The Flipside With Jack White: Finding Music In The Art Of Auctioneering
These days, White lives in Nashville and spends much of his time on Third Man Records, his record store and label. He's also getting a shop together to do upholstery work again, something he did long ago in Detroit when he had a company called Third Man Upholstery.
Today, we begin a series of conversations with Jack White, called The Flipside. You can hear the interview using the link above or read a transcription here. The Flipside is all about a side of an artist you don't know much about. For example, did you know that White loved the sound of auctioneers?
[We sample a bit of Jerry King from his 45 "The Auctioneer"]
Bob Boilen: Tell us about Jerry King.
Jack White: Jerry King. He's incredible. He's one of the best auctioneers in the world. His son had bumped into the engineer at my studio, and one thing led to another. He just mentioned him while we were recording something else and I said, "Oh, that would be incredible. I would love to talk to him and maybe do an interview and see if we could show people how auctioneers do what they do, because it's such a bizarre language, such a bizarre way to communicate. Human beings — some people are standing there, silent in the crowd with someone in front of them talking a thousand miles an hour. It's just something we could talk a lot about, and Jerry was really into it. He came out from Carolina to Nashville. And we started talking — in the first 10 minutes I had to say, "Stop man, hold on, let's turn the microphone on. Let's get in the other room and turn the microphone on."
Boilen: Is there something in your past that attracts you to auctioneers? For example, I used to listen to short-wave radio as a kid, and so I have lots of attraction to static sounds and things like that.
White: I'm very interested in anybody communicating something in an unusual way with another person. Because you'd almost — if, say, you could rewind the clock and say, in the future, there's going to be this scenario where one human being sells something to another human being — how would we want them to talk to one another? You can't predict that stuff. That stuff just happens on its own. To explore it and talk about it... you never can find an explanation to why an auctioneer talks this way. It's just incredibly beautiful.
Boilen: [Jerry King] is very musical. Is that part of the attraction?
White: Yeah, he actually came in thinking we would maybe record the famous song "The Auctioneer." I don't know if you know that old country song. He knows how to play it. He's a guitar player, too. I think he was thinking that we would do something more along those lines. I said, "It might be better if we just do a record with you talking and teaching people how to auction. I mean, we can play music all the time, but what's incredible and special about what you do is that you can tell us how it's done."
This Green Series we have at Third Man Records — I wanted to be able to talk with people who have trade jobs and make records with them. I want to do more records with carpenters, electricians, people who specialize in even more bizarre trades that are off the beaten path.
And an auctioneer is such a uniquely American thing. I keep thinking in my head, perhaps it's not as American as I think, but it feels so Southern. It feels so American. Like, hundreds of years of American tradition is involved in it. I'd actually like to learn more about the way things are auctioned in other countries.
Boilen: This morning, when I was listening to "The Auctioneer" — this has to do with the musicality of Jerry King, just for a minute. I put on Jerry King and the first thing I thought of — we just did this '90s show on All Songs Considered, of which I played this Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — I don't know if you know his music.
White: I've heard that name, yeah.
Boilen: So I've this little — I'm a musician, too — I've this little box I use now and again. It's an electronic tambura.
[We play Jerry King auctioneering and Bob fades in the drone of an electric tambura.]
Boilen: He's in C! And he stays right there.
White: We're going to do that for our Indian-Pakistani release of our record. We'll do a remix.
Boilen: Let me know if you need any help!
White: That's a great idea. I love that. And you brought up a good point, because I asked him if he stays in the same note, and he thought he did — and he goes down a half-step sometimes to control the crowd, to control the sale. And when it gets exciting, he goes back up to the original key.
Boilen: So cool. And something he said — the B-side are interviews and you're conducting an interview. This is very John and Alan Lomax-like — the field recorders from the '30s, '40s and more. You pulled something out of him that I'd never ever thought about in auctioneering. It's like you're having a two-person conversion, but you're one person doing it.
White: That's right. "The Auctioneer" is talking for both people, and that's the big revelation about, "Oh, that's what they're doing." They're just doing it very fast, so you could kind of miss on that. He's speaking for you, because people in the crowd don't have a voice, so that's what really makes it compelling.
Boilen: Jack White talking about auctioneering and the sounds of Jerry King. You can find Jerry King's 45 or digital download on Third Man Records. Our conversation with Jack White continues next week on The Flipside. We talk about accents.