What It is We Choose to Listen To and What It Does to Us

By  |  May 29, 2018
Aristi Women's Dance, Epirus, early twentieth century. Photo provided by Costas Zissis, courtesy of Christopher C. King Aristi Women's Dance, Epirus, early twentieth century. Photo provided by Costas Zissis, courtesy of Christopher C. King

A conversation with Christopher C. King


Several years ago, while on vacation in Istanbul, Christopher C. King—an expert in prewar 78 rpm records and sometime correspondent for this magazine—noticed a sign in the “nearly opaque window” of a side street antique shop on the city’s eastern side: Gramophon Antik, it read. Before long he had struck up a conversation—“a rough exchange of Turkish and English”—with the owner, a man with “a chiseled mustache and immaculately groomed black hair” named Mustafa. Upon learning of King’s particular obsession with old music, Mustafa ushered him upstairs to his private record room, a vaulted chamber at the top of a spiral stone staircase, lined with shelves of 78s and arranged around a Victrola phonograph, “supernatural in the golden light of the tinted windows” in King’s telling. There, Mustafa played Anatolian music from his personal library for his enraptured fellow collector and by the time he left King had purchased a boxful of antique foreign records, which he carried back home to rural western Virginia. Among them were some 78s bearing Greek on their labels; when he played them, King reports that the music was “unlike anything I had ever heard. . . . One disc after another spiraled me into aural disorientation.” He knew then that he would have to seek out more of this old music at its source, which, he soon discovered, was a small, geographically isolated border region in the rough mountains of northwest Greece called Epirus.

The extraordinary origins of King’s obsession with 78 rpm Epirotic music, chronicled in his new book, Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music, indeed read like an apocryphal travelogue unearthed from a hundred years ago. And herein lies the central animating motive behind King’s inquiry into this enclave and its musical traditions: in Epirus King discovered a world just like the one he has spent his life poring over in the bygone American folk music he collects and studies—just like it in every way except one: while in America traditional music in its original context has long been extinct, in Epirus the old music and the old ways are still vibrant. For a man so enamored with the music of the past and condemned to hear it only in the scratchy recordings roughly captured by the imperfect technology of the 1920s and ’30s, here was a place where he could touch it in the present:

Much of Greece, like the rest of Europe, has succumbed to globalism. But the local festivities in Epirus have retained a purity of purpose unlike any other region. I had to understand why.

Lament from Epirus is the culmination of King’s devotion to the music of this region and its connections to the lost traditions of American folk music, especially those of the South. Over numerous visits to Epirus, where he attended annual traditional festivals each August and where he sought out the living heirs—both familial and musical—of the 78-rpm-era masters, King has amassed a loving portrait of an idiosyncratic place, its deep history, and its music titans. (Oxford American readers will be familiar with Alexis Zoumbas, whose 1926 recording “Epirotiko Mirologi”—from which King’s book takes its name—was included on the Visions of the Blues 2016 Music Issue compilation; King compares it to Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 masterpiece “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” as possessing a comparable “unfathomable aura and power.”) It is also a book about the act—and the art—of listening to music. When you put down the book, having read King’s rapturous descriptions of the tunes he loves, your own collection will seem suddenly aglow with a curious new power.

I called King at home in Virginia on Sunday afternoon, where I found him in his record room, presumably in a break between listening sessions. As on the page, he pushes his passions—and his taste—with conviction, and one need not be a Hellenophile to enjoy the discursive fancies of King’s expertise and obsession. As he writes of the legendary Epirotic clarinetist Kitsos Harisiadis: “His discs are holy relics. And every time a needle drops into the groove of one of these 78s a miracle is performed.”

It seems in a very real way that this is the book of your life—as if all of your experiences with old music funneled you toward this writing. When did you decide to write this book?

I never had any aspirations to write anything longer than the essays that accompanied the LPs and CDs that I had produced. I literally had no notion that a book or a larger format could be devoted to it until I was in Brooklyn to help Amanda Petrusich with her book on 78 collectors—she asked me to come up there and play some 78s at a reading, so I did. I played the “Epiritoko Mirologi” (“Lament from Epirus”) from Alexis Zoumbas, and I spoke a few sentences beforehand and I spoke a few sentences afterward, and there was deafening silence at the end of the track. And after Amanda’s reading, a tall, bearded guy came up—he was the bass player in the group that had played—and said he really enjoyed hearing me talk. And I really didn’t give it much of a thought other than he’s friendly. And a couple days later when I came back to my office there was an email and it’s from this guy, and he introduced the email by saying that his day job is that he’s an editor at Norton and he asked me if I’d ever considered writing a book about this music. So at that point is when I started to pull everything together and realized this could be described in a book format rather than just the narratives that I’d provide in the liner notes.

How much time had you spent in the region at that point?

I’d had four trips at that point—and reading. But reading and listening is quite different from having your boots on the ground.

This book is many things: it’s travelogue and your own memoir and journey, but it’s also a pretty in-depth cultural history, and it has elements of biography of these musicians, and you also go into the geography of the region and the very specific history of region—both ancient and recent—with many asides indulging a range of topics, from the mechanics of homemade alcohol distillation to the history of traditional instruments to the technical modal structures of the music. Was this “kitchen sink” methodology your intention from the beginning?

