Ann Powers

Holding Music History In Your Hands: Why Archives Matter

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band posing for a studio group shot in the mid-1920s, with Thomas A. Dorsey at the piano. i i

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band posing for a studio group shot in the mid-1920s, with Thomas A. Dorsey at the piano. JP Jazz Archive/Redferns hide caption

itoggle caption JP Jazz Archive/Redferns
Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band posing for a studio group shot in the mid-1920s, with Thomas A. Dorsey at the piano.

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band posing for a studio group shot in the mid-1920s, with Thomas A. Dorsey at the piano.

JP Jazz Archive/Redferns

How much are lost sounds worth? That's a complicated question. Record collectors have been jacking up the value of rare music since at least the swing era, when the writer Leonard Feather popularized the term "moldy fig" to describe jazz fans who only liked the old stuff. As time went on and the old stuff got even older, collecting became a high stakes venture — recently, the Oregon record dealer John Tefteller spent the equivalent of a college fund on one blues disc.

Such serious collectors long to put their hands on the thing itself: they're not so interested in keeping the content of their vintage finds, the songs and other sounds recorded in the shellac and wax cylinder eras, all to themselves. In fact, collectors are often responsible for making old music accessible — there's a whole subset of videos on YouTube that start with a hand putting a needle into an impossibly rare groove and a voice happily announcing the title of the find. Some record nerds even share stories about how they dug up something, or what they did when the Victrola broke.

Most of us aren't as obsessive as these fetishizers; those who do have an interest in vintage music are delighted that typing "Blind Blake" or "Ethel Waters" into a search engine can offer so many rewards. Yet it's important, even as digital laziness overtakes us all, to remember the thingness of music. That's one reason why this week's release The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1927) is exciting, despite a $400 price tag that makes the boxed set a splurge that most casual listeners may not consider. The collection, one of two coming out over the course of a year, thoroughly excavates recordings released on a label that spanned genres from blues to gospel to jazz to proto-country and beyond, capturing the sound of the early 20th century as well as any entity could.

Beautifully packaged to evoke the label's origins as furniture company, the Paramount set is co-released by Jack White's Third Man Records and Revenant, the great Austin label cofounded by the late guitarist John Fahey and lawyer Dean Blackwood; its high-end packaging and song selection benefit from White's hipster-aesthete vision, while its exhaustiveness — 800 tracks, two books and an 87-cut vinyl sampler are all part of the set — reflects Revenant's commitment to historical depth. You can hear White and Blackwood talk about The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records on Weekend Edition Saturday morning.

The Paramount Records wonder cabinet is a first-class fetish object that may not seem directly relevant to the average downloading music fan, but even if it doesn't make your holiday wish list, its existence makes a difference in the life of American pop. Any sound that's preserved may inform the music made by artists now — Jack White, for example — and, throwing a window open wide, this major offering deeply enriches our understanding of the past. If more people now seek out songs by Waters, one of the most important stars bridging early African-American musical theater and the blues, or Blake, who connected ragtime to the guitar, because these obscured legends are featured on a set put together by a cool 21st-century rocker, that's an important corrective to the here-and-now focus of most music fandom.

But listening to lost sounds, even in gorgeous new packages, isn't all that's needed when it comes to really understanding how popular music has shaped Americans' lives. One great thing about the Paramount box is the meticulousness with which its compilers have included what seem like "extras," including 200 pages of reproduced illustrations representing how this music was originally marketed. All the stuff surrounding popular music — advertisements and packaging; business documents; artists' personal correspondence; scrapbooks; even the stage clothes artists wore and the shoes they and their fans danced in — matters too, helping fill in the landscapes that gave rise to soundscapes, the material world that demanded certain ethereal rhythms and melodies.

In other words, music is not a thing, but things are important to music. You can't really understand 1920s blues without learning how to shimmy and slow drag. Gospel becomes richer once you hold the songbooks, and the prayerbooks, that created a holy framework for its squalls and deep harmonies. You can't grasp what made one artist popular and another obscure without examining the nascent music industry that packaged and put them on the road — a road that, in the time of Paramount records, was segregated and rough. Even on the most personal level — buying the argument that a song can be an unvarnished outpouring of one touched soul — it's incredibly enriching to discover the stuff an artist kept around, the notes that hold answers in their margins, the lucky charms and ritual objects of an artistic life.

