the root cellar: roots music for the masses

It seems that in England, the copyrights to most recordings last for 50 years after the date of the first issue. This means that everything recorded before 1953 is up for grabs and can be packaged and sold at a low price because this material is now essentially in the public domain….”


by john pinamonti


If you are a financially poor fan of the roots of American music like me, you have often been prohibited from procuring the recordings you want because you have to spend your pittance on things like shelter, food and clothing. Most CD reissues are in the usual $14 – $16 price range for one CD, double-CD sets are $20 to $30, and box sets of various sizes can run anywhere from $35 to well over $100 dollars. Why, you could end up spending thousands and still not have all you want! For example, if you were interested in the father of Country music, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers, you have traditionally had two choices. You could buy one or more of an eight-disc series put out by Company A, at around $16 each (that’s $128 if you buy them all!). Or you could splurge for the complete box set by Company B that will run you around $150. There is a single CD “best of” compilation by Company C for $15, but it is far from comprehensive – only an appetizer and not the full meal. If you are really interested in Jimmie Rodgers, you’ll probably end up buying most of the eight-disc series or the box set – either way you’ll end up spending well over $100. Now what if I told you you could buy a 5 disc set of comparable sound quality for $25? “What?!?”, you say. “It must be a street copy, some sort of illegal bootleg!”. No, my friends, it is legitimate and it is good. Such a set can be purchased from JSP Records ( ), one of several English companies now offering quality reissues at ridiculously low prices. JSP also offers multiple-CD sets by the likes of Django Rheinhart, The Carter Family, Louis Armstrong, Charley Patton and Bill Monroe. There is also another company called Proper Music ( ), who’s 4-CD box sets are equally good (and contain substantial and generally well-written booklets) and can be yours for a mere $20. We’re talking Billie Holliday here folks. Hank Williams, Lester Young, Ernest Tubb, Duke Ellington. You can now spend a fraction of what you’d normally have to and end up with a pretty definitive collection of a majority of major figures in American music! The big question is, of course, “How is all of this possible?!?”

You might notice my use of the word “English” a few sentences above. It seems that in England, the copyrights to most recordings last for 50 years after the date of the first issue. This means that everything recorded before 1953 is up for grabs and can be packaged and sold at a low price because this material is now essentially in the public domain. For example, you will pay a premium to buy a Hank Williams collection made in the US because the publishing/record company still owns the rights and exacts a high price for use of the material. But the same material can be packaged and sold in the UK and then sold here as imports, thus circumventing US copyright laws! This is a gross simplification of a complex issue, (if you want to explore it further, check out ), but the bottom line is that we now have access to a wealth of material at a fraction of the usual cost. It may not seem fair to copyright owners (being a “copyrighted artist” myself, I can sympathize), but it seems to me that in many cases, large companies have profited for too long off of material they own, benefiting neither the originators of the material nor those who want to hear the material.

I’m not naming names or laying the blame here (note the prudent use of “Company A” and “Company B” instead of the real names in the first paragraph above). There are many CDs and box sets put out by companies that charge an “average market price” that are worth having because they are lovingly put together and feature extensive book-length liner notes and great sound. The James Brown box set Star Time or Rhino Records’ The Buck Owens Collection (1959-1990) come to mind in this category. On the other hand, there are packages like Columbia-Sony’s The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings of Louis Armstrong that are completely over-rated and are blown out of the water by sound quality and price by JSP’s set of the same material. Sure, the Columbia-Sony set looks great and contains much more printed information, but as far as the sound goes, it doesn’t hold a candle to John R.T. Davies’ fine remastering work for JSP. The Columbia-Sony set sounds terrible and shouldn’t have won a Grammy. Indeed, many feel that the “sound restoration” it employed does a disservice to some of the greatest music ever created. Fortunately, now there is no need to pay a huge corporation like Sony lots of money for an inferior product. I should say, to be fair, that there are some inexpensive reissues that skimp on both the sound and packaging (again, I ain’t naming names), so my suggestion to you is to look up whatever sets you are interested in on and check out what the various reviewers have to say. You can get a pretty good unbiased cross-section of opinion there, even if it is a “for profit” site. If you look up the JSP Armstrong set, you will find, for example, several opinions such as my own about the JSP vs. the Sony set. I have also found that if I purchase sets through Amazon, I usually qualify for free shipping (you just have to spend $25), which ends up saving me paying tax on the items. This is getting pretty good here – legal copyright law evasion combined with legal tax evasion, and I’m not even a lawyer!

The price factor is obviously a key feature of these new sets, but there is also another important element. Proper, for example, offers some nice sets that are compilations of various performers in a specific genre, such as Jazz (Bebop Spoken Here), Blues (Broke, Black and Blue), Bluegrass (Bluegrass Bonanza) and New Orleans R&B (Getting’ Funky: The Birth of New Orleans R&B). These are great if you are interested in getting a good overview of a particular style, time and place and don’t want an in-depth look at one particular person. That being said, note that on the New Orleans set, there are 18 songs by Professor Longhair, so you are still getting lots of tracks by a key individual AND an overview of the whole scene! It is also worth noting that their single-artist sets generally feature a wide cross-section of a particular artist’s career. This is great for those who may not know much about somebody like Charlie Parker, for example, and are not sure what to get or where to start. Lastly, they also offer 2-CD sets (which retail for around $13) that cover a diverse array of artists from Muddy Waters to Merle Travis to Moon Mullican, and are a tremendous way to hear forgotten greats like Amos Milburn, Tiny Bradshaw and Joe Liggins.

I find it very curious that there hasn’t been much press about these new inexpensive sets. There is some kind of general indifference towards them by the majority of the record industry. This is understandable I guess, and I’m sure they feel threatened by the potential loss of profit. They seem at a loss as to how to deal with it. For us true listeners and fans, true “consumers”, these changes are ultimately for the good. It may mean that a few record executives won’t be able to spend $120 on lunch or buy the latest model Mercedes, but it also means that some poor fans who could never afford it now can own a lot of great music.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Six
June 2003


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website. .

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