In September, members of Vinyl Me, Please Classics will receive Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues, the third album from poet/scholar/musician Sarah Webster Fabio. We worked closely with Smithsonian Folkways to replicate the packaging from 1976, and had the album remastered by the staff at the label. Read an excerpt from the Listening Notes here. You can sign up over here.
Below, you can learn why we picked the album, and everything that went into our reissue, from the package to the remastering.
Andrew Winistorfer: This was an album you picked a while ago, and have ferried along to now, when it’s the Classics Record of the Month for September. Why did you pick this one?
Cameron Schaefer: A few years ago, during one of my, “Drink wine and talk records” dinners with Egon — whose label we worked with on Ayalew Mesfin and Lightmen Plus One this year — we were talking about Smithsonian Folkways, because we had just done Big Bill Broonzy as our Record of the Month. I came out of that project so impressed with them as a label, and as historical preservationists. They’re these preservers of slices of American music and culture that are not normally the kind of records preserved by record labels.
It’s almost anti-commercial without that being the guiding principle. They’re just doing interesting folk and blues albums.
Totally, they approached A&R back then like an ornithologist, spotting music that could be researched and preserved. It was an academic approach to all this music. And in a way that’s why it’s so surprising when they have something like Sarah Webster Fabio, which feels so artistic, and left-of-center, and poetic, and funky. This album feels so cool compared to what you imagine when you hear “Spoken word album by an academic poet,” you know? There was something about it that was so intriguing to me.
So me and Egon had been talking about Smithsonian Folkways, and Egon said that he had always wanted to do one of her records on Now Again, and anytime you hear something like that, you sort of file it away, and write a note to check it out. I had sort of squirreled the idea away for a couple years; I had it on my Discogs wishlist forever.
Then this opportunity came up to work with Smithsonian again, and I immediately thought of this album. I’m well aware that the album is not your straight-up jazz or blues album, but if it’s an album that you hang with, you’ll realize it’s super listenable and a fun album. When people hear “spoken word,” they…
Imagine someone in a turtleneck hitting on a bongo.
Yeah, and I think if you’re willing to take the leap with us on this, it’s a really rewarding album.
This album was on our radar for Classics for a really long time, too; this was on the original list we had for prospective Classics titles back in like, January of 2017. We had that Google Doc of labels we could work with: Verve, Stax, Smithsonian, and this has literally been on the drawing board for Classics when Classics itself was a theoretical thing.
That’s right. I would hope people who liked our Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and our William Bell albums will like this too. If you don’t know any of the backstory — the academic poet making an album — you’ll be able to listen to this and realize this is a funk band improvising a lot like a jazz band; it’s all off feeling.
Totally. The way I’ve been telling people about this is that she and Gil Scott-Heron are really similar: They were making these albums of truth-to-power poetry that were over funky backing tracks. They were just doing it on different coasts. But her band is tighter, probably because they were her kids and were playing together solely to play behind her.
Reading the Listening Notes that her daughter wrote and researching more about her, she was an amazing woman, and a badass. And apart from getting this album, people might not have heard about her, so that’s a part of this release I’m really excited about.
And I’m excited about the Listening Notes, because it’s not often we get someone so intimately familiar with the artist to write those. I mean, Cheryl Fabio made her thesis in film about her mom’s poetry.
The packaging on this one is insane. The three-quarter wrap tip-on that looks like the jackets from the ’60s; that look is still incredible and iconic, and lets you know you’re holding a Smithsonian Folkways record.
It’s as close as possible to what the original jacket would look like, similar to our Big Bill project. The Smithsonian Folkways in-house engineer, Pete Reininger, did the remastering from the original tapes on this as well.
He’s won Grammys and done the remastering on all their recent reissues too, right?
Yeah, that’s him. He’s super familiar with the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. We did this on 180 gram vinyl, heavyweight jacket and the Listening Notes add a lot of context on this one.
If people take the chance on this one, it’s going to be something they’re into.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.