SA Issue 4: Ian Nagoski Interviews Dick Spottswood
“…there’s exciting music to be found in obscure places, and those are the discoveries I still live for.”
Dick Spottswood has been personally responsible for the continued life of thousands of performances of American music from the first half of the twentieth century. If you own any reissue collections of vernacular music from that era, there's a good chance that his name is somewhere in the credits. For more than 40 years, he has been publishing research and producing collections covering an incredibly diverse array of music, including blues, bluegrass, calypso, gospel, the music of immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Poland and the Ukraine, the musics of the Texas-Mexico region, Cuba, India, Portugal, China, and elsewhere.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1937 and raised just outside the district in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Spottswood joined an older generation of music enthusiasts when he was still an adolescent. During the 1950s,he was one of a group of record collectors who went searching for sound recordings that, although they were only two or three decades old at the time, were already forgotten, a process amounting to a pioneering music-salvage mission. He began to disseminate the fruits of his listening and interests to the public in the 1960s and by the 70s had acquired a vast knowledge of 78rpm era recordings of a broad range of music. His taste ran strongly in the direction of what he calls "down home" music, and he sought out recordings in any language that seemed to fit that label. He formalized his vision on a series of LPs produced for the Library of Congress and then produced his seven-volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942, which was published by the University of Indiana press in 1990 and has become an indispensible tool for anyone interested in any of the hundreds of thousands of non-English-language recordings made here during that half-century.
I first encountered his name through his writing on the backs of record jackets and in the booklets of CDs and noticed that it came up repeatedly in the writing of blues scholars and aficionados. (A chapter of guitarist John Fahey's book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life is given to a remembrance of a transformative musical experience as a result of his teenage friendship with Spottswood.) I met Spottswood in person more than a decade ago and since that time have paid close attention to his work. He is clearly someone who has given his life over to music, and he is a friendly and devoted evangelist for the music that moves him. I've been curious about his motivations and experiences in learning about and sharing music. He and the other collectors and self-taught musicologists in his circle have had a profound impact on America's idea of itself musically, and in speaking with him, I wanted to learn how that happened. - Ian Nagoski
Dick Spottswood and Ian Nagoski
Early Encounters with Jazz & Blues Record Collecting and Reissues:
“…all the little intricacies that apply to any form of collecting…”
IN: You have said that you had started collecting records by your early teens, is that correct?
DS: Well, it’s funny.--I sort of got the bug when I was a little child. I liked phonographs and their mechanisms and everything. Relatives and neighbors, when they learned that I liked early records, which I did when I first heard the sound of them; you know, the 1919, 1921 pop bands and singers… I was very undiscriminating, people would just pile their old records on me, and that was fun. I mean, nothing valuable ever came my way like that, but I sort of got used to that acoustic record sound and it was something I was very comfortable with probably by the time I was four or five years old.
IN: And you also had an experience hearing Bix Beiderbecke at your cousin’s place…
DS: Yes, I did. My cousin, who was actually in my father’s generation, although we were first cousins, was in college or just out of college then. It was around 1948. My family was visiting theirs in Pennsylvania, and she was playing these records on the phonograph. And the sound just sort of turned my head. I had never heard anything like that before. It was Bix Beiderbecke and probably the “Royal Garden Blues.” That sort of loose-limbed, quasi-Dixieland sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and I liked that right away. I went and looked at the album cover, where it said, “Jazz as it should be played,” and I couldn't have agreed more! This is when they were still selling records in four-pocket albums. This was Thanksgiving. I said, “I would like that for Christmas,” and what do you know? I got it.
IN: So, that was one of those Columbia or Brunswick four-disc albums?
DS: These were Columbia reissues that George Avakian, who’s still living, put out in 1939-1940 and those records stayed in print for a long time, probably at least through the late 40s, maybe even longer, but when I wanted it, they had to special order it.
IN: Now, my understanding is that those 4 disc albums are some of the first reissue projects that any labels undertook.
DS: Well, reissues are probably as old as the industry itself. Different performances might appear on multiple labels, but reissues of things that had archival value to the producers probably came along as early as the 1920s for classical music connoisseurs who wanted to hear rare performances from the early 1900s by departed opera singers. By the mid 1930s, the jazz fraternity was nostalgic for music that probably wasn’t even eight or ten years old by that time. You had Bob Haggart doing those wonderful arrangements of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong tunes from the mid 1920s for the Bob Crosby Bobcats in the mid 1930s. The music wasn't that old, but it was already collectible and seen as music of another era. In the mid 30s, collector labels like United Hot Clubs of America and the Hot Record Society started, and they provided that first generation of collectors with music that they could purchase by going to the specialty stores or by mailing away to get copies of them. The distribution was limited but the music was there if you knew how to get at it.
IN: So, coincident with the rise of jazz as the main popular music in America in the 30s and 40s, reissues are being made available to the collector.
DS: That happened in 1935-6 at the beginning of the swing era. Benny Goodman and bands like that had made arranged big band jazz very popular. The ripples it created encouraged people to seek out some of the music behind the more famous music. The people that liked Fletcher Henderson’s charts for Benny Goodman’s band in 1936 and 1937 enjoyed hearing the earlier records by Henderson’s own orchestra, which, in my not-so-humble opinion, were invariably superior. Goodman versions of “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” “China Boy,” “ King Porter Stomp” and “When Dreams Come True” were essentially revival efforts. Collectors who sought out the originals got something at least as interesting and perhaps even more so.
IN: So, there was a kind of established generation of collectors and people who were interested in the origins of jazz and the popular music that they liked, and sometimes they were getting to hear music that was even better than music that they had immediate access to by listening to the old records.
DS: Yeah, there certainly was a league of people that had begun to collect records. Some of them, I guess, were astute enough to buy the records when they were new. Quite frequently they were undergraduate students at places like Yale and Princeton, which seemed to have larger jazz followings then most of the rest of the country, and that population sort of grew in the 1930s.
IN: You had said that it was just because you liked these old records, and they were hard to get, that you started digging around and trying to find them in person. You were just in your very early teens or just an adolescent when you started. 12, 13 years old?
DS: Yeah, that’s right. When I learned that Salvation Army and the Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul and places like that had stocks of old records, why, I would go and look through them to see what I could find. It usually wasn’t anything very much, and whatever I found was not in great condition, but I guess you could say it was training (laughs). At least I was learning what sorts of records looked promising and which were less so. [For instance], something is more likely to be good if it’s on a certain label as opposed to another one - you know, all the little intricacies that apply to any form of collecting – books, art, or what-have-you.
IN: Sure, you’ve got to have a baseline to operate from to know what might be good.
DS: Yeah, and you have to be aware of the prevailing winds and shifting trends and all of that sort of thing, too. In those days, you know, you couldn’t have given away a Son House record. (laughs)
IN: That’s something I definitely want to talk about: the established orthodoxy that was already in place among collectors. There was a sense that King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton - that’s grail stuff. As collectors in 1947 or something, we all agree that those are good records, and we’re going to start competing for those pretty much right away. Was that the situation?
