Fonotone Records 1956-1969

Performers Various Artists

Dust-To-Digital | February 18, 2008 | Compact Disc

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In 1956 teenaged record collector Joe Bussard decided to track some of his guitar-playing National Guard buddies in his parent's basement in Frederick, MD, and Fonotone Records, America's last operating 78 rpm label, was born. Deliberately anachronistic, Bussard sought to emulate the jug band, blues, and early country 78s that he so treasured (and collected) from the 1920s and 1930s, and he and his friends took on pseudonyms that echoed the names of the artists who recorded during that fabled era at the very dawn of the American recording industry, essentially creating a mythical musical landscape that was stubbornly (even defiantly) out of touch with the technology and musical trends of the 1950s. Part hobby, part hoax, and partly a statement on what Bussard saw as the ongoing degradation of pop music, Fonotone released an impressive number of handmade 78s before Bussard finally officially folded the label in 1969. This elaborate five-disc box set -- it comes housed in a cigar box with postcards, an extensive booklet, and even a Fonotone church key bottle opener -- finally brings the work of Bussard's little lost label into the digital light of the 21st century. It has to be viewed as a little ironic, given Bussard's aversion to the technological advancements of the recording industry and his complete disgust at almost anything recorded after 1934, but here you have it, all laid out in zeros and ones, and what emerges is an at times brilliant facsimile of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. But where Smith's anthology, which collects actual 78s from the 1920s and 1930s (the 1997 reissue of the anthology on CD actually drew on nearly pristine 78s from Bussard's vast personal collection), shines with the mysterious glow of a half-remembered vernacular past, the Fonotone set, which attempts to re-create that era, replaces the mystery with what amounts to cleverness and creative mischief. That doesn't mean that the music presented here isn't interesting -- it frequently bursts forth with a wonderfully chaotic energy -- but it is a bit like building a scale model of the Grand Coulee Dam out of Popsicle sticks. The end result is fascinating to look at, but being a re-creation, it lacks the intangible presence (and no doubt the utility) of the original. Still, the Fonotone records were a lot of fun, and discovering the real identities behind the pseudonyms is a big part of that fun. Birmingham Bill is actually Mike Seeger. Kid Future is a young Stefan Grossman. B. Sam Firk is Mike Stewart. Blind Robert Ward is Bob Coltman. And the first recordings of iconoclast John Fahey are here, under the name Blind Thomas, in what is a sort of dress rehearsal for his Blind Joe Death persona. Bussard himself appears as part of a whole range of jug and string band groups with names like the Mississippi Swampers, the Tennessee Mess Arounders, the Back Alley Boys, and so on. There are some actual field recordings here, as well, including a pair of tracks from black Appalachian banjo player Clarence Fross that could slip undetected into any Alan Lomax collection. There is also a good deal of bluegrass music, the only postwar musical style ever allowed on a Fonotone record, which is a further irony, since bluegrass probably did more than even rock & roll to kill off the jug and string band tradition that Bussard so admired. Arguably the most effective cuts are a trio of songs that drop the old-time fa‡ade long enough to comment directly on contemporary events. Bussard and Bob Coltman's "The Death of John Kennedy," recorded immediately after Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963, is particularly arresting, as is Bussard's "The Flight of Astronaut John Glenn" and Coltman's (as Blind Robert Ward) "The Voyage of Apollo 8" (which Bussard mischievously couples with "Don't Ask for the Moon" on the flip side). By stepping out of the 1920s and addressing the present (yet in a manner and style that mimics the past), Bussard and company actually accomplish what they had been after all along, making the old-time music speak in a contemporary context. In the end, though, most of the music in this fascinating box fails to match its template, but as a stubborn attempt to turn back the musical hands of time, Bussard and Fonotone Records created a brilliant faux universe that works much like that replica of an 18th century schooner perfectly re-created to scale inside a clear glass bottle. The marvel is in the attention to detail, and by default, the imaginary sea it conjures. So here you have it, a mythical 78 rpm universe that mimics a real one, all set forth under the glass of 21st century digital technology. Just suspend belief, add some imagination, and sail away. Don't expect sonar, though, or, heaven forbid, an electric guitar. ~ Steve Leggett

