If I lived here, I’d start gunning for a radio show on the local station. I’d call it Al’s Records, and I’d spend an hour or two every week playing the albums that occupy this house. I’d have years of material—a whole three months on Soviet orchestras alone, for example.
The musical tastes contained in the A-Frame range wildly. Much like the books that occupy the shelves here, the records cut a wide swath. One can move from gospel to late-classical to experimental sound poetry to early American folk to Scottish ballads to German lieder to the music of the Pacific islands, and on you’d go for days and weeks and months. Almost fifteen years ago now I hosted a show on CJSR that often concentrated on leaping wildly between songs. This is my kind of record collection, in other words.
Of course, I don’t know for sure how all these records came to be in the A-Frame. Some may have once belonged to Al’s son Jim, some may have been Al’s wife Eurithe’s favourites. I don’t know. If you know, I’d love to hear your stories. For example, I have doubts (perhaps wrongly) about how the Elton John and Simon & Garfunkel made it into the stacks, and I’m not even going to think about what might be one of the first Canadian pressings of Neil Young’s Harvest, which has been spun to shit—“A Man Needs a Maid” is virtually unplayable. But I heard tell that “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray” was one of Purdy’s favourite songs, and there it is on a ten-inch sitting in a cabinet.
It’s overwhelming, all these records scattered in piles through the house. It’s overwhelming to be here in general. To have this house, these things, still around, still present, not bulldozed or sold off, but here for me to live in and write in for a bit, means that support/mentorship/generosity can continue past the span of one’s life. I wasn’t expecting the depth of that. I find it kind of deliciously unCanadian. I’m living in the past here. There is a past here, an acknowledged past that I can touch and hear. It’s better than any museum. I’m allowed to be involved in it.
And it’s also just fun to root through these old albums and play them all day. So here are some of my favourite A-Frame albums. Consider this my first and only episode of Al’s Records.
1. Ellie Mannette and the Invaders – 1962 Carnival Calypso Hits
My current favourite. The steel drums as you know them today were invented by Ellie Mannette. He came up with switching from paint cans to oil drums cut to various sizes, he invented the concave shape (and physically made it; he has a background in metalwork as well), and he conceived of and expanded the range of scales that should be available to musicians. This is equivalent to Kraftwerk making all their vocoders and sound generators from scratch, leading not only to the creation of a song or an album but the development of a genre. What’s weird about this particular album is that the yellow parts on the front of the cover, as well as the song list on the back, are stickers. They are covering over what might be the album cover shown in the YouTube video below. The songs are all different. If you’re a music sleuth with no case to crack, you can have this one.
2. The Soviet Army Chorus & Band – By Request!
Oh yes that’s right: The Soviet Army Chorus & Band sing and play their most-requested folk songs about love from around the world. Included are songs from Mexico, the Czech Republic, Italy, Ukraine (especially chilling for this cowpoke), the U.S., England, and Slovakia. There’s what amounts to a brief essay about folk music written on the back of this album cover, and I just love its first sentence: “The dogged persistence of folk songs through the centuries is a historical mystery, but perhaps in that mystery lies the very reason that folk songs exist at all.” How great is that! What a circular conundrum! And it’s equally great to hear Russians sing in Spanish and English also. When all those male voices sing in unison the hair on my arms stands on end. It’s better than any haunted house, this one. Here’s a frightening version of “Kalinka” for you, a version of which exists in vinyl in this house too, and which I made the mistake of playing late at night a few days ago:
3. Mahalia Jackson – The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer
I’m afraid I might be ruining this album. It has received some heavy play this month. She’s just so good. One unintended, unplanned July project has been looking up and learning about artists born in the 1910s. Purdy was born in 1918, and his birth-decade cohorts are perhaps inevitably all over this house. Mahalia Jackson had seven years on Purdy, and both New Orleans and Chicago claim her as their own. She was massive, as an artist and as an activist, and so totally talented. Every note is the right note on this album. I get goosebumps of a kind way better than Soviet bands provide. Listen to how she builds the song below, for instance.
4. The Sound of Folk Music
I love me a good compilation. The song has always been the more significant ‘unit’ than the album, to my mind. The other thing that has been super interesting about being here is how all the music is of an age that’s earlier than I know well. If I say “folk music” you probably have a different idea in your head than what’s here. Most of the people playing folk songs on the albums in this house are wearing suits, for instance. This album might be the hippest of them all, and, once again, the range of songs and styles here is large. Here are a few of the songs on this album:
5. Songs & Laughter with Hal Lone Pine and Jeanie Ward
Finally, we have Hal Lone Pine, aka Harold Breau, who was guitarist Lenny Breau’s dad. Jeanie Ward I know nothing about and can’t find anything online, but she does some good interpretations of Nancy Sinatra songs. This is an album of old country standards performed live and sung as duets, mostly. At the end of each side are little comedy routines full of dated old groaners. (“If you were to have fifty dollars in one pocket and twenty-five dollars in the other pocket, what would you have?” “Someone else’s pants.”) There’s no record of this album anywhere online either, so here’s an unrelated Hal Lone Pine song, for your listening enjoyment.
This is but a tiny selection of all that’s here. I haven’t even touched on the numerous old books of records, multi-disc collections of Gilbert & Sullivan or Nelson Eddy, the show tunes, the recordings of poetry, the R. Strauss and Bizet and Liszt, the early Canadian folk collections, the Paul Robeson. In a single month I couldn’t put a meaningful dent in all that’s here. This is a trove worthy of a music historian or a DJ looking for a good, lengthy gig. If you are one of those two things, allow me to introduce you to Purdy’s A-Frame.