Happy 60th Anniversary, Arhoolie!

In this season of abundant music, I wanted to draw your attention toward something quite special and quite unique. Sixty years ago, Chris Strachwitz founded a record label to celebrate authentic folk music and blues. The label’s first release remains a personal favorite: Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster, recorded in rural Texas and released in 1961.

It’s wonderful that the story continues to this day. Even better that there is a free (please donate) documentary featuring the history and lots and lots of really terrific performances by and in memory of Arhoolie Records artists. Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying “Morning Train” by The Campbell Brothers band–so much fun to see this spectacular rendition recorded simply and so effectively. (It begins at 1:28:40 on the YouTube video.)

Man, this is great stuff! Taj Mahal opens with a Mance Lipscomb tune, and that’s followed by a rocking Ry Cooder version of a track from Big Joe Williams Tough Times, an album he remembers buying (his father hated it). The song is “Sloppy Drunk.”

Some of the best music here comes from the label’s dedication to Mexican music. Arhoolie released several albums by Lydia Mendoza, remembered here with a fresh and impassioned La Marisoul, backed up by Max Baca, whose own band, Los Texmaniacs updates a song recorded by Flaco Jimenez, who recorded for Arhoolie. (Jimenez “was introduced to the outside world by Ry Cooder–everything is connected!) “Un Mojado Sin Licencia (A Wetbaack Without a License)” is sung first by Jimenez, then by Los Texmaniacs, and both are terrific.

What am I missing? There’s Cajun music with BeauSoleil, several members of the Treme, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons (singing a Lightnin’ Hopkins song), a story by the Hungarian Csôkolom, blues star Charlie Musselwhite (who used to earn money on the side by delivering records for Chris). You might know Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ruthie Foster, or Barbie Dane, but you’ll know them after you watch this documentary–and you’ll not soon forget them.

And then, and at last in the documentary, there’s Mississippi Fred MacDowell, celebrated by Bonnie Raitt. She offers a big hug and thank you to Chris, then sings and plays a lovely version of MacDowell’s “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Kokomo Blues.” Gorgeous. So great!

Hosted by American Routes radio host Nick Spitzer, the documentary was released on Thursday, December 10. It’s nearly two hours long. I loved every minute of it. UPDATE: Unfortunately, it’s no longer available online.

Akin to the Internet, circa 1920

One version of our story begins in 1874, midway between Cleveland and Buffalo, about 20 miles inland from Lake Erie, on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. Another version begins a half-century earlier, in 1826, in a town called Millbury, just south of Worcester, Massachusetts. The third takes shape in 1904 in Iowa and Nebraska, in part because small towns could now be reached by the railroads out of Chicago.

Here’s what happened.

“In an age when most Americans had acquired only a grade school education,” two educators who were involved with Sunday schools “recognized the power of education to elevate, enlarge and enrich lives.” They were Reverend John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who had become Secretary of the Sunday School Union, and Lewis Miller, a former teacher who became a businessman (farm machinery) who served as the Superintendent of Sunday School and at his church and President of the Board of Education in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Together, on the pretty shore of Lake Chautauqua, they put together a conference for 2,500 Sunday school teachers for two weeks during the summer of 1874, mostly to listen to lectures and seminars about religion. When they did it again the following year, they added music from the Tennesseans, who sang plantation songs from the American South, and non-religious lecturers, notably President Ulysses S. Grant (he had been a former parishioner at Miller’s church in Illinois). A year later, there were lectures about chemistry, geology, and astronomy.

When I visited Chautauqua in 2014, I wrote about the experience. If I had stayed the full nine-week season in 2019, I would have attended lectures by public radio’s Krista Tippett and Ira Glass; Middlebury College President Laurie L. Patton; comedians David Steinberg and Lewis Black; author and activist Bill McKibben; writer and author James Fallows; author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes Dan Egan. I would have gone to concerts featuring Judy Collins, Madeleine Peyroux, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Diana Ross, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; and a lot of vocal and chamber groups whose names are unfamiliar. I would sit in on each morning’s lecture/sermon by a notable Chaplain, watched performances of several operas (The Barber of Seville, and Figaro), and just walked along the beautiful shore. If you’d like to imagine what you would have done, every season since 2007, follow this link and enjoy. They are now planning their 2021 summer season. And they’ve introduced an online version that I’ll write about in the future; it’s called Chautauqua Assembly.

Yes, it’s amazing that this bit of 1870s culture remains vibrant and remarkably successful 150 years after it began, but that’s only part of our story.

