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R. Crumb on ''Times Ain't Like They Used to Be''

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R. Crumb on ”Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be”

Ever since the introduction of cheap, available videotape — not that long ago, what’s it been 15 years? — there has existed a small subculture of enthusiasts of early recorded jazz, blues, country, and ethnic music passing around 10th-generation barely watchable tapes of old musical film clips from the earliest days of sound film — the late 1920’s and early 30’s period. With Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be (1993, Shanachie, Black & White, $24.95), we have in our sweaty little hands, at last, a dream come true! Some enlightened souls have systematically, methodically, patiently gathered together on one tape a selection of the best, most amazing old musical film clips known to exist — and some that were previously unknown!

Sherwin Dunner, the guy who did most of the footwork on this project, has put in months of detective work, running all over the country, tracking down the best original prints, persuading reluctant private collectors and various film archives to loosen their proprietary grasp and let this material be reissued — a challenging but tedious task.

Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be (and old song title) is my favorite vidoetape of all time. Okay, I’m a passionate lover of all this old, old-time music. For me, watching this is such a deep experience…it fills me with nostalgia for a time before I was even alive — a lost civilization, and yet so familiar — I feel a comforting sense of recognition, like finding an old family photo album in a trunk in the attic, or listening to a vivid recollection told by an eye witness to some event that happened long, long ago. Part of the magic of these old films has to do with their being — how should one say it? — pre-Hollywood slick. The world had not yet been engulfed by mass media: entertainment, even ”showbusiness,” still had a homemade quality, a folksiness about it. The movie camera was a new thing, an intruder into culture it was just beginning to help alter — destroy in certain ways. The performers often look stiff and awkward in front of the thing — the media eye…these twin brothers playing banjos on their front porch could have been old uncles of mine in their youth…these two black street musicians, the farm people dancing to fiddle music, so vividly brought back to life on the little screen, fill me with a sweet, sickly feeling of terrible loss…which is, I suppose, the definition of ”nostalgia.”

The techno-miracle of videotape, VCRs, and videocameras has caused a revolution, a ”new wave”: reality becomes yet more accessible to the viewing screen, affecting politics and everyday life. It has also opened up the past, as it exists on film, for us to examine and enjoy at out leisure. Old news reel archives, thousands of bits and pieces of the mundane workaday world, considered of no importance when they were first filmed 60, 70, 80 years ago, are now being pulled out of their dusty film cans in forgotten storage room and put on tape…and that’s another thing I really appreciate about the Shanachie tape: they have had the good taste to spare us the fancy opening credits, cute quick-cutting or other irritating computer-generated graphic gimmicks, and there’s no long-winded, bombastic commentary (like this review) or narrative by some current media celebrity or refined documentary-style pretentious, pseudo-intellectual voice-over. They just show us the footage, that’s it….a rare treat! I hope they can keep coming up with such gems and make this a series!

I give ’em an A+++!! — R. Crumb, May, 1993

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