The Folk Process at 45rpm

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

Music on the Hippie Trail: Laos and The Third Eye, 1968

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Rue Lane Xang, Vientiane, Laos, 1966. Photo: Robert Wofford. Used by permission.

In early April 1968, Peter J. Kumpa of the Baltimore Sun was in Bangkok. In those days the city was something of a staging area for reporters covering the war in Vietnam. It was a place where journalists could find respite from the rigors of location reporting, yet still remain connected to the main flow of information. The rumor in Bangkok was that the entire Mekong Valley—including Vientiane, the capital of Laos—was under threat from an advancing column of North Vietnamese regulars. With no way to verify the rumor but to go and see for himself, Kumpa flew to Vientiane. What he found on arrival was a sleepy, provincial capital city that was unaware of any imminent threat. The passengers on his plane from Bangkok included a handful of American women and their children returning from shopping trips to the metropolis, part of the community of 1700 US officials and their dependents living there at the time.

The rumor turned out to be nothing more than exaggeration. There was fighting far to the south, but it seemed to be contained. Since he was there, however, Kumpa decided to take a look around. Besides the large number of Americans, the city also contained a delegation of Russians, representatives from both North and South Vietnam, as well as from the Pathet Lao, the native Communist faction. What made this situation particularly remarkable was that individuals from these different groups socialized at the same cocktail parties. It was reportedly not uncommon to find the chargés d’affaires for both North and South Vietnam seated next to one another at dinner, with a sprinkling of American and Russian officials around the same table. Added to this mix, Vientiane was an active hub for Air America, the CIA’s not-so-secret private airline. More curious still, the city was home to some 100 European, Australian, and American hippies—travelers who had found the most unlikely terminus to what was then called the Hippie Trail, the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu and beyond.

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Sheldon Cholst, Ventiane, late 1960s. Photographer unknown.

Kumpa’s article was probably the first mention in the US press of the Third Eye, a “psychedelic night club” started by Sheldon Cholst, an American psychiatrist in his mid-40s who had been part of the traveling counterculture since the days of the beatniks. Cholst was famous in Vientiane as the founder of the Free USA Government-in-Exile, an alternative, imaginary government whose proposed constitution included the abolition of all laws against narcotics, birth control, abortion, and polygamy. His home, only 100 yards or so from the US embassy, was a tourist attraction for visiting Russians who would stroll by to view the black and white US flag flying over the compound. Its presence was reportedly also something of an embarrassment to the Lao government, which relied heavily on US aid.

Like other psychedelic nightclubs around the world, The Third Eye’s goal seems to have been to create a space conducive to the psychedelic experience in both its major forms: musical and chemical. The ceiling was covered with tattered parasols and scarves, with dim colored lights shining through them so as to give the room an eerie, shadow-haunted glow. Laos at the time was one of the few countries that had not yet banned marijuana, and joints were sold in the club for only a few cents each. In 1967 Terry Wofford, a British artist and designer, was working in Bangkok. In the early 60s she had performed in a folk music duo with a young Christine Perfect, later to go on to fame in Fleetwood Mac as Christine McVie, but Terry had since given up music for art. She initially traveled to Vientiane in order to renew her Thai visa, but fell in love with the country. She accepted a teaching job at the International School and soon met her future husband, Robert, at the Third Eye. Terry and Robert’s photos from this period are a priceless source of visual documentation of the era and are now part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection. In a letter home from the late 60s, Terry described the Third Eye:

The decor is tremendous. I think I have already described the umbrellas and lights and local bamboo and head scarf effects, simple, cheap and sophisticated. It’s not only the best and most respectable bar in town with a tremendously good folk and rock group but they cook good food in the primitive kitchen in the back. On Saturdays the place gets swamped with [straight] Americans. One young man that worked there bitterly complained that the low, long table they monopolize was their own “scene” (with a long candle in a huge glass bottle) and these . . . Americans started to actually come and sit between them and stare at their furry faces!  Still, their money is needed. The drinks are quite expensive. However for people with little money they provide free iced tea, often free food and even a place to stay for those who are really broke. They are apparently not making a profit. Just about surviving in fact. They work there as they like for a dollar a day. In the back they have a small room where they print and paint. They’ve invited me to use it if I want. It’s amazing the talent among them. They are even opening an art gallery next door. [Terry tells me that she does not believe the art gallery ever opened.]

