Archive for the ‘Pat Conte’ Category

Pat Conte, pt. 5

May 8, 2014


Pat Conte

Pat Conte


Pat Conte makes his home on Long Island, where his basement headquarters, the real Secret Museum, if you will, houses over 50,000 rare 78s. He also plays guitar in the old-timey Otis Brothers (CDs available online from Elderly Instruments) and contributes to other historical reissues, such as those by klezmer king Henry Kandel, string-band legends Gid Tanner and his Skillet-Lickers, and Yazoo’s recent overview of gospel blues great Washington Phillips.

The requirements, other than origin and era, for a record to be included on one of the Secret Museum discs? “Well, it doesn’t have to be folk music, per se. Some of the songs on the CDs are closer to being hybrid styles than purely traditional folk music,” Conte clarifies, bringing to mind tracks like one by a hillbilly-influenced African fiddle/guitar duo. “More than anything else, it has to be something that’s moving. That’s really what it’s about.”

“There’s a tune on Volume 1 from Sardinia by a guy playing the Sardinian version of a pan flute (“Fiorassio” by launnedas soloist Effisio Melis). It sounds a lot like a bagpipe, actually,” he says. “But the emotion, the power, that that guy plays with. It just goes right through you. I love country blues, too, but the deep feeling that that guy has—wow. That’s what I want people to hear.”

What’s also vital to understanding the importance of the material featured on the Secret Museum discs is that these tracks were made during what has since become known as the golden age of the phonograph. The technology of the New World had met the antiquated traditions of the old, and the ancient art and customs of these remote cultures had not yet been altered by exposure to radio or other outside influences. Artists had, literally, only their next-door neighbors to copy. They played the songs they had learned from their great-grandfathers. The rare cuts on these magic discs are the final frozen fragments of a world long since gone. And they still sound like they came from the future. Perhaps they did.

After more than 100 years of its existence we take it for granted, but the invention of the phonograph is really something else. The raw sound of a man blowing poetically through a handmade tube, leaving the earnest imprint of his breath for us to find a century later, can still be powerfully moving long after every physical thing involved in the making of these recordings—instruments, recording equipment, the bones and bodies of those who played on them and engineered them, and before long the discs themselves—has literally turned to dust. But, thanks to a few bold explorers like Conte and the folks at Yazoo/Shanachie, these mysterious, irreplaceable tones are yet with us, reverberating down through the ages. For that, we should be eternally thankful.


Pat Conte, pt. 4

May 6, 2014


Pat Conte

Pat Conte


“Of course I had the Anthology. The Secret Museum was definitely influenced by it. I guess my CDs must be the ‘Old, Weird World,’” Conte muses. “It’s funny, I was a big fan of The Fugs (Smith produced the irreverent folk/proto-punk act’s first album), but I didn’t make the connection at the time. I just assumed that Harry Smith was this crazy genius artist/filmmaker guy who was part of that whole scene. I didn’t realize he was the same Harry Smith who put together the Anthology,” he says, validating the whole “great-minds-think-alike” theorem.

“But I did want to make the ethnic equivalent of the Anthology, which, it turns out, (avant-garde composer) Henry Cowell had already sort of done, with his Music of the World series for Folkways. But it took me years to find those records. And by then I already had the concept in mind,” Conte says, adding that some of his copies of the now out-of-print Folkways LPs appear to have belonged to Cowell himself.

“I tend to think of the first five (regular) volumes as the ‘lobby’ of the Museum,” says Conte. “From there, listeners can go off into the regional discs, like the ones for East Africa or Central Asia, with a little bit of bearing as to how it all ties together.”

The unofficial first volume of The Secret Museum series is Music of Madagascar, a set of 1930s recordings from the island nation that came out in 1992. Originally planned as one of the series’ later regional installments, Shanachie chose to release it earlier to coincide with the buzz generated by World Out of Time, David Lindley’s and Henry Kaiser’s award-winning, three-volume collaboration with Malagasy musicians.” Shanachie’s Nevins felt it would give fans of the Lindley and Kaiser CDs more of a context of where that music came from,” explains Conte. “He (Nevins) really does care more about music than sales. But it did seem like it might help sales, too.” Though Music of Madagascar does not carry the SMM banner, it’s right at home with the discs that do.


