There is something magical about those records, and much of it lies in the voices. Partly because of the way they were recorded, there’s eeriness and a humanity about them, which sounds unlike anything else.
“They sound like they couldn’t have occurred for real,” White agrees. “They don’t sound like you could have listened to these songs being recorded. I can’t imagine the white northern people in charge of the record companies saying: ‘Great job, Robert Johnson. Let’s hear another one!’ It was such strange music. You can imagine them thinking, ‘I do not understand this stuff or what they’re saying. Why are we recording this kind of music?’”
The Third Man/Document reissues -- remastered from original 78s — will benefit from modern remastering techniques without losing their inimitable appeal. “Chess Records recorded Little Walter with his vocals coming through an industrial pipe,” hoots Atkinson, reeling off another tale. “Rock-blues bands in the 1960s like the Stones and the Yardbirds were going mad because they were trying to get that sound. If they’d have gone to a building suppliers they’d have cracked it.”
The process by which this weird, wonderful music from the delta ended up in Scotland is a story in itself. Document was originally started in Vienna in 1986 by jazz and blues fan Johnny Parth, an Austrian who had first heard Mississippi blues when American GIs brought the records to Europe during the second world war. Atkinson, meanwhile, was a screen printer in Hull who reviewed records in his spare time. One day, he was given a set of Document CDs to review. “I absolutely thrashed them,” he chuckles when we meet in a Manchester cafe. “But then I got another batch and realized this Johnny guy was on a mission from God.”
A traumatic divorce from his first wife meant Atkinson was left floundering, unable to do his job. However, around the same time as he met second wife Gillian — a big character and blues fan who had met Bo Diddley “and almost run off with him” — who would soon help run Document, Atkinson landed control of the label.
He had been writing sleevenotes for them — and being paid in CDs — when he suggested to Parth that Document needed a Web site, upon which the Austrian told the Yorkshireman that he should go ahead and create one.
“About two or three days later he said: ‘Would you like all of Document?’” recalls Atkinson. “I thought he was talking about the CD collection. Then it tumbled. He was talking about the company. He gave me this daft price, but it wasn’t what it was worth by any means.”
Atkinson, by no means wealthy, started to worry about what he had done when he realized acquiring the company meant taking ownership of 175,000 physical CDs, spread across 900 albums. Indeed, there were so many that they had to close the street to get the truck in. In southwest Scotland, where the Atkinsons were living, there was nowhere suitable to house a century’s worth of music. “It all ended up in a warehouse in a whisky distillery,” chuckles Atkinson. “You’ve only got to think of Tommy McClennan’s Whiskey Head Woman  to realize they were coming home.”
Now some of them are on the move again, via Nashville. Third Man is initially releasing the complete recorded works, in chronological order, of three legendary artists, complete with new sleeve artwork by collectable artist Rob Jones. They will also have sleeve notes that explain the blues’ importance to the development of rock and pop. White considers Charley Patton — whose Vol 1 collection is among the first Third Man/Document releases — to be a precursor of Jimi Hendrix, who would play “behind his neck, through his legs, doing anything he could.