Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Let Nothing Be Lost

Photo by Philippe Artero
We all have our passions. Good songwriting is one of mine. My pantheon includes grizzled veterans like Dylan and Steve Earle, relative newcomers like Conor Oberst, minor rocking word-mongers like Ian Hunter, Paul Westerberg, and Graham Parker, and choice imports like Paul Kelly. It's a long list of semi-obscure names, from Todd Snider and Peter Case to Butch Hancock and Bill Morrissey.

Bill Morrissey died a traveling musician's death this past weekend, alone in a hotel room in Georgia, on his way back to New Hampshire from a series of gigs in the South. Whether his failing health or the hellhound on his trail caught up to him really doesn't matter. He's gone, and the world is down one quirky voice, one wicked sense of humor, one consummate lyrical craftsman -- and, oddly enough for folk music--one subtle arranger of horns.

Bill's work remains, though: 12 recordings, a novel published in 1997 by Knopf, and his now-spectral presence on YouTube. Morrissey somehow grafted the jaunty blues of Mississippi John Hurt onto a small-town northern New England world. You could say he originated a modest new genre: the north-country blues. Try "Night Shift." But his songs also showed wit and verve, like "Big Leg Ida." He was a small-scale musician with a unique sound and sensibility, the sort of artist who is an acquired taste, and whose works might easily disappear.

As with most small-scale artists, there are inconsistencies in his catalog, and it is easy to miss important distinctions. His first album "Bill Morrissey" was released on LP in 1984 by Reckless Records, a small label based in Cambridge, MA. Its 12 tracks exude that first-album mix of energy and pent-up ambition. Reckless 1917 (its catalog #) never made the transition to CD. Instead, in 1991, Morrissey re-recorded the same songs (plus a few others) directly to DAT (remember that format?) for a new label. These new versions became the CD version, which was released as Philo 1105.

Both recordings are called "Bill Morrissey." Both contain the same songs in the same order. But Reckless 1917 and Philo1105 are very different works. Seven years and two other albums separate them. The singer's take on the songs has softened, phrasings have become more subtle. There's more experience, but less bite. The guitar is lower in the mix. All these years later, it is fascinating to compare the two, and to witness the changes that time and continuing work have wrought on the artist. This is only possible because both versions still exist.

But that shared existence is tenuous. I suppose that's why I dwell on Bill's legacy in the context of deselection. This is content I care about and know a lot about. I believe it matters that his full range of work be preserved and remain accessible to anyone who may be interested. I happen to own that original LP, because I bought it back in 1984. It has languished on my unweeded and largely untouched shelves of vinyl for many years. But yesterday I needed it, because the 1991 version of "Barstow" on my MP3 player didn't seem quite right. I needed something more like the first time I heard it from the tiny stage at The Stone Church, before it was ever recorded. I needed something very specific.

This is an experience common to any expert in any field. This is why we have to be so careful about the scholarly and cultural record. Minute variations can matter. In comparing these two versions of "Bill Morrissey" without sufficient care, it would be easy to conclude, erroneously, that they were the same--and to discard one of them. As we begin to draw down our redundant library collections, we need to be exacting in our determination of what is redundant and what is unique. We need to be certain that we're not discarding some irreplaceable piece of the record, even if it's only of interest to a handful of experts or zealots. While ultimately we may not need many copies of anything, it is essential that we keep at least one copy of everything--even if that work has not been used for decades.

In my world, it's bad enough that Bill Morrissey the man has gone to join Django and Robert Johnson. I'm glad not to have compounded the loss by tossing an LP I hadn't touched for years. Bill's record is complete, if only in my basement. As librarians, we need to recognize that this fear of irretrievable loss exists for every corner of our collections. The risk of loss is real. We need to recognize this and take commensurate care as we manage our collections down. We all have our passions.

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