The Dead End on My Record Shelf

I believed that there was no music existing in the world with an unbroken connection to its original context. I was wrong.

Christopher C. King | An excerpt from Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music | W.W. Norton & Company | May 2018 | 16 minutes (4,346 words)

A time-traveler, a person from the twenty-first century, stands on a cliff overlooking a mountain pass in southern Europe, in northwestern Greece, a few thousand years after the end of the last Ice Age, having traveled back in time by way of some technology unknown to us. This traveler is observing human beings while they interact with one another in this challenging, remote environment.

Something is happening among these proto-Europeans. One person places a long wooden shaft, holes bored along the side, to his lips, producing sound. Other sounds exit the mouths of the surrounding people. The collective sound appears fragmented to the listener — the time-traveler — standing above. At times the voices and the flute notes appear smooth, mellifluous, but then disjointed and abrupt. During this flood of sound, members of this group move in cryptic yet intentional ways. When this lush cacophony ceases, so too do the movements of the people.

What is going on down there?

Any of us could be this time-traveler. And any of us would realize — based on our observations — that these people are communicating. We perceive sound and movement, assuming cause and effect. The question that should linger in our minds is this: are we observing a use of language, a use of music, or something else — an alien and impenetrable behavior?

There was a time in our distant human past when we were cold, hungry, and fraught with anxiety. In order to live we had to communicate with one another. Language is a very powerful tool to exchange meaning. It is necessary for cooperation within a species; it is a tool for survival. Music, too, is a potent means of exchange. But have we ever considered music — long thought of as a form of entertainment or of symbolic expression — a tool for survival?

*

Music is as universal and as primal as language. There is evidence of musicality from every culture — both preliterate and literate — known throughout the world.

Music permeates our lives: listening to it, making it, judging it, or collecting it. Practically every day — sometimes several times a day — we hum a melody or repeat a line from a song that has unconsciously become embedded within us.

Language itself is intertwined with music. We often describe the sonorous qualities of the human voice and of nature with musical terms such as “melodious” or “rhythmic.” The tonal properties of instruments are likened to the sounds of humans: “The violin pierced the air like a woman’s voice” or “The trumpet wailed as the drums growled.” Likewise, it would be impossible to describe music without the lexicon of human emotion — sad, happy, unhinged.

These curious black discs are all that connect us with the best part of our musical past, with the rapture that we were once able to convey through deep song and dance.

Our earliest form of communication may have been a blending of the melodic with the spoken, much like a birdsong. Few would argue that birds communicate nothing with their patterns of tones. And most would agree that avian utterances are arrangements of sound with an aesthetic dimension: they are musical.

Our early ancestors may not have recognized a binary, the verbal and the musical. As humans evolved, perhaps linguistic expression and melodic expression bifurcated. Like a vestigial part of our anatomy, music may have mutated or atrophied, obscuring its original purpose.

Toddlers, before they form words and sentences, often communicate with a mixture of the verbal and the musical. My daughter Riley — before she uttered her first sentence, “Angels eat babies’ eyes” — expressed herself with piercing melodic lines that sounded like the cries of a pterodactyl sweeping across the sky. My wife and I inferred from these sounds that she wanted to be fed. This was the language-song of a hungry child.

Epic poetry — among the earliest artifacts of our propensity for storytelling — was musical. Many have theorized that repeated phrases and tonal patterns helped the ancient poet-singer recall the verses — an early mnemonic technique. Listeners were pleased to hear melodic refrains punctuated with action and meaning. When these rhapsodic songs were captured in writing by pressing a stylus into a substrate, we preserved the words along with trace elements of their musicality.

But evidence of music’s origin is fragmented. Humanity is a careless time-traveler. We rarely mark our passage through the millennia in a conscious way. Evidence has been lost, leaving an incomplete trail of artifacts — of clues — about the origin of this universal human activity, music making. Often we are left wondering what music actually is.

John Blacking proposed that music is “humanly organized sound,” a pat yet inclusive definition. Blacking was a pioneering ethnomusicologist who contrasted the folk music of central and southern Africa with the classical music of Europe. In his book How Musical Is Man? Blacking advanced the notion that listeners are just as musical as performers in traditional folk economies. In cultures that do not write down their music but rather transmit their songs and dances from one generation to the next, the ability to critically listen to and appraise a traditional folk performance “is as important and as much a measure of musical ability as is performance, because it is the only means of ensuring continuity of the musical tradition.”

