The Farmer Feeds Us All: The Origin and Evolution of a Grange Anthem

The following is adapted from a paper I delivered at the Perspectives on American Freemasonry and Fraternalism Symposium, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, MA, 11 April 2014.

The role of music during the “golden age” of fraternal societies remains a relatively unexplored area within the growing body of fraternal scholarship. Music—odes and marches in particular—played an important role in fraternal rituals; typically performed on organs and sung by members, these songs signaled and underscored key events in rituals. Outside the lodges, fraternal bands helped to popularize societies at public events, especially parades. At the same time, the growing popularity of secret societies was reflected in popular music.

One song that emerged from this milieu was “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” written by the American composer, author, and evangelist Knowles Shaw. First published in 1874, the song would become an anthem for The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange, before crossing over into the popular realm, where it occupies an important place in the history of American music.

Evidence suggests that Shaw’s song was inspired by two lithographs related to agriculture and the Grange, published in 1869 and 1873 respectively, and the song itself may have influenced the creation of a third lithograph, published in 1875. Through a comparison of visual elements and song lyrics, we can explore the ways the song reflected and may have influenced these popular visual images, and how together they reinforced the Order’s philosophy and values.

In 1869, The Chicago Lithographing Company published a lithograph entitled “The Farmer Pays For All.” It was commissioned by Prairie Farmer magazine, one of the largest agricultural magazines of the era, and one that most midwestern farmers would have been familiar with. In the February 26, 1870 edition, an announcement appeared stating that the publication had run out of its special annual issue that subscribers were entitled to, but would send out copies of this lithograph in its place. The print was also available for sale in monochrome at 50 cents or in color at $1 per copy to anyone who wrote in requesting one.

The lithograph was based on a device that first appeared on British pub signs in the Middle Ages. On these signs, society was divided into five sectors, each represented by an archetypal figure, such as the soldier, the cleric, or the king, each with a motto appropriate to the role: “I Fight for All,” “I Pray for All,” or “I Rule for All.” Early examples often included the devil (“I Take All”), but by the 19th century the devil was sometimes replaced by John Bull, the symbol of the British populace. His motto, “I Pay for All,” was an acerbic comment on the fact that the highest stations of society relied entirely on the taxes and rents paid by the lower classes to maintain their lofty positions.

The central image of the 1869 lithograph was a farmer in an idealized rural landscape, his sleeves rolled up, breaking the soil with a spade. Surrounding him was a series of vignettes showing the archetypal figures who played important roles in 19th-century American society—the army officer, the merchant, and the clergyman. As in the British original, each figure bore a motto reiterating his role in society. The figure of John Bull was now replaced, not by Uncle Sam or some other symbol of the American everyman, but by the yeoman farmer. Beneath him was John Bull’s punch line: “I Pay for All.” 

The idea that the farmer was the backbone of the American economy, and that all avenues of American culture and commerce ultimately relied upon him in order to exist, was one that would not be lost on most 19th-century agricultural workers. The British sense of class distinction is still preserved in the image, as the figures framing the piece all fill moneyed, white-collar roles. The message of class division is clear: no matter how “high and mighty” someone might be in America, his station is dependent upon the toil of humble farmers working the soil, filling the cornucopia that provides both wealth and sustenance. What humble toiler of the soil wouldn’t be proud to hang such a sentiment on the farmhouse wall?

In May 1868, Prairie Farmer announced that a “Grange” of a new secret order called The Patrons of Husbandry had been founded in Chicago. The article listed the “character and objects of the order,” making special note that “its principles are based upon the fact that the products of the soil comprise the basis of all wealth—that the art of agriculture is the parent and precursor of all arts.” Although I have found no evidence that the lithograph offered by this same magazine the following year had any direct connection with the Grange, the “character and objects of the order” and those reflected in the 1869 lithograph are identical.

Oliver Hudson Kelley

Just after the Civil War, Oliver Hudson Kelley, an easterner who had moved west to Minnesota to take up farming in his younger years, and later worked for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, developed a unique vision for a “Secret Society of Agriculturists,” based on the model of Freemasonry. In 1867, along with six other men, many of them high-degree Masons like himself, and one woman, Kelley founded the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange. Despite its populist ideals, the organization’s structure was modeled on the English feudal system. State, county, and local chapters were called “granges,” the term used for smaller farms in Britain that made up the larger baronial estates. There were seven degrees of membership, the first four corresponding to the seasons of the year.

The Grange movement was hugely successful and spread quickly across the country’s agricultural regions. By 1875 the Order of Patrons of Husbandry could claim 800,000 members. Early on, the Grange’s role became that of a national political advocacy organization, whose goal it was to address the problems that farmers were facing in a climate in which urbanization and industrialization were quickly transforming the nation’s economy. The railroads were a particular favorite target of its political activity, especially regarding the cost to transport produce to distant markets. The Order also addressed issues such as agricultural overproduction, the high cost of farm machinery, inflation, and the abusive practice of crop mortgages, where high interest rates often left farmers destitute. By the last quarter of the 19th century the Grange had become engrained in rural American society.

Knowles Shaw, a man with a powerful beard

When Knowles Shaw moved to Neosho County, Kansas in 1871, the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry was just beginning the massive growth that would see it become an integral part of the rural landscape, especially in Midwestern states such as Kansas. Shaw was born in Butler County, Ohio, on October 13, 1834, but moved with his family to Rush County, Indiana just a few weeks after his birth. His family were farmers, and Indiana in those days still had something of the frontier feel about it. While still very young, he inherited a violin and soon began playing at local dances, where he gained a reputation as the best fiddler in the area. Like his older contemporary Abraham Lincoln, he was very tall, well over six feet, and had a keen desire for education. He managed to pick up a bit of Latin and Greek from a self-professed teacher of those subjects, but most of his learning was self-directed. One neighbor said about him, “Knowles Shaw’s head was like a tar-bucket, for everything that touched it stuck to it.”

In frontier America the fiddle was often called “the devil’s box,” as the whiskey-fueled dances over which it presided were seen as nothing but convocations of sin by the more pious members of the community. It was during one of these bacchanals that Shaw had a religious conversion in the middle of a particularly raucous dance tune. Although he was something of a local celebrity, and playing music brought in part of his income, he laid down his fiddle, walked to the middle of the dance floor, and announced to the assembled crowd that he would never play for another dance. He told them his new path was a religious one, and left the disappointed gathering to consider this turn of events in bewildered silence.

In the 1850s Shaw moved to Missouri and began to preach locally. By 1861, he was an active evangelist preaching across several counties. Though he had given up the fiddle long before, he had not forsaken his musical talent altogether. He continued to compose and to play music; he simply turned his energies from the secular to the sacred. His services were often peppered with his own hymns. His charisma and natural way with people helped his ministry grow very quickly, and by the late 1860s and into the 1870s his travels were taking him as far afield as Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. Around 1871, he moved his family to Neosho County, in southeastern Kansas, and it was here that Shaw first made his mark on the history of American music.

In 1874, Shaw penned a hymn that would ensure his place in the canon of American sacred music. Based on a verse from Psalm 126, “Bringing in the Sheaves” was destined to become one of the most enduring songs written in 19th-century America, secular or sacred. It is tempting to say that the composition of the piece was also inspired by the sight of Kansas farmers bringing in the wheat harvest, or the exciting ways in which farmers were beginning to exert their own political and economic power, but that would only be a guess. What we do know is that by this period, particularly rural and agrarian themes had begun to appear in Shaw’s musical compositions.

On January 14, 1874 the Neosho County Journal published a poem by Knowles Shaw, called “The Farmer Feeds Us All.” The paper noted that it was composed at Thayer, Kansas, on January 1, 1874, and was dedicated to the Grange. No documentation has yet come to light regarding Shaw’s connection with the Grange, but the organization was very active in Neosho County during his time there, and it is extremely likely that at the very least many of his parishioners and neighbors would have been members of the organization.

Shaw’s poem “The Farmer Feeds Us All” follows the same theme and makes the same point as the 1869 lithograph of the same name:

You may talk of all the nobles of the earth,
Of the kings who hold the nations in their thrall,
Yet in this we all agree, if we only look and see,
That the farmer is the man that feeds us all.

From this first mention of nobility and royalty, Shaw takes us down the hierarchy from president, to Congress, to speculators, to preacher, doctor, and lawyer, and then finally to tailor and smith. The verses make it clear that no matter how high or humble our role in society, we would all starve to death without the farmer. It’s apparent that Shaw took his inspiration from the 1869 lithograph offered by the Prairie Farmer, but he dedicated the poem to the Grange, and indeed, one stanza deals specifically with the Patrons of Husbandry, while placing the farmer unambiguously at the top of the hierarchy:

Now the Patrons true, are coming to the fight,
And their armies, too, are not the weak and small,
So, God bless them, while we sing, that the farmer is the King, 
For the farmer is the man that feeds us all

Besides the obvious shared themes, how were this early print and the Grange connected in Shaw’s mind? There does exist a further intriguing piece of evidence.

In 1873, the year before Shaw’s poem appeared, Strobridge and Company Lithographers of Cincinnati published a chromolithograph entitled “Gift for the Grangers.” As was common with chromolithographs created for other fraternal societies, this colorful print was marketed to Grange members to decorate their homes and to indicate their membership in the organization. It sold for the price of $2. There is no doubt that the print was based on the earlier lithograph, “The Farmer Pays For All.” The central figure in “Gift for the Grangers” strikes the same pose and holds the same spade as the one in the original lithograph. Most telling, beneath his spade the slogan from the 1869 print, “I Pay for All” is presented here without the context in the original. In “Gift for the Grangers” the figure has been somewhat softened and appears to be a farmer of a more sensitive nature, perhaps one who reads poetry by the fire in the evening. He still breaks the soil before an idealized tableau of American agriculture, but here, instead of archetypes of the captains of society and industry, he is framed by vignettes of idealized agrarian life and Grange activities, including a Grange meeting. 

