Deleted folk vinyl – Argo records
I started out with some grand idea of writing about all those thousands of folk recordings that are lying around decomposing in the vaults of record companies or lost and unlistened to on the archive racks of learned institutions.
But it somehow morphed into this ramshackle look at the British record label Argo. That’s why it’s called Folk Catalogue. But isn’t really.
It’s mostly a look at the folk records Argo issued – a sort of annotated discography that reads a bit like Bermondsey Bob’s contributions to From the Message Boards in Private Eye.
(If you find you’re into it, you can sign up for the Facebook page and you’ll be kept informed about updates and new posts)
Except that I keep getting distracted…
– the beginnings of a complete discography of the Argo label (a major distraction)
– a potted history of the label that I’ve started working on
– a catalogue of the folk music Argo issued decade by decade
– links to posts on the folk albums that i’ve got round to doing the track list (and, in some cases, notes) for
– and in between miscellaneous things that have cropped up, like the Bloody Decca entry…and Olga Lehmann and Arthur Wragg’s fantastic Argo album covers.
It’s still got more holes than substance. Hey, it’s not easy doing a catalogue of 30-60 year old records that only exist in charity shops and auction houses (stuck between The World of Charlie Kunz Vol 5 and Richard Clayderman Plays Abba) and on eBay.
I’ve been getting loads of help from people I bump into on the internet. So if you’ve got any Argo music or information you can pass on, I’d be very grateful.
A bit of history
Argo was a quirky one-off – a very British label that went its own sweet way from 1951…till it was so caught up in the machinations of the industry that it couldn’t go its own sweet way any more. Forget the latter-day claims of resurrection, it effectively died in 1980. At the hands of the suits at Polygram.
When the label was founded (on a shoestring), long-playing records had only been on the market in the UK for just over a year. Founder Harley Usill said the label would specialise in ‘British music played by British artists’ – and so it did – but from the earliest days Argo also explored loads of off-beat new ways of filling the whopping 23-minutes-per-side of vinyl that the new technology made available.
The complete works of Shakespeare, contemporary poets reading their own work, steam locomotives, music hall, jazz, contributions to ground-breaking, progressive English learning aids, plus outsanding recordings of choral, chamber and new classical music…They even recorded and released the birth of Usill’s first son, pre-natal heartbeats and all.
And they also released folk. All sorts of British stuff – from senior Marxist-Leninist trad scholarship to loving experiments with Kipling, to young pop folksters in ironed flairs.
And pioneering field recordings of what in those days was known as ‘ethnic’ music.
In 1953, 34 years before they started sneaking "world music" dividers into the racks in records shops, Usill was helping musicologist Deben Bhattacharya to buy a tape recorder so he could go off to India and record.
The Living Tradition series of field recording LPs that Bhattacharya went on to make for Argo were a remarkable achievement – a low-profile version of what Colombia and Alan Lomax were doing around the same time with their rather grander World Library of Folk and Primitive Music.
By 1957 Argo was making decent profits, but had cash flow problems. Decca, who had been pressing the Argo releases, made Usill an offer and in November that year Argo became a division of the Decca Record Company. Usill stayed on and was given a pretty free hand to develop the Argo division along his own lines.
By 1979, Argo had a turnover of ₤1 million, with a return on investment of 34 per cent. But then Decca got taken over by Polygram, and Polygram caught a nasty cold with the sudden death of disco. Rationalisation was the order of the day, and Argo got the chop.
"I had hoped they would let it go on, not snuff it out as they did. We were not told very much. The whole episode was a nightmare to everyone involved," Usill said.
So where is the Argo back catalogue now?
Well, in 1999 Phillips sold Polygram to Seagram and it was merged into the Universal Music Group, currently owned by the Paris-based media conglomerate Vivendi.
A couple of the albums in the Argo folk catalogue have been released on CD in Japan and some artists have reissued a handful of their own recordings (The Yetties and Dave Goulder, for example).
The Dutton Vocalion label released a couple of albums (Bonnie Dobson and The Critics Group’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly), but in June 2009 they told me they had no plans to reissue any more of the Argo folk.
Since 2007, 50 LPs from the long-deleted Argo classical catalogue have been re-released by Decca in digital form under a new Argo imprint. But there’s no sign of the folk music.