“A Guitar Does Not Build a Homestead”: Pat Conte in Natural History

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(edited from Pat Conte’s notes for “The Secret Museum of Mankind      vol. 1, Ethnic Music Classics: 1925-48”

“All this universe is but the result of sound.” (Vakya Paduka)

“A god can be simultaneously in two places, like a melody.” (Joseph Campbell)

“Music hath the power of making heaven descend upon earth.” (Chinese proverb)

“It is therefore, really in barbarous nations, that we may, reasoning by analogy, find in what state music existed when our own ancestors were in a state of nature.”(Louis Elson)

“A guitar does not build a homestead.”  (Zulu saying)

 

 

Maestro of the Secret Museum (Natural History, June 1997)

by Mark Jacobson

Attired in a baggy black T-shirt, purple velour shorts, and fluffy blue slippers, the curator of the Secret Museum appears at the screen door of his ranch house in Long Island and squints into the foggy gloom of the suburban afternoon. It is a little early for Pat Conte, noted collector of ethnic music and “world traveler who’s never been anywhere — except Canada, for ten minutes.” The caffeine level hasn’t yet peaked in his decidedly hefty body, nor has he smoked enough cigarettes, so he feels “like crap.” But then again, Conte, a man with a fierce sense of beauty, is always a bit out of sorts in the “ugly world.”

This isn’t to say that Conte, who’s in his early forties and wears his graying hippie hair in a haphazard ponytail, is particularly distressed to be living in the midst of “Wrong” Island’s National Enquirer belt, habitat to serial killers, Satanists, and such notables as Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. “It’s a cultural wasteland, but so what,” shrugs Conte. “When you’re a hermit, it doesn’t matter where you live.” Indeed, Conte is happy enough to share his smallish house with his aged mother (a friendly woman and big Sarah Vaughn fan) and his younger brother. He doesn’t even mind working in the post office, as he has for the past decade — first sorting letters until it drove him “nuts” and now as “a slob mail handler” — because for Pat Conte, the “beautiful world” is in the basement.

To explain how he went from Hank Williams and field hollers to acquiring vintage disks from such places as Uzbekistan and the Simbo Islands, Conte says:

Some of it was self-interest, about beating out other collectors, making my mark. I was younger than a lot of the blues freaks; they’d already been to Mississippi, found most of the great stuff. Ethnic records were a totally open field. Besides, I lived in New York, an immigrant culture. The attics and thrift stores of Queens and Brooklyn were a treasure trove.

While still in his teens, Conte aquired a shortwave radio:

On WABC, “Monday, Monday” was number one, but on the shortwave there were Eskimos, Laplanders, Sultans. I’d get names from the radio, write blindly to people everywhere: “Do you have any old records? Send them to me. ” That’s how I got 10,000 records from 100 countries without hardly ever going out of my room.

While clearly a most impressive autodidact, Conte freely admits his scholarship to be “a little on the wacko side.” This is apparent in his notes for The Secret Museum series, which, while brief, can be hugely amusing, albeit in an off-angled, deeply personalized way. Best are the “Extracts — provided by a sub-sub music historian,” which accompany each disk. Quotes pertaining to the subject at hand (sometimes exceedingly tangentially) come from such disparate personages as Job, Darwin, and Fats Domino. Volume 3 arrives with “a technical note” from Napoleon, who supposedly said, presumably to a conquered native, “but really, your music is so noisy and complicated that I can make nothing of it.”

“I could never be a professional musicologist,” Conte says.

 I didn’t get through much college; academia was not for me. But a whole world was mushrooming inside my head. I followed the horizontal route to knowledge. When I started, I was interested in American blues and old-time hillbilly music. Then I found this record of African folk tunes. That blew my mind. So I was interested in African music…. You make connections. Now I’ll listen to Buddhist chants from Tibet, just some monks banging a pan, but I notice it’s the same cadence as afield holler from Mississippi. You begin to notice that the pentatonic scale you heard oil an Afro-Brazilian-Portuguese tune from the 1940s is the same as that in a Javanese gong orchestra. You can hear it.

But even more than hearing it is liking it. That’s Pat Conte’s gift, his art, the ability to dig, far and wide. Like any nutty collector, he has his hierarchies, constantly sizing up his possessions to decide which disks will “make the cut” and appear on a Secret Museum CD. But when Conte says he has come to care about the Cretan minor-key medley known as kondilies and Corsican pagielles (choral pieces) as much he ever did the blues, you believe him.

I owe that to George Harrison. As a kid I was a huge Beatles fan; Harrison was a god to me. One night I heard George talking about how when he was little he was really into Slim Whitman, and still was. Well, I’d just gotten a Slim Whitman record for a dime at the Salvation Army. I liked it but I didn’t want anyone to know that; it was just a dumb cowboy song. But after what George said, I knew it was okay to like it. It was a breakthrough.

Besides claustrophobia and a headache from the cigarette smoke, that’s the feeling you get sitting in the Secret Museum — a cockeyed kind of transcendence. The place is an alchemic lab with Pat Conte as a wild-haired, Queens-bred Paracelsus of sound. “This is a twentieth-century gnostic discipline,” Conte says.

I don’t want to make much o it, but music is the universal language, and you look for keys — ways in. That’s what this is about for me. I might put on a record by Uncle Dave Macon, who was an old hillbilly banjo player, then I’ll get a banjo that is pretty close to the one Uncle Dave played, and I’ll pick along with him. After a while, I might even get to sound a little like Uncle Dave. From there, if I want to pretend, I could even be old Uncle Dave, sitting on a porch somewhere, in 1930 or whenever Then I might play along with a Kenyan record or something from Trinidad, attempt to do the same tiling. It’s an experience I find totally addicting.

With that, Conte cranks up his horned Victrola and puts on a sampling of classical Arabic music recorded in Damascus in about 1915. The sound is crackly, but this soon fades away. The singer’s voice is loud, immediate, right in the room. “There’s something about listening to a 78 on a Victrola,” Conte says, peering into the darkness of the horn. “It’s a mystery in there. It’s not like television or a computer screen, glassed-in windows bent on keeping you out. This puns you in; it asks you to jump inside.” The unnamed Syrian singer continues on, and you feel it, the sound tugging at you, drawing you in. It’s an interface with another time like no other.

A few minutes later, we’re out of the Secret Museum, back in the “ugly world.” Still in his purple shorts and blue slippers, Pat Conte is standing in front of his house. “This place is pretty dull, but it’s a good cover. I mean, who’d guess?” Conte says, peering around at the low-slung skyline. Then he offers a crafty smile. “You just never know where you’ll find a Secret Museum.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Natural History Magazine, Inc.

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