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 There are numerous illustrations (many of them rarely seen or previously unpublished), a detailed discography, and other useful backmatter.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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Dick Spottswood’s Columbia “C” Series Discography (1908 – 1923) • Free Download Now Available

We’re happy to announce that the next installment in Dick Spottswood’s Columbia ethnic-series discography is now available for free download. This section covers the C-prefixed series, which was intended for the Spanish-speaking markets — a tantalizing mixture of performances by Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other Latino artists (most of them recorded in their native countries by traveling Columbia engineers), operatic arias and light classics from domestic and imported masters, and various odd-and-ends “repurposed” from other catalogs.
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Click here
to download the discography in PDF format (approximately 5 megabytes). As with the previous installment, this material may be copied or distributed for personal use, provided that the source is cited. Sale or other commercial use is prohibited.

Dick’s latest update of his Columbia “E” series discography will be posted soon.

Dick Spottswood’s Columbia “E” Series Discography Now Available for Free Download

We’re pleased to offer Dick Spottswood’s newly updated, 300-page Columbia “E” Series Discography as a free download for your personal use, courtesy of the author.

To download, click the “Free Online Discographies” link in the menu to your left. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader (Versions 5.0 and later) to view the file. This file is offered for personal, non-commercial use only; please review the use notice before downloading.

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Dick is one of the great pioneers in discographical research on vernacular music of all sorts, as well as a long-time author, record producer, and radio host.

During the 1950s, Dick began canvassing for forgotten sound recordings containing a broad range of music — originally, jazz, blues, and country, later tackling the largely unexplored field of early ethnic records. In the 1960s he began sharing his finds on  countless reissues, including those on his own Melodeon and Piedmont labels, and co-founded Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. He later produced and annotated the important fifteen-LP series,  Folk Music in America, for the Library of Congress.

Dick’s masterworks are his multi-volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Indiana Press, 1990);  and Country Music Sources, with Meade & Meade (John Edwards Memorial Forum and University of North Carolina Press, 2002) — both winners of ARSC Awards for Excellence, and works that we use constantly — and Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years, with Stephen Wade (University of Mississippi Press, 2010).

In addition to his other books and articles, Dick’s been an important contributor to many major discographical projects, both in print and online. He’s a founding member of The Association for Recorded Sound Collections, which honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. The International Bluegrass Music Association presented him their Distinguished Service Award in October 2009.