Monthly Spins: Ghost Records: Musical Heritage Society

What exactly is a ghost record? It’s a recording that remains elusive and has perhaps taken on an out-sized place in your archivist’s brain. It’s the lost record that you’ve forgotten the name of and, perhaps searched for over the years to no avail. This is not any ordinary album that can be easily searched for on Google, cross-referenced and or found with easy emails and answers from forum posts. I think every music lover has a ghost record in their life and memory, a record that they heard once at someone’s house, maybe when they were stoned, or once owned but then lost in a basement flood or gave away, an album they can still hear in their head but somehow it’s slipped through the cracks and gone down the wormhole of memory. And because you might have been in an altered state, traveling in a car with the windows down with added road rumble and static in the mix, how can’t you be sure it was as great as you remembered it. But then again maybe it was as great as you remembered it. A ghost record is that lost bit of recorded near perfection that haunts you still, even 30 odd years or more since you last heard it. There’s one piece of music that has haunted me over the years and I’ve spent hours and hours searching through old databases, online forums and Discogs trying to find the exact title and failed at each attempt.

In my case finding the ghost record is exacerbated by the fact that the album in question was only released on an obscure label back in the sixties and is not just out of print, the company that made it went bankrupt and is now out of business. And as far as I know the album remains out of print.

Let’s start at the beginning then, to one day in 1975 when I was a junior in high school and happened to be listening to the nearby college radio station playing classical music on a Sunday afternoon. At this point in my life I had a small stereo set up in my room, nothing fancy or expensive. I think it was a Marantz receiver and speakers, Technics turntable with a pair of Sony 70’s style over the ear cans. I didn’t own any classical music at the time but I enjoyed this particular program because the announcer played ancient and Renaissance music unlike anything I had ever heard before, the mostly religious and choral music I found extraordinary. On this day he was playing all instrumental music and what he called folk music of the time. I had never heard anything like it. And here is where it gets tricky: he announced the record at the end of his show and I wrote down the title and I think it was Music of the 14th Century for Lute and Guitar from the recording put out by something called The Musical Heritage Society. This would become a habit of mine over the years, especially when I lived in cities with a lot of good radio stations: I always kept a small tablet and a pen handy in my car so that I could write down the names of great stuff I heard, usually played on a variety of college stations. How, in 1975, living in rural Pennsylvania and without a clue, I managed to track this record down remains a mystery. More than likely I did what you had to in those days and tracked down the address of the Musical Heritage Society, sent them a letter inquiring about this specific recording and then waited to see what would happen.

The Musical Heritage Society was a membership, and mail-order only record club devoted (mainly) to classical music lovers, founded in NYC in 1962 by Michael "Mischa" Naida. MHS mostly relicensed records from small companies from Europe specializing in classical in particular, but there was some jazz. The records were pressed by Columbia and came mainly from French labels such as Erato, Harmonia Mundi, Lyrita, Ensayo and Melodiya.

The records were then repackaged in the now famous simple and declarative album sleeves that were largely if not wholly devoid of information, graphics and pictures. You got rare and hard-to-find recordings at a good price, but you had to become a member. There was an initial fee for membership then, like Columbia House, you had to send back a postcard saying that you didn’t want that month’s selection, and like CH if you didn’t send it in then you got that month’s record and had to pay for it whether you liked it or not. Needless to say, I was interested in other music but I really only wanted that one record. I sent in a check for the membership (2$) and ordered the record (3$) and no doubt I did what I always did with the Columbia House 10 records for 1 cent deals, I just stopped communicating with them and eventually they stopped sending me records and that was that.

In my teenager years there was nothing else like this album in my collection, and none of my friends had heard anything like it, nor were many of them as taken with the recording as I was. As usual, I played it over and over during the first month. I lent the record to my high school art teacher, who gave me Stravinsky in return. After graduating high school I did a short stint in the Airforce and then started college and wandered back and forth across the country, moving constantly, so I never really had a permanent address for many years and during this time I invariably ran out of money and called my mother and asked her to advertise my sound system in the local paper because I needed the money. I had about 40 albums at that time and the person who ended up wanting to buy the system would only buy it if I threw all the albums into the deal, which I did. And this is the last time I was in possession of MHS Music of the 14th Century For Lute and Violin, if that was indeed the title.

I thought about that album many times over the years and gradually forgot it completely until I moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and started to listen to the local NYC classical radio stations. I remember that it was a rainy day and I was late getting out of the apartment for an appointment in Manhattan. When I got out they were playing the MHS album. "I know that music!" I remember saying out loud, but by this time I was horribly late and rushing to get down to the F station and I could not wait for them to announce the name of the record. I looked the station up online that evening to see if they published a playlist and they didn’t and I made a note to call the station and to try and track it down. But I never called.

Since then it’s become a minor irritant and an ongoing quest to try and track down this album, but without the exact title I’ve found myself slogging through page after page of Discog listings, looking for something that sounds right and discovering lots of recordings from the 14th Century but not that particular record. So, if anyone out there knows anything about this album (or has an old MHS catalog) and might be able to track it down, or perhaps owns it then please leave a comment because I’d love to have my ghost record back.

Joe Surdna is a practicing artist and writer who has published in Playboy, GQ, Zoetrope and has worked on several alt-weeklies as an entertainment reporter focusing on art, new music, and film reviews.

fluteman's picture

A quick ebay search immediately produced MHS1055, "Masters of the Lute and Guitar", I hope that helps. I do feel your pain. I had such a Musical Heritage Society "ghost record", more than one, actually. But in the last 10 years, most of those obscure European classical LPs have been transferred to CD, sometimes issued in Europe or Japan only, but available online. Let me know if you need more ideas.

PAR's picture

" French labels such as Erato, Harmonia Mundi, Lyrita, Ensayo and Melodiya."

Lyrita was and is not a French label. It is as British as can be and the great majority (all?) of its repertoire features British or Irish composers.

Oh, also Melodiya is Russian.

funambulistic's picture the (probably now defunct) band Hungry Ghost. In the '90s, I used to buy the CMJ New Music Monthly magazine for, of course, the new music. On each month's included disc of various artists, there was always two or three real gems. The song, "Malign" from 1996 was haunting (pun kind of intended) and beautiful. I scoured all of the music stores in El Paso* to find the actual album with no luck, but the song stayed with me. I had finally given up on finding it and sort of forgot the whole thing. It was not until 2012, when I was perusing a used music store in Dallas, that I stumbled on a copy. I was completely thrilled and the album, "Sugar Skulls", did not disappoint. Of course, reminded of all of this, I typed in the band's name on Tidal today and voila...

*Oddly enough, the best resource for "left of the dial" music in El Paso at the time was a Best Buy. I knew the music manager and he went out of his way to order new and cool stuff, knowing it would be snatched up by like minded individuals like myself!

tgibbs's picture

I can't help you with your search, but I thought you might enjoy reading about mine, which I finally tracked down.

Here are the links:

Good luck!!

Michael K's picture

I hope it wasn't the infamous Jean-François Paillard-Pachelbel: Canon & Gigue in D major recording. That was the first MHS record I bought and, since it became the subscription premium for a lot of NPR stations for most of the 1970s and early 80s, was probably the label's all-time best seller. As Wikipedia says "by the early 1980s its presence as background music was deemed inescapable." So it could easily have become someone's "Ghost Recording." To tell the truth, it is a lovely adaptation for chamber orchestra of a very pretty Baroque piece for 3 violins and harpsichord. Your article brought back some fond memories of MHS and the often unusual music it provided. Thank you.