That was my intention from the beginning, because if there’s anything that I dislike it’s the specialization that comes with any categorization of writing. I’ve always appreciated the notion of drawing in not only many disciplines, when you start to construct a text, but also using a variety of styles and ways of entering into the story. That, to me, is a much more engaging and immersive way of telling a story. And that’s not too dissimilar from the way in which I’ve constructed the essays for the Oxford American and the Paris Review; they tell a story and the story is often about music, but I also carry with it what I would consider to be valid anthropological inquires or philosophical inquires, and I try to use other ways of telling the story—noir, for instance, which I’ve used in the Zoumbas chapter in the book.

You know, last night I found myself deep in a YouTube hole watching demonstrations of the laouto. You’re describing the music quite technically, which can be tricky—you’re asking a lot of a general audience—and yet here I am online consuming ten videos of this instrument that I’d never even heard. That struck me: the omnivorous aspect of your curiosity is evident on the page.

I really think it’s doing an injustice to not only the music but especially to the reader if you don’t give them the widest possible angle and also the most narrow focus. When I was there, it only took my second trip before I bought a laoutoand now I have three of the damn things. And every time I go there I also bring my violin. So half of my traveling is with these instruments so that I can learn the internal language of the instrument. Because every instrument has its own language. Like the banjo has many languages; there’s really no difference in trying to explain the principles of the laouto and the principles of the clawhammer banjo. One happens to be from the southern United States and the other happens to be from Epirus. It seems like it’s cheating if you gloss over points like that, and say, “Well, it’s an instrument that kind of resembles a guitar.”

And is that how you’ve always approached music that you’ve been obsessed with?

Oh yeah. The thing is is that you get a disc and you become enthralled with a given performance. For instance, “Dark Holler” by Clarence Ashley, which I was writing about recently. You get enamored by the disc, but there’s still something that separates you from the music. Namely, the knowledge of how it’s being produced. So the logical step is to acquire an instrument of that general vintage, learn how to tune it, then learn how to play it. And then suddenly you have a wealth of more information and a deeper well from which to express the language of the instrument, the language of the recording. So I’ve always been that way with trying to understand old music. 

How’s your laouto playing?

Well, now it sucks because I’ve been concentrating on the Pontic lyra and on ragtime guitar. You only have eighteen or twenty hours [in a day] to experience life and if you want to learn an instrument you have assign an hour or two a day. So now that I’m trying to learn the  Pontic lyra so that I can write about it, that takes up the time that I would’ve devoted to the laouto. But, as I’ve realized, once you’ve gotten past the threshold—not mastered an instrument, but understood its mechanics—it’s pretty easy to tune it back up and within twenty minutes be able to play back again what you were playing when you dropped it off six months ago.

Early feedback on this book has already been bubbling up. 

It was very kind of Jim Jarmusch to write about the book. The Wall Street Journal review that just came out—it was as if the person had a personal investment in trying to describe the book. So yes, at this point the response to it has been unlike what I anticipated. I thought I was writing a book that would tell a story, but it seems as if the book has provoked a response that’s mixed. I don’t think that there’s anything nice about telling somebody that their music sucks—and I don’t say that in the book—but it does seem to be the case that almost everybody who reads the book takes a defensive position regarding their own taste. Maybe that’s why it’s caught on to the degree that it has. Because it does ask profound questions, but it also asks questions about this very personal aesthetic that we deem to be private and unassailable—namely, what it is we choose to listen to and what it does to us.

My perception of the way, in the broader culture, that we think about folk music—or maybe just the way we think about old music—is that we take for granted the individuality of the artist who recorded it. The veneer of history sticks to it. And you spend a lot of time in the book, on both sides of the Atlantic, talking about these players and the heritage they came from and the ones who stood above the rest within these technical traditional modes of Epirotic music and the early blues and old time of the American South. You grant an individuality and idiosyncrasy to both the performers of the music and also to the listeners.

That is what I introduce in the prologue: In more traditional societies—which is what we did have in large part throughout the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century; we did have societies that were much more traditional and they were slow and horse-and-buggy and firewood and cured meat—that kind of society that existed then, it fostered this listening experience that is no longer really being fostered. It’s no longer there, because of course  traditional music doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t exist in the mode and in the depth and in the necessity that it did then. So it’s a more complex, holistic organism that once existed—you were trained to assess the performance of a given performer based on what you’d heard growing up in your small village or burg. But everything was tied together with everything else: your perceptions of what you grew up with in that small burg were approved by the people that were older. So there was never really a consistency of perception across the United States of what good music was, because they were isolated pockets. But where the consensus lies is in the fact that it was idiosyncratic pockets of musical knowledge and social knowledge. And the discovery to me was that I thought it had died—because it has died in the U.S. But you can go across the Atlantic, across the Mediterranean, and land in a small village in Epirus, where this type of social-musical knowledge—this discrete context and web of interactions—still exists.

