Gut Bucket Research
Aural adventures at the far edges of music and sound
Dear readers, the good folks at Substack, and even many writers, keep saying that being niche and specialized is the best way to get more subscribers. It’s like creating a recognizable brand, I guess. Tokyo Calling, then, should be considered a failure because my newsletter is all over the place. I just can’t help writing about what I like, and I happen to like many things. Like zines. So here’s my first zine-related piece.
Then again, zine-making is also related to reading , writing, and indie culture, which I have already covered in Tokyo Calling (just the follow the links above), and this particular zine is about another of my passions, music. Anyway, I hope you like it.
Ah, and be sure to listen to at least a few of the songs I have uploaded. Step out of your comfort zone and start exploring new musical universes.
One zine I have particularly enjoyed in the past year is Gut Bucket Research (pictured above), a publication about “unusual kinds of music.” The following is an interview I did with its creator, Canadian zine-maker and mail artist David Tighe. I like how he talks about “musics.” The plural is not a mistake.
If you are curious to learn about such unorthodox musical expressions as throat singing, eefing, yodeling, hollerin’, unusual natural sounds and interspecies communication, this zine’s for you.
What is "gut bucket scholarship"?
For better or for worse I am not a musicologist or an academic historian, and this informs my approach to research. For readers who don't know, a gut bucket is a musical instrument made from a washtub, a broom handle and any sort of string. It is a make shift instrument which poverty made necessary, but which musicians (often African American) made vibrant music on. What could be a limitation is by the alchemical process of radical human creativity transformed into something great.
On a more modest scale, my own research tries to make a positive out of what could be limitation. I have found that by not being limited by academic rules I have sometimes been able to make connections that are unusual or might be difficult to see for people with a different perspective. I am inspired by Anarcho-Surrealism and the writing of Ron Sakolsky, who originally gifted me the name of the zine. Surrealists talk about Eruptions of the Marvelous, and surely that is what I experienced the first time I heard Arthur Miles break into his throat singing (and every time since). Objective chance has led me to discover material relevant to my musical researches in unlikely places. An Anarchist anthropologist provided me with details of a secret whistled language among the Guayaki in Paraguay, just as I was starting to write an issue about whistling.
The following video is about Spain, not Paraguay, but you get the idea.
Around the same time, reading a history of the Lumbee (of North Carolina) lead to an account of a very strange sounding vocal technique, perhaps whistling and singing simultaneously. Both these books I was reading as research for another zine, No Quarter which focuses on radical history from an anarchist perspective.
I was very influenced by radical historian Hugo Prosper Leaming and Ron Sakolsky's book (co-edited with James Koehnline) Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture (Autonomedia, 1993) when I started doing Gut Bucket Research. The mystery of Arthur Miles's throat singing or the origins of eefing seemed to be related to Leaming's writings about Maroon communities somehow. This was my intuition. So much of the history of music in North America is deeply rooted in (often anti-authoritarian) politics and the rejection of slavery and servitude. You see this in recent histories of the banjo, for instance.
All of my zines are different expressions of interrelated things. My collage work that goes into The Secret of the Moon's Rotation is an attempt at a visual language expressing the political, cultural, musical and spiritual preoccupations that I write about in No Quarter or Gut Bucket Research.
By the way, do you know what eefing is? Here’s Jimmy Riddle in action.
My zines reach a fairly broad audience, and certainly quite a different one than academic books about ethnomusicology or the history of music. I would love for as broad an audience as possible to be reading Theodore Levin's books (Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond, for instance), listening to eefing, thinking about whistled languages, grappling with sound poetry and vocal improvisation.
Welcome to Tuva.
I want to talk to people about zoomusicology (Emily Doolittle's work, for instance), field hollers, lyrebirds, weird yodeling, and the amazing discovery they just made listening to an old field recording or 78.
A fine example of hollerin’
Yodeling, but not the Swiss variety
And the extraordinary lyrebird, master of imitation.
Just thinking about the vast quantities of 78 rpm records and field recordings that are waiting for anyone to listen to them fills me with a feeling somewhere between glee and despair. I struggle to give a careful listen to all the music I already own. I'm inspired by all the great research that is being done and all the great music new and old that I hear.
