Who, then, is in charge of our musical past?
In moments of weakness, my PayPal account temporarily in a positive cash flow position and with the pretext that I’m “researching” for my occasional radio show in hand, I have these last couple weeks made actual purchases of music online.
At the instigation of Raymond McClain, the new head of the Center for Traditional Music, which is attached to Morehead State University, I ordered up a Proper box set offering me four discs of Red Foley’s music. I’m stuck on “Sugarfoot Rag,” and will ingest the balance slowly and gently. Somehow Foley is one of those once-important country singers who I had missed, probably because there was no big important reissue of his oeuvre during the 13 years I assigned reissue reviews for the magazine. Or because I missed it.
Prompted by Patty Griffin’s recording of “I Smell a Rat,” I picked up a single disc (again from Proper) of Big Mama Thornton, which augments a small handful of late-period recordings from the original voice of Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” sitting on a shelf across the room.
And then, reminded somehow that Young Jesse had cut “I Smell a Rat,” I finally picked up the Ace summary of his career. Young Jesse I stumbled on at Tower Records in about 1990, when my friend Jesse up and moved to New York to become a big time art director. I picked up the LP because the graphics were cool, but then I played it and decided I needed it more than Jesse did. (I’ll finally send it to him, with an apology, when I get round to digging through the vinyl in these coming weeks. In theory.)
The thread through those three releases (beyond my apparent retreat into the monaural music of the 1950s) is that the reissuing label is British. Add to that the exemplary work done by Bear Family (Germany) and Raven (Australia), and I have the suspicion that a good bit of American musical history is being kept alive by what my friends on the right might call foreigners.
Now…I realize that Rhino and Shout! Factory and Dust to Digital and Light in the Attic and whichever other label I’m forgetting (Old Hat, perhaps) do yeoman work in the U.S. Even Collector’s Choice, come to think of it, though their packages are usually so perfunctory as to be…satisfactory, but nothing to be yearned for, in the main.
But, best I could tell, there simply weren’t U.S. releases offering me Red Foley, Big Mama Thornton, nor Young Jesse options.
I also realize that there are certain windows opened up in Europe by variations on copyright law, and that there’s some kind of cutoff date which makes some music copyright free overseas, and protected (as in: costs money to license) here in the States.
But, y’know, this is our heritage. And those three I just mentioned are terrific, barely known artists these days. It’s music we SHOULD hear, even though my wife was entirely indifferent to Young Jesse’s brilliant “Don’t Think I Will” when I gave her a ride home.
So it goes.