by Matthew Asprey (http://contrappassomag.wordpress.com):
THE DIGITAL AGE has coincided with the widespread excavation of stunning sounds from the past. Just check out the compilations released by such labels as Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Old Hat Records, Soundways, Now-Again, Mississippi, Sublime Frequencies, Arhoolie, and the Numero Group. The cavalcade indicates the staggering diversity of cultural expression in the twentieth century.
The best of these archival compilations do more than simply make great music available again. Radio presenter (and sometime protest singer) Bob Dylan said of Marshall Wyatt’s Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937:
“I got nothing against downloads and MP3s, but getting this CD with all the pictures and liner notes, well, it’s not as good as having it on the big 12” record, but at least there’s a booklet there, and believe it or not, folks, you can even read it in a power failure—as long as it’s daytime.”
The art of the music anthologist involves the sequencing of tracks, extensive annotations, the inclusion of archival photographs and historical documentation. The final package can be myth-shattering. The most ambitious compilations upset the complacency that creeps into our historicisation of the musical and social past, our desire to lock in definitions and musical genealogies.
Some provide an urgent counter-history by alerting us to an obscured genre or style or school of musicians; they can sometimes sketch in the till-now missing explanation for what came later. Others avoid definitive statements altogether, reminding us that the practice of music is too messy to be reduced to a dominant historical narrative, that music-making has always been a promiscuous activity, the fruit of numerous encounters and migrations, and as the decades pass it becomes more and more difficult to assess its true origins and connections.
The survival of music is largely a matter of chance. Of course only a small fraction of the music of the past hundred years was actually recorded; an even smaller fraction has survived to the present; even smaller still is the fraction that makes the leap to a digital format and an audience. We should be thankful for the reappearance of these beautiful ghostly sounds.
Music collectors are often called ‘crate-diggers’, which evokes a romantic image of dusty-thumbed record hunters in stifling basements and filthy flea markets and swap-meets, obsessed characters seeking the eureka moment when the impossible nugget is unearthed—even if these days the most valuable records are often found on eBay. Collector-anthologists are fascinating figures on the fringes of the contemporary music industry.