Now, let’s jump back to the late 1820s and 1830s–where the roots of today’s public radio reside (GBH began just ten years later). Somewhat similar to today’s TEDTalks, the Lyceum circuit provided lecturers to more than 3,000 theaters and public spaces all over the country. There were big stars on the circuit: Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and other U.S. Presidents, and lots of lesser-knowns. But there was a problem. No air conditioning. No climate control for hot indoor spaces during the summer–so the Lyceum circuit was, mostly, a wintertime activity. Until one day…

Keith Vauter, who managed western states and territories for a booking agency that supplied the Lyceum Circuit with talent, decided to try a new approach. The Chautauqua concept in upstate New York had inspired summer chautauquas in other places. He figured he could book his talent during the summer, and expand his business. His first attempt–in 1904–failed because the logistics of moving so many performers to so many locations was just too expensive. As Vauter improved the logistics and came up with a way for local communities to guarantee the cost of their own chautauqua, the concept took off. Borrowing ideas from traveling circuses, vaudeville, and theater troupes, they devised what became a very popular idea: the traveling chautauqua. At least until 1929, when a combination of talking motion pictures and the Depression more-or-less ended the fun. For about 25 years, traveling Chautauqua “served to provide small towns with a deeper sense of self, community, nation, the world, and God. They spanned the silent movie era, the Progressive Age, and the transportation shift from horse-and-buggy to automobile.”

There is great wisdom in the chautauqua movement, and in the Lyceum movement, and in their intermingled roots of what has since become radio, television, some of the Internet, some of the entertainment industry, and more. When I started to become curious, I found two extraordinary experts who knew the culture and the whole story. The first was Harry P. Harrison, who was among the first “platform superintendents” for the new Chautauqua circuit way back in 1903. He wrote, or dictated, a book to co-author Karl Detzer, a professional writer; it’s called Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua (published in 1958; I found an autographed copy for $3 in a used bookstore). The second is newer, written by a college professor who worked with music students in summer Chautauqua for many years. It’s called The Traveling Chautauqua, and the author is Roger E. Barrows. The material quoted in this article comes from that book.

So: what was it like, going to a tent chautauqua for a week in the 1920s?

From Missouri’s Joplin Globe: The most famous Chautauqua speaker was the founder of Temple University, Russell Conwell. Conwell is said to have given his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,150 times between 1882 and 1925. Much in the spirit of self-improvement found in chautauquas, Conwell emphasized that developing his talents and skills is what made a man successful — or diamonds could be found in one’s own backyard. He and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan were two of the most sought-after speakers.”

Harrison tells stories about the many performers who helped make his career. Barrows breaks it down by type of performer, provides many more pictures, and also includes excerpts from their scripts.

“Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sweeps onto the stage. She is a large woman whose presence dominates the platform. Her rich voice, with its wide range…begins with the spring aria from the Saint-Saens opera, Samson and Delilah.” (“When the movement began in 1874, all music was live.”) “To the perpetual spinning sounds of the piano, Madame Schumann-Heink becomes Gretchen at the spinning wheel, expressing her mounting heartache as she comes to realize the emptiness of Faust’s promises…Schubert’s art song travels from the Austrian metropolis of Vienna to the small towns of Texas and Ohio…The artist would later recount how, in the midst of her signing, she could hear the mooing of cows…”

Bohumir Kyrl, who had played with Sousa, conducted his own popular band and became a star performing on cornet. College girls, on an adventure for the summer, would sing classical, art, and popular songs. The Jubilee Singers (the Fisk University group was one of several) would “harmonize a cappella;” “they had heard tales of slavery from their parents’ laps, and…had personal experiences with racism, (as they expressed) the “anguish and sorrow of the original singers.” There were authentic Indian princesses who performed on piano, sang songs, and shared legends of their people. The Raweis were Native New Zealanders on tour through the American hinterlands. At a time when actors were not welcome in God-fearing small towns, Lucille Adams was an “interpreter,” also called a “reader,” who read and spoke expressively, but didn’t quite “act.” In time, the circuit tried a Shakespearean acting troupe led by Ben Greet, a legitimate Shakespearean actor, and they became popular, famous, and well-traveled, introducing Shakespeare’s work to audiences who had never seen anything quite like it. Eugene Laurent was a popular magician on the circuit.

There were cooking lessons, many lecturers who specialized in a loving life at home, and plenty of preachers. Billy Sunday was a former professional baseball player who converted to evangelical Christianity and became one of its most famous spokespeople. Lots of souls were saved in the chautauqua tents, of lives transformed. Many religions were represented; Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation helped non-Jews understand his religion.