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Psychedelic art at the Third Eye, 1968. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Vientiane in 1968 seems an unlikely place for a group of hippies to end up. At the time, it was about as close as a civilian could safely get to the Vietnam War, which was raging not only in Vietnam, but in the southern and eastern parts of Laos as well. Though the majority of the travelers undoubtedly opposed the war, when John Riddick of the Tucson Daily Citizen visited the city in September of that year, one of the them told him that the group tended to keep its opinions about the war to itself, and, in general, to not be “antagonistic about anything.” This “under the radar” attitude may well have been the result of events earlier in the year.

On May 16, 1968, the New York Times ran a small piece sourced from the United Press reporting that Laos had ordered 22 hippies to leave the country. It stated that as part of this action, “two of their 5-cent marijuana bars” were closed. One of these was the Third Eye; what the second bar may have been is not currently known. The deportees were scheduled to be bused to the Mekong River ferry east of town and sent downriver to Thailand. This was problematic as Thailand had recently barred “hippie” travelers, but it was thought that the Thai government would allow the deportees to travel to Bangkok in order to find transportation out of the country. In another letter home, Wofford explains the reason for the expulsion:

Did you hear about the fuss made during a Lao festival? The hippies joined in a procession of Buddhists which everyone found hilarious except local officialdom who closed the Eye for one night and started to run some of them out of town. 

Luckily for the traveler community, it had an ally in the prime minister’s Harvard-educated son, Prince Panya Souvanna Phouma. Panya interceded on behalf of the deportees, and the order was revoked. In order for the Third Eye to reopen, however, Panya became half owner of the club. One source says that no money was actually exchanged, so Cholst effectively had part of his business confiscated, but through Panya’s intervention a vital center for the alternative Western community was saved. As conditions for the reprieve, the travelers were ordered to practice better grooming habits, to tone down their “hippie” appearance, and to be less conspicuous in their use of drugs. Panya also introduced three new rules for the Third Eye: no politics (resulting in the removal of posters celebrating Mao and Cholst’s government-in-exile), no drugs, and that the club would begin proper bookkeeping.

Very little research into the musical culture along the Hippie Trail has been done. By the late 1960s, at the western end of the trail, Turkey and Iran had very well developed western-influenced contemporary music scenes. And though the groups in those countries showed clear evidence of the influence of American and British psychedelic bands, the result was more a distinct local hybrid than a case of East copying West. Even the juggernaut that was the Indian scene was not immune to this influence, as evidenced by the Tamla Beat band contests of the 60s and early 70s, artists such as Usha Iyer’s late 60s output, and the 1971 hippie-themed Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Southeast Asia also partook of the musical changes happening in the West. Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam all had vibrant music scenes whose recorded output in the late 60s and early 70s included reworkings of Western tunes and the sound of fuzz-laden guitars. Like their Turkish and Persian contemporaries, these were hybrid sounds, managing to sound distinctively Asian while adhering to a roughly Western structure. But these examples only show the influence going one way: from West to East. It is hard to imagine that among the thousands of Western hippies who trekked the Trail, that at least some of them did not engage with the local music scenes they encountered. Christopher Titmuss, a British traveler who spent time in Vientiane in the late 60s and is now a Buddhist teacher in southwest England, remembers seeing Lao musicians on the streets and hearing local music coming out of loudspeakers in the city. He does not recall any particular interest in Lao music from the international community, however. It seems that the guitar reigned supreme in the musical consciousness of the expats, and what interest there was in the music of the East was in the “sitar, drums and tabla” of India.

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Chanthara Outhensackda

Laos seems to have existed under the musical shadow of its neighbors during this period. There is very little mention of a Laotian recording industry in any of the expected sources. The references that do exist are usually either to Lao artists recording in Thailand, or to the molam genre of music performed by the closely linguistically and ethnically related population of northeast Thailand. Laos did have its own scene, though, however small. Recording artist Chanthara Outhensackda was head of the studio for Lao National Radio from 1968 to 1975 and recorded a number of 45s. In 2010, he confirmed to the Radiodiffusion Internasionaal Annexe blog that these records were recorded in Laos, not Thailand. It is curious when compared to Cambodia—whose recording industry is relatively well documented despite the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror that resulted in the massacre of most of the country’s recording artists—that so little information exists on the Laotian industry. This could be due to the very small size of its actual output or to the fact that the records when found are often mistakenly thought to be Thai. Also, there are very few researchers doing any active work in this area, and among them even fewer have the linguistic skills to make the slightest sense out of the records they find.

