On an undistinguished block in Brooklyn, New York, a few minutes walk from the Williamsburg Bridge, near a synagogue, a Portuguese grocery, and a Muslim community centre, stands an unrecognised landmark in American music. ...decades ago it was a lodging house run by the Williamsburg branch of the YMCA, and it was here, in a single room on the uppermost floor one unknowable day in the mid-1950s, that the Delta blues was born.
Born, that is, in the imagination of one of the YMCA’s long-term residents, a record collector named James McKune...
In its distaste for contemporary black popular music, its obsession with the authentic, primal sounds of black suffering, McKune’s brand of connoisseurship was in many ways troubling. Yet what drove it was the same quest for transcendence that has propelled the histories of religion and art. In a deeply secular age, McKune took refuge in a personal faith, in which poring through record bins in junk shops became a kind of pilgrimage and listening to old recordings became an act of devotion. ''Only the great religious singers have ever affected me similarly,'' he wrote of Charley Patton. In the end, he should be judged by what he left behind: a legacy of salvaged voices whose intense, mournful beauty has transfixed the world, voices he invested with wonder and reverence, by listening ''silently. In awe.''
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