18 June 2010

XTRA XTRA

Rob Young has started up a blog for Electric Eden, his forthcoming book on folk (and the visionary/esoteric in its 20C English tradition) for Faber – check it out. He mentions Dazzling Stranger, Colin Harper's book on Bert Jansch, in passing, which reminded me of one of its footnotes...

A random pull-out of some Folkways records:





Folkways can be expensive, particularly the folk-blues fountainhead bubbling away at the catalogue's heart. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly et al. The more self-consciously ethnographic, proto-'world' music stuff – largely recorded on the spot by a man with a mic (a man I always imagine wearing a short sleeved shirt and tie) – seems to come cheaper.



This one comes with a long essay booklet by Samuel Charters recounting his time on the islands, and his difficulties in tracking down (and recording) one of the islands' best singers of the traditional laments sung at wakes, an itinerant alcoholic called Frederick McQueen.



This one is just packed with crazy rhythms and textures. Side one is all solo demonstrations of local instruments, the shitende, the shivelan, the timbila. Side two is a 20-minute orchestral blast of the whole lot. And 5mins of zora drumming (booklet quote: 'The most popular Zora dancers tend to be very plump ladies who create a spectacular effect with rapid upper-torso gyrations in tempo to the drumming' - a more National Geographic sentence it's hard to imagine). For some reason I've never chanced on vols 1 or 2.

The other thing about Folkways is the sheer desirability of the objects: thick card sleeves generally, with wrap-around labels (see above, not very clear pic of spines). And Folkways' design, which was largely done by Ronald Clyne, is amazing – up there with the now wearily over-exposed Blue Note or Penguin catalogues. Clyne designed the two Guthries and the Bahamas above, Irwin Rosenhouse the Leadbelly. Part of me wonders why you don't see Folkways mugs and tote bags and deckchairs on sale. Part of me is too frightened to check the Folkways website in case they are. Will post more on Clyne when this book on him arrives through the post. Interesting to note he was once called a 'folk modernist'. Possible to imagine an American counterpart to the Ghost Box aesthetic which would begin with that socialist utopian vision of the early 60s, the pre-electric-Dylan-at-Newport and extrapolate it forward as a counterfactual, with Clyne's designs as a visual template.


Anyway. XTRA records generally aren't expensive. Here's a couple of mine:





XTRA was an imprint of Nat Joseph's Transatlantic Records (Jansch, Renbourn, Pentangle et al) which pressed Folkways albums for the UK market. I've bought these in charity shops, R&TE, always for peanuts. No doubt to a real collector those prices are right, they're not the Folkways originals. But I have a soft spot for the XTRA layouts even though they're often not-quite-right takes on Clyne's aesthetic. And in one sense, though cheap and unloved, they have a kind of curio value. According to Colin Harper (in that footnote I mentioned), Folkways has only ever licensed its recordings to be pressed and sold by another label once – to XTRA.

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