DS: It was blues-based music with strong emotional content, and people liked it enough to collect it. By the late 40s, dubbed bootleg reissues became available in some of those specialty shops, and they introduced me to music that was otherwise inaccessible. If you had the patience, the money and the good fortune, maybe you could get copies of those records on original labels. And, if you were really lucky, they wouldn’t be worn to death. So, it was possible to collect at all levels, and people still do that.
IN: Who were the first record collectors that you met?
DS: The ones that I met around Washington were mostly people like Bill Wesley, who liked sweet bands and a little bit of mid 30s swing jazz. Bless his heart, he found me a Skip James record once, and he just gave it to me! He had no use for it whatsoever. Howard Waters, who lived in Silver Spring who was, in the 50s and 60s, I guess the world’s reigning authority on Jack Teagarden and he talked me out of some rare records I should have kept. Bob Travis was an Antioch graduate who had hi-fi components with a big speaker and he was hip to a lot of things, especially contemporary jazz. He was interested in Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck and those people, and I liked some of that too. He was someone that exposed me to a lot of music that I hadn’t heard before. There were other people like that, but these are the ones that come to mind. They were 5 to 10 years older than I was. I was the youngest guy doing that sort of thing.
IN: Do you remember the first time you went out on a trip to another part of town, knocking on people’s doors or specifically going out to look for records in places other than charity shops?
DS: Howard Waters, I remember, took me out to do that once and, for some reason, we went down around Georgetown and Glover Park, knocking on doors and things. I think he was being kind. He just wanted to let me see what the whole process was; how you looked at records, and offered to pay people for them, and how you made spot judgments about what was good and what wasn’t. Of course, we didn’t turn up anything very good but, later on, a fellow named Charlie Huber, who is still living in Connecticut, I believe, took me. Quite often John Fahey came along on those trips. We would go down to Tidewater, Virginia and a lot of places like that. I’m not sure if we ever got as far as North Carolina, but we would just go knocking on doors, mostly in rundown sections of town where people were less likely to have thrown things away. This was in an era when 78s were just beginning to give way to 45 rpm as the popular speed, so there weren’t any instances of people throwing the 78s away because they were obsolete. Those trips turned out to be a lot better. I didn’t get records in great condition. I left behind records, especially in the Tidewater [VA] area where those old black gospel quartets like the Norfolk Quartet and other organizations like that were so prevalent. I left those records behind because they weren’t “jazzy” enough, a decision I came to regret that later on. I wasn’t picking up foreign language records in those days either but, as I said earlier, sometimes the prevailing winds changed direction. At least I learned about their musical worth before it was too late.
IN: Well, nobody was picking those up at the time though. I mean, was anybody collecting gospel quartets or foreign language records?
DS: No. You couldn’t give them away. But, that didn’t mean they weren’t inherently worthy and, had I bothered to stop and listen to any of those records, I would’ve gone, “Ohhhhh, I see!” (laughs)
IN: How did your family, your parents, react to this process of going out and looking for records? Just bemusement and tolerance or…
DS: They thought I was wasting time, but they also thought it was a harmless waste of time. Me and my family weren't at odds but we were out of sync on many things. My parents were Republicans. I was a Democrat. My parents never picked up a book, and I couldn’t put one down. I used to listen to radio programs, especially the urban crime stuff, incessantly by the time I was five and six years old, and they couldn’t stand that either. (laughs) So, I probably should have been born to different parents.
IN: I get a good picture of what you mean. How did you feel about knocking on people’s doors and talking to people you don’t know? Was that comfortable for you as a teenager?
DS: Well, I had someone older to go along and mentor me, so embarrassment I might have felt quickly became part of the routine. And, later on, I went out and did that sort of that thing on my own. It was like I was selling Fuller brushes, except that I was buying old records; knocking on the door and saying, “how are you today? I was wondering if you have any old records hidden back in the closet or in the attic or outdoors in the shed, because I’m looking for whatever I can find.” I would pay people for records, and most of the time it wasn’t too terribly hard. The hard part was looking through worn out records of no interest...standard popular music, or the beat up rhythm n’ blues records…you know, things that were very commonplace at the time and of no collecting interest. It wasn’t easy to find the records I liked best, even 50 or 60 years ago.
IN: Were you asking questions to the people that you were meeting about their lives or where they had gotten the records from or what the records meant to them at all, or were you just kind of “snatching and grabbing”?
DS: If people were inclined to be friendly, I would love to have conversations and things like that. I did that on any number of occasions. You know how it is, sometimes you connect with certain people and you form little temporary friendships. I mean, I was a white kid in black homes a lot and this was in the rigidly segregated South. I don’t know how welcome I was in those situations, or if I was perceived as a person in a position of power invading somebody’s home but I wasn’t too aware of that at the time. And, in a sense, those issues hadn’t come up yet, because we hadn’t really begun to confront things like Rosa Parks, George Wallace, James Meredith, Medgar Evers and others who had polarizing effects yet. Those issues were still asleep for awhile and would wake up a little bit later on. In the 50s I think all of us were convinced that we were making racial progress and we thought all progress was linear. We found out different later on.
IN: In the mid 50s’, I think, the first blues reissues were starting to be made on microgroove records. There’s a 10” on X Records and a handful of things on Folkways and labels like that. Were you aware of those? Were you following those as well and paying attention to that process?
IN: When were the first reissues of Mississippi folks - delta stuff and …
DS: The first blues reissues also came out in the late 1930s, and they were by a person who was way larger-than-life named Bessie Smith. As far as I’m concerned, she sang the blues up there on the par with the Mississippi delta heroes who became venerated in the rock n’ roll years. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and other vaudeville-based women were the collectible blues singers in those days.... Now, voice and guitar blues, is this what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the blues?
DS: Okay, I don’t accept that, of course, but…(laughs)
IN: Okay (laughs)
DS: Well, there were two pretty serious reissues of that music that both showed up around 1954. One was on the Riverside label, and it had records by Big Bill Broonzy, by King Solomon Hill, and Bobby Grant and Buddy Boy Hawkins. I liked that set, and I played it a lot. Another one was the X label reissue with out-takes of recorded Victor performances by Jim Jackson and Furry Lewis and Frank Stokes and Ishmon Bracey. Another X record featured Bessie Tucker and Ida Mae Mack, who were recorded in Memphis in 1928 and had a wonderful deep south sound. Finally there was a Memphis Jug Band set and it was probably the one I enjoyed most.
IN: What I’m seeing is that there’s this trajectory of record collecting and reissuing that starts with classical collectors and listeners who then operate almost autonomously, almost as a separate strata of collector from collectors of jazz and blues.
DS: Yeah, the interest in classical music and jazz very rarely overlapped.
