Homegrown Music: Stereo System Upgrade and Independent Music

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Marc Bristol and other Washington State grassroots musicians posing with the instruments (except the guy with the ax) they use to perform homegrown music.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.

Affordable Stereo System Upgrade

You say your homestead’s sound system is made up of a bargain basement transistor radio and a portable cassette player, but that you daydream of owning a big-bucks stereo setup? Well sir, I can’t work miracles, but I can tell you how–for little or no money–you can get your inexpensive “music makers” to put out “big system” sound!

The simple fact is that most portable radios and recorders are capable of much more accurate sound reproduction than their small speakers can deliver. So… all you have to do to bring the little electronic marvels “up to snuff” is hook ’em to high-fidelity speakers!

Just what do I mean by “high-fidelity speakers”–and how much will it cost? Well, I’m talking about the speakers that used to be standard features on most large black-and-white television sets (they were usually covered by a big grille cloth and positioned on the bottom of the TV’s cabinet). The old picture boxes have given up the ghost for the most part, so a trip to the dump (or a “broken televisions hauled away free” ad) should turn up all of the no-cost speakers you’ll need!

In order to evaluate your bounty of recycled speakers, however, you’ll have to make a special cord with which to to test (and use) them. You’ll need four to six feet of speaker wire (available at stereo shops or hardware stores for about 10¢ per foot), a small “plug” (this can be found in electronic parts stores. Be sure to buy the right size to fit the earphone jack of your radio or tape player), and a pair of alligator clips (pick ’em up when you buy the plug). Simply connect the plug to one end of the twin wire, and fasten the two clips–one to each wire–at the other end. (If you don’t want to solder the parts in place, you can buy both the clips and the plug with screw-type connections.)

With your test cord made, you’re ready to try out some speakers. First, either remove the “sounders” from the old TV cabinet, or leave ’em in and take out the rest of the television’s “guts.” (Whether you want to use the speakers in their original cabinet or not, be especially careful when handling or working near the picture tube. Such components are under considerable pressure and can implode dangerously.) Then just use your wire to connect a portable radio or cassette player’s earphone jack to the two terminals on the back of the speaker itself, and be prepared to be “blown away” by the power and range of the sounds your little set will suddenly be capable of producing!

The same add-a-component concept can bring surprising results at the “other end” of a small tape recorder, too. Such sets usually come equipped with their own tiny microphones, but if you can contrive to connect a better mic to the unit’s external microphone input you’ll be rewarded with better sound from your speakers (especially if those components have already been improved as described above).

Of course, most good mikes don’t have miniature jacks on the ends of their cords, but adapters are available (again, check electronic parts stores) that’ll allow you to make the connection. Try it out. I guarantee that–once you upgrade the microphone and speaker on your low-cost cassette player as I’ve suggested–you’ll be truly impressed with the recorder’s “rich” performance.

Independent Music: More Good News

Last year this column listed a number of independent record companies (firms that are producing albums with down-home music on ’em instead of the usual media-hyped disco trash that the big companies are offering). Since that article drew a good bit of response from you folks, I’ve prepared a second listing … and I plan to continue to mention small producers as I gather information on ’em. After all, such “little guys” help to keep available the kind of music that many of us MOTHER EARTH NEWS-types like best.

(Any companies or individuals that might be inclined to write to me for a listing should know, however, that I usually put my column together about four months before it actually appears. So Homegrown Music doesn’t exactly provide instant press coverage!)

Adelphi Records Inc. is primarily concerned with the East Coast folk music scene. The people there sent me several albums to try out, including Saul Broudy’s Travels With Broudy… which is a nice mixed bag of songs by one very talented harmonica player and singer. I don’t know whether Adelphi puts out a catalog or what the company charges per album, but a letter (with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a dollar for the firm’s trouble) should get you some kind of list of the albums it offers.

Wise Women Enterprises is a company that aims to give women a crack at the production end of the recording industry (an area that–in larger firms–they are often left out of), as well as at performing. The firm sent me an album called Debutante, by Willie Tyson, which is an outstanding combination of very beautiful music and meaningful social protest. I particularly recommend the song “Debutante Ball,” a sharp comparison between certain human courtship rituals and the proceedings at a local cattle auction.

Swallowtail Records offers a free one-page catalog including English ballads, traditional American and Balkan tunes, contemporary music, and string bands.

Margaret Plays the Musical Saw is a collection of old melodies performed by a seventy-year-old grandmother and veteran of the vaudeville stage. Margaret only recently took up the musical saw (the violin was her instrument for most of her first 60 years!), but she’s a masterful performer.

Henry the Fiddler and Friends … The First Album is an album recorded live at Fiddler’s Grove (Union Grove, North Carolina). The disc really captures the excitement of the kind of jam sessions that are among the most important features of any folk festival.

Brand New Rose (by Jef Jaison, Virgin Vinyl Records) is a self-produced collection of rock-oriented tunes. Jef’s album is noteworthy for reasons beyond its musical appeal (which is considerable), too: For one thing, its low price reflects the artist’s personal crusade against the inflationary costs of major record company productions, and–for another–“Brand New Rose” marks my own recording debut playing washboard backup to a tune about Jef’s 1946 Oldsmobile! (I plan to devote an entire column to self-produced records, like Jef’s, in the near future.)

Riversong (by Mark Henley, Sanskrit Records) is a fine acoustic album that’s full of the kind of mellow romanticism I think of as typical of Midwestern folk music. The sensitive songs are backed by beautiful arrangements featuring guitar, banjo, mandolin, percussion instruments, piano, violin, cello, and vocal harmonies.

Still Lifes (by Tom Smith, Lone Oak Publications) is a kind of introspective solo acoustic guitar album that captures the special mood of a relaxed cafe performance.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a mail order distributor that carries several old-timey, traditional, and bluegrass labels: Real Life Records offers a free catalog and a decreasing price scale to its customers: The first record you order will cost $5.50, and each succeeding album on the same order–up to 10 titles–is 20¢ less; the tenth record would only cost you $3.70! That’s a “Real Life” bargain any way you look at it!

Before I close I’d like to thank the fine folks at Biscuit City Records, Bay Records, and Takoma Records for keeping me up to date on their newest productions. All three of these companies are maintaining a high quality of folk-oriented recordings.