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DOWN FROM DOVER
The story of the British Archive of Country Music
Article for the Journal of Country Music
There are record collections…and then there are record collections. And then there’s Dave Barnes’s amazing Archive. This story is about a remarkable collection put together by one man, but it’s also about the little-documented fact of widespread interest in country music outside the USA.
On a pleasant day in May I parked my car at the top of a short, steep lane and walked down to the single-storey building in a little valley, behind the leafy residential edge of a town in the far south-east. Arriving just ahead of me was Don Cusic, a professor from Belmont University in Nashville. We were both there to marvel – as other record collectors, writers, radio and television researchers, and country music enthusiasts have – at the enticingly high-piled, sometimes dusty, though fairly well-organized contents of the largest individually-owned archive of country music discs, magazines, videos and memorabilia in the world. We both hoped to pick out some nuggets of information for our ongoing researches, and to chew the fat with the affable owner of the collection, Dave Barnes.
Barnes is an agreeable man in his early seventies who began buying country music in the days when it was still called folk, western, hillbilly, or what-have-you. His collection was started some sixty years ago, and it just grew and grew over time. Now it contains over a million items, ranging via early Edison recordings and rare Ernest Thompson 78s from the 1920s, to unreissued radio transcriptions and the music of every decade right up to the latest country music has to offer in the DVD age.
When Dave retired from his business selling art, the music collection became bigger and bigger still, to the point where he and a friend hand-built the customized bungalow that now houses the Country Music Archive , originally set up as the British Archive of Country Music.
Yes, British, because Dave’s town is in the south-east of England, not the USA, and his sleepy valley is just a mile or so inland from the white cliffs of Dover. When Dave was growing up in south London during the Second World War, Vera Lynn and her song about those cliffs meant a whole lot more than they do today, but soon Dave Barnes was starting to look west, three thousand miles and more, for his music.
He told me: “ My first recollection of having different musical tastes to all my friends came around 1950 when I was 14 years old. We had just moved from Sidcup to Walmer, near Dover, on the southern coast in Kent. I remember having a transistor radio and trying to tune into the American forces stations, which were the only source of hillbilly music as it was then known. The sound faded in and out, but it was something different to the music on the BBC.”
Dave’s conviction that there was more interesting life out there than the normal austerity of post-war Britain was fuelled by teenager magazines of the day with adventure stories of sporting heroes alongside western tales of cowboys who always had a song to sing. “There were illustrations of cowboy bad men and the sheriffs who cleaned up the west. This all aroused my interest,” Dave recalls. When he started to work at his father’s art business in London, a chance encounter on a train cemented his fascination with the American west. “I was 16 or 17 and used to get the train from London each evening. There was sometimes a chap dressed up as Buffalo Bill – long hair, little beard – and he had a circus but he visited his relatives near to us in Deal. He always wore the western outfit even in his daily life. If he was on the train, I used to sit with him and he’d relate stories of the circus. He had a singer in the show who sang cowboy songs.”
When Dave started buying records, around 1951, his interest was in the cowboy songs he heard in movies. The first he remembers was the 1951 MGM movie, Texas Carnival, where there was a short clip of Foy Willing singing “Whoa Emma.” Dave had to settle for a recording of it by Howard Keel because couldn’t get a more authentic version, but from here on he developed his interest in western music and hobo songs. “I looked out for more recordings of cowboys and found that the HMV store in Oxford Street in London had a large choice of old folk and western songs, by Wilf Carter, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Montana Slim, Tex Ritter. The Hillbillies were probably the most-issued of the pre-war artists, as well as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and so my interest in the music began to take shape. Every week, I would take what little money I had spare and purchase some 78s. I still have them all on the racks of the archive to this day.”
Then he became interested in Hank Williams, intrigued by the name of the Drifting Cowboys band. “It was the sound that drew me to it,” he remembers, “and it was called hillbilly music back then. There wasn’t any country. I remember buying Williams records while Hank was still alive, but there was not a lot of contemporary hillbilly (country) issued in Britain in the 1940s and early1950s.”
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, there had been at least twenty-five British record labels that issued some “country” music, as Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography describes. Panachord alone issued several hundred discs from the American ARC, Brunswick and Decca labels, and there were significant numbers of folk, western, and hillbilly recordings issued on Regal-Zonophone, Decca, Columbia, and Parlophone. The most featured artists included Carson Robison, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Rodgers and the Hoosier Hot Shots. Robison, whose group toured England three times in the 1930s, actually made recordings there, as did Vernon Dalhart in 1931.
But essentially Dave Barnes was swimming with a very small musical tide in England, and there was little help at hand when he wanted to learn more about the music that fascinated him. The British press, even the dedicated music paper, the Melody Maker, contained little coverage of such minority music unless it was linked to a movie. Barnes and the few other country enthusiasts he encountered had no knowledge of magazines that US record-buyers had easy access to – Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder, National Hillbilly News, Cowboy Songs, and the like. “I picked up a few copies of Country Song Roundup in London, but access was very limited in the 1950s,” Dave said. In England, there was nothing until two other record collectors, George Haxell and George Tye, started The Hillbilly – Folk Record Journal in January 1954, a home-produced magazine in the best traditions of fan publications and cottage industry.
