In 1877, two years before he created the bulb that bathed the world in incandescent light, Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph.
Nobody can say for sure which of those two devices had more impact over the course of the ensuing century. But it's probably a safe guess that many Americans today would sooner spend their evenings in the dark again than live without their stereos.
Unfortunately, finding the varieties of music that you'd like to play on that stereo can sometimes be a frustrating task. And this can be particularly true if you happen to live a couple of dozen four-wheel-drive miles from the nearest music merchant. However, even if you live next door to a record store, you might have the same problem, since the average album emporium these days carries little more than a few bins of country-western, a smattering of classical, and an avalanche of major-label rock ... an assortment that no more represents the full breadth, depth, and texture of the world's music than the menu at McDonald's typifies all the flavors and aromas of international cuisine.
There's good news for the musically malnourished, though. While the big American record companies have spent their money and efforts producing mainstream music and mass-marketing it in chain record stores, a whole slew of small, independent recording companies have emerged to offer a smorgasbord of aural alternatives. And along with these new studios there has come a different breed of record retailer: mail-order companies (sometimes the recording firms themselves) that are just as delighted to send an order to Midnight, Mississippi, as to midtown Manhattan.
Result: No matter where you live, no matter what your musical tastes, your mailbox can be the very best record store of all.
Roundup's master catalog features well over 6,000 album and tape titles on some 350 domestic and imported independent labels. Although the firm carries only a small amount of classical and no current pop or rock to speak of, it offers an outstanding selection in virtually any other category: folk (of almost every possible description) ... vintage rock 'n' roll ... ragtime, big band, and Dixieland jazz ... western swing ... reggae and zydeco ... gospel, bluegrass, and string band ... classic country-western ... and lots of other material, such as old-time radio shows. Best of all, many of Roundup's selections are discount-priced.
Roundup will mail you a copy of its massive master catalog and an issue of The Record Roundup (an enjoyable five-times-a-year publication for customers, with price updates, new-release listings, and helpful reviews).
Down Home also offers a staggering array of music of a wide variety of styles (except classical and contemporary rock and pop). The company's major emphasis, though, is on hard-to-find, vintage, and reissue recordings, on both independent and major labels, by all-time great performers of blues, rock 'n' roll, and country-western.
In fact, Down Home issues an impressive catalog for each of those categories, as well as one on folk music of the British Isles, Ireland, and Europe. All of the catalogs—which include some 1,500 to 2,000 records apiece—provide mini biographies of some of the artists featured, as well as brief reviews (or at least a list of songs) for every album offered.
Down Home's catalogs are excellent and informative. Furthermore, to receive samples of the company's every-six-weeks customer newsletter, you can simply send Down Home a request.
Founded in 1947 and long considered the leading producer of recorded authentic folk music, Folkways is "dedicated to the documentation and communication of mankind's culture" and today includes more than 1,700 titles in its catalog. Apparently, the company's definition of folk music encompasses almost all music (except pop and rock): Folkways offers not only a vast variety of traditional music from this country and virtually every other nation in the world ... but also collections of jazz, blues, gospel, classical, ragtime, religious music, and more.
In addition, the company produces an extensive series of highly regarded recordings for children, as well as many albums featuring language and musical-instrument instruction and dramatic readings of literary classics.
Folkways will send you its catalog free, and you may also want to ask for its brochure on selected recordings for children.
Folk and Ethnic
The Library of Congress
Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division
Not surprisingly, most of the recordings offered by the Library of Congress are of American folk music. The Library offers albums and cassettes of cowboy songs and cattle calls, American Indian music, sea chanteys, railroad songs, fiddle tunes, dances, humorous ditties, religious music, and labor and protest songs. One offering of particular interest is the LOC's 15-record set "Folk Music In America." In addition, the Library also sells an excellent series of spoken poetry and literature recordings, many of which feature readings by the authors themselves.
Indian House specializes in quality LP albums and cassette tapes of traditional American Indian music ranging from Ponca peyote songs to Navajo corn-grinding and shoe-dance songs. If you're new to the music of Native Americans, you may want to start with an album that features a number of different styles from various tribes, such as "Sounds of Indian America—Plains & Southwest" and "Pueblo Songs of the Southwest" (both of which were recorded at the 48th Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, New Mexico). Most of Indian House's titles, though, focus on one genre of song as performed by a specific tribe, to give you a more in-depth feel for the culture and aesthetics involved.
The Indian House catalog/brochure is free.
Canyon Records & Indian Arts
Canyon Records also specializes in the music of Native Americans (in fact, the outlet carries many Indian House titles), as well as that of Mexican and eastern Canadian tribes. In addition to an extensive selection of traditional music, however, Canyon offers recordings by Indian performers of contemporary works: gospel, modern-day powwow songs, rock, country-western, and "chicken scratch," a form of dance music popular among the desert tribes of southern Arizona.