The Third Eye seems to have been one of the very few venues on the Hippie Trail that regularly booked Western musicians for a primarily Western audience. At the other end of the Trail, Istanbul’s Pudding Shop is known to have played contemporary western rock music in the background as customers dined, and its back garden was the occasional site of impromptu jam sessions, but there is no evidence that it was a venue in the formal sense. Even the Third Eye was not a venue in the sense of bringing in talent from afar, but relied on the musicians who drifted into town on their own steam. So far, the only Third Eye musicians who have been identified are two members of a combo the Associated Press referred to as The Voyagers: Mark Rankin, a 23-year-old “conscientious objector” from Berkeley, and Tom Hinkle, 25, an ex-soldier from Lexington, North Carolina, who had received his discharge in Europe and simply continued traveling east. An Associated Press photo of this duo exists showing them playing their guitars while riding a water buffalo. It was taken by Eddie Adams, the photographer responsible for the famous image of South Vietnamese National Police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner. Peter Kumpa also reported seeing fliers for a show at the Third Eye featuring a “new Australian guitarist” in April 1968. Another source from a few months later refers to the house band as “Australian-American.” Besides the scene at the Third Eye, Terry Wofford also remembers that there was a Thai FM station that broadcast Western music in the evenings, and on weekends Filipino bands played Western pop music at the Hotel Lang Xang and Seltha Palace, with their “postage stamp dance floors.”

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Western musicians on stage at the Third Eye, 1968. Note the reel-to-reel tape player at right, often used as makeshift amplifiers in the 1960s. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.

Despite the paucity of information on the local native music scene and its associated recording industry, a good amount is known about the Western scene in Vientiane during this period, especially when compared to other gathering points along the Hippie Trail. This is in great part due to the presence of the Third Eye and the unlikelihood of a hippie community existing there. The situation was enough of a curiosity at the time to attract US newspaper coverage. These accounts provide documentary information as well as colorful narratives of life in the city at the time. Of course, this information is invariably from the Western point of view. The full story of the Hippie Trail is not only that of a group of international travelers, but also of every community it moved through and every individual it encountered, directly or indirectly. If the Hippie Trail is ever to be “mapped” with any depth, it is important that the voices of the local communities affected by this great migration are brought into the conversation.

Had Graham Greene been looking towards Indochina for inspiration in the 1960s as he had in the 1950s, the motley community of spies, secret operatives, diplomats, dependents, communists, opportunists, artists, outcasts, musicians, and international hippies living in Vientiane would have made a perfect setting for one of his novels. Terry Wofford is currently working on a memoir of her time in the country, but in the meantime the story of Vientiane in the late 1960s is only documented in fragments, on blogs and in old newspaper articles. The Lao voice is still largely silent in these sources, however. With the recent interest in the Southeast Asian recording scene of the 60s and 70s, especially that of Cambodia, researchers have begun piecing together the history of popular music in the region. Laos is still a shadowy landscape in this narrative, but in time, piece by piece, the full story will hopefully emerge. It appears, though, that if it does, it may well be a story of Western and Lao musicians existing in the same city at the same time, each group being largely unaware of the other’s activity.

—Stephen Canner

Special thanks to Terry Wofford and Christopher Titmuss for taking the time to share their memories with me for this article, and also to Terry for permission to use her priceless photographs.

Resources

Terry & Robert Wofford Laotian Image Collection

AP Photo of Rankin, Hinkle, & Water Buffalo

AP Photo of Hinkle with Ann Burge

Richie and the Acid Casualty

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Michael Burns as Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver, 1967.