As elegant as this image appears to us today, it was not a universal success in its own day. Upon its appearance, The Rural Carolinian of Charleston, South Carolina, sniffed: “The general idea of the composition is a good one—better than the execution. ‘Grangers,’ whoever they may be, will no doubt buy it. We do not answer to that name, being simply a Patron of Husbandry.”

Knowles Shaw added music to his poem and in 1874 entered a copyright for the “The Farmer Feeds Us All” with the Library of Congress. It was published that year by Thompson and Odell in Boston, a firm that not only published sheet music, but also manufactured banjos and other musical instruments. The cover showed a farmstead, much more prosaic than those in the lithographs, crowded with every sort of imaginable livestock, from cows to peacocks. Above the title of the piece stood the dedication: “To the Patrons of Husbandry.’’

In 1875, the American Oleograph Company in Milwaukee published a chromolithograph to celebrate the country’s upcoming centennial. This image again featured a farmer as its central figure, this time leaning against his plow, framed by the now familiar societal archetypes and their mottos. Here the earlier motto, “I Pay for All,” telling us that the farmer provides the economic wherewithal for society to function, has been replaced with “I Feed You All!” The farmer’s role is now even more fundamental. In place of the earlier depiction of the farmer as the foundation on which the complex American economy was built, he was now cast in a similar but much simpler role: the provider of food. Without the farmer, not only would the doctors and lawyers of the nation be unable to maintain their economic positions, but they would literally starve to death. Although no examples have yet come to light, the 17th-century English nonconformist cleric George Swinnock mentions in his writings that 16th-century Calvinist cleric Theodore Beza made a puzzling reference to a “table” showing the image of a “countryman” in this context bearing the motto “I Feed You All.”

In the 1869 lithograph, the role of ruler had been omitted. The 1875 print, however, includes the US president, in what appears to be an idealized, and much thinner, version of Ulysses S. Grant, bearing the motto “I Rule for All.” It is possible that the unknown artist was working from a pre-Victorian English source, one that included the king, and simply translated it for the American audience. It is tempting, though, to hypothesize that the artist had the second verse of Knowles Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All” in mind:

There’s the President who occupies the chair
Of the nation in the mighty Congress hall.

 In the original 1869 lithograph, the farmer was portrayed as the economic backbone of the nation. Knowles Shaw’s 1874 song, “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” shifted this idea from the theoretical macroeconomic to the specific: the farmer provides food. The 1875 lithograph, by changing the motto from “I Pay for All” to “I Feed You All,” directly follows the song’s reorganization of this idea.

From its publication in 1874 until the 1890s, we can only trace Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All” through oblique hints, such as its possible influence on the 1875 lithograph. The greater body of evidence shows, though, that during this time it was firmly insinuating itself into the American folk tradition. The song was included in the 1891 edition of Grange Melodies, the official songbook of the Grange.

Since its beginnings the organization had used music in its meetings to lighten the mood between sessions of serious and often dull and dry business. Some of these tunes were adaptations of familiar songs, like “Rally Round the Grange,” based on George Frederick Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” better known as “Rally Round the Flag,” and some were originals. The original songs that became popular in the Grange movement overall quickly became familiar to a very large body of rural Americans, many of them the most influential in their communities.

Given that making music at home was a time honored 19th-century American tradition, it is likely that many “official” Grange tunes moved quickly from the Grange hall and into the parlor, and thus into wider American culture. On January 13, 1891 the local farmer’s institute in La Monte, Missouri, was opened with a singing of “The Farmer Feeds Us All.” Carl Sandburg learned the song from an old-time fiddler who would sing it as the pair washed milk cans on winter afternoons in 1890s Illinois. During this period, the song was not only becoming more popular, but was being transformed by the folk tradition as well.

On November 7, 1923, an Atlanta elevator operator named John Carson entered the Okeh recording studios in New York City to record his version of Shaw’s song, retitled “The Farmer is the Man That Feeds Them All.” Having been invited to New York by the label after initial success with two songs he had recorded for them in Atlanta earlier in the year, this session was one of the earliest experiments in recording and marketing what was later to become known as country music. It is not clear where or when Carson learned the song, but he likely picked it up from other musicians as part of a shared body of folk repertoire that was regularly played at dances and other events. Carson’s version of the tune appears to be a mild parody of Shaw’s original:

While the women uses snuff, and they never get enough,
But the farmer is the man that feeds them all.
And the lawyer, I’ll declare, will tell a lie and swear.
But the farmer is the man that feeds them all.

At first glance, it might appear that this transformation of the song’s verses into lightly humorous ones may have happened outside the sanctified walls of Grange hall meetings, but a look through the 1891 edition of Grange Melodies shows that even in their official songbook Grangers were capable of self-deprecating humor. James L. Orr’s “Because He Joined the Grange” is a comic tale of a Granger not getting the girl he loved simply because her father objects that, “He’ll not amount to anything because he’s joined the Grange.” Its appearance in the official songbook implies that it was sung during lighter moments at official Grange events, so it’s not unimaginable that a playful version of “The Farmer Feeds Us All” could also have arisen within the Grange itself. 

Carson’s rough, unpolished, barnyard version of the song has become a legendary part of the history of early recordings of American vernacular music. Along with his version of “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” recorded earlier in 1923, “The Farmer is the Man That Feeds Them All” is often cited as one of the earliest commercial successes in the newly-emerging genre of recorded country music. By the Roosevelt era, Carson had modified the song yet again as a form of mild social protest. In 1934, he recorded a version called “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Them All” for Victor’s Bluebird label.

In 1930, in Memphis, the duo of Frank Wheeler and Monroe Lamb recorded their rendition of the song. They used Shaw’s original lyrics but slightly modified the title and universalized the song by changing the word “Patrons” in the sixth verse to “farmers.” “The Farmer Feeds Them All” was released on the Victor label in the spring of 1931. Since then the song has become something of a minor standard among folk and old-time musicians. It has been performed and recorded in all its various forms by countless musicians throughout the years. The New Lost City Ramblers recorded Carson’s updated “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Them All” in 1959, which was revived by Ry Cooder in 1972, and in the early 1990s Pete Seeger released his version of Carson’s take on the original tune on an LP called American Industrial Ballads.

There are still many unanswered questions that warrant further research regarding the creation and transmission of both “The Farmer Feeds Us All” and the associated lithographs, particularly establishing any early formal connections with the Grange. From what we do know, though, the story of “The Farmer Feeds Us All” is a very American one. Its source appears to lie in medieval England, where the original idea of the peasant bearing the economic weight of society upon his shoulders first arose.

The song was crafted by an evangelist who had moved west along with the expanding agrarian population of the country, and written in response to the self-reliant spirit he witnessed there, a spirit embodied in the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange. It began its journey as a poem published in a small-town newspaper, and ended up a standard of the American folk music canon. The original medieval idea, the three 19th-century lithographs, and Shaw’s “The Farmer Feeds Us All,” are all reflections of a founding principle of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—“that the products of the soil comprise the basis of all wealth.”

Today, when a folk singer performs the song as a quaint relic of yesteryear, he or she is invoking a simple idea that elevated the farmer’s role from one near the bottom of the societal hierarchy to one crucial to the very existence of the nation. With songs like “The Farmer Feeds Us All” as their rallying cry, farmers took this newfound sense of status and began to organize and exert their political and economic power through fraternal organizations like the Grange. No longer simply manure-stained sons and daughters of the soil living on forgotten, isolated farmsteads, farmers were now, like the archetypal figures at the top of society depicted in the popular lithographs, an economic and political force to be reckoned with.

—Stephen Canner 

Further Reading

For more information on the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, see As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 (Lynne Adele & Bruce Lee Webb, foreword by David Byrne, University of Texas Press, 2015).

Mystery Solved? A Mark Probert Update

Last year I wrote a piece on the discovery of a previously unknown 1955 vinyl LP by trance medium Mark Probert, an article that was later republished by We Are the Mutants. At the time I assumed the record in question was a one-off custom pressing, probably released in a stock jacket bearing a generic graphic with very little information other than the name of the release. Until a copy turned up, however, there was no way to know much about this record beyond what appeared in the original advertisement announcing its existence. But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, sometimes clues to these sorts of mystery discs arrive from oblique angles.

Last week David Metcalfe contacted me to let me know that Steve Intermill from the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft & Magick in Cleveland had recently purchased another unknown album by Mark Probert from an eBay seller. Like our mystery disc, this one was a transcript of Probert channeling one of his “controls”—in this case ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse. This copy, released on The Inner Circle label, was pressed on blue vinyl and came in a plain, dark blue jacket.

Granted, the discovery of this disc does not directly answer many questions about Probert’s earlier recording in which he channeled ancient sage Yada Di Shi’ite, but it does provide some clues. The disc was released with the catalog number ICR-6004, which implies that this was the fourth (or even perhaps the fifth) release on the label. Its appearance in a plain, unmarked jacket—undoubtedly a cost-saving measure—also suggests that the first disc may have been issued this way as well. This may also account for why these discs have flown under the collector radar for so long. Flipping past a blank jacket after going through 100 boxes of easy listening and light classical LPs is a fatigue-induced oversight that even the most committed crate digger can make. The generic packaging along with the esoteric nature of the material also leads to the suspicion that no more than a few hundred copies of either disc were probably ever pressed.