IN: And then collecting of jazz starts which leads to the collecting of blues just by way of context and aesthetics…
DS: The whole blues thing came about because of a collector group who called themselves “New York mafia.” These are the people that you read about in that Yazoo Records conversation between me, Rich Nevins and Pete Whelan [included in the booklet to the Return of the Stuff That Dreams are Made of CD set--ed.] about Jim McKune, Bernie Klatzko and Nick Perls and people like that. McKune, first and foremost, held out those voice and guitar records from Arkansas/ Louisiana/Mississippi as being holy grail objects. He was apparently a very convincing guy who would sort of back you into a corner and talk you to death. I only met him once or twice, and I don’t remember anything quite that severe but, apparently, he was fairly evangelical and would argue the worth of that music as being superior to just about anything else on the planet. And a lot of the other people whose names I mentioned bought into that. This happens contemporaneously with the post-Elvis Presley rise in guitar-driven rock n’ roll. Prior to Presley, of course, the tenor saxophone had guided rhythm n’ blues. Guitars were there too, but people like Elmore James, Guitar Slim and Muddy Waters were secondary figures in rhythm n’ blues, behind Wynonie Harris, Little Richard, Ruth Brown and the doo-wop groups. As white kids adopted guitars [in order] to be like Presley, then that music became very appealing because it was played on guitars. And when they started to discover Elmore [James] and Muddy [Waters] and people like that, they could relate it to those old Paramount records, and so those records, beginning around 1958 or 1959, began to acquire enormous interest and value. Sam Charters' book The Country Blues in 1959 anointed Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, but he also zeroed in on people like Big Bill, Lonnie Johnson and Washboard Sam who were of secondary interest to rock driven collectors. I think the trajectory of rock n’ roll and the interest delta blues records had a great deal in common.
IN: Were you aware of people, other than the New York mafia, who were evangelical or believed strongly about…
DS: I bought into that to some extent, not that I put other music in the background, because I've always liked jazz, country and classical music too. I must’ve been 12 or 13 years old when I first heard Blind Willie Johnson, who deeply impressed me. Jazz people liked him, and they liked Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and a few others even before the McKunes and Klatzkos. In the 1960s the Rolling Stones and other Brits who followed played music derived from Muddy Waters and Son House that was successfully exported to the US and strengthened a connection between white rock and delta blues that was already evident with Elvis Presley.
IN: It’s interesting to me that this seemingly arbitrary quality of one musician being picked up as important or a certain label gaining cache is a matter of a single person having had a particular good experience listening to that and then having played it for his friends, and his friends going “yeah, you’re right, that is really great”. And, then somehow it spreads from there into the culture generally.
DS: Sure, and all you have to do is be fairly persuasive. I’ve probably done some of that. If I haven’t influenced some people’s taste by the things I’ve written, the reissues and the radio programming and the stuff I’ve done all these years, I’ve probably just been spinning my wheels. Yeah, every one of those collectors that did something besides just collecting I think had some influence. As you acquired some experience you acquired some gravitas along with it, I guess. (laughs)
“He was as good as anyone else, and no one’s ever heard of him.”
IN: We’ve come up to about 1954 and the X Records reissues, the LP on Riverside, and Sam Charters’ Country Blues book and record. In between, Origin Jazz Library starts up, I guess about 1959 or thereabouts. Were you in touch with him?
DS: That’s right. That’s Pete Whelan. I think Charlie Huber introduced us, probably, back around 1957 or so. Maybe even earlier. I might have been in high school still. But he and I lived in different cities, so it was never like we hung out or anything. Even now, even though we both live in the state of Florida, he’s about a day’s drive from me. (laughs)
IN: What was your reaction to the Origin Jazz Library records when they came out?
DS: Well, I knew about them before they happened, and I even had some informal discussions with Pete about what might or might not be on them. I was unhappy at the sound quality on those records, because he was having a guy remaster the 78s on quarter track tape. They were trying to do all of that on the cheap, because none of them had much money. But, it was that evangelical thing and, of course, the collectors wanting to put their collections out there so they could be admired for what they owned. “I collect, therefore I am.”
IN: Do you feel like that was a lot of the motivation with some of these projects? That it was not so much a work of sharing or love, but a certain amount of the gratification of …
DS: Well, one doesn’t preclude the other, does it?
IN: No, but neither does it preclude a certain amount of frustration and disgust or anger with the world that this music isn’t more widely available.
DS: Well, it was available enough. It wasn’t as though the audiences for those first X records and the Origin Jazz Libraries were all that extensive. Some who preferred more sophisticated music were understandably impatient with the amateurish level of old-time, down and dirty, down home performances--they certainly were an acquired taste. Paramount records acquired a certain cachet simply because of the label they were published on, and I thought we tended to elevate the stature of certain performers who wouldn’t have been so interesting had they been on less collectible labels. (laughs)
IN: You started Piedmont Records around 1963 when you were in your mid twenties. Was that a direct result of having come in contact with Mississippi John Hurt then?
DS: Sure was.
IN: So it really was a venue for him, initially.
DS: And, there was a bit of naivete on my part, not foreseeing what kind of an impact he would make and thinking that Louisa (my wife then) and I could handle the business by ourselves. In hindsight we should have just tried to get a major label contract for John. But it wasn’t clear, at first, that he was going to be the sensation that he was so, at the very beginning at least, it was appropriate to put the music out on a smaller label. We had to produce it on a budget, and the austere covers and medium grade pressings tend to reveal that. We were very price conscious when we had to invest money into putting out those records.
IN: Did you have a sense that what you were doing would be profitable or was it more an act of sharing and enthusiasm?
DS: Well, one doesn't preclude the other--we just hoped we weren’t going to lose money.
IN: Right, but you did some other things…
DS: The previous year, in 1962, over a school break we recorded Fred McDowell in his home in Como, Mississippi, and we were still sitting on those tapes, without a clue as to what we ought to be doing. I completed library school that year and started a new job. The sessions we did were wonderful but I had no idea of how to go about getting a record made, and we never published them until Rounder Records and [folklorist and Flyright producer] Bruce Bastin in England wanted to put those records out and I think that’s how it worked out. The same collection was released simultaneously in England and America. That happened with Frank Hovington, too, but not until the 1970s. Bruce and I recorded him in 1975 at home. He was as good as anyone else but no one wanted to hear unamplified blues guitar by then and to this day his record is virtually unknown.
IN: I just saw the Frank Hovington record in a shop in Asheville, NC, and I took it up to the counter and I told the guy, “have you listened to this thing? You should really listen to this thing? It’s really good.” Frank Hovington was in Delaware, right?
DS: Yeah, he was in Frederica, Delaware. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania. The last place you’d look for old time down south blues, but Bruce Bastin thinks it’s just about the best record he ever made. [Flyright Records 522 – ed.]
IN: So, you were just out of college when you were putting records on your Piedmont label.
DS: That was 1963. I had graduated three years earlier and had gone to the army. 1963 was also the year I came down with Crohn’s disease, which is another reason I should’ve gotten out of the music biz, but I had no idea how sick I was going to be, because I had been in very robust health up until that time, and I was totally unprepared. It nearly killed me. And, at a very critical time when I should have been out there waving the flag and beating the drum for Piedmont, going up to New York when John Hurt went to appeared on the Johnny Carson show. Neither Carson nor Hurt understood where each other was coming from and the result was a disaster. I was furious at myself for not being there but I was too sick to travel. There were other issues too., if I had the chance to do Piedmont all over again, I wouldn’t. Absolutely would not.
