The Great Bittern and the Measurable Ineffable

ArchibaldThorburnCa1885

Great Bittern. Archibald Thorburn. Lithograph, ca. 1885.

This is the story, and we are to believe its ending is a happy one. Its hero, a young boy, can repeatedly attempt to solve the problem the story presents, but he will never reach its core. This is because he and the community in which he lives exist at different levels of consciousness, within different realities. Ultimately he will be forced to leave his village, to distance himself from the culture that created him. He is an anomaly, an outlier, an ontological naturalist born into a world of fundamentalists. Even if he manages to find peaceful détente with his native culture, it can never be home, not in any deep sense. There is no happy ending for him.

Near a small Bosnian Serb village, some time between the wars, a group of men hear a strange sound in the reeds while fishing: a sort of hollow booming, vaguely like someone blowing across the mouth of an oversized jug. Having never heard anything like it, they are terrified. When practical understanding fails them, they turn to a cultural understanding. They conclude that it is the voice of the drekavac, a demon of the wild places, only encountered by humans when death is near. A local boy refuses to believe in this fear. So he sets off to discover the true source of the sound. Stalking through the reeds, he hears something in front of him. He pauses and listens closely. The low thumps ripple through him and make his stomach tingle. Despite this odd feeling, the sound is not unpleasant. A dull booming of sorts, yes, but just before each burst there is what he can only describe as an intake of breath. No, an intake of sound. As if whatever were making it were drawing sound itself into its lungs in order to release it multiplied, deepened, transformed. After a moment, he carefully creeps forward. Parting the stalks, he sees a large, drab-colored, long-necked bird: Botaurus stellaris, the great bittern, rare in these parts. His testimony alone will not be enough, so he captures it to take back and prove to the villagers that they are safe from forest demons. His feat is hailed as heroic and brave. His neighbors are relieved and can now enjoy restful sleep.

But his heroic act has only proven the physical source of the sound. As an ontological naturalist he has missed what is perhaps the most important part of the scenario: how a sound with an unknown origin is received in a given culture. In human terms, its mythological reality is every bit as important as its measurable reality. In later life the boy will learn to bridge this gap. He will also learn that ontological naturalism is as much a dogmatic reality tunnel as superstition or fundamentalism. This bridging, this knowing, this becoming unstuck from described realities, is gnosis. But humans are social creatures, and their social structures are built upon fragile subjectivities. Happy endings are always compromises. There is no room for gnostics.

image002

The MV Olga Patricia, somewhere in the North Sea, 1960s.

It is the summer of Swinging Radio England, 55,000 watts of mainstream pop rock broadcast across the North Sea basin from the MV Olga Patricia, a ship anchored just off the coast of Essex. By winter it would be gone, its place on the radio band replaced by jittery static. Later in the century rumors touching upon the US intelligence community would swirl around the ship. A couple of hours up the coast, near the Norfolk village of Hickling Heath, an Austin A40 Farina is parked at the side of the road. The sun has not yet broken over the eastern horizon. A path through a marsh leads to Hickling Broad, one of the many brackish inland lakes that dot this part of the county. A lone figure stands silhouetted in the midst of the reeds. In his right hand he holds what appears to be a small satellite dish. He sweeps it across the landscape as if searching for something. It would be easy for the casual observer to mistake both his identity and intent. A character from a science fiction novel? A foreign spy? Then, from an indeterminate point in the reeds comes a low thumping sound. He swings his device towards it and remains very still as the bass notes ripple across the broad. Is it bird, demon, or something else? The observer changes the observed.

norfolk-broads-1880s-4

The Norfolk Broads. Peter Henry Emerson, 1886.

In 1965, the British arm of Royal Dutch Shell began releasing a series of seven inch EPs of field recordings of birdsong. Not being expert in the manufacture of records—despite the fact that vinyl records are effectively made from crude oil and salt—Shell subcontracted the run to the Discourses label out of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. The label was primarily known for its light classical and educational material. Much of its catalog was instantly forgettable, but the company did release a few interesting curiosities such as a pair of ten-inch discs of ancient Greek literature read aloud by classical scholars, a rare chance to hear Homer as he may have sounded to his contemporaries. Discourses had also released a handful of field recordings, so Shell’s partnering with the label to release its British Bird Series made sense. At first glance it might seem odd for Shell to enter the recording field, but just about every major oil company that existed during the golden age of vinyl released records at some point. Most of these were created as promotional items or as premiums to give away to customers, but it’s not clear whether the British Bird EPs were distributed at petrol stations in Britain, sold in record stores, or both.

In a practice now known as “greenwash,” Shell was as early as 1955 disingenuously attempting to associate its brand with environmentalism via a series of magazine advertisements called Shell Nature Studies. The logic seems to have been that to escape from urbanization and reach nature in its most untouched form required a car, and a car required petrol. February’s advertisement from that year showed a tableau of various birds that Britons might see in late winter, painted by Maurice Wilson. A collection of the paintings that Wilson created for Shell was released the following year as a 48-page booklet called Shell Nature Studies: Birds and Beasts. Later books followed, featuring other artists illustrating other aspects of the natural world. By the 1960s bookstores were carrying titles such as Shell Nature Lovers Atlas and the Shell Bird Book.

