LISTEN TO THE ASHES: DEATH IS NOT THE END’S FOLK FROM THE OTHER WORLD
DIGGING UP THE FOLK FROM THE ARCHIVES
Today, the boundless popularity of folk music among the broadest masses is often associated with the name of Bob Dylan. The lyrics played a decisive role in his case, yet it lay down on the folk-sounding. Bob's main merit lies in the fact that he more than anyone else integrated multiple folk trends into pop music. In fact, he cracked open pop music with his 1965 single “Like A Rolling Stone” and jump-started a new round for the fusion of folk, pop, and rock. The crucial moment was preceded by the years of fermentation of the musician in the rather nutrient-rich environment of blues, country, gospel and countless incarnations of folk music of North America, the British Isles, Africa as well as others, which were squeezed within the United States.
It’s uncertain whether Dylan would have dived into this so successfully, if not Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, as well as Josh White, Burl Ives, The Weavers, Leadbelly and dozens of other musicians in the 1940s and 1960s who had been there before him. They became the folk-revival agents – the wave of a population of the traditional music of USA that later had a ride through the UK and Canada. The folk-revival music has echoes of spirituals, blues, country, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, cajun and all possible derivatives of folk songs of Afro-American people, emigrants from Europe and American natives. Folk became modern music as seen by, roughly, professional artists inspired by the “traditional” folk music which was born among simple people by the word of mouth all by itself. On the other hand, folk-revival emerged not at all by itself.
The generation of Guthrie and Seeger built the vast majority of their heritage on the monumental work of American folklorists and ethnomusicologists, the “Archive of Folk Culture”, assembled in the 1920s and 1940s for the Library of Congress. A group of collectors and researchers, including folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan, poet Carl Sandburg, musician and musicologist Charles Seeger and others, armed themselves with emerging field recording equipment and went on a wandering tour through villages, towns, and remote farms. Along the way, they stopped in the fields, verandas of crumbling houses, settlements cut off from the world, whitewashed churches of black communities and prisons. They recorded songs that became a documentation of numerous moments of here and now of the first half of the 20th century: worries, jokes, needs, experiences, joys, life, traditions - stories.
Ancient ballads, prison songs, Appalachian folk, African-American blues and other music of the United States’ people have been replenishing the Archive since 1928, inspiring the musicians of the first wave of folk-revival. While the musicians of the second wave, including Bob Dylan, owe much to another collection - a three-volume “Anthology of American Folk Music.” It consists of recordings made by Harry Smith in 1926-1933 and released by Folkways Records in 1952.
Archive and Anthology are the Old and New Testaments of traditional and non-traditional folk of the 20th century. First of all, field recordings from these collections fascinate with their honesty, because there is neither creative nor commercial intention of the artist behind the music - it comes from a natural coincidence, be it cultural, domestic, religious, political or anything in between. The honesty is followed by simplicity: typically, we hear vocals and one or two musical instruments, often non-professional ones, collected from what was at hand and able to make a sound. Finally, it is a unique audio documentation of a moment in space and time that will never happen again. The latter quality is emphasized by the sounds of the environment that was caught by the microphone.
The value of archival recording lies not so much in music as in the history of the moment. That's what attracts the current hunters for those fragile tapes - Numero Group, Norton, Light in the Attic, Ace, Rhino, Now Again and a few others. Physical pressings – cassettes and vinyl – are scarce due to the lack of demand. Today, findings of those labels reach more listeners largely because they hit the recommended podcasts in Apple Music or Spotify. Such music can be found in rather unconventional TV shows such as “Fargo” or “Master of None.” There are also online radios, either very niche or very multi-genre having a rather good taste – like NTS radio. Here, the folk of the middle of the 20th century suddenly emerge in mixes of different artists. But there is a show where archive tapes are playing two hours in a row – Death Is Not The End that has a same-name British label behind it’s back.
Death Is Not The End seeming to be quite an organic title for a label that hovers on the verge of musical and ethnographic, exploring archival recordings of early American traditional folk and folk-revival music. Modern technology allows to polish those dust-covered recordings to sound like new ones, but it’s not this that fascinate Luke Owen, who founded Death Is Not The End out of pure music curiosity, craving for music for the sake of music and love for authentic sound: "I think that the value of most of this kind of material lies in simplicity... The mere thought that a single microphone, in a single take, has recorded space and time I've never been in."
Both DINTE label and radio show pay tribute to the sound going to pieces that tell the honest story of blues, gospel, spirituals, doo-wop, soul and other genres, starting in the 1920s. Take “Say You Don’t Know Honey” by Horace Sprott, made by folklorist Frederic Ramsey Jr. in Marion, Alabama in 1954. It’s only Sprott’s mournful and melancholic humming on top of the natural surrounding noises that we hear. It is exactly these intricacies of field records that contain the life that Owen exhumes in his reissues: "It's someone's porch in Alabama at a time when I haven't lived, which I’ve never experienced or will experience in the future. That's what I'm interested in." There is an ethnic-musical approach at the core of it: recordings as snapshots of time, place and culture are more documentation than a musicality memorial.
