Review: An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels

In the introduction to his An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels, author Josh MacPhee says that the book is the result of his “semi-obsessive need to organize things” along with a rediscovery of his love for music, something he had temporarily shelved by the early 2000s, “both by a disillusionment with the potentials of political punk and the seeming end of the vinyl record.” In 2014, while helping feminist activist and theorist Silvia Federici sort out her apartment, MacPhee discovered a stack of 7” singles put out by Italian political groups in the 1960s and 70s. These were not punk records, of course, but political folk music, a creative space he had not previous explored. His fascination with what he heard on these discs led to the 2015 political music exhibition, If a Song Could Be Freedom, at Brooklyn’s Interference Archive, of which MacPhee is a co-founder. After a couple more years of research into political music on vinyl, specifically records released by labels with a political agenda as opposed to those that just happened to carry political content, he published An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels in June 2017 in an edition of 100. The initial run sold out almost as quickly as it was released. MacPhee then immediately set out to expand and revise the booklet, releasing a second edition a few months later. The new edition has entries for an additional 90 or so labels and has corrected many errors.

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The Encyclopedia is arranged alphabetically by label name, and most entries bear an illustration of the label’s logo along with a brief description. Reading the work from start to finish, from A to Z, the reader will jump between various political points of view, from decade to decade, and from continent to continent. By about halfway through, however, themes begin to emerge. It quickly becomes apparent how much influence the Chilean coup of September 1973 had on the politically conscious sector of the music world. This is evidenced by the large number of reissues by labels around the world of the music of Victor Jara, the Parra family, and Inti-Illimani, as well as by the number of records released in solidarity with these strong voices of resistance to Chile’s subsequent right-wing junta. Other streams of political activity that inspired musical production also reveal themselves: Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the various African independence movements, and of course anti-Apartheid groups.

The book also reveals clusters of genre. Besides political punk, there are the recordings of an earlier leftist avant-garde scene in the 1970s, particularly in Italy. There is also “progg,” a Scandinavian sub-genre that was progressive in both the musical and political senses. Though the bulk of these labels released some variety of folk music, it quickly becomes clear that “folk” is far too broad a term. While what could be called Anglo-American protest folk—the stereotype most of us are probably used to when we think of political folk music—does appear, there is also nueva canción, nueva trova, and even field recordings of African musicians using traditional forms to express their political hopes.

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Despite its claim to be a compendium of political record labels, MacPhee’s booklet is clearly focused on the leftist and progressive end of the political spectrum. While many of the more abhorrent ultra-right labels emerged after the book’s 1990 cut off date, other labels that were clearly political, but right wing, are glaringly absent. J. D. Miller’s Reb Rebel label, founded in 1966, is an example. It’s understandable why MacPhee would not want to include a label whose output included records that literally celebrated the torture of African-Americans by the Klan, but it seems that, given its focus, a more apt title for the work might be something like An Encyclopedia of Progressive Political Record Labels.

It is works like this one that provide a refreshingly different lens through which to view cultural production in its vinyl form. This is a very valuable thing, as it is often from these sorts of books that previously undocumented micro-histories begin to emerge. MacPhee’s long-term plan is to eventually publish “a compendium of political record covers.” If his research on this project continues, hopefully we will see future editions of the Encyclopedia, with discoveries of even more little-known labels and more information on how those already discovered were interconnected.

—Stephen Canner

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