live set by blues shredder Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, and Hendrix protege Herman Hitson. 


VIDEO: You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen

What Music Maker did for Piedmont Blues artists is not far from what Fat Possum did for Hill Country Blues artists R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford. Indeed, Duffy and Fat Possum’s Matthew Johnson are sort of flip sides of the same coin, forming within years of each other.

“We both looked at the situation in the same way in that that there was no place for these guys,” Duffy says. “I went the non-profit route. He went the rock route and and look what he did for R.L. Burnside. No one knew who R.L. Burnside was until now…. It’s changed the world, the records he’s made and that’s why I’m working with Bruce Watson now.”

Watson produced those seminal Fat Possum albums thanks to being in the right place at the right time.

“I was kind of just hanging out in Oxford, Mississippi, and back then not everybody had a recording studio, you know, in the computer,” Watson chuckles. “I had a big old place I was renting out in the middle of the country, and I put a recording studio in the house, a very modest setup, but  I was the only guy around who had any recording equipment. Matthew had started Fat Possum with another partner who didn’t last very long and they’d signed Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and the first session was the Junior Kimbrough session, and he just co called me and was like, hey will you come out here and record Junior Kimbrough? I was like, Sure, why not?

“I walked in and walked out three days later, a different person,” he says. “It totally, totally changed my life.”

Watson moved to Memphis and helped put together the Memphis Record Pressing, the first vinyl manufacturing plant built in American in forty years. He, Johnson and their other partners sold it to a Czech concern a few years ago, and Watson also invested early in Memphis real estate which together helped fund another recording studio. He’s also started the label Bible & Tire, after a sign he once saw. The son of a Church of Christ preacher – he’s developed a fascination for gospel music, acquiring the catalogs of several area gospel labels, which eventually led him to discover several sacred soul groups, such as the Dedicated Men of Zion, who Bible & Tire released in coordination with Music Maker.

“What prompted it was I met this pastor [Juan Shipp] who ran D-Vine Spirituals Records and we partnered in a label called Fine Spiritual Recordings. He recorded a lot of these Memphis gospel groups in the late 60s, early 70s. Probably put out 150 to 200 releases… He’s 84 or 85, and he’s still a DJ, has a weekly radio show where he plays sacred soul music,” Watson says. “I’m not a particularly religious fellow but I do believe that there was some kind of divine intervention that led me to do this label if that makes any sense.”



He notes how for many of these religious groups, the music has been handed down for generations, like original country and blues. These close-knit families teach their children to sing together in the style from the time they’re little, creating other worldly harmonies. Watson calls it soul music without the sex. 

“Some of this music in the smaller black churches in Memphis is really, really just powerful,” Watson says. “A lot of these congregations are not more than maybe 15 or 20 people, most of them usually family or people who live in the neighborhood. But the music is so immediate and moving. It’s real.” 

Watson’s not solved the back end of the “music business,” but he’s chosen not to sweat it. “I still haven’t figured out how to make money releasing sacred soul music,” he says, “but at the point in my career, I’m just kind of doing stuff I really enjoy.”

This is the nature of rescuing lost music – you aren’t necessarily going to get rich (unless maybe Robert Plant & Alison Krauss record an album for you). The reward is in doing something to honor those who dared and keep that memory alive. That’s what Smog Veil Records did for thirty years, documenting great music from Northeast Ohio before closing this time last year. Founder Frank Mauceri’s label concluded with an impressive undertaking, releasing a three-album box set culling tracks from unsung Cleveland musician Peter Laughner (Rocket from the Tombs, Dead Boys, Pere Ubu), capturing an obscure yet influential artist who drank himself into oblivion before he could make his proper mark, but not before he created some timeless music. 

Mauceri had recently moved from Chicago to the West Coast and felt on some level that his work was done. “Since we’ve reached a plateau, we decided it’s time to move on to new horizons and new challenges,” Mauceri told Cleveland public radio station WKSU last year, tacitly acknowledging both the financial challenges and still untapped treasure. “There’s certainly numerous recordings out there that are yet to be discovered. I’m hoping someone with a Cleveland connection steps in and takes up the mantle.”

In some way most of us are ethnomusicologists saving away scraps of music that define or shape our dreams, hopes and natures, and helping to ground us in our personal timeline. The present is a relentless master, but all over there are odd music lovers trying to storehouse bits and pieces of our wild and woolly past, such that successive generations can trace the lineages and discover artists unjustly neglected by fortune or fashion.

Like everything else these days, lots of cool stuff just slips thru the cracks, but take comfort in the idea that there are passionate believers preserving some gems you’ve yet to discover.




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