Mossy Bottom Records: A New Outlet for Roots Vinyl in Seattle
Sometimes as a young folksinger it is hard for me to have conversations with people my age about the music I’m “into”. More often than not, my enthusiasm for getting a mountain dulcimer signed by Jean Ritchie or excitement that Alice Gerard is teaching at the guitar camp I’m going to is met by a blank stare. “You know, Peggy Seeger, right?…No? Ok, she’s the sister of Mike Seeger…well among other things The New Lost City Ramblers…Really? Ok, fine–Pete Seeger? The Weavers? He wrote that song, “to everything turn, turn, turn”. More often than not I just give up, though I could go much more obscure than Ritchie and Gerard. As for Peggy Seeger, we’ll get back to her in a minute.
I collect songs of bygone eras, weaving the past into the present of my song writing. The many who have come before leave lights on the path for us within their songs. Often times the only way to hear them is on vinyl. It never ceases to amaze me that despite our digital age, there are still so many things in the folk/bluegrass/old time genres that you can only find on vinyl. There is a magic in them that keeps them tied to the past. Records are something you need to physically look at to understand condition. Buying LPs online or on Ebay just doesn’t sit the same as other products. My dilemma is that none of the record shops that have survived in Seattle seem to carry the kind of hard-to-find off the beaten path folk records I’m looking for (minus Golden Oldies having two high priced Hedge and Donna records). Or at least that was the case before I found Mossy Bottom Records…
A couple months ago my band (The Gloria Darlings) received a message on our Facebook wall that said something to the effect of, “I dig your music, I think you would dig my shop.” Never one to let somebody get away with free advertising on OURFacebook wall, I wrote back, “You got any Pentangle?”
Mossy Bottom Records: Yup, lots.
Pandi: What about Kate Wolf?
Mossy Bottom Records: Easy.
Pandi: What about Shel Silverstein or Delaney and Bonnie, Judee Sill?
Mossy Bottom Records: Shel yes, Delaney and Bonnie are extremely hard to come by as is Judee Sill; but I see them from time to time and if you give me your list; I most definitely try to get them in the shop for you.
It was then that I realized that I was not dealing with some average Facebook wall-troller, but someone who had actually listened to my music enough to make the connection that some things I may be seeking were in his shop. When I went to the store in April I also realized that I was dealing with someone knowledgeable and passionate about folk music.
The store front of Mossy Bottom Records is very quaint and welcoming. It’s on 50th just north of Brooklyn in the University District across from the Experimental College. A wide sidewalk meets a store front with painted 45s, vines and a jade tree peeking through the large windows. Inside the windows I see John Fahey and Fairport Convention smiling back at me, and recognize Holy Model Rounders piping through the outdoor speakers. Before I even open the door, I have an understanding that this place is going to become a great resource in my song collecting and as much as I have gotten out of Vinyl in recent years; I’m about to come face to face with an old love.
Here’s a brief context of your author’s vinyl affinity. In my earlier 20s I lived with a guitar player who was addicted to Vinyl. Two summers in a row we made the kind of epic and financially irrational road-trips that one is only able to make right out of high school. We’d both use our two weeks of vacation time, drive the coast on Highway 1 to California; the sole purpose being to hit all three Amoeba Record Stores (Berkley, San Francisco, L.A.), with the $5,000 we had diligently saved for the last year. I can still clearly see the wall of records in our place. I remember the day I left, I opened the basement door and looked at all the gear and records we’d bought and said, “goodbye extremely rare Lee Hazelwood and 1959 Skeeter Davis. Farewell Sympathy for the Devil with your mint condition holographic cover.” And from that day forward, along with the influx of digitized music availability, I closed the vinyl collecting part of my heart. At the same time I felt an emotional resistance to spending any more money on records that I’d previously owned in a past life. That is way things remained up until two years ago when I self-identified as a folksinger and vinyl began a slow trickle back into my life out of sheer necessity. When I opened the door of Mossy Bottom Records I was hit by a flood.
