Various Artists

Fonotone Records 1956-1969

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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├žade 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.

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