Friday, November 27, 2009
Stumbled across a copy of Desperate Man Blues at the library the other day-- a documentray about Joe Bussard, 78-collector and general blues aficionado, class "extra-or-dinaire". Have read about him before, or maybe I had a cd with some things from his collection-- it seems pretty likely, as he has something like 25,000 of rare and one-of-a-kind 78s. To BE this man.
I started listening to reissues of twenties and thirties blues recordings in early high school, when, again at the library, I picked up a copy of Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks)'s Chocolate to the Bone. Liner notes were infuriating-- not much known about the life of RH, lots of heavy breathing about chord progressions and technique which didn't mean anything to me. The back of the cd told me two things-- one, that a group called "Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society" had donated it (props); two, that the peacock-logo'd label Yazoo was specifically in the business of tuning my ear to the beautiful sounds of heretofore rare Delta blues. The thrill of listening to music original and distinct as a fingerprint. I'd never heard anything like it before. Joe Bussard had the same epiphany canvassing neighborhoods door to door in the 50's and 60's, digging through basements and sheds and dusty back rooms looking for 78 rpm gold. He estimated on camera that 85% of the music currently in his holdings would probably have been destroyed, or badly damaged, had a collector such as himself not come and scooped the (now priceless) discs up from obscurity and into a climate controlled, lovingly archived setting in suburban Maryland.
Remember the character of Seymour in Ghost World? Like that, except real. Which makes a big difference.
Desperate Man Blues takes you along with Bussard into his basement of sound, where one entire wall is cover to cover blues records in manila sleeves. Wiry, fresh looking old man-- he kept jogging his knee and slapping his thighs while listening to his recordings. I couldn't get over the fact that he kept playing them-- obviously, a record's no good without that it's listened to, but when you hold in your hands the only link between some long dead blues man and the present day, and I mean the ONLY EXTANT COPY, I'd probably get too squeamish to breathe on the grooves, much less set them to needle.
Everything he played was excellent. Everything. After fifty some years of recording, you probably get to where your taste is as sharp as your teeth. And he KNOWS, Lord, does he know everything about everything. Where it was recorded. Why. When. How many copies there still are. Great, great stuff in that head of his.
The thing that blew *my* brain right out of my ears, though-- a clip of Son House playing "Death Letter Blues". I don't know what television show it was from, under what circumstances it was recorded, but it made the space under my fingernails tingle.
Look at how he uses his fingers! Just look! Towards the end, it's like he's trying, at great personal expense, to catch the notes before they get away. And that grim, solemn, upwards glance at the camera. Just a perfect clip.
It got me thinking of an interesting thing someone said once (I think having to do with Margaret Mitchell's accent on a recording of the premiere of GWTW) about accents before the proliferation of radio waves and sets. Before there was a standard "newscaster" voice, the only shaping your speaking voice and accent would have was the world around you. If you spent your whole life within one block of where you were born, and so did your parents, and so did their parents, your accent would be essentially the same as other accents had been in that area for a hundred years. And that accent would be as different, in some instances, from one a hundred miles north of you, as night and day. Post-radio, "the norm" starts to creep in. The weird inflections and phrasings of a specific cultural and geographic area begin to fade. People from hundreds of miles, thousands of miles, continents away, could influence the way people spoke, and did, so that eventually, everyone pretty much comes out sounding alike in the end. Regional accents, sure, but everyone knows what "normal" sounds like, and that's the guy on the evening news.
Now, apply that records, and music, and the way Son House strums those strings. He learned how to play in a time unconstrained by "this is how it's done", and "you don't put your fingers there, they go here", and "hold that note!". He taught himself or he picked up things from other players, but no one told him what was right and wrong. He just had how he did it. And what he got down wasn't lavishly produced, wasn't carefully plotted out ahead of time-- it's just the heart. No use messing around with the rest of it.
I like to think about all those twenty five thousand records down in Bussard's basement being like that-- the product of a time in which each of those recordings was representative of one, individual person and his relationship to his instrument and his music. His life.
Wrote down a couple leads on new things to listen to from this, suggest you do the same.
Joe Bussard's official site (looks a little down in the mouth right now, but I'm sure he'll update eventually)
NPR profile of Bussard (atta boy)
Ghost World (2001) (a gateway drug to 78 collecting...not perfect, but what is?)
Yazoo Records (Nothing bad every seems to come from this label)