The Dick Spottswood Interview

by Joel Slotnikoff






JS Who was the Buddy Bolden of Cuba?

DS Oh, has somebody called Pablo Valenzuela the Buddy Bolden of Cuba?

JS I thought maybe you did.

DS Well, that record [El garrotin, Columbia C1072], with a very strong cornet solo on a Cuban collection that Bruce Bastin put out twenty, twenty five years ago [Harlequin CD 23], I pointed out that here was this guy playing, not jazz cornet, but certainly hot cornet, who was twenty years older than Buddy Bolden.

Not knowing what Buddy Bolden sounded like, I have no idea. Of course Valenzuela was from Havana so he knew nothin' from blues and Buddy Bolden didn't play a whole lot else.

JS People who heard them both said that Freddie Keppard sounded more like Buddy Bolden than anybody?

DS I don't know. Given the lack of any recorded evidence it's probably dangerous to take anything like that and accept it as gospel. The regional style that you could hear in all those New Orleans cornet players, to some extent it's a reflection of what you hear in the broader Caribbean but that's about as far as I'd go.

JS You were friends with John Fahey in high school. Can you share any insights into Fahey as a teenager, he's a guy that fascinates people and I don't know anybody else that knew him so early on. Did he exhibit any signs of his later eccentricity at that young age?

DS Oh yeah, John was, if you stopped to look at him, he was big, with very big shoulders and everything. He looked like a down at the heels version of James Dean. Except Dean looked suave and Fahey looked tough. It didn't take much prodding to get to the fact that John was a lot more complicated person. I'm sure Dean was too, but John was more complicated than the image we had of James Dean. You know, but John drove and he smoked and he rolled packs of cigarettes up in the sleeve of his t-shirt. He looked like somebody that you wouldn't want to get in a fight with 'cuz he was very big. At the same time, he'd turn around and talk about the music he loved and stuff he was reading and who he was in love with. So he broke the ice a little bit, he didn't mind showing his tender side. That was very appealing about him.

JS Were you both already collecting records at that point, that you had that to compare notes about?

DS Yeah, we were. The first time I heard retro music like that was when I was exposed to the Morton, Oliver, Beiderbecke, Armstrong quadruple there when I was about ten years old. The music wasn't out there. If you wanted to get it, you had to go retro. So that's when I became a collector, it wasn't even a conscious decision, I just wanted to hear more of that music.

JS Where did you hear it in the first place?

DS Visiting a cousin up in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving in 1947, I think. She was playing music from that Columbia records Bix Beiderbecke album and I thought, "Hmm. That's something I've never heard before". I decided just hearing it from two or three rooms away, I came in to see what that was and it was very appealing.

The other thing that happened right around this same time was there was a little fifteen minute nightly puppet show on television, I forget what the title was, but the operative puppet was named Snarky, not in today's use of that word, Snarky Parker. The music that introduced the TV program every day was "Mr. Joe" from the Jelly Roll Morton General album, you know, the piano and vocal records he made in 1939. The thing they closed it out with was Tony Jackson's "Naked Dance." I loved that music on the televison program, it was very appealing. When they were playing the music a little Hoagy Carmichael styled marionette was sitting there sort of plunking away at the keys.

And then I was walking by a neighbor's house and I heard that music coming out of the house that I'd heard on television. I knew it wasn't time for the television show so I went in to see what it was and that's how I got introduced to Jelly Roll Morton.

JS Where did you begin to go looking for this music?

DS As soon as I could figure out how. I mean, I didn't know how it was or where it was or anything like this, but I went to the library and got books out such as I could. I read the early Armstrong and the Carmichael Stardust Road which had a lot of the Beiderbecke in it and so on. I just discovered that I had a real affinity for the music of that period. I soon discovered that I thought the black music was stronger than the white music.

JS How did you transfer that into going out and about looking for the records?

DS That didn't happen all at once because, of course at age ten, eleven, whatever I was at the time, I was really too young to do that. I didn't have any means of transportation, but as I got into my teens and discovered other record collectors, sometimes they'd give me their cast-off copies. Or I learned that if I went to places like the Goodwill and Salvation Army that I could occasionally find records, though Washington was not a particularly good town for finding records. Later I would sometimes go out with, say an older collector, who would be willing to take me along in the car and go knocking on doors in black neighborhoods and ask if we could buy old records from them.

