natewooley on 04/28/2011 at 05:34PM
When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader of Aldous Huxley. Not that I was a believer in his theories, or even a great fan of his writing style, but Huxley was the first thinker I had encountered that had that kind of broad base of knowledge that people associate with the term "renaissance man". I've always been drawn to these sorts of people, those that can analyze Scelsi after one or two listenings, then recreate a Szechuan dish from scratch, and tromp you on the basketball court. Maybe it's some sort of hard-wired search for my own brand of the Nietzchean super man, but I hope not.
Enter Ben Hall. Object based percussionist with groups like New Monuments and Graveyards...Label head of Broken Research Recordings...Sculptor....Conceptual Artist....Detroit social activist....Restaurateur....Featured once on CNN Business News....Former handball great.....Graffiti artist.....Cook of some of the best macrobiotic food I've ever eaten.....and most germane to this blog entry.......COLLECTOR.
Ben has been collecting Southern and Detroit gospel 45s, 78s, and LPs for years and while, initially, his entrepreneurial spirit had a hand in his collection, he is now providing the bulk of his recordings on his own website: www.baptizum.com.
When we started dealing seriously with archives at DRAM, I was very gung ho to get this collection, in some sort of curated form, as part of our burgeoning collection. I've always been proud in the music we present in DRAM, but the A does stand for American and the fact that we had no representation of American Gospel music, seemed to me to be an oversight in search of a resolution.
Well, fret no more, because as of Sunday, May 1st, the bulk of the ongoing Ben Hall Gospel Archival Project will be up and available for those with access to DRAM. (an aside, many have asked about individual subscriptions to DRAM, and we are working out the process. If you are interested, please write me at [email protected] and I'll let you know how you can get an individual subscription to this archive and all the other great stuff on DRAM).
Not only are we presenting over 300 tracks of vocal quartet, Motown R&B gospel, and amateur/professional recordings of gospels choirs and sermons from Harlem, Detroit and the American South, but we have wrangled one of my favorite novelists of all time, Rick Moody, to write the opening exhortation to the archive. I sent the whole collection to him to listen to for research, and he was so blown away by the music, and by the personality of Ben (remember....renaissance superman) that he also, under his own steam, did the interview found below, which talks about collecting records, the fellowship of making music available, and growing up in Detroit.
As a little teaser, I've included the first five tracks from the archive as well, just for some Sunday morning listening.
The Fellowship of Collecting: Rick Moody and Ben Hall
RM: Is it true the collection was all assembled in the Detroit area?
BH: True. Mostly. I look for records in general. As an occasional touring musician I find vittles scattered but many stores don't stock gospel…at all. I was down south in October and did a fair amount of hunting and found bupkis. I found a weirdish $300 English folk LP in Mississippi but no gospel. It's not wholly Detroit but it's more like if you’re a gold miner you’re not gonna walk past some gold just because it's not at your mine. I would say less than 5% is found out of town and about 40% is Michigan-centric.
RM: Does Detroit have any kind of specific influence on the material?
BH: I think the disproportionate amount of Michigan material means I end up with really rare Detroit things and particularly the rarer stuff like the Flying Clouds acetate (Upper Room). Of course these are The Flying Clouds of Detroit not to be confused with The Flying Clouds of South Carolina or The Flying Clouds of Montgomery. By default I end up with things that I won't find on the road.
RM: And I assume you grew up in the Detroit area. Did you hear this music when you were growing up, or was it something you discovered later on?
BH: I grew up here until thirteen or so and then shuttled back and forth between here and California. I heard some music like this coming up, but I wasn't in church because my parents weren't church folk as such. But, a lot of my Mom's friends were in the church so we sometimes went as a way to hang with her people. I definitely have some almost Blues Brothers-like memories of Pentecostal churches and people falling out and catching the holy ghost and screaming and shit. It seemed bananas but was really fun too. Also on Sundays there used to be gospel shows on two or three FM stations and maybe a dozen AM stations. My mom and I used to listen to a lot of that stuff. I really liked the sermons too.