Format: Compact Disc

Released Date: February 18, 2008

Genre: Southern Gospel

Style: Folk

Number of Discs: 5

Studio/Mixed/Live: Studio

Label Name: Dust-To-Digital

UPC: 880226000325

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– More About This Product –

Fonotone Records 1956-1969

Performers Various Artists

Format: Compact Disc

Released Date: February 18, 2008

Genre: Southern Gospel

Style: Folk

Number of Discs: 5

Studio/Mixed/Live: Studio

Label Name: Dust-To-Digital

UPC: 880226000325


Title Track Time
0.DISC 1: --
1.Chinese Breakdown - Joe Bussard/Oscar Myers --
2.Power in the Blood - Sunny Side Sacred Singers --
3.Wanda Russell's Blues - Blind Thomas --
4.Foggy Bottom Shuffle - Danville Dan --
5.I Love You Mama - Tennessee Mess Arounders --
6.Soldier's Joy - Happy Johnnie & Family --
7.Carry Me Back to the Mountains - Blue Ridge Partners --
8.Fox Chase - W. R. Barnes/W. E. Barnes --
9.Swing Low, Sweet Chariot - Various Artists --
10.Baker's Breakdown - Adcock Family --
11.Alley Strut - Back Alley Boys --
12.Boweavil - Lee Moore --
13.Bugle Call Banjo - Bluegrass Travellers --
14.Tator Patch Blues - Tennessee Mess Arounders --
15.We Need More Rattle Snakes - Milo Way --
16.Jug in the Shade - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
17.Lost Indian - Welch Brothers --
18.Love Old Memphis - Various Artists --
19.Old Country Rock - Backwards Sam Firk --
20.Death of John Kennedy, The - Bob Coltman/Joe Bussard --
21.Onions - Three Blues Boys --
22.Paint Brush Blues - Blind Thomas --
23.Helter Skelter - Welch Brothers --
24.Green Blues - Mississippi Swampers --
25.Hannah Open the Door - Georgia Jokers --
26.Wildwood Flower - Hillbilly Boys --
27.Down on the Delaware - Whitacre Family --
0.DISC 2: --
1.Crazy Arms - Various Artists --
2.Bluegrass - Lucky Chatman/The Ozark Mountain Boys --
3.Rome Georgia Bound - Georgia Jokers --
4.Blind Blues - Blind Thomas --
5.Bluegrass Shuffle - Bluegrass Travellers --
6.Cider Time Rag - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
7.Sugar Babe - Happy Johnnie & Family --
8.Tearing Down the Laurel - Welch Brothers --
9.Up Jumped the Devil - Possum Holler Boys --
10.Fox Chase - Clarence Fross --
11.Virginia Ramble - Virginia Ramblers --
12.Sow Good Seeds - Joe Bussard --
13.Nobody's Darling But Mine - Beachley Sisters --
14.Everlasting Joy - Brother Smith/Brother Amos --
15.Backlander's Hornpipe - Miles Kranssen --
16.Jokin' Georgia Rag - Georgia Jokers --
17.Stir It Now - Jackson Jug Jumpers --
18.Kid Future's Blues - Kid Future --
19.R.G. Chimes - Rocky Ridge Ramblers --
20.Back Alley Wiggle - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
21.Pig Tail Fling - Possum Holler Boys --
22.Down Where the River Bends - Rocky Ridge Ramblers --
23.Flight of Astronaut John Glenn, The - Joe Bussard/Oscar Myers --
24.Hillbilly's Guitar - Hillbilly Boys --
25.Memphis Hambone Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
26.Mandolin Blues - Tennessee Mess Arounders --
27.Cheat Mountain - Welch Brothers --
0.DISC 3: --
1.Shady Grove - Adcock Family --
2.Cumberland Gap - Birmingham Bill --
3.Fisher's Hornpipe - Bob Coltman --
4.Cackling Hen - Joe Burchfield & Family --
5.Barefoot Mamlish Blues - Backwards Sam Firk --
6.Black Jack Rag - Two Black Jacks --
7.Hot Corn Cold Corn - Adcock Family --
8.Tear It Down - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
