During the summer of 2010, I wondered down a YouTube "rabbit hole" while searching for songs that I hadn't heard in a long time. I came across a video of someone playing "Baker Street" on a turntable. It looked kind of cool, so I started looking for others playing records on YouTube. It didn't take long for me to find people who were spinning old 78 rpm records. Howlin' Wolf is more suited to my taste these days than Gerry Rafferty. Finding these videos made an impact on me as I wrote about in Reason in 2013:
The man holding the Howlin' Wolf 78 is Rich Hynes, owner of the Underground Record Shop in Indianapolis. I discover that he has posted many more clips as well. Sometimes they feature artists I've enjoyed for years, such as Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash; sometimes they introduce me to great musicians I've never encountered before, such as the Alabama Jug Band and the rockabilly pioneer Lattie Moore.
Looking for and listening to old records, I soon learned about how little I knew about American music. For a long time, the Blues was my favorite genre and I had the good fortune to see performers such as Koko Taylor, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and John Lee Hooker perform live in the 1980s. My interest and knowledge of the genre went back as far as Robert Johnson, but no further. I had seen Yazoo reissues of artists like Blind Blake and Charley Patton but I figured that sort of old-timey thing wasn't for me. I eventually discovered how wrong that assessment was by listening to Barbeque Bob, Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Lewis Black as well as Blake and Patton.
The same is true with Country, also known as "Hillbilly" or "Old Time Singin'." I knew of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers, but not the Allen Brothers or Charlie Poole or Buddy Baker. I also learned to put less emphasis on genre—I look for music that I like, which often may be characterized as "Pop" or "Vaudeville." Occasionally "???" is good a description as any. My policy is that if a record is cheap and looks interesting, I will probably give it a home.
When I first started looking for 78s, I skipped over Hawaiian records—and they are pretty common— until I by chance took one home and listened to it. Now, if you want to hear a 100+ year old July Paka record on YouTube, my channel is your only source. Picking up various "ethnic" records introduced new (to me) instruments—like the tambouritza (very scratchy) and reintroduced the familiar, as when I spun an old Italian record and said to myself: "It's that song from the Godfather!"
After years of record collecting, and writing on the topic, I was about to fall down yet another rabbit hole. It bothered me that I had so much interest in music, but I couldn't play any instrument more challenging than air guitar—having failed to master the other kind in my youth. The music that I like the most tends to be made with stringed instruments—guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, etc.
After giving the subject some thought, I decided to get a ukulele. They are smaller, lighter, less expensive (though one can drop a lot of money on a uke) and easier on the fingers than a guitar or banjo—both of which I was tempted to try. A ukulele, however, is not a toy and it takes practice and skill to play well. In the right hands, it can work magic. Some talented guitarists such as Del Ray and Ledward Kaapana also show their skill on the ukulele.
I've played for more than four years now, and I am competent, but not as good as I'd like. While I may never match the finger-picking skills of Kaapana, playing the uke has both increased my respect for talented musicians on all chordophones and my interest in the history of the instruments, which in the case of the ukulele—an offspring of the Portuguese machete—is fascinating.
While collecting old records led me down the path to playing the ukulele, playing the uke has influenced my taste in music and caused me to seek out old records featuring the instrument. Once again, I am discovering new (to me) artists such as Hamtree Harrington. You never know where you end up when you start falling down rabbit holes.