Collections Archives - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Putting the Band Back Together!: Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Recover Sounds From the Past

At the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, we recently completed an especially rewarding project for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The museum honored us with the task of recovering nine previously unheard, live recorded songs performed by The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Boys on the Farm and Fun Time radio show, circa 1950, from a damaged transcription disc – a project supported by the Virginia Association of Museums’ “Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts” in 2018.

We were so thrilled to be a part of this project for two reasons in particular. One, despite our northern orientation, The Stanley Brothers happen to have quite a fan base here! And two, we always welcome a challenge, and this disc delivered.

The Farm and Fun Time disc showing signs of delamination. © Birthplace of Country Music; donated by Glen Harlow via Dean Casey

The damage seen on the disc in the image above is called delamination, and it means the grooved lacquer coating is separating from the aluminum base. Any missing piece of the lacquer is a loss of the audio content. Additionally, a delaminating disc cannot safely be played with a stylus because the physical contact will cause further damage.

Therefore, in order to safely retrieve the audio from the disc, we used a non-contact, optical-scanning technology called IRENE. With IRENE, we take microscopic images of the grooves, and those images are analyzed in software to produce an audio file. The concept is fairly simple, but the process can be challenging for damaged media like this.

First, we carefully “puzzled” the separated pieces of lacquer back together on the disc. We did this by lining up the grooves as best as possible, without touching the grooved surface. The added challenge here is that delamination occurs with a loss of plasticizer. The lacquer becomes brittle, shrinks, and can warp. This means that the grooves won’t be perfectly aligned. A slight offset of the grooves might not seem dramatic to the human eye, but on a microscopic level (which you can see in the images), the disruptions can be quite dizzying.

After puzzling, we imaged the disc with a Precitek CHRocodile CLS Confocal Microscope. This “camera” captures the horizontal motion of the grooves by measuring the groove’s depth. The disc is carefully mounted on a platter that rotates beneath the camera as the grooves are imaged. The image resolution is based on the disc’s original recording speed and the desired specifications for the resulting audio file. Other factors, such as the disc’s reflectivity and surface wear, dictate other imaging parameters – like the optical sampling rate and exposure.

Imaging the disc with the IRENE system 3D camera. © NEDCC

The process creates a high-resolution TIFF image file of the surface of the disc, where you can see the extent of the damage and misaligned grooves due to delamination:

Image of the grooves on the disc resulting from the IRENE imaging process with the 3D camera. © NEDCC

One of the biggest challenges for us is getting the software – called Weaver – to follow the correct path of the groove as it shifts along the breaks. To enable this software to properly track the grooves on delaminating discs like this, we painstakingly plot the trajectory of the groove in a process called manual tracking. With proper tracking enabled, Weaver can mimic the motion of a stylus through the grooves to produce an audio file.

Weaver is a modular program built on a series of plug-ins, and our work involves selecting and adjusting settings within a set-of plug-ins. Each plug-in enables or performs a different analysis function to produce audio. For example, the VerticalFlip plug-in flips the image. This was necessary because these discs were originally recorded from the inside-out, and our cameras are only configured to scan in one direction. Flipping the image and then reversing the resulting audio file gives us the same results if we had played the record from the inside as it was originally intended. A series of tools like this allow us to manipulate the images in a variety of ways to accommodate different types of media and the unique damage they may have incurred during their lifetime.

A TIFF image of the grooves being processed for audio in the Weaver software after it has been “manually tracked.” © NEDCC

Our goal is to produce a digital file that most accurately represents the audio on this disc in its current condition. On damaged discs like this, there can be brief moments where the audio drops out due to a missing piece of lacquer. Though there is some damage on the Farm and Fun Time disc, the “raw” audio from the Weaver software is remarkably listenable. And the true measure of success for this project: it’s also danceable!

In addition to the raw audio, we created separate listening copies for this project that have been processed with historically-accurate playback equalization and some restoration work to reduce the noise and to get rid of the clicks and pops. Though this process is subjective, we did our best to respect the content. The “cleaned-up” audio is more listenable but still reminds us of the disc’s condition and the music’s place in history.

The quality of the original recording plays a large role in the fidelity of the audio we’re able to capture. In this case, it probably helps that the recording took place in a studio with professional audio engineers. And the musicians were pros too – they knew how to approach the microphone when it was their time to sing or take a solo.