When Shell decided to begin releasing field recordings in 1965, it initially planned to release a series of records for children. For the first of these— Sounds of the Countryside, Shell Junior Record No. 1—the firm recruited Johnny Morris, the presenter for the popular BBC television program Animal Magic, to provide lighthearted voiceovers to John Kirby’s recordings. The sleeve notes very specifically stated that the disc was intended for use in primary schools.

lawrence-shove-the-mistlethrush-2-s

By the time the second installment appeared in 1966 Shell had shifted its focus. From this point on, and throughout the life of the series, the sleeve notes made no more mention of children or of schools. The language and presentation were now pointedly angled towards the adult market. Beginning with catalog number DCL-701, the next nine releases bore the subtitle, A Shell Nature Record—British Bird Series. With this change of focus also came a change in personnel. Shell now turned to Lawrence Shove for its field recordings. In 1963 Shove had released a seven-inch EP called The Country Sings: Songs and Calls of British Birds for the Midriver Recording Company in Gloucestershire, a tiny label that seems to have specialized in recordings of birdsong (although only two releases by the label have so far been identified.) In 1964 he won first prize in the BBC’s Council for Nature wildlife tape recording competition. Because of his association with Shell’s British Bird Series, by the end of the decade Shove would become one of the most recognized names in British field recording. In 1968 the BBC described him as “the only full-time freelance recordist of wildlife sounds in Britain.” He also appeared regularly on television and radio into the early 1970s, at which point he hung up his parabolic reflector and became manager of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Birdsong is language. In many folklore traditions, understanding this language is seen as a sign of great wisdom. Both the Quran and the Talmud mention Solomon’s ability to understand the language of the birds. Indeed, to the uninitiated birdsong can sound like nothing more than abstract noise. But as one learns to identify the sounds of individual species and then the purpose of the various calls, the meaning behind this Babel is revealed.

In a 2014 article for Fact magazine, sound artist Lawrence English pointed out that mid-century sound recordists worked in an environment in which it was believed that they were transmitting objectivity: “The pretense to being objective brought with it an inferred negation of agency, that somehow the recordist was simply capturing moments of the real when they started the tape rolling.” Perhaps a naïve recordist, one with no knowledge of the natural world who simply pointed a microphone in a random direction, might be able to claim a “purer” objectivity than one who was familiar with the sounds being captured. From this point of view, as knowledge increases, so does the level of mediation. As the majority of Shove’s recordings were intended to demonstrate the sound of a particular bird, there is no question that he was a knowledgeable observer who went into the field fully intending to capture subjective, edited sonic events.

s-l1000

The little that has been written about Lawrence Shove often highlights his 1966 recording of the great bittern at Hickling Broad—released by Shell on a 1967 EP called Marsh and Riverside Birds—and its inclusion as the first item in the British Library’s British Wildlife Recordings collection. The great bittern is extremely rare in England. Although numbers have rebounded, by the late 1990s you could nearly count the number of male birds in the country on your fingers. The bird is also nearly impossible to see, a master of camouflage, and has even been known to move in sync with swaying reeds in order to better blend into its habitat.

I would suggest that Shove, in his pursuit of these rare sounds, could be viewed in two ways, sometimes simultaneously: as collector or as ghost hunter. The collector analogy should be fairly obvious. There are a finite number of bird species native to Great Britain and, as a collector of their sounds, he could simply tick them off a list as he captured them. This would naturally lead to a handful of difficult species left at the end, just as a collector may spend years tracking down the very rarest piece of Mauchlin ware or an impossible to find postage stamp. The ghost hunter analogy may be less obvious, but I would argue that ghost hunters do not actually hunt ghosts. They hunt measurable phenomena that they, and sometimes their audience, interpret as ghosts, often in the form of recorded sound. It is unlikely that Shove ever saw his famous great bittern, just as a ghost hunter never sees the source of a mysterious rapping caught on tape. Both the bittern’s foghorn call and the unexplained sounds from a “haunted” house can be measured, captured. The methodology for their capture is the same. The difference is in our interpretation of them.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Lawrence Shove Discography

Lawrence English. A Beginner’s Guide to…Field Recording

 

Mrs. Shaw Conquers the World; or, Adventures in 19th-Century Discography

21-better-Phonograph-arcade-1

Phonograph parlor, mid-1890s.

Prior to 1895, the average person was only likely to come into contact with a phonograph at a demonstration presented by an exhibitor or at a phonograph parlor, an establishment that offered coin-operated machines at which customers could listen to records through tubes resembling a stethoscope. For the most part during this early period, it was only the wealthy—or at least the very comfortable—who actually owned machines in their homes. This means that the vast majority of records produced in these earliest days were sold not to individuals, but to these parlors and exhibitors. Local newspapers from the era are excellent sources of information on early phonograph culture. They would often mention the most popular selections that an individual parlor or exhibitor was featuring during a given week. These advertisements were not trying to sell phonograph records to the public, but to lure customers in to pay a fee to hear the recordings. To be clear, we’re primarily talking about cylinders here, the flat disc being still in its infancy. These announcements of local phonographic events often contain surprising details and can be extremely useful to the discographer of early material, but they can also create just as many puzzles as they solve.

On June 16, 1889, The Boston Globe reported that an Edison phonograph could be heard—“experienced” might be a more apt word at this early date—at the recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg that was currently drawing crowds in the city. Visitors to the exhibit could hear the voice of the English actress Ellen Terry, or Marie Jansen’s rendition of the slightly risqué “Be Good” from the comic opera The Oolah, which was still running on Broadway that summer. The third recording highlighted by the article was a rendition of an aria from Verdi’s Il Trovatore by a “lady whistler” named Alice J. Shaw. The tone of this announcement implied that all three women were more or less household names to Bostonians. As obscure as they now may seem, the careers of both Terry and Jansen are well documented in works on theatrical history. But history has not treated Alice J. Shaw as well. Despite her widespread fame and success, her story seems to have faded into the archive, treated as just another late 19th-century novelty act.