On January 12, 1967, the 1950s television series Dragnet was revived after a hiatus of nearly eight years. As if to highlight the fact that the new version of the show was being presented in color, the first episode was called “The LSD Story.” It begins with detectives Friday and Gannon responding to a report that a young man has been spotted in a vacant lot painted “like an Indian” and chewing the bark off a tree. They arrive to find the suspect with his head buried in a pile of loose dirt. When the two officers pull him to his feet it becomes apparent that half his face has been painted blue and the other half yellow. The sugar cubes found in his pocket tell the cops all they need to know. The episode, popularly known as “Blue Boy,” is an early example of hippie exploitation, a sub-genre that would explode later the same year with films such as Hallucination Generation and The Love-Ins. The result of this cinematic disinformation was that LSD became the scapegoat for a whole range of issues affecting America’s youth. When Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from the 6th floor of her West Hollywood apartment on October 4, 1969, toxicology results confirmed that there were no drugs in her system. She had reportedly used LSD in the past, however, so it only took her father’s unfounded statement at a press conference that her death “wasn’t a suicide. She was not herself. She was murdered by the people who manufacture and distribute LSD,” for Diane Linkletter to become one of history’s most famous “acid casualties.”

With the help of newspaper reports, these negative images of LSD became firmly embedded in the “official” narrative, and the acid casualty soon became something of an archetype. The idea was further strengthened at the end of the decade, when both Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Alexander “Skip” Spence of Moby Grape left their respective bands after having mental breakdowns. Their mental disorders were popularly attributed to LSD, despite the fact that Spence was later diagnosed as being schizophrenic and Barrett showed signs that would suggest he suffered from the same condition. The reality appears to be that in most every case the “acid casualty” label was conveniently applied to anyone with mental health issues who had also used LSD at some point. This narrative in which LSD was cast as a drug that had the power to destroy the psyche soon became so strong that even many regular users of LSD believed it.

Around 1970 Richie Nelms was in the US Navy, working as a corpsman in the psychiatric ward of the hospital at the Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina. One patient in the ward had been admitted for a several month stay after having “tripped out on LSD.” He and Nelms became friendly and soon discovered they had something in common: both men were musicians. Nelms borrowed a guitar from the Red Cross, and the pair would often play together. At some point during these sessions the patient suggested they cut a record together. Nelms “thought it was a pipe dream,” but was surprised when some time in 1971, six months after his release, the patient contacted him and asked if he was still interested in going into the studio.

In 1971 if you wanted to cut a record in a professional studio in South Carolina there were few options. The regional market at this time was dominated by Crandel “C. B.” Herndon’s United Music World Recording in West Columbia. Herndon was the owner of a local trucking company and ran the studio as a side business, staffed by professionals, some brought in from Nashville. (For another example of the unlikely relationship between the trucking and recording industries, see my earlier post “The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale.”) The studio did mostly custom work, and its output in the very late 60s and into the 70s was rather prolific. A large number of records were released on its house labels United Music World, Music World, United, and Smoke.

Nelms and his former patient entered the studio in West Columbia armed with a couple of tunes Nelms had written. It is not known whether they brought along their own rhythm section or used local session musicians. The first tune recorded, “Now She’s Gone,” is a forgettably maudlin number with a countrypolitan crooner vibe. The flip, “The Way I Feel,” is more interesting. With a guitar player who has only been identified as an “acid casualty,” the listener might have high hopes that the track could turn out to be an unknown psychedelic masterpiece. In this case, though, one has to strain a bit to find any hint of psychedelia. The arrangement is somewhat sparse, with a single guitar playing wiry lead lines over the bass and drums. Probably the most remarkable thing about the track is that stylistically it does not even remotely sound like it was recorded in 1971. To me, it sounds like a very competent demo by a songwriter hoping to pitch a tune to Gene Pitney circa 1962. This sort of anachronism is an interesting aspect of many custom releases. Styles changed so quickly in the middle decades of the 20th century that even a delay of two or three years between writing a tune and recording it could make it seem hopelessly out of date. In this case, the record was too unself-conscious to be considered a pastiche, appeared far too early to be seen as any sort of revival of its style, and was released far too late to be relevant.