When and why did you get interested in eefing, throat singing, whistling and more in general unconventional musical expression?
I remember being blown away the first time I ever heard Huun Huur Tu (the famous Tuvan throat singers). This must have been in my early twenties, 1999 or 2000. Around the same time, I heard Phil Minton and possibly some other vocal improvisers with pretty wild extended vocal techniques. A bit later Lauren Newton and Sainkho Namtchylak. I'm sure I heard Tibetan Buddhist chant around the same time, and Bulgarian polyphony.
The Calgary Public Library had a really good music collection back then and I heard all sorts of stuff. Certainly, the Secret Museum of Mankind CDs, which had some great examples of throat-singing. Also, an interesting CD on the Hungarian label Hungaroton of field recordings from Mongolia.
In 2008 I heard the 1929 recording of Arthur Miles, the throat-singing Texas cowboy singer via Eli Smith's interview with Pat Conte on Smith's Down Home Radio. That really blew my mind. I had been listening to compilations of 78 rpm recordings for almost a decade at that point, including Conte's own Secret Museum of the Air, but the strangeness of a Texas cowboy singer throat-singing really fired my imagination. In 2010 I did a 24-hour zine about the subject, with a transcription of the interview and a lot of speculation. And things just kind of snow-balled from there.
Arthur Miles, throat singing and yodeling
I discovered eefing a few months after the first issue of Gut Bucket Research came out. My partner CDB pulled out a strange record from the stacks at Recordland, a Calgary record store. It was “Eefin-nany Down Home” by Billy Hutch, which had some pretty colorful description about eefing. I bought it hoping it would be as interesting as the description made it sound. Luckily it was pretty great, the eefing anyway.
A quick internet search at home lead me to extensive information on the WFMU blog and then a Deke Dickerson article. Around this time, I first encountered Bart Plantenga's book Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, 2004), which renewed my interest in yodeling and blew my mind. Both of his yodeling books cannot be recommended too highly (Yodel in Hi-Fi being the other).
From there my enthusiasm has never really flagged. There has been a fair amount of interest in Gut Bucket Research from the first issue and that has encouraged me to write, and there has been no shortage to listen and write about. These days my mind is being blown by improvising vocalists like Charmaine Lee, Gabriel Dharmoo, and many others.
Many records you write about were released in the early years of the recording industry. Do you think the music industry as a whole has become less interesting or at least less adventurous?
It does seem that in the early decades of the recorded music industry there was less of a sense of what would work as a commercial product, what could be sold. The OKeh Laughing Record is a great example of a record that was a pretty big hit that makes very little sense to anyone in 2022. Why were people buying a record of someone laughing?
Or Charles Kellog's whistled birdsong imitation? Both of these examples have been reissued on albums on Canary Records which I strongly recommend. There is certainly a lot of music released commercially in the 78 era which I really love. Advances in recording technologies have always seemed to go hand in hand with a smoothing out of music, which I personally detest. I don't want the rough edges removed or performances to be encouraged towards well-trodden paths.
A lot of what was going on in the early days of recorded music was companies trying to sell local music to communities, and the communities themselves changed or ceased to exist. There are all sorts of lovely regional folk music from all over France released on 78rpm records. But the 78-era coincided with urbanization, the rise of national radio, and campaigns of linguistic nationalism in France. There are all sorts of nice music in the Auvergnat language from the Auvergne region. Now Auvergne is underpopulated because people moved to Paris for jobs and people mostly speak French.
I think as long as there is recorded music there will be interesting music getting released, maybe self-released on small independent labels or at least pretty marginal to the music industry.
You devote a lot of space to what can be broadly defined as folk music. What attracts you to this genre?
Traditional musics from around the world hold a lot of interest for me. As someone attracted to a wide range of vocal techniques and styles, ethnographic recordings have a lot more to offer than popular genres. All sorts of pop music (with a few rare exceptions) leave me completely cold. I just can't listen to shitty rock music and I don't find anything interesting about it.