One of the most famous speakers relied upon religion with a more old-time flavor, not only for his tremendous success on the circuit but also as the basis for three runs for U.S. President–William Jennings Bryan, at the time, one of the best-known American citizens. (You’ll recall his name and presence from the Scopes Trial and the play, Inherit the Wind). Reformer Jane Addams was on the circuit in 1909 and 1919. Women’s suffrage was a hot topic on the circuit, too. Jeanette Rankin often spoke about that–she being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

From 1909 to 1912, Peter MacQueen talked about his adventures hunting for big game with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. Around the same time, Frederick A. Cook spoke–more than 350 times–and claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole (Peary was second). Booker T. Washington spoke about progress through education at chautauquas around 1914, and a few years earlier, Florence Mayrick talked about her life in an English prison. When the chautauaqua was in town, everyone was elevated, educated, and thrilled. Truly, this was something special in towns where not much special happened very often.

And then, it was over. This huge chunk of American education for adults, and for the entire family, just went away. Radio took its place with an even wider variety of education, religion, entertainment and more. And then, television, and then, the internet.

The best way to experience a chautauqua is to buy a ticket for several days, or longer, for the original that still runs in New York State. The second best, which may be pretty darned good, is to find yourself a local chautauqua like the one that the Wythe Arts Council runs in Wytheville, Virginia, or the weekend festival in Madison, Indiana, or the one that feels intentionally old-fashioned in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, an old B&O Railroad town and former resort that was, in the day, home to an original Chautauqua traveling show. As soon as things open up again, they’re on my list–and if you know of any others, please add them to the comments below.

AND–for even more fun–check this out! It’s an industry trade magazine from June 1922–and it’s chock full of advertisements, news stories, photographs, listings of booking agents, and so much more. The magazine is called Lyceum Magazine: For the Lyceum and the Chautauqua.

The Constitution Song

Excellent work by an old friend and his creative team. The Constitution Song is the first project for Tublius™, an initiative by Peter Shane to popularize the history and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution through online photographic, video, musical, and prose presentations.

Please take a few minutes to watch, learn about the Constitution, and its vital importance. Then, share.

We will make progress in November if everyone adds their voice today.

Thankfully, there is a website that comes complete with the lyrics and explanations. Sure wish I had something similar for Hamilton! For example…

Add your voice!

Add your voice!

Add your voice

To the Constitution Song!

Americans whipped the British and secured their independence.

  • The American Revolution was fought between 1775 and 1783. The colonies declared their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.
  • That didn’t guarantee a country fit for their descendants.

The states at first agreed to just a loose confederation.

  • The first version of the United States of America operated under an agreement among the states called, “The Articles of Confederation,” written in 1777 and ratified in 1781. It described the union as a “league of friendship” among sovereign states. The Articles authorized a one-House Congress to conduct foreign policy, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, Congress lacked the power either to raise taxes or to regulate commerce. There was no separate executive branch to enforce the law, and Congress could create no courts other than admiralty courts.

They didn’t have the unity it takes to forge a nation.

So four years after wartime,

  • The American Revolution is generally dated from 1775, with the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, until 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the Constitutional Convention took place in 1787. The Battle of Yorktown, the decisive last battle of the war, was actually fought from September 29 to October 19, 1781. With the help of the French, George Washington was able to lay siege to the army of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, eventually surrounding them with artillery until Cornwallis was forced to surrender. It took fifteen months, however, to agree on all treaty provisions, in part because the American alliance with France and the French alliance with Spain meant that a full armistice required Britain to reach acceptable terms with all three countries.

Philly saw a secret meeting

  • Following a navigation dispute with Maryland, Virginia called for representatives of all the states to convene at Annapolis on September 11, 1786. Only five states showed up, however, and so, as suggested in a report drafted by Alexander Hamilton, they wound up recommending a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia to consider potential improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Philadelphia delegates were fearful that, given the precarious state of the Confederation, premature publicity of tentative proposals might doom the Convention to failure and discourage the delegates from speaking freely and even changing their minds as discussions proceeded. They decided to close the doors to the public and agreed to a pledge of secrecy, which apparently was all but entirely kept.

Of men who knew without a change, their freedom would be fleeting.

Their government was feeble. It needed a solution.

In sixteen weeks, they hammered out a U.S. Constitution.

  • The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

(and so it continues…)

Watch the video. It’s fun! And the guy you’ll be learning from, well, he’s among the best there is.

An Ordinary Interview with Mandy Patinkin

I’ve been a fan since he performed Ché in Evita, certainly since he brought Georges Seurat to life in Sunday in the Park with George. It’s wonderful to be a fan of Mandy Patinkin because he’s talented and smart and heimish, a real person who also happens to be an actor and a singer. The Canadian radio program Q heard on CBC radio (and on some public radio stations in the U.S.). The interview covers concepts about religion and science, family, philosophy, friendship, storytelling, family, and imagination. Not your usual showbiz Q&A, but much more a quiet conversation between friends. A half-hour well-spent.

