Somnambule - Writing About Music

Fonotone Records

‘Fonotone Records Frederick, Maryland’ is proudly emblazoned on the lid of the cigar box in which this compilation is presented. Around the title are a string of names including ‘Tennessee Mess Arounders’, ‘Bald Knob Chicken Snatchers’, ‘Jolly Joe’s Jug Band’ and ‘Gabriel’s Holy Testifiers’. On the inside of the box, below a woodcut of Fonotone label boss, Joe Bussard, runs the byline: “For the best in old time playing and singing”. Old-time music, as its name implies, predated and influenced a number of North American folk musics including bluegrass and country. Behind some of those funny names hide more recognisable ones such as Stefan Grossman, Mike Seeger and the late, great John Fahey who made his recording debut for Mr Bussard. Joe Bussard advised Dust To Digital on their feted Goodbye Babylon collection of Southern sacred music and ended up being invited to release this compilation of mostly long-forgotten music garnered from his own label.

The box contains a 160 page booklet full of little histories, wry humour and the names of old time musicians that found no further purchase in the wide world than Fonotone Records. There’s a wallet of postcards graven with images of the performers (and one of the West Virginia landscape in which some of Fonotone’s artists lived), a few 78 record labels (Fonotone was the last label to release 78s: $1 a time plus postage and packing), a deliberately crumpled A4 facsimile of a tape transcription, an all-important Fonotone Records bottle opener and, last but by no means least, five compact discs containing 131 tracks by a large number of different ensembles. The sweetness of the packaging just about manages to excuse the lack of shellac in the enterprise. Although centred around the traditional structure of fiddle, banjo, guitar, double bass and voice, many songs also feature deft use of jug, spoons, harmonica, mandolin, kazoo and so forth. All of the music was recorded between the mid ‘50s and the end of the ‘60s when Joe Bussard finally shut up shop. The America captured in this working people’s music was already disappearing and would probably have appeared anachronistic even at the time of release, as evidenced by the dislike expressed by Bussard’s farmers supply store-owning father. However, Fonotone wasn’t completely out of touch with contemporary events: the label sent off Blind Robert Ward’s specially recorded ‘The Voyage Of Apollo 8’ to NASA (the letter of thanks is duly reproduced in the booklet).

There’s so much music here that my one reservation is the difficulty of discerning much of a structure. But the music is so catchy, humorous and energetic, that this minor criticism is swept away by the sheer charm of the affair. As I sat playing with my 6 year old son, the Welch Brothers’ Lost Indian began to play and my boy let out an instinctive “Yee-hah!” Seemed about the best response I could think of.

Colin Buttimer
January 2006
Published by Signal To Noise magazine