Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. To hear the full program, listen on WWNO Saturdays at 7 or Sundays at 6, or at americanroutes.org.
The artist, musician and record collector, Robert Crumb is an icon of the American counter-culture. The father of the underground comic movement, Crumb has also used his pen and ink drawing style in books and album covers to satirize contemporary American life. Crumb’s love of the intimate idea of village life also led him to collect old ‘78s, recordings that stimulated his visual imagination and portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians from the 1920's onwards. Our conversation with R. Crumb began with early memories of music.
RC: My mother used to tell this story that when I was really little, like three years old, I would sit on this rocking chair on the front porch and she had this old radio that she’d put on the window sill and play - this is in Philadelphia- play polka music. And I would rock this rocking chair furiously in time with this polka music. She said I really loved polka music.
And then the 50s, I don't know, the early 50s, late 40s, was a pretty bleak period for middle class white America as far as music goes. And my parents were not particularly interested in less than the most popular mainstream music like country-western or rhythm and blues or even polka music, per se. They listened to Vaughn Monroe and Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney. It’s my mother, that’s what she liked to listen to, that kind of mainstream stuff. I remember my mother would be cleaning the house and have the radio on - this music was so dreary and depressing to me.
And then I started hearing old music in cartoons on TV- in Laurel and Hardy and that stuff, which had this music that was so appealing to me. I don’t know why; it really appealed to me.
Much later I found out that the Hal Roach that were so appealing as a kid were all written and orchestrated and recorded by a man named Leroy Shield who’s really an unsung hero of American music. He’s a great composer, those Hal Roach themes are wonderful and I still love them.
And then about the time I was 16, 17, I was always looking in old second hand shops for old comics and stuff, I was already into that collecting thing, I was such a compulsive collector. And I started noticing there were '78s- piles of them in these second hand shops
NS It was old media at that point
RC: It was right at the end of the '78 era. '78s were phasing out in '58, '59, '60, just about the time I discovered them. And one time out of curiosity, I remember I bought this '78, they were very cheap, ten cents. And I brought it home, and it was called “Down in the Cemetery” by a singer named Billy Bird. Part of the reason I bought it was because I was just attracted to the label design. It was this old fashioned, obviously from the twenties label. And the music was so exotic and strange to me, down in the cemetery. And I listened to it a couple times, and I put it in this box under my bed with all my comics and stuff and it got broken.
NS: I was gonna ask if it was here on this great wall of '78s.
RC: Well, actually I just got a new copy in the past few months.
NS: You did?
NS: You think we could hear it at some point?
RC: Down In The Cemetery, by Billy Bird, yeah, sure I'll play it.