Worth Reading and Hearing: “The Blue Sky Boys” and “Black Swans”

Looking for a gift for that hard-to-shop-for vintage-record fan? Here are a couple of recent releases we’ve enjoyed:

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THE BLUE SKY BOYS

Dick Spottswood
ISBN 978-1-4968-1641-2
University Press of Mississippi

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Legendary musicologist, historian, and producer Dick Spottswood turns his attention to Bill and Earl Bollick, two brothers from Hickory, North Carolina, who as the Blue Sky Boys captivated record buyers and radio audiences in the 1930s.

The Bolicks bucked the latest trends in country music during the years leading up to World War II, preferring close-harmony renditions of southern folk tunes, old-time songs, hymns, and new compositions in a similar mold. Self-accompanied on guitar and mandolin, they developed a low-key, distinctive and readily recognizable sound that was sometimes imitated but never quite duplicated.

Their story is told in part by Bill Bolick himself, whose recollections are skillfully interwoven with Dick Spottswood’s perceptive commentary. Even if the Blue Sky Boys are not your cup of tea, you’ll find much of interest here, such as the role that radio played in disseminating country music, and how sponsors and station owners of the period treated or mistreated their artists. There are numerous illustrations (many of them rarely seen or previously unpublished), a detailed discography, and other useful backmatter.

Dick Spottswood is the author of numerous important works, the most monumental being his five-volume Ethnic Music on Records. He now lives in Naples, Florida, where he produces and hosts Bluegrass Country’s online version of “The Dick Spottswood Show” (aka “The Obsolete Music Hour”). The Blue Sky Boys has won a well-deserved 2019 Award for Excellence from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

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BLACK SWANS

Leslie Gerber, Tim Brooks, and Steve Smolian, producers
Parnassus PACD-96067 (CD)
Parnassus Records

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This ground-breaking CD focuses on black classical and operatic performers of the early twentieth century, a group largely overlooked by modern writers (a notable exception being co-producer Tim Brooks, whose Lost Sounds explored many of them in depth for the first time).

The recordings fall into three basic groups: Roland Hayes’ privately made Columbias; the 1919 Broome Specials (Broome having been the first black-owned record label); and the Black Swan operatic series of 1921–1922. As experienced collectors know, these records range from scarce to extraordinarily rare, and assembling them all is a notable achievement. Twenty of the twenty-five selections are reissued here for the first time.

Understand that this is not an “easy listening” compilation, from either a musical or a technological standpoint. Steve Smolian has been diligent in his sound-restoration work, but clean copies do not always exist of records this rare (some of which were poorly recorded to begin with), and the sound quality varies accordingly. Musically, there are some gems here, as well as some failures that nevertheless are worth hearing, for historical perspective if nothing else.

Black Swan’s Harry Pace misjudged his audience, stubbornly clinging to the belief that they would flock to what he called “numbers of a higher standard,” even as meager sales proved him wrong. Although it might be true that some of these artists failed to gain wider recognition because of their color, voices and technique that fell short of the demands of their material certainly are also to blame. The Harlem Renaissance, like any cultural movement, had its share of the mediocre and the pretentious, some of whom are on display here.

As expected, Roland Hayes emerges as the most promising performer of the lot. The fact that he had to pay Columbia to record him — only to move to England, where he was welcomed by the Vocalion label and went on to achieve international acclaim — speaks volumes about the times. Perhaps the most musically interesting items are the two piano solos by R. Nathaniel Dett, playing his own compositions. Co-producer Leslie Gerber has provided excellent program notes, including biographical sketches based in part on Lost Sounds.

While not for the casual listener, Black Swans can be a rewarding experience if approached with an open mind and some knowledge and appreciation of black history.

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