In Blacking’s view much of Europe and the West’s classical or art music is preserved differently: it is written in standard musical notation. A proportionally small number of people know how to read music. Those who assess a given performance in the West — for instance, an opera critic — belong to an exclusive clique. Therefore Western culture sees musicality limited to those who are trained to perform or who are educated in aesthetic criticism or music theory.

Blacking and I would agree that music is universal and primal. But he avoids confronting the notion of functionality. If music is humanly organized sound, the question drifts unanswered, “organized to what end?” Why is sound organized as music in the first place?

Like Blacking, I am fascinated with folk music that thrived in societies where songs were passed orally from one generation to the next. In such traditions lyrics were occasionally written down, but this was not the main form of transmission. The process of learning how to play an instrument was likewise a craft that was taught by an older group of musicians to a younger group within the context of their culture. The transmission of this cultural asset sounds simple. It is not.

Documenting folk music generates complications. For instance, who ought to explain the phenomenon of an indigenous music? Should they be insiders, such as native performers who craft the songs, or could they be outsiders, such as anthropologists using tools from their discipline? Can these perspectives be traversed somehow? The answers to these questions have eluded me for over thirty years.

A written description aims for precision. An instrumental phrase aims for impressionistic ambiguity. These two modes of communication, the verbal and the musical, appear to pull from two different parts of our psyche. Verbal communication has a definitive, logical vocabulary — a lexicon. Musical language possesses a slippery tongue changing shape from one region or historical context to another — a palimpsest. You simply cannot use words to describe music any more than you can play a sentence on a violin. These two modes just do not correspond. Or so I thought.

*

I am a record collector. The type of disc with which I am obsessed, the 78 rpm phonograph record, is made of slowly decaying organic materials (unstable substrates melted together: shellac, clay, cork, horsehair, bovine bones, and tree resin, to name a few), bound together and coated with synthetic compounds. Like most of the music that Blacking studied in the 1950s, it is a relic of the past, a fossil.

These curious black discs are all that connect us with the best part of our musical past, with the rapture that we were once able to convey through deep song and dance. These records are fragile, yet they were the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for roughly the first fifty years of the twentieth century.

These vessels of sound — the 78 rpm disc — harness something transient and sacred: vibrations in the air.

When I was young, I discovered that 78 recordings — unlike so many other parts of contemporary culture — needed no outside validation, just an attentive, appreciative listener. I was the listener and the artists that made them were my friends. They were constant. People would betray you, institutions would fail you, but this, this old music, a music lacking all pretension, would never change.

Old performances on 78s transformed me. They become a singular point of reference: I understand my musical surroundings, perhaps even my physical and cultural environment, through this antiquated medium. These recordings form an aperture through which I make sense — or perceive the senselessness — of the world.

In my view, classical music is cerebral and aspires to a lofty yet groundless culture that few can enter. Contemporary popular music, which permeates every aspect of life from eating out to shopping for shoes, is over-researched, mass-marketed vacuous tripe — a dulling, inescapable, even sinister noise. I understand many people have strong attachments to contemporary music, but I cannot deny what I hear. In modern music, I hear self-centeredness, a constant referencing of individual artistic expression. It is all about the “me.” But in the old music that I love, I hear selflessness, continuity, and communal expression. It was all about the “we.”

These vessels of sound — the 78 rpm disc — harness something transient and sacred: vibrations in the air. The instantaneous and the inexplicable — a halting breath between bow strokes, the whispers by a musician in the studio that “time is up,” a train whistle etched in the grooves in a studio too close to the tracks, ghost echoes — were captured on this nascent technology. Real culture is etched within these recordings: artifacts of the way we used to navigate the world and of how we used to interact with music. They are vehicles of something fleeting but also something that begs you to follow, a Siren in a paper sleeve.

These discs loom before me like the black monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am one of the groping, awkward hominids and the disc is the mysterious source of knowledge. Despite my undying affection, the phonograph disc is simply a tool to capture vibrations in the air: a record of humanly organized sound.


