If you know enough to read my stupid blog, you’ve probably already heard about Hurricane Sandy’s effects on Norton Records. If not, check out the Norton blog to get up to speed. If you are in the New York area, they can still use help cleaning up. If you can’t make it there in person, donations are being accepted to help get the label back up and running. You can also help by purchasing any of Norton’s excellent releases.
If you are square enough to be unfamiliar with the utter godhead of Norton Records musical output, Dr. Filth has a nice blog entry on the WFMU Rock n’ Roll Ichiban blog explaining what you’ve been missing (with a pic of a young John Schooley, even), and so does Deke Dickerson. As you can see from the video above, the damage was extensive, and the amount of work needed to get the label back on its feet is enormous. Billy and Miriam are scrappers, and I have no doubt that they will fight like hell to get Norton up and running again.
As Dr. Filth so eloquently states in his entry:
More than any other label I could or can think of, Norton epitomized rock and roll as a point of view, a way of life, a pair of shades through which you could view the world… Norton was an entire label that managed to project that attitude of a larger-than-life entity strolling through the world casting illumination on all things rockin’.
But for most of you, this tragedy isn’t news at this point. You’ve already gotten Facebook updates about it, already seen the news stories covering Norton’s cleanup efforts, and are probably wondering why I’m just now getting around to writing about this. The cleanup (and need for help) is ongoing, so no harm in putting up a reminder. Beyond that, what happened to Norton got me thinking about the big picture. A lot of rock n’ roll history is in the hands of private collectors just like Billy and Miriam.
Dr. Filth from the WFMU blog, once again:
Thinking about the entire Norton catalog, along with their legendary archive of print memorabilia, master tapes, Kicks books, and God knows what other irreplaceable bits of the culture, all waterlogged and/or destroyed when the warehouse got swept up in the Sandy surge breaks my heart AND my jaw. That place was a museum waiting to happen, and the loss seems immeasurable.
The loss is immeasurable. As important as rock and roll, r&b, country and western, jazz, blues, and other American musical forms have been to contemporary culture, the number of places that collect, archive, and protect material related to this music is pretty small, and the destruction of Norton’s warehouse of awesomeness is staggering.
A storm like Sandy can come along and remind us all of how fragile all this stuff is, how tenuous our hold on our own history can be, and how easily it can get wiped from the cultural memory. Musicians keeping the musical traditions alive via performance is important, but so are the actual recordings, photographs, posters, and other memorabilia.
Billy and Miriam have done an exceptional job of promoting, protecting, and disseminating this music. Amazingly, they’ve even managed to make a living doing it, along with labels like Ace, Bear Family, and a few others that I’ve talked about previously. But I worry that, with the collapse of the recorded music industry, other labels may not be able to follow in their footsteps.
If the smaller, boutique labels can’t make a buck reissuing this music, how will it be protected, preserved, and championed as we go forward? Do you think the corporations that own the major record labels are going to take care of this stuff when it is no longer profitable to do so? People love to hate on major record labels, but regardless of this widespread antipathy, they still own a huge chunk of our musical heritage. They don’t have the best track record for protecting the artistic material under their control, either. They didn’t even back when people still paid for music:
In the early 1960s, in what Billboard correspondent Bill Holland described as a “most spectacular case of wholesale vault trashing,” RCA Records demolished its Camden, New Jersey, warehouse by first dynamiting the building and its contents, then bulldozing the rubble into the Delaware River. Through this single action, the record company notched a rare triple crown of destruction: It blew away a historic structure, polluted a famous waterway, and blasted four floors of cultural heritage—vinyl and metal master disc recordings—into oblivion.
You can read Bill Holland’s article about this tragedy on his website, and if the damage Sandy wrought on Norton (an act of nature that couldn’t be prevented) broke your heart, his piece will make you downright angry. From Holland’s article:
Sony Music Columbia reissues producer Michael Brooks tells the story about saving never-released Louis Armstrong and His Allstars master tapes from the trash bin. “I was in the studio supervisor’s office–this was 1980– and there were a pile of tapes, so I started looking through them. They all had a big S on them, including boxes clearly labeled ‘Louis Armstrong–Unreleased Concert.’ I said, ‘What is this?’ The guy said, ‘All that’s old stuff getting thrown out to make room in the vault.’ The S was for Scrap.”
Again, this was in 1980, when, unlike today, the music business was in good financial shape! And Louie Armstrong, fer chrissakes. Even the squares like PBS eventually decided that was indeed important American music, at least between Lawrence Welk re-runs.
If you are like me, you probably think that America’s recorded musical heritage is important, and worthy of preservation. You might also assume that somewhere, somebody is taking care of it. Unfortunately, the number of organizations working to preserve non-classical recordings and related material is pretty small. In the academic world, most resources are still devoted to classical music. Libraries, archives, and museums that would appreciate the stuff that was in the Norton warehouse are rare. There are some great places out there, sure, but you can mostly count them on two hands:
(I’m sure I’ve forgotten some contenders. Leave a link in the comments if you think of any I missed.)
If this looks like a long list at first glance, keep in mind that most of these collections are limited in scope to certain geographical regions, certain musical genres, or simply by limitations of physical space, budgets, and knowledge of the material. Not that Billy and Miriam were ready to donate their collection to some archive or museum yet, anyway. But if they were, is there even someplace that could have taken it? If some or all of the handful of places I’ve listed above wanted to take the kind of stuff that Billy and Miriam have spent a lifetime accumulating, would they even have the resources to take care of it?
Few places have the deep pockets of the Library of Congress or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Texas Music Museum here in Austin, for example, does a great job within the confines of their limited resources, but they are a shoestring, all-volunteer operation. When we’ve got Tea Party governors deciding that even archives preserving official government documents aren’t worth keeping open, as happened in Georgia recently, what hope is there for preserving the frequently dangerous, wild, and anti-establishment world of music? For many cultural institutions, the kind of music you love (if you are bothering to read my blog) was made by people of the wrong color, the wrong class, from the wrong side of the tracks. It wasn’t considered of historic importance, or worthy of being preserved, when it was originally released, and attitudes haven’t changed much since.
The kind of music we love has heretofore been preserved largely by the actions of dedicated private collectors, small business owners like Billy and Miriam, and other fanatics, obsessives, and weirdos. What happens when those folks get older, and they don’t have family to take over their life’s work? Or, their family doesn’t want that stuff? Does it get sold off to other collectors, perhaps in other countries? Does it just end up in a landfill?
I think this music is culturally important enough to warrant preservation by some public entity, so that everybody can have access to it, and so it can remain in the good ol’ USA. If the music was created in the United States, shouldn’t we preserve it here? If the Italians can get pissed that the Metropolitan Museum in New York has their chariot, shouldn’t we be equally pissed if some Europeans get all of our Richard Berry 78s?
If you care about this sort of thing, and you’d like to help, you can donate your time and money to any of the institutions listed above. You can also join the Association for Record Sound Collections. Membership is inexpensive, and the organization and its members do a lot of good work to protect, study, and preserve sound recordings, reform our messed-up copyright laws, and generally fight the good fight.
And of course, help out Norton Records if you can.