A chief bullet point for advocates of the digital music age is its ease and breadth of accessibility. "You can hear anything you want, all the time," a breathless new Spotify or Rhapsody subscriber might say. "It can even tell you what you might want to hear."
But for Durham's Jason Perlmutter, finding music has never been a matter of convenience. Six years ago, for instance, a record collector in Norway sent Perlmutter a batch of vaguely identified MP3 files with the notice that he'd be willing to pay a premium for physical copies—that is, old 45 RPM records with two songs on two sides, issued decades ago by regional labels largely forgotten by the world. A funky, rough, disco-era number by a group identified only as "Ice" caught Perlmutter's ear; he scoured the Internet for a trace of the single but found nothing.
"There aren't really any reference books for this stuff," he says, sitting today in a Durham café, running his hands excitedly over the sides of his thin beard. "A lot of this soul music from the '60s, '70s and '80s on small labels is uncharted territory. So where do you look for it?"
Raised in Raleigh, educated in the chemistry department of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and now living in Durham, Perlmutter has worked for the last decade to unearth the untold tale of soul music in North and South Carolina—the characters who made it, the web of acts and imprints that united them, the surprising islands of small-town music making, and the cultural and historical implications of thriving black music scenes in the South during sustained periods of conspicuous racial unrest. He's compiled and released acclaimed compilations of his finds, started a record label in part to help do so, and helmed online and academic forums for the discovery and dispersal of the music and narratives he likes best. As a record collector, he seeks music that most of the world doesn't know exists; as a record salesman, DJ, former label owner, lecturer and curator, he works to remind listeners not only that it exists and is often quite good but that the tale of music will never be fully told. It's not rewriting history so much as writing it for the first time.
So when Perlmutter heard the track from Ice, he wanted it to be the product of some forgotten Tar Heel act, if only because it could become part of his research.
"The more I listened to it, the more I think I willed it to be from North Carolina," he says, laughing. "So I listened to it at work on my computer for maybe a month or two, and that voice sounded familiar. And I realized that this might be this vocalist from this other group called the Chocolate Buttermilk Band, from Fayetteville, N.C."
Even as a college undergraduate, Perlmutter traveled the Carolinas, meeting old soul musicians whose prime had passed and documenting their stories. He formed a lived if not written lexicon of this music, unveiling some of his findings in DJ sets and on his website, carolinasoul.org.
"The fact that Jason was able to play three hours of music from the Carolinas, once a year for 10 years on WXYC, with few if any repeats, is mind-boggling," explains fellow archivist Jon Kirby. "Jason was tracking down three hours worth of newly discovered funk music from two Southern states that possessed no centralized music industry or musical infrastructure."
When he heard that voice in Ice, the stacks of transcripts pointed him back toward an earlier find. Perlmutter poured over notes from interviews he'd done years before with some musicians in Fayetteville and actually found an offhanded, previously overlooked reference to a group named Ice. He called the man who'd mentioned it and learned that, yes, his memory might have been correct. More phone numbers were exchanged, and several warped copies of the single—"Reality," backed with "Hey Hey," released in 1980 without a label—were found in the back of the frontman's van.
"There was a little bit of luck there, as a couple of them were able to play without too much trouble," explains Perlmutter. "So there's one story."
Indeed, for the hundreds of never-happened hits Perlmutter has added to his archive, there is always story, even if it's as simple as finding a single he's been seeking for a decade on eBay, by mistake. Perlmutter, 31, recently quit his full-time job as a chemist. And earlier this year, after finishing preparations for the third release from the record label he co-founded, Paradise of Bachelors, he bowed out of that role, too. After more than a decade of looking for these records, he's finding more leads to pursue, more stories to shape. He has now turned this mix of Internet sleuth, scavenger hunter and sympathetic researcher into a full-time job.
Now that he's searching for rarities as his occupation, the chief challenge for Perlmutter is broadcasting the work of an unimaginably niche profession—a local crate digger seeking records for fetishists that most never knew existed—in a manner that is open to the broader public. Perlmutter keeps a copy of everything he finds, meaning his catalog of North and South Carolina soul curios is likely the most complete collection that currently exists. He's looking for ways to share that knowledge, to make sure that an unintentionally secret history doesn't stay that way. This spring, he led Soul Souvenirs, a collaborative art show that explored Durham's own forgotten past as part of the larger Bull City Soul Revival.
"I felt like the work I had been doing was more public and more interactive in terms of the interface with the public at large, people researching it and the musicians themselves," he says. "Something I had been doing in a very personal way—'OK, I am going to meet this musician and talk to them and it's going to be really inspiring and formative for me'—suddenly a lot of people interfaced."
The other constant struggle for Perlmutter and all such archivists, really, is that he has no idea what is actually out there. When he began work on the Bull City Soul project last summer, for instance, he says he had a strong understanding of the music the city had produced. He'd dug through Durham's hidden soul seven years before and maintained an interest in its story even as he plundered the back catalogs of other nearby towns. Still, even as the installation gave the public a new view into its city's forgotten past, certain members of the public gave Perlmutter leads to Durham-made records that he'd never heard mentioned, let alone seen. So now, of course, those bands are on his watch list; indeed, if he doesn't find this history, there's a safe chance it might never be found.
"I have a definite business angle to what I do now. But, in a nonprofit way, how can I make this information I've accumulated available, so that people can interact with it?" he says. "There's plenty more to do. What can be done?"