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In this phonographic-cinematic metaphor, both the mint 78 and the stone monument possess an aura of perfection and potency to me. The grooves of the 78 disc may seem to contain flaws, but the flaws are in us, not in the music contained therein. The imperfection is in the exchange: we cannot see the musicians or shout encouragement to them while dancing. We cannot live within the disc. We can only listen. The crude technology distances us from the context that first prompted and then nurtured these musical activities. Without the context, one loses touch with the original intention of the music.

Whatever Kubrick was conjuring with the first act of his film, “The Dawn of Man,” I am confident that he intended the metaphor to be both universal and specific: universally applied to our ceaseless quest for explanation and specifically applied to the resolution of his film, “The Jupiter Mission,” where the tool of our creation, HAL 9000, turns against its human progenitors. A tool that we created becomes an instrument of our own destruction. And in truth, the phonograph record all but killed the authentic folk music that I love.

*

Travel back in time to early-twentieth-century southwest Louisiana, to the small town of Basile. This is before electrical lines stitched across the backs of prairies from the big cities into the woodlands. There is a house dance — a bal de maison — on the outskirts taking place on a Friday night to celebrate a rice harvest. A clapboard farmstead is lit with rush lamps and kerosene burners. Rugs and roughly hewn chairs rest outside in the smoky, humid air so dozens of farming families can dance inside to the music of Denus McGee — a white fiddler — and Amede Ardoin — a black accordionist. Everyone, including the musicians, speaks a French dialect. They are Cajuns.

There is moonshine here. And steaming kettles of gumbo set outside over fire pits. Oldsters are showing youngsters how to dance the cotillion, the mazurka, and the waltz in double-time: they glide to melodies that traveled from France to Nova Scotia to Louisiana. The secret, the old men say, is for everyone to move in perfect unison around the musicians as if they were gears within a clock.

Folks from across this parish have been anticipating this event all year long. They will dance practically without rest until Sunday mass. Young men flirt with the women. McGee and Ardoin play an especially sorrowful tune, “La Valse de Amitiés” (“Love Waltz”). Hearing this song sparks a collective memory, a feeling of regret and desolation among the dancers: a story of heartbreak and longing. The musicians’ voices do not need amplification — they cut through the wet night air and straight into the hearts of the listeners. Old men shout encouragement to Ardoin. Ladies in white petticoats cry. Everyone who has anticipated this fête feels an emotional release that spreads over the crowd like a cool, balmy wave.

At this moment in the early twentieth century, this sort of social gathering — in which music profoundly transformed whole communities — was happening all over the world. Musicians lived next door, not in a jukebox. Sure, at the house dance Ardoin and McGee would have received cash in the hat, food, moonshine, maybe more. But their function as music makers was more essential than air and therefore more valuable than money. They were vital to their community. And they were treated as musical royalty.

A decade or so later, in 1934, McGee and Ardoin recorded “La Valse de Amitiés.” Jukebox wholesalers in Texas and Louisiana would have collected 35 cents for each disc sold in Texas and Louisiana — cash in the bank during the Great Depression. But by 1934, Ardoin and McGee’s music was antiquated, resulting in minuscule sales. By then, most beer houses and juke joints wanted amplified, modern Cajun dance pieces infused with electric lap steel and drums. (Christ, drums and electric guitar.)

When mass commercial recording began, almost every ethnic and rural musical expression commenced an accelerated process of homogenization, a sad urgency toward bland uniformity.

Music — at least in terms of how we understand it — has always involved a dimension of exchange, of money. In the United States, record labels saw profits in folk music starting in the 1890s with “ethnic” recordings, followed in the early 1920s with black blues and white country music. Phonograph companies released folk music from virtually every ethnic and racial enclave in America and across the planet.

Terry Zwigoff — film director and 78 disc collector — called these diminishing regions of folk artistry “pockets of eccentricity.” Commercial recording companies captured songs from some of these isolated regions precisely at the time when such music was becoming less central to the culture. And it was commercialism, along with pressures to assimilate, that nearly wiped out living folk music.

*

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most places had some degree of contact with the outside world — nothing was left untouched by wars, colonialism, and the reach of religion or governments. But as we can see through certain photographic archives, like the images Albert Kahn produced for his Les archives de la planète, the Earth once contained a bewildering diversity of people and of music.

