The National Jukebox & Record Hunting:
The National Jukebox is an online treasure trove of historical recordings, prints and sheet music from the Library of Congress and other major collections. The concept, not unlike that of a number of other digital archives, allows us to peer into the wellspring of our collective riches. If you are keen on fishing for the true vine or blasting into the bedrock of American sound and entertainment, than consider this (and others like it), the mother-lode and start digging via http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/
Being a musicologist of sorts, I have always felt that good musicians and true audiophiles should take the time to follow our roots trail back to its respective source, which in this case turns out to be rag-time, brass-band, ethnic, blues, gospel, early jazz, Hawaiian, hillbilly and tin-pan alley to name a few. All of these genres are available en masse on the National Jukebox so I encourage everyone to listen to the works of The Duncan Sisters singing Aunt Susies Picnic Day, or Wendell Hall’s Ain’t Gonna Rain No More circa 1923 for an amazing glimpse at yesterday’s elegant simplicity.
If for instance you search for the word Ukulele and then begin to peruse the list of almost 60 related tunes, you’ll soon discover Frank Crumit, Frank Richardson, The Duncan Sisters, Wright & Dietrich, The Victor Band, Irving Kaufman, Nora Bayes, Irene West’s Royal Hawaiian’s, Elliot Shaw & Charles Hart, The Hawaiian Quintet and a slew of other lost American musical brawlers. I say ukulele, only because I am an ethno-music nerd and all tributaries begin with that singular word, while the streams, brooks and rivers of our nations musical conscious flows fast, furious and free for any and all who believe that standing at the crossroads might yield a mojo-hand. This is the creative juncture where liberty, justice and the pursuit happiness
form a prism for our unadulterated musical ears to hear, see and feel the deepest parts of our American soul. If you break away from the ukulele you’ll discover a panorama of America’s deepest roots like Vess L. Ossman’s Ragtime Banjo Solos, The Van Epps Trio, John McCormack, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Roy Smeck or Louie Armstrong. The data base is immense, but, well worth the perusing. One can only describe these tunes as otherworldly; thus, the nature of these historic recordings can lead you down a rabbit hole that has no true end. When I first started digging for gold around Milwaukee, WI in the late 80’s, the music industry was a very different bird, the internet had not quite taken over yet and a young fellow in search of the holy-grail could mine for hours at local record stores. Even if you had something specific in mind, your search could often be akin to a right-of-passage for aspiring young musicians. If you found a good record shop, rummage sale, flea market or auction, you could pass the hours away. There was no telling what kind of a haul you might come away with. If you went out looking for polkas played on the harmonica, then you came home with some early country, rockabilly 45’s or and old blues records; ultimately, there was no real way to tell if you’d ever find what you were looking for amongst a quickly vanishing world of 33’s, 78’s, cylinders, 8 tracks, cassettes, 45’s and piano rolls; but the journey always made it worthwhile.
This is how I grew as a musician, spinning old records round and round, night after night, trying to emulate what I heard…a time honored tradition I am told. Today, the record huts of old, have all but vanished from the city landscape. Presently, there are still a few shops that dot the American Landscape like Amoeba Records of Los Angeles or Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Chicago, but these are few and far between and most of these shops have all but disappeared. The digital era ushered in an era of piracy and record label conglomeration as record labels could no longer afford to manage artist careers or sink major bucks into anyone who didn’t already come with a huge buzz and fan capitol to boot.
Today, record collectors sell their wares out of their homes via Ebay and Amazon. The Goliath of my teen angst years, MTV effectively turned the music industry into a bunch of pretty faced posers and fashion flakes, making music more about appearance than sound, just look at country music today, you’d never see a real face like George Jones or Willie Nelson come out of Nashville anymore. It is all too easy now that we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes to Get it Now. The hunt for old records ala Joe Bussard a legendary collector of early recorded jazz, country and blues has become the stuff of fiction for all of us en-pixellated paupers, who’ve traded the real for the surreal; even while there are some digital bright spots.
The chase, hunt, journey, pilgrimage, whatever you want to call it, has disappeared with the people and the places that really made our cities glow with eccentricity and character, those ghosts today, sweep the streets of our crumbled towns bemoaning gentrification and a world hell bent on packaging every experience into an MP3 or video game format, all while the real stories remain untold.
They are gone now. The record stores, owners and its’ dying breed of big ears! The real loss is not our collective groove, but the foundation upon which rests our humanity…the human contact that we encountered, which forever shaped our musical and cultural lives. My hometown of Milwaukee, isn’t unlike others, there isn’t even a bone yard where an occasional time traveler or intuitive audiophile might stop to honor the record stores of Christmas past with a wreath or bouquet of flowers… like that of the fallen solider. Not a trace, just the song that whispers to our communal hearts. Remember.
Life is full of contradictions. I am asking you to gather the remnants of our mono chrome lives, once so proud to be orbiting our galaxy at 78 rotations per minute, but now digital light years away. I am asking you to take a few minutes out of your busy lives to turn off the lights, put your feet up and close your eyes, but not before you dial in our National Jukebox. Sit back and listen man! Once we held these records in our hands, once we had power without the plug, once we gathered around the old Radio to imagine what possibilities life could bring and there amidst the snap, crackle and pop, perhaps you’ll find what I found inside my first Victrola, that the past didn’t go anywhere, we just stopped looking for it.