IN: What was the worst part of it?
DS: The worst part of it was that it was a real struggle to take care of all the business aspects of it. I was very good at selecting material, at recording material or getting good performances out of people, but when it came time to sign contracts and to order supplies and to pay bills and to bother distributors who had gotten records and then wouldn’t pay for them, I was worse than an amateur at that kind of thing. Louisa was so much better at that sort of thing, but she wasn’t temperamentally suited to it either. We were hoping for a better experience and we got out of it as soon as we could.
IN: What were you doing for money at the time?
DS: At the time, we were living on very little. We didn’t earn much, and we weren’t spending much. I was too sick to hold a steady job, so I didn’t. I was in and out of the hospital during those years. If it hadn’t been for health insurance, we would have been up a creek without a paddle. Crohn's disabled me for five long years But it was episodic; sometimes I felt fine but on other days the physical pain was nearly beyond endurance. . When things got serious I took steroids, which help you feel great even if you're staring death down.. I have problems today because my skeletal structure has deteriorated. But steroids helped me survive and I'm grateful for them.
IN: You did make, at the time, a couple of documentary records, apart from the ones you made of John Hurt and Rev. Wilkins. There’s a ragtime record, which I’ve never seen a copy of…that was your own work?
DS: Well, it was an attempt to rediscover ragtime on recordings produced in the ragtime era. Lots of that early music is now back in print but in 1963 it was something no one had done before.
I was interested in some of the so-called “coon songs” and military band readings of rags. We had several Berliner records of banjo players that we didn’t copy at the right speed. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to play those at 78---70 RPM would have been more like it! (laughs) So, that was an interesting record, but not really a definitive one. The best of those Piedmont records, by far, was the one by Rev. Robert Wilkins, and we couldn’t give it away. It’s been out of print ever since then. People have promised to put it out again and claim to have master tapes, but I don’t know anything about it. I’ve rewritten the notes twice, and the record has never come out. I have a dub copy on CD here, and I’m sure glad that I do. I program it [on www.Bluegrasscountry.org] on a fairly regular basis, but it’s the only way anybody ever gets to hear that record. Wilkins was a blues singer, recorded in the 20s who turned to the Church of God in Christ in the 30s and managed to keep as much of his music as possible and convert it to scriptural/evangelical use. When I recorded him in 1964, he was probably twice as good as he had been on those records from the 1920s. His voice had matured and his musical skills had too.. He played with so much fire and so much conviction. That’s where that song, “The Prodigal Son,” came from that Mick Jagger covered with the Rolling Stones.
IN: You told me a story once about that song - that the Rolling Stones had to pay a member of Wilkins’ family, is that correct?
DS: Well, they had to pay the publisher of the song, Wynwood Music. Wynwood is Pete Kuykendall, my close personal friend, my bluegrass buddy. (We haven’t even talked about hillbilly music yet, because that’s a big part of my story, too, as was…and still is…Pete Kuykendall.) Pete had a little informal studio, and we would record things for Piedmont and sometimes do disc transfers over there for the reissues and Pete would prepare everything for mastering and I would let Wynwood have publishing rights. We were kind of scratching each others' backs at the time. The Wilkins songs were all copyrighted by him and published by Wynwood, so all it took was a little letter on Wynwood stationery citing the copyright registration number sent to London to whoever the appropriate person was, and nobody argued. The Rolling Stones record that had originally featured a cover photo of a scruffy men’s room and the wall graffiti were the names of the songs and the people who had written the songs. Among them, the songs on the graffiti wall, was “The Prodigal Son” by the Rev. Robert Wilkins, so they didn’t have really much place to hide.
IN: The documentary records that you made for Piedmont, the ragtime one and the there was a 12 string one that you made as well, were those the first attempts you made at documentary writing and presentation? Were you showing something as a collection that had a particular narrative or had you already been writing about bluegrass?
DS: No, I hadn’t written a thing about bluegrass at that point. That didn’t happen until we started [the magazine] Bluegrass Unlimited three years later. That’s a whole different story. The documentary records were just basically things that I did in my spare time. They weren’t very carefully documented. I wrote up informal notes based on knowledge I had at the time. My mother did the illustrations for one of those covers. I think the ragtime cover was a charcoal thing that she did. Because all the folkies had 12 string guitars, I thought “let’s let the folkies hear what real 12 string guitar music sounds like.” There were all these neat people from down there in Georgia like George Carter, Barbecue Bob and Willie McTell. And, of course, there was Leadbelly, who was the one everyone knew. Even Lydia Mendoza over in Houston, whom I had never heard of at the time. If I had known about Lydia,she would have gone on that record too! (laughs)
IN: Do you think so? At the time, do you think your ears would have been open enough that you would have recognized that she should be included?
DS: I hope so. Maybe I would have needed a little coaching. I don’t know. I don’t remember my mindset that perfectly, but certainly when I first heard Lydia Mendoza, ten years later, I was ready for that. She sounded wonderful! (laughs) It was that voice and guitar. She was a strong musician and an even stronger singer.
“…finding ways to find out things that I didn’t know.”
IN: I haven’t asked you at all about your education yet. Your undergraduate degree is in philosophy.
DS: I was very much of a non-practical person back in my undergraduate days, and I really didn’t feel like doing vocational studies when I was at school. I was, like every other lost soul in the post-war generation in the 1950s, wanting to see what made life tick and what made me tick and to see if there were greater truths that I needed to learn and would profit by if I ever understood them.
IN: Were there particular philosophers you were attracted to then? What do you think you were doing?
DS: At the time, those Jean-Paul Sartre existentialist books were popular and the deeper ones by people like Martin Heidegger in Germany. Although we all had to come to terms with his acceptance of Nazism in the 30s, he was still someone to contend with. I had friends that loved Beat poetry, and I liked that too. There were other friends who liked early music, 14th and 12th century music, and I liked that too. I was a dilettante then but I would do it again. Those were good years.
IN: And, as a dreamer who was not a particularly practical person, what made you go from there to getting a Masters degree in Library Science?
DS: Well, I liked books. I liked literature. I liked being around them, and I enjoyed learning ways to find out things that I didn’t know. At the time my classmates and I thought some of it was an insult to our intelligence but, over the years, I must say that that library training has served me better than anything else I studied, because I know where to go to find out things.
IN: Did you have a strong organizational sense before then?
DS: I'm not sure I have one now. It was better after I went to library school than it was before, but I had worked in the University of Maryland undergraduate library for most of the time I was studying there,. I knew the reference collection pretty well and what the reference books did. People would come to the reference disc and ask me questions, and I’d have to act just like I was somebody with an advanced degree. So I thought to myself, “well, here’s a way I can pick up a graduate degree, and it will only cost me a year or so of my time. I’ve got nothing to lose.”. So, I was a working librarian until John Hurt came on the scene and I really thought that he and the record operation needed whatever time I could spare. A few months later I contracted Crohn's disease, and things were touch and go as my condition got worse.