The newly discovered recording consists of a lecture given to a live audience by Probert during a séance in which he allegedly channeled the spirit of Lao-Tse (these days more commonly spelled Lao Tzu or Laozi), the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching. During the talk, Probert’s (or Lao’s, if you prefer) accent is nearly impenetrable. It must be remembered here that Probert, by his own admission, was an old vaudevillian. Doing “funny accents” was very much a staple of the vaudeville stage. The lecture itself is less a treatise on classical Taoism than a vague smattering of Buddhist and New Age ideas, with a dash of the Human Potential Movement thrown in.

One aspect of Probert’s career that I did not cover in my original article is that a large number of recordings of his séances have been released on tape. Many of these were issued as cassettes by The Inner Circle Teachers of Light Universal Life Church (who seemed to take a worshipful, even cultic, attitude towards Yada Di Shi’ite). There also existed something called the Mark Probert Memorial Foundation. One of its stated goals was to “preserve tape recordings of sessions with Mark Probert.” Reel to reel tapes of his séances certainly also turn up. While his channeled lectures were originally recorded on reel to reel, it’s not yet clear to me whether copies were offered for sale in this format or only changed hands as part of the very vibrant tape trading network that emerged soon after the first consumer reel to reel players appeared.

Although the discovery of the Lao-Tse disc gives us a potential model for what the “lost” 1955 Yada disc may have looked like, it also raises other questions. Is this indeed the same label that the earlier disc was issued on? The original ad lists the label name as “Inner Circle Records,” but the newly-discovered disc was issued on “The Inner Circle.” Tantalizingly close, but they are not the same. Given that an organization called The Inner Circle Teachers of Light Universal Life Church was known to have released Probert recordings on tape, is it possible that The Inner Circle label is actually this organization, pressing one of their tapes onto vinyl after Probert’s death? To my eyes, the font and style of the label could as easily date from the 1960s or early 1970s as the mid-1950s.

To further complicate things (or perhaps to clarify them), while doing research for this update I came across the results of a 2014 auction for three more Probert LPs. All three were issued on blue vinyl on The Inner Circle label, but by this point their jackets were long gone. These appear to be the missing three titles in the series that the Lao-Tse disc comes from. The seller gave their titles as Alfred Luntz, “Survival, Karma, Reincarnation”; Raymond Natalli, “The Nature of Matter”; and most intriguingly, Yada Di Shi’ite, “The Importance of Emotional Control.” The listing did not include catalog numbers, and they are not legible on the accompanying image of the discs.

We are now left with two different possibilities. The first is that this is a later series of discs, which may or may not be reissues of material released on vinyl in the 1950s. The other is that the mystery has now been solved and the 1955 Yada Di Shi’ite disc was part of a short series of lectures by Probert’s other “controls.” Esoteric material was often released in anonymous packaging during the early days of the LP. Colored vinyl was also not uncommon. The presence of the phrase “Long Play” on the label also suggests an early date. So, in many ways these records feel right for 1955. Part of my hesitancy to firmly attribute a 1950s date to these discs, though, is that so much material like this saw reissue during the occult revival of the 1960s and 1970s. That fact, added to Probert’s small but avid cult following after his death, leaves the possibility open that there may have been later interest in a vinyl release of his lectures.

My own instincts tell me that these records are those issued, probably with Probert’s involvement, in the mid-1950s, and the mystery has been solved. If that is the case, it demonstrates that research is rarely a solitary endeavor. My initial article told the story as I understood it, pointing out the gaps I had found in the narrative. Once the tale was released into the world, others began to examine the clues and provide feedback. This led me to reexamine my original research from last year, resulting in the discovery of the auction sale, a previously missed key piece of information. From a discographical point of view, there is still work to be done here. The catalog numbers of the three discs from the auction must be identified. Ideally, I would also want to know what, if anything, is inscribed in the dead wax of each disc for possible clues to its manufacturer. We also have no information regarding the jackets they were originally issued in. In time, perhaps other copies will surface. There is also the possibility that further evidence might lie in the huge volume of printed sources left by Probert’s followers. For the moment, though, I’m content to categorize this particular quest as having had a happy ending.

—Stephen Canner

The Inner Circle Teachers of Light ad, late 1970s.

Dreihasenbild: Drowning on Dry Land

Suomi-Neito, the Finnish Maiden. Lithographed postcard, 1906.

In 2009, the news network Al Jazeera posted a video to its YouTube channel called Finland Forest Folk. The five-and-a-half-minute documentary showed Finnish musicians Lau Nau (Laura Naukkarinen) and Kuupuu (Jonna Karanka) composing and recording their fragile electronica in the middle of the boreal forest. Both artists at the time were associated with the Tampere-based Fonal label, and were key members of a group of musical explorers labeled the New Weird Finland or “forest folk” by music journalists. Naukkarinen has stated elsewhere that she began her career heavily influenced by such freak folk luminaries as Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan. She has also worked extensively with jouhikko revivalist Pekko Käppi. Despite this, watching the video at the time I heard very little of what I would call folk music in the electronic bleeps, bells, and haunting elfin vocals Naukkarinen and Karanka created. It was neither traditional nor “of the people.” That is not to say I dismissed the idea that the music might possibly be some sort of modern folk form, but that it just didn’t jibe with my pre-existing definition of the term. All these years later I’m still wrestling with this idea of how we define “folk” in an age of instant communication and software-driven everything. But I was very taken with the image of a deep sense of the land as muse for experimental music. This little video suggested that there existed a thriving, deeply rural avant-garde somewhere in the world, an idea that resonated very strongly with me.

A couple of years ago, Stefan Keydel was vacationing with his family in Finland. They had rented a cabin near Sulkava, an idyllic rural retreat with the requisite sauna down by the lakeside. Anyone who has ever spent the day driving across a landscape consisting of miles of unbroken forest, whether in West Virginia or Scandinavia, will know that at times it feels like traversing a dark green expanse of water. Hills become ocean swells, and the whole thing threatens to pull you under. The forest seemed to have this effect upon Stefan, and while at the cabin he dreamed that he was drowning on dry land. Freud associated dreams of water with birth, but popular psychology these days usually interprets dreams of drowning as arising from a fear of loss of control. And there are few places were the city-bred are less in control than the deep woods. This truth was already very old when the Brothers Grimm began gathering stories about children vanishing into the forest, as lost and irretrievable as if they were thrown into the sea.

The Finnish forest, an emerald sea

One night during his stay, Stefan walked down to the lakeside where he saw a huge red moon hovering just above the tree line: a total lunar eclipse, a blood moon. He was familiar with the symbolism of a blood red moon from Revelation 6:12, “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Stefan tells me that this image, coupled with the earlier dream, felt apocalyptic. I assume he means this in the way the word is commonly used, to refer to a catastrophic end to things, one perhaps foretold in prophecy. But we should remember that this usage is something of a catachresis. “Apocalypse” in its original Greek means “revelation.” These twin revelatory events—the dream followed by the vision (however real the moon was, it still carried visionary meaning for him)—were the inspiration for the latest single by Keydel’s alter-ego, Dreihasenbild, on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.

The title track, “Verikuu sulkavan yli” [“Blood Moon Over Sulkava”], begins with what sounds like a music box playing a crisp, looping melody. Keydel’s violin soon enters the mix, adding a smoky, wooden warmth to the fragile, icy metal edge of the intro. A lone voice then emerges, stark and haunted. It is joined by others, broken angels, singing of drowning on dry land. Their chorus falls from the skies into the conifers below, somewhere between lament and mournful celebration. The track transcends the usual labels given to popular music and veers towards a certain modern classicism, but at heart it is pure Romanticism.

Basically a dramatic ambient piece, the opening notes of “After the Madness” sound at first almost like the string section of an orchestra tuning up, before settling into the electronic drift we expect from such a composition. Buried just below the surface, though, is a field recording. Impossible to identify, the sounds are both organic and mechanical, creating an unnerving subtext. A thoughtfully chosen B-side should serve as support act to the main event. It should complement and anchor the A-side without overshadowing it, and this track does that well.

Stefan photographed the blood moon as it rose over Sulkava, and that image appears on the single’s picture sleeve, designed by Will Branch. Keydel trained as a folklorist and is an accomplished violinist, but has also spent much of his life listening to and working with electronic sounds. He refers to his current work as hauntronica, which simultaneously evokes the ghosts of classic electronica and hauntology-as-genre. But if the output of the New Weird Finland artists can be called “forest folk,” then it’s also an appropriate enough label for this recording. I might also go so far as to add the label “visionary,” if not “apocalyptic.” So much music that is presented as “apocalyptic” these days is harsh, ragged, even brutal. The beauty of this disc proves that it need not be so. This is easy listening for those who actually listen.

“Verikuu sulkavan yli” releases today and can be ordered on the Dreihasenbild Bandcamp page.

—Stephen Canner

Mark Probert, Telegnosis, and UFOs: A Vinyl Mystery

Yada Di Shi’ite as painted by Mark Probert, probably late 1940s.

A curious ad appeared in the August 1955 issue of Ray Palmer’s Mystic Magazine. It announced the release of an LP that would allow readers the opportunity to hear the voice of someone called Yada Di Shi’ite. It went on to say that the record contained “a true aural picture of a typical lecture given by the teachers of the Inner Circle through Mark Probert.” As puzzling as this may sound to us today, regular readers of Mystic would have been very familiar with both Yada and Probert. What is not obvious from the information given, is that this might well be the earliest example of a commercially released vinyl record related to the UFO phenomenon. Unfortunately, no copies of the record are known to exist, and to my knowledge very few collectors are even aware of it. But how this record came to be created and its relationship to early UFO culture is something of a tale.

