Photo: Natasha Sud

One of the finest finger-pickers to emerge in recent years from Louisville, KY, Nathan Salsburg also works as a curator and archivist for the Alan Lomax Collection. Responsible for cataloguing the thousands of hours of international field recordings made by the indefatigable ethnomusicologist, it’s a vocation rather than a day job for this old-time music enthusiast.

By Melissa Osborne

Charged with the estimable task of curating the Lomax Collection’s first independent music label, Global Jukebox, in a not altogether unrelated move Salsburg recently launched his own record imprint, Twos & Fews, in association with Chicago label Drag City. Salsburg also finds the time to produce and host his own radio programme of vernacular music, Root Hog or Die, on East Village Radio, as well as dusting-off and rhapsodising about his latest vintage discoveries on his “blob” – a highly comprehensive online index of indigenous, local and traditional music. WMO caught up with this ambassador for endangered music to discuss his own heritage, forthcoming releases and Lomax’s bogglingly prescient ethnographic database.

Are you a Louisvillian born and bred? Bred, but I was born in northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s anthracite coal country up there, with lots of Italian, Polish, and Welsh immigrants, you know, like from How Green Was My Valley, though my family are Jews. I learned years later that that region is disparagingly called Pennsyltucky, so it wasn’t entirely an unreasonable move from there to here.

Do you feel very much a part of Kentucky in Louisville? Yes, though it’s really fraught. There’s a very ugly dissonance between the political persuasions of most Louisvillians versus the rest of the state (with the exception of Lexington, the second biggest city). You might have heard about this dozy Tea Party bastard, Rand Paul, who our state recently elected as one of its two senators. He’d be funny if his ideology weren’t so terrifying and dangerous. Culturally, Louisville is pretty distinct from the rest of the state too. Kentucky is a rural place—in its food, occupations, speech, pastimes, music—and Louisville is not only much more urban, but relatively well-to-do and insulated from the experiences of the rest of the state. One of the biggest issues facing Kentuckians now is mountain-top removal mining, whereby the tops of mountains are blown off and dumped into valleys below, burying streams, destroying folks’ houses, and poisoning water sources, among other awful side effects. There’s a lot of agitation statewide against the practice, but the coal industry owns most of our elected officials, so it’s nearly impossible to gain much traction in state government on the issue. Anyway, the response to all that has become “we all live downstream” – which I think is a nice expression of unity. In that way, we’re completely part of Kentucky.

How did you come to work at the Lomax Archive? After I finished college I moved to New York and got a super shitty job as a lunchtime server. I wrote a letter to the Woody Guthrie Archives asking if I might come in as a volunteer. They told me the Lomax Archive was hiring, so I applied and started work there doing data entry, post office runs, and accessioning DAT tapes. That was nearly eleven years ago. Now I work for the archive in Louisville.

What’s the best thing about your line of work? The joy of discovery. It’s like every new singer or song puts a little pin on the map for itself, and makes the world that much more complex and exciting. I also love hearing threads tie together – you know, like the way the Irish Sean Nós singers often finish their songs by speaking their last lines. That shows up occasionally in Canadian ballads too, and those connections—that continuity and influence across time and space—just bring me such happiness.

Does Southern folk music have a particular draw for you? It definitely did when I was living away from Kentucky. I think it worked on me in the same way that the Carter Family border radio broadcasts in the ’30s worked on mountain folks in their diaspora – working in steel mills or copper mines or as migrant farm labourers, all far from home. I mean, so much of the music of the South—be it folk music or commercial hillbilly or blues compositions—is the music of the displaced, orphaned and outcast.