Later on I got hip to two deejays that had shows on the NPR affiliate WDET, which used to have such kickass music programming. They had so many incredibly knowledgeable people playing really heavy shit. I heard Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme de Yoyo" on there for the first time--during the day! It stands to reason that they would have great blues and gospel too.
Two guys really helped me that way. One was the Famous Coachman and the other the Reverend Robert Jones. Robert Jones was an associate pastor at Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church during this period and is your classic encyclopedic collector. A friend's dad told me about his show in middle school when I mentioned the blues in passing. The show was called "Blues From The Lowlands" and it introduced me to a lot. First time I heard the Georgia Sea Island SIngers, first time I heard Rosetta Tharpe and on and on. I'm hugely indebted to him for a large part of my musical education.
Coachman was a great personality and I'd go through the stacks at his store, often for a fee! I found a decent amount of stuff there, but I wasn't looking for gospel so much at the time. I did find the awesome Johnny Morrisette LP there and for some reason (idiocy maybe) I didn't buy it. Anyway Coach played some great music and knew a hell of a lot about spiritual music some of which I caught most of which I probably missed at the time.
RM: How long did it take to collect?
BH: The first truly heavy and remarkable record I picked up was an LP by the Shaw Singers in '96. That was the type of record I had been looking for in terms of general musical content but hadn't found. That one incidentally was sourced from a guy I developed into a record picker while I was working at the restaurant I now own. He was a local picker (tomatoes, book cases, house plants, whatever) and I would always hook the homeless/basehead/deinstitutionalized types up with food on the sly so we had a relationship but this guy was always trying to hustle something so I developed his record skills. The Shaw Singers LP was notable as well as one good funk 45 he brought. He died last year actually. Two years ago maybe. Drank himself to death.
Anyway that was the first kiss but I didn't really start in earnest until five years ago.
RM: Is it 100% vinyl?
RM: Were they all acquired from flea markets and tag sales or did you haunt the record stores too?
BH: Some flea markets, some record stores but the collection really begins with me blowing out my Achilles tendon playing handball. In my six-month convalescence I was working on stuff but essentially house-bound loaded on Vicodin and reading stupid amounts of everything. Everyday I saw the record store clerk (from the store catty corner to my place) bringing thirty to eighty packages to the post office (across the street) and realized that the record store had their eBay game tight. Selling records definitely augmented my income during college but I didn't realize how much eBay had advanced micro genre sales. Used to be you'd find a record, know it was valuable and maybe hang on to it until you found a home and that made for a lot of dealers, store owners and collectors who had diverse collections because they knew something great but had no way to unload it. So I see this store doing a bang-up biz, a store that wouldn't hire me for $8.50 an hour mind you, but had hired a guy I’d trained at another store. Well, between the two of these guys (the owner and the clerk) I knew that they weren't dumb but they weren't too savvy either.
So I started stalking their auctions and learned how the game changed and started my own shop because I still couldn't work because I couldn't stand up for more than a few minutes and I had only ever had jobs that required me to be on my feet.
I came up as a graffiti writer and so one thing I felt really comfortable with was canvassing the city. I hired one of my dogs to wheatpaste a few thousand flyers with me and shortly thereafter experienced a mild deluge.
I started the shop in a flea market that was a big empty room with one other vendor and no stock, i.e., a drug front.
When I started it I made a big promise to not be my own best customer. I had put myself through school but my student loans were kicking in and the meager fucking savings I had were eaten up by not having any income for six months. I was on my ass. So I had to eat and that meant no keeping the best shit for me.
But . . .
The craziest gospel records were rolling in and before long I had a cache of the music I had been dreaming of, the stuff that I had heard snatches of here and there: pre-rock and roll, pre-blues, prewar in some cases. Some of the rawest funk records I'd ever heard.
The micro-genre game of raw Black gospel on eBay was not up to speed (there's a smallish market). After a while, it started to really build, but not enough to warrant buying a lot of the stuff. And it wasn't selling high enough to warrant selling it. After a while I stopped buying it all together because to preview fifty or sixty records while some customer is waiting hoping for some ducats is not a healthy business model. An even worse one might be to buy everything because that's what I ended up doing.
A couple of years ago I ran a gospel auction and little sold and I simply didn't have the space to keep it physically.
But . . .
I had to.