Furthermore, Canyon offers recordings (on the Folkways label) of tribal music from around the world ... sells many fine books on Indian subjects ... and provides a full line of supplies for Indian crafts.
Contact Canyon Records for further information.
Folk music is alive and well at Andy's Front Hall, where Andy Spence and a few friends operate not only a mail-order record and musical-instrument business but also an up and coming recording studio. Andy's lists approximately 3,000 album titles on well over 100 independent labels. No matter what kind of folk your ears are hankering for, you'll likely find it at Andy's.
Then again, if you happen to like the idea of making your own music, Andy's Front Hall also offers a good number of instrument instruction records and books and an interesting assortment of instruments.
Andy's Front Hall catalog is free.
Now, if you're partial to the lilting strains of traditional Irish, Scottish, and British music—or if you enjoy listening to the folk music of virtually any other part of the world (Arabia, Bali, Chad, Chile, China, Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Rumania, Thailand, the U.S.S.R., or Venezuela ... to name only a few!)—you'll find special delight in Lark in the Morning's 2,000-plus record selection. The company also offers a good assortment of contemporary American folk music and lots of excellent instrument-instruction recordings and books.
The vast bulk of Lark in the Morning's 102-page catalog, though, is devoted to fine instruments: not only guitars, dulcimers, mandolins, and banjos but also bagpipes, bouzoukis, cimbaloms, steel drums, fifes and flutes, harps, hurdy-gurdies, accordions, alpenhorns, and ... well, you get the idea. There are lots of instruments here.
An entirely different genre of music, generally known as "New Age" or "New Consciousness" music, has emerged over the past few years, to the delight of a growing audience. The music is difficult to define, simply because it's so varied: from Gregorian chants to meditative, electronically synthesized "journeys of the mind." But all New Age music is distinctly inner music, to be experienced rather than merely listened to.
Both Narada and Fortuna offer wide selections by many fine performers (including, for example, Paul Winter, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Steven Halpern, and Keith Jarrett).
Progressive and Experimental
New Music Distribution Service
Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association, Inc.
Founded in 1972 and already becoming something of a legend, NMDS is a nonprofit organization that promotes independently produced recordings of distinctly noncommercial "new music": modern jazz, contemporary classical, electronic, experimental rock, and otherwise avant-garde material by artists whom the major labels won't touch with a 10-foot contract. In its dozen years of life, New Music Distribution Service has provided thousands of creative, uncompromising musicians with a much-needed way to bring their work (music that is at least on, and often beyond, the cutting edge) to an audience. And NMDS has given the public an opportunity to explore a whole new—and wildly diverse—musical world, one that's far, far away from Top 40 ... and from anything else you've probably ever heard on the radio.
NMDS's handsome (and free) 12th Anniversary catalog, which includes more than 1,500 titles by over 300 independent producers, can be your ticket to this exciting new turf. Because the folks there recognize that many people are unfamiliar with the music and artists offered, NMDS briefly reviews all albums ... and, in addition, offers an introductory package deal that allows you to choose six albums from a list of exemplary "new music" recordings.
Chesterfield Music Shops, Inc.
If you're looking for low-priced LP's or cassette tapes of classical, folk, jazz, children's, or popular music, you may well want to put your name on Chesterfield's mailing list. Every few months the company publishes a sale bulletin that lists hundreds of titles (the selection changes with each promotion) at budget or substantially discounted prices. Not all of the productions, of course, are of top quality, but many are excellent values for the money. The company seems particularly adept at offering good import recordings at bargain prices.
Contact the folks at Chesterfield, and they'll start sending you their bulletins.
Goldmine is the world's largest magazine for record collectors. The folks who produce the twice-a-month tabloid don't sell records themselves, but the magazine is the best possible place to go to find amateur and professional dealers who do. The bulk of any given issue is made up of ads from across the country that list thousands of albums for auction (by mail) or set-price sale. If you collect records, especially rare or vintage rock (but you'll find plenty of blues, country-western, and jazz in the magazine too), you'll undoubtedly come to consider Goldmine the mother lode. This publication is also your best bet if you're not really a collector but would dearly love to find a mint-condition copy of some favorite old 45 or LP ("I Lost My Heart to the Junkman" by Patti La Belle & the Blue Belles, for instance, or maybe "Duane a Go Go" by Duane Eddy).
In addition to the many ad listings, each edition of Goldmine also includes in-depth articles, interviews, reviews, discographies, and other interesting features. The folks at Goldmine say they'll send a sample copy for free!