On October 14, 1946, The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a number of people in San Diego believed that “a space ship from another planet” had attempted to make contact with Earth during the previous week’s meteor shower, an event caused by the passing of the Giacobini-Zinner comet. Although local authorities received no reports of anything out of the ordinary, at least a dozen people told the paper that on October 9 they had witnessed a “large and weird object” in the sky over the city. One witness was quoted as saying, “It was shaped like a bullet and left this vapor trail behind it.” Another observed that it had “something that looked like wings.” The article curiously went on to say that local occult publisher Meade Layne was “putting a medium to work on the supposed sighting.” That medium was Mark Probert.

Mark Probert, 1955.

According to the brief autobiography published in the 1963 edition of his book The Magic Bag, Mark Probert was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907. As a teenager he joined the Merchant Marine. But after only two years at sea, he disembarked at San Diego and decided to stay. There he worked briefly as a jockey and a bellhop, before moving into vaudeville as a “song and dance man.” By the 1930s vaudeville was dying, so in 1939, he took a job as a graphic artist with the Visual Education Department of the San Diego public school system. It was there he met his wife Irene.

Not long after they were married, Irene made a casual remark that would change the course of their lives. She told Mark that he often talked in his sleep. The odd thing was that when this happened, it sounded as if he were speaking a foreign language. Soon the couple met Meade Layne, a former university professor who had left academia to devote his life to the study of psychic phenomena. As Probert put it, “he had considerable interest and knowledge in the fields of metaphysical and occult laws.” It was Layne who convinced Probert that his nocturnal mumblings could be evidence that he was in fact a trance medium. 

The idea that Probert was perhaps channeling entities from beyond was put to the test during an experimental séance. Recounting his experience years later, Probert recalled that after being instructed to relax, he soon found himself in a state of euphoria so intense that he lost all awareness of the world around him. When he regained consciousness, he was told that he had been in a trance for some 45 minutes and had spoken in a voice not his own. The voice introduced itself as Martin Latamore Lingford, a New York showman who had lived earlier in the century. Lingford explained that he and a group of other entities from the “inner planes” had spent years preparing Probert for his role as channel. Soon, the voice promised, these other “controls” would also come forward and make themselves known. 

During a number of séances over the next three years, the other controls—collectively known as the Inner Circle—did indeed appear, and began to reveal their plan for Probert’s life. They explained that it was they who had chosen Irene to be not only his wife, but also “their personal guide and assistant in the work.” They emphasized that this work was to be “almost entirely of an educational nature” and not to “expect much in the way of personal matters.” On the surface this may seem a minor point. But this statement could be read as a conscious attempt by Probert to separate his work from earlier trance mediums of the spiritualist movement, who would often help the bereaved by contacting their “dear departed loved ones.” It seems that something more important was happening here.

Meade Layne

In early 1945, Meade Layne began publishing a newsletter called The Round Robin. The first issue was sent out, somewhat experimentally, to some 15 to 20 people. Over time it grew, and after a name change to The Journal of Borderland Research, it endured into the current century. In the October 1946 issue, Layne explained that the mysterious object reported by the newspapers that month first came to his attention when he received a telephone call from Mark Probert. He told Layne that he had been watching the meteor shower from the top floor of a building when he sighted it. He described it as a luminous craft, “about the size of an extremely large plane,” with two reddish lights, moving very fast. He then added a surprising detail: “the flapping of its wings was plainly visible.”

The next day Layne received a number of calls from other witnesses who agreed on some points of Probert’s description and disagreed on others. Why these witnesses would call Layne, and not the authorities, to report their sightings is not explained. In a footnote he adds that, “The record of such strange craft, objects, appearances in the sky has greatly increased since Charles Fort began his astonishing memo, and still grows.” This is an interesting comment given that it suggests that the era of the UFO dates to Charles Fort’s early work, the first volume of his “astonishing memo” being his Book of the Damned, published in 1919. What is more remarkable is that this statement was made a full eight months before public knowledge of UFOs was widespread, at least as any sort of organized concept. But early readers of Charles Fort were always a bit ahead of the curve in this respect.

Mark Probert soon went into a trance so that his controls could be asked about the object, something he now seemed to be able to do at will. From them he learned that it was called “the Kareeta.” (Elsewhere its name is given as “Careeta” and even “Corrida.”) In somewhat poetic language, the controls chimed in with their opinions about the craft. One said it came from a planet “many thousands” of miles away and that it was made of “balsam wood [sic] coated with a thin layer of alloy.” Another claimed that it came from “west of the moon” and that its pilots “want you to get a group of scientists who will meet them at some isolated spot.” At this point there is no indication that what was being described was anything other than a concrete object being piloted by physical beings.

Meade Layne, The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution, 1950.

In late May 1949, responding to Walter Winchell’s claim that UFOs were actually “experimental guided missiles from Russia,” Layne told a newspaper reporter that the saucers in fact originated from a place called Etheria. This was not a place that was part of our own physical reality, but a “material world, with objects and people and a great civilization, and it lies all about us, though invisible and untouchable.” Based on what he learned from Probert’s controls, Layne had been developing this idea throughout 1947, in the pages of The Round Robin. This is a very early version of the Interdimensional Hypothesis, an idea that would become well known in UFO circles some two decades later. According to the hypothesis conceived by Layne, the saucers did not come from outer space as we know it. Neither did they come from “the astral plane,” but from what was effectively a parallel universe. He was to formalize this idea in 1950, with the publication of a mimeographed booklet called The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution.

In late 1953, Ray Palmer, already well known for his success with Amazing Stories and Fate, launched a new magazine called Mystic. In his chatty editorials Palmer expressed a vision for the new publication that sounded almost as if he were attempting to create a new genre of literature, one that was somehow simultaneously both fact and fiction. This new enterprise served as something of a bridge between the fantastic fiction of Amazing Stories and the fantastic “fact” of Fate. In the third issue in March 1954, Palmer printed Roger Graham’s detailed account of how Probert, through his controls, successfully identified and diagnosed a number of Graham’s medical problems, diagnoses that were later confirmed by medical professionals. This article signaled the beginning of what would become something of a fascination with Probert on Ray Palmer’s part. This may have been partly due to the number of letters the magazine received about Probert’s alleged abilities, both supportive and scoffing. Palmer was never one to let a good controversy go unexploited.

Mystic Magazine, August 1954, with cover featuring Probert’s paintings of three of his “controls.”

The cover of the August 1954 issue of Mystic featured paintings by Probert of three of his more talkative controls. These were Ramon Natalli, an astronomer who lived at the time of Galileo; Doctor Alfred Luntz, a 19th-century Anglo-German “clergyman for the High Episcopal Church of England”; and Yada Di Shi’ite, a 500,000 year old priest from a lost Himalayan city. Elsewhere Probert wrote that these controls, along with two others, appeared to him in visible form one night in 1947, insisting that he paint their portraits. He did not explain why disembodied entities from the inner planes who had lived in a number of different physical bodies over the millennia would want portraits of themselves, but some of these paintings were later used as illustrations in Probert’s book The Magic Bag

The feature article in the August issue of Mystic was the transcription of a séance held by Probert, attended by Irene and a man identified only as “RGM.” The pair were to present a set of questions to the controls that had been provided to them by Ray Palmer. The first of the Inner Circle to emerge was Dr. Luntz. The question posed to him concerned the extent of the US government’s knowledge of the true nature of flying saucers. For a Victorian vicar, Luntz seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. His answer was that the government did indeed know more about the phenomenon than was publicly admitted, but that there was no sinister motive behind it. The intent was simply to shield the public from the panic that would surely result from any revelation. He then went on to suggest, somewhat incongruously, that arch-debunker Donald Menzel’s recent book—Flying Saucers, published by Harvard University Press in 1953—was the result of an intentional conspiracy to suppress the reality of the saucers.

Renaissance astronomer Ramon Natalli then made a brief appearance, presenting his theory that all reality is driven by consciousness. With the opening acts out of the way, it was time for Probert’s star turn. Yada Di Shi’ite manifested speaking his own impenetrable ancient language of Yuga. Introducing Yada’s arrival with a barrage of gibberish would soon become something of a set piece for Probert. Undoubtedly this was a device intended to add drama to Yada’s arrival and to increase audience anticipation. Switching to English, Yada provided the basic outline of his autobiography. He said he had lived a half million years ago in the city of Kaoti, in a civilization called Yu. There he was a Ka-Ta, or priest. Once he completed the “33rd degree in the order called Shi’ite,” he was given the title Yada. Since that first life in the Himalayas he had been reincarnated many times, the last being in China 500 years ago. In this description, Yada presented himself as something between a bodhisattva and a Scottish Rite Mason. He said that he had not experienced any “breaks in consciousness” since his original incarnation on Earth, and that anyone could achieve this. He then explained that reality is illusory but that mankind can rise out of this illusion by degrees. He closed with the revelation that no single path leads to enlightenment, but that “all of man’s experiences are to be classified as initiations into higher and to more complete states of awareness.”

Mystic Magazine, February 1955.

Over the next year it was a rare copy of Mystic that did not feature Probert somewhere in its pages. An interesting letter from an anonymous correspondent who claimed to work in the mental health industry appeared in the August 1955 issue. He wrote that after seeing Probert in person he was “very disillusioned.” Among his complaints was that the messages the controls delivered were unoriginal, and seemed to have been gleaned from the library. Also unconvincing, was the fact that the various voices that emerged from Probert—whether early modern Italian, Victorian English, or ancient Himalayan—always spoke in the same accent. “I think these trance states would not have become necessary had he not found himself a teacher with no students, a philosopher with no audience,” he wrote, “consciously or unconsciously I believe that he is using the occult to put his own ideas across.”