I figured I had the capital to start paying someone to digitize it with no real goal except preservation for myself but that instantly felt selfish particularly given the content. There had been too many cases of someone coming in with a record of which I knew there were probably two extant copies of and I was passing on one of them. This is undocumented America right here.
RM: How did you get started with this, as opposed to, say, collecting old rock and roll or early dance music twelve inches?
BH: One of the biggest things that attracts me to many records is a home made quality. Someone producing their own vision. Music production gives itself to this in a way that literature, film, and visual arts don't. John Coltrane started his own label right before he died. The production publication relationship in music is just lovely this way. It happens in all kinds of music when music is made into a product without a business plan or whatever. You do it for the love.
With private press gospel it's even a more exaggerated because in some cases you have a congregation getting behind there best and brightest no matter what the qualitative aspects of a musician are, but you get results like Hyprocrite, results which make no sense from a musical or commercial perspective—but don't discount the power of the statement which perhaps makes it even more poignant.
Also while these church folk are involved in commerce by virtue of production/publication and suffer from ego and everything else that the secular people deal with they are still further removed from the commercial aspects than secular music and thus they end up with really different and, for me, exciting musical results.
RM: Do you feel the gospel idiom? Or do you just favor it from a musical perspective?
BH: Musically it's thrilling. It's thrilling like the early Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi and I think equally important. I'm not a JC guy by any stretch but I believe in God and feel this is a way to fellowship.
RM: Can you expand on the fellowship you’re talking about just a little bit? Do you mean the sense of community that’s involved in producing this kind of work? Or in the community that enjoys it, which is to say a congregation?
BH: Well, one thing that always kind of bugged me about being a collector was that you couldn't really share your collection. You could show your friends, a house guest, or possibly a small audience in a few rarefied cases. You could go shopping with friends but it always seemed limited. Having also been around the art world a little bit it seems hugely difficult even with extreme wealth to share what most collectors spend an inordinate amount of time dedicating themselves to. Of course there are collectors who are totally private and greedy (I'm thinking of the possibly apocryphal story of Canned Heat's Alan Wilson, who, when he found multiple copies of a 78, would break all the remaining copies so that he had the only copy) but most of the people I've met whether it be books, records, art, lamps or beanie babies--are dying to share their collections.
When I was a club deejay it bummed me out because I thought that was a perfect venue to share new music, new to me, anyway. Not so. Radio deejaying was better but with college radio, pre-internet, you were dealing with a remarkably small audience.
While there is some adulation and iconography inherent, most of this music is basically about, "Let's do right and make the world a better place," and there are few things I've ever felt more confident about standing behind.
I often think about certain celebrities who take photo ops when they're working for Habitat for Humanity or whatever and I wonder if their time couldn't be better spent. In terms of volunteerism it has always been hard for me to give freely and not feel like I'm wasting my time or money not because I'm stingy but because I want my money and time to be utilized well especially if I'm giving it away for free. While I don't have any particular goals with this project save as an archivist/custodian I think that there are many powerful messages to this work and why the work was made and it feels like I'm the person to do, custodially, it in regards to the objects, the time, and inclination.
Back to the celebrities: there are a million mugs that can build a house but very few that can act in a film get a million bucks and donate it. For me it feels like this is a project where I can do some good through sharing and potentially save some of this music and in other cases re-introduce people to it and to the very strong substance in the form. There aren't many people who can do this particular thing. In this format I think a community can develop around the music, both the makers and the audience. This is my fellowship.
RM: Is there a period of gospel you like best?
BH: I like the raw stuff and the weird stuff best and the 78s are really appealing to me though sometimes tend to be more redundant. By the mid-seventies production costs were low enough that one sees the widest overview stylistically from disco to a cappella quartets and I like it all as long as it rings true. I also like the covers or mutated versions of popular songs. That said I try to develop the archive as an example of unknown music.
RM: Do you consider the collection complete now?
BH: Ongoing process for sure. I sold my record store in May and the contract stipulates that all gospel that comes in is purchased for me to go through and take whatever I want. That and John Lee Hooker 45s. Also I'm starting to come in contact with more collectors who've expressed interest in sharing what they have.