There are blue whale-sized portions of America that seem to have no people in them at all. Whole tracts of North Dakota, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania go like this: highway, sky, expanse, fence, Dairy Queen, expanse, shrubbery, deer, deer, cow, expanse, sky, fence, dead skunk, for hundreds upon hundreds of acres in any direction. It’s quite lovely with the right company and soundtrack.
I drove through some of these places recently on my way to the Wawawai Canyon, near the Snake River, to live with my ladyfriend Rosalie’s family and sleep in their winery–working days pruning grape vines and training tomatoes and cutting down thistles the size of a person, and slingin’ baked goods and greens at the farmers market in Moscow, ID, and getting bitten by some kind of spider and having my leg turn purple and green, and doing innumerable other farm-related things and eating the best vegetables of my life.
Then, just recently, I went the other way to Provincetown, Massachusetts for a writing fellowship I was lucky enough to nab at the Fine Arts Work Center. Not quite coast-to-coast, but close. Now, I’m staring down the barrel of some serious solitude, which is the theme of this particular group of songs, and the theme of some recent Dust-to-Digital projects I’ve been meaning to give some lip service: the Steve Roden-curated music/book project …i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, the wonderful archival document Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM and Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years 1958-1965, a five-disc collection of John Fahey’s rarest and rawest material, recorded in Joe Bussard’s basement.
To get this out of the way quickly: if you’re interested in any of these, listen to the wind is the one to drop coin on, if there are any left. It’s fucking great. More on it to come. But to say that isn’t to talk the others—there’s fantastic stuff on both—but OP has some pretty sonically-challenging North African vocal/bowed string recordings (driving around southern Indiana, I popped in the first disc and my friend James skunked up, turned it off, and said “Have fun with that one by yourself…”) and the Fahey set is most definitely “for the diehards” (Read: disc two features Fahey playing 12-string, blasted off his gourd, and singing (!) made-up blues of varying degrees of insensitivity, like “I’m goin’ down to her seashore / Get me some craaaaaaaabs…”).
Having just shit-talked the others like I said I wouldn’t (Seriously–check them out, and have a listen, because they deserve more than I’m giving them here), I have to say that these complaints are ONLY a product of these projects comprehensive spirit, and the transcendental moments of greatness included here—The Kiko Kids paean to their record company “Tom-Tom,” Josaye Hedebe’s revelatory vocal trills on “Yina Wena Funa” and Fahey’s earliest-recorded fumblings through “In Christ There is No East or West”—are tracks that give me nothing less than hope for humanity.
Which is what permeates the whole of Steve Roden’s awe-inspiring listen to the wind. It is—put simply, two CD’s worth of music transferred from his collection of 78 RPM records, and a bunch of old photographs of people holding instruments—but the project moves with an emotional impact usually reserved for great poetry. Partially, of course, this requires you to be the sort of person, like Roden, for whom the idea of an analog audio recording of someone walking across ice in 1936 is irresistible (this is included). If you are, there’s more untamed control in Roden’s presentation of photographs and music, its crashing together of prose and image, more sense of style and subtlety than in most contemporary verse Wave Books puts out in a year.
Roden salts the book with quotations throughout, and one from James Agee highlights what’s so great about this book:
Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony or of Schubert’s c-major symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: turn it on as loud as you can get it, then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close to the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it, as near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of music.
In his introductory essay, the two most commonly used words are “goosebumps” and “dead moths.” In the songs, we hear the ice-walker in question, a Gennett Sound Effects release on 78 from ’36 called “Walking on Ice.” We hear a gnarly and anonymous home recording of a pop standard, accompanied by a guitar that sounds like it was open-tuned by squirrels. We hear the dry-leaf caterwaul of Roy Smeck’s Hawaiian slide guitar, “Pinin’ Hawaii For You.”
Meanwhile, in the book’s photographs, men with godlike muttonchop sideburns sit atop Dr. Seussian music machines, with pedals and gizmos used to operate cellos, pianos, harmonicas, and cornets. A man in the middle of the woods stares down the barrel of an elephant-gun-sized gramophone cone. We see a one-armed, one-man band; a pair of ghostly twin sisters, orbited by the mushrooms of their poof sleeves, playing an array of wine glasses; we see a harp guitar evangelist; we see the flautist from a marching band in Woonsocket.
The overall effect of this is hard to describe–these are sounds and images for a particular kind of solitude, which might explain why I come to it now in mine. There is the suggestion that such a collection is listening to its collector, writes Roden: “for who among us who is a collector, has not at one time or another sat in the throes of loneliness, melancholy or suffering, and held a communion of sorts with a record or two: one sits alone, listening in a darkened room, as the music floats, notes like a mass of moths, directed towards ears, as if a brightly lit pair of light bulbs in the night.”
The gathering of things–ideas, images, sounds, Grateful Dead tapes, whatever–involves a kind of familiarity, or even kinship with imperfection. A collection can never be complete, can never be perfect.
Here is a collection of songs, meant to communicate nothing but an evening.
- O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie—Carl T. Sprague
- Bucket’s Got a Hole in It—John Fahey
- Yina Wena Funa—Josaya Hebede
- It Don’t Do Nothing But Rain—Lew Childre
- Stack O’ Lee Blues—Sol Hoopi’s Novelty Hawaiian Trio
- Brother Noah Built an Ark—Ex-Governor Alf Taylor’s Old Limber Quartet
- Tu Nja Tengene Elie—Mbongue Diboue Et Son Ensemble
- I Seen My Pretty Papa Standing on a Hill—Eva Parker
- The Rosary—Pale K. Lua
- Furaha Ya Kanu—O.S. Africa Jazz Onema Pascal
- Then We’ll Need That True Religion—Rev. Edward Claybourn
- Nongquangqua Lishonile—Orbert Nentambo Zahke
- Damfino Stump—Sylverster Weaver
- St. Louis Blues—John Fahey
- Napenda—Coast Social Orchestra
- Pinin’ Hawaii for You—Frank Ferera’s Hawaiians
- Kenessa—Jeli Bakary
- O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie–John Fahey