Why are multi-disc collections of old music still valuable in an era of downloads retrieved from nearly boundless clouds? Because these box sets and greatest-hit collections do something that's difficult for mere links to accomplish. By combining dozens of carefully chosen tracks with photos and extensive notes into one integrated package, these reissues do more than merely serve up a bunch of music; they present an argument. Like a lawyer in the court of public opinion, the compilers and annotators are arguing that these particular tunes, placed in the context of these particular notes, make the best possible case for this artist, theme, or sub-genre.
Below are four new reissue packages that open a door on artists who never became household names but whose music can still grab hold of us across decades and miles. Whether the music was made by Southern Appalachian hillbillies in the 1920s, suburban garage-rockers in the 1960s, or West African dance bands in the 1970s, these tracks are important not only for what they tell us about the past but also for what they tell us about our own struggles with love, money, and meaning in the present.
The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (Yazoo/Shanachie, 46 tracks, two CDs, 54-page booklet) Harry Smith's famous 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music mined the obscure blues and hillbilly 78s from the late 1920s and early '30s and influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead. Smith chose wisely, but he hardly exhausted this particular well of music. Fellow collectors such as Nick Perls, Richard Nevins, Dave Freeman, John Fahey, Joe Bussard, and Dick Spottswood made their own discoveries.
This new box set is a sequel to 2006's The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of, a compilation of some of the rarest sides these other collectors found. The new set's booklet evokes the culture of early '60s record collecting, when Fahey and Spottswood would spend their summers between college semesters driving to the Mississippi Delta, knocking on shack doors in search of Charley Patton records. Those trips preserved some great recordings that might otherwise have been lost forever. The world would surely be a poorer place if it no longer possessed such sublime performances as Patton's "High Water Everywhere," Charlie Poole's "Milwaukee Blues," Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues," Uncle Dave Macon's "Sail Away Ladies" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed." This new box also includes seminal Cajun recordings by Dennis McGee and Leo Soileau, and two of the finest versions of "Stack-O-Lee,"as performed by both the Fruit Jar Guzzlers and Furry Lewis.
Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time and End Time Music, 1923-1936 (Tompkins Square, 42 tracks, three CDs, 64-page booklet) This set stems from a very recent record-collecting discovery. In 2010, after collector Don Wahle died, boxes of 78s were discovered in his home. Wahle's interest was early country and gospel music, so these are white artists from the pre-Depression, rural South. Organized into three categories (as enumerated in the title), these performances will be new to all but the most fanatical collectors, and they are strangely original in a way that the most desperate-for-novelty rock band can never quite match. The North Carolina Hawaiians prove as exotic as their name. The Allen Brothers use kazoo and tenor banjo to protest the encroachment of chain stores on local businesses in 1930. There are also timelessly riveting vocals from Gid Tanner on "Work Don't Bother Me," Buell Kazee on "Poor Boy Long Ways from Home," and Ernest Phipps on "If the Light Has Gone out of Your Soul."
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68 (Rhino, 27 tracks, two LPs, four-page booklet) In his liner notes for this vinyl reissue and first U.S. stand-alone CD release of the vastly influential 1972 collection, compiler (and longtime Patti Smith guitarist) Lenny Kaye confesses that he used Nick Perls' blues reissues on Yazoo Records as a model for how to repackage forgotten music for a new audience. Instead of 1920s blues 78s, however, Kaye was picking songs from recent singles and albums by rock 'n' roll bands already half-forgotten after one semi-hit. Kaye had a good ear for finding the keepers among the flood of releases pouring out from a planned-obsolescence record industry. Tracks such as the Standells' "Dirty Water," the Knickerbockers' "Lies," the Remains' "Don't Look Back," and Nazz's "Open My Eyes" deserved a much longer life than they'd first recieved.
The Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network, 21 tracks, two CDs, 12-page booklet) If you're looking for good introductions to world music, England's Rough Guide compilations tend to be more rigorously curated and annotated than the Putumayo collections that are so ubiquitous in chic non-music stores. A good example is this one, which focuses on one specific genre-rather than pretending African music is all the same thing. Compiled by Rachel Jackson, this set offers an historical overview of the highlife music that flourished in Ghana and Nigeria in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. It was bouncy, infectious music, featuring punchy horn sections, lilting guitar figures, calypso rhythms, and American R&B vocals, all combined with local folk music. It remains as intoxicating today as it must have been then.
The collection begins with a 1969 party single from Fela Kuti when he was a highlife bandleader, before he invented Afrobeat and turned political. It backtracks for such Ghanaian pioneers as the Black Beats Highlife Dance Band and Koo Nimo, then demonstrates how the music changed when it crossed the border into Nigeria, where it generated such giant hits as Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe's "Osondi Owendi" and Gentleman Bobby Benson's "Taxi Driver."