September 15, 2014
At 11:35 in the morning, we left Charlottesville, Virginia and watched the blacktop of US-29 swallow up the city in the rearview mirror. We were headed south thirty miles or so to the small town of Faber to meet 78-rpm record collector, writer and a sound engineer, Christopher King. The two-lane highway was quaint, but wild. The farmhouses, churches and antique stores that dotted the lush scenery were contrasted against the sunbathing blacksnakes that lay motionless on the roadside like fragments of rubber tires and the dead trees, which, engulfed by undergrowth, loomed like surrealistic hedge sculptures. Staring out the windows of the car, we practiced interview questions. The advice we had been given upon meeting King was simple but ominous: listen carefully and don’t say stupid shit.
King is a prominent figure among the kind of private collectors who reissue early 78-rpm recordings, and is a highly sought after sound director and engineer. He keeps a steady job at County records and Rebel records, he runs his own historical music production company, Long Gone Sound Productions, and collaborates with a variety of other labels including Tompkins Square, Bear Family Records and Revenant (he earned a Grammy in 2002 for his work as sound designer on Revenant’s box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton).Last spring, he was featured in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s New York Times article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – a marathon article that traces the story of a rare and influential 78 recording with a mysterious background. King, owner of one of the two known copies of “Last Kind Words/Skinny Leg Blues,” could be seen in the article’s videos, spinning and talking about the record in his home studio.
Although he is known for his collection of pre-war country blues, Cajun and rural string band music, he has more recently produced material from his collections of ethnic performances from Albania, Greece, Ukraine, Turkey and Poland. His latest release, Alexis Zoumbas: a lament for Epirus 1926 -1928 (Long Gone Sound/Angry Mom Archives) featured ethereal, solo violin adaptations of the traditional music of Northern Greece.
King was waiting for us when we arrived, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He was offering calming words to Betty, his bug-eyed Boston terrier, who had likely alerted him to our conspicuous arrival. (Because his house was set back away from the road, we had rolled past it a few times before confirming his address.) Although a young man, his figure appeared as though from a different era; his pomaded hair, thick-rimmed glasses, wool trousers and suspenders, more matched aesthetic of his depression-era farmhouse. After introductions, he served us coffee from a stovetop percolator, smoked another cigarette, and marshaled us into his dimly lit office. On the walls of his office hung black and white photographs of various blues and hillbilly musicians as well as a tasteful array of vintage ephemera. Three shelves with thousands of manila envelopes containing records were illuminated by a soft yellow glow. “Well, what would you like to hear?” he asked us.
Picking out our requests from the unmarked shelves he shuttled the records one by one over to his stereo system across the room. In speaking to us about his collection, King described himself, not as a collector of records, but as a collector of raw, emotive (preferably unhinged) performances. “There is something that runs through certain types of music,” he elaborated, “that is mysterious and beautiful and frightening and terrifying and yet it’s bound up with us, with our humanity.”
King is paradoxically both manly and sensitive. He speaks directly and with an intense growl that suggests – let’s cut the crap and talk about music as it relates to life and death. We listened intently with a mixture of terror and fascination as though watching a hammer fall slowly, but inevitably toward a coffin nail.
At times, his seriousness would yield to humor, but often when we were least expecting it. He told us a story about hunting 78s at the house of a man he met at a swap meet. It took him three years of persisting with the man until he received an invitation to junk through them. Upon arrival, however, he saw that the records “were in his fucking chicken coop covered with chicken shit. Thousands of 78s and roosters shitting all over them.” He smirked while telling us this. “But that was a pretty good find,” he concluded.
King collects the music that moves him. As the records played, he either bowed his head or smiled in silent wonderment. He likes records that contain riveting performances as well as a snapshot into the artist’s life. Of the compilations he produces, King said, “What I’m doing is more of a storybook. It’s a presentation of what its like for me to be engaged with the music.” As we started playing records, we saw what King meant by being engaged. He sat behind his consul, constantly micro adjusting the mixing boards (the manila jackets to his records have individualized settings for EQ and gain). Beside his turntable lay what appeared to be popsicle sticks of various sizes that he would balance on the stylus to achieve optimum pressure on the record. After listening to Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” he drew our attention to a second voice that mumbled between the verses. Patton was known for his gravelly voice and manly themes of drinking, brawling and women, but King’s theorized that Patton needed a friend at the recording session for encouragement. “Imagine playing your whole career in grimy juke joints of the delta and then having to travel to a strange city and record in a studio,” King empathized. “I think it means he was actually just a big pussy.”
The way he listens can humanize even the most mythical of performer. To convey this form of listening to his audience seems to be King’s goal. His transfers are done with sensitivity to the ambient sounds that occur before, during and after the performance. “I’m interested,” he said, “in the audio information present in the studio such as a grunt, taking a breath, the slice of the rosin over the fiddle strings.” King’s work is to make a reissue record that expands the story of the source material and connects us more profoundly to the musicians. He does this not just with more sensitive hardware but with a new approach to listening that combines both the scholarly and the emotional attentiveness.
There is a breed of 78 collectors who are as equally concerned with preserving musical cultures as with connecting it back to modern ears. King, I believe, is one of them. The albums he produces from his collection such as People Take Warning! (Tompkins Square, 2007), a collection of pre-war murder ballads and disaster songs, as well as Five Days Married & Other Laments(Angry Mom Archives, 2013), a compilation of recordings from Northern Greece, use notes to describe the feelings and reactions to the records in addition to the facts and backstory of the recordings. He described his work perfectly when he said, “It does not make sense to put on rubber gloves and sterilize yourself when you’re trying to discuss music that you yourself are overwhelmingly in love with. Why try to divorce the narrative of the music from the narrative about why you love that music?”
--- Jonathan Shifflett