Like you say in the book, this type of music requires just as much of the listener as it does the musician.

Exactly. A really good friend of mine, Ramona Stout, told me, “Nothing in Greece works. Well, except for music, and community, and family, and village life.”

There’s a valid and undeniable comparison you make in the book about the similarities between the music in the 78-rpm-era of the southern United States and of Epirus. You spend a lot of time drawing that out. But what really struck me—beyond the similarities in the music and the function of the music in the communities it came from—is how the individual performers from that era, in just the same way they are here, are shrouded in these myths of the musicians.

I love that aspect of it. It’s like the universality of the musical mythology. You know, like you have Charlie Patton or Dock Boggs recounted by their peers and by people younger than them that they had murdered this person or been murdered by this person or had done this or done that, and you go over there and you find out the exact same damn thing about the musicians there.

And was there almost a revival of this folk music in the same way there was here? Or, at least, some of these musicians recorded again in the sixties, when they were old. Is there any truth to that?

I don’t know that I’d characterize like that, as much as it was the case that some of these musicians, they never really stopped. For instance, Kitsos Harisiadis, who made recordings in the twenties, he continued to be a viable and valuable musician there until his death in the sixties. So, unlike, say, people who dropped completely out of the music scene, such as Son House. Son House made his recordings in 1930 and he made those recordings for Lomax in ’41, and soon thereafter he just kinda gave up, because the context for his music had changed so rapidly there was no need for him to perform it. And so it wasn’t until the 1960s when he was quote-unquote “rediscovered” that his music had gained some sort of value. But by that time he’d even forgotten how to play his own damn guitar.

And meanwhile in Epirus, it was unbroken—

Pretty much. I do mention in the text how the late sixties and seventies was a dire time in terms of traditional music in that region because the area had been so rapidly depopulated and modernity was creeping in—electrical lines were being put in for Christ sake. So all of those things were endangering the music. And that’s also not to say that the music even now as I write about it is not in danger, because it is. To the point that I think the use of amplification and the introduction of pieces of music that are not of that region—those things tend to change the musical biosphere. So by no means is the music not endangered, it’s just that there are things that can be done there to keep it from being endangered, which is not the case in the U.S. because, shit, it’s already gone, it’s already dead, it’s already got a gravestone.

And what Napoleon Zoumbas said to you: idiosyncratic style collapsed after the introduction of mass media.

That’s a very true observation by Napoleon, and he’s actually even more of a hard ass than I am. I thought I was crazy, but those guys, they can evaluate a performance and say, “There’s just no emotion in this,” and their perception is absolutely true. I’m a lifelong Virginian and I can detect the soullessness of one player versus what I would consider the soulfulness of another, and yet they’re gonna be judged differently by Napoleon, because he had been playing since the thirties.

And that also is what gives your book this great feeling of urgency, which is: we’ve seen a similar tradition to this disappear in the U.S. and yet here we are in the twenty-first century and there’s still a vibrant traditional mode being carried forward. I love how you wouldn’t name the village at the end, to hammer home that point.

A very good friend of mine, she said to me, “Are you concerned about the fact that you’ve written about this traditional music will cause it to become visible and therefore it will change?” And I guess my response is, Yeah, I’m concerned about that, and I have done things to address that—namely to not name certain villages—but it is a pain in the ass to get to Epirus. You really need to make a concerted effort to manage your travel, and then to swallow hard and drive above the clouds, to a place where there’s primarily goats and not much more. So music will have to already be your thing for you to make that commitment to trek there. So I don’t think it’s necessarily gonna endanger the music because there’s not gonna be, you know, two million Americans descending upon these villages in Epirus. I mean, I’ll be lucky if there’s two people who show up.

How do folks over there feel about this book?

They run the gambit. I have friends who are extraordinarily narrow specialists and their commentary is “It needs to be more specialized.” And then I have other people who are, not hardcore Greek Orthodox Christians, but more religious than your typical Greek, and they frown upon me highlighting the pagan aspects of the music. But I would say on a whole, the response that I’ve gotten from my Greek friends is that what I have portrayed is an accurate representation of exactly what takes place and that the emotional and psychological states that I witnessed when I was listening to the music is very similar to the psychological and emotional states that they themselves experience. So you can’t really get much better than that.

It seems you’ll be visiting there for as long as you’ll be around.

Until somebody pulls a shroud over me, that’s really what I call home. I call two places my home: I call my record room my home and I call Epirus my home. Where I was born and bred and raised up, and scarcely have left from, really bears little resemblance to what it was when I was growing up, so it’s hard to call it home anymore.

Have you been back to or had any communication with Mustafa in Istanbul who kicked this whole thing off?

Oh yeah, I’ve exchanged letters with him. And the instance that I got those discs was a rare instance because they just don’t show up. I think I’ve been in contact with him maybe six times, and he reports that he’s never gotten any more Epirotic discs. So it was complete and utter serendipity that they landed in his hands just a couple days before I ended up in his shop.

From the 2016 Southern Music Issue: Christopher C. King on Alexis Zoumbas and Blind Willie Johnson. 

Maxwell George is the Oxford American’s deputy editor.