I’ve been introduced over the past two weeks to a flood of early recorded music of all kinds, much of it completely unfamiliar, and frankly I have been overwhelmed by it all. When most of this music was recorded the maximum exposure any record buyer would have from any disc would be two sides of about 3 and half minutes of music. Now it is possible to buy collections of literally hundreds of songs – often the entire lifetime’s output – by almost all artists of note whose recordings have been preserved.
In itself, this is a fascinating phenomenon. There is clearly a commercially viable market for this old time music, indicating that many listeners are choosing to explore the roots of today’s popular music. Why they might be doing this is open to conjecture, but I suspect the paramount reason is that this is simply good music. Music that appeals directly to the emotions and is free of the calculating artifice that mars much commercial music. Not that calculated artifice is a new concept – bad music has always been recorded, but because it tends towards the ephemeral it is usually forgotten. It is always pertinent to remember that what we listen to when we examine the recorded music of the past is the distillate, the cream of what was made. Thus we lose the original context musically as well as historically. In fact we lose the musical context doubly. Not only do we not hear the bad and forgotten music of the time, but also we have heard masses of newer music, some of it influenced by those old classic songs and performances. Indeed we often hear the same songs performed by more contemporary artists.
All this conspires to filter the music of the past through the sensibilities of the present. Even the technology we use, presenting these scratchy old recordings in a clear form free from further degradation, insulates us from that time.
So what remains? Well, what remains is the music. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, The Carter Family, Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers. These are just some of the artists that I have been listening to over the past weeks. Their music is gripping and involving. As I said before, it is overwhelming in its concentrated quality. It’s going to take a long time to tease out the individual threads presented by this magnificent quilt of American roots music of the early 20th century.