The Dust Brother

Archivist Nathan Salsburg goes on the record about efforts to preserve a rare musical find

Oct 19, 2011 at 5:00 am
The Dust Brother
Photo by Ron Jasin

Don Wahle apparently led a life of solitude in the South End. Details on the man and his time on Earth are thin. All we are left with is what he left behind. A decrepit house filled with the ephemera of a shut-in, possibly a hoarder: boxes of ketchup bottles, magazines and newspapers from the 1960s and ’70s, receipts of a lifetime of purchases. He’d only been dead a few days, and yet the house looked long since abandoned to nature and the funk that accompanies neglect.

What heirs he had did not come to pack away his life and memories. They called a Dumpster company. Take it all, they said, leave the walls.

It would take a stranger, Nathan Salsburg, to resurrect the man through circumstance and accident.

“I was with a couple friends of mine having supper,” Salsburg says, and “a friend of ours had been on this Dumpster job with another friend. They had the gig to clean out the house of this recently deceased fellow. I got this call: ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of records on this Dumpster job’ — did I want to come look at them?”

Salsburg has dedicated his career to the preservation of lost microcultures, the community music of what cultural critic Greil Marcus called “Old, Weird America,” before radio and the major label system homogenized us into bold-face genres. Formerly a member of the chamber/rock band Halifax Pier, his musical interests began with punk but spun out over time. Once out of college, the Louisvillian moved to New York City where, after he watched a documentary on folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Salsburg wrote to the Woody Guthrie Archive to volunteer. That voluntary position quickly turned into a new career path.

“I was there for two afternoons before they said the Alan Lomax Archive was hiring somebody. I knew who Alan Lomax was, you know, the ‘Prison Songs,’ (but) that was about it. So I started working in October 2000 doing data entry.”

Alan Lomax was a folklorist whose travels through the American South and the Caribbean provided thousands of recordings and transcripts of folk, blues and gospel songs. He was responsible for bringing awareness to legends such as Lead Belly, the Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters and countless others. Before Alan and his father, John Lomax, began their work, the cultural intelligentsia deemed much of this music unworthy of analysis.

This endeavor to bring neglected American culture to the fore is a mission carried on by Salsburg today. Now general editor of Digital Catalogs for the Alan Lomax Archive, his job is to digitize thousands of hours of Lomax’s field recordings of world, blues, hillbilly, gospel and much more. He also runs a small record label, Twos & Fews, which has reissued titles from folks such as Hamper McBee, a moonshiner from Tennessee, and Nimrod Workman, a coal miner and bluegrass singer featured in the documentary “Harlan County, USA.” By distributing Twos & Fews titles through Chicago’s Drag City Records, Salsburg is making them more accessible for a younger indie rock audience acclimated to the folk sounds of artists like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Smog and Six Organs of Admittance.

Salsburg’s label acts as a gateway of sorts, beckoning modern music fans to check out the sounds of yesterday. It’s that desire to preserve the music of America’s past that led him to Don Wahle’s musty old records.

The gold rush

Don Wahle’s record collecting appears to date back to the mid-’50s and leans heavily toward pre-World War II-era cowboy records. He had made notes on many of them.

At first, Salsburg was nonplussed upon receiving the call. These kinds of tips come regularly and almost never pan out to anything of interest. “Anytime there’s a bunch of 78s, it’s usually a bunch of Harry James or something, but yeah, I’ll come over there and look,” he recalls telling his friend.

Initially, he surveyed only a sampling of the collection his friend had resurrected from the house — about eight boxes, with 20-25 records each. Near the top of the pile were discs by Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Of these, he says, they’re “awesome records, but you see those occasionally.” Next up was a Carolina Tarheels record, a pretty rare find; then an Alfred G. Karnes, an evangelical minister in Corbin who made a record in 1927 for Victor. “I’m a huge fan, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” A little more digging unearthed a Mississippi John Hurt platter. “These things are impossibly rare. I looked at these records … and I just (said), ‘You guys, we gotta stop. We gotta go there and get the records.”

A late-night excursion was set. “I got the number to the Dumpster company, and literally slept, like, three hours that night — you know, visions of this stuff dancing in my head.” The Dumpster company boss was only too happy for the free labor. “He said, ‘Well, we threw a bunch out this morning, but you’re welcome to the rest.’”

Approximately 2,500 records were packed into two cars by that afternoon. “There were probably 60 boxes of 78s, 20-25 apiece in the house, a lot of them encased in mold,” Salsburg says. “I had to wear a mask. I cleaned out the rest of the 78s, except for two boxes that crumbled when I picked them up.”

