The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 4

Reviews:
Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music,
by Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade
A Reminiscent Review by Steve Green

In the 1950s and 1960s, studying the roots of recorded country music was the purview of a handful of individuals whose collective interest in social history, sense of affinity with grassroots people, and attraction to vernacular music compelled them to do insane things like drive thousands of miles in search of old records, vintage instruments, and still-living recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. For people like Gus Meade, doing “research” translated into a very intense way of life that was a mix of card-catalog tedium and grand adventure pursuing cultural treasure out in the world. Bridging the gulf that existed between text-based source materials and first-hand oral accounts gleaned from older generation musicians, Gus was part of the “first wave” of discographical folklife fieldworkers who deserve much credit for putting flesh on the bones of country music history. Richard Nevins has pointed to the fact that 78rpm records were mostly released as singles with plain paper sleeves containing no information about artists. Artist names appeared only on the record label itself and a great many of them were pseudonyms. It’s easy to see that trying to track down an artist listed on a 78 label as “Jimmie Johnson” could be tantamount to hunting for a needle in a haystack. But Gus was an eternal optimist and more importantly, he had a special knack for doing archive and library-based genealogical research. When a job opportunity took him to the Washington, DC area in the mid-1960s, he was able to make extensive use of collections at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the U. S. Copyright Office. His familiarity with genealogical resources and strategies enabled him to locate people who might otherwise have died in quiet obscurity taking colorful stories and important discographical information with them. I remember admiring Gus’ tenacity over a period of several days in 1976 during which he repeatedly picked up the phone in the living room of his Alexandria home and dialed phone numbers in Mississippi asking complete strangers if by chance they were related to a certain Jimmie Johnson who had made recordings in the 1920s. He was like a coon dog on the trail and his hunches paid off on more than one occasion (he eventually traced the Jimmie Johnson String Band to Kentucky).

In order to fully appreciate Country Music Sources it’s important to remember that 78 rpm records—at least those of folk, country and blues- were never intended to be part of a permanent archive of American music. They were an ephemeral entertainment format intended to generate profitable sales for the labels by presenting consumers with a constantly changing catalog. Records went in and out of print quickly with much regional material being issued in very limited quantities. Artists sometimes emerged to make only a single recording then disappeared never to be heard from again. There was no central source later generations could turn to find out about these artists and recordings of earlier times. It was up to avid record collectors to unearth the information, essentially unlocking the treasury of recorded country music that many of us now enjoy and perhaps even take for granted. Blowing the dust off record company ledgers—which discographers do regularly—can reveal recording dates, band personnel, and matrix numbers but it can’t further our understanding of the role that recording sessions played in the lives of the artists and the relationships that arose between musicians during the 78 era. Neither can it provide a basis for analyzing the music itself the way extended and intensive listening can. Gus was interested in those aspects, and the thousands of hours he spent listening to source recordings on disc and tape was an education that put him at the front of his class as far as American recorded vernacular music was concerned.

 

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