Nikos Pourpourakis' "The Offenders" is a serious slow burn of a song. A bouzouki melody sketches a melancholy mood through which Pourpourakis' syrupy voice swims, occasionally joined by a harmonizing female singer. No idea what they're saying, but the emotional wallop of the tune is unmistakable. These people went through the wringer and made it to the other side.
It's one of 13 tracks that Ian Nagoski included on Bed of Pain, a collection of Greek rebetiko music culled from foreign-language 78-rpm LPs that he put out last year on his own Canary Records through reissue connoisseur Mississippi/Change Records.
"The point of the record has to do with the existence of an urban underclass who were neglected in ghettos and found a decent, honest way of complaining," Nagoski says during an interview at his Waverly apartment. "That sounded like Baltimore to me. And the fact that I was running into these records in Baltimore was interesting, the fact that there was a continuous thread between one social, historical circumstance and another. Here people were looking at the middle class and saying, 'Fuck you-you don't know what it's like. We've got something to say about what's fun given the fact that we haven't got any money, and you all can go fuck yourselves.'
"That made sense to me," he continues, adding a quick smile. "So that's what the record's really about. It's not necessarily about Greekness. That's really incidental."
Nagoski, a former City Paper contributor, started collecting 78s when he was still high school-aged, about 20 years ago. For the past six years he's transformed his personal collection into an exploration of the American experience. In 2007 the Dust-to-Digital imprint released the Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Music 1918-ca. 1955 compilation he put together; he launched Canary in 2009 with another compilation and has steadily cranked out exceptionally curated and researched comps ever since, including 2011's mammoth, three-volume To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, released in conjunction with Tompkins Square.
Like clockwork, whenever one of his big compilations comes out, particularly Black Mirror and Strange Place, a certain kind of media story appears. It's the one about the visionary collector who started buying foreign-language 78s because the old blues and jazz records were too expensive, the guy who doesn't read or speak other languages but who researches the music of other cultures. This writer speaks from experience, having typed that very story in 2007.
This kind of narrative reinforcement is exactly what Nagoski's reissue enterprise wants to upend. Since the mid-20th century, the reissue of 78 records has constructed a narrative of what American music is and where it comes from, constructed by the compilations that argue that America's 20th-century popular music grew out of Anglo-American "hillbilly" music coming into contact with the African traditions that produced jazz and the blues. This is the story supported by the fieldwork and recordings of John and Alan Lomax, Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and through the tastes of early collectors, writers, and producers John Hammond, James McKune, Frederic Ramsey, and Charles Edward Smith. This is the narrative that gets alluded to and reinforced every time a new blues reissue or old country compilation gets covered by mainstream press.
Nagoski's work has enabled him to see the narrative of American popular music as exactly that-a narrative, subject to authorial decisions, blind spots, and personal tics like any other story. And he sees a bigger and more diverse picture of what American music and culture can be.
This bigger world is what he talks about when he shares his collection from the lectern. In January Nagoski returned to Baltimore after a brief stay in Asheville, N.C., and he soon went on a lecture tour in Europe that took him from Geneva to Holland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, among other destinations; before a short regional tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Ontario, and New York. He was prominently featured in the spring issue of Sound American, the magazine of the nonprofit Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM), an issue that asked, "What is American music?"
At the end of May/beginning of June, he opens another door into answering that question. Nightingales & Canaries is a collection of female singers from what was then known as the Ottoman Empire who settled in New York and eventually recorded songs during the 1930s and '50s. It hits the ears with the emotional tumult of a compilation of unknown female soul-singer 45s from the 1960s: The hip-shaking rhythm pushing "Al Yanakdan Disledim," recorded in the mid-1930s, would be seductive enough, but it's got nothing on the come-on Fahriye Hanim puts into her voice. Nagoski includes a translation of the song title in the liner notes: "I Bit Her on Her Red Cheeks."
N&C is a startling look at women from a variety of ethnicities and religions who, for whatever reasons, got to America and decided to sing. But what songs they sing, in what style, and what the lyrics are-trying to understand that is what occupies Nagoski's mind. The music is what first catches the ear, but the lives of the people who made it are what fascinates.
"My main interest is in describing the life of the human being," Nagoski says of his ethnomusicology research, for which he often starts by sorting through census records, military records, and EllisIsland.org, which offers reproductions of every page of the country's busiest immigration bureaucracy from 1892 until 1954. There, when he finds a name, he starts to get a sense of who that person was when he or she first arrived on U.S. soil: eye color, height, how much they money they had in their pocket, who they arrived with, who else was in their family, who else was on the boat, port of departure, what they said their occupation was at that moment.
That's the point at which people start becoming Americans, and far too often, very, very little remains of their time in this country aside from the music they made.
"I'm interested in stories about people who are left behind generally," Nagoski says, noting that when he first started writing about music 18 years ago "generally it was about people who were contemporary and who I felt were uncelebrated or marginalized in some way. It was just a way of sharing things, but also a form of protest. You know, why is it that everybody cares about this stuff and not this stuff? As time has gone on, that same impulse in me has expanded backward in history."
This curiosity has resulted in some wonderful excavations of music and lives. DRAM co-produced The Widow's Joy: Eastern European Immigrant Dances in America, 1925-1930, which he put out in February, and he's got four more compilations that will roll out over the summer, in addition to a book of his music writing, due this winter. Sitting in his apartment, he points to two boxes of 78s and says that's all he's got left to sift through. Every archive is as much a reflection of the archivist as it is the archived material, and Nagoski admits his research and reissues are as much a product of what he likes as what he's had access to. And though the history of recorded music is infinitesimal when compared to the centuries that people have created song, there are still stories to be told for anybody willing to take the time to listen and wonder.
"What do I know about Spanish-language music recorded in America in the beginning of the 20th century?" Nagoski asks. "Nothing. Mariachi music alone, there's so much variety and depth [to it]. Who collects those? Chris Strachwitz, who runs Arhoolie Records. He's the only one, basically. And the reissues he makes of that stuff, nobody buys those. Where do you see those records being reviewed? Or books being written about that? And they're fabulous. Instead it's, 'Oh, Lightnin' Hopkins again-and he's great. Fucking bless Lightnin' Hopkins. But Strachwitz has shown there's this whole other world [of music]. Here's a little taste. And nobody's said, 'Oh, me too."
In his infamous 1977 Village Voice obituary "Where Were You When Elvis Died?," Lester Bangs anchored Presley as a pop-cultural focal point with the epitaph, "we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis." Nagoski's take on American music isn't claiming that 50,000 Elvis fans can be wrong, it's wondering why we all have to agree on one thing in the first place.
Basically, in our melting-pot democracy experiment, why should there be a king of anything? "That's a really important point, [making room for lesser-known music] doesn't counter the narrative, it just opens it all up," Nagoski says. "It has to do with a sense of plurality of America that I feel like we're going to need as a culture to keep people from feeling basic elements of suffering."
He laughs and shakes his head. "That's a kind of hippy idea, wanting us to be more at peace and less isolated from one another," he says. "But records can be anything and show us life can be anything just by listening to other people's values and seeing other possibilities for how life could be. We're picking certain stories [to tell], and I don't know what thought we're giving them."
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