Pat Conte, pt. 3

May 4, 2014


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.


Pat Conte, pt. 2

May 2, 2014


Pat Conte

Pat Conte


Queens, New York, 1970. In a junk-piled antique store, Pat Conte, a record collector and esoterica fanatic, is getting his hands dirty. As part of his never-ending quest for hopelessly scarce, pre-war blues and country discs, he’s flipping through a big, dusty box of old 78s. The label on one of the records catches his eye and he plucks the item out. Marveling at its unusually ornate design and odd-looking Arabic text, he notices one line, in English, at the bottom: “Recorded in Morocco.” Intrigued, he purchases it, along with a few other finds, and heads home.

After gingerly removing nearly 50 years of dirt, he lays the enigmatic prize on the phonograph and lowers the needle. The spinning platter hums, a crackling warmth rises from the speakers. And then, from across half a century, the stark, distant sound of a group of young men playing very old music begins to fill the air. The villagers have returned.

“I started collecting records in the early ’60s, looking for jazz stuff,” says Conte, curator and compiler of The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics, 1925-1948, the extraordinary nine-volume series of vintage world music on the Yazoo label (distributed by Shanachie). “I remember flipping through and pushing aside tons of ethnic records, digging for ’40s jazz. It was just the junk that was in the way. Then I got into country and blues, around the time of the folk revival.”

At one time, New York was an affordable shopping Mecca for record collectors. Spots like Asch/Disc Records founder Mo Asch’s shop, James McKune’s tiny store, and Jake Schneider’s converted uptown hotel housed a seemingly bottomless mine of treasures, the disparate, cast-off culture of the parents and grandparents of baby-boomers whose families had flocked to the city in search of a new life. Schneider’s became the meeting place for a new generation of collector-musicologists like Max Vreede and Gene Earle and ethnic discographer Dick Spottswood, not to mention future label entrepreneurs like Yazoo founder Nick Perls, Origin Jazz Library’s Pete Whelan and Bernard Klatzko, County’s David Freeman, and Shanachie chief Richard Nevins. These pioneering archeologists were Conte’s elders in the field, cultural student-teachers who were among the first to realize the importance of forgotten artists like Charley Patton and Charlie Poole and reissue their work.

“Schneider’s thing was that he ‘collected collections,’ he bought people out,” Conte says. “His place and McKune’s were really the best places to look for stuff, especially pre-war country blues. But that was before my time. Though I did find a Bukka White record in a thrift store once. That was something—I took the rest of the afternoon off from work that day,” he beams.


Pat Conte, pt. 1

April 19, 2014

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The venerated Long Island country blues & roots musician Pat Conte is a New York cultural institution, a virtual powerhouse of the oldtime American string music. Every city in America has or used to have someone like him, the obsessive 78 rpm record collector, the passionate preservationist or the record-store musicologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Whatever his day job, he (it was almost always guys) lived and breathed obscure trivia, seemingly knowing every detail about every musician’s life and times. These are the folks who can tell you exactly who played on each record and will argue with fellow musicologists for hours over just about any topic they can find to debate about. That’s the fun of it. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life.

Pat Conte, folklorist, promoter of traditional music and muscianer, may not be well known outside of the local sphere, but in New York he is the most important blues musicologist. There are not many folks left like Pat Conte. Larger than life. Passionate, almost manic about their music. These folks were the teachers who made it their mission to turn as many people on to the oldtime music as they could. You used to find folks like Conte in record stores, the great “record store musicologists” who seemingly had an infinite knowledge base, the people of whom you could ask anything and they would know…

Today, sadly, there are fewer and fewer dwelling places for these great minds. You can find Pat Conte playing regionally around New York, most likely in the Jalopy Theater.

Pat Conte collects records, with a vast library of 78s. He performs it and acts as a self-appointed preservationists of old time blues and roots music. These are the folks who truly celebrate the legacy of the golden era of the blues, the great country blues artists of the 1920s and Depression era music of the ‘30s. Pat Conte and the other devotees have made it their single-handed mission to preserve, promote and play this music.