However, when mass commercial recording began, almost every ethnic and rural musical expression commenced an accelerated process of homogenization, a sad urgency toward bland uniformity. During this short span of time everything started to fall apart, or fall together, as it were. Regional styles, repertoires, and, perhaps most crucially, interactive and contextual functions went from being a central component of a culture’s music to a quaint, antiquated notion — quickly forgotten. Everyone wanted to sound like those heard on the most recent technologies: disc and radio.

Pressures from within the ethnic communities and cold business logic from the record companies encouraged the annihilation of regional sounds. Communities wanted to assimilate, to become modern. Record companies wanted to make bank, implying a tacit mandate to record palatable, easy-to-market music. Musicians had to satisfy the aesthetics of the artist and repertoire middlemen who decided who and what would be recorded. Back porch hayseeds would have to slick up their sound, straighten out their crooked tunes, and shorten their natural performance time to conform with the constraints of the disc. If they failed, they would not record more than once. (Of course it would help if they added drums and electric guitar.)

The explosive growth of the phonograph and jukebox business would all but eliminate the need for live, native folk music. Between the two world wars we had discovered our dual nature to both preserve and destroy culture. One of our tools — the phonographic recording device — both documented and poisoned authentic rural music. Raw folk music would practically vanish by the time the 78 rpm record format had run its course.

*

Before music became a commodity, it was nourishment: food for the soul. Communities needed music; therefore musicians were esteemed. When I listen to an especially fine recording from some isolated place, I hear the connectedness underneath the music: the artist’s connection to the village and the song’s connection with the past, with memory. I hear authenticity, what was. When I hear music from the present and the not so distant past, I perceive a pale derivation, a whimper, of what once existed. I hear what was lost.

There is an inexact metric to my judgment of folk music, and I parse my appraisal in terms of authenticity — a loaded term if there was one. First, I understand traditional folk music as humanly organized sound produced by distinct groups of people who are geographically, linguistically, religiously, and ethnically unified. Second, the behaviors and beliefs within a folk tradition retain their purposes when they are passed down from a parent to a child, a mentor to a docent. This act transfers culture. Authenticity, as I understand it, measures the transmission of practices (including music) within a folk tradition. When a practice is handed down from one generation to the next, authenticity of that practice is preserved to a high degree. When a practice is disrupted or devalued, then authenticity is lessened.

You may ask, “Well, what about this string band from Brooklyn? I just saw them at the farmer’s market when I picked up my kombucha. These younger guys learned from older guys who in turn learned from ‘authentic’ southern fiddlers in the 1960s.”

I would say that this music is less authentic. Why?

Let’s take a break and visit my record room. First, I need to turn on my equipment to warm up. OK.

Do you want a drink? It helps. Do you want to get high? Fine.

Right now I’m playing for you a 78 recorded in 1927 by Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters called John Brown’s Dream. Nice copy, right? Pretty rare. The fiddler is Ben Jarrell, from a small town called Toast, North Carolina. He’s playing in an idiosyncratic style with his strings tuned up high, heavily syncopated bow strokes, lots of embellishments. Ben is playing just like his father and his father before him. Ben Jarrell had a son named Tommy born in 1901 who fiddled just like him. Tommy was “rediscovered” in the 1960s and made hundreds of recordings. He taught musicians — mainly guys from the Northern states — how to play fiddle and banjo. Tommy had a son but his son died before passing on Tommy’s music. Some local musicians learned from Tommy, but not many.

Most of these young Northerners who learned from Tommy moved away but continued to play Tommy’s tunes, copying his style. What they didn’t have was the context — the unique social cohesion — that nurtured this music in the first place. Tommy learned from his father but he also played for house parties and corn-shuckings. The particular type of rural, isolated lifestyle that Tommy and his community lived informed his playing just as much as the lessons that his father gave him on fiddle.

Epirotes say they need this music because ‘life has always been hard in the mountains, everything has always been uncertain.’

I can’t say that the recreations — the contemporary interpretations of traditional music — are inauthentic. But I can say that those who learned this repertoire and style from rural Toast, North Carolina, without living the same kind of life as Tommy are playing a less authentic music. Revival musicians simply do not convey the deep web of cultural bonds and nuances that existed when the music was captured on 78. Even though the rural eccentricities may have started to degrade earlier, to become faint when they were recorded decades ago, the intensity was still there. What existed then was an apex of expression. What exists now is a nadir of imitation.