9.Father Put the Cow Away - Lucky Chatman/The Ozark Mountain Boys --
10.Whitacre's Hornpipe - Whitacre Family --
11.Banjo Stretch - Bluegrass Travellers --
12.Coal Tipple Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
13.Some Summer Day No. 2 - Mississippi Swampers --
14.Hopalong Peter - Mash Mountain Boys --
15.Crowing Rooster, The - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
16.Little Boy Stole My Jacket - Whitacre Family --
17.Black Cat Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
18.Frankie - Tennessee Joe --
19.Striped Stockings - Whitacre Family --
20.Short String Strut - Guitar Rascals --
21.Voyage of Apollo 8, The - Blind Robert Ward --
22.Black Jack Drag - Two Black Jacks --
23.Rory Mae - Kid Future --
24.Silver Bells - Bob Coltman --
25.Weissman Blues - Blind Thomas --
0.DISC 4: --
1.Sara Jane - Adcock Family --
2.What She's Got - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
3.Susie - Georgia Jokers --
4.Round Town Gals - Robert H. Hubbage/Round Top Mountain Boys --
5.Ramblin' Blues - W. E. Barnes --
6.Pretty Little Girl - Sizemore --
7.Scattin' Rag - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
8.Please Love Me - Joe Bussard --
9.Delta Moodish Blues - Backwards Sam Firk --
10.Busted Boiler Blues - Oscar Myers --
11.Big Legged Mama - Ted Kreh --
12.Leather Breeches - Happy Johnnie & Family --
13.Dark and Lonely Night Blues - Mississippi Swampers --
14.I Don't Love Nobody - Blue Ridge Partners --
15.Borrow Love and Go - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
16.Hen Pecked Man - Birmingham Bill --
17.Treastle Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
18.Train to Danville - Danville Dan --
19.No Special Rider Blues - Backwards Sam Firk --
20.Basement Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
21.Drunk Song No. 2 - Damien --
22.If You Don't Love Me Mama - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
23.Stone Pony - Mississippi Swampers --
24.Pueblo's Crew, The - Blind Robert Ward --
25.Confessin' - Wild Mountain Boys --
26.Poor Boy Blues - Blind Thomas --
0.DISC 5: --
1.Cripple Creek - Bill Bailey/Frank Stuart --
2.Put My Little Shoes Away - Lucky Chatman/The Ozark Mountain Boys --
3.Hoppin' the Frets - Adcock Family --
4.John Henry - Blind Thomas --
5.Nine Pound Hammer - Adcock Family --
6.Birmingham Tickle - Birmingham Bill --
7.Atlanta Rag - Georgia Jokers --
8.Old Hypocrite - Clarence Fross --
9.Sugar in the Gourd - Bald Knob Chicken Snatchers --
10.I Hear Mother Calling - Lee Moore --
11.It's Only the Wind - Beachley Sisters --
12.Maple Sugar - Whitacre Family --
13.Preach the Gospel - Brother Smith/Brother Amos --
14.My Savior Died For Me - W. E. Barnes --
15.Sunflower Strut - Danville Dan --
16.Hand Me Down My Walking Cane - Joe Bussard/Oscar Myers --
17.Lay My Armor Down - Gabriel's Holy Testifiers --
18.Old Folks Started It, The - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
19.Done Gone - Whitacre Family --
20.Got to Get a Little More - Bob Coltman --
21.Wild Mountain Ramble - Wild Mountain Boys --
22.Money Green No. 2 - Backwards Sam Firk --
23.Didn't They Crucify My Lord - Sunny Side Sacred Singers --
24.I'm Rollin' On - Carolina Pine Knots --
25.Delta Crapatation - Kid Future --
26.Jolly Joe's Blues - Jolly Joe's Jug Band --
27.Knoxville Blues - Birmingham Bill --
28.Gospel Train's a-Comin - Gabriel's Holy Testifiers --
29.Sugar Tree Stomp - Possum Holler Boys --

