The History of Document Records - Part 1
Document Records ~ Early Chapters
On May, 1930, the great Mississippi Delta blues man Son House walked into the Paramount recording studios in Grafton, Wisconsin and made some of the most outstanding country blues recordings ever made. In the same year, on the 11th of January, 4,000 miles away to the east, Johann Ferdinand Parth was born in a small school house in the poor district of Ottakring, situated in the Austrian capitol of Vienna. Sixty years later, both men’s names would appear on the second release of what has now become known as one of the most extraordinary and internationally acclaimed projects in the history of blues collecting and research.
Music was part of Johnny’s life from the beginning. The area of his birth is renown for being the home of the finest and most authentic Viennese folk music to be found. He remembers clearly the wandering troubadours singing in the streets where chickens would roam and the musician’s performances were rewarded by people who would drop small change down from their windows.
After studying art in Vienna, he began his profession as a portrait painter and restorer of paintings by the old masters.
During the war years he was exposed to the sound of Afro-American music when jazz records were played to him by his young friends who were the sons of underground anti-fascist resistance fighters. Against the austere backdrop of German occupied Austria, this free and liberated sound had a profound effect on the young Johnny Parth.
By the late forties he was completely hooked on the genre and was already in the process of amassing what was to become a huge library of jazz and blues recordings. Like many true collectors, Johnny was eager not only to hear everything that he could get his hands on, which he did by forming an international network of like-minded collectors, but he was also keen to spread the news of his discoveries. Consequently, in the mid fifties, he created two record labels Jazz Perspective and Hot Club De Vienne. Productions on both labels were released in small quantities, sometimes as little as twenty or thirty at a time, manufactured with hand printed covers. These were sold locally to the budding fans of jazz. Eventually, forty LPs were produced on the Jazz Perspective label. There was also a ten-volume box set, which illustrated the history of jazz. “We called it ‘The Coffin’” Johnny remembers “because it was a huge black box with gold lettering on it” In addition, a box set outlining blues music was also produced.
The name Hot Club De Vienne was taken from a club which came under the ownership of Johnny where, like similar clubs in Britain, the exciting, syncopated, polyrhythmic sounds of jazz and blues was listened to, mainly by way of record listening sessions. Records would also be used as examples to illustrate lectures on the subject, which were given to dedicated followers of the music. The club still exists under the name of Jazz Land and is a well-attended venue for a thriving Viennese blues and jazz scene.
Another early landmark in Johnny’s energetic approach to the music at this time was his organising of the first Riverboat shuffle on the Danube, which continues today.
He was responsible for the first ‘Catholic jazz mass’ in Europe with Johnny’s own band, known as the ‘Blue Danube Jass Band’ providing the music. The mass was well attended even though the event left the priest with some explaining to do for the local bishop.
As a cornet player Johnny also led a brass band called ‘The First and Only Original and Superior, Alpha and Omega Brass Band Vienna’ which played for the May Day socialist’s marches.
During the early sixties his attention was being drawn towards the more primitive music of the blues. By then the first serious studies on the music had been published, such as ‘Shinning Trumpets’ by Rudi Blesh (1949), ‘Country Blues’ by Sam Charters (1959), and ‘Blues Fell This Morning’ by Paul Oliver (1960). Such books were having a profound influence on music fans and further investigations would help to quicken the pace towards the blues boom of the sixties both in America and Western Europe.
It was at this time that the first significant re-issue albums of vintage country blues from the pre Second World War period began to appear and it was hearing Tommy Johnson and Son House on the Origin label that became a major turning point for Johnny.
In 2002, Johnny’s ex wife Evelyn recalled to Gary Atkinson how, in the mid 1960s, she wanted to produce a label which did for Austrian music what Chris Strachwitz’s label, Arhoolie was doing for American music. She and Johnny telephoned Stratwitz, who was based in California and during the conversation it was suggested that they should combine resources with a view towards making field recordings of Austrian folk music. A trip was organised and the group set off to capture some of the finest recordings of their kind. On completion the recordings were released simultaneously on Arhoolie and on the 500 series of the newly formed Roots label. During the same phone call Strachwitz suggested that it would be an idea to use the new label to re-release vintage blues recordings. Using finance provided by Johnny’s wife of the time, Evelyn, who was also an enthusiastic blues and jazz fan, the Roots label was firmly established. They went ahead and produced their first album; RL 301 “Blind Lemon Jefferson Vol. 1. Many of the album sleeves credited Evelyn with the production and compiling of the albums.