Later on I went back to library work and I was glad I did. It wasn’t in the service of old-time music or anything, but I certainly accomplished a a fair amount and I really liked the public service aspect. I got up every day looking forward to going to work when I was working in the libraries. It was like playing in the sandbox and more fun than making records ever was. At 5:00 I could put it aside, go home and do whatever else I wanted. When you’re working for yourself, by yourself, there's always work to be done, night and day.
IN: Then you worked as a librarian from about the ages of 30 to 37. You were pretty well recovered from Crohn’s disease at that point?
DS: Not quite. I gradually lost my entire large intestine. In 1968, they figured it wasn’t ever going to function again and they gave me a colostomy bag to wear for the rest of my life. I went back to work, and the library helped me heal. I signed on with the Montgomery County libraries in Maryland in ’67, had the last surgery in ’68, and I worked there until 1974 when the Library of Congress hired me to do that bicentennial collection [of 15 LPs], which I was initially reluctant to do, because I was having such a good time working in the public libraries. I was building up retirement, and there was medical insurance. The Library of Congress appointment was grant funded and only good for a couple of years. But Archie Green and a couple of other people talked me into it, and it turned out to have been a very good thing to do. I lost the job security, but that was made up for in ever so many ways. It really turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I haven’t had a desk job since then.
IN: Was the Library of Congress grant something you applied for?
DS: The Library received the grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a 15-disc collection of American folk music. I don’t know why they decided they wanted to hire me for that job, because I wasn’t a folkie or an academic folklorist. I was glad to have the job but I politely declined when John Jacob Niles asked to be included. Later on a Sing Out! reviewer lambasted the set because it didn't have any folk singers. Instead I turned to blues, gospel, country and immigrant music produced by working people who drew on traditional songs and styles instead of soi-disant folk singers. The Library's folk arts people didn't like the set very much and they quietly let it go out of print, where it remains. Used copies today sell for $30-$100.
IN: At that point you made the decision to educate yourself about foreign language records being made in America - immigrant records, Native American records, Hawaiian records. Why did you think at that point that that was something that needed to be included? I can’t think of anyone else at the time who was thinking in that direction. You mentioned Pekka Gronow and an article he wrote that opened your ears a little bit. Were there records you’d heard? What was the impulse?
DS: He wrote an article in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly journal around 1972, basically making the case that people who enjoyed hearing backwoods hillbilly music were missing out on some things by not paying attention to early records in the foreign language series. I made a mental note of that. When I represented the Library, I able to visit the archives of Columbia, Victor, Edison and Decca/MCA Records and get permission to reissue things from pressings that I owned or the library had from other public and private collections. Columbia was especially forthcoming--all I had to do was give them a master number and they would make me a pressing. Quite a few recordings on the Folk Music in America collection were previously undocumented performances by Sylvester Weaver and Lonnie Johnson, along with a few people whose existence had been forgotten. Many were being reissued for the first time and some were issued for the first time ever. I also turned to Columbia's foreign series and included whatever I could that was musically interesting and fit the overall scheme, sorting the music as much by topi as style and presenting it in what I hoped was a new and creative way. And the foreign language element and the unissued records seemed to me to be a very good bifurcated way to go rather than just assemble a collection of “greatest hits.”
IN: Were you aware of anyone else thinking along those lines in terms of the whole of American music that included…
DS: Including foreign language records on a Library of Congress collection commemorating the American Bicentennial was a no-brainer and I was pleased to start that ball rolling. The more I heard and learned about that East European, oriental, Caribbean and other styles, the more they grew on me. I’ve been more influential in doing that than probably anything else, because I've had the opportunity to assemble more archival sets since then. I've been able to draw attention to many rewarding unfamiliar music styles and inspire others like you to collect, mediate and present more good music that still can surprise and delight me.
IN: That said, in the past 30 years or so there hasn’t been very much written about the Library of Congress set, and it hasn’t been reissued. I’m continuously astounded and dismayed at how little known it is among my peers. Why has it not continued to live?
DS: As I said a few minutes ago, I didn’t really design that set for folkies. I probably should have thought about that at the start and either walked away from the project or thought more about making something more accessible to them. Instead I saw it as a great way to assemble and document music that represented a broader spectrum of tastes and I included music many folk singers really don’t like. Successive administrators in the Archive of Folk Song have ignored the records. The Library has organized little conferences 3-4 times over the years to talk about a reissue but invariably, they lose interest. In their hearts they'd rather hear Burl Ives. Since then, a lot of the material has appeared in different places, so the set has enjoyed an indirect influence. Many or even most of the best of those performances are out there somewhere, if not in the context I created for them
IN: I hear what you’re saying, but I think the records themselves demonstrate a kind of vision of America, and a vision of what’s good about any kind of loamy, underlying folk culture in America, which hasn’t been said the same way by anyone else. There’s something unique and new about that particular juxtaposition of stuff.
DS: Well, the subtext was that there’s exciting music to be found in obscure places, and those are the discoveries I still live for.
IN: Yeah, and a lot of that stuff, for example the Polish string bands and things, those records are still not heavily collected, even though they’re great.
DS: Those are really strong records.
IN: You can still turn those records up in vast quantities and very cheaply.
DS: Oh, it sounds like I should make a trip and go through your dupes!
IN: How do you feel about the records as objects?
DS: They’re a necessary evil. If I didn’t need to have records I wouldn’t. If the cloud really worked, and I could use it like some sort of universal jukebox and get prime/ quality sound by just dropping a nickel in and downloading or accessing the music in some way or another, man, I’d get rid of these 78s tomorrow! (laughs) But they’re still the supreme conveyor and preserver of the content, aren’t they?
IN: In preparing to talk with you, I looked at your Desert Island Discs that you put together for Joel Slotkinoff and
DS: Did I do that? I’d forgotten that.
IN: Yeah, you made a list of your 11 favorite records. So I just went through and googled each one, and I found that 6 out of the 11 are not available online. 5 of them you can hear any time of the day or night, but 6 of them you can’t hear on the internet. There’s the conception now, that the internet is this megamind, that it contains everything that anyone ever did, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t even contain all of the best stuff, not even the best stuff from 75 years ago…
DS: No, much less a hundred years ago. Last fall, I helped Bear Family [Records] in Germany access 24 performances by Lovey’s Trinidad String Band, all recorded in 1912. They wanted to mark the centenary of the records. I was using transfers from the original metals that are still at SONY, so the sound was really terrific. Even so, Christian Zwarg in Germany who handled the digital mastering managed to make them sound even better, almost like electric records. They were brilliant. So, yeah, even though stuff is really old doesn’t mean that it’s not going to sound pretty good if it’s given half a chance. YouTube is a wonderful way to access performances to see what they’re like. But to hear them in their full glory, you still have to get as close to the original sound as possible, and the Loveys record did that. It got to the original sound and then it upped the ante even from that. It’s even better than the original sound!
