Category: Music

Surface Noise

Damon Krukowski for The Paris Review
Surface Noise

In an excerpt from his book The New Analog, Damon Krukowski looks at the aesthetics of noise in analog music—and what we’ve lost in the transition to digital recordings. 

My favorite records sound the worst, because I’ve played them the most. Each time a needle runs around an LP, it digs a little deeper into the grooves and leaves its trace in the form of surface noise. The information on an LP degrades as it is played—as if your eyes blurred this text, just a bit, each time they ran across it.

Analog sound reproduction is tactile. It is, in part, a function of friction: the needle bounces in the groove, the tape drags across a magnetic head. Friction dissipates energy in the form of sound. Meaning: you hear these media being played. Surface noise and tape hiss are not flaws in analog media but artifacts of their use. Even the best engineering, the finest equipment, the “ideal” listening conditions cannot eliminate them. They are the sound of time, measured by the rotation of a record or reel of tape—not unlike the sounds made by the gears of an analog clock. 

In this sense, analog sound media resemble our own bodies. As John Cage observed, we bring noise with us wherever we go:

For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.

Silence is death, the ACT UP slogan painfully reminded us at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Why seek it out as a part of our musical experience?

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Warp and Woof

David Ramsey writing for the Paris Review
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David Ramsey thinks about lived lives, loneliness,and Chances with Wolves for the Paris Review:

I first listened to my favorite radio program, Chances with Wolves, in the summer of 2015, while cleaning out my parents’ longtime home. The premise, more or less, is that a pair of DJs play strange old records and periodically mix in wolf-howl noises, sound clips, and echo effects. All of their two-hour episodes—now more than 350—are streamable, so I had hundreds of hours of material for the hundreds of hours of labor in the task at hand. Sonic distractions in difficult times always leave an imprint. It was a hard year.

My father has Parkinson’s and my mother has multiple sclerosis; my wife, Grace, and I had moved to Nashville to help out. There are good days and bad days, but the prognosis is uncompromising in its bleak narrative: over time, things will get worse. The arc of one’s own mortal universe bends toward decline. If asked how he’s doing, my dad likes to respond, “Better than I’ll be doing the next time you see me.”

We used the word transition to speak of practical matters: moving my parents to a smaller apartment closer to town, and clearing their old house and readying it to put on the market. But the real transition was the awkward, creaky role reversal that no one wanted. There is no manual, and perhaps no wisdom altogether, for caregiving for your own parents. The emotional geometry is all wrong. We tried, delicate as diplomats, to navigate the new terrain without tensions exploding. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

Logistics overwhelmed, as they tend to do. The state of the house had, inevitably, deteriorated in parallel to my parents’ health. And there was the matter of their stuff, a word that is doing a lot of work here. Both trained historians, my parents took an approach to their belongings over the years that preserved rather than purged the primary sources of their own lives. They had a lot of stuff.

Part of our job was to help them salvage and sort, to catalog keepers and question marks. We were in charge of the curation and restoration of what amounted to a private museum. As anyone who has ever rooted through such a museum knows, the treasures are interspersed with the trash. Copies of the New York Review of Books in the attic dating from the Carter administration, encrusted with roach droppings—right alongside a letter my mother wrote at eighteen, to her own mother, upon arriving at college. Antique chairs in the crawl space. Rat-eaten board games. A lifetime supply of disposable chopsticks. My father’s boyhood violin.

We filled box after box after box. In my headphones, a marimba cover of “Thriller” and Della Reese vamping through a B-Side. A French folk singer in 1972 spitting out the names of “les prisonniers politiques” and a 1960s Mexican ska band’s Spanish-language version of “Sound of Silence.” Chances with Wolves, episode 331. Sun Ra fades to the whisper of an unreleased Paul Simon song, to a creepy-crawly funk tune by Estonian singer Velly Joonas so exquisitely alien it made me blush, to a James Brown antidrug PSA. DJs and mixtape-makers often talk about a flow, but Chances with Wolves is more narratively wily than that, less a flow than a tease of questions, a trail of surprises.