Just in case the word is unfamiliar, heimish, also hamish, is a Yiddish word that feels homey and comfortable, probably derived from a description of “the old country,” but nowadays, closer to friendly and just comfortable being himself while bringing others into the conversation as equals.

 

An Absolute Joy

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png‘Tis the season for annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, a magnificent oratorio notable for catchy melodies, high drama, and extreme reverence. It feels great to sit in a concert hall and listen to music composed in 1741–and it feels even better to stand up and sing along. The British novelist Jonathan Keates recaps the compelling story of Handel, oratorios, and the era’s version of what becomes show business in a 150-page book called Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece. It’s a wonderful starting place for a holiday adventure through what is variously called “early music” or “baroque classical music.”

I stumbled into the world of Henry Purcell, William Byrd, Josquin, Lassus, Monteverdi, and their contemporary counterparts, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and James MacMillan by watching free YouTube videos and listening to CDs by a wonderful choral group called The Sixteen led by the remarkable Harry Christophers. I would certainly apply the term, “an absolute joy” to the 4-and-a-half minute YouTube video “Monteverdi Vespers / Apollo’s Fire” from 1610. It’s played by a pair of orchestras–a small string group and a small brass group tied together with a continuo section consisting of a lute, an early keyboard, and a harp–and a choir that performs with beauty, grace and virtuosity.Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png

I mentioned that I found this music rather by accident. Truth be told, when I started building an LP library, baroque music was, well, very inexpensive. I could buy the records, in fine condition, for about $3 each (as opposed to about $5 for other classical LPS, $10 for the jazz LPs I wanted, and more for the rock/pop recordings). So I bought a lot of them, figuring I would discard what I did not like. I loved it all, and now, I’ve got a problem with available shelf space. But I did not buy any music by The Sixteen because the material is not available on LP.

If I was just beginning to listen today, I would probably begin with a 40 track sampler entitled 40: The Anniversary Album

The number 40 refers to the age of The Sixteen–they began with a concert performance in May, 1979. The music on this 2-CD set reaches back much further–over 600 years. It’s an ideal holiday gift–for those who still listen to CDs in their home or car. (It’s also available on iTunes, etc.)

If you listen with your heart, it’s easy to fall in love. I would begin by darkening the room, and playing the Handel Coronation Anthems on a video screen connected to a good pair of loudspeakers. This performance, from the BBC’s popular PROMS, bursts into large-scale choral energy with wonderful conducting (fun to watch Harry Christophers at his best) and beautiful instrumental work. The CD is even better because the sound quality is extraordinary (true for all of their work, on their CORO label), and because there’s twice as much music.

While we’re on Handel… one of the newest recordings by The Sixteen is an opera called Acis and Galatea. It’s not a big opera–and you can watch the opera with its five singers and small instrumental ensemble to sense each individual musician’s magic. Watch the video promo, listen to Harry explain what they are doing and why, and you’ll want to buy the 2-CD set for the holidays as well.

It’s not all Handel and Monteverdi, of course. I loved a collection called The Earth Resounds featuring earlier music from three composers who started in Flanders: Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532-1594), Josquin Desprez (c.1452-1521) and Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512 or so). Brumel worked as a church musician who wrote, notably, The Earthquake Mass, a truly moving experience in every sense. It’s difficult for me to imagine listening to music that was composed around the time of Christopher Columbus–and thoroughly enjoying the works as fresh, warm and winning here in the 21st century.

You’ll get a similar set of time and place by watching this video of Henry Purcell’s “Welcome Songs”–but the time is the latter half of the 1600s and the place is England. Once again, the video is tied into CDs, several that you’ll find on the CORO website.

The Deer’s Cry is a good starting place to experience sacred choral music, past and present. Begin with the short video on YouTube, then graduate to the hour-plus CD with its centerpiece, Miserere nostri by William Byrd (1540-1623) with help from another well-known composer whose work remains popular, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), known today for Spem in alium, a choral work you’ll find by several artists in record stores and on YouTube. The title of the CD comes from a work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935). It is stunning.

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.14.19 PM.pngSpem in alium is the final entry in a concert on YouTube that also features two other Tallis works, as well as compositions by Robert Carver and Robert Ramsey. The sound and performance are enormously affecting and well worth a good long, quiet listen. (The video  tallies 119,000 views–far more than most in this category.)

There are so many other CDs that I have already heard–and so many more than I wish to hear–but allow me to mention several other recommendations by contemporary composers: Stabat Mater by contemporary composer James MacMillan; a collection by Edmund Rubbra and another called Ikon of Light with works by John Tavener. In this video, Harry Christophers connects the dots between past and contemporary work.

To this awe-inspiring stack of listening for the holidays and well into 2020, I would add the variety of Eton Choirbook legacy CDs–there are several, and they celebrate the Eton College Chapel in England.