Inside, Mossy Bottom feels like my living room, it has a very welcoming feel of musical magic. When I walk in, I am greeted by posters of old friends Sam McGhee and Norma Tapega on the wall and meet Nick Gorfkle, owner of Mossy. Gorfkle recognizes and welcomes me. His good friend Eli is also working at the shop. “Folk Singer-songwriter is over there, but you have to listen to this Kenny Hall I just got, if you like old timey music in general. The way he fingerpicks the mandolin, this record is a must have, AND he’s blind, you’re gonna want this record.” Gorfkle puts on the record (call me stubborn but when anyone I just met tells me what I’m going to like something, I am a skeptic) I ask where the Pentangle records are and start looking through folk singer/songwriter section. I snag Emmylou Harris’s first album Gilding Bird, and give an inner squeal of delight (I’ve been wanting this album for years). Out of the five Pentangle albums in the store, I can’t decide between Solomon’s Seal, Sweet Child, and Basket of Light; but when I look at the reasonable prices I am overjoyed to discover that I can buy all three. Next, I grab a Hazel & Alice; which I’ll need this summer to have Alice sign when I meet her. Yes, here’s Donovan “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” in excellent condition. On the cover he sits dressed to the nines with a banjo in a gondola in a castle’s moat! I flip it over to find a track I’ve never heard before of the hurdy-gurdy man singing Shakespeare’s “Under the Greenwood Tree.” “Oh no,” I think to myself, this place is trouble…
Pandi: Why did you open a record store specializing in vinyl when so many others are closing for lack of business?
Gorfkle: I opened a record store out of my deep love of music from all genres; music from all around the world and I want to be able to spread that music to people. And I feel that there is that there is not much diversity in music the way it’s marketed and sold these days. It’s all top 40 or resembling top 40 and everything else is “you have to be crazy to listen to that music.” There’s not enough outlets out there selling world music and selling awesome genres of music that the whole mainstream has forgotten ever existed.
Pandi: Why focus on Vinyl and not more on Cd’s or something that might encourage more customers?
Gorfkle: Well I do carry Cd’s, tapes, 8 tracks, reel-to-reel, and 78s but my focus is on Vinyl because it was some of the best technology, or a variation of it, ever made. For one, the sound quality is much better, like the performers are actually in the room. Compressed music was made in the early 80’s for people who were on-the-go, listening to music through their headphones or in their cars. No longer in their houses, no longer with a group of people. The TV had replaced the stereo and it had no place anymore. People more and more only listened to music while they were commuting.
Pandi: You seem to have a fairly extensive folk section, is that intentional?
Gorfkle: I do, and it’s ever growing. Every week I put out new ones. Basically it’s taken me a long time to break up what I consider folk music. Of course I’m going to put really traditional stuff like John Henry in the OldTime/Bluegrass section. But things like Joni Mitchell, a lot of record stores keep her in the rock section; not folk. Here I put her in the folk singer/songwriter section; as well as Harry Nilsson–not even a folk artist but most known for his songwriting opposed to his rocking out so he’s here as well. Gram Parsons is here; though he’s country, his original compositions are what he’s most known for versus traditional country. Even Shel Silverstein’s in here, Patrick Skye, Simon and Garfunkel, on and on.
Pandi: What record is playing in the background right now?
Gorfkle: This is (told you you’d want it) a record of Eric Darling on Vanguard. He played bass, banjo, and guitar and backed a lot of people like Judy Collins, Joan Baez and tons of big folk acts back in the day. He was always the background guy. This is the only album I’ve seen of him. I first really listened to it today.
At this point two young men come into the store: obviously on a mission. One takes the Son House record off the wall and straight to the register. “This is Jack White’s favorite album,” he enthusiastically tells Gorfkle. “Awesome, glad you’re excited about it,” he responds. The two leave the store. “That one kinda hurts; it came from my personal collection,” Gorfkle says, “But it’s alright though, I put it in here because I want people to have access to that stuff, that’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen here. Anyway, it’s an older Son House that’s from after he had to relearn his own stuff. That’s an interesting story, he forgot how to play guitar, he literally was so down and out drunk that he forgot how to play. The singer of Canned Heat went and found Son House, he had learned how to play all Son House’s songs perfectly, and retaught Son House his own material and sobered up, and then he put out that album I just sold. I think he’d slowed down a little, I like his early stuff best. His early stuff sounds like bolts of lightening with the slide. Usually I avoid selling my only copy of something anyway, every record that I’ve fallen in love with, I’m ever looking for more copies. So essentially I can have a duplicate collection of what’s here in the shop.”
