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.