What is known about Mrs. Alice J. Shaw comes mostly from publicity material and newspaper accounts. She was born Alice Horton about 1855 in Elmira, New York. Her father was a businessman, and evidence suggests the family was seen as cultured as well as financially comfortable. She married W. W. Shaw in 1873, and soon thereafter the couple moved to Detroit, where their first two daughters were born. After Mr. Shaw’s business failed, the family relocated to New York City in search of financial salvation. This was not to be found there, however, so Alice was forced to make “a bitter struggle to maintain the family by dressmaking.” In the meantime, she gave birth to a set of twin daughters. Unable to make a living in the city, the family of six moved back to Elmira to live with Alice’s parents. Some time in 1885, Mr. Shaw left the family in Elmira and headed to parts unknown in search of opportunity. It was shortly after this that Alice Shaw came up with an unlikely way to support herself and her four daughters: she would become a professional whistler.

Shaw1905

Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, 1905.

At the time, her choice was not as unlikely as it may now seem. Whistlers were relatively common on the stages of theaters that offered “polite variety,” a theatrical form that was just beginning to be called by a new name: vaudeville. Alice reportedly returned to Detroit to try her whistling act on the stage there. Audiences responded so well that she was encouraged to continue with her newfound career. But this is all backstory. Alice Shaw first appears in the record in her musical role in New York City in May 1886, whistling the light classics at society charity functions. By all accounts, although her act was most decidedly received as a novelty, she was charming, cultured, talented, tasteful in her selections, and could sight read. Audience members often entered her performances as skeptics, but left as converts.

In 1888, she traveled to London, armed with introductions provided by Mrs. Vanderbilt. These were sufficient to gain her entrée into the drawing rooms of the aristocracy, which eventually landed her at the dinner table of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. She charmed the prince, and later played up this royal connection when touring American theaters. There, to evoke a touch of Continental flair, she was often billed as La Belle Siffleuse. Eventually adding her youngest two daughters to the act, she toured extensively, not only on the US vaudeville circuit, but worldwide. During her career she performed, either solo or with her daughters, in Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and India, and she even began a tour of South Africa that was cut short by the outbreak of the Boer War.

Audiences love a bit of scandal attached to their celebrities and Shaw’s story, though not exactly scandalous, was not without its spice. When the press talked about her at length, a standard part of the story was that she was forced into the entertainment field to support her four daughters. The exact circumstances were discreetly rarely mentioned. However, in late 1888, newspapers reported that she had obtained a divorce from W. W. Shaw, her husband of fifteen years. Most articles of the period only hinted that Alice was an abandoned woman, that Mr. Shaw had shirked his responsibility and left her and their four children to fend for themselves. When her divorced status was mentioned it was done as a statement of fact; there was no noticeable whiff of censure for her part in the situation. After the divorce, however, newspapers did from time to time exhibit an interest in her love life. In the 1890s, there were various reports that she had turned down offers of marriage from British and European nobility. One report even claimed that the Shah of Persia had offered to buy her and take her back to his country. Most bizarrely though, in October 1888, just after her divorce was announced and as her fame was just beginning to grow, there were short-lived reports in both the American and British press that she was engaged to be married to Buffalo Bill Cody. This rumor vanished as quickly as it appeared.

In 1889, Alice J. Shaw’s act reportedly earned her $25,000, a huge sum at the time. But by 1903, she and her three youngest daughters were living with an aunt in upper Manhattan. Although she was still performing in theaters, by this point she was living paycheck to paycheck. In 1907, already a fading star, she made her only confirmed commercial recordings. She died on April 22, 1918, at her home in Brooklyn. After a funeral in New York City, her body was brought back to her hometown of Elmira, New York, for burial. Although the Elmira Star-Gazette carried a prominent article about her—albeit on page 10—The New York Times announcement of her death was much more succinct: “At her residence…Alice J. Shaw. Funeral private. Omit flowers.”

The announcement by The Boston Globe in 1889 that an exhibitor in that city possessed a recording by Alice Shaw presents something of a discographical problem. Although evidence suggests that she recorded at least three times in the 19th century, the only documented commercial recordings by Shaw date from 1907, these being two Victor discs and an Edison cylinder on which Shaw—accompanied by her twin daughters and a backing band—whistles a tune called “Spring-Tide Revels.” There is no direct evidence, physical or otherwise, that a commercial recording bearing her name was released before this time. So what are we to make of this?

https://archive.org/details/78_in-venice_alice-j.-shaw-rubens_gbia0014177b

Although it occurred in a private home, Alice Shaw’s first encounter with the recording horn is actually well documented. On August 14, 1888, Colonel George Gouraud, a colorful American Civil War veteran and Thomas Edison’s agent in England, held a press conference at Little Menlo, his house in London. The intention was to inform the British public that the Edison phonograph had arrived on its shores. Afterwards, he held a number of well-publicized parties at his home at which notable personalities were encouraged to perform for, or send greetings to, Thomas Edison by way of recorded cylinder. Wooden crates of these “white wax” cylinders were then sent back to Edison in New Jersey. Mrs. Shaw was present at the first of these parties and recorded one of her whistling specialties. Luckily, the crate containing this recording still survives at the Edison National Historic Site, and its contents were transferred to tape by the New York Public Library in 1995.

The Globe article in June 1889 reported that Alice recorded her rendition of the Verdi aria “just before she sailed for Europe.” This apparently refers to her return to London the previous month. This date is tantalizingly close to that of the first known batches of cylinders sold by the North American Phonograph Company to its licensees. In late May 1889, the company advertised “Musical phonograms [cylinders] in boxes of 6 and 12 (assorted)” at 45 cents each wholesale. When the company finally issued a list of available titles the following January, however, Mrs. Shaw’s name did not appear. But this is only the first mystery recording by Mrs. Shaw.

