Ian Nagoski on How Migrants Shaped Music in America

An interview with the founder of Canary Records

A selection of tracks from Canary Records releases compiled by Bulat Khalilov. See the tracklist on our Soundcloud page

Canary Records is a label devoted to ethnography, collecting, and storytelling. Its owner and sole member, Ian Nagoski, researches and reissues the archival music of American immigrant diasporas. Ored Recordings founder Bulat Khalilov spoke with Ian about tradition, honesty, and immigrant influence on American culture. This article is the start of a new series of publications from Khalilov’s project Global Zomia, dedicated to DIY-ethnography and non-academic initiatives working with traditional and local music around the world.

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

IAN NAGOSKI:When I started listening to 78rpm discs about twenty years ago, the discs I found at flea markets and in people’s basements and attics were very cheap. They were ten cents to a dollar each. There was no collectors’ market for them for a decade. They were trash. So, I started paying attention to them. Eventually, I got the idea that it was important to introduce the idea into the collective story of American culture that so many such recordings existed—that this was also “us.” Very little of the music from immigrant cultures had been reissued. That’s a short answer.

I’m doing it because so few others are and especially that there is no one else with my particular view of the world, of being a person—that’s the shorter answer.

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 to. 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.”

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, vinyl, and individual histories as much as the music itself. But what is the priority for you as a 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.

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? 

BK:Why do you specifically take old records? Do you enjoy the “old” sound and aesthetics, 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 the 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 NelsonWillie NelsonIconic American country music singer-songwriter.?

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. 

Album covers.
Left: To Drive Away the Vampires. Balkan Folk Musics, 1930s​-​80s
Right: An Unseen Cloud. Commercial American Indian Recordings of the late​-​40s to mid​-​50s

Canary Records

BK:Do you still keep track of what’s going on with diasporic traditions in contemporary music?

IN:I am forty two and have two children. During my twenties and thirties 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.

About twenty years ago, I worked at a software company where half the programmers were Russian. They invited me along to a Russian bard concert. I had a memorable and pleasant time, although I did not understand a word. Similarly, I grew up in the highest-density Hindu population part of the U.S. and was lucky enough to hear some great Indian performers when I was young. Recently I was taken along to a community performance by some Pontic Greeks… 

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-wagoncovered-wagonAmerican settlers to the Wild West often traveled via covered wagons, which as a result became a symbol of the history of westward expansion in the US. folk of the western states in the late 19th century. I know that Danish music is full of deep poetic sense, but it hasn't particularly impressed me or I don’t know it well enough. I was told that my Danish grandfather, who I’ve seen in my childhood really loved the songs of Jimmy RogersJimmy RogersA popular American singer and musician from the late 1920s who is often considered the “father of country music.”, as I do, and was also playing guitar and singing. The other half on my mother’s side 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.

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

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 fifty 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 fifty 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.

Album covers.
Top left: Zabelle Panosian. I Am Servant of Your Voice, March 1917 – June 1918
Top right: Hata Unacheza. Sub​-​Saharan Acoustic Guitar & String Music, ca. 1960s
Bottom left: Bed of Pain. Rebetika, 1930​-55
Bottom right: Love is a One-Way Traffic. Groovy East Asian Chicks, 1960s-70s

Canary Records

BK:What’s the critical difference between commercial recordings of traditional music and recordings made by ethnomusicologists?

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 ten years and only the past five of those years have been really serious. I expect it’ll be another twenty years before my work assimilates into the public 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 of my work 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 Anthologythe Folkways Harry Smith AnthologyA legendary compilation, brought together by experimental filmmaker Harry Smith from his own collection of 78 rpm records from 1920-1930s. It became a touchstone for the American folk music revival in 1950-1960s..

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 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? I’m speaking about remixes, DJ-sets, etc.

IN:I’m for it. The Kronos QuartetKronos QuartetFamous American string quartet with forty years of history., known for performing a very broad range of musical genres . commissioned two arrangements of songs that I was the first to reissue. I’m happy about that. Anything to keep the music and the memories of the musicians alive in people’s minds.

One of my favorite singers—an Armenian immigrant named Zabelle PanosianZabelle PanosianArmenian singer, who migrated to the USA in the end of XIX century and later recorded there a series of songs in Armenian, popular in the diaspora.—wrote a song in the 1920s about her meeting with the great composer and ethnomusicologist Komitas VardapetKomitas VardapetLegendary Armenian composer, who started an extensive work of the conservation of the Armenian musical legacy. Thanks to him those traditions were not lost. in a psych ward. She worshipped him and sang his songs, but was only given the chance to ask one 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.”

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Ian Nagoski
Music researcher and record producer specializing in early 20th century musics in languages other than English. Founder of the Canary Records label. Lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.
Bulat Khalilov
Ethnographer, journalist, co-founder of the Ored Recordings label, specializing in field recordings of authentic traditional music from the Caucasus, Russia, and the world. Lives and works in Nalchik.