JS Would any of those collectors be people I would have heard of?

DS Fahey and I often went with Charlie Huber who's still living though I understand he's ailing. Warren Hicks has been selling off Charlie's collection for quite a while so it's possible that some of the records that are floating out there are things that Charlie found when we were all out there together 50-some years ago. Later when John drove, we'd pool expenses and things and go out ourselves sometimes, you know, rent a motel room and stay overnight so we could stay in a neighborhood longer. We didn't get all that far, but we spent a lot of time in like tidewater Virginia. (laughs) I wish I had all the late Okeh and Paramount unaccompanied quartet records I saw in those days that everybody totally ignored. I mean, I can remember seeing the Famous Blue Jay Paramounts and throwing 'em back. (laughs) But that was part of the orthodoxy in those days, we ignored those records.

JS Tell me about the Skip James records you found.

DS Those turned up in a local used record shop in Washington. There were two of them, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," nice and clean, I had to pay a dollar for that and "22-20 Blues" was a little worn, so that cost me 60 cents.

JS Did you know what they were when you saw them?

DS You mean did Skip James have the same stature then as he does today?

JS Did he have any stature then or was it a guess?

DS No. Who'd heard of him?

JS So it was an educated guess...

DS Nobody had heard of him, nobody had heard of Charlie Patton, nobody had heard of most of those old-time Mississippi heroes. Remember this was a very Jazz centered universe in those days and the people that the Country/Blues collectors liked included Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, that Mamie Forehand record. Even those Lonnie Johnson records (and Lonnie Johnson was well known from those Armstrong and Ellington and McKinney's Cotton Pickers records), those Lonnie Johnson recordswere of no consequence.

JS What was your reaction when you took those home and played them?

DS I heard something very special in that music right away. I was really psychologically disposed to like that music. Unacademic, unconventional, unorthodox, clearly coming out of a backwoods culture someplace. I knew that Skip James was on to something, even if it wasn't something he could have learned in any conventional sense. The first time I heard those recordsI knew they were really special. If they weren't to anybody else, they were to me. I remember playing them for Mike Seeger, who didn't think much of 'em, and John Fahey, who did.

JS Did you become a promoter of Skip James' music to other people?

DS Yeah, if somebody asked, just like you did, "What's your favorite record?" Skip James would be right up there on the top of my list. I was still a kid in junior high school, remember. Who the hell was listening to me? Older collectors thought I was pretty weird for liking that stuff in the first place and especially weird because I would put up with these trashed copies. (laughs)

JS At some point fairly early on you came by a Son House record?

DS I remember that an older collector named Bob Travis had the copy of My Black Mama that wound up being reissued on the Origin Jazz longplay. I think what you're thinking of was not that, it was "Heart Like Railroad Steel" by Charlie Patton that I found in just dreadful condition. It was extremely worn, and it had a bite out of the edge that didn't quite make it where... I think you could extract the complete performance out of the record. I think no one has found that record since. I got mine sometime in the late 50s, I guess.

JS When you and John were looking for things and comparing notes with each other, you were both to a certain extent into hillbilly music at that time?

DS Oh, I always was-- well no, I wasn't always. I was somebody who lived close enough to a lot of working class, the kind of people I was describing Fahey liked, they were kind of from the other side of the tracks. You know, I grew up as a well groomed scrubbed Protestant white suburban kid with all the prejudices that that involved. Actually the prejudices were directed more toward white working class types than they were towards blacks 'cuz I didn't know any black people. This was Washington in the early 50's and it was still a fairly segregated place. I remember actively disliking Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb and people like that and thinking that the electric guitar was about the trashiest sound in the world. So what happened was I went to a party in an even more well heeled suburb than the one I lived in and there was a stack of records on the changer and one of the records was "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" intermixed with whatever, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, whatever the music coin of the realm was in those days-- how the hell that Flatt & Scruggs record got in there... (laughs). As soon as I hears that music it was like when I heard Bix Beiderbecke for the first time, you know, I stopped what I was doing and waited for the stack of records to stop playing, pulled the record to see what that was that I had heard and that was a magic moment. At first it was bluegrass that appealed to me and then as my ear got better trained all the people, the Hanks and the Ernests and Kitty Wells, everybody that I didn't like before I really learned to embrace later on.