The November 1892 issue of The Phonogram, the house organ of Edison’s North American Phonograph Company, reported that Alice Shaw had recently “whistled into a phonograph cylinder.” The article added that it was “the intention of Mrs. Shaw to practice into the phonograph and thus preserve the permanent traces of effects which would otherwise be wasted. These will be preserved in ‘phonograph cabinets,’ and may be brought out and rendered audible at pleasure by every possessor of the instrument.” The evidence of an 1892 recording by Shaw is strengthened by the fact that a number of phonograph parlors and exhibitors in Utah, Nevada, California, Washington, and Texas between 1892 and 1897 mentioned having a recording by her in their advertisements. It is interesting that all of these examples are clustered in the western states, and that except for a single example from Seattle in 1897, all date from October 1892 to January 1894, a span just a bit over one year. This also nests conveniently well with the date of The Phonogram article mentioned above. A cynic might say that it would be very easy for an exhibitor to take any recording of a whistling solo and claim that it was by the renowned Mrs. Shaw in order to draw customers. This may be true, but the relatively tight geographical and chronological cluster lends strength to the theory that a commercial recording that we have simply not identified must have been released.

aff009f8571094f15e1a9aefd40df529

Using the traditional approach, a discography of Alice J. Shaw’s recordings would include only the 1907 Edison cylinder and the Victor discs. Depending on scope, it might also include the 1888 “white wax” cylinder recorded in London. But such a discography would be a very long way from fulfilling its primary purpose: showing the complete picture of the complexities of the recording history of its subject. Many aspects of phonograph culture in the 19th century are unique to the era. Examples of “lost” recordings such as those of Mrs. Shaw abound throughout the period. They are “lost” first and foremost because neither physical examples nor documentary evidence of their existence have been located. Information about many of them only exists as fragments of evidence scattered throughout the archive, not as data conveniently held in company records or on the recordings themselves, as is the case with later material. Nineteenth-century discography is already an area that relies as heavily on the archival as it does on the physical. Because of the scarcity of physical examples and very sparse documentation that survives, we will likely never have a truly complete picture of the recording history of the phonograph’s earliest days. I hope to go into this in greater detail in a future post, but if something approaching a comprehensive discography of these earliest recordings is ever to be achieved, it will require a much deeper immersion into the archive as well as a new form of presentation. I have begun to refer to this as reconstructed discography, one in which the actual and the theoretical are both allowed into the main narrative.

The case of Alice J. Shaw and her lost recordings is simply one example that highlights how much discographical research is still needed into the days of the nickel-slot phonograph. Much of the excellent research that has emerged in this area over the years has been the work of avid collectors and fans, not professional scholars. As the original material becomes even more rare and harder to find in the marketplace, fewer collectors are likely to be drawn into the field. New researchers will therefore need to find the subject by other routes. At first glance, the history of the phonograph’s beginnings seems like a tale of lawsuit heaped upon lawsuit, only of interest to a patent attorney. There is a large amount of truth in this. But I think Mrs. Shaw’s case shows that there are still a great number of human stories lurking just beneath the tangled narrative of inventions, lawsuits, and countersuits, stories that simply need to be plucked from the archive and told.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Mrs. Shaw’s 1888 London Recording

Mrs. Alice Shaw and Her Twin Daughters – “Spring-Tide Revels”

New Mexico’s Stonehenge

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 3.40.55 PM

Grants, New Mexico, 1962. Unused photo from Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations.

A few months ago, I was browsing a record store in Austin, Texas, and came upon a 45 that caught my attention. It was by a band called Stonehenge, released on the Nik label out of Grants, New Mexico. After listening to both sides, “Riddle at My Side” b/w “When I Go,” I bought the record for a few dollars. It proved to be by a band that inhabited a particular stylistic space that existed briefly in the early 1970s, one that attempted to build on psychedelia and the experimentation of the 1960s while still remaining innovative and fresh. It was a period in which the sound of the decade had not yet been nailed down, before light AOR and arena rock dominated the industry. It was only after getting home and connecting the dots that I realized that I had come across the band before.

A few years ago a collector posted the audio of an earlier disc by the same band to Youtube. The description touted the disc as being by an “insane undiscovered New Mexico psych group.” Anyone familiar with the ways of record collectors knows that this sort of hyperbole is common; collectors tend to get excited when a discovery of their own becomes part of the pantheon of collectibles. The disc in question—“King Snake” b/w “The Country’s Where I’ve Got to Take My Mind,” released on the Bozo label, also out of Grants—although not particularly “insane,” was indeed a bit of a find. At the time, it was the only known single by the group. The Youtube poster estimated the disc to date from around the turn of the decade, 1969 or 1970, based on its sound. As we shall see, this estimate is likely a bit early. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, anachronism is so rampant in the world of private press discs that attempting to date a record based on stylistic evidence can often lead a researcher down a false trail, and sometimes into the wrong decade.

At first listen, “King Snake” sounded as if a vocalist with early 1960s folk boom sensibilities hooked up with a band whose influences were more contemporary. It reminded me a bit of The Spike Drivers or The Misty Wizards, bands that also merged an earlier folk sensibility with light psych. The tension created by the clash of these two styles is exactly the sort of thing that makes these self-released 45s so interesting. The disc also had several other qualities that piqued my interest. It was recorded by a band from the middle of nowhere, playing a style of music that was fast becoming passé on the national scene, and was released on a vanity label. As anyone who collects this sort of material knows, hearing a record on Youtube is often as close as you will ever get to it, as the number of known copies of some of these discs runs in the low single digits. So I listened to the Youtube clip a few times and then quickly forgot about it.

