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A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record by Brian Ward & Patrick Huber

C. Michael Bailey By

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A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record
Brian Ward & Patrick Huber
480 pages
ISBN: # 978-0826521750
Country Music Foundation Press
2018

Scholarship in the history or blues music (and all music, for that matter) reaches a pinnacle with the publication of the exhaustively researched A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record, written and edited by Brian Ward and Patrick Huber. In the past 60 years, there has been intense interest in pre-World War II sound recordings, most particularly that of "Race" and "Hillbilly" records. This interest was sparked in the late 1950s by record collectors (or, more specifically, 78 rpm shellac collectors) who began to write about and then re-release these recordings in the more modern format of the 33&1/3 rpm long playing record album.

Ward and Huber's present scholarship is bolstered by several books published in the near previous: Elijah Wald's Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson And The Invention Of The Blues (Amistad Press, 2004); Marybeth Hamilton's Insearch of the Blues (Basic Books, 2010); Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 Rpm Records (Scribner, 2014); Steve Cushing's Pioneers Of The Blues Revival (University of Illinois Press, 2014); and Abbott and Sheroff's The Original Blues: The Emergence Of The Blues In African American Vaudeville (University Press of Mississippi, 2017). These books all built on, and corrected, the previous 50 years of blues scholarship, bringing us to Ward and Huber's final word on the evolution of recording industry between the two World Wars.

To give you the spoiler first: It was always about making money. The authors trace the well-known path from the Edison cylinder to the Victrola and Amerola to furniture manufactures doubling as recording studios to the people involved in finding, triaging, and selecting the music recorded to local and then national distribution. It is here that the names so often mentioned in blues reportage begin to appear. Names like Don Law, H.C. Speir, and J. Mayo Williams become important. And in Ward and Humber's book, they are just the beginning.

Of the many record companies that existed in the 1930s, only a few big players survived; they did so by smart marketing, competitive prices and most of all by clever artist recording policies. The respective expert in such a recording company usually was the A&R person, short for artist and repertoire. He (as then with little exceptions, the position was occupied by men) decided where to look for new talent, how and where to record it, convince them to sign over the rights for the fresh titles, decide if this was a new musical style, name and advertise it and keep looking for new a trend again, maybe in a different region.

These record companies also recognised the market existing in segregated rural America. Not unlike today, even the most modest incomes manage to purchase gramophones and the shellacs that played on them Southern folk music such as blues, bluegrass and country music, old time string music, Hawaiian music with its slack key and slide guitars, Cajun, Texas and California border music, and transplanted Eastern European music began to be commercially recognised. A commodity arose and was recognised, and exploited by these record companies.—and in the eyes of the record companies was merely waiting to be exploited.

This resulted in a competition between record companies, praising their own artists as the most authentic and best. At the same time, the local became regional and the regional, eventually, national because of the distribution and sale of recordings outside the areas of creation. This gave rise to initially disparate new styles of regional musics that would eventually mix, forming the music we listen to today. It almost seems as if this all happened by accident, and much of it did. Had a financial exegesis not existed, it would be hard to imagine how else this phenomenon would have developed.

Much ink has been devoted to the rise of the rural artist, but little has found its way to the business, except only as a side story. This is corrected by Ward and Huber's book, which also details the evolution of A&R personnel, eventually, into the "record producer." A&R personnel of the inter-war period had a fluid job description continually changing and redefined job responsibilities that required fast thinking under pressure, as the competitors were always present, prepared to take advantage of every creative vacuum appearing in an another label's catalog.

A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record is comprehensively researched, providing the American musical history a grand and much-needed addition to its bibliography. It dispels more myths than it creates and in doing so cleans the historic lenses through which we see... and hear...the past.
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