Folkways Fast Five: Richard Burgess
Fast Five is a speed-interview that asks Smithsonian Folkways Recordings staff five questions about the collection.
Hello, and welcome to Fast Five, where we at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings take aside a member of the staff and ask them five fast questions about their favorite parts of the collection. I’m Hannah Judd, and I am here today with Richard Burgess. Could you introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Richard Burgess, I’m associate director for business strategies at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings right now.
What was your first Folkways album?
Well, you know, I actually can’t exactly remember, because I bought it in New Zealand. I remember exactly what was on it, and I believe it was Take This Hammer, which would have been a 10-inch monophonic album from the fifties of Lead Belly, but I remember that “Irene” was on it, “Goodnight Irene,” and that just blew my mind, and the whole album actually blew my mind.
I always say the reason why I’m at Folkways is because of buying that album; I was pretty young and I’d never heard anything like it. Although I’d heard versions of songs that Lead Belly did by Lonnie Donegan, because I grew up in England and he was this king of skiffle, and I thought he was the best thing ever, until I heard Lead Belly and realized where Lonnie Donegan had gotten his music from. I always say that the power of Lead Belly is such that somebody can kind of take what he does, and it’s still powerful, even when it’s kind of diluted in a way.
So it could have been a compilation album; I remember it looked a lot like the cover of Take This Hammer, that amazing picture—there’s several covers for that album actually, but there’s one really amazing picture of Lead Belly, he looks so powerful. But in New Zealand, different record labels put things out and it could have been a licensed version or something like that.
What are your current favorite albums?
Well, I have so many, I thought about that, and I think my current favorite of our recent releases would be Fannie Lou Hamer [Songs My Mother Taught Me] without question. That’s just a powerful record and I think it harks back to a lot of the things that Folkways did back in the day: it really speaks to struggle and oppression, and the people’s voice. It’s very poignant, it touches you, there’s no question about that for me.
Other favorites I have, well, The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan I really love, that’s been my favorite—that came out shortly after I got here, about six months, eight months after I got here, and I loved it then and I love it now. It’s just a beautiful set, it’s two CDs, incredibly interesting music. The notes are amazing, Ted Levin, just really, I learned so much when I read those notes. The images are incredible, the design is beautiful, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful set.
And then I think Luiz Bonfa too, I mean, I could go on and on, there’s so many favorites. I really like the Luiz Bonfa record [Solo in Rio 1959], he was one of the architects of bossa nova, and that’s a favorite kind of music, and Brazillian music’s a favorite of mine, so that’s a beautiful record too and that came out quite a long time ago.
What do you think a hidden gem in the collection is?
Well, again, there’s thousands of hidden gems, you know, in almost every genre. Some of the things I think are really hidden, because we don’t do them anymore, are the spoken word albums. Particularly things like Buckminster Fuller Speaks His Mind, that’s a really great record, and there really isn’t a lot of stuff out there where you can hear Buckminster Fuller speaking. You can barely understand what he’s saying on the recording, but it’s really fascinating to hear the man’s voice; he was such a brilliant man.
I’m a drummer, so the Baby Dodds album [Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 1: Baby Dodds Talking and Drum Solos], I love that, where he’s explaining his technique and nerve rolls, and it’s really cool to hear the man himself again, talking about his work, and he’s so legendary in the world of jazz and the world of drumming.
Then there’s all those things like the Sounds of My City: The Stories, Music and Sounds of the People of New York, we don’t do those kinds of things anymore, and that’s an amazing, almost obsessive kind of recording. But you know, New York City sounds very different then than it did now.
What is your favorite album art?
Again, I could go on and on about this, but I think when it comes down to it, when I really sort of dig deep and I go “okay, how do I define my absolute favorite album art?” it comes down to one artist, and that’s Ronald Clyne. Now, there are other great artists too, and I’m going to say another great piece of art by somebody else, but I particularly love Ronald Clyne’s work. I think that the jazz series that he did, back in the fifties, that actually inspired this jazz set that the recorder’s sitting on top of [Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology], in fact the font is the same font and the colors are the same colors that he used.
When we were designing this jazz set, we went into the job bags that Ronald Clyne had sent over to Folkways, we still have those, and we found out that the colors come from paint chips that he got from a paint store. Which is really hilarious, I think, but it sort of speaks to the improvisational nature of his work.
He was part of these New York progressive artists, the New York progressive arts scene that Moe dipped into for his artists. I particularly love those early jazz covers, because it’s just the word “jazz” and it’s twelve-by-twelve. He picked up on the fact that “jazz” is a very symmetrical word, in the sense that it kind of fits in a box, but also the “j” is like a saxophone, and he’s got words coming out of the end of the “j” like sound coming out of the end of the saxophone, there’s a certain brilliance to it.
There’s another record called The Pit and the Pendulum that he did, where he uses the words, the title, as a pendulum on the front of the cover, and that’s just absolutely amazing I think.
And then the Selk’nam album [Selk'nam (Ona) Chants of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina], the face on there is just so riveting, I mean you just stare at it, and you stare at it and you stare at it, and it just speaks to you.
There’s another artist too, Irwin [Rosenhouse] … he did the “This Land is My Land” album [Songs to Grow On, Vol. 3: American Work Songs], that’s very powerful too: he’s got a certain kind of graphic style that really speaks as well.
I look for things that just grab me, and album art really is all about that, grabbing the buyer—those days everyone was buying in a store, and you’re flipping through the records, and if something caught your eye you would pick it up, and that was the first step toward buying it. Lots of incredible artwork though, and even many of our contemporary records are I think beautiful as well.
Thank you so much!
Thank you so much.