Here’s a short clip to get a sense of the result:

Clinch Mountain Boys – Nine Pound Hammer sample (from WCYB Farm & Fun Time Transcription Disc)

That we were able to image the disc before it incurred any further delamination or other damage was also critical for the quality of the resulting audio. Lacquer-coated instantaneous discs are some of the most inherently fragile formats in archival collections. Delamination is one of the major preservation threats, and it can progress relatively quickly.

The museum is owed much appreciation for their efforts to save the disc before it was too late, and we’re grateful to have had the opportunity to help preserve this audio treasure! And for your chance to hear the first reveal of the songs from this rescued disc, be sure to attend the live Farm and Fun Time show in the museum’s Performance Theater on February 13 or listen online via Radio Bristol’s Facebook page!

You can learn more about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s valiant efforts to save the disc, including how the disc was carefully packaged and transported to NEDCC, here. You can learn more about IRENE at NEDCC here.

From the Vault: Without a Yodel – The Manuscripts of W. E. Myer and His Lonesome Ace Label

Yodeling? Maybe for Jimmie Rodgers, but not for the little-known W. E. Myer.

William Evert Myer (1884—1964) was an entrepreneur from Richlands, Virginia, who tried his hand at producing a successful record label called Lonesome Ace. Sadly he felt the crushing blows dealt by the Great Depression instead. A man of many interests and talents, Myer taught school, studied law, and worked on the accounts of a coal company before following his musical dream. He sold phonographs and records in his store and also wrote several songs – or “ballets” as he called them – preserving them in a set of manuscripts that were recently donated to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s collections.

Black-and-white portrait of W. E. Myer as a young man -- dark hair, dark suit, high collar and striped tie.
William Evert Myer. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Unlike much of the rest of the listening public at this time, Myer didn’t like Jimmie Rodgers’ popular yodeling sound. Indeed, he immortalized his thoughts on this subject with his Lonesome Ace record label. Each record was blazoned with Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis and bore the motto “WITHOUT A YODEL”! Lonesome Ace’s promotional material also declared: “Every song has a moral,…and all subjects are covered without the use of any ‘near decent’ language which is so prevalent among many of the modern records.” Myer’s quirky label and his work to release records were the culmination of all of his hopes: a removal of yodeling from the lexicon of American popular music and a desire to shares his musical loves.

Myer’s strong opinions led him to seek out more well-known musicians as a way to market his own songs. Most of all, he wanted his songs to be performed by musicians he liked, and one of his grandest notions was to have the famed country-blues musician Mississippi John Hurt set lyrics that Myer wrote to music. He sent Hurt several of his compositions, and Hurt set three of them to music he chose: “Waiting for You” and “Richlands Woman” set to his own melodies and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” ironically set to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train.” This last song was a wild mixture of country, blues, and legendary sea creatures that was later recorded by musician Tom Hoskins in 1963.

Typed lyrics to "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me," including copyright date of 1929 and the note "By William E. Myer." The lyrics included 6 verses and a chorus, and there is a pencil-written number 15 at the bottom of the page.
“Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” tells the sad tale of a man who is unhappy in his home life and missing a sweetheart so he looks to burial at sea as sweet respite amongst the mermaids. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Myer also approached traditional musician Dock Boggs, a banjo-frailing, hard-drinking coal miner from a musically inclined family in West Norton, Virginia. Boggs had recorded with The Magic City Trio, led by Fiddlin’ John Dykes, with New York’s Brunswick Records in March 1927, the same year as the Bristol Sessions. During the succeeding years, he did well playing in his local community for various dances and events, much to the chagrin of his wife. And In 1929 Boggs recorded with the Lonesome Ace label, producing four sides of Myer’s “ballets” with his own choice of tune, but following Myer’s advice with “False Hearted Lover’s Blues” by setting it to Myer’s suggestion of Boggs’ “Country Blues.” Even with Boggs’ skill and Myer’s entrepreneurship, the Great Depression led to the decline of the record label and Dock’s career as a musician. Myer declared bankruptcy in 1930 after releasing only three records, and Dock pawned off his banjo to make ends meet.

Close up of the Lonesome Ace record label showing the biplane in flight at the top of the label with the words The Lonesome Ace "Without a Yodel" underneath the image.
The Lonesome Ace record label for Dock Boggs’ recording of Myer’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues.” From discogs.com

However, this was not the end of Dock Boggs or of W. E. Myer’s music. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Boggs was rediscovered by folk musician and folklorist Mike Seeger, who traveled to Virginia and located Boggs at his home near Needmore. Boggs had recently purchased another banjo, and after Seeger heard him play it, he convinced Boggs to perform at various folk festivals and clubs. This rediscovery brought a renewed love by the American public for the music of Dock Boggs, which continues through today.

