Arts & Culture
New Funds Help MTSU Center for Popular Music Save and Share History
Dr. Dale Cockrell of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music gently holds a weathered palm-sized journal filled with musical notations in one hand and a parchment-like handmade flier with newspaper clippings and music about the battle of Fredericksburg in the other.
His colleague, musician and archivist John Fabke, displays an old open-reel tape full of tunes from “Fiddling Bob Douglas,” a Chattanooga gem who made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 2000 at age 100.
These small treasures, unique to the center’s archives, are part of two new projects, funded by grants from the Grammy Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that will allow the MTSU center to preserve, digitize and put online more of America’s music.
The $127,956 NEH grant will catalog and archive more than 9,000 pieces of early 18th- to 20th-century fiddle, fife and flute dance tunes, hymns, songs, ballads and keyboard pieces on a searchable website of “American Vernacular Music Manuscripts” in partnership with the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.
The $19,993 grant from the Grammy Foundation will preserve, inventory and digitize more than 3,850 cassette and open-reel tapes of music, oral histories and field recordings of the late MTSU folklorist Dr. Charles Wolfe — more than four decades’ worth of work called "the premier collection in the American Mid-South" — for the first time.
These are just the latest in the Center for Popular Music’s efforts to preserve and share American music. Earlier grants helped the center present a special six-week “Celebration of America’s Music” program of documentary films, scholarly discussions and live concerts this spring and launch a new website focusing on songs about Tennessee last fall.
“Musicians in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century would regularly inscribe musical notations in books,” Cockrell said of the new NEH project. “It was a way of preserving music they particularly liked or were interested in learning. These little books actually are important because they're books that mattered to people. They wouldn't have gone to the trouble to write these things down if they weren’t.”
The weathered little journal, which once belonged to a man named Kohler who lived in Jamestown, Pa., is dated 1875. The next owner, a fellow named Roth, wrote his own name over Kohler’s and continued inscribing the music he loved in the book.
What was their connection? Were they neighbors, perhaps members of the same church or family? Although paper was still precious then, why would someone reuse another’s journal?
“I suspect (some scholar) can figure it out,” Cockrell said, “perhaps by going back to the family or using Ancestry.com.”
The homemade flier, which features music composed in the wake of the Civil War battle carnage, is dated Jan. 1, 1863, and shows the notations of a “chanting style” tune called “Hark! The Cry of Death is Ringing.” That’s also the title of a poem, “Ode,” by author-abolitionist William Henry Burleigh.
Such historic documents are scattered around the world, including 150 in the MTSU center’s archives, but there’s never been a way for scholars to find them before, short of an Indiana Jones-level search from libraries to basements to historic association archives to attics.
That will change by the end of next year, when the MTSU and American Antiquarian Society collections are digitized, archived and put on the Web. To see an example of the digital archive that will be created, visit http://popmusic.mtsu.edu/AVMM/vernacular.html and follow the demonstration directions.
“Just to say ‘cataloging’ makes it a little too simple, because we're coming up with cataloging standards to do these things,” Cockrell explained. “We're going to be setting the model for the way libraries and archives and historical societies will deal with these things forever. There's never been a standard for doing this.
“If you want something from the 1860s, you can find it, something from Massachusetts or New England, you can find it. You'd click on that (site) and it would take you immediately to the Internet Archive website and that page in that manuscript, and then, using Internet Archive features, you could flip back and forth through the book as if you were using it right there.”
Another preservation, inventorying and digitizing project is underway for Wolfe’s audiotape collection, which stretches across decades of the late professor’s research.
Wolfe, a professor emeritus of English at MTSU, was one of the world's most respected and prolific writers on traditional folk and popular American musical genres. He wrote more than 20 books on American music and annotated more than 100 record albums, earning three Grammy nominations for his album liner notes.
“Maybe about a quarter of it is in open-reel tapes, but the majority of it is in cassette tapes,” Fabke, himself a music historian and researcher, explained. “What we're doing is organizing it, making transfers to preserve it. A lot of the tapes, especially the old open-reel tapes, are endangered media. They have a backing that makes the tape stick to itself.
“We have a great audio engineer, Martin Fisher, who is able to work wonders with old tapes using techniques such as baking the reels in a food dehydrator to be able to coax one more play out of them … so we can digitize the music. There’s a great variety of stuff: recordings of concerts, recording session outtakes and unissued test pressings, interviews, field recordings and transcriptions of decades-old radio shows.”
The Grammy Foundation grant to the MTSU center is one of 14 announced nationwide earlier this year. The grants aim to preserve musical history at sites as varied as the New York Philharmonic, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and the American Organ Institute Archive and Library at the University of Oklahoma School of Music.
“That'll be the role of scholars: to take this material and make something of it,” center director Cockrell said of the projects. “What we're doing here in the Center for Popular Music is providing them with the information that will enable them to construct knowledge.”
For more information on the Center for Popular Music and its projects, visit http://popmusic.mtsu.edu. You also can watch a video about these new grants at