By Mike Greenblatt
Who is Lil McClintock? Nobody knows. All anybody has been able to turn up is that he came out of Clinton, S.C., traveled to Atlanta, recorded four songs for Columbia Records on Dec. 4, 1930, had his picture taken and then disappeared, never to be heard from again.
At the time, hardly anybody bought McClintock’s records, which included the cautionary tune “Sow Good Seeds.” There aren’t too many surviving copies today, either. But when one finds a copy of “Sow Good Seeds” these days, it’s usually in pristine shape because it’s been sitting in a warehouse somewhere as unsold store stock that never felt the business end of a record player.
But that doesn’t make it a cheap buy. According to John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, a copy of this record obtained from a private collector, went for almost $3,000. (By the way: The flip side of this stirring gospel classic is the not-so-radio-friendly title “Mother Called Her Child To Her Dying Bed.”) The only Lil McClintock record that turned up on popsike.com was the 2007 sale of a VG+/E- condition copy of his blues record, Columbia 14575-D (“Furniture Man”/“Don’t Think I’m Santa Claus”), which drew six bids before selling for $272 via eBay.
The thing about “Sow Good Seeds,” though, is that McClintock’s performance — alternately playing a deft slide guitar, then inserting some intricate fingerpicking while singing a song with a moral in an authoritative voice — is that it is so amazingly good, and holds up so well after all these decades, it would, could and should be a folk standard, along the likes of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” The recording is catchy and sticks to the brain like a mind tattoo long after it finishes. Plus, the picture in the Columbia Records advertisement of McClintock in a top hat is priceless.
“We didn’t know that picture even existed until about a year and a half ago,” explains Tefteller. “Photographs of some of these guys are, in many cases, as rare or rarer than the records. It’s not that they didn’t take them. I have a pretty firm belief that they took photographs of every single one of these guys that they were going to release records on. There was no way they wouldn’t have done that! There’s been way too many examples of really obscure singers like this one who, all of a sudden, we find a picture of. That means Columbia wasn’t just taking pictures of the big-name stars. The problem that we’ve found — and it’s a big one — is that most of the Columbia Records files were destroyed in the 1950s on purpose to make room for the likes of Liberace, Mitch Miller and Patti Page ... or whoever was popular at the time. They only had so much storage space, so out in the New York garbage it went.”
It seems hard to believe that any 1950s music executive worth his salt would be so short-sighted, so in the dark about the historical relevance of what was being tossed. But the cycle has repeated.
“Let me fast-forward you to 1986,” Tefteller says, anger evident in his voice. “There’s a fella who still works for Sony named Michael Brooks. He’s the archive guy. And in 1986, he wanders into the Sony/Columbia offices in New York, and sitting by one of the garbage cans is a stack of tape marked ‘Louis Armstrong Concert 1956.’ He calls over to somebody and says, ‘What’s that doing there?’ ‘Oh,’ he’s told, ‘it’s just some old tapes we’re throwing out.’ Well, those tapes turned out to be the only existing copy of a Louis Armstrong concert 30 years back that they were clearing out just to preserve space. Brooks barely rescued the master. These people have been stupid for decades.”