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ALBUM REVIEWS: Tompkins Square Box Sets

Long Gone Sounds:

Recent Historical Releases from Tompkins Square Records

Reviewed: Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934

(Tompkins Square, 2011)

amede ardoin tompkins square

AND

Aimer et Perdre, To Love & To Lose: Songs, 1917-1934

(Tompkins Square, 2012)

aimer et perdre tompkins square


 

Virtually everything that Tompkins Square Records has released thus far has merited attention, and yet only the most hardcore fans of historical recordings have likely heard many of the label’s releases. This probably has much to do with the label’s modesty: Other “archival” labels such as Bear Family, Dust-to-Digital, and Smithsonian Folkways often produce multi-CD box sets in large-format packaging, including glossy books with extensive liner notes and multiple photos. Tompkins Square—likely recognizing the costs involved in preparing more elaborate projects, wherein production expenses are inevitably passed along to the consumer in the form of higher retail prices—has taken a different approach by specializing in historically significant projects that are carefully conceived yet smaller in scale.

The label’s first major project, a 2007 3-CD anthology of 78 rpm recordings by various artists entitled People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938, was a nominee for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award in 2008. Since then, the label has issued a steady (and varied) stream of noteworthy releases, including Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, a collection of minstrel songs recorded at the dawn of the twentieth century (nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award in 2009); I'm Going Down To North Carolina: The Complete Recordings of The Red Fox Chasers [1928-31], featuring forgotten recordings by an Appalachian string band; and two collections of rare African-American gospel recordings (recently reviewed on this website).

In 2011, Tompkins Square initiated the Long Gone Sound Series, and the printed mission statement for the series reveals much about the label’s quirky yet earnest dedication to old recordings:

The purpose of the Long Gone Sound Series is not didactic in nature nor scholarly in scope. Rather, the goal of this venture is to create a catalyst for musical and cultural transformation. We are providing an aperture through which the curious can enter and emerge either famished or full. This is an attempt to capture, if just fleetingly, a discrete frequency in the spectrum of our fading sounds, an audio complement to “Specters Of The Spectrum.”

Two initial releases in the Long Gone Sounds Series are from the Grammy Award-winning production team of Christopher King and Susan Archie. Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934 collects for the first time all thirty-four extant recordings by Ardoin (1898-1942), a Creole accordionist and singer who was a major influence on Cajun and Zydeco musicians.

“Madam Atchen (Madam Atchen)” by Amede Ardoin and Dennis McGee.

The recordings—mostly two-steps, waltzes, or blues—include tracks Ardoin made as a duo with white Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee (during 1930 in New Orleans and during 1934 in San Antonio), as well as all the recordings Ardoin made as a solo act (in New York City in 1934). This set is noteworthy for the clarity and balance of its digital transfers, as Ardoin’s powerful, idiosyncratic vocals and flowing accordion are comparatively undistracted by background noise and undiminished by loss in dynamic range. The recordings sound vibrant and vital, owing much to King’s widely praised skills as a sound technician.

“One Step Des Chameaux (Camel One-Step)” by Amede Ardoin and Dennis McGee.

Another release in the Long Gone Sounds Series is Aimer et Perdre: To Love & To Lose: Songs, 1917-1934. Whereas Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone is a conventional (if musically sublime) compilation, Aimer et Perdre includes intentionally juxtaposed and seemingly disparate genres of music.

“Aimer et Perdre (To Love & To Lose)” by Joseph and Cleoma Falcon.

The tracks on this set arguably have little in common beyond the fact that they all were transferred from 78s. There are well-known and lesser-known early recording acts from several hotbeds of American music—Appalachia, the Louisiana bayou, and New Orleans—alongside other recordings performed by acts from Ukraine and Poland. Yet every song in some way explores themes of consummated or unrequited love.

“Ukainske Wesilla w Ameryci, part 1 (Ukrainian Wedding in America, Part 1)” by Pawla Humeniuka Ukrainska Orchestra.

This is at times difficult to identify; some of the tracks are instrumentals or are in languages other than English—King’s album notes helpfully provide translations. (Archie’s art direction on Aimer et Perdre is delightful—an intriguing scrapbook of historical illustrations, old maps, and photographs, alongside several stunning works of art prepared for the set by Robert Crumb, which you can see at the end of this article.) 

aimer et perdre tompkins square

The result is a collection that draws subtle yet profound aesthetic relationships between diverse recordings (the back cover of Aimer et Perdre proclaims that “This is one from the heart”). By presenting emotionally visceral music from many different origins, the set inspires the imagination to travel to a place where facts and contexts are irrelevant, where all that matters are the epiphanies experienced while taking a journey through long gone sounds.

Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone and Aimer et Perdre amply illustrate King’s passion for fragile, forgotten 78 rpm records. Both of these sets are must-haves for any lover of recordings from the early years of recorded sound. And people interested in discovering more “long gone sounds” should note that King and Tompkins Square will soon be releasing two additional albums in this series: When I Reach That Heavenly Shore (a 3-CD collection of sublime, unvarnished black sanctified and gospel 78s from the pre-war era) and Lena Hughes: Queen of the Guitar Pickers & Her Flat Top Guitar (a CD and LP issue of impossibly rare recordings of the legendary finger-picker, with notes by British guitar virtuoso John Renbourn). Even more Long Gone Sounds projects will follow in 2013, both exploring early Cajun music: a 2-CD set of selected recordings of Joe and Cleoma Falcon and the Breaux Brothers (Cleoma was born Cleoma Breaux); and a single CD collecting all of the surviving 78 rpm sides by Angelas LeJeunne and Percy Babineaux-Bixy Guidry.

With its Long Gone Sounds Series, Tompkins Square is doing the most significant sort of archival work—making old and forgotten music sound new and exciting again.

 


 

Aimer et Perdre art by Robert Crumb.

robert crumb

robert crumb

 

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