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November 18, 2009

Everything, Everywhere

“Do we really need to save everything from everybody?”

In the first part of November 12th’s episode of Soundcheck broadcast on WNYC in New York (“Vintage Soul Gets a Second Wind”), host John Schaefer spoke with Ben Greenman of The New Yorker and soul singer/producer Syl Johnson about the current (micro) trend in reissuing obscure soul-music albums from the 1950s-70s. Many of these mildly popular, regionally popular, or not at all popular performers have begun to tour again or play one-off shows nationally and internationally based on the new found interest in their work.

As discussed in the segment from the show below , and as I have personally witnessed at some concerts in Brooklyn, these reissues and concerts are most popular among a younger, primarily white crowd. The concerts might be at a predominantly African-American supper club, or maybe at a venue where The Mountain Goats sold out the night before. Whichever the case, it’s the same crowd trekking around the city to check out the latest soul revival, a group of 20 and 30 somethings grooving to the live beat of 60 or 70 somethings who haven’t performed in perhaps 30 years.

Despite the sometimes rustiness or lower energy of the performers, the music is undeniably good and the audience energy is always buzzing from that. However, the program and Schaefer’s follow up blog post (linked above) touch on two wider cultural issues: Why does the audience for a revived musical genre form when and in the makeup it does, and do we really need to preserve every little bit of cultural production?

Just like the music itself, the interested people are regionally isolated and esoteric. Schaefer and Greenman put forth that this seems to be the province mostly of the audiophile or the culturally astute youth who is looking for more and more obscure things to satisfy that need for something “new.” More generously, Syl Johnson posits that the desire comes from a curious mind seeking further education. This esoteric soul music has been widely used for samples and riffs and inspiration in more contemporary or more popular music. Johnson feels that modern listeners are going back to discover the original source of the bass line or vocal sample in a rap song because they want to better know the history or culture of the music.

As critics, Schaefer and Greenman worry over this issue because their work is concerned with analysis, cultural distinction, and trying to balance their assessment of what is considered a quality work now versus what will be considered a quality work for generations to come. This side of their work has to stand outside of fads, momentary revivals, and the purely emotional. As a musician, Johnson un-worries the issue because, hey, people are listening to the music, and that’s great. His work is being acknowledged and valued again (or finally).

What unites the two streams, however, is the love of the music. Schaefer begins to question whether we really should save everything, but steps back quickly because, even if it’s no James Brown, it’s still good music. As a critic there might be a distinction there, but as a music lover the emotional attachment can take hold. What also unties the two streams is the Archive. It is the preserved work in an archive that enables the access, the rediscovery, the education, and the reconnection with the past. We strive toward the ideal of saving everything because we want to provide that kind of access to whomever, whenever.

As archivists, what we might take from this is that our link in the cultural chain can often be overlooked. As in the case of the soul revival, the discussion of such cultural events are often framed in terms of the end result, accessible production: the documentary that uses archival footage, the digitally remastered CD, the restored print of The Godfather screening at Film Forum.

The press around these kinds of releases tends to focus on the original creators or new producer/distributor, not the source for the production. The re-issue of an album, or the release of a DVD, or the creation of a YouTube video are not the preservation of the material, they are result of archiving and preservation work and should not be confused with those efforts. As this review of the Eccentric Soul Review in the Times describes it, the record labels “[delve] into obscure archives for meticulously researched reissues.” The archives are there, holding the material that is then being exploited by others.

Access is good. Access is the goal. Reissues and such perhaps bring more awareness and financial support to the source collection, but access and use of materials is the benefit of preservation, and that effort should be recognized as integral to the cultural productions that feeds from our work.

Joshua Ranger

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