JS So far we've talked about Blues and Hillbilly and Jazz, at what point did you branch out into Ethnic music?

DS I'd say that was a result of seeing one or two articles that Pekka Gronow published in the John Edwards Memorial Foundation newsletter that Norm Cohen edited in the early 70's. Pekka said in essence, "You Americans are really missing out on a good thing, there's really good music there". I sort of took that to heart and occasionally would find interesting records like that and though, "Hmm. I really have been overlooking these". That was right about the same time that I started discovering the merit of those black gospel quartet records thanks to Mike Stewart, who insisted that I pay more attention to them. That's sort of when I got it, when I came to that too.

Then in 1974 I was hired to produce the big Bicentennial music collection, Folk Music in America, for the Library of Congress. They got a big grant from the Bicentennial Foundation and they wanted fifteen longplay records, and I thought, well, this is the point where I need to get educated about all this foreign language music that was recorded in the United States. Having discovered that it existed, then I gave myself a crash course and tried to learn about it as systematically as I could. So I did some research in record company files when I was requesting materials for the Library. Also when I was in New York and Chicago I hit two very big and extremely wonderful dealer stocks, one each Ukrainian and Polish. I thought, geez, I'm really sorry to have discovered all this wonderful music so long after the fact.

JS Was Washington a good place to find ethnic records because of all the embassies and such?

DS Well the embassies are gonna have the Sibeliuses and Tchaikovskys...

JS Well not the embassies, but the foreign populations that surrounded them.

DS The foreign populations that surrounded them were also very well educated and sophisticated and they weren't going to keep that kind of music around. I got acquainted with a sweet, well informed and generous Ukrainian collector named Stefan Maksymjuk who at the time worked for the Voice of America.

In fact he was the guy who sent me to Myron Surmach, the Ukrainian dealer in New York. I became very good friends with him too, he was almost 100 when he died. After hearing some records by a skilled fiddler named Paul Humeniuk, and fell in love with his music. But neither of them, you know, they didn't think Paul Humeniuk was that hot. I mean they thought there were much better representations of Ukrainian music than that. Of course, if you were looking for high culture they were right. But I wasn't, I was looking for low culture and I found lots of it in the Ukrainian catalogs. That's what finally informed me that just about any country is gonna have country music. (laughs)

JS So did this plant the seed for the ethnic discography?

DS Sure. Because I saw all of that wonderful source material documents at Victor, at Columbia, at Decca/MCA. So, in 1978, I heard a rumor that the National Endowment for the Arts was having a bad year as far as good grant proposals were concerned. So over the telephone, I was thinking-- I just sat down and without forms or guidelines or any of that I wrote a three or four page proposal and to my great astonishment it came back with approval.

JS How much work did that end up being?

DS It became the seven-volume Ethnic Music On Records (University of Illinois, 1990).

JS Right, but give me an idea of the magnitude of the task.

DS Well I knew it was gonna be big, I didn't know how big it was gonna be. But I didn't have a job at the time and the grant money was there. What's that famous quote? "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and you take another step and you wind up where you wind up.

JS How long did it take altogether?

DS I don't think it's finished yet.

JS (laughs)

DS I don't see anyone who wants to underwrite its being revised or put into an online database or something where it can be reused in this particular age. So, instead of doing that, now I'm working on the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records for the University of California.

JS I thought I heard a rumor of the ethnic discography being reissued.

DS Well, yeah, I tried to get the University of Illinois to do that, but they wouldn't spend any money on it and they wouldn't commit any resources to it and they kept promising me that they would help me create a viable database. Then nothing would happen or they'd give me something that was entirely screwed up. I just got tired of coming back to them with my hat in my hand. My editor, Judy McCullough retired a couple of years ago, so I basically just sort of walked away. So what I knew in 1990, it looks like that's what's out there. I know a whole lot more now, but I don't know of any way to get it back in print or online or anything. Because I got so much else to do, I don't want to do it unless somebody's gonna pay me anyway.