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A thousand copies of the disc were pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and it was released on Music World MW-232 as by The Next Step. The only reason we know as much of this story as we do is because Nelms left a comment on 45cat in 2012 relating how the record was born. I attempted to contact him through the site but got no response. Nelms was only in South Carolina because he was stationed there, so the questions of his origins and his previous musical history are open ones. Perhaps more intriguing is the mystery guitarist. He seemed to know that not only was the possibility of cutting a record not a “pipe dream,” but how to make it happen. Because of this, it’s tempting to speculate that he had recorded before, but where and with whom? At the moment, he is a complete cipher. It’s important not to make too much of the guitarist’s hospitalization. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of pressures a young man in the US military in 1970 faced. With a transfer to Vietnam as close as the anonymous stroke of an administrator’s pen, turning to drugs as an escape from stress is not a surprising choice. A breakdown, with or without drugs, is also something that could easily happen to most anyone placed in such a situation. It is only because of the pre-existing “acid casualty” narrative, one constructed from distorted media portrayals of LSD, assumptions, and folklore, that he bears this label in our story. Most likely he was a musician who was drafted and temporarily crumpled under the pressure of his situation. Perhaps someday he will emerge and tell his own story.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

The Next Step: “The Way I Feel”

Dragnet: “The LSD Story”

 

Mystery Vinyl and the Art of Detection

There are few greater joys to the researcher-collector than acquiring a new piece of vinyl about which little or nothing is known. When an Internet search and the standard reference books fail to turn up any information, an exercise in inductive reasoning begins. After taking into account the record’s provenance, chiefly considering where and how it was found, the next step is to research the label itself. By checking Discogs or 45cat it is often possible to find other releases on the same label. This can provide hints as to geography and date, as well as give a bit of context based on what other sorts of records the label released. Looking at songwriting credits can sometimes provide the names of band members. Any information about who produced or engineered the record can also be helpful. Publishing information can be another clue, as sometimes a particular publishing imprint is known to be associated with certain individuals or a certain city. Examining the matrix numbers etched into the dead wax can be a hint as to where the record was manufactured. Since the numbering schemes of the big pressing plants of the 1960s and 70s have been heavily researched, it’s often possible to date the record this way. The last resort of the frustrated researcher is often to listen to the record for lyrical content. Does the vocalist reference a town or a local landmark that might be a clue as to where the artist was based?

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Sometimes a record fails to provide even these most basic points of entry to the researcher. An example is a 45 on Angelus Records by a band called Acid Test. The disc, “What Do I Love?” b/w “Make Her Mine,” released as Angelus WR 4803, stubbornly refuses to give up much information. A reasonable amount is known about Angelus Records as it was relatively prolific, operating in Los Angeles from at least the early 1960s until the late 1970s. It was a custom label that primarily released forgettable gospel records, although odd gems like Stone Garden’s “Oceans Inside Me” 45 or the Moon Blood LP by Christian psych band Fraction do turn up. Besides a rough guess as to the year of release based on the catalog number—late 1960s—there is nothing else on the disc to help the researcher. No songwriting credits or other names, no publishing information, and the number inscribed in the dead wax is only a repeat of the catalog number. According to the collector grapevine, there are two known copies of the Acid Test disc, one found in Spokane and the other in northwest Montana. This hints that the band may have been from that region. Often, this sort of circumstantial information is all that is “known” about a disc.

A mystery disc in my own collection that yields a bit more information, but barely, is Cynthia Kellems’ “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar” on the Where Rainbows End label. This appears to be a vanity label created by Kellems herself. The copyright is given as “1979 Ms. Brown.” There is no publishing information except for a reference to BMI, but a search of the BMI repertoire database turns up nothing on Kellems. The numbers on the dead wax (X-5344/Sonata and X-5345/Lily-Lavendar) do not jibe with the format of any pressing plant I’m familiar with. The dealer I bought it from told me that he acquired it in San Francisco in a batch of records that had previously belonged to a radio station. There seem to be a number of people named Cynthia Kellems in the US, and I reached out to one of them, a southern California realtor. She seemed amused by the question but confirmed that she was not the same Cynthia who made the record and, despite the less- than-common surname, had no knowledge of who the mystery artist might be.

