Canary Records: Music of Immigrant Diasporas in America

Music researcher and record producer Ian Nagoski on his fascination with early 20th century music in languages other than English.

Canary Records is a label devoted to ethnography, collecting and storytelling. Its owner and lone member Ian Nagoski researches and reissues the archival music of American immigrant diasporas. Bulat Khalilov spoke with Ian about tradition, honesty and the immigrant influence on American culture.

BK: Why do you only release non English-language music? 

IN: When I started listening to 78 rpm discs about 20 years ago, the discs I found at flea markets and in people’s basements and attics were very cheap. They were 10 cents to a dollar each. There was no collector market for them for a decade. They were trash. So I started paying attention to them. Eventually I realized that it was important to introduce these records into the collective story of American culture; these records were ‘us.’ Very little immigrant music had been reissued. That’s the short answer.

A shorter answer is I’m doing this because not many others are, and because there is no one else with my particular worldview. 

BK: Do you consider the music you publish exotic?

IN: I certainly did when I began. But over time the music has become very familiar. I only read and speak in English, so I have to rely on friends and colleagues who read and speak other languages to help me understand what I’m listening. But I don’t see it as exotic now. I’ve grown up. And people are people, no matter what language they speak. What’s that apocryphal Louis Armstrong quote? “All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song.”

I relate strongly with the people I listen to. These records have taught me a great deal, particularly how to get rid of the element of exoticization. 

BK: You are interested in different diasporas, vinyls and individual histories as much as the music itself. But what is the priority for you as for publisher – the music, or the story behind it? 

IN: The music.

I have listened to a lot of records where there may be an interesting story, but if I don’t believe that the performer is telling me the truth – if their style is working too closely toward some kind of abstraction or respectability that disallows me to clearly hear any indication of a deep honest in their voice – then I don’t pursue it. Life is short. I want to hear music that sounds honest and alive. That’s where it starts.

BK: Why do you specifically take old records? Do you enjoy the ‘old’ sound and aesthetic, or is there another reason?

IN: Old records are cheap, and no one else seems to want them.  I knew from going to the library and record store as an adolescent that there was great stuff – stories, ideas, pictures, sounds – that no one else around me was hearing. I was discovering things on my own – how and why people create music – and this was invigorating. 

BK: How did the musical traditions of the different American diasporas impact the country and world at the beginning of 20th century?  

IN: The music of immigrants was profoundly influential to the music of the United States through all of the 19th and 20th centuries. Were there more popular dances from 1800 to 1950 than the polka and the waltz? These dances were neither British nor aboriginal. They were brought in by immigrants from the Prussian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Willie Nelson would not exist but for the influence of over a hundred years of Austro-Hungarian (largely Polish) immigration to Texas. And who is more deeply American than Willie Nelson?

A true answer to your question would include a summary of the various immigration waves to the U.S. It's mostly happened behind-the-scenes. The U.S. demanded immediate assimilation from immigrants for the past 150 years, so the influences are often subtle, albeit aplenty. 

BK: Are the diasporic traditions still alive in present-day music? 

IN: I am 42 and have two children. During my 20s and 30s I was a man-about-town. I heard lots of new music. I was deeply devoted to new music: the more radical and idealistic, the better. Now in my middle-ages I only hear new music when it comes to me.

I don't have a particular horse in any race, ethnically speaking. Like many Americans, I am dimly cognizant of my own ethnic derivation, and it means very little to me. Someone will say, “you have to hear this singer,” who may be from somewhere else. Or I will discover that a colleague listens to something I haven’t heard, and I will ask to listen, too.

BK: Let's compare 20th century American music and society to contemporary American music and society. Is there a strong integration of identity or is it truly a melting pot?

IN: Immigrants to the U.S., until very recently, purchased music in a physical medium. Recordings of immigrant music began to sell well during the first two decades of the 20th century. Imported tapes and CDs were widespread in the first decade of this century. From about 2007 onward, immigrants I’ve spoken to got the familiar music from home via YouTube and elsewhere online. This means it’s no longer possible for non-immigrants to walk into a shop and buy music in languages other than English. That is a change that I think will adversely affect the ability of some people to engage with musical traditions outside of their own ethno-linguistic sphere.

But maybe you get in a cab, and the African cab driver plays something interesting. Then you can look it up online and hear hours of that performer.

I don’t know. It’s very complicated.