I have a great deal more listening to do–and reading, too. I have yet to listen to The Sixteen’s version of Messiah–more Handel operas (now that I’ve discovered how The Sixteen sings them, I want to hear them all), more from their choral pilgrimage series, and I’m sure I will discover even more delights (and I do mean to use that word in its most literal sense).

Along the way, I plan to read–and have in my hands–a good thick, well-researched book about Baroque Music by John Walter Hill, and the volume I should probably read first Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.16.50 PM.pngRenaissance Music. So much music, so little time–but then, much of this music has been performed for half a millennium. Regardless of my pace, it will survive. Today, in the hands and hearts of Harry Christophers, and his peers including John Eliot Gardiner, and others, it may be fair to say that it thrives as never before. The secret: these magical musicians are more than that. They are teachers. And I am their most willing student.

A World of Music in Salisbury

If you haven’t tried the Lemon Chess Pie at Ugly Pie on Main Street in Salisbury, Maryland, it’s probably time that you do so. For me, it was a tough decision: the Peanut Butter & Jelly Chess Pie was a serious contender, but the lemon won out. And I happened to miss the Apple Crumb pie because, well, the shop was busy. There were almost 200,000 people visiting Salisbury for the weekend.

Ugly Pie is just next door to The Mad Hatter, a chef-owned restaurant with an adventurous bearing and locally sourced food. Had I known how good the restaurant was going to be, I would have eaten all of my meals there. As schedules allowed, I ate only two: Alice in Toast, an egg cloud (fluffy egg white [a very old food idea enjoying an Instagram comeback] with fresh bacon, avocado and a giant biscuit, and a beef bulgoki preceded by a wonderful, light, fresh crab soup (“most people buy a quart to take home–yesterday, we sold about ten gallons in all”–Chef Dan).

And who better as a dining companion than Mayor Jake Day, the former city council president who is extremely proud of his city’s recent progress. Day points out the old brick building where he started his career as a young architect, then talks about how his dream of rebuilding the old city is is coming true. The rebirth is more than physical. The turning point was Third Fridays, a monthly celebration that brought the community back downtown after a half century of staying away (for a look at the city that used to be, browse these historical photos of Salisbury).

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 4.15.12 PM.pngThe success of Third Fridays encouraged the city leaders to pursue a larger dream. They applied to serve as the host city for the National Folk Festival–a three-year commitment with a longer-term contractual responsibility. The National Council for Traditional Arts partners with the host city for three years, and then, the local city must continue a smaller-scale version of the festival for many more years. Last year, it rained, but about 100,000 music and craft fans showed up anyway. This year, the weather was perfect, the music was spectacular, the Salisbury doubled its festival attendance. The joint success was due, in part, to the wonderful vibe, but also to the presentation of one extremely high quality performance followed by another and another and far too many for any reasonable person to absorb in three days. I tried. And I’m writing this article while playing a sampler CD in the background, remembering how much great music I saw on stage, and how much I missed (next year is Salisbury’s third year, so the opportunity window remains open).

For much of the festival, there were acts on five stages scattered through the (walkable) city center. (And, every time I walked from the Community Stage to the PRMC Stage, I passed the newly-opened ice cream parlor in the renovated old Chesapeake Hotel, and every time, there was a line out the door and beyond).

tsponoc1-768x768We started out with an acoustic band out of Pittsburgh called Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć–five guys carrying on a native Balkan string band tradition with easily accessible music that dates back over 500 years. The instruments look and sound familiar (they resemble guitars, mandolins, etc.), but they’re local to the Balkans: the soprano prim, the alto brać, the ćelo, the bugarija and the berda. The band members learned Balkan music in their communities, and from their parents (for example, Mark, who plays brać, learned from his father, who runs the well-known and well-regarded Duquesne University Tamburitzans music group). It’s the kind of music that sounds just enough like familiar bluegrass and folk to feel comfortable for an audience new to Balkan styles, but the feeling that this music is part of my life runs deep. I suspect many people feel that way.

One of the good things about a festival is that performers do their acts more than once. We had hoped to see Sheila Kay Adams tell stories of her Appalachian childhood on Saturday morning, but we managed to see half her act on Sunday instead. She talked about her life as a child being brought up by well-intentioned religious leaders in the community, and explained that their odd combination of accents, mumbling, and dental insufficiencies allowed her to grow up without understanding a single word uttered by any of them.