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This record is almost completely unknown, but has the potential to become something of a cult favorite, especially if it were comped along with a nice collection of similar material. Despite its relatively late copyright date, it is dark, avant-outsider folk, which gives it the feel of an earlier era. The record fits the “loner folk” category, and some might go as far as calling it “downer” or even “wristcutter folk.” It really doesn’t sound like anything else, though. To get an idea, imagine that the Fair brothers of Half Japanese had a morose little sister who decided to become a folk singer, or that one of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs locked herself in her room late one night with an acoustic guitar and laid her heart out into a cassette recorder. The dissonant guitar playing is inept to the point of brilliance. There’s something so primitive about it as to sound nearly ancient. The lyrics seem to be Cynthia’s poems set to music or perhaps even completely made up on the spot. There’s a free-associative vibe that makes it hard to tell whether we are in the presence of composition or improvisation. This is folk music sui generis.

One possible hint as to the geographical origin of the record is found in the lyrics. With Kellems’ odd delivery buried under layers of reverb, it’s often difficult to clearly understand what is being said. But at one point in “Lily-Lavendar” she clearly says, “Sons of Catalina shall titillate you gently.” The United Sons of Catalina was a Filipino-American fraternal mutual aid society that existed in several cities in California prior to World War Two. Is this nothing more than a coincidence, a songwriter creating a poetic image that just happens to coincide with something in the real world? Or does this line mean that she was aware of the organization, either through a family connection or by seeing the name on the sign of a decaying local lodge building? If so, this would imply that she was indeed based in California. As rickety as this sort of reasoning is, it is a good example of the very fragile framework upon which initial research into a disc like this is often built.

The dead ends can outnumber the leads, and the researcher is often left with no more firm information than existed at the beginning of the process. This is a common situation with the most obscure discs. What sometimes happens is that someone involved with the record, or a family member, discovers a blog post or a Youtube video and comments on it. More than one vinyl mystery has been solved this way. Hopefully, Cynthia or someone else with inside knowledge of this disc will see this post and help us shed light on it.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Cynthia Kellems: “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar”

The Semiotic of Resistance: Blossom Toes in Czechoslovakia

On September 14, 1969, London’s Observer ran an article written by Colin Smith, who later became well known for his coverage of the conflicts in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Unlike his later reportage from war zones, this article dealt with the pop music scene in Prague. In September 1969, Czechoslovakia had recently endured—celebrated is not the right word—the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. After what began as a popularly supported liberalization and democratization of the country, Prague was entering its second year of what would turn out to be two decades of disillusionment.

When Smith visited the country in September 1969, however, he found that a vibrant youth culture had survived despite recent events. The young people of Prague, in contrast to “young East German tourists in their baggy grey suits,” “would not have looked out of place up the West End on a Saturday night.” The Prague version of King’s Road chic involved cheaper imitations of London fashion: “gaily colored nylon battle blouses and heavy mod shoes made in Yugoslavia.” Many of them also wore small lapel badges bearing pictures of Alexander Dubček, the recently deposed First Secretary of the Communist Party who was largely responsible for launching the previous year’s reforms.

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Blossom Toes: If Only for a Moment LP, July 1969.

The occasion for Smith’s article was the rare tour of a British psychedelic rock group in the country. Blossom Toes arrived in Czechoslovakia around the first of the month for a 16-day tour of the nation. It appears the group likely played a number of shows in provincial towns, but research so far only turns up confirmation of two gigs in the country. Some time early in the month, the band played an outdoor show in Jihlava, about 80 miles southeast of Prague. In recounting this event Smith describes Blossom Toes’ music as “a strange hybrid of beat and electric guitar Asian jazz.” He adds that the “teeny-bopper audience threw coins and lighted cigarettes on the stage” because the band wouldn’t play rock and roll. From our point of view in history both the description of the band’s music and the audience reaction might seem rather curious. But in September 1969 Blossom Toes were touring on their second album, If Only for a Moment, released the previous July. Whereas the songs on the group’s first album still contained more or less identifiable pop music structures despite a heavy dose of lysergic fuzz, a few tracks on the second album showed the group moving in a more fluid, psych-blues direction. Although the concept of rock music deconstructing itself into bluesy psychedelic soundscapes was already becoming familiar to cosmopolitan American audiences, it was still a very new thing in the backwaters of the Iron Curtain where most familiarity with Western music came from the big capitalist pop stations: Radio Luxembourg, VOA, and the BBC. Interestingly, the song the Jihlava teens most wanted to hear was “Back in the USSR.” Smith found this a curious choice in that the song was basically “a panegyric to Russian womanhood,” until he realized most of the audience only understood the title. “The emphasis was on back,” he says.