Also in the August 1955 issue, was an advertisement for a long playing album, announcing that the public could now hear the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite at home. The ad copy was written in a tone that assumed the reader knew full well who both Probert and Yada were. It explained that the record had been made from an unedited, hour-long tape of a séance held before a live audience. Yada would begin the session by speaking in his ancient native tongue, before switching to English. The Himalayan priest would then give his opinions on such topics as reincarnation and the purpose of life, before taking questions from the audience. All this could be in the reader’s mailbox by sending only $4.98 to Inner Circle Records in Ojai, California.

To my knowledge, no copy of this record has ever turned up. Why? The first and most likely answer is that it was only ever pressed in an extremely limited quantity, never sold well, and any remaining stock was eventually disposed of. This has been the unfortunate fate of so many ephemeral recordings over the years. Another possibility is that it never existed. If that is the case, then the ad for the record was likely an attempt to secure orders before actually pressing and shipping the disc. This model was definitely in use at the time for self-published saucer and occult books, although in those cases buyers were usually clearly told that they were placing an advance order.

The offices of Mystic were in Evanston, Illinois, and Mark Probert was based in San Diego. Why then is the address given in the ad in Ojai, California, a tiny town more than 200 miles away from Probert’s home? The obvious answer is that the company producing the record was located there. It does not appear that Inner Circle Records actually existed except for the purposes of this release. In all likelihood, it is simply the label name Probert chose to use when arranging its manufacture with a custom pressing outfit. And in a town as small as Ojai, it would seem that the company should be fairly easy to identify.

At first sight, a tantalizing possibility is that the record may be a very early release by the legendary Two: Dot Records. This label was run by husband-and-wife team Dean and JoAnne Thompson from their home on the outskirts of town. They began doing run-of-the-mill custom work in the 1950s, before tapping into the regional rock scene in the late 1960s. Examples of the label’s 1970s output by bands like Hendrickson Road House or The Mystic Zephyrs 4 sometimes sell for as high as four figures. 

However, there was also another label operating out of Ojai in the 1950s. Educo Records was founded in 1953, to release classical recordings to be used for music appreciation classes in schools and colleges. The company operated out of Ojai during its first few years of existence, and later relocated to nearby Ventura. Given that the PO Box address in the Mystic ad was that used by Educo while in Ojai, it is reasonable to conclude that this was the company contracted by Probert to manufacture the LP. So far, no other custom releases by Educo have been identified. But like other small labels of the era, it is likely that Educo accepted custom contracts to increase revenue, the finished product bearing no evidence of the manufacturer so as not to confuse private releases with the company’s main brand in the minds of consumers.

Educo Records Logo.

It is not known whether Probert’s LP contained any references to the flying saucer phenomenon. By 1956, however, Yada was giving audiences his opinion on the reality and nature of UFOs, still promoting the idea that they were not from other planets but from another dimension. In early 1957, Probert was a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show in New York, a regular stop for saucer celebrities. In 1960, he appeared at the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention—the most famous and one of the largest of the early UFO conventions—where he channeled Yada for an audience, with Irene acting as master of ceremonies. Here, as usual, Yada first emerged speaking Yuga before switching to English. 

A cynical observer might point out that Probert by his own admission was an ex-vaudevillian, and that this standard performance—repeated ad infinitum—was beginning to have something of the feel of a tired old vaudeville turn. The couple continued touring the country performing séances throughout the 1960s, and after Irene’s death in 1966, Probert continued his work alone.

Mark Probert, The Magic Bag: The Inner Circle Teachers of Light, 1963 edition. Originally published in 1950.

Probert’s last known major public appearance was at the Northern California Space Convention in October 1968. At this point he was telling audiences that he was not a medium, but a “telegnostic.” This term not only served to further distance him from the stereotype of the medium left over from the days of spiritualism, but implied something deeper. The term suggested that he was not just contacting spirits, but was somehow transmitting gnosis from some distant location. It also served to position him not simply as a fortune teller or mentalist, but as something much more serious: a gnostic. Mark Probert died a few months later, in early 1969.

It is easy in our rationalist era to cast Mark Probert as one in a long line of spiritualists who were either delusional or blatantly fraudulent. But this point of view ignores the content of his message. What is remarkable about the séance published in the August 1954 issue of Mystic, is that in a single, short session Probert—or, if you prefer, his controls—was able to seamlessly guide the conversation from possible conspiracies around the existence of UFOs, to ideas about reality being a by-product of consciousness, ending with hints of a grand Buddho-Masonic theory of release from the cycle of reincarnation, resulting in something resembling Buddhahood. In doing so, he provided a tantalizing suggestion that these things might somehow all be related. It is also striking that the questions raised by Natalli and Yada during the séance are still those that concern serious modern students of anomalous phenomena, mysticism, and even physics. In effect, Probert seemed to be telling audiences to move away from the obvious conclusions they were making not only about saucers, but about existence itself. 

Irene & Mark Probert, 1950s.

As far back as 1947, when most people were just hearing the term “flying saucers” for the first time, Mark Probert had already rejected myopic materialism, and was telling the world that perhaps the very fabric of reality was quite different than our model of it. And though wrapped in a presentation that borrowed heavily from theosophy, spiritualism, and the vaudeville stage, Probert’s ideas foreshadowed an important direction that one school of thought was to take in the future. This move away from the idea of UFOs as a nuts and bolts phenomenon, and towards a more blended view involving theories of consciousness, human cognition, and quantum theories of time and space is one that is fast gaining momentum today. 

Many myths and legends center around something lost, an object or a bit of knowledge; its very absence imbues the missing thing with meaning, even importance. It is likely, however, that the idea of a lost recording of the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite is much more interesting than the actual reality, were a copy ever to surface. But puzzles like the one surrounding this album are what keep researchers moving forward, and in the process uncovering the next riddle to be solved. The UFO phenomenon itself is more koan than puzzle. It is also both an ontological and an epistemological mystery, so it should come as no surprise that a study of recordings related to it would begin with its own discographical mystery.

—Stephen Canner


Meade Layne’s Round Robin & Journal of Borderland Research

Mystic Magazine, August 1954

Mayada, 1963: An Experimental Discography



For a while now I’ve been considering what discography might look like as a practice that is simultaneously creative and empirical. Recently, I came across a 45 by an obscure Lebanese pop artist that immediately struck me as the perfect starting point to work out some of my ideas on the subject. These ideas are loosely informed and inspired by the current practice of research-creation that attempts to express “hard” research using creative modes, Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of the anarchive, Walter Benjamin’s “magic encyclopedia,” and Erdmut Wizisla’s idea that objects in a collection can have a “sibling relationship” and be “conversant” with one another. What I offer here is a short discography that has emerged from the single itself. It is both a light “reading” of the object as a text, and a reconstruction of a collection of records that is portrayed on its picture sleeve. For this exercise, I started with no plan, no grand theory, no research question. I simply allowed the record to dream up its own discography.

Brotherphone BP 145/146 (Lebanon, 1963)
A          Ya Ya Ya
B          Tamoure

The picture sleeve shows a young woman wearing a peignoir, sprawled across her bed amid stacks of 45s. She is examining the label of one of the records, while another spins on a portable turntable. Nearby is a stack of about a dozen more, resting atop what appears to be an LP. With so much information present on the sleeve, the immediate effect is to draw the eye towards the collection of objects on the bed in an attempt to make sense of them.

Mayada was something of a spinoff act. She was the younger sister of the much more famous Taroub. Most of what we know about Mayada’s background can only be surmised from her sister’s better documented biography.

Taroub was born in Damascus, but grew up in Amman, Jordan. In the late 1950s, she moved to Beirut, where she married Palestinian singer and composer Muhammad Jamal. The couple became quite famous, performing both individually and as a duo. By the mid-1960s Taroub began appearing in Lebanese and Turkish films. She was also a songwriter. Even though her performances seem very tame by today’s standards, they were often seen at the time as pushing the boundaries of propriety. With very few sources to go on, it is likely that Mayada also spent her early years in Jordan and followed her sister to Beirut at some point.

In the 1960s, Lebanon’s economy was booming. The language in the street was Arabic, but French was the language of business, education, and the elite. Although Arabicized for the local market, Mayada’s style and sound were decidedly European. This was her second disc for the Brotherphone label. Its A-side, “Ya Ya Ya,” is a nod to the emerging French subgenre known as yé-yé, which at the time was enjoying its initial blast of popularity in France via the radio program Salut les Copains and the magazine of the same name. The record player Mayada is using in the sleeve photo appears to be a Philips AG4000, a Dutch model manufactured between 1962 and 1964 (which also helps us date the record). Except for a copy of her own first single (see below), the other 45s scattered around her are from Germany and the Netherlands. The sleeve unambiguously portrays Mayada as an artist who takes her cultural cues from the West. While the photograph only supplies a limited amount of information, there is enough there to begin to reconstruct the collection of 45s it shows.




Don Costa
CBS CA 281.199 (Netherlands, 17 Jun 1963)
A          Wini Wini (Tamouré)
B          Losing You

The tamouré was a Tahitian dance rhythm first popularized by a French colonial soldier from Tahiti named Louis Martin, who wrote a song with this “nonsense” word as its chorus. (It was nonsense to Tahitian speakers, at any rate. Apparently, tamouré is the name of a fish from the Tuamotu Islands. Whether Martin was familiar with the Tuamotu word or whether this is pure coincidence is not known.) In 1963, an all-female studio group called Die Tahiti-Tamourés had a hit in West Germany with a tune called “Wini Wini” that used this rhythm, composed by the schlager team of Monique Falk (writing under her pseudonym, Heinz Hellmer) and Wolf Petersen.

Don Costa is probably best remembered as Frank Sinatra’s longtime conductor and arranger. Costa’s take on “Wini Wini” is just one of many cover versions released at the time in Germany and the Netherlands to capitalize on the tune’s success. Columbia also released Costa’s recording in America—a last gasp attempt to milk the already waning exotica craze—where it had zero impact. The presence of this 45 on the sleeve of Mayada’s own record points to the fact that it informs the B-side of her disc.




