The last time record collector Chris King came to play 78s in Richmond it felt like music royalty was in town.
The Nelson County resident, a Grammy-winning sound engineer and producer who sits on the programming board of the Richmond Folk Festival, would hate that description. But there he was, followed by a who’s who of New York music writers, first at Steady Sounds for King’s DJ event and then for drinks at the Daily in Carytown.
Among the guests were Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich — a New York Times writer who featured King in her latest nonfiction book about record collectors — and British-Indian novelist and journalist Hari Kunzru, who told me he was doing research for a character.
All of us were there for King, a friendly family man who embodies the 78 record collector in the best ways: reverential, insatiably curious and committed to tracking down and salvaging ineffable music of the past from all corners of the world.
Before another excursion to the Grammys in Los Angeles for the Paramount Records Box Set he put together with popular musician Jack White, King is returning to Steady Sounds to play tunes from his new three-CD box set released on Tompkins Square Records, “When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936.” The album features mostly unheard records King picked up junking in Southwest Virginia in such places as Roanoke, Christiansburg, Blacksburg, and Princeton, West Virginia.
After that he’ll return to Greece to continue work on a book about the music of Epirus, which was accepted by W.W. Norton and Co. He’ll also have a record-store release next year on Angry Mom Records, “Why the Mountains Are Black,” a two-disc collection of primeval Greek music from 1906-1956.
Style: How did this project come about?
King: Well, Josh Rosenthal [of Tompkins Square] asked if I could walk to my record collection and pull out three discs’ worth of fantastic material related to black gospel and sanctified singing with an emphasis on things never issued. It is a personal project. My dad [a onetime musician to whom the collection is dedicated] wanted me to be a preacher and made me read the Bible every night. I’ve probably read it 30 to 40 times from cover to cover.
And the album cover image came from the Valentine museum in Richmond?
Yeah, isn’t that amazing? It’s a baptism held by a Richmond preacher named Sweet Daddy Grace who had a radio ministry. That’s all we really know about it. I would guess it’s from a lake there in the teens or ’20s.
In the liner notes you choose scripture for each song.
With music that has a deeply spiritual dimension like this, it almost seems like an act of hubris to try to dissect in an ethno-musicological fashion everything about the musicians and the details of the recordings. Ultimately these things were meant to act as mediation between the congregation and the choir and the members of the church and divinity. … [Back then] the people using these texts took them as truths without using any context — it’s sort of sweet.
One track, “I’ll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called” by Roosevelt Graves, has been called possibly the first rock record.
I wouldn’t regard it as the first rock record even though this gets mentioned quite a few times as such. Garfield Aker’s “Dough Roller Blues” from 1930 or his performance with Joe Calicot doing “Cottonfield Blues Pt. 1 & 2” in 1929, or Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll & Tumble Blues” from 1929 have the same energy, power and shape as these sanctified sides of Roosevelt Graves and Brother. None of these would be the first rock record since, well, the conditions that created rock hadn’t come along yet. It’s probably safe to assert that rock only emerged when slick A&R men sought to exploit teen angst, postwar rebellion, and “sepia” recordings marketed to young, white radio consumers. …
Two interesting side notes though: All of these earlier musicians were from North Mississippi, South Memphis, the same region that fueled rock and rockabilly. And at precisely the time that 78s were being mass produced and radio was just taking off, American sanctified and gospel music — as well as almost all other vernacular folk music to be found in the U.S. — was gradually being homogenized and streamlined. In other words, the 78 rpm record captured the vast spectrum of diversity in music and they — the mass-produced recordings along with the A&R men — were simultaneously responsible for its rapid decline into vapid blandness.
A lot of your projects seem to be about raw, unhinged or ecstatic music. Why does it appeal to you so much?
That’s a hard question to answer. I think it inverts the presumption that we have the unlimited ability to make and be receptive to music. Long ago I think we were better trained to respond emotionally to that music, and I think I’ve got a strange genetic defect that makes me more susceptible. … It seems as if things nowadays are too easy when things weren’t designed to be easy.
When you think about early humanity we had this vast tool kit, we used our intellect. Now I think we ourselves have become a tool, a pawn, and we’re subject to these technological advances. The muscles we used to have that got us through our lives have atrophied. Things have become way too easy for us. My ex-best friend, who I lost three years ago, one of the last things he said was, “Join Facebook, it makes being a friend easier.” Because I’ve never joined. No, friendship takes work.
So music has become too easy to access. The music that I uncover enforces the opposite point: That things should be more difficult. S
The release party for “When I Reach for that Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Gospel 1926-1936,” with guest DJ Chris King, is Sunday, Dec. 14, from 1-3 p.m. at Steady Sounds.