Eddie-Cotton_PC-Corey-Solotorovsky-Vicksburg-Blues-Society_240-dpi-350x350AURELIO_3_PC-Richard-Holder_240-dpi-350x350The variety of things to do at a folk festival is striking, and provocative. We wandered from Appalachian storytelling to the juke joint electric guitar of Eddie Cotton, Jr., then to the Aurelio, who also plays electric guitar, but in a profoundly different style coming out of Central America. Specifically, Aurelio performs music from the Garifuna culture, found along the coast of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. It’s not every day that I’m exposed to this music; the immersive experience of loud guitar, deep kick drum, and a rocking rhythm took me to a place I’ve never been before. A different sort of transcendency shook me out of Sunday morning sleepiness (after a long Saturday night) as Cora Harvey Armstrong belted gospel favorites (she took requests from a very knowledgable audience) with backup from family members in her small band.Cora-Harvey-Armstrong-e1555534893164-350x350

Family plays an important role in traditional music. It’s not unusual to find siblings performing together, sometimes as part of a multigenerational act.

Jones-Benally-Family-Dancers_courtesy-of-artist_240-dpi-350x350We missed them onstage, but we spent an hour chatting with the Jones Benally Family Dancers, a Native American group. They call themselves Dine’–others call them Navajo (a useful comparison: people in Germany call themselves Deutsche, but others call them German). The dad–Berta Benally–has been dancing onstage for three-quarters of a century. He doesn’t know how old he is, but family members guess his age at about 90 years, give or take. He still does an amazing hoop dance, and other dances that he learned from his grandfather. His story, which I only began to learn, weaves through the history of “not being kidnapped to attend an Indian school” because his parents hid him away, joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and traveling to almost every country in the world as a dancer and performer and stage craft expert, and later performing as John Wayne’s stunt double in Hollywood. These days, Berta performs with his son and daughter (who have their own rock band that incorporates Dine’ traditions), and his granddaughters (who really wanted to go back to the hotel room to change out of their stage clothes so they could do their homework).

Ostensibly, the National Folk Festival is about musical performance (and craft, as below). That’s one way to look at what happened in Salisbury last weekend. There’s more to it, which is why the National Council for Traditional Arts does the work it does. Berta Benally, Aurelio Martinez, Theodore “Lòlò” Beauburn, Jr. (who dances and sings as the lead of a Haitian band, Boukman Eksperyans), Cora Harvey Armstrong out of Richmond, Virginia, Eddie Cotton, Jr. from Clinton, Mississippi, Rahim AlHaj (the Iraqi oud player from Albuquerque who I missed this time around)–they define the United States and its culture. They remind the crowd that not one of us–nearly all of the people who currently live in the United States–come from any one place. We come from so many places, it’s nearly impossible for any of us to make any meaningful list of our various family tributaries.

The exception might be the Benally family, but here, too, there’s an enormous global influence. The U.S. is a nation of rich contradictions–the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows became a place where Native American cultures were collected and celebrated, but these shows became far more popular in Europe than in the U.S. And of everyone who appeared at this particular festival, Berta Benally is probably the only one whose resume includes not only performances for the Queen of England, but also throughout South America, Europe, Asia. He’s certainly the only one who helped to open Honolulu’s first shopping mall, and performed regularly at the Rose Bowl Parade. Welcome to the United States of America, not quite his native land.

And then, there’s the crafts. This was a big music weekend, so I found myself attracted to Pete Ross. His display–there were more than a dozen interesting craft displays–focused on the making of the gourd banjo. The writer/historian Krisina Gaddy (K.R. Gaddy) joined us for a deep dive into the several strands of banjo history, including answers to my questions about origin in Africa, new information (for me) about the Dutch and Surinam, and serious questions about the sanitized history of the banjo making its way along White paths from England to Appalachia. I was sufficiently taken with the history lesson to visit her website, and to listen for an hour to a podcast that included performance and historical storytelling.

I suspect this is the point of the festival. I go, I eat, I listen to music, I come home feeling as though I might have learned something, and then, I spend time learning even more by visiting websites and listening to music. All because I decided to spend a weekend in a place I’d never been, Salisbury, Maryland. I shall return (next year!).

(Photos courtesy of the artists)

Eunice, Nina and Laiona

“White people had Judy Garland–we had Nina. God bless ya, baby!”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical – Written and Performed by Laiona Michelle – George Street Playhouse 1/27/19 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson© T Charles Erickson

Richard Pryor’s quote introduces a 4-CD box set, a concise summary of more than forty record albums, mostly in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s story parallels the evolution of race consciousness and rights during that period. In fact, it’s a very good story, the kind of story that deserves a proper stage show to feature both the music, the struggles, the era, and a remarkable performer that most people do not know very well.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea.

There are three names to know. The first is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, a talented girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 who never lost the child within her, for all of the good and the bad that may bring. The second is Nina Simone, a stage name built from the Spanish term for “little one” and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret. The third name is Laiona Michelle, a Broadway actress and singer who decided to write and star in a small stage show so the story and music of Nina Simone could be shared with a 21st century audience.