I decide that this is enough LPs for a few weeks and that I can always come back. But just as I’m about to cash out I find the big treasure. By the register, there is a box that says “Just In Folk.” The first two albums are Newport Folk Festival Comps, Gorfkle says “yeah, I have a lot of great folk comps.” I want them but I decide I’ll come back for that, until I see the third album in the box, a Folk comp called “Songs from the Heart of Women: Save the Children” the artist’s names scrolled across the top: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barbra Dane, Mimi Fariña, Janis Ian, Odetta, Malvina Reynolds, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Hedy West. “Can this be real?” I ask myself as I hold my breath to flip it over and see the track listings. There it is, gold. “You have Joan Baez, her sister Mimi, AND Judy Collins singing in trio “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” by Donovan!?!? This is one of my favorite songs, and versions of it of all time! Learning to play THIS song taught me a picking pattern that I’ve integrated into my guitar playing ever since. I get to buy this and hear their voices blend on vinyl!??! Gorfkle smiles and says, “yup, that’s how it works.”
Interview Trip #2
Pandi: Can you choose a few records you’re currently excited about that you’d like to share with this acoustic music audience?
Gorfkle: This one for sure. Fred Engelberg is the greatest folksinger I’ve ever discovered on vinyl. He put out two albums and then disappeared. He was an actor in the 50’s hilarious sci-fi movies. Fred Engelberg is this character who sounds like an angel speaking through other dimensions.
This is one of the world great records, “An Island Carnival: Music from the West Indies,” and they’re hopping from island to island. It has calypsos and merengues on it and everything from percussion to primitive cult rituals where they are actually attempting to summon spirits on the recording. Some of it is from Tobago, some from Trinidad. Some tracks are only percussion and singing, and others have beautiful guitar and the violin playing is so squeaking and harmonic, I haven’t quite heard the likes of elsewhere. This is by far my favorite album in the Explorer Series. Nonesuch Explorer is a label where you will find folksingers in the 60’s like Peter Segal and a handful of others who were interested in collecting. David Lindley did this in Madagascar–he would go out and collect field recordings, and that’s exactly what this is. A lot of folksingers were so into the roots music that they decided to go down and actually do their own field recordings because they thought it was so important. The female vocals and male vocals blended with the violin on some of these tracks is truly some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.
I have some good gospel records, more are always on the way, country gospel like Emily Jackson, Stanley Brothers, Clinch Mountain Boys: Hymns and Sacred Songs, Bill Monroe. But if I was going to pick one in this genre it would have to be this Stash Records Compilation. They put out 5 volumes of “reefer songs”: It’s all old drug related blues and jazz songs. It’s got everything from Dick Justice, Cocaine, great guitar player, Dick Justice to “Viper Mad” and “If You’s a Viper”, Ella Fitzgerald, “Wacky Dust,” “Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovalteen”. I’ve collected them all. This one right here is a collection of a Capella gospel. Much of it is from early 78s of some of the very best, most soulful, syncopated tunes. The Blue Jay Singers, The Kings of Harmony, The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.
Then there’s this one from the country section, “Ok, Western Swing.” Ok was a label that was bought by Columbia with tons of blues, country and folk recordings from the 20’s on into the 40’s on this label. This is a double record, the quality of recording on this label itself helped turn me on to this kind of music. It has Emitt Miller and His Georgia Crackers doing the original “Lovesick Blues”. The lead is sung in complete falsetto and it’s hilarious because in this track it’s backed by Jimmie Dorsey and Eddy Lange, old Jazz guys playing in weird hillbilly minstrel music. This completely blew me away. This version of “Hesitation Blues” by Al Barnard and the Goffets Five is also one of my favorite versions. This comp’s got Sadie Green’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” swingin’ stuff, the Cajun stomp, early Sons of the Pioneers with the Farr Brothers on fiddle and guitar.
