Devoted Indies Serve Public as Curators of Musical Past

Chris Morris - Billboard June 2, 2001

Perpetuating a process that began in the LP era, a formidable number of independent labels are serving as the informal curators of various strains of mainly pre-World War II American music by preserving those obscure sounds on lovingly remastered CD's.
      The great majority of these modern reissue labels are operated by record collectors who draw on their own troves of 78 rpm discs to bring classic blues, jazz, and country, as well as various ethnic musics, to a wider audience.
      "We all sort of know that we're in the process of preserving this music for coming generations - whether they appreciate it or want it [or not]," says George Morrow, whose San Mateo, CA-based label, The Old Masters (TOM), has restored to print a wealth of arcane Roaring 20's and Depression-era jazz and dance-band music.
      As they did in the 50's - when one piratical jazz reissue imprint boldly took the name Jolly Roger Records - many of the indie labels today operate in nebulous legal terrain, since much of the material they deal in - which is usually reproduced from old 78's and not from original masters - is purportedly the property of major labels.
      Yet most labels, citing the near-total neglect of this music by the majors, say that they are perfectly within their rights in reproducing their old 78's and that their activities are unlikely to be tested in court.
      To Allen Larman, roots-music buyer at the Rhino Records retail store in Los Angeles, these small labels are performing an invaluable service, not only for consumers but for industry listeners and musicians.
      "They're providing music that people otherwise wouldn't get a chance to hear," Larman insists. "Without them, there would be a void. These labels are having a direct impact on music today. There's a cultural significance with what they're doing - people are being enlightened. This music isn't being played on the radio, and you can't download [20's bluesman] Charlie Jordan off the Internet."
      In the 1998 book Chasin' That Devil Music, musicologist/researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow notes that reissue activity began in earnest "once collectors finished piecing together an artist's work on 78's [and] made their treasures available" on LP's and, later, CD's.
      Wardlow notes that the most significant early indie reissue imprints were Origin Jazz Library (OJL), founded in 1960 by Bill Givens and Pete Whelan, and Yazoo Records, formed in 1967 by Nick Perls and Bernard Klatzko. Both labels are still in business today.
Cary Ginell, who today operates OJL in LA with partner Michael Kieffer, says that Givens and Whelan were inspired by the reissue efforts of RBF Records, a subsidiary of Moses Asch's Folkways Records that issued 20's country blues and gospel. "This music was getting lost - it wasn't getting reissued, and the records were so rare, so Bill decided to put out a series of them."
      The OJL label - run exclusively by Givens after Whelan exited to found the magazine 78 Quarterly in 1967 - made its name with such compilations as Really! The Country Blues and the first LP devoted to bluesman Charley Patton. In the early 80's, Givens wanted to reactivate his dormant imprint with a Western swing series, and he turned to Ginell, a fellow habitue of Jazz Man Records, a now defunct West LA store that catered to record collectors.
      After Givens died in 1999, Ginell and Kieffer took the OJL name; they'll soon launch the "Western Swing Chronicles" CD series, focusing on such artists as Milton Brown, Leon Chappelear, Roy Newman, Ocie Stockard, and guitarist Bob Dunn. "Western swing may be the most under-represented or over-neglected major musical genre of the 20th century, as far as reissues and historical analysis go," says Ginell, author of a 1994 biography of bandleader Brown. "After Bob Wills, most people are hard-pressed to name anybody else who played the music."
      OJL also distributes Sunbeam Records, a jazz reissue label founded in 1970 by Alan Roberts. Kieffer has been involved in Sunbeam's remastering of a comprehensive 13-CD series devoted to trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. "Here we have one of the key players in the 1920s," Kieffer says, "one of the most important figures in early jazz, and yet every attempt prior to this series to put out either a representative package by him or something complete has been flawed."
      After the death of Yazoo owner Perls in 1986, much of his large collection of 78's was purchased by Richard Nevins and Don Kent, who today operate the imprint for Shanachie Records in New York.
      Nevins, who describes himself as a "maniacal collector," says Yazoo has shifted its focus in recent years from strictly blues to compilations of what he calls "early American rural music" by both black and white artists of the 20's and 30's. The label is also issuing new, upgraded packages devoted to such acts as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, the Memphis Jug Band, and Cannon's Jug Stompers.
      "A lot of the old [Yazoo titles] were pretty shaky in a lot of ways," Nevins says. "They weren't really well-conceived, and they had pretty mediocre sound quality. Then they only had 12 or 14 tracks, and people don't exactly want to buy a CD with 12 or 14 tracks. All the ones in the past eight or nine years have had around 23 tracks."
      TOM, another 60's label, was acquired six years ago by former computer executive/engineer Morrow. It has released sets by artists as well known as singer Mildred Bailey and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and as obscure as singer/guitarist Charlie Palloy and banjoist Harry Reser.
      For his releases, Morrow draws almost exclusively on his collection of 70,000 78's, which includes titles from such long-lost labels as the 30's budget imprint Crown. "They put out a total of something like 550 records, of which something like 450 were dance bands, the rest being strictly vocals," he says. "Of the 550, I have 375. I probably have a bigger Crown collection than anybody else in the world."
      Morrow has also done important audio restoration work - most recently on Lamento Borincano, an astonishing two-CD set of Puerto Rican recordings issued by Berkeley, CA-based Arhoolie Records.
      Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz began his own blues reissue imprint, Blues Classics, in the 60's but has recently focused on reissuing Mexican and Tex-Mex recordings (on the Folklyric imprint) and other ethnic musics. Strachwitz explains that the blues reissue market had grown overcrowded: "I figured, 'Hell, let me devote my time to things that haven't been mined to death and need to be exposed, especially the Mexican stuff.' "
      Several new labels have continued in the tradition of the original reissue imprints, upping the ante with exceptional production values. Revenant Records, founded in 1996 by late guitarist and record fanatic John Fahey, has drawn great attention with its elegant collections devoted to prewar gospel music and hillbilly banjoist Dock Boggs. Last year, Revenant released the previously unheard fourth volume of Harry Smith's groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music. On Oct 23, Revenant - now operated by Fahey's Austin, Texas-based partner, Dean Blackwood - will issue "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues," an opulent seven-disc box devoted to early Delta blues star Charley Patton.
      "Our idea was to have things that were more substantial physically," Blackwood says of Revenant's extravagant packages. "Some of this goes back to John's obsession with objects - 78's - though he was long past the fetishizing of those things. I'm still in the throes of it myself. I'm a fetishist to a T."
      Though Raleigh, NC-based Old Hat Enterprises has issued only three CD's of vintage hillbilly and blues fiddle music since starting up in 1998, its profile is high. The label's most recent compilation, "Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow!," won glowing reviews in The New York Times and Newsweek.
      Old Hat's owner, Marshall Wyatt, says his next album will be devoted to diverse recordings from the vaults of legendary 78 collector Joe Bussard. "I don't know how many thousands of records he has," Wyatt says of Bussard. "The first time I walked down to that basement room, I gasped."
      Like Bussard, Washington, DC-based collector, scholar, and broadcaster Dick Spottswood has loaned his records for countless LP and CD compilations. And, like the label owners themselves, he views his role as an important one. "I get paid once in a blue moon," he says. "I don't ask people for money. I guess my main mantra is that this music has to be preserved, and the best form of preservation is dissemination."
      In fact, money seems to be a distant consideration for most of the indie reissue labels. The majority of them report sales of fewer than 5,000 units for their releases. Speaking for many, Yazoo's Nevins says bluntly that sales are "terrible, all the time. There's no actual reason to put it out, really. It's got nothing to do with commerce. Shanachie is the commercial entity; Yazoo is just a little historical labor-of-love hobby, period."
The release of archival material has been tinged with a kind of outlaw philosophy on the part of the indies since the LP era.
      During an April symposium at the Getty Center in LA, Harry Smith Archives director Rani Singh noted that the 78 collector and musicologist Smith's famed 1952 Anthology - perhaps the best-known and most influential compilation of early American recordings of its day - was "of dubious legality, since there were no licensing or artist fees paid."
      Smith's approach has proved infectious. While many indie reissues draw on 78's originally released by such long defunct labels as Paramount and Gennett (whose holdings and masters long ago passed into oblivion), most collections contain material issued decades ago by labels whose masters now reside in the major labels' vaults.
      Few will speak publicly about this practice, which could be considered bootlegging in some quarters. But without exception, indie label operators see nothing wrong with issuing music from which the majors don't believe they can reap any commercial benefits.
      Some contest the majors' right to claim ownership of the music to begin with. "They tried to stop me once," the head of one label says, recalling a confrontation with a major. "One of the firms sent me a huge contract, saying, 'You should be paying royalties to us, since we are the legal owners.' I asked my lawyer about it, and he said, 'Well, ask for proof that they actually own this stuff.' They were outraged by that; they sent me these little 3 by 5-inch file cards. I said, 'Anybody can create those. Please send me either the masters or the contracts.' And they simply refused. So it's been a Mexican standoff ever since."
      Regarding licensing, another indie label owner says, "You just don't ask, basically. The rule of thumb is, if you start asking - if you call up Sony Music and say, 'Do you own this?' - well, chances are they don't know if they own it, and if they do, suddenly you're dealing with lawyers, you're dealing with licensing fees you can't possibly afford, etc. Unless a small label such as mine starts really raking in the money, they're not going to care. As long as it's obscure stuff and not selling in big quantities, I think we're really below the radar."
      Another views the matter in highly technical terms: "It's never been tested in court, but it seems like using the property that belongs to us, or any individual, meaning a 78, is perfectly within our rights. You cannot copyright a sound. You can copyright a physical mechanical object, and in this case what the record companies have copyrighted is the masters. That's what they own."
      Few believe that questions of ownership will ever go before a judge. Revenant's Blackwood, who is an attorney, says, "It would be a pretty hard case for anyone to make, to assert some sort of ownership interest in a lot of these recordings. Nobody has the goods - there's no paper, there's nothing. It's not worth the majors' time. Even if they were to secure damages, it would be a pittance; it wouldn't even pay their legal fees. Another thing is, if they get an adverse judgment, it's like public notice to everyone that you can raid Columbia's vaults, as far as stuff before a certain date, because they have no way of proving ownership."
      Collector Spottswood says the majors' total neglect of their old catalog material validates the indies' efforts to put the music in the marketplace. He asks, rhetorically, "Somebody who claims to own a particular performance, or recording of a performance, and has not had it available for 70 or 80 years - how legitimate is their claim against an indie who makes the performance available again? What right does the putative parent/owner have to restrict that process? The major labels don't want to get into the courts to find that out. They don't want to open that Pandora's box."
      Summing up the indies' point of view about this old yet timeless music, one label owner says, "It's first of all a service to the public. This is our music. It belongs to all of us."