In terms of history, there is also so much going on in various sorts of traditional music. For a while I was very interested in outlaw ballads from the British Isles. They are very interesting, both textually and politically. Those were the easiest for me because I am mono-lingual, but there are similar traditions in various parts of the world, Romania and Hungary, for instance. Mexico is another good example. Bandits and revolutionaries. Anarchists.
There are just so many great instruments! Bagpipes from all over the world, jaw harps, bamboo mouth organs (like the sheng from China), banjo, nyckelharpa, hurdy gurdy, all the oboes and other double reeds, end-blown flutes, all the lovely drone strings in Hindustani instruments, and so on. All those Appalachian fiddle tunings!
I’d never heard of the nyckelharpa, so I checked it out.
But I do know the hurdy gurdy, and I love it.
The first issue of your zine is devoted to Arthur Miles's "The Lonely Cowboy," a little-known song whose peculiarity is that Miles not only plays guitar and yodels but even throat sings. You wrote that "One of the most wonderful things about "The Lonely Cowboy" is that it can remind us how little we know about the past." What did you mean with that?
When I first heard Arthur Miles, like many people I thought, “How is this even possible? How could there be a throat-singing cowboy in the late 20s?” Looking into Arthur Miles led to a lot of speculation, a lot of very interesting and fruitful tangents (I'm still doing the zine more than a decade later!), but no definite answers.
In general, the past is very opaque to the present. 93 years is a relatively long time and even historians have an incomplete knowledge of their area of specialty. When I started, I had a lot of questions about the context that Arthur Miles made music in. I read a lot of academic sources, but there are a lot of obstacles to accessing information (books, journal articles) for someone outside academia. I wanted to know, for instance, if it was possible that Miles had come in contact with a throat singer from Tuva or Mongolia. Had there been any immigration to the US from those countries in 1929?
How could there be a throat-singing cowboy in the late 20s?
For various reasons I don't think it is likely that Miles learned throat singing by contact with another singer, but I still don't have a good answer about the immigration question. What we don't know about the past is sometimes unknowable based on available sources, sometimes the work hasn't been done yet, and sometimes a historian has done the work, but there might be issues of transmission to the general public, or enthusiastic non-specialists.
Another question I had was if it was possible that there existed throat-singing techniques among any Native American peoples. So much of the lifeways of Indigenous North Americans has been extinguished over the years, and certainly a lot of traditions still hung on in the early 20th or late 19th century that are now gone. This is an area I know next to nothing about and don't know which sources to look at.
It is worth noting that people continue to research, and recently a lot of new information came out about Arthur Miles, based largely on newly digitized newspapers. The work was done by Tony Russel and is published in his book Rural Rhythm: The Story of Old Time Country Music in 78 Records (Oxford, 2021). As alluded to in the title, “Lonely Cowboy” is only one of the 78rpm records that Russel discusses. The book is highly recommended.
In your zine you have also written about unusual natural sounds, animal imitation and interspecies communication. It seems that a walk in the park can also be enjoyed from an aural point of view. Has growing up in Alberta, Canada affected your appreciation of nature from this point of view?
I grew up in a small city in Alberta, across the street from native prairie, which was nice. I definitely had an appreciation for birdsong and antelope and the natural world. I think it was really listening to avant-garde musics that made me expand my listening. To really take in the sound world around me. I think that I had already started before coming into concepts like Pauline Oliveros's “deep listening” or R. Murray Schaefer's writings about soundscape. So, was/is there something particular about Alberta? Sure, although I think wherever you are, you can start listening more intently.
The issue about unusual natural sounds came about when I discovered William Corliss and his Sourcebook Project. Corliss has continued the work of Charles Fort by assembling as many anomalous reports as possible from scientific journals. The sounds are from the Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena. There are sourcebooks about geology, archaeology, biology, etc. Great stuff.
This is one of the best albums I discovered thanks to David’s zine: droning cicadas, dragonflies and other insects display their charm as masters of the High Frequency Airwaves, recorded live and unprocessed.
Anyone interested in Gut Bucket Research or any of David’s zines can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to David Tighe, 1120 13 St. S, Lethbridge AB, T1K 1S7, Canada. He likes zine trades.
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