A Musical Labor Of Love

charles osgood and pat conte CBS

Pat Conte is a common man, with an uncommon passion for music. Not just any music. Conte likes the kind most people have either forgotten about, or never heard in the first place. CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood reports.
He is most interested in music before World War II. "It's a magical era," he says, "from the 1920s through the '30s."

Conte is not a professional musician. His guitar cost $15 at a flea market. Conte's studio is a slightly battered Ford Crown Victoria.

His car is where he retreats on lunch break from his real job, as a postal worker. For 20 years, he has worked as a mail handler, loading and unloading mail trucks.

"It's nonstop work,...and it's something I like," he says. "The day passes quickly if you concentrate on the work."

"And it frees my mind to think about the more creative things,...the dreamy things," Conte says.

Conte doesn't mind the work because it is the more creative things, the dreamy things, that he lives for.

You see, he has a secret. Even his co-workers aren't aware that Conte has taken his love of music and put together his own personal museum of music, a secret museum.

It's hidden on a typical suburban street somewhere in New York - a street, coincidentally named Harmony Drive. You have to pass through the living room and kitchen of his mother's house to get there, but it's worth the trip. His basement looks like a one-man Smithsonian exhibit. He has collected hundreds of exotic instruments from around the world, and photos and artifacts of musicians from other cultures.

Unlike at other museums, visitors are encouraged to touch.

There's something fascinating in every corner. But the heart and soul of the museum is the record collection.

"I've categorized them as best I can," Conte says. He has acquired more than 10,000 rare and unusual recordings from the most remote corners of the world, everything from Macedonian string music to Mongolian throat music (the sound of two voices from one throat, the sound of one voice accompanying itself.

Conte started collecting ethnic records in his teens, after his grandmother gave him a recording of Italian folk music. Though he couldn't understand the words, he became hooked on traditional music.

Would he describe himself as a musicologist?

"An amateur musicologist," he replies. "I'm not trained, (but) my heart's in it."

It's not a museum in the traditional sense, and it's not open to the public. But since the public couldn't come to the museum, he found a way to bring the museum to them.

Record producer Richard Nevins, whose company, Yazoo Records, had been putting out traditional American music for years, met Conte through a close-knit circle of collectors.

"We said, 'Well, gosh, we should do the same thing for ethnic music from around the world from the 1920s and '30s...and share that with the people, thsame way we've been sharing the American stuff," he explains. "And that's how it came about."

What came about is a five-CD collection of the Secret Museum's greatest hits.

Conte still scours thrift shops and flea markets, as an archaeologist digging for gold.

"The platter,...the actual item, is a window," Conte explains. "It's a windowpane."

"On the other side is...another time and place that's been impressed in these grooves, and for most of its life, it just remained silent on the shelf...or in an attic somewhere. Once the needle drops again,...the time window is opened up again," he adds. "And you're able to peer in."

A window to the past, opened - thanks to Conte, a common man, with an uncommon passion for music.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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