In This Great Future, You Can’t Forget Your Past: Reissues As Archive and Canon Corrective

By: Daniel G. Wilson | Art by: Tom Beedham

“For me, [making music] is a spiritual thing that was passed on to you,” Inuit folk rocker legend Willie Thrasher tells me during a conversation about the importance of musical reissues. The spirituality of music and the ways in which that spirit passes from person to person is integral to his long and storied career. Thrasher is one of Canada’s finest songwriters from a time when much of the modern musical canon of this country was still being shaped. Unfortunately his legacy has not had the easiest of roads.

Thrasher began his music career in the early ’60s by performing throughout the northern regions of Canada with all-Inuit rock ‘n’ roll group the Cordells, as well as other projects, before a transformative meeting with an elder inspired a change in direction. As a survivor of the residential school system, Thrasher and his bandmates never delved into Inuit themes or styles with their music, but that shifted after he was encouraged to write and perform his own material. He would spend the ’70s and ’80s involved with the folk-rock music scene among a cohort of Indigenous songwriters (e.g. Sugluk, Morley Loon) whose music explored themes and topics pertaining to the history, culture, and current plight of Inuit and First Nations people in Canada. 

Relocating to Ottawa in the ’70s, Thrasher was commissioned by the CBC to write and record his Spirit Child in 1981, and counts it as a career highlight alongside participating in the Odeyak Expedition in 1990. “Greyhound with my dog team,” he says fondly remembering his time traveling across North America in a nomadic fashion during this period. However, much of his early output would remain out of print, and his contributions to the Canadian canon were overlooked until the 2010s when three of his songs were included on Light in the Attic’s compilation Native North America, Vol. 1.

Reissues have existed since the earliest days of recorded music as both a commercial and archival venture. Ranging from artist retrospectives to multi-artist collections based around a genre, theme, or era, these compilations can be a way for lesser-known artists to reach new listeners and for music that was once thought lost or was underappreciated in its time to find new life. A reissue is also an opportunity to release music in a newer format that’s most readily available to the music-buying public, as was the case with the surge of CD reissues that kicked off in the ’80s. And in many cases, reissues allow artists to garner the attention that they were once denied.

“[Reissues] offer subsequent generations a chance to share things, understand things. Find out that they really liked something or perhaps don’t, but it opens doors, if you will,” says York University professor Rob Bowman over Zoom. “It opens doors through which people can begin to explore different kinds of music artists they didn’t know about.” This aspect of reissues helps to keep the context and arc of musical history in the listener’s mind. Bowman is an ethnomusicologist and writer, who has decades of experience with artist releases and reissues. He has won several Grammys for his work researching and writing liner notes for releases such as, Numero Group’s Jackie Shane retrospective, Any Other Way, composer John Oswald’s Grayfolded, and compilations like The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972–1975.

As a form of preservation, reissues keep music that may have been lost in circulation in contemporary formats that are easier to access and store. The renewed interest that reissues can bring to an artist can inspire efforts to further preserve the original sources and recordings of the music that the music industry at large may not have put much care into preserving in the beginning. This can prove important in the face of sometimes poor storage conditions for musical master tapes and original sources as evidenced by the 2008 Universal studio fire which destroyed the original recordings of countless musicians. In cases like these, surviving reissues can be the means for future generations to listen to artists whose music would have otherwise been collected and entombed in a vault that no longer exists

For artists from the global south and racialized artists living within western countries, reissues can often allow them to gain a level of visibility that they were denied earlier in their careers. It is an all too common story for an artist’s career to be sidelined due to the cultural biases of their time. The all-Black Detroit proto-punk band Death was largely unknown to the general public for decades until they were rediscovered in 2009s and had their debut album, …For the Whole World to See, reissued. During their original run in the ’70s, the band faced numerous difficulties due to their name and the fact that they were an all-Black band playing a style of music that would not gain mainstream attention and recognition until long after they had already broken up 1977. The reissue not only brought much needed attention to their music and story but also added to the story and canon of punk rock, the Detroit sound, and the marginalization of Black people within burgeoning scenes of heavy music at the time. The band was able to reform with its surviving members and start touring internationally.  

Similarly, the Canadian artist Beverly Glenn-Copeland has also experienced a career resurgence due to the 2017 reissue and subsequent acclaim of his classic 1986 record Keyboard Fantasies. The album had remained something of a hidden gem for fans of the proto-electronica and downtempo sound that the album pioneered. The attention that the reissue brought Copeland allowed him to form a band and start touring earnestly. Most significantly, his late-career success attracted an entirely new audience to his work without the same barriers that he faced during the album’s original release as a Black and queer musician. Like Death, Copeland has spent this second wind on a number of successful tours across North America and Europe, has had a number of documentaries produced that focus on his life and work, and has been able to leverage the renewed attention into other artistic work.

