Well, this past week has been kind of a trip I didn’t intend to take. Five days in the hospital and getting my blood pressure under control, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my time as a record shop owner of near 45 years and a record collector of near 60 years. A lot of amazing tales about the hunt and the results of the hunt.
I was working for the summer in LA at a well-known folk club and got to talking with a couple of well known collectors, one who was equally well known as a musician. They were planning a three-week trek into the South in search of elusive 78 rpm records. They wanted someone to go along who knew what to look for and wouldn’t want to add such finds to their own collection. That person wound up being me. The trip took us down into New Mexico, across Texas stopping a lot in those East Texas small towns, down into Cajun country and across Louisiana and into Mississippi’s Jackson area. These guys were professional scroungers and it wasn’t long until a good pile of acquisitions found space in the back of the VW bus. One of the scams was to go into a small town and seek out the women in the local churches who were talking about being a collector of the devil’s own blues, seeking out those records to haul to the dump. They’d always find some lady who’d be glad to hand over her husband’s old Paramounts or Colombias to add to the pile. I even remember him asking one lady if she had a couple of gospel 78s to play at the record burning and the result was a Blind Joe Taggart record and a Washington Phillips side. Near Jackson, Mississippi they decided to visit with Bo Carter who lived in the area (we were told). We ended up visiting the home of Sam Chatmon and were told that Bo had died in Memphis, and Sam had gone to fetch him home. Little did I know that just a year or two later I’d meet Sam in San Diego and spend the next ten years or so getting to know him well. On the way back to LA my musician collector friend drove off the road to avoid hitting a box turtle (he had a thing for turtles).
My friend Bruce Iglauer of Alligator records suggests that blues fans quit cheering the loudest for “Hoochie Coochie Man” and start supporting the newer and visionary artists who bring something new to the music. I guess I agree with him but I’d add to that the seeking out of early vintage recordings and stuff that didn’t circulate very well from most any era. Lots of good stuff (and I guess this applies to most any kind of music) has been overlooked along the road vintage and it’s up to each of us to be curious and seeking and digging this stuff out.
At the first San Diego State Folk Festival in 1967 our lead artist was the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Due to high winds in the Laguna Mountains his band got stuck in Imperial Valley, so members of the Dilliards (Doug Dilliard, Dean Webb, Mitch Jayne) came down from LA to back him up. Bill was doing his standard pitch about being there at the start of things when someone in the audience yelled, “You’re king of them all, Bill.” Monroe didn’t pause at all, he just answered, “Well, I try to be.” During the break I remember someone in the audience coming up to him and saying, “I want to play bluegrass music just like you.” Bill replied, “You can’t. You’re not from Kentucky and you’re not me. Look inside yourself and create your own music and a way to play it.” I often wondered what that boy did with that sage advice.
It was on one of my early summer trips that my friend Art and I decided to see some of the music and musicians celebrated in the great field recordings on Folkways and other record labels. This was the mid ’60s and I had an old Sony reel-to-reel deck that was heavier than hell. We started off in Forest City, Arkansas and drove East, managing to get ourselves thoroughly lost in Western Kentucky. We had thought it was going to be so easy and that the Roscoe Holcombs and Dock Boggs of the world were going to be hanging on the trees just waiting to lay down some songs that John Cohen or Mike Seeger or maybe even Alan Lomax had overlooked. Believe me, it isn’t that easy. Better to come back out to San Diego and organize a Folk Festival (which I have done since 1967, some 55 of them).