IN: So, once the Library of Congress project was done, that gave you the “in” with the sort of information that you needed to begin your Ethnic Music on Records discography?
DS: Yeah, one led to the other.
IN: You saw at that time that something was missing from the general knowledge base and that if you compiled a discography of US-made foreign language records, new work could be done from that.
DS: I wanted to create a road map to show was actually put on records, because if you know what was made and, with luck, where you might access it, then it’s easier to study it, reissue it, listen to it and recycle it for others the way the jazz people began to do with 1920s records in the 1930s. That was my motivation. I was able to get several grants. In 1978 the National Endowment for the Arts made an initial grant for research and in 1980 the National Endowment for the Humanities was looking for a major bibliographic project to computerize because it was in the early days of computerized bibliography and cataloging and they were looking to fund a demonstration project. They and I were thinking in terms of a huge database that could be converted into book form, which is how it turned out.
IN: What’s happening with that collection of data now? There’s an online project in the works?
DS: Yes, the University of Illinois published it in seven volumes in 1990. I recently sent them a book on Blue Sky Boys and got a note today saying they like it, so they will publish the Blue Sky Boys book. Once I get a few other things out of the way, I will return to editing and updating EMOR, short for Ethnic Music on Records, and Illinois wants to publish it online, which will be terrific. That’s where discographies belong, because you can do word searches that way, along with periodic updates. EMOR is in seven volumes but two volumes were indexes that won't be needed any more.
IN: We’re looking at a long period of time on it. What resources did you have when you started?
DS: It was during an era between ’78 and ’90, a transformative era for computers and computer applications. There were no PCs when the Library's Tim Saffell wrote a program for me. When I wanted to work on the discography I had to travel to the Library's Automated Systems office and use a keyboard there to connect to their mainframe computer.
IN: So, apart from the archives of Columbia/CBS, Victor, and MCA that you had access to while you were working on the Library of Congress set, what were the other resources that you had or tried to find in order to work on the EMOR project?
DS: Those were the main things. When I had been going to the record companies on behalf of Folk Music in America, I discovered a great deal of written documentation about early recording activities preserved in various ways by the different major labels. I a lot of material I wanted to research, even information about blues, hillbilly and jazz that hadn't been previously uncovered. I was even finding entire record sessions that had been overlooked in previous discographies and I wanted an excuse to someday, somewhere, somehow spend a lot of time poring over these files. In preparing EMOR, I concentrated on foreign language records, of course, but I made notes about other recordings, too, and I was able to help with updating other discographies. I made notes on 5”x8” index cards and carried them around in shoe boxes.
IN: Did you have to search out collectors of ethnic records to find stuff out about the smaller, independent labels?
DS: Yes, and I created the widest collector network I could. One of the most helpful people to me was the late Bill Bryant, a collector who was really interested in the incunabula period of recordings across the board - the cylinder companies of the 1890s and some of the very earliest disc operations like Berliner, Leeds & Catlin, and Zon-O-Phone that were active before 1905. A lot of those early discs and cylinders were relevant to EMOR and Bill made sure I got everything possible. People in Europe helped out with information about European reissues from American masters. EMOR omits material recorded there because American sources didn't keep any documentation on records that didn't originate with them. I did document whatever I could find that fit within the scope of my inquiry, whether it was made in the United States or one of its possessions. We ruled the Philippines at the time, and so I listed all the records I could find from Manila. I had to skip the ones from Cuba, because that wasn’t one of our territories, but Puerto Rico was, so those records listed in there, too. I was looking for excuses to be inclusive. I dropped things that I wished, later on, that I hadn’t, especially the Spanish language studio pop productions because those files were so immense. Those records weren’t produced or handled or marketed in the same way as the music was for the European and Middle Eastern immigrants in America. The Spanish language market covered the entire hemisphere, including all the Americas, so there was a great deal more of it. I tended to drop a lot of stuff by studio performers because I didn't have the time or energy for it and I didn't think there was much interest. I was wrong, and.now I’m trying to go back and pick some of that up again (laughs) while putting the new version of the discography together.
IN: Do you know anybody who’s keeping track of any of the discs that were recorded overseas and issued in the U.S.?
DS: Recorded overseas? Sure, but US releases or lack thereof isn't a starting point or criterion for European discography. Pekka Gronow, Karleric Liliedahl and others began producing Scandinavian language works in the 1970s and others have done comparable works.since then.
IN: A lot of those records may not exist overseas.
DS: Yeah, but a lot of them do. That’s not really my area of expertise, and so I can’t say anything intelligent to you by way of a response other than that the world wars didn’t destroy all the records by a long shot. There are still a lot of people in Europe and some other places that are trying to do discographies with existing resources to the best of their ability.
What’s really gone is any documentation for early twentieth century Far Eastern records. A great deal of recording in China, the Philippines, Japan and Southeast Asia was done by American companies in the early days and later on by local studios and pressing plants of Victor and Columbia and so forth. But documentation that was sent to home offices in the United States is gone. A lot of South American information has vanished too. Without documentation you don’t know what records were made, except for surviving copies in collections.
Back to the Record Business:
“What, are you trying to win a bet or something?”
IN: The 1980s-90s, overlapping with the period that you were working on EMOR, was also a really productive time in a lot of other reissue work that you had started doing: writing notes for a lot of projects and producing a variety of stories that you had come across and seemed to feel were compelling or worth telling - particular artists that you were attracted to and areas that you seemed to like. A lot of that work got done for small, independent companies like Rounder.
DS: Well, one big advantage I had in doing that work, that I no longer have, is that I lived just a few miles down south of [sound restorer] Jack Towers. We both lived just off of New Hampshire Avenue a few miles apart, and Jack, of course, was doing world class sound restoration in those days, and he was someone who was willing to undertake anything that I brought to him. That included a CD of 1900s-1920s Cantonese music, a bagpipe anthology, some accordion music… Nothing was too far out for him. He was always very welcoming, and I got a lot of projects done that way.
IN: So, you were able to basically take him a stack of records and come away with a finished master that could be issued.
DS: That’s about right.
IN: Well, that’s a good position to be in. I’m lucky enough myself now that I can do a lot of sound restoration work (not as well as him) on my own at home. It’s a lot of time spent at, like, three in the morning, with me doing notch filtering and taking out small noises by hand. So the change in the technology has been good for people who want to see more of this stuff produced, but the situation then …
DS: Our most valuable technological tool was the razor blade.
IN: These projects were all being done pretty much for independent companies, right? You never worked with Sony, did you?
DS: No, SONY had no interest in the sort of thing I was doing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did do some major label reissues. I did a ragtime collection for RCA. I did a Cuban set with Cristobal Diaz for Columbia. Michael Brooks was instrumental in both of those. Every once in a while, I’d get a nod from a major label, but they were more interested in recycling greatest hits.