This is not a one-woman show, and that was a wise production decision. Instead, Laiona/Nina appears with her small jazz band (basically: piano, bass, drums) in an imaginative styling of a club set in the early and later 1960s (lighting and scenery are supportive and well-done).

Maybe in another time, the story would be a happy one. Watching the show, recently staged at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (on the Rutgers University campus), one wishes it could have been otherwise. Her regrets are our regrets. Waymon was a gifted classical pianist, clearly special from the age of three, who benefitted from a small town piano teacher who not only recognized her talent, but helped her get to the Juilliard School in New York City (the community raised the necessary funds). Sadly, we were deprived of her work on the classical side because Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music turned down her application, almost certainly as a result of the color of her skin (in 2003, just before her death, they offered an honorary degree). She was devastated.

And, she was resilient. Determined. Vastly talented. Capable of holding the stage at a time when this was not easy for a singer to do on her own. She had a sense of humor, too, and a sense of how to keep her career in motion despite indefensible obstacles. At the start of the stage show, Laiona begins to find her way and the audience becomes comfortable with her interpretation of Nina Simone. In time, despite the occasional subtle miss, she becomes Nina Simone–and everyone in the theater is on her side. It’s not easy to be Nina/Eunice; she struggles more than any person ought to struggle, but those were her times, and she wasn’t getting the kind of help that might be available nowadays (under the best of circumstances).

It’s striking to see just how much music, and Nina Simone, and our consciousness changed in a decade. Her earliest recordings, and her earliest hits, come from Broadway. For example, George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful,” Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” (which titles the stage show) are part of the repertoire. And they sit beside some hipper Broadway tunes such as Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good” and “Beautiful Land.” One favorite, not included in the stage show, goes back to the early days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, when songwriter-performer Bert Williams would perform his signature “Nobody” in blackface. The juxtaposition of this material against one of Simone’s best-known songs, “Mississippi Goddam” seems striking, but this composition, and many more of her original songs, also stand beside the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allen), and Holiday’s own “Tell Me More and Then Some.” Certainly, the first act’s closer, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is both a show stopper and a wonderfully sensitive reading of a song that doesn’t get much attention nowadays.

There is a lot of music in this show. Some of the above songs, some of Simone’s most popular songs, are not included in the stage show (it’s impossible to include everybody’s one favorite). (Laiona does an especially good job with one of my favorites, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and easily one of the best versions of the sometimes-yukky “My Way” I have ever heard). Still, there is an appropriate mix, the right songs to propel the story of Nina Simone’s progress from jazz/pop singer in the early 1960s to a fully aware, righteous Black woman and social activist later in the 1960s, and on through the 1990s and beyond. Her engagement in the Civil Rights movement leads to time in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Much of the time is difficult, and as she continues to perform, the dramatic story becomes emotional on two levels. There is the life of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who never quite left her childhood memories behind, and finds herself deeply disappointed by some of what has happened to her. And there is the life of a spectacularly talented dark-skinned singer who represents far more than herself, and tries to make things better, often against adversity. It’s not an easy story to hear because none of us did nearly enough to make things better, but the music soothes and eases the bad feelings. It’s a patent medicine, an elixir, a mode of storytelling that allows the story to progress without tearing our insides out.

As I write this article, I’m listening to the Four Women box set that recaps her work for Verve. I have a particular attachment to “Nobody,” which I mention again because I’ve just listened to it again, but as I browse the stage show’s song list, I realize that I have a particular connection to many of the songs. And not just the songs. The sense that this was a life that I should have known better, a body of work, an artist who deserves more of today’s stage than she has been allowed.

Here’s hoping we have not seen the last of Little Girl Blue by, and starring, Laiona Michelle. Here’s hoping Nina Simone finds her place in an off-Broadway theater for a spell, and then, here’s hoping she takes that show on the road so that everyone can experience, and remember, who Nina Simone was, and was she still matters.

A Fresh Look at Classical Music

When I write “classical music,” you probably think Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, or maybe Chopin, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. Bach died in 1750, Mozart in 1791, Beethoven in 1827, Chopin in 1849, Brahms in 1893, and Tchaikovsky in 1897. If you think in more modern terms, there’s Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971), and two musical buddies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (both d. 1990). Will we ever see another famous classical composer? Or is all of this old news, overtaken by the expense of orchestras, the greying (whiting?) of the audience, the popularity of crossover music or orchestras playing Star Wars in concert, or the popularity of song-based (as opposed to album-based) streaming services?9780520283152

Yes. But. Classical music has been dying for centuries. If you’re seeking the new Beethoven, you’re on the wrong path. If you’re wondering how new ideas and new technologies have energized and blurred the definition of classical music, I’ve got a book for you. It was recommended by Alex Ross, whose own book, The Rest Is Noise, is probably the best book about 20th century music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a journalist, formerly the contemporary music editor at both Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, so his background is solid.Tim begins After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 before the breaking of the 21st century, and manages to place music in the micro-context of the times: this is a history book filled with very recent history, covering just short of thirty years.

