Perfect Sound Forever

American Primitive:
Revenant Records’ Tenth Anniversary

Dean Blackwood interview
By Kyle S. Barnett
(April 2006)

We should now like to note that the largest repository so far of recordings of American Folk Music (AFM) has been established not by academic institutions or folk music associations, but by the combined efforts of the American recording industry. This phenomenon is as evident today as it was in the past. What institutions would have stuffed their vaults with bluegrass, rap, and the other last gasps of the American volkselle? Commercial recording companies.

John Fahey, from “American Quick Fix Religion,” his liner notes to American Primitive, Vol. 1 (1997).

2006 marks the tenth anniversary of Revenant Records, a label dedicated to the release and reissue of “raw musics” from diverse sources and traditions. In ten years of the label’s existence, Revenant has successfully played by its own idiosyncratic rules, choosing to focus on just a few releases a year (sometimes less). In carefully picking where to concentrate their energies, Revenant’s Dean Blackwood has managed to appeal to the most obsessive music fans, through expressing both a reverence for the music in the research and design of their reissue packages, as well as a certain irreverence in presentation that can be traced back to the original release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

It seems fitting that legendary guitarist and Revenant co-founder Fahey contributed liner notes for the 1997 CD reissue of Smith’s collection and that the label was able to offer Smith’s uncompleted fourth volume of the anthology. Above all, Revenant’s approach is smart enough to understand that interesting and compelling music can be found across genres and across time. This is epitomized in the label’s authoritative Screamin’ and Hollerin” the Blues box set (2001), the Charley Patton box set that garnered Revenant three Grammy awards, and Holy Ghost (2004), the Albert Ayler box set (which was nominated for two Grammy awards). To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the label, Revenant has released American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939). Like the first volume featuring liner notes from noted author and blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow and John Fahey himself, the new edition features liner notes from Dean Blackwood and Dean’s brother and fellow traveler Scott, author of In the Shadow of Our House (SMU Press, 2001) and a forthcoming novel, See How Small. In his contribution to the project, Scott Blackwood recounts a 1996 trip where brother Dean had asked him to drive Fahey to a show with Tony Conrad and Jim O’Rourke at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. His depiction of Fahey gives a sense of a distracted, and somewhat haunted, trickster (finding Fahey in his Chicago hotel room, coins stuck to his naked thighs after a night’s sleep; Fahey scuffing and scratching up his then-new 78 rpm recordings for Dean Blackwood’s Perfect label, to place in local thrift stores to confuse record collectors; Fahey realizing he had not stayed at the hotel where Blind Lemon Jefferson died, after passing an empty lot where the hotel had actually stood, on their way to the show). In the recordings that energized him, Fahey heard the collision of chaos and order, the commercial and the reverential, the sacred and the profane – recordings made all the more amazing when you realize the unlikelihood of these recordings surviving to this day – or, for that matter, being made in the first place.

In the recordings collected in the new American Primitive volume, we can hear the same thing. Even a song about a soft drink – “I Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape” by the NuGrape Twins, in an early example of a commercial tie-in, can somehow hold the fleeting and euphoric prospect of freedom, just long enough for you to believe. Man, what’s in that drink? This volume includes a number of other memorable recordings, including Geeshie Wiley’s harrowing “Last Kind Words Blues” (1930); and Mattie May Thomas’ “Workhouse Blues” (1939); and Two Poor Boys’ “Two White Horses in a Line” (1931).”

Recording technology, as historians remind us, has long held the promise of cheating death – of a voice lasting beyond one’s own life span. The phonograph allowed for the unpredictable travels of the disembodied voice. Despite the ubiquitous nature of recording technology in contemporary culture, the recordings on American Primitive, Vol. II – the oldest of which dates back to 1897, twenty years after Edison and his associates invented the tinfoil phonograph – heighten the effect of these voices traveling across centuries. This is music from what Greil Marcus has called “The old, weird America,” or what Dean Blackwood calls “signals from a lost world,” in the interview that follows. At the same time, once neophytes get past the way these records sound all these years later, and start listening to the themes, thoughts, and emotions expressed, these songs don’t seem even a week old.

In this interview, Dean Blackwood details Revenant’s decade-long existence, ongoing projects, and the shifting dynamics of the label’s own little corner of the contemporary recording industry:

PSF: How did you get started working within the record industry? I’d heard at some point you were Sub Pop’s “man in Nashville,” though I’m not sure that’s right. I assume this was after law school. How did you start?