For students of music, whether they're professional writers like me, college kids, collectors or just the many intensely curious fans who seek to know more, this is where archives come in. I've been haunting such glorious places lately. Last month, while working on an ongoing project that's had me exploring mid-century gospel music, I had the honor and pleasure of visiting several archives in the Nashville area: the Special Collections room at Fisk, one of the nation's oldest historically black universities; and the Center for Popular Music Studies at Middle Tennessee State University, whose diverse holdings include one of the best collections of vernacular religious music in the country.

In these quiet rooms, I held history in my hands. At Fisk, researching the writing of the great gospel standard "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," I read what appears to be the last postcard its composer Thomas A. Dorsey wrote to his wife before her death, the event that inspired the song's broken-hearted plea. Bee sweet, Dorsey signed it, unaware that days later she'd be lost in childbirth along with his first son. I also uncovered the many condolence letters Dorsey received while he was grieving, written in poetic language that may have inspired his own composition. I touched Nettie Dorsey's funeral program — she was ushered toward Heaven by a 300-member choir — and a little black patch in the shape of a heart. Did Dorsey pin that scrap of cloth to his suit on that saddest day? Each of these small items clarified the very specific origins of a hymn that most American Christians take for granted, a song that would go on to become the favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr. and be sung at gatherings all over the country, happy and sad, to this day.

The Dorsey papers are only one of Fisk's remarkable archival holdings. If I'd had forever instead of two days, I could have immersed myself in primary material from figures like Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Scott Joplin, W.E.B. DuBois and Arna Bontemps, who served as Fisk's librarian after playing a major role in the Harlem Renaissance. Fisk has been facing financial problems in recent years, and the archive really needs assistance. While I was there, I couldn't help wishing some of the music-biz bigwigs who've funded institutes at wealthier institutions lately — I'm talking to you, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre — would offset next year's tax bill by sending some dough Fisk's way.

Right now, Special Collections librarian Aisha Johnson is diligently writing grants to help digitize Fisk's collection, and helping people like me discover the richness of what can be accessed in that little room on the library's second floor. What resonates most with her is the overflowing material on the university's own Fisk Jubilee Singers, famous for bringing African-American spirituals into the musical mainstream not long after the Civil War. "I love everything that special collections department has to offer, especially the legacy of the Jubilee Singers (three large collections)," Johnson wrote me in an email a few days after my visit. "To see primary resources of former slaves turned students who traveled the world singing to raise money for the University is humbling and makes you very appreciative of the efforts of those who have come before you."

Johnson's heartfelt connection with letters and papers written up to 150 years ago typifies what an archive offers anyone who takes time to explore it. Johnson acknowledges that the Internet makes images and sounds much more accessible, but the also makes a case for the authenticate artifact. "The Internet is a help, if you know how to sort opinion from fact," she wrote. "Most of this generation does not know how to completely do this; the archivist has had to step in the digital wave and assist. I love that collections are online for users all over the world to access and increasing our ability to preserve materials. Despite digitization, there are a lot of people who just love to touch authentic materials and see the collections, so I don't think we are going to completely get away from the material culture."

There is a kind of magic in touching things. Actually, it's not magic at all — it's the chance to pay attention, which should be part of everyday existence, but which seems less and less central in our device-reliant, multiple-open-window lives. (A recent Scientific American article summed up recent research that indicates what we might lose by always reading on screens, including levels of concentration and comprehension, at least until innovation makes screen reading more like reading on paper.) At Middle Tennessee State University, I sat for hours with a pile of photocopied Memphis World newspapers, looking to grasp the African-American gospel music milieu Elvis Presley explored as a teenager. I found so much beyond the articles: an RC Cola ad featuring a beaming Sister Rosetta Tharpe; one for a contest to name the baby of the blues singer-turned evangelist Clarence "Gatemouth" Moore (an eight-year-old girl won!); a photograph of the singer Elizabeth Darling wearing an eyepatch after the car accident that brought her scandal because she was with a man who was not her husband. I felt myself walking within a world of human hope and trouble only partially revealed by the music it produced.

