The Return of the Stuff That Dreams are Made Of
BluesWax Rating: As Music History: 6 out of 10, As Music To Listen To: 2 out of 10
Unless You’re a Collector This May Send You Off to Dreamland
One of these days, I’ll realize something about old recordings from the 1920s. They’re not pleasant to listen to. When I first got into the blues, I went out and bought CDs laden with the early blues artists: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson (of course), and several others.
I’m glad I did, so I could hear where it all started and how it evolved from acoustic country blues to electrified, and electrifying, urban blues. I still have these recordings. In fact they have their own shelf in my music library.
But I rarely listen to them.
Because, to my ears, raised on high-fidelity recordings that didn’t sound like they were being played in a coffee can, these old recordings fall flat – they just don’t grab me. In fact, to be honest, they have all the listenability of finger nails on a blackboard, which is why these recordings usually end up in the Smithsonian, or in the esoteric collections of historians and musicologists. People aren’t lining up to load their iPods with this stuff.
This double-CD set is very much like that. Yeah, there are a couple of tunes I’m glad I heard performed by the original artist – Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” Willie Walker’s “Dupree Blues,” and a couple of others.
But most of the music on these two CDs is hillbilly, country, and what is now called American roots music. But the thing is, not all American roots music was good. There are out-of-tune instruments, off-key vocals, and some pretty primitive songs, even by the standards of the day.
That’s when it hit me. This CD isn’t really about the music per se, it’s about collecting the actual old records. In fact, the set comes complete with a 52-page booklet describing the original 78 rpm records this music first appeared on. And much of the booklet is about where people found some of these records – tucked away in boxes at yard sales or in the backrooms of old music stores.
Collectors are fanatical about the objects of their desires, and that is evident on the cover of this compilation. It bills itself as “The Dead Sea Scrolls of record collecting – its early history annotated for the first time – revelations of pioneer collectors themselves!”
But this set is not the original records and that left the collectors I contacted cold. “The whole point of record collecting is to have the original 78s with the sleeves and jackets and rare labels. This is just a compilation of old songs slapped onto plastic. As a collector, buying this CD would be like an art collector hanging a photograph of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on a wall next to an original Monet,” one avid collector told me.
Ultimately, that’s where this CD set fails. Because the CD removes you from the thrill of finding that old disc (the recent find of a Robert Johnson record comes to mind), leaving you with old, scratchy recordings that the majority of people today, outside academia, simply won’t listen to.
But, if you’d like to hear how far recording techniques have come, or if you’re thinking about getting into collecting old records and need a reference manual, this two-CD set could be for you. As a piece of American musical history, it presents a mixed provenance. Charley Patton, Bukka White, and Ishman Bracy are important figures in the development of American popular music, but there is also a lot of music from people who passed through this era without leaving a lasting mark.
I’m not a record collector, but if I were I don’t think I would find the package itself is particularly collectible, and most of the recordings (and some of the music) are not readily accessible. If you are a music historian, you may find some value here, but it is not easy listening.
For me, this is not at all “such stuff as dreams are made of.”
Kim O’Brien is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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