In case of emergency

February 4 is National Libraries Day: ‘a free-to-join gathering of people who believe in the importance of libraries.’

Well, count me in, because libraries of one kind or another are places in which I seem to spend a lot of time, although my use of them has changed over the years. When I was a child I went to the library to borrow books, and I’ve encouraged the same as a parent. Now when I go to libraries it is most often as part of the process of writing them, because of course there is more to libraries than the lending and borrowing of books, vitally important though that is.

Libraries can also be both a repository for and a gateway to archives of all kinds, many of which are simply unavailable anywhere else. For example, I was researching for a forthcoming fiction title among bound archive copies of the now defunct alternative news weekly Leeds Other Paper in Leeds Central Library recently. Most UK newspapers are held in the British Library’s Newspaper Collection in Colindale, London, but not the Leeds Other Paper. These copies of the LOP in Leeds Central Library may well constitute the only complete collection that exists of this important alternative newspaper.

While waiting to access the LOP archive I also happened across the Leodis project, a fantastic photographic archive of the city that was established by Leeds Library & Information Service as part of a Yorkshire-wide Lottery-funded photography archive digitization project in 2003. The Leodis site is a bit clunky in many ways, but not bad for something that launched in 2003. Back then, even now-familiar approaches to copyright and licensing and the ways that we access and interact with content online like Creative Commons were still more or less part of a creative, legal and publishing avant garde, so e.g. there is no obvious notice on the Leodis site about whether, how or under what terms one can use the photos, beyond the options to leave comments or (and I’m resisting the urge to put an exclamation mark at the end of this sentence) to buy a print.

It is well worth digging around — well, wading through — the Leodis site however as there is some really great material on there, not least of which for a bibliophile are the many pictures of the Library itself, which has gone through various transformations over the years including the recent excavation of a magnificent tiled hall, originally the reading room and now a visually stunning cafe. Browsing through the photos, I found myself particularly drawn to some images of the Music Library, the very shelves and false ceiling of which it was in fact that had needed to be removed to reveal the spectacular tiled hall beneath. The Music Library still exists, it has simply been moved upstairs.

In light of popular myths about the supposedly recent so-called ‘dumbing down’ of libraries to accommodate music, DVDs and other media, it was interesting to read in the text accompanying this great image that

The [Leeds] Music Library was started in 1950, as part of policy to establish subject departments, rather than keeping all stock as a vast collection. Originally music scores and books were available, in 1957 a record lending library service began. This cost £2,500 for which 1,837 records were purchased.

The work of fiction that I was in Leeds to research is set in the city in the mid-1980s. Many of the LPs in the Music Library’s loan collections at that time could well have been purchased as part of that same late-1950s job lot, but they were still in good condition and still being loaned out nearly thirty years later. The Music Library’s vinyl loan collection is now long gone of course, but I was pleased when trawling some secondhand dealers recently to find for sale one mint vinyl copy of an LP that had been a Music Library favourite when I lived in Leeds, and which now I thought about it I was keen to hear again: Follow the Drinking Gourd by Alex Foster and Michel Larue.

Foster and Larue’s album was released in 1958 by a New York record label called Counterpoint who up until the previous year had traded as Esoteric Records, a willfully obscure jazz and art-house label started by Jerry Newman which operated out of 75 Greenwich Avenue (now the Bar-B-Que restaurant). As a student in the early 1940s, Newman had cut live recordings of jazz gigs direct to disc. He set up the label after WWII, in part at least to release those early bebop recordings. Newman’s interest in live recording continued, too. For a fantastic example of this, see the Ghostcapital music blog, which has a great rip of Newman’s live recording of the Toraia Orchestra of Algiers that was released on Esoteric in 1952, plus high quality scans of cover art, record labels etc.

According to Bill Morgan’s The Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City (City Lights Books, 1997), Kerouac hung out in the back room of Esoteric because a school mate worked for Newman. Supposedly he cut some recordings in Newman’s studio, but a 1955 plan to record On the Road with live accompaniment from saxophonist Allen Eager never happened.

In a foreword on the back cover of their 1958 long-player for Newman, Michel Larue and Alex Foster suggest that ‘American Negro Folk Music has been too long neglected […] Here is music created years ago, yet [it] is the source of the present American trend in music.’  According to a short biographical note,  their ‘new approach in Folk Music’ was the result of Foster and Larue wanting to collaborate and perform in night clubs, not just for the theatre and concert hall audiences to whom they’d each been playing up to that point.

I don’t know how many copies of Michel Larue and Alex Foster’s vinyl LP are still floating around, but — and I can’t say this clearly enough — if you see it, buy it. The production of Foster and Larue’s sparse arrangements is clear and spacious, and there’s a stagey kind of rockabilly-funk to their percussion-and-bass-propelled versions of Blues, gospel and folk standards that include a masterful and probably definitive ‘John Henry’.

If you can’t get hold of the vinyl, the record has also recently been reissued for CD and MP3 (albeit under another name — ‘American Negro Slave Music’ — and with a slightly reduced track listing) by the Essential Media Group label. Here is their page on the Myspace player.

The title-track of Foster and Larue’s original vinyl release — Follow the Drinking Gourd — is of course a folk classic in its own right, with a long and complex if not to say contested heritage. See the website of Joel Bresler’s fascinating Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History project for more on this. Bresler reveals that Foster and Larue were the first Black artists to record the song, but among the numerous versions of ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ that are collated and discussed in his wide-ranging commentary I was particularly delighted to see one by the Welsh folk and country act Triban, who recorded the song in both Welsh (as ‘Dilyn y Sêr‘) and English languages.

Regular readers may recall that I’ve written about Triban here before, in connection with the destruction over the past decade of the former Redgrave Theatre in Farnham, Surrey (a connection that is both too slight and too convoluted to repeat here). However, that single emblematic act of cultural vandalism pales in comparison with what could be about to happen to public libraries all over the country: a century or more of work for education, literacy and the public good swept away with no thought for the consequences.

The bad news in this new cultural and educational emergency is that there is of course no one simple way to raise the alarm.

Tim Etchells, ‘Emergency Phone’, 2012.

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National Libraries Day, Saturday 4 February 2012:

See the activities map and other resources on the National Libraries Day website for information about events happening on the day.

If you are on Twitter, follow @NatLibrariesDay and the hashtag #NLD12.

Further listening:

Alex Foster and Michel Larue, American Negro Slave Songs (Digitally Remastered), Essential Media Group, 2009. (Possibly MP3 only), £7.49

Michel Larue, Songs of the American Negro Slaves, Folkways/Smithsonian Institute, 2009 (Original Release Date: 1 Jan 1960). CD £21.59, MP3 £5.99.

Triban, Harmony: Y Casgliad/The Collection, 1968-1978, Sain Records, 2011. SAIN SCD 2637 CD bocs set £16.99 (also available as 64-track MP3 download)

Forthcoming fiction:

Tony White, DICKY STAR AND THE GARDEN RULE, Forma Arts and Media Limited, publication date: 26 April 2012, 49pp, size: 210 x 148 mm. ISBN 978-0-9548288-6-8 Price: £5.00

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