The show has a fondness for work songs. I mean that literally—there are workers’ ditties and solidarity anthems mixed in—but the episodes also seem suited to the pulse and stir of labor. There’s an endurance to the songs they’re drawn to, a buoyant effort. Like any great radio show, its immersive hum is comfortably situated in the background. Wolf whistle while you work.

We hauled stuff to the storage unit, to my parents’ apartment, to Goodwill. Sorting through a bedraggled cardboard box recovered from the attic, I discovered a sheet of paper with a disorderly arrangement of watercolor reds and blues. My parents had labeled it: the first picture I ever made.

We had yard sales and negotiated with Craigslist hagglers. We filled two fifteen-yard dumpsters with trash. To avoid dust and grime, we went at the work with surgical masks and latex gloves. Like we were clinicians, dissecting a home.

(…)

A Droning in the Eire

Ian Maleney writing for The Quietus
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A new project has begun to explore and document the wealth of experimental music in Ireland’s past. Ian Maleney speaks to the Aisteach Foundation’s Jennifer Walshe about ecclesiastical drone, bog-dwelling noise musicians and a hitherto uncelebrated group of queer composers:

There was this guy I went to school with, lived about a mile away from us. His grandfather was the principal of one of the three parish schools, back in the days before they were amalgamated into a single, yet still tiny, entity. That was in the late 70s I think, or around then. He wasn’t that old then; 60, maybe 65, but a venerable civil servant all the same. Like many a civil servant in Ireland, he had things going on outside of the job that few people at the time really knew about. I guess his family knew, some of the parish probably did, but there were only ever hints of it publicly. He kept it mostly to the shed at the back of their house, itself a picturesque country home next to the parish hall, two storeys with a tall roof, cubic, squat but somehow elegant under the unnecessary shade of tall Douglas fir trees that dominated the front yard. Ivy was growing up the front of the house when I knew it, by which time it had been sold to a couple of German retirees. Master Madden was dead by then, and I never met him.

My friend’s dad told me about one of the moments when Master Madden’s second life peeked out from wherever he kept it locked. It was the occasion of the school’s Christmas play, and Madden had decided that his two dozen pupils, aged between four and twelve, would perform a dramatic work of his own devising. Nobody called it an opera at the time, though I suppose that’s what it was, in a sense. My friend’s dad, Madden’s son, was eight at the time, so this would have been 1960 or thereabouts. His own recollection was shady enough, but it was essentially an updated version of the great Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa, told from the perspective of Perseus’ mother, Danaë, and set along the callows of the river Shannon.

The year before they’d done the nativity and they would return to that classic myth a year later, but Madden felt comfortable enough in his position as principal that he could take a risk every now and then. And so the kids were assembled each afternoon to paint masks, cut costumes out of old fabrics donated by their mothers and to practice singing their way through Madden’s self-written score. The instrumentation was minimal: two drums, played by the rhythmically-minded Kelly twins, aged six-and-a-half, and a droning set of uilleann pipes played by Gary Flannery, whose dad owned the pipes. A radio was switched on and off irregularly. Madden’s son was Perseus, of course, and Medusa was played by his older cousin Laura, a girl of ten. Two sixth-classers played Zeus and Danaë, who narrated, and the rest of the school rowed in as a chorus. This mass of terrified and confused children were made to rehearse a libretto that, in its theatrical atonality, resembled a sort of tribal version of Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron, albeit a couple of octaves up thanks to the unbroken voices of the children. It was, by all accounts, a disaster. Though no recording of the night was ever made, early drafts of the score were found in the shed after Madden’s death. He worked steadily but at a slow pace, completing three full operas before his death, and a filing cabinet full of shorter pieces, sketches and unfinished ideas. To date, none of Master Madden’s work has ever been published or performed, except by the pupils of the Clonleabe National School, sometime around 1960.

