I've been listening to a lot of radio these days--specifically WKCR and WFMU (88.9 and 99.1 on the FM dial in NYC, respecively). Both are free-form, non-commercial stations (the first, owned by Columbia, the other entirely listener-supported), meaning they essentially get to play whatever they want. What this programming freedom ends up sounding like is a mix of music mostly made from between 40 and 70 years ago. So unless the only people listening to these stations are me and a bunch of grannies in their rockers enjoying the popular hits of their golden years, I'm not the only one who thinks this olden-time music sounds, ironically, somehow relevant and exciting.
WKCR anchors its schedule with Phil Schaap's program, Bird Flight, which airs Monday through Friday from 8:20 to 9:40 am and is devoted to providing an exegesis of the music and career of Charlie Parker in chronological order. At the present moment we're in 1945 and through a combination of scratchy 78 rpm records, primitive bootleg recordings, and primary source stories, the birth of bebop unfolds in real time. Schaap typically plays each recording more than once and provides detailed notes on personnel, background, and zeitgeist of each one. One of his frequent exhortations is that this super close way of listening to music is how it used to be done back in the day, when the music was first being made. Aficionados used to gather together around the turntable for listening parties where they would replay records together, discuss the solos, and debate what it meant. I like that idea. Throughout the day, the station usually doesn't veer far from this time period in their music selection, devoting multi-hour blocks to 78 rpm recordings documenting the careers of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, or Duke Ellington on any given night.
WFMU, while aggressively eclectice across the board, definitely demonstrates a soft spot for late 60s-era garage rock and regional soul recordings. They pepper it with a healthy mix of 50s country, 70s african music, funk, and european prog rock, and early electronic music. Oh yeah, and they sometimes play new records too. But it helps if it was recorded using vintage equipment and a low-fi, hiss-laden aesthetic. WFMU even has a show called "The Old Codger Radio Program," where a curmudgeonly grandpa-voiced DJ yells at the "hippies with their filthy rock n roll" and plays all 78s by the type of bands that recorded in groups of siblings or went by minstrelesque nicknames like "Butterbeans."
Because I don't subscribe to XM, I regrettably can't access the program hosted by the ultimate American artist, Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, whose tagline is "Themes, Dreams, and Schemes." But I take any chance that I can get to listen to recordings of episodes and consider it the ultimate American radio show. Every week, Dylan produces a program devoted to a particular archetypal theme such as Marriage, The Devil, or Mothers. He alternates songs by the type of cats he probably cut his teeth emulating like Hank Snow and T-Bone Walker with encomiums for the artist or commentary on the lyrics. It sounds fantastic - like he's recording in some anonymous studio in an abandoned building somewhere in the middle of nowhere in some nebulous time.
And of course there are the host of amazing music blogs. Whether it's the sites that devote themselves to a particular corner of musical arcana, such as the self-explanatory prewarblues.org, or general interest sites whose picks tend to be decades-old just as often as they consist of newly released music. The curators of these sites seem to say, with all of recorded music at our fingertips (thanks in no small part to the Internet), why limit ourselves to stuff that's brand new?
One might be inclined to chalk this up to the isolated taste of a certain brand of retro-styled music listener that tends to inhabit noncommercial radio or start their own mp3 blog, but the trend seems to be a more wide-reaching one. According to the RIAA, the sale of vinyl records grew by 36% last year compared to a 17% decline in CD sales over the same period. Certainly one commonality that the radio programs and music blogs I've been frequenting share, aside from the colorful commentary with which they supplement their selections, is the occasional crackle and pop surface noise from the ubiquitous vinyl they play. So it's not just me who's in love with that vintage sound.
A lot of it probably has to do with a certain natal comfort - with every decade that one regresses in one's listening brings a retreat to the womb and beyond to an archetypal prehistory. To track the sound of Blind Willie McTell to Hank Williams to Bob Dylan is like understanding the winter thaw and the coming of Spring through the myth of Persephone - it provides a parable of causal relationships that begin to make sense of bewildering sounds that are just emerging and too new to be fully explained. Sometimes listening to a new artist or type of music can feel violent, confrontational, too much an indictment on your own life and what you surround yourself with--a challenge. Old music is cozy, intelligible, decodable. Then there's the thrill of the archive, which is very much apiece with our current googlized moment in time.