Old time at The Newport is pretty choice: Doc Watson, Clarence Tom Ashley; one of my very favorites, Maybelle Carter, James Cotrel “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife,” Dorsey Dicksen, Doc Boggs, yep it’s pretty choice. Doc Boggs, “Oh Death” and “Drunkard Lonechild”, Dorsey Dickson “Intoxicated Rat,” and he wrote “Wreck on the Highway.”
Pandi: I know as a folksinger songwriter how much of an influence this music is on me; so how would you articulate the importance of getting into, or back into vinyl to musicians interested in playing folk music?
Gorfkle: Lots of albums aren’t available on CD. Tons are out of print. I didn’t realize it until I worked at a record store a while back and he (my boss) would look up everything and have us sticker it, “Never on CD.” Like I grabbed a Sly and the Family Stone and it said, “Never on CD,” they never put that on CD. And that’s the way with tons of blues and folk records.
Pandi: Ok, playing devil’s advocate, I would have completely agreed with you a couple years ago but recently I got a subscription to e-music and they have the entire folkways catalog and local stuff like early Kat Eggleston, Alice Gerrad’s first album, that aren’t released on CD that I can just download digitally. What’s the purpose of vinyl then?
Gorfkle: First thing, to me Smithsonian Folkways is mainstream. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about stuff like this (Gorfkle takes a record off the wall). You might be able to find this on a blog sight, but never for download. This is a bluegrass compilation, the first record on the label, from Aloha Oregon: Grassroots Records. 1974, great Northwest bluegrass. I have piles and piles of these local folk records, but not even just that, world folk records too. Maybe you could hunt some down but a lot of them you google and nothing whatsoever comes up.
If you don’t listen to this kind of stuff, you don’t get a good overall look. If I hadn’t had the chance to work at so many record stores over the years and listen to this stuff; I wouldn’t even be into this kind of music like I am today. I used to just be into Bob Dylan, then I got his first album, saw he was doing Josh White songs. “Interesting, that’s blues,” I thought, I should check that out. All of a sudden I’m listening to Guthrie and Leadbelly, and that was it. Record collector, totally addicted, needed all of it; Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker…
On my second trip to MB to interview Gorfkle for this article I picked up “The Water Lily” by Priscilla Herdman and an early Linda Ronstandt The Stone Poneys: Evergreen Volume 2. Gorfkle said, “You’ll really be into that, it’s Linda Ronstadt but way more acoustic and folkie than her later stuff.” I grab three independent mountain dulcimer records (one of which is by a former teacher from the mountain dulcimer camp I went to two summers ago in Virginia, Madeline MacNeil. This album, Strawberry Fair, was released over 40 years ago when she was closer to my current age.) And the big treasure of this trip; Smithsonian Folkways Mountain Music Played on the Autoharp, recorded by Mike Seeger, featuring Kilby Snow.
Pandi: Is there any plug you want to give readers to entice them to come down and check out Mossy Bottom Records?
Gorfkle: I’m sure I’m the only one in town that has any Townes Van Zandt original records.
As I leave the store, I tell Gorfkle about a record swap I heard about from a DJ friend that the DUG group is putting on over the weekend. I can’t go I tell him, “I’ll be in Portland for Peggy Seeger at the Folklore Society.” Gorfkle says, “see you there, I’ve been looking forward to this show for months.” I leave MBR prepared to write this article, and excited to for once not be so alone in my musical quest. Thus, it comes back to Peggy Seeger!
Mossy Bottom Records is located 5049 Brooklyn Ave NE (U District just past 50th on Brooklyn; across the street from the experimental college) Mossy Bottom Records on Facebook
Pandi is one third of Seattle’s female Indie-Folk-Grass The Gloria Darlings The Gloria Darlings Facebook
This Article was originally posted in the Victory Review, June 2011; I have since decided to co-post in No Depression. Xo Pandi