Editorial Notes

In 1956 teenaged record collector Joe Bussard decided to track some of his guitar-playing National Guard buddies in his parent's basement in Frederick, MD, and Fonotone Records, America's last operating 78 rpm label, was born. Deliberately anachronistic, Bussard sought to emulate the jug band, blues, and early country 78s that he so treasured (and collected) from the 1920s and 1930s, and he and his friends took on pseudonyms that echoed the names of the artists who recorded during that fabled era at the very dawn of the American recording industry, essentially creating a mythical musical landscape that was stubbornly (even defiantly) out of touch with the technology and musical trends of the 1950s. Part hobby, part hoax, and partly a statement on what Bussard saw as the ongoing degradation of pop music, Fonotone released an impressive number of handmade 78s before Bussard finally officially folded the label in 1969. This elaborate five-disc box set -- it comes housed in a cigar box with postcards, an extensive booklet, and even a Fonotone church key bottle opener -- finally brings the work of Bussard's little lost label into the digital light of the 21st century. It has to be viewed as a little ironic, given Bussard's aversion to the technological advancements of the recording industry and his complete disgust at almost anything recorded after 1934, but here you have it, all laid out in zeros and ones, and what emerges is an at times brilliant facsimile of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. But where Smith's anthology, which collects actual 78s from the 1920s and 1930s (the 1997 reissue of the anthology on CD actually drew on nearly pristine 78s from Bussard's vast personal collection), shines with the mysterious glow of a half-remembered vernacular past, the Fonotone set, which attempts to re-create that era, replaces the mystery with what amounts to cleverness and creative mischief. That doesn't mean that the music presented here isn't interesting -- it frequently bursts forth with a wonderfully chaotic energy -- but it is a bit like building a scale model of the Grand Coulee Dam out of Popsicle sticks. The end result is fascinating to look at, but being a re-creation, it lacks the intangible presence (and no doubt the utility) of the original. Still, the Fonotone records were a lot of fun, and discovering the real identities behind the pseudonyms is a big part of that fun. Birmingham Bill is actually Mike Seeger. Kid Future is a young Stefan Grossman. B. Sam Firk is Mike Stewart. Blind Robert Ward is Bob Coltman. And the first recordings of iconoclast John Fahey are here, under the name Blind Thomas, in what is a sort of dress rehearsal for his Blind Joe Death persona. Bussard himself appears as part of a whole range of jug and string band groups with names like the Mississippi Swampers, the Tennessee Mess Arounders, the Back Alley Boys, and so on. There are some actual field recordings here, as well, including a pair of tracks from black Appalachian banjo player Clarence Fross that could slip undetected into any Alan Lomax collection. There is also a good deal of bluegrass music, the only postwar musical style ever allowed on a Fonotone record, which is a further irony, since bluegrass probably did more than even rock & roll to kill off the jug and string band tradition that Bussard so admired. Arguably the most effective cuts are a trio of songs that drop the old-time fa‡ade long enough to comment directly on contemporary events. Bussard and Bob Coltman's "The Death of John Kennedy," recorded immediately after Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963, is particularly arresting, as is Bussard's "The Flight of Astronaut John Glenn" and Coltman's (as Blind Robert Ward) "The Voyage of Apollo 8" (which Bussard mischievously couples with "Don't Ask for the Moon" on the flip side). By stepping out of the 1920s and addressing the present (yet in a manner and style that mimics the past), Bussard and company actually accomplish what they had been after all along, making the old-time music speak in a contemporary context. In the end, though, most of the music in this fascinating box fails to match its template, but as a stubborn attempt to turn back the musical hands of time, Bussard and Fonotone Records created a brilliant faux universe that works much like that replica of an 18th century schooner perfectly re-created to scale inside a clear glass bottle. The marvel is in the attention to detail, and by default, the imaginary sea it conjures. So here you have it, a mythical 78 rpm universe that mimics a real one, all set forth under the glass of 21st century digital technology. Just suspend belief, add some imagination, and sail away. Don't expect sonar, though, or, heaven forbid, an electric guitar. ~ Steve Leggett
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