IN: I think it’s been almost 20 years since a major label has done a package of early 20th century music…
DS: I couldn’t tell you that.
IN: It’s been a very long time. Sony were doing the Roots and Blues series on Columbia in the early 90s, but there’s been nothing of the sort done for ages and ages now.
DS: Well, they’re in no position to do anything adventurous, because their overhead is so high that they have to put together whatever they can that makes a profit for them, and that gets harder and harder because you can only reissue the same material so often. How many ways can you repackage Robert Johnson, much less Doris Day?
IN: Or, Bob Dylan for that matter.
IN: Or Miles Davis
DS: Yeah, the whole thing is name recognition, and people aren’t going to go for collections of Polish village music or Cantonese opera.
IN: And yet, Sony are the ones that own the rights to the vast majority of this music, and it seems to me that the small, independent labels that are putting this stuff back out are basically doing Research and Development for them.
DS: They’re the ones that are producing the material. What so-called stakeholder rights consist of is a matter of ongoing discussion. People have always felt free to bootleg music of minor interest, knowing that records labels are either ignorant of what they’re doing. Even if they know, they don’t particularly care because it’s not profitable music.. Record companies are not always sympathetic to the collector’s dilemma. They don’t want to be nagged by people who want to hear priceless recordings with a sales potential of five thousand copies. Back to the Lovey’s Trinidadian String Band project again , I wonder if Columbia, seeing how well produced and annotated it was, and how glorious the sound is, and how it’s picked up a lot of buzz, might have thought, “hm, we should have done that.” But if somebody came to Columbia and said, “I’d like to do a collection of hundred-year-old string band records ,” the guy would have said “what, are you trying to win a bet or something?” (laughs) Conceptually, a project like that is alien to people in business to make a profit, and I understand that totally. I should add that the Lovey record was not bootlegged. Richard Weize in Germany licenses hat he reissues and has comfortable ongoing relationships with rights owners, so that’s legit. Since he didn’t bootleg it, he was able to get access to transfers from surviving metal parts and the record was that much better. If you haven’t heard that record, really, Irecommend it highly, even though I recognize I have a conflict of interest in saying that. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised
IN: I’d love to, but Bear Family Records tend to be out of my paygrade…
DS: This one fully merits its price. Maybe you can arrange to hear it. Maybe someone you know has it. It’s one to look out for, and sometimes used copies turn up. They get less expensive. There are copies on Amazon now at 50% less than list price, so it’s not unaffordable.
IN: You’ve been working with Bear Family for the past five for ten years, I guess?
DS: Yeah, beginning with the Charlie Monroe set in 2006, a very interesting adventure. At the time it was probably the longest study I ever made of a single artist. It was fun gathering information, images, documents and everything ,and discovering how useful online resources were in accumulating all that. The project really kind of surprised everybody, me included, because it turned out so well. Then Wade Mainer asked me to write a biography while he was still living, Julia and the family all pitched in and we managed to do that. I saw online today there’s a nice picture of Julia, Wade and me at a book signing ceremony at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan in 2010. He was 104 by then but he signed books and had a wonderful time talking to his fans. Last year (2012) I finished a Bailes Brothers set for Bear Family. The Blue Sky Boys is another project I hope will be out before the year's up.. Moving to Florida in 2004 seems to have somehow made me more productive.
IN: There’s not much to distract you there, I guess.
DS: I certainly need some distraction because I’m not a hermit by inclination or temperament, but I do have to become eremitic sometimes to get things done. You try to strike a balance.
One thing we haven’t discussed is the programming I’ve done on WAMU since 1967. I think one of the most important things that I’ve been able to do is keeping early music out there on a regular broadcast, placing it in context and have it enjoyed by people who wouldn't be exposed to it otherwise. I’ve been able to continue the programming from Florida and I'm most grateful to available technology and colleagues from WAMU who've made it possible.
Radio, Place, and Bluegrass:
“We all just grabbed onto hillbilly music like it was a life raft.”
IN: What do you hope to accomplish with the radio show? How do you think about its structure?
DS: Well that goes back to something we haven’t talked about, which is my affection for Hillbilly music that goes back to the early 1950s. In those days I was the only person I knew of that loved King Oliver and Bill Monroe in equal doses. I became fascinated with early hillbilly music when I heard the famous Harry Smith [An Anthology of American Folk Music] collection in the 1950s. At the time I though country music was nothing more than honky tonk hits on AM radio, so I was really captivated by music that sounded prehistoric in comparison. Then, at a high school party - I think I was a sophomore that year, probably 1953 - I heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on a stack of records at a teenage party in Chevy Chase. That music stopped me in my tracks! (laughs) It was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and even Harry Smith hadn't prepared me for that! Lester and Earl were like nothing I’d ever heard. It was on one of those old record players that dropped the 78s down on the turntable one at a time, without breaking any if you were lucky. So I memorized their names and went to see what I could about finding some of their records. I met Mike Seeger around that time, and he was already paying attention to that style of hillbilly music. It wasn’t called bluegrass then. He recommended a lot of names. I learned of Bill Monroe from him the first time, along with Jim and Jesse and all those people whose names became household. A year later I went with Pete Kuykendall, Lamar Grier and a few other people to uncover a huge stash of small label records in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was over Christmas break in 1955. We drove down icy roads in Tennessee and Virginia in a 1948 Buick . I don’t know how it was that we didn’t slide off the road on the ice sometimes. We loaded up that car with as many records as we could without shoving any of us passengers out and drove all the way back to Washington with them. The car was full of Charlie and Bill Monroe and little small labels: Rich-R-Tone, Tennessee, Republic, Blue Ridge and more. People still talk about that haul! (laughs). It was really where I became acquainted with bluegrass and the art of collecting it Pete Kuykendall knew how to do that already. He mentored me in that direction. I loved the music, so I was a quick study.
When I could afford them, I would buy new Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and Stanley Brothers records. Those were some of the highlights of my music education when I was still in high school and college. I can sing most of the words to those songs to this day. In 1966, the Stanley Brothers came to Washington and nobody knew about it. All of the bluegrass people were unaware of it until they had come and gone. We were resolved to never let that happen again, so we started a little newsletter to circulate to friends and whomever, and we decided that maybe we’d put an article or a record review or something in it. That was July 1966, and it was the first issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.-- we took the name from Blues Unlimited, a magazine in England. I was the unpaid editor for four years. In ’66 -67, I thought, “Well, you can’t hear that music on the radio very much, and in Washington there are certainly a lot of people that like it, but the Country stations won’t play it. I wonder what would happen if I went to a public radio station (or, at that time, “educational radio”), and asked them to program some bluegrass.” To my utter amazement, they said, “Okay!” (laughs) It aired on WAMU-FM the first Sunday in July of 1967, July 2, and I’ve been there, with some time off for good behavior, ever since.
IN: What was the audience like for those initial shows?
