Longtime ARSC member, Dr. Donald R. Hill, has passed away at the age of 79.
Don was a mentor and friend to many, recognized by all as an esteemed
scholar, unwavering humanist, and gentleman collector. Don taught through
example that the purpose of collecting was to make some-thing of it-a book,
a reissue, an archive worthy of institutional accession. He believed that
focus, quality, and depth determined the value of a collection-the finest
being only as large as it must be. And he showed us all that relation-ships
among collectors are more important than the artifacts we seek.
We met in the 80s while riffling side by side through shellac. Pulling discs
from crates he'd note to this beginning collector the records worth having,
their trade values, and most importantly, the intrinsic and essential values
of the re-cord-ings themselves. He guided and accelerated my discoveries,
and pro-foundly shaped an enduring ethos of what a collection and collector
Commercial recordings comprised only one of Don's collecting interests. As a
trained ethnographer he had collected in Cuba, Carriacou, Trinidad, Jim
Crow's South and New York City. "When people ask what instrument I play, I
tell them 'the tape recorder'" he'd quip. For Don, acquisition was a
gratifying, necessary, yet insufficient component of collecting. Getting the
songs and stories heard was his ultimate goal. He took pride in his
insti-tutional deposits, taking care to find the right homes for his unique
contribu-tions. And when clearing shelves to make room for his treasured
"musica Africana", Don assessed the appropriateness of private collections
with the same resolve. While others scrambled for his pre-war blues and
country, Don entrusted to my curation his wax cylinder recordings made by
people in their homes-the squalls of newborns, Grandma's earnest rendition
of hymns, Junior's jokes, the first words spoken in the year 1900 and more.
At that time, in the 90s, early home recordings were neither valued by
collectors nor appreciated by institutions as the ethnographic documents
they are. But thanks to Don's prescient salvaging, these "vernacular"
recordings-now under the care of UCSB's Special Collections-have been
recognized as "culturally, historically or aesthetically important" by the
Library of Congress' National Recording Preser-vation Board and placed on
the National Recording Registry.
Don's various collections have informed myriad articles, books,
documentaries, LP and CD reissues, presentations, and lectures. The
humanities are richer for them.
Don instilled in me the aspiration of making private collections available
to every-one. Towards this end we worked on three reissues for Rounder
Records in the 90s. We spoke at ARSC about the emerging digital tech-niques
we were using to restore seminal field record-ings. And as distribution
networks and institutions caught up with our visions of universal access, we
began in earnest to find partners to make this happen. The passing of every
important collector reminds us of the symbiosis between indi-viduals and the
institutions that outlive them. It certainly reignites my own resolve.
A few years ago, while packing his ultimate wall of 78s for transfer to
UCSB, we paused to play Lionel Belasco's 1929 Gennett recording of
"Vene-zuela". Don noted to David Seubert that this was one of only three or
four copies known. But far more important than its rarity is its beauty.
Terry Zwigoff famously featured it in "Ghost World" in 2001, and Don and I
had restored it a couple years earlier for "Good-night Ladies and Gents-The
Creole Music of Lionel Belasco". Don wrote in the notes:
The Venezuelan waltzes.typify this CD more than the other songs. For
die-hearted lovers of music of the African Diaspora like myself, your
non-West Indian run-of-the-mill waltz is really boring (even Strauss should
be per-formed sparingly!). But just listen to these Caribbean waltzes; they
seem to define charm in its purest form.
"Venezuela" would have been a strong opening track on the CD. But Don made
it the last. He wanted to close his carefully-sequenced 90-minute tour of
Belasco's Caribbean with a sense of sailing from port, the islands
disappearing below the waves while "Venezuela" beat six-against-four from
shore, fading with distance into the tropical sea breeze. I believe, and I
think Don would agree, it's a fitting soundtrack with which to reflect on
what compels us to set the recorded past adrift into the future, and to
retell tales of retired captains who maneuvered us into this intemperate