In Prague, fans were more familiar with Blossom Toes’ current direction, and were more tuned into the UK scene in general. The band originally had a number of concerts scheduled in Prague, but they were all cancelled “for political reasons.” Somehow, late in the tour, “ a chance meeting with some Czech beat musicians in a basement night club” led to a hurriedly arranged show at Prague’s illustrious Smetana Hall. To put this into context, this would be as if a European band arrived in New York City to find that its club dates had been cancelled, only to soon find itself booked at Carnegie Hall through a chance meeting.

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Prague’s Smetana Hall

The main point of Smith’s piece in the Observer was to illustrate how the western trappings of pop music functioned as symbols of resistance in Czechoslovakia. Long hair on men, “battle blouses,” and cheap Yugoslavian “mod shoes” transmitted a message as clearly as did more overt gestures like wearing a Dubček lapel badge. Smith stated it clearly, “Among young people, even the educated young, Western pop music seems to be synonymous with the resistance.” Acts of resistance could be as simple as illegally putting up fliers to advertise the Smetana Hall show, or walking past the Russian commandant’s office in Bratislava with tiny transistor radios tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

It’s not clear how Blossom Toes’ 1969 tour of Czechoslovakia transpired. Who booked it? What forces behind the Iron Curtain approved it only to cancel many of the shows once the band was in the country? What is clear is that Blossom Toes were an unlikely symbol of resistance. While their second album opens with “Peace Loving Man,” probably the closest thing to a political song they ever recorded, much of their repertoire was made up of tunes like “I’ll Be Late for Tea” or “Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar,” hardly the stuff to encourage Molotov cocktails in the streets. The resistance, it seems, was in the form, not the content. Perhaps this absence of an overtly political posture was a factor in allowing them into the country in the first place. There’s little evidence that the band was considered particularly radical in the UK or in Western Europe. But because they briefly entered a space with its own prevailing semiotic—where symbols meant different things than at home—for a couple of weeks in 1969, Blossom Toes were revolutionary.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man

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

Resources

Ordering Info from Justseeds

Tragedy Protecting: A Louisville Tale

Like many cultural artifacts, 45 rpm singles often act as narrative lightning rods. Stories seem to cluster around them, especially the smaller, independent releases. It often feels like this catalytic quality is directly proportional to how far from the main channel of the music industry the disc emerged. In moving from obscurity to being noticed, on however small a scale, a record will pull threads of narrative into the light along with it.

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A winter scene in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960s

On the afternoon of December 30, 1969, police responded to a call of suspicious activity at Greenwell’s Market at the corner of 25th and Osage in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. By the end of the day, due to a botched robbery attempt, two of the responding officers were dead and another two were clinging to life in a local hospital.

Sergeant Edgar N. Kelley, a police officer in nearby Jeffersontown, had long fancied himself a poet. It wasn’t long after hearing of the deaths of Detective James Ratliff and Patrolman Donald Gaskin that he composed a pair of poems to memorialize the two dead men. The first, “Tragedy Protecting,” was a straightforward recounting of the events of December 30. The second, “He’ll Never See the Springtime,” looked at the tragedy through the eyes of the widow of one of the fallen officers. Kelley took the poems into the police station and circulated them among his friends there. “Everybody kept telling me to put them to music,” he later told the Louisville Courier-Journal. So he went off in search of musicians who were up to the task.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the independent rock scene in Louisville was dominated by an organization that curiously called itself SAMBO, Inc. SAMBO was formed in 1959 by a pair of local musicians—Hardy Martin and Floyd Lewellyn, who would soon change his name to Ray Allen—who had proven themselves very successful at self-promotion. Seeing their success, other musicians began approaching them for help, and before long they found themselves something of a local music powerhouse. SAMBO stood for Sanders, Allen, & Martin Booking Office, Jack Sanders being a local DJ who helped the duo by providing airplay for their acts in their early days. Soon, the enterprise consisted of a booking agency called Triangle Talent, at least three publishing companies, a number of record labels, and a recording studio located in a converted house at 9912 Taylorsville Road, just on the edge of Jeffersontown. During the heyday of the post-Beatles 1960s rock boom, Allen and Martin were responsible for booking, recording, and promoting most any rock act of note in the greater Louisville area. This dominance extended even outside the city limits, as Triangle Talent booked gigs as far away as Mitchell and Jasper, Indiana, and Lebanon, Kentucky. In August 1966 the partners told Billboard magazine that their little enterprise was grossing $250,000 in annual revenue, a huge sum in those days.