JS And it's also uphill in terms of getting the Library of Congress set reissued?

DS Oh yeah. They're not interested. One guy there is really pushing very hard, but because it's not folkloric enough for the American Folklife Center or the Archive of Folk Song, they're not that interested. We've had meetings and conferences and so on for the past 20 years but none of them have ever come to anything.

JS Any thoughts on Paul Vernon's ethnic work? [Ethnic and Vernacular Music, 1898-1960 (Greenwood, 1995)]

DS Yeah, interesting book except that It's kind of a hard book to use. You need some coaching or prepping or something to get through it.  Not all the information is there that I wish was. On the other hand, I'm very grateful for what there is because before Paul did that, nobody knew anything. So it's certainly a good start, but I wish a new edition would come out that was more inclusive.

JS There seems to be an expanding interest in ethnic 78s these days between the Secret Museum of Mankind and this recent Black Mirror piece.

DS The Pat Conte Secret Museum of Mankind recordsI know about and those are kind of scattered, those are very good too, 'cuz he put a lot of interesting things out there.  Ian Nagoski in Baltimore is doing some more good things along those lines.

JS Ian Nagoski is the guy that did that Black Mirror piece that came out on Dust to Digital.

DS Oh, ok. I had a big falling out with Dust to Digital so they don't send me anything any longer.

JS (laughs)

DS So I haven't seen that. All I know is that Ian was involved and they were doing a project. I've never even heard the Black Mirror name before.

JS On the subject of falling out, and I don't want to get into any of the falling out part of it, without getting into any of that, can you say a few words about your experiences with Mississippi John Hurt?

DS Oh! Well that's easy-- John stayed in my house in Arlington for several months. (laughs) That was the summer of 1963 and, of course, he was getting a lot of work and went to the Newport Folk Festival and he did a very good job of being up there and just being who he was. Everybody responded very positively to that. They didn't even want to put him on the 1963 schedule because by the time we said, "Hey John Hurt's available", they had already closed the books on what they were gonna do for that year. But apparently between Pete Seeger and Bill Clifton, they managed to change some minds. Just because of that Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music collection he was already something of an icon. I guess we were able to supply somebody with recent recordings indicating the guy still had his chops.

We spent a lot of hours just sitting in the living room. John would tune, John would play, John would be, he was very easy to get along with. He was somebody that all the celebritude and everything kinda rolled off him. It wasn't something that threatened him so he just rolled with it and was very comfortable with all of that because it never occurred to him not to be. (laughs) You really had to admire that. I mean, in one sense it was a great innocence, but in the other sense it was kind of the height of Buddhist acceptance.

JS Well put, well put. One of your collections you sold to Bob Altshuler?

DS Yes, yes. Bob was someone that was, I mean Bob was a very nice guy and everything, but he was, he neither gave nor asked for any quarter in a record deal. You went to Bob, you bought from Bob, you'd bargain with Bob. Bob was the magnet in those days for record collections from all over. He got my collection because...it's kind of interesting because that sort of tied in with the ethnic discography.

I had a very unfortunate instance where I had loaned my entire record collection to a friend when I had to leave town and rent out my house for two years, to do basic reserch for Ethnic Music on Records (EMOR). That friend was supposed to care for the records. They went down in his basement, something happened to a toilet, the toilet flooded and the basement flooded and all the records on lower shelves were under water. That part was accidental and all, but this guy didn't bother to call and tell me about it. I came back to Washington and came to his house about three weeks later and saw the state that everything was in. He had done nothing to clean up his basement, he had done nothing to notify me about the records. I said, "Jesus Christ, a simple phone call would've been enough, you couldn't be bothered?" I thought at the time, well you know what? These records are getting too expensive and I've gotten a lot of good out of them already. Maybe it's time to push on and not do this anymore, really not collect.

And so, I put a couple of dozen teasers, pretty good copies of pretty good records in VJM (Vintage Jazz Mart). Bob Altshuler saw the ad and called me, asking, "What is this? What are you doing?" I just said I'm gonna just auction these records off a few at a time so I can get some extra money. At the time I was still working on that grant so I didn't have a huge income. So he said "I wanna buy the records."