I was reminded of the story upon encountering the latest attempt to open up the twisted and shadowy history of the Irish avant-garde for contemporary audiences. The Aisteach Foundation, helmed by composer, performer and archivist Jennifer Walshe, have presented The Historical Documents Of The Irish Avant-Garde as an ongoing, transdisciplinary project incorporating a book, a website and several exhibitions. The idea grew out of another exhibition, ‘Irish Need Not Apply’, curated by Walshe in New York’s Chelsea Art Museum back in 2010. The exhibition included a set of recordings, made by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1952, of a musician by the name of Pádraig Mac Giolla Mhuire, born in New York of Irish immigrant parents, playing in Cork with two friends, Dáithí Ó Cinnéide and Eamon Breathnach. The trio combined long, sustained notes from Mac Giolla Mhuire’s accordion and Ó Cinnéide’s fiddle with frantic, Eric Dolphy-like solos of tin whistle, and they called it dordán, an Irish world for drone. It’s not a million miles away from early Velvet Underground recordings, or La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Mac Giolla Mhuire had returned to Ireland with his mother in 1950, after his father, a talented uilleann piper, had died of tuberculosis the same year, and he seemingly brought a mournful but radical style of traditional music back to the old sod. As Antoinne Ó Murchu, who discovered the recordings in the Folklore Commision’s archives, said at the time: “To think that the roots of minimalism could lie in Irish outsider culture…”.

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The Doll’s Alphabet: A Playlist

Compiled by Camilla Grudova
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Ahead of The Doll’s Alphabet’s publication, today, Camilla Grudova put together a playlist to accompany the release of the book:

‘This a mixture of songs mentioned in The Doll’s Alphabet and songs I listened to while writing it. I was horrendously depressed at the time I was working on it and Josephine Baker’s Blue Skies is the song that always saved me from total wretchedness. The string quartets of Tchaikovsky were a favourite of Isak Dinesen’s. The Magic Flute is my favourite opera, I danced in a production of it when I was a child and was in love with the gentleman who played Papageno. Lotte Reiniger’s work fascinates me. Another opera I love is The Tales of Hoffmann. This ghostly kitsch organ rendition is the music I want played when I marry a dashing skeleton in an Austrian castle. It was wonderful to learn that organs, not just pianos, were used to accompany silent films. Pola Negri was a Polish girl who went to Hollywood and became a silent film star. She dated both Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Alexander Vertinsky was a Soviet Pierrot.’

Tchaikovsky— String Quartet No.1, Op. 11 mov.2
Pola Negri— A Woman Commands (from Paradise, 1952)
Jacques Offenbach— Barcarolle, Les contes d’Hoffmann.  (performed by Jesse Crawford)
Josephine Baker—  Blue Skies
Horace Finch— Finch Favourites Part II
Alexander Vertinsky— Drink, My Girl (Александр Вертинский – Пей, моя девочка)
Lotte Reiniger— Papageno (from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Leo Reisman and His Orchestra— The Wedding of the Painted Doll (from The Broadway Melody)
The Ronettes— Silhouettes
Shirley Temple— At the Codfish Ball (from Captain January)

 

 

 

Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker
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Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.

(…)

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie

John Jeremiah Sullivan 'on the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace'
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Last year, John Jeremiah Sullivan went in search of ‘a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley’ for the New York Times Magazine. Not only is this an excellent piece of reportage and essay writing, but it takes full advantage of the possibilities of online publishing, with audio samples, videos and photography. And, while this may not be a new piece, JJS is always worth reading. 

IN THE WORLD of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.

Yet despite more than 50 years of researchers’ efforts to learn who the two women were or where they came from, we have remained ignorant of even their legal names. The sketchy memories of one or two ancient Mississippians, gathered many decades ago, seemed to point to the southern half of that state, yet none led to anything solid. A few people thought they heard hints of Louisiana or Texas in the guitar playing or in the pronunciation of a lyric. We know that the word “Geechee,” with a c, can refer to a person born into the heavily African-inflected Gullah culture centered on the coastal islands off Georgia and the Carolinas. But nothing turned up there either. Or anywhere. No grave site, no photograph. Forget that — no anecdotes. This is what set Geeshie and Elvie apart even from the rest of an innermost group of phantom geniuses of the ’20s and ’30s. Their myth was they didn’t have anything you could so much as hang a myth on. The objects themselves — the fewer than 10 surviving copies, total, of their three known Paramount releases, a handful of heavy, black, scratch-riven shellac platters, all in private hands — these were the whole of the file on Geeshie and Elvie, and even these had come within a second thought of vanishing, within, say, a woman’s decision in cleaning her parents’ attic to go against some idle advice that she throw out a box of old records and instead to find out what the junk shop gives. When she decides otherwise, when the shop isn’t on the way home, there goes the music, there go the souls, ash flakes up the flue, to flutter about with the Edison cylinder of Buddy Bolden’s band and the phonautograph of Lincoln’s voice.