R-12074060-1527773256-1938-1.jpeg

Having discovered a second disc by the band, my natural instincts as a vinyl detective took over. The evidence of Stonehenge’s existence is somewhat fragmentary, but in time I was able to piece together something of a narrative, some of which is admittedly hypothetical. On July 23, 1971, the Albuquerque Journal ran a small article announcing that “Scott Tregembo and Millie Warden, a duo known as Stonehenge” would provide entertainment for that week’s meeting of the Albuquerque Press Club. It added that, “the Stonehenge duet specializes in Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel songs.” At the time, Tregembo was only 17 and just about to start his senior year at Grants High School. At some point the duo connected with other musicians and became a full band, still using the name Stonehenge. On July 31, 1973, an article in the Gallup, New Mexico, Independent mentioned that the band had performed at a Lions Club fundraiser the previous week. Over the following year the group performed regularly at the Gallup Country Club, providing musical accompaniment for events that included a golf tournament after party, a Hawaiian luau, and a toga party that promised “decadent surprises.” Several articles in the Independent confirmed that the band was from Grants, about an hour east of Gallup, but none of them mentioned personnel.

Based on the publishing information and the numbering scheme, both of the band’s discs were recorded at John Wagner’s studio in Albuquerque. Wagner’s operation was pretty much New Mexico’s premier studio in the early 1970s, having recorded such luminaries as Tony Joe White, Richie Havens, Delaney Bramlett, and Rare Earth. Probably more interesting to readers of this blog, Wagner also recorded The Guitar Ensemble’s first album, The You-N-You, and the Zuni Midnighters’ My Land LPSince all four songs on the two Stonehenge 45s were written by M. Norris, it is likely that he or she was a band member. Intriguingly, the first disc was engineered by one Paul Norris, a hint that there may have been family connections within the band. Comparing the release numbers to other private press discs with known dates to emerge from Wagner’s studio, I would date “King Snake” to 1972 or even early 1973. The follow up release on Nik could have been as late as 1974. As a full band, Stonehenge performed live from at least late 1973 and throughout 1974. After that, they vanish from the documentary record.

IMG_1190

 

The band’s complete lineup is still a bit of a mystery. The female voice heard on the discs is presumably Millie Warden, and it seems likely that the songwriter M. Norris was also part of the group. Otherwise, Scott Tregembo is the only member we know anything about. He was born in Ironwood, Michigan, but at some point during his childhood his family relocated to New Mexico. The fact that he was performing professional gigs in the “big city” of Albuquerque while still in high school marks him as something of a prodigy. He was later known as a bass player, so it’s likely that this was also his instrument in Stonehenge. In 1975 he opened a music store, Scott’s Music Shop, in Corrales, New Mexico, a suburb of Albuquerque. By the early 1980s he had become something of a skilled woodworker and opened a cabinet shop in Albuquerque. He never quit music and continued to play bass in a number of local bands throughout the rest of his life. He died in October 2017, at the age of 63.

It has always intrigued me that by relying solely on recorded output, we generally get a completely skewed snapshot of a band’s reality. For most of the obscure bands that interest us here, the only thing that survives are the 45s they released. Most often these 45s contain original material by the band. The repertoire of any working local band in the 1960s or 1970s, however, was usually primarily cover tunes. The original material made it to disc, but it’s inconceivable that a local band playing regularly at a country club in a small city in the far-flung reaches of New Mexico in the 1970s did not give the crowd a full serving of the hit songs they expected to hear. Hopefully, though, audiences were open minded and receptive enough that Stonehenge was able to slip in the occasional original tune, especially if their 45s were sold at gigs. For me, the original material on the surviving vinyl artifacts reflects the pinnacle of what these local bands could achieve. Although Stonehenge may have been damned to play “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ad nauseam at shows in order to earn its daily bread, once in the studio the band members were free to show us their art, the content of their collective soul.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Stonehenge Discography

“King Snake” on Youtube

Ride the Tide: The Saga of Buccaneer

buccaneer_front

Somewhere towards the end of his time as lead guitarist for the band Primevil, Jay Wilfong began to dream of pirates. Primevil had formed in 1971 in Hancock County, Indiana, on the rural eastern outskirts of Indianapolis. When their sole LP, Smokin’ Bats at Campton’s, was released on the 700 West label in 1974, it looked for a moment like the group might be on its way to fame. The local newspaper, The Greenfield Daily Reporter, carried stories about them in March and April, and in late May The Indianapolis Star featured them in a lengthy piece in its Teen Star section. Local powerhouse rock station WNAP was giving the disc airplay that spring. Karma Records was carrying it in its stores and distributing it “at various outlets in eight states.”

When speaking to the press, the band members made no bones about their naked ambition. Responses to reporters’ questions brushed off any implication that art might be involved; this project was about commerce. “The album mainly is intended for employment. There are no deep messages or themes,” the Star quoted bassist Mark Sipe as saying. In March, The Greenfield Daily Reporter mentioned that the band was at that time working on a second album they hoped to have ready later in the summer. It’s not clear whether they actually ever entered the studio a second time. If so, nothing from these sessions seems to have seen the light of day.

In late 1980, Indianapolis’ other big rock station WFBQ began airing a curious ad. A cartoonish voiceover told the story of three pirates who had taken to the high seas in a search for Spanish gold. These pirates were named William Bonney, Madjack, and Lord Vendetta. It seemed that they were also a rock band called Buccaneer and had released an album. No doubt partly due to the volume of advertising dollars being pumped into the station, the LP was soon being given regular airplay. Someone was spending a lot of money, but it was all a bit mysterious.