DS: There were no means of polling listeners or anything in those days. If there were Arbitrons orother radio surveys, they didn’t encompass educational radio. The signal wasn’t that strong, at least initially. It later got to be very strong, now that it’s the most popular station in the Washington area. Bluesgrass was and still is exceptionally popular in the mid-Atlantic states and everyone who enjoyed it became a listener. Now, of course, it’s carried on the internet around the world, so I attract listeners in unlikely places.. I enjoy doing it, the feedback is rewarding and it’s sort of kept me relevant, even though I'm far away from Washington. I feel like I still have a stake in the cultural life there by playing obsolete music every week..
IN: It is lucky that you fell in love with a music that was from a place that wasn’t all that far from home, and where there was a community of people where the musicians would come through and play. Virginia, Maryland, and up through Pennsylvania….
DS: They were much closer than that. D.C. was a very good bluegrass town from the early 50s onward. I used to go down to the Library of Congress on Friday nights where you could hear the Budapest String Quartet play music for a quarter. Then I’d walk a few blocks down Massachusetts Avenue to the Pine Tavern on the corner of 6th Street, Northwest to hear the other string quartet , Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys. Buzz Busby, Pete Pike, Scott Stoneman, Don Stover, they all rank highly in bluegrass history today. Mostly they played current Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe, Stanley, etc. tunes, which was certainly good enough for me. Later on, Benny Cain, Bill Harrell and others started bands and in 1957 the Country Gentlemen debuted. Their music was fresh, original, and it became the biggest single influence on the music's next generation. The Country Gentlemen in the 60s and the Seldom Scene in the 70s, they were the matrix for what was best in the music in those eras. I was lucky to live right amongst all of it.
IN: Bill Monroe was through there all the time, probably twice a year, I’ll bet.
DS: Bill came up there all the time. He sure did. He was rarely in D.C. proper, but you'd see him at New River Ranch in Maryland, Watermelon Park in Virginia or someplace you could get to by driving no more than an hour or two. We were really spoiled.
IN: Did the newsletter and the radio show give you the sense that you had a community - that there were people to share your love with?
DS: Oh, yeah. The newsletter took off right away. It was a magazine before we knew it. Dianne Sims and I started off printing it on a government surplus mimeograph machine, but it acquired a more polished look and we were publishing full color covers by 1970. By then I was too involved with other things to continue. Between one thing and the other, Bluegrass Unlimited became too demanding, and other people were willing to take it on. Finally Pete Kuykendall said, “I’m just going to quit my day job, and do this full time, and make money at it.” I said “yeah, sure,” but damned if he didn’t.do it! (laughs)
IN: You mentioned Mike Seeger, who’s also from around the same area as you….
DS: Sure, there were a bunch of us born in the middle- to late-1930s. None of us were from the country, and all of us deeply loved country music. Tom Gray, John Duffey, Pete Kuykendall, Warren Beatty, Bill Emerson, Lamar Grier, Garland Alderman, and people who that moved to Washington, like Buzz, his brother Wayne Busbice, Scott Stoneman, Hazel Dickens, Don Stover, Eddie Adcock and Charlie Waller..They were all people that had been born between, say, ’35 and ’42 and growing up and flourishing on the concrete in Washington. I don’t know what it was that drew us to country music. I don’t know if it was something in the water or the air we were breathing, but I can think of so many people: Mike Auldridge, Cliff Waldron, Gary Henderson… We all listened to Don Owens on WARL, who supplemented bluegrass with semi-traditional country performers like Hank Snow, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Jimmy Murphy, Grandpa Jones, the Bailes Brothers, Pete Cassell, Johnnie and Jack, the Louvin Brothers and Eddy Arnold. Ray Davis on WBMD in Baltimore played great music in the early 1950s, and he still does on WAMU's Bluegrass Country.
Perry Weston was a little bit older; and played in the Blue Mountain Boys with Don Owens and Fiddlin' Curly Smith, another local country DJ. Perry’s in his 80s now. Ric Nelson, who just died a couple of days ago, was 2 or 3 years younger than me. Amazingly, we all just grabbed onto hillbilly music like it was a life raft. Not that I lost my affection for anything else, but I lo9ved it all the more because it was something I could enjoy along with the old music and old records.
IN: It’s interesting that you all were born at the end of the 30s and first couple of years of WWII. During the height of the American counter culture movement, between 1967-74, you were behind the desk at a library. How did you witness and experience that transition that was going on in American? Were politics at all a part of your thinking in terms of record collecting?
DS: I sympathized with the politics, but I really didn’t like the music. I’ve always been an egalitarian by nature, and I’m very much of a peacenik, and a lifelong Democrat I really didn’t care for the well groomed northern-style folky music that went along with the counter culture. It was a mixed bag but then, so was I. I liked George McGovern and despised George Wallace, but I prefer music from Alabama over South Dakota.
IN: Apart from the folks in the Bluegrass community that you mentioned, I’d be remiss not to mention that you, Mike Seeger, [collector] Joe Bussard, and [guitarist] John Fahey also kind of came up at, more or less, the same time and place.
DS: Yeah, Fahey and Bussard should have been on that list, too. Absolutely. (laughs)
IN: All four of you are people that wound up dedicating their lives to some kind of vision of American music. I’ve thought it was interesting and instructive, the divergent paths that you ended up following, despite all having been in the same stew at one time.
DS: Well, I’d say all of us had somewhat different styles, but I was very fortunate to count all those people as friends. Warren Beatty I never met and, of course he didn’t dedicate his life [to music], but he hung around Arlington High School and loved to hear people play in bluegrass jam sessions after the classes were over in the afternoon. And he carried that sensibility to Hollywood with him when he made the Bonnie and Clyde movie. He not only used “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” [as the film’s theme], but he went back to the original recording of it, because the remakes never matched the original, and he knew that. He selected the original 1949 recording. . The movie turned the tune into a warhorse that we eventually grew kind of tired of. But at the time, it was an inspired and informed choice. I didn’t know then that Warren Beatty was another Washington product.
What Needs Doing
IN: One of the underlying questions that I’ve had throughout all of this that I’ve never really asked explicitly is, how do you select projects to work on? What is it that drives you to tell a particular story or share a particular set of music?
DS: I need to make two judgments. One is, “Does it need doing?” and the other is, “Can I do it?” If those two questions are resolved favorably then, I ask “Do I have the time and intelligence for it?” - [there are] a lot of books I’d like to write, but I don’t have the smarts to do it .
IN: You said, “does it need doing.” What needs doing?
DS: I’d be hard put to tell you anything. Well, this will work: When Kitty Wells died last summer or early fall I noticed that she had died the day before Billie Holiday’s birthday. Then, I looked again and saw that they were just about contemporaries. Billie was just about four years older than Kitty and she [Holiday] died way, way long ago. I thought to myself that these were two women who made a comparable impact on American music, but in different ways and to separate audiences. The Kitty Wells people know little about Billie Holiday and vice-versa. I wanted to see if I could make something about that. I started that project and put it aside, but I still think it’s worth doing. I’m not sure if I can answer those questions or not, but that’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing, if I can bring it off.