Pat Conte, pt. 3



Pat Conte

Pat Conte


Conte’s first exposure to ethnic music came, appropriately, from his grandmother’s collection of Italian folk and opera records, which he initially wrote off as “goofy.” But then, as he got deeper into American traditional music, something clicked. “It hit me: ‘Hold on, that’s not goofy, not at all.’ I suddenly realized that other parts of the world had musical traditions just as deep or even more deeply rooted than ours.”

So began the fervent, 10-year harvest of ethnic discs, leading first to a radio show (now defunct) co-hosted and engineered by fellow pundit Citizen Kafka, the CD series itself, and even a spot on TV’s “CBS Sunday Morning.” Inside the booklet of each Secret Museum disc (the concept’s name comes from a popular 1920s ethnographic book) are superb historical photographs that blend perfectly with Conte’s evocative, poetic notes to create a thrilling mood of enlightenment.

To many of us, the old music of America is odd enough. The rural blues and country artists we know from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seem to have literally grown from out of the soil they tilled, to actually be made of the dust on the now-vanished roads they sing about. And the urban jazz and dance bands of the 1920s and early ’30s evoke an explosion of wild, syncopated abandon, defiant experimentation, and dreamlike parties thrown by stylish outlaws.

The music on those records, ancient and exotic as it is to us now, still contains at least a glimmer of something we sort of understand. Something that conforms to the rules built upon all that has come since, something we vaguely recognize as our own. Simply put, it’s strange because it’s old but it’s not that strange because we know what came next.

But besides being made by people who sing in entirely different tongues, the foreign counterparts to what we call “old-time” music feature instrumentation and systems of composition, notation, and rhythm entirely removed from what we are generally accustomed to. So they’re not just “old-time” strange, they’re otherworldly strange.

Like the voicemail of alien visitors or the broadcasts of some highly evolved future society—despite the fact that they represent styles and traditions dating from much earlier than anything produced in the New World. If the stuff on the Anthology is, as Greil Marcus calls it, the Old, Weird America, then the music of The Secret Museum of Mankind series is its much older—and far weirder—grandparents.



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