As a teenager in 1967 and 1968, Jay Wilfong played lead guitar in The Poverty Programme, a band made up of high school students from New Palestine, Eastern Hancock, and Warren Central high schools. Having won a recording session in a local battle of the bands, they recorded a raga-flavored original called “Two Years Ahead of My Time.” The track was never released, but the band shopped the tape around and sent a copy to Mercury Records, which declined to pick it up. The drummer in the band was a young man named Jerry DeRome.

buccaneer_back

The timeline is still somewhat murky, but somewhere in the 1970s Wilfong and DeRome reconnected and began to talk of pirates. It’s not clear whether the idea to form a pirate band was Wilfong’s alone, or whether he and DeRome dreamed it up together. At some point, bassist Jerry Dunn joined the pair to round out the trio. Whether the dream was individual or collective, its basic blueprint was that each member of the band would reinvent himself as a pirate character, a story would be created for these characters to inhabit, an album would be recorded, and then massive amounts of resources would be thrown into a promotional campaign unlike any the area had ever seen—all leading to a single massive, sold-out performance at a large venue. The intended result was that the world would be so dazzled by all of this that the trio would conquer the music industry without ever having to “pay its dues” as other bands did. This plan worked very well as fantasy but, as we shall see, did not allow for the unpredictable nature and harsh realities of the entertainment industry.

Eventually, the trio booked studio time at Moe Whittemore’s 700 West Recording in New Palestine, the same studio where Primevil had recorded. The resulting self-titled LP, which included two bonus 45s, was released in 1980 on the band’s own Blunderbuss label. In order to appear as if it were created by an actual band of cartoon pirates, the album is almost entirely devoid of informational liner notes. Despite this, I have long assumed the synth that can be heard on some tracks was played by Whittemore.

But none of this background information was known to the general public at the time. On October 18, 1980, Zach Dunkin of The Indianapolis News dedicated the whole of his regular “Rock Pile” column to the band and the mystery surrounding it. He had evidently attempted to do a bit of investigative reporting beforehand, but was able to discover very little new information except for the fact that the LP had been mastered by Randy Kling in Nashville. Dunkin’s article made it apparent that the promotional blast behind Buccaneer was much more sophisticated than just a bit of airplay and a radio ad, however: “Meanwhile, surrounding the album has been a massive publicity push of radio, television and full-page ads, record store display contests, t-shirts, bumper stickers, eye patches, posters, a trip to Florida and even a treasure hunt. The band allegedly has buried gold somewhere on the East Coast. Clues revealed on the album and in some of the printed advertisements will lead a good detective to the gold.” He went on to add that according to a survey of local record stores performed by WFBQ, Buccaneer’s LP was currently the nineteenth best-selling album in the city. It was also the ninth most requested by listeners. Perhaps stretching a bit for social relevance, near the end of the article Wilfong (speaking as William Bonney) explained the idea behind the pirate concept: “A lot of people out there are really suppressing a lot of feelings about the way things are right now and they can really relate to us because pirates pretty much did what they wanted to do.”

The entire concept was obviously well funded, which led to Dunkin’s suspicion that a “sugar daddy” promoter intending to reap a large profit was behind it all. But Wilfong made it clear that this was a self-financed enterprise: “The only sugar daddy we’ve had was us going out and running PAs for bluegrass bands for seven years and sleeping in the dirt and putting whatever money we could get together into this dream of ours.” If this statement is taken literally, it means that the idea of Buccaneer existed as early as 1973, while Wilfong was still a member of Primevil.

buccaneer_in2

The band’s “world debut” finally came on Wednesday, February 26, 1981, in the first of two shows at the Indianapolis Convention Center. After an opening set by local band Dutch, the lights were lowered and the sound of ocean waves could be heard over the sound system, followed by “a boastful pirate laugh.” A voice with a decidedly Hoosier twang began telling the tale of this little band of pirates. Because of bad sound, however, it was extremely difficult for the audience to make out the words in order to follow the plot. The lights then came up to reveal that the stage had been set up like the deck of a ship, with cannons, barrels, netting, ropes, and a red-eyed skull atop a single mast. Standing on the deck of this theatrical ship were not three, but four pirates, dressed in elaborate costumes like the villains in an Elizabethan morality play. Though not credited on the album, the band had added vocalist Nathan Crook to the line up for the live shows. It’s not clear whether this was his real or his “pirate” name.

Reading his review of the show in the next day’s Indianapolis News, you can almost visualize Zach Dunkin straining over his typewriter trying to put the best spin on what was obviously a total fiasco. According to Dunkin, the band performed perfectly well, but the technical aspects of the show were so badly executed that it destroyed the whole effect. Like the album, the show was designed as a concept piece—the tale of a group of pirates trying to capture a legendary Spanish ship carrying a fortune in gold—with a taped narration advancing the story between the band’s songs. But the narration sounded muddy and was hard to understand, the band’s live sound was poorly mixed with frequent feedback, Madjack’s drums were “not much stronger than the noise of a man pounding on pillows,” and special effects such as cannons and flash pots misfired or didn’t go off at all. Dunkin reasonably concluded that when a band chooses to present itself in such a theatrical manner relying on complex technical effects, that the whole package must be critiqued, not just the band’s performance. But he still held out hope that the band could overcome its technical challenges. “After all,” he opined, “Columbus’ voyage in 1492 was a failure, too, when one considers his destination was the West Indies.”

Garry Finley, the manager (and later owner) of the Karma Records branch in Greenwood, was present at the first show. He was backstage and remembers the band sitting around in their pirate finery, seemingly despondent. Besides the problems with the performance itself, there was also the fact that only 2,000 tickets were sold for the initial performance, less than one third what the venue could hold. The band had hoped to sell out both nights, or at the very least to play to very full houses.

buccaneer_in1

Mike Crowder, at the time a junior at Southport High School and later a long-term employee at Karma Greenwood, was also in the audience. He recently told me that witnessing Buccaneer’s performance was one of the weirdest experiences of his life. He jokingly added that, “Christopher Guest had to be in the audience, because Buccaneer was the inspiration and template for Spinal Tap.” The band performed its second show the next night and then hung up its doublets and ostrich plumes forever.

