Long-forgotten old-time music finds new audience
Roots music from the early 20th century is experiencing a mini-revival with a series of new CD releases.
Entertainment galas like next month's Grammy Awards are festooned with fresh faces, trim bodies, and the latest couture. Yet in a second ceremony, when the television cameras are off and the shrieking masses have yet to gather, The Recording Academy acknowledges the less glamorous side of the music industry, which includes awarding artists who not only did their best work before Justin Timberlake was born, they also happen to be dead.Skip to next paragraph
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The Grammy category for Best Historical Album was launched in 1978 to little fanfare and designed mostly for compilers of big band or opera recordings. But in recent years, as record companies mine their vaults more aggressively to repackage early recorded music in box sets, and patch together snatches of lost tape to create wholly new albums, the category has grown to represent not just the legacy of a certain era or artist, but also an important new revenue channel.
This year, the category is split among a group of independent labels that are innovating how we listen to and appreciate early-century music, some of it predating electrical recording and performed by entertainers whose names are largely forgotten. Instead of shoving the music into the marketplace and waiting for it to sell, these small operators have lovingly filtered it through an interpretive lens to discover thematic connections between where we came from and who we are today.
As a result, boxed compilations are not just bringing forgotten voices back to life, they are making them suddenly relevant. Here, African-American comedian Bert Williams and popular singer Billy Murray can finally be recognized as the greatest recording stars of the Edison cylinder era.
With technology allowing access to centuries of culture through the click of the mouse, having someone curate the past is becoming more essential.
"One thing we strive for are the historical liner notes and photographs and trying to recreate the time period you just don't get with an MP3," says Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-To-Digital, an Atlanta independent whose biggest seller is "Goodnight Babylon," a six-CD collection of early Southern sacred songs and sermons, packaged with a 200-page book in a cedar box with pieces of cotton nestled inside. The box has sold 7,500 to date, a smash hit for a label with little overhead, no staff, and marketing the old-fashioned way: word of mouth and print reviews.
That kind of traditional business model works especially well, Josh Rosenthal says, when targeting the two audiences major labels tend to ignore: well-educated and culturally curious baby boomers and 20-somethings who ignore mainstream media channels and listen to college radio. Collectively they are the two groups that helped make "People Take Warning!" a hit for Tompkins Square, the New York City label Mr. Rosenthal has singly operated for three years.
Endorsed by Tom Waits, who contributes an essay, the three-CD set assembles hillbilly songs, blues, country, and general esotery between 1913 and 1938 into three categories: "Man V Machine," "Man V Nature" and "Man V Man." Followed in that order, the songs unfold like a news ticker detailing the hardships of the first half of the last century, when disease, shipwrecks, and floods shaped the nation's character in the industrial age, and created its folk heroes, like Casey Jones, Stack O'Lee, and Tom Dooley.