Some of the contemporary composers’ names may be familiar. John Adams writes instrumental music and operas; you may be familiar with Shaker Loops, or Nixon in China. John Luther Adams has become quite famous for Become Ocean. (I am curious about his music, and will likely devote a full article to his work next year.) Thomas Adès is a British composer who has become quite popular. John Corigliano is both a popular conductor and a composer, perhaps best known for his post-2001 tribute, Of Rage and Remembrance. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered a new approach to classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Reich’s experimentation with combinations of sounds and music influenced lots of 21st century musicians (his influence is so widespread, and so much a part of contemporary culture, many modern musicians don’t quite realize that their music ties back to his work). These legendary 20th century  innovators are roughly the same age–an astonishing 81/82 years old.

Henryk Gòrecki passed in 2010, but his Symphony 3, recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with vocals by Dawn Upshaw, has been a tremendous commercial success. Its appeal overlaps the work of Arvo Pärt, also in his eighties, whose contemplative recordings with ECM New Series, and other labels, resulted in the Vice article, “How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music.” This past weekend, The New York Times published a somewhat similar article about György Kurtág from Romania, who is now 92. He finally finished his first opera, based upon the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame.

Add John Tavener (d. 2013) to the list, too.

Obvious question: are all of the new classical composers dead, or in their 80s or 90s? Nah, they’re just the ones who have enjoyed the last gasps of the recorded compact disc format. And there isn’t an easy way to promote a streaming thing, so you’re going to need to look beyond records to learn about the next-gen classical music. Or read the good advice provided by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. For example…

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

There’s the Kronos Quartet, a popular group that has long experimented with modern classical compositions, often in combination with music from many different parts of the world. In 2015, they released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (another contemporary classical composer from the 20th century), but their catalog includes work with or by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Sigur Rós (Iceland), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), Witold Lutoslawski (Poland), the familiar Henryk Gòrecki (Poland–they play on several of his most popular recordings), and also Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Thelonius Monk.

There’s Mark Turnage, who wrote a provocative, but accessible, opera called Anna Nicole (Smith–a former Playboy model “equally notorious for her surgically enhanced body and her marriage to a a billionaire sixty-three years her senior”). According to Tim, Turnage is “a brash yet accessible talent.” It debuted at London’s Covent Garden with Led Zepellin’s John Paul Jones in the band.

We are just beginning Tim’s tour. As music becomes less place-based, in part due to technology and in part due to a desire to perform in new ways, he considers The Silk Road Ensemble’s concerts which “blend Western and non-Western, art and vernacular” as the musicians play traditional (native) and nontraditional instruments– it is “built on the principles of cultural exchange, learning and understanding… more like a jazz group than an orchestra).

Messing with the expected is central to new ways of thinking about music. For example,, “(Brian) Ferneyhough’s more recent music disrupts the pathways of memory, overloading, thwarting, or redirecting them. Incipits [1996], for violin and small ensemble, for example, is composed of several separate “beginnings,” which draw the listener into a set of expectations they must keep having to drop and reboot [a musical parallel to Italo Calvino’s novel, If one a winter’s night a traveler). Memory here is activated, only to wiped clean.”

I found the two sections about “Loss” and “Recovery” especially interesting. Loss introduces the work of John Luther Adams in connection with “evocations of the landscape, the English and Latin names of birds and plants, poems in two Native American languages…Adams has sought to render aspects of the Alaskan wildness, drawing attention to specific places and their need for protection.” (The work is a “quasi-opera” called Earth and the Great Weather.) In Recovery, he describes the work of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh which “identifies a space between past and present, traditional and contemporary, and Asian and Western…Because it exists in gaps–deliberately not fixed to anything, the music of Ali-Zadeh, Kanchelli, and other composers of the former Soviet Union proved able to slip between stylistic boundaries…”

Of course, I could go on, but my curiosity is now well ahead of my listening experience. I need to catch up, to slide away from emails and websites so I can spend more time attending to the music that is being made all around me. This is made somewhat more complicated by my current (and growing) interest in music that precedes Bach, Beethoven and the rest–as I begin an exploration of a remarkable early music group from England called The Sixteen, whose CDs should arrive any day now.

As I look forward, I also look back. Inevitably, I stumble into strong connections between the present, the future and the deep past. That’s what I love about music discovery.

And it is endless.

The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

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