Together with his former musical partner, the late, great Bob Guida, he was part of the amazing duo “The Otis Brothers” a blues & roots duo who specialized in truehearted preservation and performance of obscure and esoteric country blues, which they performed so close to the original 78 rpm recordings that if you listened with your eyes closed you would think you just time traveled back a half a Century or more. They were immortalized by fellow collector and musical preservationist Robert Crumb in his famed record cover collection.

Conte has produced “The Secret Museum of Mankind” series for Yazoo Records and released five wonderfully eclectic compilations. He is active in Brooklyn’s famed Jalopy Theater, a venue and music school that features the commercially unappealing, obscure roots music that we all love.

In addition to being a walking cultural treasure as historian and musicologist, Pat Conte is a superb musician with a vast repertoire of roots & blues. He plays and sings it in the authentic fashion, tightly close to the original and always focused on keeping songs alive that may otherwise be lost in the annals of folk music, never to be played again.


February 2, 2013



by Bob Dylan:

DELIA is one sad tale—two or more versions mixed into one.

The song has no middle range, comes whipping around the corner, seems to be about counterfeit loyalty.

Delia herself, no Queen Gertrude, Elizabeth I or even Evita Peron, doesn’t ride a Harley Davidson across the desert highway, doesn’t need a blood change & would never go on a shopping spree.

The guy in the courthouse sounds like a pimp in primary colors.

He’s not interested in mosques on the temple mount, armageddon or world war III, doesn’t put his face in his knees & weep & wears no dunce hat, makes no apology & is doomed to obscurity.

Does this song have rectitude?

You bet.

Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up.

The singer’s not talking from a head full of booze.



“Delia’s Gone,” sung by Pat Conte (from “American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo”):

Secret Museum of Mankind: the Book

July 31, 2012

edited from

“The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics 1925-1948” (CD series edited by Pat Conte) takes its title from the book shown above.  Published in 1935, the Secret Museum is a mystery book. It has no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, no index. Published by “Manhattan House” and sold by “Metro Publications”, both of New York, its “Five Volumes in One” was pure hype: it had never been released in any other form.

The assumption is that this was a get-rich-quick scheme: copy “1,000” (actually 994) photos and captions verbatim from various sources with no credit, print them badly on cheap paper, sell thousands of copies for $1.98, make a bundle, then take the money and run. Yet, it was still for sale in 1942, seven years after first being released. Why wasn’t it shut down by the parties who were infringed? Were they involved? It’s a mystery.

View entire book here.

Listen to The Secret Museum of the Air radio show, with Citizen Kafka and Pat Conte, here.

American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo

November 5, 2011

Pat Conte was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1956, grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens and now lives on Long Island, NY. Conte is best known for his 8 volume collection of rare ethnic recordings, The Secret Museum of Mankind. This music became the basis of his long-running radio show The Secret Museum of the Airwaves, co-hosted by the late Citizen Kafka. Conte has performed with dozens of bands, most notably The Otis Brothers, Major Contay and the Canebrake Rattlers and The Empire State String Ticklers. As a painter, Conte’s work can be seen on the cover of Washington Phillips “The Key to the Kingdom” album on Yazoo Records.

Mr. Conte’s latest LP contains fourteen tunes, arranged for the fiddle and banjo. The record spans old-time, primitive blues and archaic songs to celebrate the harmonious and traditional pairing of these instruments in American music. “American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo” was recorded by Conte at The Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY using instruments dating back to the 19th Century. “Make Your Belly Grow” and “Half Shaved”, (played on a pre-Civil War Minstrel Banjo) showcase Conte’s lifelong understanding of the sound and nature of early American music.  (from

Available here.

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

November 4, 2011

(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. (more…)

Listen to a recent Pat Conte interview and radio show

August 19, 2011

Pat Conte, by Robert Crumb

The site below lists audio files that you can download to your computer of John Heneghan playing and talking about records from his 78rpm record collection.  This link will take you to Old Time Radio Show #3, featuring Pat Conte talking and playing some of his favorites recordings.