Nathan at the Kentucky Derby, 2009

You recently set up your own label, Twos & Fews… I had been talking to a friend about how frustrated I was with a deal that the Lomax Archive had with Rounder Records in Boston. Rounder had put out nearly 100 CDs of Lomax’s recordings, but never put any muscle behind them to make them particularly accessible. This friend had connections with Drag City and thought they might be interested in releasing some of it, so he put me in touch and they offered me a label of my own. I guess they thought it was going to be an outlet for unheard Lomax stuff, but by that time I was more excited about digging into other archives for even more obscure recordings. Not that obscurity in itself is a virtue. In fact, it drives me crazy how much third-rate dross is reissued just because it’s rare, obscure, or forgotten. Sometimes things are rare, obscure and forgotten for a good reason.

You got to work with Mike Seeger just before he died, that must have been pretty special. Yeah, that was great. I wrote him an email asking if he was amenable to our release of his Nimrod Workman recording sessions. He wrote back saying that as long as it was ok with Nimrod’s family, it was ok with him. Nimrod was originally from the coalfields of Martin County, Kentucky, in the eastern part of the state. He retired with a case of black lung and became an activist for the miners’ union, but he was always a singer and a storyteller, with a huge repertoire and huger personality. Mike asked that all proceeds for the release go to Nimrod’s family and we obliged. Mike was a deeply humble man, whose primary intention was not at all self-aggrandisement, but the increased visibility and enjoyment of the music.

I hear the Lomax Archive now has its very own label. Yes! It’s a digital imprint called Global Jukebox, named after Lomax’s pretty wild, but fairly comprehensive ethnographic database of international music. The database was meant as a learning tool for his concept of Cantometrics – the idea that all the world’s musics can and should be explored in relation to one another instead of through the distorting lens of Western musicology and staff notation. It presaged the internet and was highly controversial. Interestingly, it actually provided the model for the Music Genome Project that currently runs Pandora. Anyway, our plan for the Global Jukebox label is to compile albums from the Lomax archive and sell them as downloads and, where possible, collaborate with other labels to release physical LPs or CDs.

All I ever wanted to do at the Archive was put records together. I love everything about it from soup to nuts: listening, sequencing, researching, working with the mastering engineer… So I’m excited about cracking into our collections for this new label. It’s a super shaky time to be doing anything in the way of trying to sell music though. Let’s just say, I’m trying to maintain pretty reasonable expectations.

Collection of pre-war 78s salvaged from a dumpster

What’s been released on Global Jukebox and what can we look forward to? Last summer we worked with Mississippi Records to release five records I put together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lomax and Shirley Collins’ Southern Journey field recording trips of 1959 and 1960. Coming up we’ve got the first recordings of bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, made in ’59, as well as a two disc set of Lomax’s Asturian recordings from 1954.

Is your East Village radio show connected to the Lomax Archive? No, though I do play a lot of Lomax’s recordings. The show throws a pretty big net around folk music, traditional music, vernacular music, site-specific and people-specific music.

Where does the name come from? Root hog or die is an old American saying that basically means work or perish. You know, if he’s not getting the slop bucket thrown to him, a hog has to root if he’s going to get anything to eat. It’s a frontierism going back to the days of Davy Crockett. It’s interesting though, old-timers still talk about “back in those old root hog or die days.”

Amidst all of this, somehow you find time to make your own music. One of the reasons I moved back to Louisville from New York was to have more time and space to play music, and I’ve been working, sometimes diligently, over the past couple years on a body of solo acoustic guitar tunes. A solo record that I’ve been labouring at for a number of years is coming out soon on the No Quarter label. It’s called Affirmed, after the last Triple Crown-winning racehorse in 1978, the year I was born. Then there’s a guitar duets record I did with a good friend named Jim Elkington in Chicago—he plays with Jon Langford, Eleventh Dream Day, and Janet Bean in a band called The Horse’s Ha—which’ll be out in late August on the Tompkins Square label. It’s called Avos. I love the idea of taking this stuff on the road, which I’m doing a bit this summer and beyond. WMO

Sought and Hidden from Affirmed by Nathan Salsburg

Root Hog or Die on East Village Radio

Root Hog or Die blog

Twos & Fewss

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