With the Wahle collection now safe in storage, being cleaned and catalogued, Salsburg is partnering with two other organizations in an effort to create an archive: the nonprofit Music Memory Inc., where he is a board member, and the archival record label Dust-to-Digital. “The idea,” Salsburg says, “is to create this online Lexis/Nexis type subscription service or database from the 1910s to the 1940s.”

Their undertaking is similar to a project recently launched by the Library of Congress called National Jukebox, a free database of music and spoken word recordings made between 1901-1925. So far, the Library of Congress has focused solely on acoustic recordings, not those produced electronically.

“When that stuff goes up, we’ll see if they’re going to start doing hillbilly and race records,” Salsburg says. “But our idea is that, potentially, it would be great to collaborate with them.”

The specific genre names of today — country, blues, soul, R&B — did not exist back in the day. “Race” was the all-in descriptor for music made by and for African-Americans. The earliest usage goes back to a 1922 ad in the Chicago Defender, the influential black newspaper. “Hillbilly” was a term initially used by the Okeh label in its sales sheets to describe the music of Appalachia, including fiddle bands and rural religious music. Nowadays, we often lump both genres under the masthead of “old-timey.” Music of this era is compiled into an infinite number of collections on CD, though there continues to be a dedicated, if small, number who still enjoy it in its original format.

Country music as a genre and its cowboy sub-sect didn’t exist yet. Hollywood had a lot to do with its creation, along with the megawatt country-spanning radio stations that came to power in that era. Singers like Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers rode this wave to celebrity. “The hillbilly aspect of the music became a disparagement, not something you wanted to represent,” Salsburg says. “The string bands disappeared. The people who bought the records were no longer the hillbillies they used to be.”

While the Dust-to-Digital label hasn’t ruled out the possibility of physically releasing a small portion of the Wahle collection, the nonprofit group Music Memory is focused on getting it all online. Salsburg wants it to be “a central information bank for fans, researchers, students — people who are interested in this stuff, to preserve and responsibly represent this material. Ultimately, I feel we get to preserve the record right the first time; ripping the audio, scanning the labels.”

Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital and one of the heads of Music Memory, sees it similarly, though it’s in a still-to-be-defined stage. “With Music Memory, it’s going to be preserved in a format where people can access it (with) an immense amount of information in that database, going a lot deeper than the music and label scans. We’re going to have research on the artist, the composers, musical notation, lyrics. (We want to) put together the entire picture of what you’re hearing and the history behind that.”

Get your war on

Originally made of shellac, and later vinyl, 78rpm records are brittle, heavy, inflexible 10” records that date back to the beginning of the last century. Pre-World War II records are rare due to a shortage of shellac during the war. At the time, records were commonly turned in and recycled for other uses, which is why finds of the Don Wahle magnitude mostly occur in rural areas, places outside the mainstream communication avenues of the era.

This was a time when music was a highly localized medium. Even songs that traveled were changed according to the mores of the individual community and the singer performing at a given time. Record players had not yet saturated home life, with live performance and radio being the dominant formats.

Craig Rich, owner of local record store Underground Sounds in the Highlands, says, “The sound is more honest, more immediate on 78s. It’s hard to intelligently describe. They’re certainly impractical — you have to flip ’em over every two or three minutes.” As for the collecting aspect, “I know a lot of people who get off on the ‘trophyism’ of it. ‘I have it and you don’t,’ that kind of thing.”

A friend of Rich’s has a fully restored Victrola, the old record player with the horn, and recently visited him for a listening session. A new reissue of Robert Johnson’s music includes an actual 78, playable but more of a curiosity. Rich sneered at the replica. “They made it out of vinyl, not shellac. It sounded flat as hell. Not impressed.”

Yesterday is here

Magnetic Tape Recorder sits on the quiet corner of Baxter and Payne in Irish Hill. Inside is over half a century of audio equipment, including cast-off home stereos, transistor radios and dozens of speakers stacked high overhead. Owner Charlie Greene has tinkered and repaired nearly every make and model. He points out a handful of turntables currently in stock that have 78rpm capability, including one that was custom built with a needle specifically made for the medium. He doesn’t get a lot of demand for the decks, though. “I had a guy come in yesterday who has an old Thorens (turntable) that he only uses for 78s,” he says. While he’s a fan of much of the music of that period, he warns, “Don’t expect the fidelity of 33s. They’re going to sound like the technology of the day.”

He brings up Salsburg at the mention of the name Lomax. “Oh yeah, I know Nathan,” he says, “Real good guy. Doing good work, I hear.” When told of the Don Wahle collection, Greene perks up. “That’s how it happens. You usually will inherit these types of collections, or you’re given one.”

