Tony Cummings reports on the epic undertaking keeping alive the flame of vintage gospel music, DOCUMENT RECORDS
In an obscure turning off a back road in Bladnoch, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in a building which used to be a Co-op creamery, you will find Document Records. Yet though this company has, down the years, released hundreds of albums of Christian music, Document's activities remain almost entirely unnoticed by the Church at large. For Document Records specialise in blues and gospel music, particularly in the pre-war period, and this pioneering company sports a vast catalogue of compilation CDs featuring giants of gospel music like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Thomas A Dorsey, The Golden Gate Quartet, Washington Phillips, Rev J M Gates, Arizona Dranes, Rev Gary Davis, as well as dozens upon dozens of collections on which are presented to modern listeners the long forgotten delights of such as the Spiritual Jubilee Singers Of Chicago, the Perfect Harmony Quartette, Rev Sutton E Griggs or the Nugrape Twins. It's long been a strange cultural phenomenon that today's African American community shows little or no interest in their own musical history and it's been largely white record collectors and academics who've continued to investigate the groundbreaking black music of the early decades of recording history. Since the 1960s dozens of specialist record labels have emerged to reissue vintage blues and jazz, recognising that the music released for the 'race' market in the '20s, '30s and '40s contained much which was breathtakingly original and truly timeless, despite it being captured on primitive 78 recordings.
The origins of Document Records go back to the mid '50s. Austrian jazz enthusiast Johnny Parth (pronounced Part) launched two record labels, Jazz Perspective and Hot Club De Vienne. They were manufactured in very low quantities (sometimes as low as 20 or 30 copies) with hand printed covers. By the mid '60s Johnny and his wife Evelyn were undertaking a field trip to make, of all things, recordings of Austrian folk music. On completion the music was released in the US on Chris Strachwitz's legendary Arhoolie Records and on the 500 series of the newly formed Roots Records. Strachwitz suggested to the Parths that they should use the Roots label to reissue vintage country blues recordings. With finance provided by Evelyn, they went ahead and produced the first country blues album, by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Over the next few years 41 albums appeared on the Roots 300 series of vinyl albums. Johnny and Evelyn also released some albums on the Truth and Paltram labels, the former including the classic compilation 'Guitar Evangelists Vol 1' feature sides from Blind Willie Johnson, Mother McCollum and Rev Edward W Clayborn.
Johnny's every growing network of collectors provided the Austrian couple with a flow of rare, sometimes staggeringly rare, 78s which were loving transferred to insure a flow of albums. In 1970 the Roots label came to an end when Johnny and Evelyn divorced. Evelyn went on to form her own successful record company which she continues to run today, and Johnny went back to art and, in particular, painting.
However, once a blues and gospel enthusiast, always one. In 1982 Parth had amassed a huge collection of 78s which he began to reassemble into chronological order. These recordings would later be the foundations for the new Document label. Inspired by the Black & White jazz reissue label, Johnny began to think of creating a label which would make available to music fans and researchers alike the complete recordings of all artists from the pre-1943 period, excluding the few artists which had been given similar attention by other labels. This was a huge undertaking. Not only would the project include blues music but, using the reference discography Godrich & Dixon's Blues And Gospel Records 1890-1943 as a guide, it would also encompass Afro-American gospel, spirituals, ballads, work songs and much more which had originally been commercially recorded or recorded during field trips by such institutions as the Library of Congress. Where possible the complete recordings of each artists would be presented in chronological order. Because of the lack of his own funds, Johnny took this unique idea to other record companies but was unable to find anyone prepared to take on such a monumental task. He was told by the founder of RST Records, Rudi Staeger, of a pressing plant in Budapest, Hungary which would press low quantities, as few as 100 LPs, economically and in addition, the company would produce free metal masters. Parth decided to undertake the project himself.
He went ahead and set up Document Records in 1990 establishing the label with what has become the mighty 5000 series. The critics immediately embraced the project and the early reviews gave Johnny a reassuring signal that his thinking had been correct. Document's output was staggering, at times producing as many as one album every three days! An early contributor to the project, Ken Romanowski, remembered, "It was unbelievable. Each time that another album came out there was a great sense of excitement amongst all of those who were closely involved. There would be a wonderful feeling of achievement every time an artist's full work had been covered." After 10 years, the main task of re-releasing every blues, gospel and spiritual recording made between the late 19th century, when the first recordings of Afro-Americans were made, to the early 1940s, has been very nearly accomplished and Document has now moved into a new era of its own by reissuing the wealth of recordings made beyond 1943.