Cliff Richard
Columbia C 22 394 (Germany, 1963)
A          Summer Holiday
B          Dancing Shoes

Cliff Richard was the most successful of the several attempts by the British recording industry to find a home-grown replacement for Elvis Presley. Like Elvis, however, by 1963 Richard had already made the transition from rock star to milquetoast crooner, as the dominant model of rock stardom was fast shifting to the Beat combo. The A-side of this record, “Summer Holiday,” was the theme tune to the film of the same name—in which Richard also starred—and was a number one hit in Britain that summer.




Cliff Richard
Columbia C 22 072 (Germany, 1962)
A          The Young Ones
B          We Say Yeah

In the early 1960s, Columbia Records’ German division issued a generic die-cut sleeve for Cliff Richard’s singles. It bore a large photo of Richard on its left side, a reverse image of the one found on his 1961 LP, Listen to Cliff! In its upper right corner were small images of the German versions of two of Richard’s other albums for the label, Cliff’s 21stBirthday (1961) and Cliff Sings for the Young Ones (1962). The edge of this sleeve can just be made out, resting beneath the “Summer Holiday” single. It is likely that Columbia used it for other releases as well, but I have only ever seen the sleeve housing the theme song to Richard’s film The Young Ones, so identifying this as the disc on the cover of Mayada’s record is admittedly a guess. The fact that this and the Cliff Richard 45 mentioned above are both from film soundtracks is probably no accident. In the 1960s, Beirut was cinema mad and films from Egypt, Hollywood, and Europe were regularly shown.




Brotherphone BP 135/136 (Lebanon, 1963)
A          Hully Gully
B          Surf

Mayada’s first 45 on the Brotherphone label is clearly pictured on the sleeve of her second release. This also appears to be the disc that is spinning on the turntable in the photograph. “Hully Gully” is a paean to the dance craze that was then sweeping the West, while “Surf” is a Franco-Arabic take on “If I Had a Hammer.” Her version was not based on Peter, Paul, & Mary’s hit single so familiar to most Americans, but on Trini Lopez’s uptempo cover of the tune that was a huge hit in France earlier that year, released there on the Reprise label.


By stepping outside the traditional organizational strategies of discography—the more common practice of arranging recordings by genre, artist, or country of origin—previously hidden connections are often revealed. These connections point to new information that itself can lead to new questions, new lines of inquiry. In this exercise, it quickly becomes apparent that European media was hugely influential in Lebanon in the early 1960s. Because all the records spread out on Mayada’s bed, except for her own first single, are CBS/Columbia releases from Germany and the Netherlands, it’s tempting to speculate that Brotherphone acted as a local distributor for the company. This adds an extra dimension to the question of why these particular discs appear on the sleeve. A traditionally organized discography of Lebanese 45s from the period would only show releases from homegrown labels like Brotherphone, Voice of Lebanon, or Baidaphone. While this approach would definitely be useful, it would not be a realistic portrayal of the discs that a typical popular music fan at the time might be listening to. There is even a danger that such a discography without sufficient introductory background material might unintentionally cause a false perception about the media landscape in the country during that decade.

As noted above, this is just a first step in thinking out the idea of how the art of discography could be practiced as a creative act while still retaining its relevance and usefulness, and as such it has barely scratched the surface of its ultimate potential. Traditional discographies with chatty annotations do already exist, and can certainly be seen as works that are simultaneously empirical and creative. What I am proposing, however, goes beyond simply incorporating creative writing into the practice. To be creative in a fundamental way a discographer must dispense with the boundaries of traditional organizational strategies, and even with the research question itself. By finding a simple starting point and letting the research lead where it may, the data will often begin to tell its own story, right before your eyes.

—Stephen Canner


Mayada – Ya Ya Ya

Mayada – Surf (If I Had a Hammer)

Viral Vinyl: A Selected Discography of Pandemic, Plague, & Pestilence

V0010664 The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome

Engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Élie Delaunay

Like most of us, I’ve been thinking about little else besides the COVID-19 outbreak lately. Since during “normal” periods I’m usually considering the way that human culture is expressed through recorded media, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to combine the two things. So I decided to do a brief survey of records from the period I know best, roughly the 1960s and 1970s, that touch on the idea of contagion and the spread of disease. Often during this era, the idea of communicable illness was used as a metaphor for attraction and lust, such as in The Trammps’ 1973 hit, “Love Epidemic.” The examples here, however, all deal with literal epidemics. Interestingly, I can find no examples of the word “pandemic” being associated with any recording until the 1980s.

This selected discography was created as an exploration into the archive, as an exercise in discovery. The selections here are my own and as such are completely subjective. Exercises such as this one, however, often bring interesting questions to light. This makes them good potential starting points for deeper study.



Marlene Paula
Kimbo Records – KI 00131 (US, 7”, 1956)
A          I Got the Asian Flu for Christmas
B          Mother Goose Parade

American jazz and cabaret singer Marlene VerPlanck moonlights as a children’s entertainer on this exercise in bad taste. The Asian flu pandemic of 1956 to 1958 eventually resulted in the deaths of approximately two million people, nearly 70,000 in the US alone.



Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe
Caedmon Records – TC 1028 (US, LP, 1958)

Before audiobooks there were spoken word records, and Caedmon was a pioneer in the field of recorded literature. For this outing the label hired Basil Rathbone, a legendary Shakespearean actor who was just beginning a professional freefall that would eventually result in his acceptance of roles in such films as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). Reading Poe was still within the respectable remit of the trained Shakespearean actor, however, so this disc was one of the high points of his later career. After reciting a number of Poe’s poems, Rathbone closes side one with “The Masque of the Red Death,” the author’s pessimistic tale of a medieval town in the midst of a plague that causes its victims to bleed from the pores. The moral? Death is coming for you. None of you can escape it. None of you.



Scott Walker
Philips – BF 1628 (UK, 7”, 1967)
A          Jackie
B          The Plague

A non-LP B-side lurking on the reverse of Scott Walker’s bent cabaret version of Jacques Brel’s “Jackie,” “The Plague” was only slightly less in your face, but equally odd. The production here is enormous. Walker comes off as an avant-garde Tom Jones performing in an aircraft hangar accompanied by an orchestra and a group of backup singers direct from a surrealist episode of Soul Train. The lyrics are perfectly opaque, so it’s unclear whether the plague is meant as metaphor or literal disease. As Scott himself tells us in the song, though: “But it’s all so vague / When you meet the Plague.”



Eric Burdon & The Animals
Winds of Change
MGM Records – SE 4484 (US, LP, 1967)

I’ve always been rather lukewarm about The Animals’ hit singles, but exploring Burdon & Company’s deeper catalog often leads to some interesting surprises. On “The Black Plague” from the 1967 LP Winds of Change, Burdon recites a creepy original poem that paints a post-apocalyptic portrait of life during the medieval plague years. The explicit details (“his hands were blistered”) and Burdon’s slight Geordie brogue give the piece a certain warm immediacy that works well.  Haunting organ and background chants of “Bring out your dead” and “Unclean” only add to the atmosphere.



The Ethiopians
JJ Records – DB 1185 (UK, 7”, 1969)
A          Hong Kong Flu
B          Clap Your Hands

Like much of the rest of the world, Jamaica was in the midst of the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1969. By 1972 there would be a million dead worldwide from the disease. But music is the fuel that powers Jamaica’s culture, and events both good and bad are often celebrated in song. So it should come as no surprise that as the disease was ripping through the island, a band would record a hit single about the event. Despite its upbeat tempo—made for dancing, and people reportedly did dance to it—the song’s lyrics were quite serious: “Some say it’s dengue fever / I know it’s Hong Kong flu…It’s terrible and dreadful, man.” Many who lived through the period still remember the song today, perhaps even better than the pandemic itself.



Gil Mellé
The Andromeda Strain
Kapp Records – KRS 5513 (US, LP, 1971)

If you wanted to cozy up with an album that perfectly reflects all the tension, fear, and unease caused by COVID-19, Gil Mellé’s jarringly electronic soundtrack to the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain would be the perfect choice. The film deals with a group of scientists rushing to prevent a pandemic by an alien virus brought to earth by a crashed satellite. Mellé was a jazz musician who eventually turned to electronic music. He is probably best remembered as the composer of the theme to the early 1970s television series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. His Andromeda soundtrack is edgy, jagged, noisy, and undoubtedly one of the strangest things to have been released by a major label up to that point.


R-3557051-1433603699-2711.jpeg 2

[No label – self released] – NR4579 (US, LP, 1974)

OHO was a Baltimore band that appears to have performed with tongue firmly in cheek. Their version of private press prog ranged from near-cartoon goofiness to faux-epic posing. “The Plague,” from their debut LP, is based on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste, but the lyrics are impressionistic, not obviously narrative. It’s only through close listening for lines like “the dead pass by in carts” that we begin to suspect that the tune might be a portrayal of a city wracked by plague, not an attempt at demonstrating the lead vocalist’s truly sensitive nature.



Ian Richardson
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Caedmon Records – TC 1462 (US, LP, 1976)

Two years after his recording of a spoken word version of the 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, Caedmon again turned to actor Ian Richardson to provide the same treatment for excerpts from Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Side one closes with the great diarist’s tales of life during 1665, the plague year. As the disease threatened London, Pepys wrote that there were “[g]reat fears of the sickenesse here in the City.” Once it arrived, the law stated that any house touched by the plague be shut up for 40 days with the residents inside, marked with a cross, and guarded by watchmen. “I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there—which was a sad sight to me,” he wrote. Despite the fact that his diary shows that he was clearly worried during this period, he continued to go about business as usual, but somehow avoided infection. His final diary entry for that year is almost celebratory, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.”