American immigrants have always been under profound pressure to assimilate. That’s what the melting pot is, really: giving up your language and culture and becoming capital-A American as fast as possible. The melting pot is conformism. It generally takes a generation or two. Danish, for instance, was forbidden in the household where my grandmother grew up in the 1930s, even though both of her parents spoke it.

The cross-pollination of cultures happened largely by accident or circumstance. The velocity of global communication will be more important to the changes in American culture than, for instance, waves of Asian or African immigrants in the past 50 years.  And food, because it is a more persistent and universal desire than music, will have more of an influence in cross-pollinating America than music will in the next 50 years.

America is ethnically very complicated. I haven’t even mentioned the legacy of slavery and the added layer of complexity as a result of the differentiations and inter-mixings of the cultures of black folks and white folks, which is central to the ideas of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ internally in the U.S. But it would be hard to overstate the significance of that issue to a big picture of American culture and identity.

BK: Does you not having any ethnicity give you more freedom and independence? Or does it work as a barrier? 

IN: My mother’s side is half Danish, and they were covered-wagon folk of the western states in the late 19th century. From the small amount of Danish music I've heard, I haven't been particularly impressed. 

The other half is Anglo. Protestants all around. My father’s side is a combination of Irish and Prussian slavs – both Catholics with spectacular musical traditions, well-documented on early 20th century U.S. recordings. So I have some connections to ethnicity and the 19th century waves of immigration to the U.S., but they aren’t especially important to my identity or daily life, and none of it was passed to me ‘traditionally.’

To answer your question, though, there are both benefits and barriers that result from my status as an outsider to the ethnic groups that I mainly study. People are generally kind and helpful to me. However, I know that they are often working on their own narratives of their musical/cultural/social histories, and my work is sometimes relevant and sometimes irrelevant to those projects. Sometimes I'm liked for what I’m doing, and sometimes I’m seen as a pest. I've never faced any serious problems, just mild disapproval from people who think I don't know what I'm talking about – which is true in a very real way. But I'm speaking respectfully and compassionately from my own perspective, and I'm earnestly trying to educate myself.

BK: Is there a critical difference between  commercial recordings of traditional music, and ethnomusicologists' recordings?

IN: In the U.S., those making commercial releases fund themselves, and therefore have to make a profit in creating their releases. Those who do academic work are funded by the institutions and generally don’t bother to release anything at all. There are rare, albeit noteworthy and beautiful exceptions. 

BK: Is the academic world interested in your label? 

IN: There is generally little interest from the ivory tower. But I have spoken at a few schools. I think real academics see that I am both passionate and serious about my work, but utterly unable to orient my way of talking about it in a tidy and professional manner suitable for professional conferences. That’s my guess. I have not been invited to speak anywhere in over a year.

I have only been active in reissuing material for 10 years and only the past five of those years have been really serious. I expect it'll be another 20 years before my work assimilates into the pubic consciousness, which is why I have to do the best job I can. So that when someone really looks closely, they'll see that despite certain mistakes, the foundation was built out of something real.

BK: Do you encounter issues with copyright? 

IN: Nearly everything I do is technically illegal in the U.S. Because the copyright laws here were essentially written by Disney and other big entertainment companies, the draconian law is that no sound recording made in the U.S. is ever not copyrighted.  Almost everything done by dedicated amateurs like myself since the 1950s has been pirated material, including all of the great, old blues reissued LPs from the 1960s and the Folkways Harry Smith Anthology.

The rights owners often forget about the material. The largest U.S. record companies of the early 20th centuries don't care the slightest about some Greek immigrant singer from the 1920s. I mostly fly below the radar.

The proliferation of material online has made the laws terribly old hat and irrelevant. So I don’t worry.

I have reissued a songs from a record company that still exists or by an artist who is still alive, but I try to do the right thing and ask permission and send them a nominal sum of $100 or $150. I have no desire to steal anyone’s work. I try to be careful.

As Bob Dylan once said: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

BK: How do you feel about using your releases in the context of experimental music (remixes, DJ-sets etc.)?

IN: I’m for it. The Kronos Quartet commissioned two arrangements of songs that I was first to reissue. I’m happy for that. Anything to keep the music and the memories of the musicians alive in people’s minds.

One of my favorite singers – Armenian immigrant named Zabelle Panosian – wrote a song in the 1920s about her meeting with the great composer and ethnomusicologist Komitas Vadarpet in a psych ward. She worshipped him and sang his songs, but was only given the chance to ask question in that meeting. Her question was: “Is it okay to sing your songs that were composed for choir as solo performances?”

His response was: “My child, if you know the song, you can sing it however you want.”