Dave recalls: “I wrote to the two George’s and we met up, and through their magazine I started to know other people with similar interests. We would buy discs and exchange information. I bought a lot of Hank Williams and Gene Autry discs from collectors in Australia. Then I contacted people like Don Cleary in New Jersey, who had record sales lists, and I would start to have records sent over from America.”
By now, established musical patterns were beginning to change. Quite apart from the new-fangled music of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, British record fans had been exposed to the new emerging sound of country music as played and sung by Slim Whitman, whose country-based but sufficiently pop-sounding hit “Rose Marie” topped the British pop chart – there were no other charts – solidly from July to December in 1955.
Slim Whitman’s success in Britain was followed by a small number of others, including country singer Marvin Rainwater who toured on the back of his rock-pop hit “Whole Lotta Woman.” To that point, country singers had mainly been confined to tours of US army bases, but now they began to appear in theaters whenever the strange one-for-one rule of the British musicians’ union would allow.
Emerging rock and rollers like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers also came to tour. The touring artists “brought many pop fans over to country,” Dave thinks, “and probably, like me, they were looking for a magazine that could tell them more, but there were none available.” So in April 1957 Dave started his own publication, Country and Western Record Review.
The aim of the magazine was to list and review all country records issued in the UK and the USA and provide information about the music and its artists. This was no mean target but, as Dave says, “working in London was a bonus because I had gathered a few friends in the record business and they always invited me to any receptions that were going on or gave me records and tickets for live shows. I would do the rounds of the record companies in London, picking up promotional copies of American discs they were doing nothing with. Some companies like Ember Records run by Jeffrey Kruger were interested in country, reissuing labels like Starday and so on. I knew Don Pierce of Starday and used to take him around London introducing him to people. We stayed friends until he died, and latterly whenever he wrote he’d slip inside a hundred dollars or something to help with the music archive”.
Melodisc was another label that issued the more obscure country material. After Hank Williams came out, then Parlophone started to issue a lot of King Records material. The bigger companies all issued some country, and this increased in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Decca had offices near where I worked and so I’d go there every few days. It got to where people used to slam their doors when they saw me coming! Then, most days on the way home I would look into second hand record stores and purchase what I could afford. So, my collection grew and grew.”
By now, Dave Barnes’ contacts were extending rapidly and his magazine had representatives in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and the USA. The latter was Lou Epstein, from Cincinnati, who was instrumental in starting another phase of Barnes’ activities. “In 1960, Lou Epstein, the manager of the Jimmie Skinner Music Store in Ohio came to stay with me in Dover for two weeks. We had corresponded and I’d bought records from him. One time, I suggested that he visit the UK someday, and just two weeks later he phoned and said he was in London, and he came down to stay with us. He began to tell me of all the happenings in country music and came out with so many names I had never heard of that it got me wanting to visit the USA.”
“In 1961, I made it to Cincinnati after a 36 hour flight to New York via Iceland and Nova Scotia, and Lou put me up in a hotel and showed me around. It was November, and DJ convention time in Nashville. I had the privilege of driving down there with Lou and Jimmie Skinner, Rusty York, and Roy Shepard. Jimmie was about to make his famous recordings of Jimmie Rodgers songs and he just couldn’t finish some of the yodelling. Rusty came up with the idea that as Jimmie was yodelling, he would come in with the dobro guitar to put the finishing flourish to it. They recorded the whole album in a couple of days. In Nashville, I was able to see people on the Opry like Lester Flatt and Del Wood, the Crook Brothers, Rusty and Doug Kershaw, and to go on the stage and talk to the performers. You could meet such a range of artists; Jean Shepard and Rose Maddox, Tex Williams, Carl Belew and Faron Young. Tex Ritter took us out to a recording session. He was really down to earth with us.”
Barnes next hatched a plan to take readers of his magazine with him to the USA. “ In 1963, I thought that other country fans would like to share the experiences that I had had, so I hired a plane from BOAC at a cost of more than £6,000 ($12,000) to take a hundred people to the USA. I managed to fill it, and about 40 fans went on to Nashville where they were treated like royalty by the country artists there. Everyone had a great time.”
Country and Western Record Review carried on until about 1964: “Then I had to make up my mind what I wanted to do in life, either work with my father in the art business full-time or go on producing the magazine. The magazine wasn’t producing much money so I decided to put my efforts into the art business, which in due course paid for my interest in country music, that never went out of my head for a second.”
Barnes returned to the USA in most years through the 1960s and 1970s, sometime three or four times a year either with the music or art businesses, and Nashville journalist Charlie Lamb often talked about Dave and his exploits in Cashbox.
