I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces

by kevin coultas other music website, 2011

What am I doing here? Where is my life going? Why did I do that? It is a perfectly natural practice to question oneself, and perhaps, given the preponderance of recurring mistakes in our lives, one that isn’t exercised enough. Celebrated writer/visual and sound artist Steve Roden seems to be going meta-cognitive with his new compilation/book, I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces, and his questions seem to be in equal parts about him as a collector and the connections between his somewhat seemingly disparate obsessions. It’s almost as if he is using I Listen to draw a Jungian synchronicity line to link and to make sense of all of the collections of his own prized possessions or “true friends.” The stuff of the 184-page book is 150 early photographs related in some way to music, bits of literary excerpts appropriate to the subject matter, a fascinating essay on, among other things, the nature of the collector penned by Roden, and the music itself, 51 vintage recordings from 1925-1955 spread across two discs. At the heart of I Listen is the old adage “you are what you eat,” and evidently, Roden eats well and is also a gracious guest; it was so nice of him to have invited us over to dig in. To say that this set is a lot is quite an understatement, and to properly review the book and the music in this format is impossible, but I will attempt to highlight some impressive ingredients.

THE BOOK: First off, Roden does a brilliant job of enhancing our experience of the photographs (and music) by peppering quotes from famous authors throughout — Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Melville, and William Wordsworth among them — as a sort of narration. The subject matter of the images varies widely, but always has a musical connection. There is a one-armed, one-man band, a banjoist with a gun to his back, a guitarist with a gun to his back, an assortment of musical glass soloists and ensembles, a singing bird “orchestra,” marching bands, a “Funnygraph” (whatever that is) being operated by a man apparently not having much fun, people encountering music from a variety of different mediums (78s, radio, cylinder, live, written, etc.), a luthier proudly looking on as his creations dry in the sun, and many other individuals from all walks of life posing with musical instruments/contraptions, many that have been all but forgotten today. Several of the images are ethereal either through double-exposure, age, or curious subject matter, and as with much unearthed photography from the distant past, these images raise at least as many questions as they do answer them, and this album has only just begun to be the source of many hours of fantastic reverie.

THE DISCS: As I’m sure you might have guessed, there is an impressive range of sounds spread out over the two CDs, many of them not readily available. There are folk tunes such as John Jacob Niles’ unique and somewhat disturbing rendition of the standard “John Henry,” Dick Reinhart’s sorrowful tale “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” rendered by Carl T. Sprague, which is a perfectly fitting ending to a collection of songs about collecting. Then there are rousing gospel numbers such as the singular guitar evangelist Reverend Edward Clayborn’s “Then We’ll Need That True Religion,” singer, bandleader and proud Kentuckian Alfred G. Karnes’ “When They Ring the Golden Bells” (perhaps, the most perfect song contained), and the deeply stirring spiritual “I Want to Go Home” by lyric tenor, civil rights activist, and first African American male concert artist to receive wide international acclaim, Roland Hayes. Interspersed are also Gennett Sound Recordings (my dog’s favorites!) of “Walking on Ice,” “Night Noises,” “Rainfall and Thunder,” and “Canadian Geese” among others. Unrequited loves songs such as jazz-guitarist and balladeer Nick Lucas’ “If You Hadn’t Gone Away,” multi-talented singer, songwriter, pianist and author Seger Ellis’ dirge-y “Montana Call,” and Ukulele Ike’s moving, if sentimental “(I’m Cryin’ ’cause I Know I’m) Losing You” make a much-welcome appearance.

Also thankfully represented are Hawaiian instrumentals such as the mystifying slide guitar piece “The Rosary” by Hawaiian Pale K. Lua and a strong contender for my new favorite version of “Stack-O’Lee Blues,” by Sol Hoopi’s Novelty Trio. Chubby Parker and his old-time banjo show up with the playful children’s classic “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo,” as does Goebel Reeves with the stirring and totally believable “Cowboy’s Prayer.” Superstars Bradley Kincaid, Eddie Lang, and Roy Smeck do rock-solid versions of the timeless classics “Froggie Went A-Courtin'” (the utterly fulfilling cornerstone of the collection, according to Roden), “A Little Love, A Little Kiss,” and “Reaching for the Moon,” respectively. A handful of anonymous home recordings are included, such as a solo mandolin meditation with more soul and feel than the entire catalog of Bill Monroe. Additionally, there are blues numbers such as “I’ve Got to Go and Leave My Daddy Behind” by Louisville power-duo Sara Martin and Sylvester Weaver, which includes the extraordinary line “if the blues was whiskey, I’d be drunk all the time.” There is also the piano jazz-drenched blues number “Graveyard Love” by Bertha Idaho, which is a revelation not unlike Gesshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” was upon first hearing it. I’m full and fully satisfied. [KC] (Released 2011)