Because private press records emerge not from corporate boardrooms but from the rank and file, each one carries a story of real people trying to communicate a vision to the world. But what happens when that vision is more concerned with creative ways to achieve commercial success than with creativity itself? Had the members of the band been a bit more realistic in their ambitions and put their resources into first touring regional night clubs with a scaled down version of their epic, they might have worked out the kinks, become confident in both the musical and technical presentation of the act, gained a few fans along the way, and grown the concept from there. The band’s strategy to put all its resources on one turn of the roulette wheel became its downfall. But had Wilfong and his bandmates been less ambitious in how they executed their colorful plan, the resulting story would be watered down, or might not exist at all. For the tale to endure, Icarus can only make one attempt at flight. Had he succeeded, there would be little to tell. The story only intrigues us because he flew too close to the sun.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Photos of Primevil, circa 1974

Buccaneer: “Introduction” & “Ride the Tide”

 

Private Press Vinyl, Chaos, & the Sublime

edmund-burke-painting-by-j-barry-dublin-national-gallery

Edmund Burke: Early theoretician of private press vinyl collecting.

I first began buying records in Indianapolis thrift stores at the very end of the 1970s, just after I learned to drive. In most of these places, 45s were a nickel or a dime and LPs were a quarter or fifty cents. I would pick up anything that seemed offbeat, anything that transgressed the boundaries of “normal.” I had no model for this, I knew no one else who went out on their own looking for obscure vinyl. Later on, I began to meet others, but none of us thought of ourselves as collectors. Few of the records we found had any real commercial value at the time, so they were traded, discarded, or sometimes donated back to the places they were purchased. There was little fetishism in my crowd. We were sonic explorers.

By the early 1980s my aesthetic had been seriously influenced by punk and post-punk, especially the more experimental fringes of that scene: bands like Throbbing Gristle, James Chance, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Suicide, or DNA. This ignited my appreciation of dissonance and atonality. Trying to find examples of these qualities, I began to look for records that I called “primitive,” but others might call “amateurish.” On these discs, lack of technical ability often led to the suspension of the usual rules of musical composition and performance, resulting in idiosyncrasy. These were not novelty records. They were not to be laughed at. I took them seriously.

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 3.17.49 PM

700 West ad. The Daily Reporter, Greenfield, Indiana, May 27, 1972.

I knew that these discs were most always either self-released or put out by local labels so tiny that they may as well have been, but it wasn’t until the publication of the late Patrick Lundborg’s Acid Archives in 2006 that I began to think of them as “private press.” Looking through the volume, I came across records that I had owned over the years, now selling for four or five hundred times what I had paid for them. Between my earliest days of thrifting and the mid-2000s, it was obvious that an army of taxonomists had been at work. Stories had been pieced together, narrative connections made, labels, artists, and producers well researched. Labels like Justice, 700 West, or RPC were now “legendary.” Not only had “private press” become a category, but a fully formed subculture of collectors had developed around it.

A curious thing about this area of collecting is that it covers such a wide variety of genres. In one of the larger areas of the field, any disc featuring traits that could possibly be called “psych” is heavily sought after and often carries a hefty price tag. But connoisseurs of hard rock, southern rock, Christian prog, loner folk, and other hybrid genres are also well represented. Although these collectors tend to be more open-minded than their major-label-collecting counterparts simply because of their attraction to this obscure material, many of them are still entering the fray looking for something whose boundaries are roughly predetermined. This is also the zone usually inhabited by the collector willing to fork over four figures for a “holy grail” disc.

Sympathetic with the psych collector, but operating in what often seems a parallel universe, is the sonic explorer who is less concerned with the boundaries of genre or rarity. This sort of collector is searching for new information, new experiences, and is seeking a personal connection to the music, regardless of what other collectors think. He or she is likely to get excited about an unknown lounge record with close to zero resale value simply because the female vocalist sings a very flawed, but mesmerizing, cover version of the Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.” This zone is the one I inhabit, and in my opinion is much closer to the spirit of serendipitous discovery that made the early days of searching for unknown vinyl so much fun.

MysticZephyrs4

Mystic Zephyrs 4, 1974.

The aesthetic shift required to develop a true appreciation of much of what these records contain is considerable. Once reached, it can be a lonely place. Few, if any of your friends will understand it, much less share it. But what is actually happening when this material is regarded not as novelty, but seriously and with true appreciation? How can an individual seriously enjoy both the Zombies and the Mystic Zephyrs 4?

If Acid Archives was the introduction to the most collectible of private press discs, then 2012’s Enjoy the Experience was in part a celebration of the other end of the private press spectrum: the maybe-or-maybe-not-collectible. In his introduction to the book, Johan Kugelberg hits the nail on the head when he says that to approach this material is to meet the sublime, in the sense that Edmund Burke meant it. In essence, Burke challenged the classical notion that pleasurable experiences are always the result of beauty, the picturesque. In his view, pleasure could also be derived from an encounter with darkness, the horrific, or chaos.

The music on private press records does not always follow the rules of form that in the classical mind were synonymous with those of beauty. Being unconcerned with those rules, it is by definition chaotic. Burke provided us with a theoretical foundation in which this encounter with chaos can also be an encounter with the beautiful. He called this the sublime. Whenever a private press collector begins a dig through a cache of unexplored vinyl, it is an attempt at communion with chaos, with the abyss. It is a search for beauty outside the usual norms, outside one’s zone of comfort, a search for the sublime.