Tony Hymas
Wessex Tales and Elements
KPM Music – KPM 1216 (UK, LP, 1978)

At the time this LP appeared on the legendary library music label KPM, keyboardist Tony Hymas was a member of ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s band. Hymas was not just a session musician, however, but was also a composer, and would go on to release a number of albums on KPM. Wessex Tales and Elements consists of 13 tracks composed for an orchestra made up entirely of strings. As with many library LPs, each song on the tracklist is accompanied by a description of its mood, in order to assist radio and television programmers for whom the discs were intended. The descriptions on side one are bucolic: “Gradual awakening,” “Bright village activity,” and “Light rural pasttimes.” Things get decidedly darker on side two, which opens with a “Slowly building ominous progression.” The final track, “Pestilence,” is described as having a “Menacing build to climax.” The throaty growl of bowed contrabasses create enough texture and doom-filled drama to make up for the lack of percussion or other instruments. As the final note fades, one is left to assume that after pestilence the rest is silence.

—Stephen Canner


Basil Rathbone reads “The Masque of the Red Death”

Scott Walker – “The Plague”

Eric Burdon & The Animals – “The Black Plague”

The Ethiopians – “Hong Kong Flu”

Gil Mellé – The Andromeda Strain

OHO – “The Plague”

Tony Hymas – “Pestilence”

Dreihasenbild: Wood, Wire, & Lost Futures


During the summer of 1980, I was an exchange student in a small town in Germany. Its medieval walls and picturesque town gate gave the place a humble charm that belied its location in the midst of the lignite coal fields, the huge expanse of open pit mines that fill large chunks of the landscape between Cologne and the Dutch border. The town’s only skyline was the silhouette of the cooling towers of the nearby Niederaußem Power Station, a plant that still spews more mercury than most any other in Europe. I was already music-obsessed in those days. The summer’s soundtrack was determined by what was available to me: weekly episodes of John Peel’s show via the British Forces Broadcasting Service, and vinyl copies of the The Nina Hagen Band’s debut, Devo’s first album, and Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch-Maschine.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two of these albums had been recorded within an hour’s journey from where I sat listening to them: Kraftwerk at their own Klingklang Studio in Düsseldorf, and Devo at Conny Plank’s studio in Wolperath, east of Cologne. My attention at the time was attuned to what was going on in the UK scene, so I had not yet learned of Germany’s huge role in the creation of the music I loved. The radio waves in that part of Europe at the time were actually pretty bleak, filled with Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5” and Udo Lindenberg’s German-language version of “Born to Be Wild.” Using an old 1960s multi-band console radio, however, it was possible to dial up the exotic. I heard broadcasts in Hungarian and Polish, and could easily get the English-language service of Radio Kiev. These were still the days of classic Soviet propaganda; each phrase the announcer spoke in her crisp, precise pronunciation simply oozed ideology. Then one evening while scanning the airwaves, I came across something truly bizarre.

The station I hit upon featured a woman’s voice speaking clusters of numbers in German. I listened for some minutes, expecting the broadcast to move on to something different—a station identification, an announcer—anything that would provide more information as to what I was hearing. But the voice just continued speaking numbers. I couldn’t be sure given its length, but after a while I began to suspect that perhaps the broadcast was on a loop, endlessly repeating itself. Being in the heart of western Europe in the midst of the Cold War, the idea that the station could somehow be linked to espionage did occur to me. Coming across a similar station a week or two later that was broadcasting numbers in Russian only increased this suspicion. Soon these stations became my favorite things to listen to in the evening. There was a hypnotic, soothing quality about them. The emotionless intonation of foreign words spoken in a flat dead studio space created something akin to an experimental ambient soundtrack. At the time, I thought this was my personal revelation, something practically undiscovered by others. Years later, in 1997, I was very surprised to see the release of a 4-CD box set called The Conet Project. Someone had not only collected more examples of these stations than I ever dreamed existed, but had even written a 72-page booklet about them, creating something of a typology in the process.


Stefan Keydel, March 2020. Photo by Lynne Adele.

Austin-based Stefan Keydel, who records under the name Dreihasenbild, also spent a chunk of the early 1980s in Germany. According to his website, he “uses wood (violin) and wire (synths from Moog and Teenage Engineering) to conjure up an otherworldly journey into the realm of hauntronica.” The specters of Düsseldorf and Wolperath decidedly haunt Dreihasenbild’s sound. The result is not simply some retro pastiche, however, but a fully contemporary expression that uses 80s Euro-electronica as foundation and toolkit, while still operating firmly from within this century.

Dreihasenbild is the German word for the “three hares,” a motif showing three rabbits or hares chasing each other in a circle. It is usually found as an architectural element across Eurasia, most commonly in Britain and Germany. Although thought to represent the Trinity when used in churches, like many folkloric motifs its original meaning is lost to time. Keydel put out two digital works under this name in 2018. But this month marks the release of the project’s first physical artifact, a vinyl 45 on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.


The three hares.

“Visitation” opens with a slowed-down sample from “Swedish Rhapsody,” one of the better-known tracks on the Conet Project CD. This sample, used with the permission of Conet compiler Akin Fernandez, was originally recorded from a German-language numbers station used by the Polish intelligence services. As an identifier, it used a music box playing a snippet of Hugo Alfvén’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1” as its interval signal. (Although there is some debate among numbers stations supergeeks as to whether the tune is actually one called “Luxembourg Polka.”) The track then moves into a hauntingly beautiful interplay between synthesizer and violin. The music is hugely cinematic in the way it completely transports the listener into its own narrative. Despite its graceful formality, the composition crackles at the edges with reminders that we should perhaps not get too comfortable. Its honey-colored tones are fraught with Eastern bloc paranoia, especially when what sounds like a young girl’s voice begins speaking a series of numbers through a heavy wall of distortion and static. The knowledge that this voice was not that of a young girl at all, but of a machine developed by the East German secret police known as a Sprach-Morse-Generator, only adds to the creep factor. You can almost see the antennae bristling atop the Polish embassy.


The Sprach-Morse-Generator.

Although the disc’s B-side also incorporates a voice from the past seeping into the present, “Return” is a more understated ambient track. As a form, ambient music is generally composed to be unobtrusive and to work as a neutral background. Because of this, even the most effective ambient compositions can sometimes be little more than pleasant aural wallpaper. (Keeping in mind that even the creation of wallpaper can be a high art.) While “Return” could easily work as mood music for a slightly edgy cocktail party, it also possesses a certain arc, a certain drama, that recommends it to the more attentive listener. There’s something of a narrative structure here, an introduction followed by a sense of action rising to a climax, which then tumbles towards a resolution. In the end, we are left with only the voice of a Scottish miner speaking in a metrical sing-song through a rainstorm of static. Originally recorded in 1917, the fact that we can hear this voice at all is a gift to the present made possible by the cutting-edge technology of that era.

Listening to Dreihasenbild’s new release, the idea keeps recurring to me that 1980 is the disc’s default setting. Although I’m fairly certain that neither were direct influences, I hear echoes of Tuxedomoon’s use of “wood and wire” as well as Popul Vuh’s more ambient moments. In his book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, the late Mark Fisher referred to the electronic sound of the later 1970s and early 1980s as popular modernism. He pointed out that using technology to “allow new forms to emerge” was a “paradigmatically modernist” move, even when a work drew on older sources as its starting point. The danger of working in this mode is that it can lead to charges of rose-colored romanticism, of a desire to return to lost “good old days.” Fisher countered this view, however, by offering Fredric Jameson’s take on nostalgia, in which a longing is not for an historical period, but for a form. For me, the new Dreihasenbild disc is a good example of this Jamesonian nostalgia-that-is-not-nostalgia. Its haunting atmospheres suggest not a desire to return to 1980, but a longing to recapture a specific vision of the future that had developed by that period, one that was never realized. This was a future tinged with paranoia and possessing a cold, technological substrate—computers, synthesizers, and drum machines—that was nevertheless still kind, ethical, hopeful, aesthetic, and heartbreakingly romantic.

Dreihasenbild’s new release can be ordered on its Bandcamp page.

(Full disclosure: I have known Stefan Keydel for some 20 years and he is a member of my current band. Nevertheless, my comments here are sincere.)

—Stephen Canner


Dreihasenbild Official Site

Sprach-Morse-Generator Demonstration Video


From Huautla to Tepetlixpa: Imagining the Beatles in Mexico


In 1971, a curious album credited to La Banda Plástica de Tepetlixpa appeared on Caleidofon, an obscure label out of Mexico City. The cover featured a photograph—formatted to look like an old snapshot—of a village brass band, complete with bass drum and sousaphone. The group was posed beneath a large banner reading Adiós a los Beatles. At the top of the layout were the titles of ten Beatles songs. Something out of the ordinary was certainly happening here. Putting needle to disc proved the record to be exactly what it seemed: a village band from rural Mexico playing covers of Beatles tunes in a charmingly naïve style. At this point, the listener would undoubtedly have a number of questions. Turning the cover over to read the liner notes, however, would only increase the mystery.

The notes, written by producer José M. Silva, claimed that the Beatles were traveling in Oaxaca when someone told them about the famous volcanoes known as “Popo” and “Ixta,” just southeast of Mexico City.  The story goes on to say that after visiting the volcanoes, the band passed through “a picturesque village” in the state of México called Tepetlixpa. There they were welcomed with a feast of mole, pulque, nopales, and tortilla chips. During their stay they were so surprised to hear the local brass band playing their music that they wept, expressing gratitude to their hosts. “We will never forget you,” they said, “but now it’s time to leave.” Silva ends his tale with the question, “Will they be back?”