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Triangle Talent ad, 1967

By early 1970 when Kelley set off in search of someone to record his poems, SAMBO had become Allen-Martin Productions. Asking around the local scene, it is likely that anyone in the know would have pointed Kelley in the direction of Allen and Martin to find local musicians to work with.

Evidence suggests that it was indeed Allen and Martin who put Kelley in touch with a local band, The Opposite Reaction. Little is known about this group except that they “played in Louisville-area nightclubs” and had broken up by July of 1970. The group donated its services to the project, recording both of Kelley’s poems in May, almost certainly in the Allen-Martin studio on Taylorsville Road. The record was quickly pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and appeared on the unfortunately-named Trump label, one of many label names used by Allen and Martin. The disc was offered for sale at the traffic bureau of the Louisville Police Department by the end of the month, and later at the Jeffersontown town hall. Although it’s unlikely that Kelley actually set the poems to music himself, both sides are credited solely to him, with Allen and Martin’s Falls City Music—which shows up on the label as “Fall City,” an apparent typo—listed as publisher.

According to a June 1970 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kelley was worried about being accused of capitalizing on the deaths of the officers. “Everything above the $450 I spent getting the records made will go to the Louisville Police Officers’ Association,” he told the paper. A follow-up article in late July stated that the initial pressing of 1,000 copies had sold out very quickly, and that Kelley had ordered another 2,000 pressed. Reportedly, the record had been sent to five local radio stations but had not yet received airplay, although one local station told Kelley that the disc was “under review.”

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Listening to a copy of the disc, it becomes clear why local radio would be hesitant to play it. Despite the best of intentions, Kelley’s creation sounds like exactly what it is: a song poem record. In the 1960s and 1970s companies ran ads in magazines offering to set aspiring songwriters’ lyrics to music. As long as the fee was included, these outfits would record a musical arrangement of the lyrics and press a short run of a disc, no matter the quality. The thousands of discs that resulted from this practice are known as song poem records. Many of them are hilariously bad. Most of them are just bad. Even though Kelley managed the release on his own, the result was still very similar to the output from the song poem houses.

Kelley’s lyrics are basically doggerel. Forced rhymes, clunky meter, and saccharine sentiments place him firmly in the world of the amateur poet-lyricists the song poem companies so eagerly preyed upon:

It was a cold day with snow on the street
Police cars were answering a call, not knowing death they would meet

If the disc is representative of the group’s usual sound, Opposite Reaction seems to have been a lounge-rock band, a style that was very common in the late 60s and early 70s. Lounge rock combined pop-rock sensibilities with touches of jazz and folk. The result was usually an uninspired, inoffensive music that passed for hip to the traveling salesmen and adulterous couples who frequented the cocktail lounges in which this style briefly thrived. This is the musical space that Opposite Reaction apparently inhabited. The slightly nasal delivery of the female vocalist and the band’s overall sound are competent enough, but the performance has the lackluster feel of a local Holiday Inn act, which only adds to the amateur song poem vibe of the record.

A tragic local event, an earnest scribbler of doggerel, and the complex machinations of the regional music scene all intersect in the birth of this thin slice of vinyl. The pressing plant in Nashville, the members of Opposite Reaction, the music directors at the radio stations who politely ignored it, and anyone who bought the record (or found it while crate digging three decades later) all become part of the story. Had Kelley not decided to have his poems set to music, the threads of this tale would be disconnected from one another, lost in an infinite mire of possibilities. The creation of the record becomes an act of storytelling that far transcends Kelley’s original intent. The core event, the death of the police officers, is no longer the tale, but only its beginning.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Side A: He Will Never See the Springtime

Side B: Tragedy Protecting