DB: I worked at Sub Pop’s (now-defunct) East Coast Office in Dorchester, MA while in law school at Harvard, under a great lady named Joyce Linehan, who was a legend in the Boston music scene for booking clubs and managing bands like the Lemonheads (Evan Dando is so totally the bees’ knees!) when she was still a teenager. We did tour setup and promotion, retail promotion, A&R, and anything else that would move a unit. This was beginning in 1991, just post-Nirvana, when the label was suddenly flush with cash and ill equipped to handle it. Interesting times, for sure. I learned a lot from Joyce. I had always had a fetishistic obsession with 78s, since being introduced to them as a kid at my great grandparents’ house in Lawson, Arkansas. In 1993, I revived the Perfect label imprint (first active circa 1922-38) to put out my own run of 78s, starting with some Sun City Girls stuff and moving through Charlie Feathers and Junior Kimbrough, the Balfa Brothers, and finally to my stab at true world domination—the double 78 set by John Fahey.

By 1995 I had finished law school and was working at a law firm in Nashville, and on the heels of the 78 project with Fahey I began to “manage” him and help him with various legal and non-legal things. He came into a small inheritance that year and, instead of investing it wisely, opted for us to start a new record label venture, the template for which was provided by the many kvetching sessions he and I had had regarding “what was wrong with the state of the record label” and “why isn’t this guy’s best stuff available”?

PSF: What counts as “raw music?” I have an intuitive sense, but I’d be interested in your notion.

DB: It’s “raw musics” (plural)—more of a taxonomy of sorts, I guess. Not a genre but a genus, or something. A class of things which hews to a similar line—not in terms of sound or approach or “type”, or even, as is commonly misperceived, in terms of a “rawness” in production values—but in terms of its fundamentally undiluted character. It seemed to us, for example, that the essence of what made Captain Beefheart great came closest to being caught on tape—it was, in the Captain’s own words, too fat to fit through the microphone, which was “too little,” after all—in the non-studio off-the-cuff recordings featured on Grow Fins. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t also happily label as “raw musics” the recently unearthed acapella studio sessions by “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”-era Ella Fitzgerald, despite their unmistakable polish, if they hit the right spot. (And how could they not? Not that I’ve been able to verify the existence of such sessions—let me know if you hear anything.) That’s the beauty of this “raw musics” thing! It’s whatever we say it is! Ok, not exactly, but I have no problem recognizing that what falls in and out of the concept has the ring of the completely arbitrary.

Indeed, Fahey always harrumphed that the only thing that united all the so-called “raw musics” on Revenant was that we happened to like them all, which is closer to the real truth, for sure. But I guess I’d offer (a rejoinder!) that there is something in common across the Revenant stuff and that’s what he and I were responding to; we like it all precisely because it has that singular, uncompromised something. How’s that for vague?

PSF: What was the impetus for starting Revenant? Was Harry Smith’s folk anthology a continuing influence? Were there other goals/ideas? It was envisioned in a fundamentally different way than Takoma, Fahey’s earlier label. Fahey had changed a lot by then, right (it shows in the music)?

DB: Although Harry Smith’s Anthology was a huge touchstone for Fahey and me (and, in fact, Fahey won a Grammy for his impassioned love letter to the Anthology included as part of the notes for the 1997 CD reissue), I’d say it was Harry’s approach—his fundamental irreverence, his distrust of institutions and academics, his impishness, and his relentless intellectual and creative honesty—that was equally if not more important to us in terms of setting a course for Revenant.

PSF: To what extent do you see Revenant as being influenced by or influencing other labels? In some ways, I connect your aesthetic sensibilities to New York’s old ESP Disk label. In terms of the reissue market, you seem to be taking the opposite approach to the Document label, which has released tons of material on, say, Louisville jug band music, but they don’t spend a lot of time or money on liner notes or packaging. Both approaches seem to be about the fetishistic love of music. Wanting to get a lot of this amazing stuff out there vs. wanting to get a select amount of it out there through the best means possible.

DB: Not much to say here. I hate the thought that my praise for ESP might be perceived as an endorsement for the clown who ran/“runs” it, but I would have to admit that the early roster reached an all-time high for sheer excellence against which everyone trafficking in adventurous music must measure themselves.

PSF: When Revenant started, it seemed there were very few other labels out there doing it. Now, a few more have joined. Of the most recent labels to emerge, the people at Dust-to-Digital seem most influenced by you. I would guess you might either be heartened or feel put out by other labels working in such a similar mode. Others include Old Hat. What do you think?