But it's the vast catalogue of almost 900 albums of pre-war blues and gospel compilations - most assembled and released in the '90s - which were to give Document Records its almost legendary status amongst blues and gospel collectors. A vital part of the barrage of Document releases were the CD booklet sleevenotes, where collectors from around the world would attempt to pull together what information was known about Barbeque Bob or Washing Phillips and hundreds more and write it up. Two of Parth's team of sleevenote writers were British blues enthusiasts Gillian George and Gary Atkinson who, though they weren't to know it at the time, were one day to take over the ownership of Document Records. Gillian vividly remembered her days as a sleevenote writer. "Johnny worked to a theory and principle enshrined in Blues And Gospel which was the template - get every track available listed in this booklet. From my point of view as someone who liked the music very much I recognised what an important mission this was. I became involved about the same time as Gary."
Gary chipped in, "The first album that I was given to do was a five set and I was given a week to write the sleevenotes! I pushed it to two weeks, I think. It was great because Johnny paid for everything in CDs. I wanted to try and get the guy at the garage to take them for a fill up but he wouldn't take them! It was 10 CDs a booklet."
By the late '90s Document had almost completed its task of making available on CD every known blues and gospel record. Then, one day, Gary got a phone call from Johnny Parth which was to change the direction of his life. He remembered, "Johnny said, 'I wonder if you would like all of Document?' I said, 'I have quite a lot of the stuff anyway.' Then it dawned on me that he was offering to sell me the company. The whole lot. I didn't even think, I just said 'Yes' and thought I'd worry about this later. When it came to the end of the conversation I went into the kitchen to Gillian and said, 'That guy Johnny Parth has just offered to sell me Document Records'. This is a demonstration of how our relationship works, Gill without any hesitation turned around and said, 'I hope you said yes.' There were lots of discussions and we came to an arrangement to buy it and pay over a period of time and that's all been done now."
Gary flew to Vienna to find out exactly what he was buying. "Half of the stock was housed in rooms of a building in the middle of Vienna, the other half was in a barn just outside Vienna. We scurried between the two and eventually brought them all together. Then everything had to be boxed, numbered and catalogued, then the biggest lorry in the world turned up in the middle of Vienna with a small army of people with shrink wrapping machines, fork lift trucks and goodness knows what, and they packed 175,000 CDs onto this truck. I then got on the aeroplane, came over to Scotland to meet the truck turning up here. I have a friend who owns the southern most whiskey distillery in Scotland, which is just up the road in a very idyllic little setting, and he let me house the CDs in it for about a year or so, and then moved it to a place we bought which used to be a Co-op creamery. So Document Records became a Scottish-based company in 2000, even though some people of course are still buying CDs that say 'made in Austria'. The Scotsman wrote a piece on us. The media was fascinated. I like the idea that people go past the bottom of the road and they have no idea what's up the road, that all the people doing Afro-American studies are getting their CDs from South West Scotland."
Gary and Gillian have long faced the tough financial realities of keeping as much of the vast treasure trove of Document releases in catalogue as they can. They are realists who know that, in the blues field, for every Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy there are dozens of obscure compilations featuring Joe Linthecome, Gertrude Perkins and Floyd 'Dipper Boy' Council known to only a handful of connoisseurs. And in the gospel and spiritual field there were unlikely to be many sales for 'Church Choirs, Vocal Groups & Preachers In Chronological Order Vol 4 (1927-1943)' or the complete recordings for radio of the unknown spiritual harmonizers The Bronzemen. As Gary said, "Across the board we've got stuff going out every day but some titles would only shift one or two a year, so we were actually getting into quite a dilemma with the whole thing so over the last few years we decided to get equipment in where we could burn and print our own CDs, get the prints all professionally done, and by doing that, those slower moving titles we've been putting back into stock. In fact we've been doing that for the last four years, but it's really like trying to stem the tide because as fast as we do them they're going out.
"There are still titles we will get done outside if the quantities of sale justify it, so usually a new title will get pressed outside and then we'll make a decision on how we get it repressed or reproduced when it goes out of stock. Some might be done pressed with glass masters and some might be done with this odd looking machine we have here in the building which looks like a telephone box. It does it automatically and we can do several titles at a time. It's not just the value of a CD on a commercial basis, we look very much at the value of the catalogue as a historical repository of recordings. We know that some other companies have reproduced CDs using the same materials we have and they use our CDs as source. What they'll do is use the most popular artists but those companies seem to come and go. But if Document disappeared all those nooks and crannies between the big artists would disappear too because other companies aren't interested in them."
As well as educational establishments and hardcore collectors regularly choosing items from the Document Records catalogue, Gary and Gillian have had quite a few contacts with relatives of the artists, the memory of whose historic recordings Document are keeping alive. Said Gillian, "Down the years a few churches helped us, the biggest being The Church Of God In Christ. They actually contacted us because they wondered what we had in the way of their members' recordings. We were going to work with them but the recession hit us hard."
Added Gary, "One of the families that contacted us was of the Reverend A W Nix. Until they made contact with us nobody had any idea what had happened to him after he made his recordings in the '20s. His big hit sermon 'Black Diamond Express To Hell' was released over here in the UK on Decca in the '40s. But he seemed to have gone to ground. Part of the material the family sent us was a lovely picture which was the front cover of his wedding invitation. He was still preaching in the '60s."