Myer, though not revitalized by the folk revival, continues to be known because of his association with Boggs and other important musicians. The stories told to us by his family underline what a remarkable character Myer was, and his manuscripts, which are now part of the museum’s collection, highlight this even further. With song titles like “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” and “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” – and one of my personal favorites “The New Deal Won’t Go Down,” which supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program – it is clear that Myer’s songs reflected a wide range of interests and stories! And while Myer’s Lonesome Ace may not be well-known or prolific, it certainly played a noteworthy role in the folk music of Southern Appalachia – even “without the yodel”!

The typewritten lyrics to "Milkin' the Devil's Billy Goat," including the copyright date of 1929 and "By William E. Myer" at the top of the page. The song consists of 7 verses and the chorus.
The lyrics of “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” chastises and judges “tattlers.” Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Along with the William E. Myer manuscripts, the donors generously gave the museum several other items related to their great-grandfather, including the collector’s edition of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 2 (1928-32), which contains the duets by Emry Arthur and Della Hatfield of the two Myer’s songs they recorded.

From the Vault: A Father’s Photographs

When you think of a specific site associated with country music, the first place that comes to mind is more than likely the Grand Ole Opry. In 2018, Lawrence Inscho, one of our regular contributors to Radio Bristol, donated a personal connection to this iconic venue to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

But first some background: Lawrence’s father William Lawrence Inscho Sr. served in World War II as a staff sergeant. After Pearl Harbor, he was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska – with the Alaskan Aleutian Islands as early targets of the enemy, the US military’s position there played a strategic role in the defense of the country. He was eventually stationed in Memphis, Tennessee, and during his service, he went to Nashville for a needed surgery. He met a young woman there and later married her.

Left: Portrait of William Lawrence Inscho Sr. in his military uniform. Right:  Picture of Inscho Sr.'s Leica camera.
Left: Staff Sgt. William Lawrence Inscho Sr. Right: The camera used by Lawrence’s father in the 1940s. Courtesy of Lawrence Inscho

The Grand Ole Opry has played host to so many greats of country and bluegrass music over the years, almost too many to count. In the summer of 1945, Inscho Sr. took a series of photographs at the revered Grand Ole Opry stage. The younger Lawrence likes to imagine that these photos were from his parents’ honeymoon.

For us, the photos taken by Inscho Sr. are a true treasure trove, documenting performances from the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry and country music. Some of the most well-known musicians that played at the Opry, like Bill Monroe and Uncle Dave Macon, have their likenesses preserved in these images. Others not quite as famous, like Zeke Clements, are remembered here as well. It’s a real thrill to see these important musicians as we take a gander at some of the photograph collection!

Pee Wee King is to the far left with his accordion and playing to the audience. He is backed by four musicians in matching outfits and playing a variety of instruments.
Photo credit to William Lawrence Inscho Sr.

One of the lesser known monuments of country music and the Grand Ole Opry was Pee Wee King, seen here on the far left. Despite his Polish-German musical heritage (he was born Frank Julius Anthony Kuczynski), he co-wrote “The Tennessee Waltz,” which became a standard of the country music genre, and toured and made movies with Gene Autry. King joined the Opry in 1937, and he brought a rebellious side to this traditional venue by defying the Opry’s ban on drums, horns, the accordion, and electrical instruments. In doing so, he was one of the first people to introduce those instruments to country music at the Grand Ole Opry. He also wore the flamboyant, rhinestone-covered suits of Nudie Cohn, introducing this style to many country music artists. These suits became very popular within the genre, and the likes of Elvis Presley also later wore them. Pee Wee King was truly one of the great pioneers of country music.

Several musicians and background people on the stage with a Prince Albert tobacco advertisement hung on the wall behind them. The Duke of Paducah is center stage, dressed as a woman.
The Duke of Paducah (center). Photo credit to William Lawrence Inscho Sr.

One of the more unusual musicians featured in these photos was Benjamin Francis “Whitey” Ford, known on stage as The Duke of Paducah. A banjo picker, he founded the Renfro Valley Barn Dance stage and radio show with two other musicians. But he was also a well-known country comedian whose tagline “I’m goin’ back to the wagon, boys, these shoes are killing me!” became a standard. His jokes also influenced the classic country TV show Hee Haw. The Duke later shared the occasional show bill with none other than Elvis Presley.