DB: More power to anybody doing the do. I guess the point is that this stuff doesn’t “belong” exclusively to anyone—that is simply a fact, regardless of whether you like what someone else is doing with the stuff. The idea that somehow this stuff is solely the province of those with the divine seal on their forehead, that one may therefore elevate one’s own mission by impugning as impure the motives of others who may traffic in similar material, is a notion I don’t share with certain other folks who fancy themselves the keepers of the flame. Richard Nevins at Yazoo seems to view us with great disdain for reasons not clear to me but having something to do with our “self-indulgent” approach to this music. I readily cop to self-indulgence, but I also see that as to some degree part and parcel of not simply being a dispassionate “chronicler” of this work (which I could never be, else why do it at all?). I do believe you have an obligation to do right by the work—to bring to it an excellence of scholarship, sonics, and careful selection, but (of equal importance) also of design, of broader aesthetic, that is commensurate with the work’s own excellence, with the wonder the work inspires in those of us who give it a chance to work its magic on us. For the record, I do like what Lance is doing with Dust-to-Digital. I feel like he reset the bar a little bit with the Goodbye, Babylon box, and I told him so. But he’s going to have to top Holy Ghost now. Bring it if you got it, shorty!

PSF: To what extent has your involvement in Revenant also ensconced you in the 78-rpm collector culture? If so, what has that experience been like?

DB: My ventures into that world have been by turns fascinating and infuriating. I’ve pretty much thrown up my hands at this point, truth be told. Even writing about it makes me tired.

PSF: To what extent do you feel that those people (here Joe Bussard might be the extreme example) are unfairly maligned because of their extremity?

DB: Honestly, I’d object to the “unfairly” part of that formulation. I think it’s entirely justified, God love ‘em.

PSF: Bussard doesn’t seem to care too much about “authenticity” as a concept, which allowed him to put out those Fahey “Blind Thomas” releases on Bussard’s Fonotone label. Is that right?

DB: Bussard couldn’t give a rat’s ass about much, really, except having the best 78 collection in the world (which he arguably does), having a good steak once in a while, jitterbugging crazily around his basement to the membrane-rattling strains of the Stripling Bros, and making a few bucks here and there. He would no doubt cough up great big hunks of tar-stained lung at the mere mention of a term like “authenticity”.

PSF: How does what you listen to affect what Revenant releases?

DB: You mean if I listened to something other than Revenant releases?

PSF: What are the Fahey releases to which you most commonly return?

DB: Well, I always liked the sort of weird ones like “The Downfall of the Rolling Adelphi Grist Mill” or whatever it’s called. The one with Nancy McLean on sinister flute and John flailing against the guitar with what sounds like a wire brush. Right now I’m liking the expanded CD version of America. I don’t know, but I can readily return to a pretty wide chunk of Fahey’s catalog. He was on quite a run for a while, and even when he wasn’t there would be something that would still get you.

PSF: Next projects? Did Fahey leave a to-do list of unfinished projects or is it solely up to you now?

DB: Oh, we came up with a pretty good list that I’m still working off of. Well, actually, it was a lengthy series of letters back and forth. I don’t actually have the ones I sent to him, only the responses, so I have to sort of reconstruct what I proposed from looking at how he responded. Wait a second! I just realized that was supposed to be an Albert Ammons box! I thought Fahey was just talking crazy. I knew Ayler never played with Lux Lewis.

PSF: I’m wondering about the relationship between your vocation as a lawyer and your avocation running Revenant. Is there overlap? Because of your experience as a lawyer, has that helped negotiate securing rights to older recordings in order to reissue them?

DB: The law degree is pretty handy for the types of recordings and artists that Revenant tends to work with. Most of them inhabit a bit of a netherworld in terms of their legal status, whether under copyright analysis or estate law, or what have you. Each project has its own intrigues and betrayals, and I’m just doing my best to navigate. The difficulty level would be ratcheted up considerably without the legal background. Other than that, I try to keep the two worlds as separate as possible.

PSF: American Primitive, Vol. II is the last release curated by John Fahey. How did you and Fahey decide on a second volume?

DB: Fahey and I were both really fond of the notion of the biographical cipher, and folks like Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas and the NuGrape Twins simply must be heard to be believed, so it was a perfect marriage of great artists and compelling circumstance. There’s just a name—and nothing more—attached to this great, incontrovertible art. Signals from a lost world. It’s all we’ll ever get of them.

Kyle Barnett lives in Austin, Texas. In the summer of 2006, he will leave Austin for Louisville, Kentucky, where he will teach media studies in the Department of Communication at Bellarmine University. He and his wife Lisa are members of the band Hitchhike.

Also see our John Fahey tribute articles and the Revenant Records website

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER