Various Artists – Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (review)

Various Artists – The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made of (Yazoo) review

Face it.  We’ve become spoiled when it comes to music.  Once highly-coveted recordings by Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Charley Patton, are now just as easily accessed as the latest track by Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga through any number of online means.  But, we rarely stop to consider how we’re able to listen to these hallowed recordings.  Sure, the artist is important, and so is the record company.  But, there’s a third element – that of the avid record collector, who sacrificed large portions of their house (and oftentimes their marriage) to store these scarce records.  Without them, we’d never be enjoying these songs so many years later.  A new, 2-disc collection from Yazoo Records, The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, not only unearths some fantastic vintage music, it also gives proper due to several men, whose perseverance provided us with this great music.

Because these classic blues and folk recordings have become the stuff of legend, it is assumed that the original versions are probably tucked away in some climate-controlled vault at a big record company.  Nope.  In fact, most of these records were deemed immediately disposable – many of the masters were melted down for spare parts or chucked in a dumpster.  All that remained were the original records, and it was the fanatical record collector that sought them out.   They rummaged through junk stores, and  went door to door in urban and rural neighborhoods, asking if anyone had records to sell.  It was tedious work, but it eventually paid off.  Without the tenacity of these vintage music aficionados, we might never know what Bessie Smith actually sounded like, or heard the haunted vocals of Son House.  It’s from their record collections that these great recordings are stored.

The goal of the original Stuff That Dreams Are Made of, which came out in 2006, was to compile some of the rarest blues and folk recordings out there.  This sequel, though, is as much about the record collector as the music contained in the two CDs.  In fact, the 53-page booklet that accompanies the set only devotes a few scant paragraphs to the actual music included, instead inviting listeners to Google search any artist they want to know more about.  This leaves the bulk of the liner notes to cover the history of record collecting.  We’re not talking the casual fan, which there are millions all over the world.  We’re talking those individuals who devoted every waking moment to the acquisition of vintage records, and whose collection totaled in the tens of thousands.  These were music freaks.

Through the course of several essays in the booklet, we meet these men who tracked down all these sacred recordings.  Remember, this was way before Ebay, where everyone now is a collector and a seller.  These guys spent large chunks of their life scouring major cities and rural areas, in search of their “Holy Grail.”  Of course, anyone this devoted to their cause surely seemed odd to the average person.  Particularly good is a piece by R. Anthony “Flea” Lee, who was not a record collector, but accompanied two of the most famous ones on a weekend trip.  His recounting of their bizarre, overly-competitive behavior as they searched for old records, is a real hoot.

The bottom line is that much of the pre-1940’s music that we enjoy and treasure today is the result of individual record devotees, who have kept these hallowed recordings safe, and in pristine condition all these years later.  The booklet is a fascinating read for anyone interested in classic blues, folk or jazz, to fully understand just how hard to find these records quickly became.

Oh, and the music here is pretty good too.

In a way, the accompanying discs are like a soundtrack to record hunting.  Most of them are name-checked in the booklet as ones that were highly sought after.  The set covers a wide range of classic music – from pre-war blues, folk, and bluegrass, to even rarer ethnic sides, covering Polish and Cajun music.  The sound quality is absolutely breathtaking, especially considering the sources.  Incredible strides have been made to eliminate most of the scratches, revealing much-improved sonic clarity.  Take, for example, the “Holy Grail” sides of Charley Patton.  There’s some surface noise, but you can now hear his supple guitar work, and his deeply disturbing, growl of a voice.  Other standout tracks include “Woman Woman Blues” from Ishman Bracey, who sounds at times like Slim Harpo in his nasally delivery, and “That’s No Way to Get Along” from Robert Wilkins, who’s laid-back phrasing sounds eerily like Snoop Dog.  Blind Willie Johnson’s slide work on “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  The poorest sounding track, “Lonesome Home Blues” from Tommy Johnson, has a lot of distortion – yet in it, there’s still a human quality – you can hear him breathing in places.

Quite popular at the time was the “story song,” and “Stack O’ Lee” was a part of every good musician’s setlist.  The song is included here twice, once done with a twangy banjo by the Fruit Jar Guzzlers, where Lee is brought to justice, and then in a bluesier vein by Furry Lewis, where Lee eludes the law.  The Cartwright Brothers tell an equally chilly story of a clash with Native Americans on “Texas Ranger.”

The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of is an excellent introduction to vintage music.  The sound quality makes it extremely listenable, and the wide range of styles keeps things from getting monotonous.  There’s also enough highly-collectable music here to satisfy even the avid fan.

Imagine a world without Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Bessie Smith or Charley Patton.  These, and many other vintage artists, form the backbone of our American music culture.  Yet, without the actual recordings that were hunted down by collectors, our musical landscape would be severely lacking.  The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of finally gives the overdue credit to the passionate plight of the record collector, a relic from a bygone era, but one we still need to recognize as key to keeping this music alive today.  –Tony Peters