Limited editions of no more than 300 copies were produced with there distinctive, mainly black and white, covers. There was only the barest of information given on the backs of the covers accompanied by the rather unlikely Austrian address of the company.
The sound of what were often extremely rare original records was transferred to LP with a minimum of artificial interference from the sound engineer. These recordings were rare and old and if a record was found in a junk store or the basement of a house in Chicago or Mississippi then what was heard on a Roots album was unashamedly close to what that original record sounded like. To experience such finds were unknown to the majority of the world’s ever growing population of blues fans, so what the Roots label provided was the next best thing.
Johnny’s ever growing network of collectors now included the young Bernie Klatzko of Origin records who enthusiastically provided original recordings and there was also another young New York collector who provided recordings for the Roots label by the name of Nick Pearls who later went on to create the Yazoo label. By this time, Johnny was also assisting in the production of albums for the British based Saydisc Matchbox label.
After sixty albums were released the Roots label finally came to an end in 1970 and Johnny went back to painting.
It would be another fifteen years before Johnny would return to record production. In the late 70’s he began to produce records for the Earl Archives label. First productions were of Austrian folk music, including a live album from which the profits were donated to Amnesty International.
In 1980 he produced Austrian folk albums for EMI and Columbia and by the mid 80’s he had begun producing blues albums again.
Anyone who was collecting re-issue blues albums during the sixties and seventies was, certainly by the nineteen eighties at least, encountering the frustration of only finding a limited amount of recordings by their favourite artists. Duplication of material on the limited amount of re-issue labels was inevitable.
Inspired by the Black & White jazz re-issue label, Johnny began to think of creating a label which would make available to music fans and researchers alike the complete recordings of all artists from the pre-1943 period, excluding the few artists which had been given similar attention by other labels. This was potentially a huge undertaking. Not only would the project include blues music but, using Godrich & Dixon’s ‘Blues And Gospel’ discography as a guide, it would also encompass Afro-American gospel, spirituals, ballads, work songs and much more which had originally been commercially recorded or recorded during field trips by such institutions as the Library of Congress. Where possible the complete recordings of each artist would be presented in chronological order. Because of the lack of his own funds, Johnny took this unique idea within the genre to other record companies but was unable to find anyone who was prepared to take on such a monumental task.
He was told by the originator of RST records, Rudi Staeger, of a pressing plant in Budapest, Hungary, which would press low quantities, (as few as one hundred LPs) economically and in addition the company would produce free metal masters. This facility turned Johnny’s thinking towards another possibility. If no one else were prepared to undertake the project then he would do it himself.
He went ahead and set up Document Records in 1990 beginning with the 5000 series. The critics immediately embraced the project and the early reviews gave Johnny a reassuring signal that his thinking and vision had been correct.
Document’s output was prolific, producing as many as one album every three days. Soon it became obvious that the project was to be taken seriously and was to gather in strength over the forthcoming years. An early contributor to the project, Ken Romanowski, remembers “It was unbelievable. Each time that another CD came out there was a great sense of excitement amongst all of those who were closely involved. There would be a wonderful feeling of achievement every time an artist’s full work had been covered”.
Since then, the main task of re-releasing every blues, gospel, and spiritual recording made between the late 19th century, when the first recordings of Afro-Americans were made and the early forties has been very nearly accomplished. These recordings will always be made available by Document.
In addition, Document records has begun to produce the complete recorded works of musicians from the genre of Vintage Country music which appears on the 8000 series and these productions have already been receiving excellent responses from music fans and critics alike.
There have been many accolades for the work of Johnny Parth with articles being written in magazines and newspapers all over the world, including the New York Times.
Every title found within the Document catalogue has been deposited in the Library of Congress and beginning on the 3rd of October 1997 Paul Oliver presented on BBC’s Radio 3 the first of an eight part series titled ‘Documenting The Blues’ which traced the history of Johnny’s work with Document.
Since it’s inception, the British researcher Bob MacLeod has commenced the rather daunting task of transcribing the lyrics of all of the songs, which can be found on the Document label. To date he has completed and published twelve fine editions including two volumes which cover songs that can be found on the Yazoo label.