Though Thrasher had an album commissioned by the CBC and toured the country, it took crate-digger and archivist Kevin “Sipreano” Howes’ own enthusiasm before his name achieved the wider recognition it has today. The 2014 release of Native North America Vol. One situated Thrasher’s work within a tapestry of Indigenous folk music that emerged across Turtle Island starting in the mid-’60s that was absent from the history books at the time. The compilation does more than just collect and juxtapose a number of songs, it contextualizes them with well-researched historical accounts of not only that moment, but the span of each of the artists’ own careers. In fact, the liner notes found in the more elaborate reissues are indispensable from the music itself, helping to further provide context and information on the artists being reissued, and acting as companion pieces to the music. Howes and Thrasher have partnered up once again on Indian​/​Inuit Country, a reissue of Thrasher’s 1994 cassette-only release of the same name. 

“The book covers a story about a native North. Better than anybody in history. It’s gone all over the world,” says Thrasher, discussing Native North America‘s liner notes. “I think this book is going to be part of Canadian history, part of Canadian life.” These releases act as both reissues of older music and also as guides that immerse the listener in a time and place of which they may not have been aware. For artists like Thrasher, whose work is deeply influenced by the stories and oral traditions of his culture, the significance of being able to share his songs and the stories behind them should not be understated or ignored. Doing so helps to keep the collective memory of the culture that these stories came from alive and well into the future. “I heard the stories from the elders of Inuvik […] and I try my best to write music of our culture,” he reminisces. “We have to accept what’s here today. We have to accept and go on this journey and be as strong as you can within your heart. But always remember where you came from.”

It must be noted that the majority of reissues are made by labels owned and operated by people in Western Europe and anglophone North America. There are many factors behind this, but the most pressing problem is lack of resources and funding. “Most of it is anglophone-dominated work,” says Bowman. “We have a world based on inequality unfortunately, and that plays out everywhere, including in music.” This economic reality highlights broader questions about the disparity between the global north and south areas of the world under a capitalistic meta culture and the global music industry. Though reissues help draw attention to overlooked artists they also exist within the same structures and dynamics of the music industry that exclude racialized artists from those opportunities in the first place. 

An interesting contrast to this is the reissue culture of Jamaican music that is led by Jamaicans living in Jamaica and the diaspora. Culturally, Jamaica is one of the first places to embrace remix culture or “Dub” which describes both a genre and the  act of dubbing over old records. The continual revival and reinvention of older sounds and songs as riddims is a musical tradition that permeates the present, is a technique not unlike reissuing. Sampling, which is informed by Jamaican soundsystem culture, is also rooted in this same practice. As an extension of this practice, Jamaican communities in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. have maintained a thriving industry of importing and re-releasing music from the island to foreign markets since the late ’60s. The Randy-Chin-founded label VP Records grew from its early days as a record store in Kingston, Jamaica to one of the largest Jamaican music focused labels in the United States. The continued work of UK Based Trojan Records in reissuing old school reggae into the present day must also be noted. 

Toronto has served as one of the largest reggae-producing cities in the world and stands as the home of  labels such as the historic Scorpio Records/Monica’s Production and Summer Records. “Jamaica is such a unique place because it’s such an extraordinarily vibrant recording scene and there’s been so much emigration from Jamaica to New York and Toronto in London,” says Bowman. “So Jamaica, the exporting of Jamaican music, and the reissue of Jamaican music where Jamaicans often were involved has been incredible. I don’t see a similar pattern that I know of anywhere else.” The fact that so many of these labels are founded by and led by Jamaicans and Jamaican-descended people, in contrast to the majority of not only reissue-focused labels but also the music industry of the global north as a whole, cannot be ignored. 

This model demonstrates a blueprint for people from the global south and racialized communities to shape the arc of their own legacies in the broader world. We can’t always rely on the artists who were lucky enough to have been found to do so. Sometimes in our communities there are artists that only we know about. It’s great that curators, crate diggers, and passionate labels are doing the archival work that they’re doing. It’s necessary, but it would be beautiful and crucial if people from the communities closest to the music and cultures involved were doing it for themselves. 

Reissues are an important part of musical history and an essential part of musical preservation. They can be more than just a way for popular artists to re-sell their old hits and major labels to profit off nostalgia. They can be a way for musical traditions to survive into the modern day in the face of cultural amnesia, a way of preserving the stories and histories of people through songs so that future generations can know them. For people from oppressed communities especially, reissues can inspire them and remind them of a history that was once thought lost. In an ever-changing world that has actively tried to erase them, it is important that these stories, songs, and traditions are preserved in some fashion and made accessible to the wider population. As Jamaican activist and Pan-African thinker Marcus Garvey perfectly summarizes, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”