—Stephen Canner

 

The Folk Process at 45rpm

IronHeadJun1934LOC

James “Iron Head” Baker, June, 1934. Photo: Library of Congress

In December 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. Their mission was to record a pair of traditional African-American singers, James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, whom they had also recorded the previous summer. Probably the best known song to come out of this session was Iron Head’s version of the traditional “Black Betty,” which rose to fame in 1977 as the sole hit single by the New York City band Ram Jam. Also recorded during the session was Iron Head’s version of a tune called “Shorty George.”

Shorty George, he ain’t no friend of mine
He taken all the women and left the men behind.

Somehow a legend grew up around the song that Shorty George was the name of a train that brought convicts’ wives to the prison for conjugal visits. If this is indeed true, it might point to a Mississippi origin for the song, as Parchman Farm had reportedly implemented a conjugal visit program as early as World War I, and was even earlier reported to have brought in prostitutes to reward “hardworking inmates” and to encourage further hard work. When Bruce Jackson was doing the research for his 1972 book Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons, an inmate at the Ramsey unit in Brazoria County, Texas, told him that Shorty George was a short train made up of only two or three cars, completely unconnected with the prison, that passed by there everyday precisely at 3:35pm. It’s likely that this association was a local development, and the train was linked to the song simply because it, like its folkloric namesake, was short.

During the folk boom of the 1950s and early ’60s, it was common practice for artists to mine any available source for folk material that had not yet reached a wide audience. It was during one such excavation at the Library of Congress that folk singer Eric von Schmidt came across one of Lomax’s later recordings of the song—Smith Casey’s version, recorded in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas—and reworked the tune into something quite different than the original. With a new title, “He Was a Friend of Mine,” it became the final track on the influential 1961 Folkways LP he recorded with Rolf Cahn. Bob Dylan learned this version and added the tune to his repertoire after making his own modifications. He recorded it during the sessions for his first album in 1961, but it did not make the final cut for the LP. It did appear on various bootlegs, though, and he was apparently performing the song live during this period. Dave Van Ronk picked up Dylan’s version of the song and recorded it in 1962 for his fourth album, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, erroneously crediting the tune to Dylan.

 

R-3861611-1347228366-8144.jpeg

By 1965, the musical and political landscape was practically unrecognizable from that of the early ’60s. When the Byrds decided to feature the tune on their second LP, Turn! Turn! Turn!, they not only worked up a version that better fit the sound of the times—both in terms of melody and arrangement—but also changed the lyrics to make it politically relevant. The song became a lament for John F. Kennedy, and perhaps for the lost hope and innocence of the first few years of the decade. The Byrds’ version spawned a number of cover versions. These appeared both on major labels, such as The Reasonable Facsimile’s interpretation of the tune on Verve Folkways, and on smaller local labels such as versions by The Bad Omens of Fridley, Minnesota, on Twin Town, and former surf-band-gone-folk-rockers Dave & The Customs of Pomona, California, on DAC.

The song’s journey through modern American folklore was not quite over yet, though. In 1972, a single by a band called The Ages appeared on the Win label out of Indianapolis. The B-side, “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow (Everything Will Be Alright),” is a somewhat forgettable slab of lounge-country. The A-side, however, “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine,” is a reworking of The Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine.” In this version, the song has been transformed from a lament for lost innocence into a longing for lost love. The performance is competent, slightly moody, and has a nice little electronic keyboard or synth flourish at the end of some lines. Until recently, I owned the only copy of this disc that I was aware of, but not long ago a German dealer posted a copy for sale, so now that it’s on the radar more may turn up in the future.

R-11237299-1512478374-3749.jpeg

At the moment, very little is known about The Ages. Both sides of the disc are credited to Joe Dillinger, presumably the same person who played drums with the equally obscure Indianapolis-area band The Malemen in late 1972. Dillinger served in Vietnam, worked at a bank, and was selected as Noblesville’s “Jaycee of the Month” in November 1972.

Tom Harvey is listed as the producer of the disc, and both sides are published by his Happyland Music. This suggests that the Win label may have been owned by Harvey, although so far no other releases on the label have been identified. Having relocated to Indianapolis from Texas in 1966, Harvey worked as a radio engineer, dj, and musician. In Texas he had recorded a pair of 45s for the Houston-based International Artists label, and reportedly also recorded in Florida in the early ’60s with a Western Swing band called The Kingstrings. Once in Indianapolis he released a 45 on Ace under his own name, and an LP on the same label, billed as Hardluck Harvey. In the early 70s he also performed with The Flintstones, the longstanding house band at The Emerson Club in Beech Grove.

IndyStar15May1971

Indianapolis Star, May 15, 1971

Hearing The Ages’ performance of “She Was More Than a Friend of Mine” out of context, it’s easy to take it as an example of a certain folk rock sound that was prevalent in the US for a short period. Knowing that it was released in 1972, however, together with its very square flip slide, it becomes apparent that this disc is something of a throwback. The jangly Byrds sound would have come off as pretty outdated in 1972. So instead of an example of Byrds-flavored folk rock as performed by a group in the hinterlands during that sub-genre’s heyday, we have yet another example of a private press anachronism.

Over the years I’ve heard it said that by destroying the oral culture that preceded it, audio-visual culture—the phonograph, cinema, radio, and television—severely crippled the folk process. The point of such a statement is apparently to demonstrate how sterile and “un-folk” the current epoch is. It is, of course, an oversimplification, and I doubt that folklorists would agree. It is easy to forget that both the act of writing itself and the printing process were once newly emerging technologies that also radically transformed how culture was transmitted. If the printed broadside did not kill the folk process, then neither did the rise of audio-visual culture: it only changed it. The evidence is there in every thrift store record bin for all who would take the time to interpret it.

—Stephen Canner