What is etched within these curious black discs no longer exists in the world. Or so I believed.

*

Sometimes having an artifact is not enough. I yearned for music that was not a dead end on my record shelf, something vital. In my studio, thousands of black discs in tan sleeves stood — row after row of memorials to dozens of deceased or dying musical traditions. I believed that there was no music existing in the world with an unbroken connection to its original context, its culture.

I was wrong.

In the twenty-first century, I discovered the unimaginable, a land and music that time forgot. The music thrives in an isolated part of the Balkan Peninsula, a literal and spiritual gateway between the East and the West: Epirus.

Here in a corner of northwestern Greece is an area suspended in time, negotiating the influences of modernization yet possessing the necessary components for a robust musical life. Witnessing the music of this region, I realized that folk music, like all organic things, requires a biosphere. The elements for life and for music mirror one another: there must be a protective atmosphere, a source of nutrition, and a purpose for existing.

Epirus exists within such a musical biosphere. In this place, dance justifies life, songs affirm death, and the great mystery — “What is the purpose of making music?” — is answered. By traveling to this place, I was able to traverse the perspectives of insider and outsider and to understand how the expressions of language and music are unified as one mode.

*

When I listen to a 78 or a contemporary field recording of northwestern Greek music I discern these four characteristics: the music of Epirus has ancient, continuous roots; emotional intensity; an inextricable bond between the soil and people; and an ineffable dimension that speaks profoundly about the human condition. Longevity is critical. There are celebrations and songs in Epirus that are undoubtedly rooted in the pre-Christian past, preserved — as if in amber — for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. But what initially seized me was the intensity of the music, the best I’ve ever seen.

To explain what I mean by intensity, here is a cinematic metaphor from the nihilistic crime drama The French Connection. In it, countercultural chemist Pat McDermott tests the purity of heroin smuggled into New York City. In McDermott’s economy, purity is the same as intensity. Setting up a glass beaker apparatus, applying a sampling of said heroin to a solution, McDermott then fires up his Bunsen burner. As the temperature rises, so too does McDermott’s evaluation of the qualitative merits of the opioid sample:

Blastoff!
180–200 — Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval
210 — U.S. Government Certified
220 — Lunar trajectory — Junk of the Month Club Sirloin Steak
230 Grade “A” Poison — Absolute Dynamite! 89% pure junk The Best I’ve Ever Seen

When I listen to a 78 recording, my appraisal of its merits is like McDermott’s grading of heroin. We perceive the temperature rising based on the purity or intensity. Our metric for evaluation is not grounded in academic thought. McDermott and I are outside the fray: we have an intimate knowledge of and interaction with the phenomenon because of our obsessive devotion to it. Just as McDermott knows how to judge a drug’s power based on his own personal use, I too can grade the intensity of music based on my lifelong worship of these curious black discs.

Intensity is a result of the interconnections between a place, its people, and its music: a localized vitality. In Epirus the music is purposeful: it is a tool for survival and communal healing. A symbiosis exists between the artists and the people, where the nourishment being shared is the music.

*

Like most life-altering experiences for a sheltered, misanthropic record collector, my first exposure to the music of Epirus came from several battered and beat-to-hell 78s. But these recordings only served as a gateway to the living music of northwestern Greece. Every visit to the region led to a greater discernment of the mechanisms at play in this music. I discovered that in Epirus, music contains a curative, healing function.

This discovery led to an epiphany, a revelation about how we, as modernized Westerners, have a simplified if not fundamentally flawed misconception about the origin and purpose of music. When one understands the purpose of music in Epirus, one discovers an alternative view.

Epirotes say they need this music because “life has always been hard in the mountains, everything has always been uncertain.” Music here is a balm — a curative — for the unknowable and the inevitable. There are threats to all cultures at all times, but in northwestern Greece they have a name for the ultimate threat, Charon — ferryman to the underworld, aka Death, the one who collects the last ticket.

* * *

Christopher C. King, a Grammy-winning producer, musicologist, and prominent 78 RPM record-collector, has written for The Paris Review and the Oxford American. Profiles of him have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He lives in Virginia.

Editor: Dana Snitzky