Sounds Heard: Steve Roden – I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces

by molly sheridan new music box, 2012

Steve Roden’s …i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces (music in vernacular photographs 1880-1955) is a multimedia package that attracts attention with a whisper and glance, rather than a bell and a whistle. Two CDs containing a total of 51 tracks of early American music (plus a handful of sound effects from the same period) are slipped into the front and back cover pockets of a cleanly designed hardback book. The interior heavyweight pages are bursting with scans of 150 historic photographs—a mix of unidentified music makers and listeners of many stripes. Though the fresh ink offers a solid dose of new-book smell, it’s admittedly tempting to blow the non-existent dust off the still-spotless cover, so evocative are the faded, scratched, and water-stained images. And even though all the music has been transferred to CD, the hiss and crackle of the original recordings remain and you don’t have to squint too hard at your stereo to see the Victrola.

Both the images and audio were drawn from Roden’s personal collection. If you’ve ever spent time hunched over a box of yellowing photographs or flipping through dusty piles of 78rpm recordings at a flea market hunting for—What? That image or object that speaks to you even if you can’t precisely define why?—Roden is a kindred spirit, and traces is an invitation to get lost with him in this world of mysterious artifacts. In fact, halfway through my first listen, I wondered if I was more attracted to the materials themselves or to the care and commitment it seemed evident Roden brought to their assembly. In the end, I decided it was an equal measure of both. Taken all together, after all, it’s a mix tape of sorts—a revelation of a slice of a hidden past and also a gift from a passionate collector bravely showcasing what has spoken to his own heart.

In an illuminating introductory essay, Roden speaks about the motivations of the collector, where questions of value and what belongs are incredibly personal and fluid, and where motivations, at least as far as music on the verge of obsolescence is concerned, might be traced to a desire to “give new life to voices lying dormant within the tiny confines of dust filled grooves….As the music becomes audible, I am immersed in distant voices singing through both space and time, and in the words of Alfred G. Karnes, I have found myself within ‘a portal, there to dwell with the immortal.’”

Though none of the included tracks exceeds three minutes and change, it’s quite a volume of material to consume, and rushing seems antithetical to the spirit of the project. The photographed subjects often stare out from their portraits, seeming to demand an invented history if their own can no longer be recalled. And the musicians, with a mix of styles and skills, offer an aural postcard from a voice dug out of the past: a bittersweet dance between the violin and singer Eva Parker in “I Seen My Pretty Papa Standing on a Hill” here, and a few tracks later an amazing jaw harp performance of “The Old Grey Horse” by Obed Pickard. The tunes leave us pinin’ in Hawaii, and caution us against kickin’ the dog around. None of it is junk mail.

With the volume of current media threatening to blot out the sun and yet still more created every day, there is a particular romance to these messages. While traces caught my ear, subsequent emails from Dust-to-Digital announcing new projects continue to turn my head and threaten to liquidate my bank account. If phrases like “the only known copy in existence” and “high-quality, cultural artifacts, which combine rare, essential recordings with historic images and detailed texts describing the artists and their works” get you excited, you’ll want to learn more about Lance Ledbetter’s impressive Atlanta-based label.