For the next quarter century, Dave Barnes focused equally on his family, his work restoring and selling paintings, and his record collection. He took something of a back seat to others in Britain who were starting to develop his early efforts into a more commercial approach to country music fandom. In the wake of Dave’s pioneering magazines, a number of other magazines sprang up, most notably Country Music People and Country Music Review. A new wave of enthusiasts including Alan Cackett, Bob Powel, Tony Byworth and Craig Baguley took up the challenge of making country music less of a minority interest in the UK.
Other people also took up the idea of flying charter planes of country fans to Nashville. Then, in reverse, the promoter Mervyn Conn started bringing Nashville’s musicians to London and masterminded the massive International Festival of Country Music held at Wembley each Easter from the late 1960s into the 1980s.
By the end of the 1980s, Dave Barnes was winding down from the art business and turning his full attention again to his hobby, but his record collection was already way out of hand. He had gone from buying single 78s to buying 500 albums at a time. “I gathered more and more records until the house was too small to hold them all, so I built an extension, and that got too small, so I had to put up another building where we are now, and even this is bursting at the seams. I’ve always been interested in the country of the time – kept up with it. It’s only the last twenty years that I’ve gone back to the era where I started and even further beyond. I’m just a hoarder. I kept everything over the years. All the correspondence too.”
It was in the late 1980s that Dave had the idea to turn his impossibly large collection into a formal Archive, the BACM. This is a non-profit organization with the aims of preserving the Barnes collection and items donated by others, and to catalog records, sheet music, photographs, film, and books so that they might be of use to researchers, record companies, radio and televison presenters, and students. The Archive takes things in any form and is not precious about having to have just the original of something. The aim is preserve the music and the memories for posterity, whether they come in the form of original cylinders, 78s or transcriptions, or whether they are LPs, CDs, DVDs, magazines and correspondence, photocopies or reproductions.
It was about ten years ago that the Archive passed the half-million mark in recordings held, and since then the holdings have increased by the day. Dave Barnes draws attention to the many people who have donated to the Archive, not least record collectors Charlie Newman, Bob Powel, and John Burton. He also has the help of volunteers, notably Derek Taylor who catalogs photographs and magazines, undertakes promotional work, and manages to write western and spy novels in his spare time.
For about ten years until recently, the Archive published what Dave calls, “a little magazine, Just for the Record, which I gave away to whoever was interested in it.” This listed all new releases in the country field, from the big names to the most obscure, and contained a wonderfully eclectic range of articles that dodged around haphazardly from stories about the Ozark Jubilee, to promotion for Irish country singers, to recollections of pioneering journalist Floy Case. When the magazine became too time-consuming, Dave instead published the Country Music Worldwide Directory, listing over 50,000 albums, CDs and cassettes so that they not be forgotten in future generations. The aim here was to complement rather than compete with discographical works about 78 and 45 rpm releases already in print.
And this is the theme, too, of Dave’s most recent Archive activity, the BACM record label. There are scores of small companies issuing CDs of old recordings, but Dave recognized that a number of styles of music were not being covered and decided to add to the pool of available obscurities. He says, “A few years ago I had the idea of releasing my own recordings that were out of copyright, on CD. For a long time I’d thought about what my collection had cost me over the years and that it was about time it started to give a little return on the outgoings, so I put this to a long time friend, Brian Golbey, and he jumped at the idea. Brian cleans up and sequences the music I’ve compiled and our other partner, Barry Farnes, is the IT expert. Our first CD was by Big Bill Campbell, who had been very popular on the BBC with his shows of old time music. Bill was originally from Canada, but stayed over here in England after the First World War. From then on we continued to put out CDs for collectors and are still going strong after over 560 releases. Profits from the BACM label are ploughed back to cover future costs. We want to issue music that’s not out anywhere else, and to keep music alive that otherwise might be lost.” The Archive of Country Music is obviously based on American music, but it’s worth noting that it also contains many recordings and information files about country musicians from Canada, Australia, the UK and Europe.
The drive to make music available that is both old (in recording date) but also fresh to the listener is illustrated by one of Dave’s current preoccupations. He wants to issue CDs by a number of singers who are unidentified on 1940s radio transcriptions. In particular, he is intrigued by transcriptions of “Fiddlin’ Dave,” but before he can issue the music he has to find out who Dave is. He isn’t, apparently, Fiddlin’ Dave Neal who recorded in the 1920s, but if any reader can tell him who it might be, Dave Barnes will be a happy man.
Actually, Dave’s pretty content with his lot as it stands, though he is concerned to secure the future of the Archive beyond his time. He’s aware that what he’s done is unusual, remarkable even, but he doesn’t publicize his part in it too much. He didn’t really want his photograph taken for this article, saying “I’m just a backroom boy. I’m trying to preserve what I bought and what I’ve got – music that otherwise might be lost. It’s been fun, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m in ‘Cowboy’s Heaven,’ which was the first record that I purchased by Gene Autry.”