Neither Gary nor Gillian would describe themselves as Christians though both are clearly open to the spiritual dimension of life. Said Gillian, "Western rational thinking is to me very irrational because it comes from a very odd starting point." Added Gary, "I would like to think that I don't have a selfish attitude and I do care what is happening far beyond my house, my street, my country, my part of the world and the experiences that Gillian and I have had over the last couple of years at the hands of the bank and the medical profession, have made me take a rain check on a lot of thoughts and beliefs that I had."
Document Records were hit savagely by the financial crisis with first their bank withdrawing all means of backing and then a so-called financial trouble shooter demanding exorbitant fees. Yet, this amazing couple of musical visionaries have weathered the storm. In recent times they have started putting out new albums like the excellent Rev Gary Davis' 'Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964' as well as reissuing some of their vast catalogue with updated sleevenotes and colour sleeves. Also in recent times Document have received some unexpected celluloid plugs and licensing revenue with the Jim Carrey romantic comedy Fun With Dick And Jane using the obscure 1929 gospel recording of "Mighty Day" by the Bessemer Sunset Four originally issued on the album 'Complete Works In Chronological Order 1928-1930'; blues singer Georgia White's "Alley Boogie" being used in the Love Soup comedy series on BBC 1; and a horror movie The Reaping used a Document track.
But it's been the internet which has heralded the biggest change for Document down the years. Said Gary, "When I first went over and met Johnny it was actually at a party he held called The End Of The Project Party. As far as he was concerned Document was coming to a close, it was going into post-war and he didn't like it. If it had an instrument that had a wire going to it he didn't want to know. I remember Johnny screaming at a driver in a car, 'Turn that off'. Anybody would think it was an abominable rock band or something like that - it was Chuck Berry. So anyway, Johnny had this party. There were writers from all over the world, Paul Oliver (revered as probably the greatest living authority on the blues) and Chris Strachwitz were there, you name them. There was a guy that provided a lot of the religious stuff. He was a German collector they called 'Gospel Fritz'. They were all there and they had brought folders and photo albums but instead of family pictures, they were all pictures of 78 record labels! This party was in the catacombs of this old church along the river Rhine in Vienna and it was quite funny because one or two people were pointing out photographs, there were a lot taken, and they were all saying if you could have pointed to all the people there that could have taken over Document, none of them would have pointed at me, the stranger that nobody knew.
"Anyway, soon after Document came to Scotland I realised I'd taken it over at the worst possible time. Who would have known that in just a few months the whole phenomenon of downloading, pirating, this that and the other and the whole music industry seeming to go into complete freefall, I couldn't believe how bad my luck was. But then out of the blue we were approached by a company called The Orchard which is based in New York. They said they were a download distributor, setting this business up which was still in its early days. They liked the idea of taking one big massive catalogue which would really create a big part of what they were doing. I didn't know what to think and I dithered about this for a few months. I didn't know what kind of control there would be, how they could stop people taking something without paying for it. There was the whole thing about mechanical royalties, etc, and it seemed to be flirting with the very technology that was hurting the industry. But after a short while I agreed to do it.
"I remember going to a distributor conference down in London. The contract between Document and The Orchard had been signed but I was lagging behind in my understanding of the significance of downloading. At this conference there were a lot of record label representatives. This one guy's talk was going to be about the future of downloading and he began by saying, 'Hands up anybody that has already embraced downloading'. I was just about to eagerly put up my hand to be in with the rest but nobody put their hand up! So I didn't put my hand up either! I was concerned I might be thrown out into the street for embracing the devil's work! So consequently Document got involved with downloading at the right time. At the same time I contracted up to a company that stream music to universities and colleges, predominantly in the States, and they use [the Document catalogue] as part of their curriculum, and it's been amazing. So download sales have grown from a small part of the revenue to a significant part of it now. I have to say that when we were having our problems with the bank, it was download revenue which kept us going. If it wasn't for that I think we'd be done and finished."
One of Document's most recent releases is a barbed compilation 'A Banker's Blues: A Study Into The Whole Effect Of Fiscal Mischief'. Despite music emanating from the '20s and '30s from the likes of Blind Alfred Reed, Frankie 'Half-Pint' Jaxon and Memphis Minnie it is stunningly relevant to today's era of fat cat bankers and wheeler dealer accountants. Said Gillian, "Of course the sermons from Christian preachers on some of the albums we've released are warnings to people that the 'love of money' is a root of evil. The themes there are quite clear - what will befall you if you fall into this trap. Document Records was never started for the reason most record companies start - to make a profit. First and foremost it's been a passionate love of the music itself that has motivated us. That's why we're going despite the profligate ways of HBOS. Let's hope we can continue on for years to come."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.