I have been fascinated by this music since first experiencing it, like a lot of other people in my generation, in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary “Crumb,” on the life of the artist Robert Crumb, which used “Last Kind Words” for a particularly vivid montage sequence. And I have closely followed the search for them over the years; drawn along in part by the sheer History Channel mysteriousness of it, but mainly — the reason it never got boring — by their music.

Outside any bullyingly hyperbolical attempts to describe the technical beauty of the songs themselves, there’s another facet to them, one that deepens their fascination, namely a certain time-capsule dimension. The year 1930 seems long ago enough now, perhaps, but older songs and singers can be heard to blow through this music, strains in the American songbook that we know were there, from before the Civil War, but can’t hear very well or at all. There’s a song, Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words,” a kind of pre-blues or not-yet-blues, a doomy, minor-key lament that calls up droning banjo songs from long before the cheap-guitar era, with a strange thumping rhythm on the bass string. “If I get killed,” Geeshie sings, “if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul.” There’s a blues, “Motherless Child,” with 16-bar, four-line stanzas, that begins by repeating the same line four times, “My mother told me just before she died,” AAAA, no variation, just moaning the words, each time with achingly subtle microvariations, notes blue enough to flirt with tonal chaos. Generations of spirituals pass through “Motherless Child,” field melodies and work songs drift through it, and above everything, the playing brims with unfalsifiable sophistication. Elvie’s notes float. She sends them out like little sailboats onto a pond. “Motherless Child” is her only song, the only one of the six on which she takes lead to my ears — there are people who think it’s also her on “Over to My House.” On the other songs she’s behind Geeshie, albeit contributing hugely. The famous Joe Bussard (pronounced “buzzard”), one of the world’s foremost collectors of prewar 78s, found one of two known copies of “Motherless Child” in an antique store in Baltimore, near the waterfront, in the mid-1960s. The story goes that Bussard used to have people over to his house to play for them the first note of “Motherless Child,” just the first few seconds, again and again, an E that Elvie plucks and lets hang. It sounds like nothing and then, after several listens, like nothing else. “Baby, now she’s dead, she’s six feet in the ground,” she sings. “And I’m a child, and I am drifting ’round.”

Before there could be the minor miracle of these discs’ having survived, there had to be an earlier, major one: that of people like Geeshie and Elvie ever being recorded. To understand how that happened it’s needful to know about race records, a commercial field that flourished between the world wars, and specifically the Paramount company, a major competitor in that game throughout the 1920s.

A furniture company, that’s how it started. The Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into making phonograph cabinets. If people had records they liked, they would want phonographs to play them on, and if they had phonographs, they would want cabinets to keep them in. The discs were even sold, especially at first, in furniture shops. They were literally accessories. Toys, you could say. In fact, the first disc “records” were manufactured to go with a long-horned gramophone distributed by a German toy company. So we must imagine, it’s as if a subgenre of major American art had been preserved only on vintage View-Master slides.

In 1920, when the white-owned OKeh label shocked even itself by selling hundreds of thousands of copies of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (the first blues recorded by an African-American female vocalist), the furniture-phonograph complex spied a chance. Two populations were forming or achieving critical mass, whites willing to pay for recordings of black music and blacks able to afford phonographs, and together they made a new market. It’s around then that the actual phrase “race records” enters the vernacular. In 1926, Paramount had game-changing luck on a string of 78s showcasing the virtuosic Texas songster Blind Lemon Jefferson — his “Long Lonesome Blues” sold into the six figures — and as in Mamie Smith’s case, he touched off a frantic search among labels to find performers in a similar vein. The “country blues” was born, though not yet known by that name. It was men, for the most part, but with an important female minority, a “vital feminizing force,” in the words of Don Kent, the influential collector and poet of liner notes.