The Center for Popular Music is better funded than Fisk; recent grants are allowing its staff to process the huge collection of country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe and to collaborate with the American Antiquarian Society to digitize a trove of vernacular music manuscripts dating from 1730 to 1910. (Here's a demonstration of how the online archive will work.) Director Dale Cockrell notes that it's important to keep "the thing" intact even when materials migrate to the cloud, and the CPM is equipped to do so for 500 years.

"We link the past, present and future of music," Lucinda Cockrell, the CPM's Assistant Director and Archivist (and Dale's spouse), wrote in an email. "So part of the value of our music archive to the average music lover is knowing that their music will be here for their great-great, etc. grandchildren to appreciate, learn from and even use to make their own music from. The CPM is part of society's collective music memory, helping to foster the sense of community and identity in music by collecting it, preserving it and making it accessible."

Archives are also important because they offer more than the dominant flavors of a musical era. I asked George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, whose 2007 biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe brought her back into the spotlight for a new generation, about this link between archival work and telling untold stories. "The importance of the archive cannot be overstated, especially for musicians and audiences who do not claim the media spotlight, or who might be vulnerable to misrepresentation," she replied. "Archives are not just places people go for information; they can and do change our approach to, and determine the questions we ask of, music, the music industry and musical scenes."

Wald also noted that right now, with digital technology and its commercial avenues so unstable, musicians should be extra careful about documenting their careers. "What if someone 50 years from now would like to know what it was like for artists to negotiate a world in which, not that long ago, a MySpace page was considered cutting-edge? What if they want to understand the creative process of turntablists? Or understand the dynamics of local music scenes?"

These days, there's a lot of attention to the fact that people constantly note their own activities on social media sites from Facebook to Instagram, and in the ersatz "archives" on their hard drives and cell phones. If there's any bigger conversation happening about archiving, it leans toward the idea that this era is overly preserved. But ersatz rarely becomes permanent. As University of Washington professor and digital historian Sonnet Retman recently remarked in a discussion on the Girl Group listserv, these days, obsolescence always seems to be one botched upgrade away:

"Thinking about printing things out and the physical file cabinet, at a recent digital humanities symposium on archiving, several librarians spoke about how the fetish of the digital and new technology often overlooks how rapidly digital degradation, erosion and obsolescence occurs — it's all ephemeral, but the digital, particularly so. Not that we don't know this from day-to-day experience; I just drove over my iPhone in my Volvo."

Right now, when it so often seems like history in the making gets caught and distorted between the poles of hyperbole and distraction, the quiet rooms where archives live create a space where attentiveness brings lasting rewards. Touching the materials that have made a difference in how music is made, sold, heard and remembered, the listener can focus in different ways, and perhaps gain an understanding that would otherwise elude her. Even if that material is something as simple as an album cover.

In my (hopefully) endless archive tour, I'm planning to head next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library in Cleveland, which has served thousands of visitors — students, scholars and plenty of just-fans — since opening last year. I asked director Andy Leach for his favorite stories of the archive, and he offered one that, I think, perfectly expresses how spending time with the materials of music in both your hands and your ears can prove not just enlightening, but heart-expanding.

"A couple of weeks ago, our head archivist told me a story about a teenage boy who came in with his family," Leach wrote in an email. "They were all looking at books and periodicals and watching videos, and the kid asked whether we had his favorite album, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, on vinyl. He'd never actually seen a vinyl copy until then, and he was very excited. He very reverentially played the record in our Archives Reading Room while he pored over the album cover. He listened to the entire first side before it was time for his family to leave, at which point he begrudgingly rejoined them!"

"Because music is something that plays such a major role in the everyday lives of so many of us, it's one of those rare subjects that is both worthy of academic study and that almost every ordinary person cares about," Leach continued. "So, that gives us an opportunity here ... to promote the idea that these unique and rare materials are here for everyone to use, both to expand their knowledge and from which to gain pleasure. And that's a good lesson to learn about the importance of archives in general."

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