“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero declared at the close of The Tempest, defining the transient nature of the human condition, while at the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade identified the fake statuette that had brought about any number of deaths as “the stuff that dreams are made of.” The music contained on these two discs is, like Prospero, very much concerned about the human condition, but the rational behind The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of puts it firmly in Sam Spade territory.
That’s not to say the praiseworthy folk at Yazoo have left a trail of corpses in the collecting and remastering of these folk, country and blues rarities, but the urge to possess is the force that brought it into being.
The first volume, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, appeared six years ago with cover art by R. Crumb of a record collector gloating over his new acquisition, and with two never-before-heard recordings by Son House that were everything a country blues obsessive would have dreamed of and more.
The sequel boasts another memorable cover, by Drew Friedman this time, and another 46 fabulous and fabulously rare recordings of American roots music, though perhaps nothing as revelatory as the two House cuts.
While there may not be many names that the casual listener will recognise, rest assured that the quality of music is uniformly high, mixing all-time classics (High Water Everywhere by Charley Patton, Last Kind Words Blues by Geeshie Wiley, That’s No Way to Get Along by Robert Wilkins) with little known jewels such as Koscieliska by Karola Stocha and S Bachleda, Two White Horses by Joe Evans and Arthur McClain, and Little Rosewood Casket by Lulu Jackson.
The hypothetical casual listener should be warned, however, that rarity does often make for a great number of scratches and crackles since the master recordings are inevitably lost and the few remaining copies will have often had to survive for decades in a one-room shack with a family of ten before the collectors took possession of them. Three quarters of the tracks here have a relatively low level of surface noise, and the remastering by Yazoo is excellent, but allowances have to be made for the other quarter.
Such matters go with the territory, but the subject of the liner notes is more problematic. The set is handsomely produced in DVD-case proportions with an illustrated 55-page booklet, but it is hard to figure out who Yazoo had in mind when they put it together. If it’s for obsessive 78rpm record collectors, then all well and good, but there aren’t many of them, and most of those are more interested in collecting and playing the records themselves than listening to digitized versions.
If, however, the anthology is aimed at the music lover with a passing interest in the history of record collecting then the extensive liner notes seem to be a big miscalculation.
The booklet contains a three-page introduction by producer Richard Nevins followed by A Collector’s Story (10 pages of it), by Charles Huber, then an account of a collecting trip in search of Charley Patton records by R Anthony ‘Flea’ Lee, a 20-page transcript of a conversation between record collectors Nevins, Dick Spottswood and Pete Whelan, seven pages of excerpts of letters by James McKune, an early collector, and – finally – some notes on the music. There is however, only three and a half pages given over to the music, half of which is taken up by photographs. “We will abstain,” Nevins writes, “from the superfluous exercise of relating who the artists are, since at this late date endless biographical annotations have been delivered to the public, and Google stands at the ready to fill the breach for the few obscure names here.”
Now by the same reasoning, I should just stop writing and let you seek out whatever information you can glean on the search engine of your choice. Forty-six internet searches may well provide information on these 46 pieces of music, but most of the search results will take you to Amazon, eBay or other sellers and the volume under review, or to fans of who knows what level of expertise and eloquence. Getting a balanced, informed view of this music through Google would, if possible, take many hours, hours that Nevins should have realized was his job to provide.
So if you’re after a two-disc collection of pre-war American roots music and are either unconcerned with such matters, or you’re an avid 78rpm collector who wants something to play in the car, then this set is strongly recommended. But if you’re a music lover who likes to read about what you’re listening to – and if you’re still reading this then I imagine you are – you might want to look elsewhere. (Roots ’n’ Blues: The Retrospective 1925-50 is worth seeking out – it’s still available as a download but if you can track down the 1992 boxed set, you’ll find a fabulous booklet that shows how it should be done.)
Buy from Amazon
Buy from iTunes (and hear samples)