The volcano known as “Popo”

The implication of the essay is that the photo on the cover of the album was taken as the Beatles were leaving Tepetlixpa, the village band seeing the group off on their further adventures. Both the content and tone of this tale make it fairly obvious that it is a fantasia. From its first line, “And the magical mystery tour began,” it casts the Beatles as psychedelic adventurers, traveling in Oaxaca “where they had mysterious experiences comparable only to those in faraway Tibet.” This view of the group was one that would already be familiar to audiences through portrayals in Yellow Submarine and The Magical Mystery Tour. This is the myth of the unified group, spreading joy and enlightenment through its music. This image of the Beatles as a crew of jolly psychonauts had not yet completely faded, as the full story of just how dysfunctional the group had become would not emerge for a few more years. It is unlikely that Silva intended his little fable to be taken literally. It seems, however, that as obscure as the record is, this tale has leaked out over the years into the great body of Beatles folklore. How did this happen? The key to answering this is to understand why an audience in 1971 would believe that John, Paul, George, and Ringo might actually have traveled together to Oaxaca.

The Beatles’ visit to India in early 1968 cemented in the public mind the image of a group that was willing to travel to the ends of the Earth in search of higher consciousness. In reality, their visit to the subcontinent was something of a train wreck, but this gets lost beneath the symbolic power of the group’s choice to go there at all. Perhaps more importantly, the trip served to highlight and further popularize a phenomenon that was already in full swing by 1968: the Hippie Trail. When the Hippie Trail is mentioned today, the reference is usually to the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu. This was indeed the Mother Road for counterculture travelers, one that often brought them face to face with the truths behind their orientalist fantasies. This wasn’t the only Hippie Trail, however. There was another that ran throughout Latin America. This route had the benefit of not requiring an airline ticket for North Americans, who could simply hitchhike to El Paso, San Diego, or Brownsville and walk across the border. From there, the thumb and cheap public transportation could get them at least as far as Panama. Whereas most travelers who headed out from Istanbul were bound for India or Kathmandu, travelers on the Latin route could be headed most anywhere, although there were a number of sites where the travelers tended to gather. Two of these were the villages around the volcanoes near Puebla—not far from Tepetlixpa, where our village band made its home—and the state of Oaxaca.


R. Gordon Wasson in Mexico

In late June, 1955, R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned ethnobotanist, visited the state of Oaxaca along with New York society photographer Allan Richardson. Wasson and Richardson lodged with an Indian family in a rural Mazatec village, an area so off the beaten path that Spanish was still a foreign language to its inhabitants. With the help of a Spanish-speaking local official, the pair was introduced to a local curandera named María Sabina who agreed to oversee their initiatory velada, a highly ritualized healing ceremony in which participants tripped on psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson published a detailed account of this experience in the May 13, 1957 issue of Life magazine. This was perhaps the first in-depth mass media treatment of the psychedelic experience in the English language, one that made its way into supermarkets, beauty shops, and suburban homes. In the article, Wasson described his hallucinations in vivid detail:

They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens—resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens. Three days later, when I repeated the same experience in the same room with the same curanderas, instead of mountains I saw river estuaries, pellucid water flowing through an endless expanse of reeds down to a measureless sea, all by the pastel light of a horizontal sun. This time a human figure appeared, a woman in primitive costume, standing and staring across the water, enigmatic, beautiful, like a sculpture except that she breathed and was wearing woven colored garments. It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact. There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.

This was heady stuff for 1957, and it is now known that this article heavily influenced a number of budding psychonauts, including a young Terence McKenna.


Wasson’s Life article was followed by Folkways Records’ release the same year of his recording of a velada he had participated in with María Sabina, called Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico. On June 16, 1958, Time magazine followed up with an article called “Medicine: Mushroom Madness” that discussed both Wasson’s work and that of Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. Nearly a decade earlier than is commonly credited, the psychedelic era had begun.

When Wasson’s article in Life was published, he didn’t identify María Sabina by name. He used the pseudonym “Eva Mendez” and was vague about her specific location. In time, however, he let slip both Sabina’s name and the name of her village, Huautla de Jiménez. By the late 60s, with the Hippie Trail at its height, Sabina found a constant stream of oddly dressed foreigners knocking on her door, sometimes with a translator asking her to help them “find God.” She would gently respond that her mushrooms could not assist them in their search for the Deity, but were intended to heal specific ailments. Despite the fact that this parade of freaks provided something of an economic boon to the area, the conservative villagers did not take well to them. In time, Sabina was falsely accused of selling marijuana to the travelers. This feeling of ill will also led to her house being burnt down by someone who resented the disruption of traditional village life.

In the underground culture of the late 60s and early 70s, the words “Oaxaca” and “María Sabina” meant one thing: magic mushrooms. Perhaps because of this fame, all manner of celebrities are alleged to have visited Huautla. If someone was famous and even marginally associated with psychedelic culture, they were often said to have made the pilgrimage to María Sabina’s door. This list includes Bob Dylan, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Walt Disney, Cat Stevens, Aldous Huxley, and, of course, the Beatles. The details of most of these rumors are sketchy, and so far none of them have been proven to be based on anything other than wishful thinking.


María Sabina

As in most of the world, the Beatles were hugely popular in Mexico. Their records were released there and, despite the occasional ban, their films were shown. There is no documentary evidence that the Beatles ever traveled to the country, however. During the summer of 1965, the band was reportedly booked to play a concert in Mexico City, but the country’s authoritarian government canceled the show, stating that its youth were not ready for male rock and roll musicians with long hair. (This is the story, anyway. Although this detail has been widely reported as fact, I have not been able to confirm its source. Mark Lewisohn mentions in his book The Complete Beatles Chronicles that an early draft of the band’s itinerary for their 1965 tour listed a date in Mexico City for August 28 that was later removed. This is the sole mention of any documentary evidence I have been so far able to locate.)

There is not just one rumor of the Beatles’ alleged visit to southern Mexico; there are several. The number of variations on the Beatles rumors probably speaks to the amount of mental energy given the band over the years, as well as to the nature of folklore itself. The first of these is the story previously mentioned, in which the Beatles show up in Tepetlixpa—a small village that just happens to contain a Beatles cover band—after having been told by someone of the volcanoes in that region. A more vague rumor is that the Beatles visited Oaxaca in the mid-60s, around the time they were recording Revolver. Another story, equally lacking in detail, is that John and Yoko visited María Sabina in 1970.

A story that requires a bit more thought, though, is told by Álvaro Estrada in an early edition of his book Vida de María Sabina. He described widespread rumors during the summer of 1969, that a Cessna landed at Huatla de Jiménez carrying John, George, pilot Carlos Ávila Camacho, and an anthropologist named Brenda. They stayed at a local hotel, the Posada Rosada, and after sampling the local weed, put the word out that they wanted to meet María Sabina. Sabina sent a return message saying that she was too tired to meet them that night, but would do so the following evening. Since the entourage didn’t want to wait, they tracked down another sabia named Josefina Terán and did their velada with her in exchange for a few pesos. The story ends with Lennon having a bad trip, running from the hut screaming, “Don’t let them kill me!”


Huautla de Jiménez during the Hippie Trail days

This last story is worth considering carefully. Although he seems to have removed the anecdote from later editions of his book, it is an interesting fact that Estrada chose to repeat it at all. Álvaro Estrada was an educated local who was fluent in the Mazatec language and knew both R. Gordon Wasson and María Sabina well. The amount of detail the story provides places it in a different category than the others. The mention of an anthropologist named Brenda gives the tale the sense of being recounted by someone who was actually present and only caught the first name. The other details—the name of the pilot, the woman who stood in for María Sabina, and the specific hotel—all lend an air of believability. What doesn’t make sense, however, is why the group would go to all the trouble to charter an airplane to visit the legendary curandera, and then settle for a replacement simply because she couldn’t meet with them until the following evening. The detail of Lennon running from the hut in terror also feels suspiciously tacked on, as if the story needed a bit of drama, a punch line. It’s important to remember that Estrada does clearly state that this was a rumor, and that he removed it from later editions of his book. Once Huautla became a center of countercultural pilgrimage, it also became a place where travelers would exchange information. This is a fertile environment for the creation of rumor and legend. One guess would be that the story either originated or was embellished locally, where the details were added.


In the end, we are left with a single physical artifact: La Banda Plástica de Tepetlixpa’s Adiós a los Beatles album. The disc must have sold well, as Discos Caleidofon reissued it in the mid-70s. The reissue featured a more colorful cover showing a psychedelicized painting of the Fab Four, with the story of the Beatles’ arrival at Tepetlixpa repeated on the back cover. It would be fascinating if someday the real story behind the album’s creation were unearthed. On the turntable, the disc at first sounds like any one of a hundred other “folkloric” albums of local bands from Latin America. But ten or fifteen seconds into the first tune, something both recognizable and jaw dropping emerges. There’s little doubt that the album was marketed as a novelty, and there’s no reason to believe that the story of the Beatles’ trip through Mexico was anything more than advertising copy. It’s also easy to speculate that the project originally started out as an LP to memorialize the Beatles’ recent breakup (thus the banner reading Adiós a los Beatles), and that the story of the group’s visit was added later onRegardless of whether the label nurtured the performance or discovered the band in situ already performing this material, the record is an important document. It captures a moment in which a great cultural wave from the industrial north—the 60s psychedelic movement—crashed firmly and irreversibly into the society of a developing nation, greatly influencing both its conservative small town musicians and its deepest indigenous traditions.

—Stephen Canner


Wasson’s original 1957 Life magazine article

La Banda Plástica playlist from Youtube



The Great Bittern and the Measurable Ineffable


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Lawrence Shove Discography

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