And I said, No you don't, because they're all I have and I need to get retail prices for them. So we arm wrestled for a while and finally decided he'd pay me a quarter of a million dollars. This was in the early 80s. I guess there was a mild recession in those days, those were Reagan's first years. Christ (I thought), I'd really be stupid to turn the offer down. I didn't want to see them all go at once, and I was planning to kiss them goodbye one at a time. But I took the money and invested in mutual funds which until about this time last year (i.e. 2007) looked like a very good thing to do. Now it's looking like I'd have been smarter to keep the damned records. (laughs) Collectible things aren't losing their value yet. I wonder why that is. I wonder how long it'll last.

JS Yep. Me too. (laughs)

DS Well you gotta be watching that especially carefully.

JS Right. How long did it take before you started collecting again?

DS Oh, about two minutes.

JS (laughs)

DS I never collected systematically. The reason I had so many good records was because I had a pretty good understanding of music when I was pretty young and so, when I was looking through stacks of records, I recognized things that other people would ignore. So as opportunities to get records would come along, I would do it. Kinda like I've done with you, pick three or four things that I really want and usually the competition is so ferocious that I'm not gonna get something that I really want most of the time anyway. But when it's something you know how to do, it's kinda dumb not to do it. I'm collecting to that extent, but I don't know how serious I am anymore.

JS Can you talk about the role of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian in archiving and disseminating sound recordings?

DS Well, institutions are one thing and private collectors are another. When institutions are holding records, they're often safer than in private collections they're better protected from fires and floods and such things. The problems with institutions always is access, because everybody's terrified of violating copyright laws and that kind of thing. It's usually harder to get records copied if you want to hear them or reissue them. So it's a two-sided coin, I guess. There's pros and there's cons. I can recognize both sides. Not a very inspired reply, but...

JS No, that's sufficient. How has the internet and digital radio affected your broadcasting career.

DS I think it's too soon to say. I don't yet have a good sense of how successful the displacement from a strong FM big city station to HD (Hyper Density)and webcasting has been. What I've given up (and miss) is a large, concentrated urban population where I had enough people that liked the program and obsolete music format that I could usually count on getting ten to fifteen thousand dollars every time WAMU had a fundraiser. And listener surveys indicated that I was doing pretty well too. The take so far on the recent fundraiser was disappointing to me. For a premium,I had a very attractive (I thought) Capitol CD reissue of an old Louvin Brothers lp of traditional songs--a wonderful record. It was an important release in the 50s and a good one to have back again, and I knew it wouldn't already be in a lot of peoples' homes. I was able to unload about twenty of those, but I think in the old days, when I was on the radio, I think I probably would've unloaded two or three times that. I think that internet webcasts are still a work in progress. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we could get there.

JS Your radio career has always been a labor of love to disseminate the music, it's nothing that you earned...

DS Oh no, I've never derived any significant income from it. I didn't want to get into the situation where I had to sit up there and do, say, several hours of playing music every day that I knew I'd soon get bored with. I could do that if I had to, I guess. I wish there was like a bluegrass show or something down here in Florida, 'cuz there's such a very active community of bluegrass people. There should be some bluegrass broadcasting down here. Everybody says, "Why don't you do it?" (laughs) I can think of a thousand reasons why I don't want to do it, but at the same time I sorta feel like I should. I'm still wrestling with that one.

JS Any thoughts about the future of collecting and the place of this music in the culture?

DS Record collecting is always dependent on available technology to a degree that other collecting isn't. You don't require up to date equipment to collect stamps or read a book that's 400 years old. But you do need a way to replicate older technology if you want to hear a record that was made 40 years ago, much less 50 or 100 years ago. Collecting records, I think, is always going to be somewhat limited compared to people who collect books, stamps, coins or art, or things that are not technology dependent. That doesn't keep disc prices from going up, but it does keep scarce records at a relatively low value compared to what they would be if they were books or paintings.

When we did this once before you conducted a three way conference between me and Kip Lornell and John Cowley. That discussion really has gotten around--I've seen it referred to again and again. It's a very interesting way to use the internet. I think you've made it pay off more than most.

JS Thank you.



Dick Spottswood's Desert Island Discs