In 2013, Luke Owen worked for a distributor who was dealing not only with new music but also with a wide range of archival records. By that time, for several years Luke had been running his music label in his spare time. Around that time, at work, he began to come across some archives that attracted him more and more.
Owen soon learned that many artists from the found archives never had full-scale LPs, they appeared only in old collections of blues and gospel. Besides, some collections worthy of listening today were published decades ago. Amid dissipating interest to release new music in 2014, Luke decided to start reissuing old recordings both digitally and on cassettes, later on, vinyl.
COMPILATIONS AS ORIGINS’ MONUMENTS
The first release of Death Is Not the End was the reissue of “Angola Prison Spirituals”, spirituals of Louisiana State Prison inmates in Angola, recorded by Harry Oster in the 1940s and 1950s. While being in a prison like Angolan at the time one wouldn't think many people were hoping to get out of there alive. This release sums up what I wanted to emphasize with the label: the power of spiritual healing through a raw song playing in a place like Angola."
Luke continued that way with the second release “Murderers' Home” - a compilation of labor songs and field hollers of Mississippi State Prison inmates, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 and collected by him in the same-name album. The whole album sounds in the same spirit to the line of one of the songs: "I ain't got long, I ain’t got long, in this murd'er's home...".
Owen also paid homage to another prominent collector of field recordings, Harry Smith, who was responsible for the New Testament of folk. DINTE has released a three-volume re-issue of the same “Anthology of American Folk Music”, the first release of 84 songs on a cassette tape with the visual identity of the original Folkways edition in 60 years.
Luke was also interested in the singing of the Sacred Harp, a tradition of sacred choral music that arose in conjunction with the eponymous collection of melodies that came to the south of the United States from New England: "I’m not religious myself, but the intersection between religion and music interests me a lot. And communal singing is really powerful in that sense. It’s a super immersive experience.” The DINTE’s hypnotic compilation “I'm on My Journey Home: Sacred Harp Singing, 1928 - 1934" is dedicated to the singing of the Sacred Harp.
"Bury Me in a Corner of the Yard" combines a little-known early cajun folk, a French-speaking hybrid of communal singing, casual blues and typical southern yodeling. As of later folk, Owen collected the Jamaican doo-wop and rhythm and blues of the late 1950s and early 1960s, that had spread with the emerging of sound systems on the island, in a two-volume collection, "If I Had a Pair of Wings: Jamaican Doo Wop."
In addition to compilations having different kinds of folk, nationality or geographical areas, Luke Owen has released two "themed compilations". "The World Is Going Wrong" - 12 blues and gospel tracks of the 1920s-40s as a tribute to the outgoing 2016 "in all its crappy, grievous, apocalyptic splendor". And the Christmas playlist "Death May Be Your Christmas Gift" - celebratory sermons, gospel, blues and other American folk of the 1930s and 50s: "To be honest, I just wanted to put together a Christmas comp that I could listen to without wanting to scream."
RESURRECTING THE FORGOTTEN
From the third release on, Death Is Not The End began to re-issue the music of individual artists. Sister Ola Mae Terrel was the first one of such artists – and maybe the most famous artist of all released by him. She died at the age of 95 and left about 75 years of gospel and blues heritage after her. "Sister O.M. Terrell” - first and only publication of her music exclusively, also emphasizes her talent as a guitarist.
"I Have a Home in the Sky" is 12 recordings by Rev. Edward W. Clayborn out of 40 made in the 1920s: "I was just struck by the simplicity of it, while still retaining so much power. In the face of it, it can be very repetitive. But it’s this idea of music carrying a message. Regardless of how simple the backing is, the power of it still breaks through." The fact that the historical value of folk is superior to the musical is emphasized by Horace Sprott’s album "Ain't This a Mean World": "99% of recordings are a capella. For me, it's not just a voice, but also sounds that have leaked out of the environment: the chirping of a grasshopper, chatter and more. Sometimes that's what catches me the most in the field records of that time." But in the case of music of Washington Phillips accompaniment still pulling some special attention, as the singer plays on something unknown - either an auto-harp, a celestaphone, phono-harp or even on some custom instrument.
After the release of “Bowling Green” by Kossoy Sisters - songs of the duo of twins accompanied by Erik Darling on banjo - DINTE began to expand ethnographic and stylistic boundaries through independent releases of artists. A special release for Luke was the re-issue of R. Gordon Wasson's field recordings in Mexico in 1956 because there was a special story behind it. Once Wasson - a former banker with a hallucinogenic addiction - found himself tracking down the mysterious Mexican woman Maria Sabina. Being some kind of a shaman, she used hallucinogenic mushrooms to perform healing rituals. It turned out that Wasson's journey was part of the CIA’s MK-Ultra project.