For the preserving of that force we have to thank not the foresight of those recording companies but their ignorance and even philistinism when it came to black culture. They knew next to nothing about the music and even less about what new trends in it might appeal to consumers. Nowhere was this truer than at Paramount. These were businessmen, Northern and Midwestern, former salesmen. Their notions of what was a hit and what was not were a Magic Eight Ball. So, when the mid-1920s arrived, and Paramount went looking farther afield for new acts, they compensated by recording everything and waiting to see what sold. Not everything, but a lot. A long swath of everything. The result was an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated, all-but-unconscious survey of America’s musical culture, a sonic X-ray of it, taken at a moment when the full kaleidoscopic variety of prerecording-era transracial forms hadn’t yet contracted. Hundreds of singers, more thousands of songs. Some of the greatest musicians ever born in this country were netted only there. It was a slapdash and profit-driven documentary project that in some respects dwarfed what the most ambitious and well intentioned ethnomusicologists could hope to achieve (deformed in all sorts of ways by capitalism, but we take what we can get).

Among the first to wake up to these riches was, as it happens, the most prominent of those great ethnomusicologists, Alan Lomax. He had been traveling the back roads with his father, John A. Lomax, making field recordings for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, and he had seen firsthand that all of this culture, which had endured mouth-to-ear for centuries, was giving way, proving not quite powerful enough to resist the radio waves and movies. In the late ’30s, Lomax was record hunting one day and came across a large cache of old Paramount discs in a store. At the time they were a mere 10 or 15 years old and couldn’t have appeared less valuable to a casual picker. Lomax listened, transfixed by an increasing realization that Paramount offered him an earhole into the past, into the decade just before he joined his father on the song-collecting scene, an enormous commercial complement to what the two of them had been doing under intellectual auspices with their field-recording. Lomax started digging. In 1940 he created a list, with the title “American Folk Songs on Commercial Records,” and circulated it in the folklore community.

This list is a very precious little document in 20th-century American cultural history. It was published in only a limited library report, but copies were passed around. It marked the first time someone had publicly recognized these commercial recordings as something other than detritus. Most important, it made space for, even emphasized, the more obscure blues singers.

To grasp the significance of that, you have to bear in mind how fantastically few record collectors possessed such an interest at the end of the 1930s. Early jazz was a thing in certain hip circles, but only a few true freaks were into the country blues. There was twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances. Summoning weird old voices from the South, the ethereal falsetto of Crying Sam Collins. Or the whine of Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Moaner. Did McKune listen to Geeshie and Elvie? It’s unknowable. His records were already gone when he died — murdered in 1971, in a hotel room. Another early explorer? The writer Paul Bowles. The Paul Bowles, believe it or not, who started collecting blues records as an ether-huffing undergraduate in Charlottesville, Va., in the late 1920s, “at secondhand furniture stores in the black quarter.” Out West there was Harry Smith, who went on to create the “Anthology of American Folk Music” for Folkways Records, the first “box set,” of which it can be compactly if inadequately said: No “Anthology,” no Woodstock. Wee, owlish Smith. He and McKune came to know each other. No less important, they both came to know Alan Lomax’s list, which galvanized their passion for this particular chamber of the recorded past, giving shape to their “want lists.”

In the ’50s McKune would become a sort of salon master to the so-called Blues Mafia, the initial cell of mainly Northeastern 78-pursuers who evolved, some of them, into the label owners and managers and taste-arbiters of the folk-blues revival. An all-white men’s club, several of whom were or grew wealthy, the Blues Mafia doesn’t always come off heroically in recent — and vital — revisionist histories of the field, more of them being written by women (including two forthcoming books by Daphne Brooks and Amanda Petrusich). Still, no one who seriously cares about the music would pretend that the cultural debt we owe the Blues Mafia isn’t past accounting. It’s not just all they found and documented that marks their contribution. It’s equally what they spawned, whether they would claim it or not. Dylan didn’t listen to 78s, after all, on the floors of those pads he was crashing at in Greenwich Village, but to the early reissue LPs. By Dylan I mean the ’60s. But also Dylan. “If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did,” he wrote 10 years ago, “there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down.”

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Fitz Carraldo Editions