Sep 11, 2008, 06:36AM

Cosmic American Music

Nathan Salsburg has been digging up the best folk music from all over the world for years. One hopes a new Drag City collaboration will bring him the recognition he deserves.

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A couple of years ago a friend alerted me to Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone, a website I, for some reason or another, only got around to looking at last week. And damn, was I missing out. GDOS was a radio show on MOMA's P.S.1 Art Radio, hosted by Nathan Salsburg, a Kentucky folk musician and former member of the now-defunct Halifax Pier, as well as the production manager of the Alan Lomax Collection. Lomax was the folklorist who made some of the earliest recordings of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Muddy Waters, anthologizing such recordings for The Library of Congress, before working for the BBC and writing his acclaimed music bio of Jelly Roll Morton, Mister Jelly Roll, and his award-winning memoir, The Land Where The Blues Began.

"It was hard for me," Salsburg wrote in a recent email, "to be immersed in so much wonderful music all day long but have very little opportunity to share it with folks. My father and grandfather are/were both in radio and I've always been attracted to it." When a friend who was working for P.S.1 told Salsburg he could get him a radio show, Salsburg went for it. "I sent what was admittedly a very eager and overwrought essay pitching the show," Salsburg said. But it worked. Salsburg was hired on in early 2005.

On GDOS, broadcast every two or three weeks between May 23, 2005 and August 7, 2006, Salsburg put together half hour programs of traditional American folk music, with themes like "I'd Rather Be Sloppy Drunk Than Any Way That I Know" and "Floods, Levees, and R. L. Burnside in Memoriam." "Half-hour shows kinda demanded thematic consistency, so I tried to run a specific genre, subject, or region for each program."

Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone takes it's name from the song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, which I first heard on Will Oldham's Daytrotter Session. Salsburg himself has played with Oldham, and also introduced Oldham to Lunsford's music. When Salsburg was managing a 2006 Lomax exhibit and folk concert series at a New York art gallery, he asked Oldham to open for Hazel Dickens. When Oldham asked Salsburg what songs to play, Salsburg sent him "Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone," which he’s covered regularly ever since.

On GDOS, Salsburg also used songs from the Anthology of World Music and other recordings of traditional Asian, European, and African folk music for many of his programs, including "North African 45s" and "Music From the Axis of Evil and Other Thorns in Our Side," that exclusively featured such music. The latter was particularly well produced, with songs like "Song of the Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il" by Korean People's Army Concert Troupe and a traditional Iranian love song from the Luristan and Fars Provinces, with the beautiful and unexpected lines: "Remove the scarf which you wear on your chest/So that I can touch your breasts./What kind of politics are you doing now?"

Salsburg now works on Root Hog Or Die on New York's East Village Radio, more or less a continuation of his work on GDOS. He also blogs and maintains a directory of free mp3 world music websites and radio programs, including the John Donald Robb Collection, featuring Southwestern "Native material (dance tunes, ritual pieces, game songs), lots of corridos, religious performances, frontier and border ballads both Hispanic and Anglo, and a couple really nice cowboy pieces," and The Secret Museum of the Air on WFMU which Salsburg describes as "a show... so completely without peer as to almost make you desperate."

Currently, Salsburg is working on collaboration with Drag City called Twos & Fews. As he explains the title, "It's a black saying from the teens, maybe? It means small change; like, "Sorry I can't afford it—I only have twos and fews." Twos & Fews, like Root Hog or Die and GDOS before it, will offer traditional American and international folk with "occasional doo wop, or hip hop, or roots reggae music." Their first release, I Want to Go Where Things are Beautiful, a collection by Nimrod Workman is due out November 18. Samples can be found at the Twos & Fews MySpace.


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