When Salsburg is asked what sets this find apart from those Bob Seger records taking up space in antique stores, he breaks it down in three parts: “There’s the record I never thought I’d see, which was a (Mississippi) John Hurt record (‘Stagger Lee’ and ‘Candy Man Blues,’ cut in 1928). There is the record that is probably the rarest, which is an Earl Johnson record from 1931. It’s not one of his best records by any means, but it’s maybe one of two or three known copies, and it’s totally pristine, never been played. And then, for me, there were a couple records that I really love and was so excited to have copies of, like a Frank Blevins and his Tarheel Rattlers, from North Carolina. He was a 16-year-old singer who sounds like he’s 80.” He pauses for a second, thumbing through his mental database, then lights up.

“Then there was a record from a fourth category … It’s really rare, and there can’t be more than three or four in circulation. It’s a record by Red Gay and Jack Wellman, and it was the only record they ever made (together), called ‘Flat Wheel Train Blues (Parts One and Two).’”

Salsburg continues, “It was recorded in Atlanta in 1930 with a fiddle, guitar and narration. They’re sort of talking you through this train they’re on. They go uphill, down, they shovel in more coal, the whole thing. They are racing a mule … (it’s) this totally beautiful, melancholic thing. It’s never been reissued, never on CD. It’s phenomenally good. No one knows anything about them. I’d never seen their name before.”

Ledbetter is excited about the condition of Wahle’s collection. “I’ve heard (most of these songs) before, but maybe it was a transfer from the ’60s or ’70s on LP, or on CD in the late ’90s, and technology has really come a long way, and we’re able to get a really great capture of the sound in its raw format.”

Discussions have taken place with other archival labels, not just Dust-to-Digital, to compile at least part of the collection for release. As Ledbetter describes it, “Our goals are to preserve this in a database but at the same time, if (other labels) want it … we don’t own the rights to the music, but we do own that sound capture and we can, for a fee, let record companies have access to it.”

The basement tapes

The passion Salsburg has for music is palpable. In addition to archiving, he hosts a radio show called “Root Hog or Die,” available online from the New York-based East Village Radio, and writes a music column for this publication. He is fascinated not only by old music, but also by what some might see as its imperfections. Renowned cultural critic Greil Marcus referred to the spirit of that music of yesterday — flaws and all — as “Old, Weird America.”

“He’s right, in a way, because music stopped being weird,” Salsburg says. The highly local singers, most of whom were untrained, and just, well, bad singers, held not just charm but represented specific qualities of a particular community. “Some of these songs in the late ’20s, you can’t believe they were recorded, that someone actually said, ‘Somebody will want to listen to this.’ Everyone was super out-of-tune, the singing was terrible, but there’s so much character and all of that started getting smoothed out.”

As time went on, the attitudes and standards of communities changed, representing a more upwardly mobile sensibility, and people began looking down on the ragtag and from-the-hip rawness of many early recordings. The labels began to impose this new standard, and Southern American culture became homogenized. Take, for example, Riley Puckett, a big hillbilly star back in the day: “He did a version of ‘Ragged But Right’ in 1936, the chorus was something about, I’m here to tell you/ I’m ragged but right/ I’m a thief/ I’m a gambler/ I get drunk every night/ a big electric fan to keep me cool as I sleep/ a little baby girl to play around at my feet.”

In 1950, George Jones released a variation of the song, cleaning it up for the times: He drinks, though not as much, he’s no longer a thief, and he doesn’t stay out so late. “It all of a sudden became, ‘Yeah, he was a little wild, but he had this little son that he hung out with; all the discussion of thieving and heavy drinking disappeared. That’s why some of these records are so awesome, because it’s a reflection of a time, pre-affluence.”

In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the music of “Old, Weird America,” often taking the form of reissues and box sets.

Dust-to-Digital specializes in these sets, including Goodbye Babylon, the Grammy-nominated box set of rare early 20th century gospel music hailed by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and other giants. Meanwhile, Music Memory is a means to showcase music and culture with less commercial appeal.

“So much has to do with the collector, and the way the records are put together and presented. It’s all … a matter of, ‘Here’s this crazy, idiosyncratic guy who collected these things, and they should be interesting to you because this guy was crazy and wild and how strange he was!’ instead of ‘Here’s a bunch of great records (from which) you could learn a lot about American rural music.’”

It’s why a find like the Don Wahle collection was such a thrill.

The commercial aspect, necessary as it may be, is not what drives Salsburg. “The fact is,” he says, “you could do box sets till you’re blue in the face. It’s ultimately a way to make this stuff available to people who, in an age when selling records is a much harder affair than it used to be, this is something that needs to be preserved and made available. This is our cultural heritage and it should be preserved.”