Owen has published 14 records of flamenco and songs of Andalusian copla performed by Dolores Jiménez Alcántara aka Niña de la Puebla on the album "I'm Always Crying". It was followed by “La Cueca presentada por Violeta Parra”, early songs of Chilean folklorist and artist Violeta Parra recorded in the 1950s. "My Torment" by Ercilia Costa - 15 tracks of the heartbreaking archival fado accompanied by the authentic guitarist Armandinho, recorded in Madrid in the 1930s. Luke also drew attention to the folk of Greek immigrants in New York in the 1920s-30s, performed by George Katsaros in the two-volume edition "George Katsaros: Greek Blues in America".
LIVING IN A PRESENT PAST
By the fall of 2016, Owen had already had 14 releases from old archives. That when he started to look for some new music to release it on Death Is Not The End. The “EOTVB” LP of a rather primitive guitar duet of brothers from Toronto called East of the Valley Blues became the first one. “It opened my eyes to the fact that today many new artists are playing in the spirit of Basho, Fahey - American primitivism. Therefore, I want to believe that the East of the Valley Blues will ground the starting point for work with the new artists, along with the release of the older material." A year after, DINTE released another two songs of the duet in the “Fayet” release.
Henry Caravan, known as Wanda Group, Dem Hunger and Louis Johnstone, also showed up on the label. A guitarist recorded "A Shrine to A Radiator" - improvisations played "in someone else's house and on someone else's guitar".
Along with finding new artists, Owen thought about his fieldwork. By 2017, he had already made several eerie records and hoped to get close to the Pentecostals and congregations of evangelical churches in his district. But then Luke made up a distant friendship with a Bulat Khalilov, a Russian who runs Ored Recordings, a small label focused on the search, collection, and release of field recordings of authentic traditional music from the Caucasus, Russia and around the world. If initially, Ored Recordings released music only in digital format, this time Death Is Not The End helped to present its first release on a physical medium - a cassette. The two-part collection "An Introduction to Ored Recordings" compilation includes folk songs and dance music of Caucasians.
ASHES AND CRACKS ON NTS RADIO
The Death Is Not The End show first aired on NTS Radio, on October 7, 2015. The show description says that DINTE is “digging up the oldest of the old and brings you a crackling gospel, blues, and folk. Listen to the ashes." The overall mood of shows usually is specified as "love, loss, grief and betrayal" - frequent themes in folklore.
Every month, Luke Owen airing both music from the label's releases and loads of finds beyond, which demonstrate a wide variety of folk and traditional music from different times, peoples and parts of the world: Jamaican gospel, nyabinghi, rocksteady, Thai folk, highlife, juju, Appalachian folk, rebetiko and dozens of others. If Owen pays attention to music that is closer to us in time be it early psychedelic music, electronic music, surf rock or even pop, it is always the oldest and most unexpected releases from all over the world (from pre-revolutionary Iran, for example).
There are shows where the genre plays a secondary role, as in the case of liberation songs and recordings of activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee of the 1960s. And in the case of abstract music, stories and poetry by Ivor Cutler or recordings of Bollywood icon Lata Mangeshkar. Besides, Owen turns to first airs of early pirate radio stations of England, which appeared in the 1980s in the nooks and crannies of London and Bristol, as well as to recordings from first sound systems in Jamaica and UK of the 1980s.
In addition to his own "fossils", Luke Owen shows listeners releases of other labels, for example, the anthology "The Voice of the People" of Topic Records. The show also has guest mixes from Nathan Salsburg (curator of Alan Lomax Archive), Ldgu of Tresno Records, Dying For Bad Music label and others. Ored Recordings not only presented the guest mix but also got together with Death Is Not The End for a special NTS Radio show as part of the "Red Star Over Russia" exhibition at the Tate Modern Gallery. In collaboration, labels have presented short films of Vincent Moon, inrussia publishing and Ored Recordings along the DJ-set of field recordings made by Alan Lomax during a trip to the USSR in 1964.
DEATH IS NOT THE END
Today, the ghosts of bygone music continue to rise from their graves with the help of Death Is Not The End. Notably, more often than not, gravestones are outside of America and what’s lying beneath is younger. In the Spring of this year, unique recordings of Japanese ryukoka music by geisha Kouta Katsutaro made in the 1930s saw the world. In June – clips of airs of pirate radio stations of Bristol, documenting the city's audacious counterculture in the 1980s and 2000s.
It seems that Luke Owen, who appreciates the sincerity of the moment and the spiritual power of the song, will continue to explore age-old copies of "music for the sake of music" and play those artifacts on NTS radio, among others. More still, he will search and explore still unreleased and yet to be recorded by the ethnomusicologist microphone: “Once you heard something similar to it, you realize there is still so much waiting to be documented”.