Eight musicians and background people on the Opry stage, playing a variety of instruments. Zeke Clements is front and center playing the guitar at the mic.
Zeke Clements (third from right in white shirt and hat). Photo credit to William Lawrence Inscho Sr.

Zeke Clements, also known as “The Dixie Yodeler,” had some fascinating ventures during his lifetime. One of the bands he was in, Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, was the first nationally famous cowboy western band. And one of his most prominent successes was writing the song “Smoke on the Water.” Clements also took acting roles as singing cowboys in multiple B-Western films in the 1930s and 1940s. He even voiced one of the yodeling dwarfs in the 1937 Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was quite the character in early country music!

Four musicians, all wearing hats of various styles, on the Grand Ole Opry stage, gathered round the central mic. Far left: mandolin player, near left: Curly Bradshaw playing harmonica, near right: Bill Monroe playing guitar, and far right: Stringbean playing banjo.
Photo credit to William Lawrence Inscho Sr.

When people think of bluegrass, they think of Bill Monroe, one of the greatest bluegrass musicians that has ever been. This rare early photo of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys is significant for a few reasons. First, it shows the group before Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined. It also shows Monroe playing his Gibson F7, an instrument he played before he turned to his iconic 1923 Lloyd Loar-signed Gibson F5. Further, this is the only known performance photo of the man playing the harmonica, Curly Bradshaw. He only performed shortly with Monroe, and before the discovery of these photos, the only known photo of him with Monroe was a 1944 publicity photo.

At this time, the man on the right, David Akeman, better known as Stringbean, was also a member of the Bluegrass Boys. A banjo player and in the cast of the Hee Haw television series, Akeman was later famously murdered, along with his wife, in his home near Ridgetop, Tennessee, due to a hidden sum of money that was rumored to be in the home. This photo is one of the most fascinating in the Inscho photograph collection.

The Opry stage decorated with a backdrop for Purina Chows for Poultry and Livestock. Four musicians, plus a man in the background, are seen, including Dorris Macon on guitar and Uncle Dave Macon on banjo.
Photo credit to William Lawrence Inscho Sr.

This last photo shows an old-time element of the show Inscho Sr. saw at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. It features Dorris Macon playing the guitar and Uncle Dave Macon sitting in the middle with his banjo. A vaudeville performer, Uncle Dave Macon was known for his lively and lengthy performances, which led to him becoming the first star of the Grand Ole Opry.

These photographs by Inscho Sr. reveal a once-in-a-lifetime experience where he and his wife got to see a great show with musicians of huge talent and fabled status perform. This experience was special to Inscho Sr., and the memories and record of them are now special to his son. We feel very privileged that Lawrence chose to share these photographs with us – it is personal stories and objects like these that make up a truly special part of the museum’s collections.

* If you want to hear more from Lawrence Inscho, check out Kris Truelsen’s On the Sunny Side show on Wednesdays. From 10:00 to 11:00 AM every Wednesday, Lawrence shares music primarily from his personal collection, a significant portion of which came from his father.

Preservation Priority: Rare Transcription Disc of WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time Radio Show

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music we are so excited that a radio transcription disc from our museum collections has been chosen as one of the Virginia Association of Museum’s Top 10 Most Endangered Artifacts! At first glance it might seem odd to be excited about having an object that is in danger of falling apart, but this honor gives us the chance to receive much-needed funds to save it.

Photograph of the full transcription disc from WCYB's Farm and Fun Time radio show featuring the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys
The rare transcription disc of WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time radio show is a preservation priority in the museum’s collections. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated by Glen Harlow via Dean Casey

Early in 2017, Glen Harlow donated a Farm and Fun Time radio transcription disc containing live tracks that have not been heard in over 60 years. The fact that an original live recording of the Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys from Farm and Fun Time exists at all is pretty amazing, because the discs used to record radio broadcasts in the mid-20th century are highly unstable and prone to degradation. Before the advent of magnetic tape, instantaneous recordings were usually made on lacquer discs. These discs have an aluminum core covered with a lacquer coating. Over time, the lacquer becomes brittle and shrinks. Since the aluminum core cannot shrink, the lacquer flakes off and the recording can no longer be played with a stylus.

Two photographs of disc showing split laquer and other signs of degradation.
These details show some of the degradation to the transcription disc. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated by Glen Harlow via Dean Casey

This recording is no different – it is fragile, damaged, and unplayable. Until recently, recordings on degraded lacquer discs like this one were usually lost forever. Starting in 2014, the Northeast Document Conservation Center began offering audio preservation services using a new technology called IRENE. This process involves creating highly detailed images of the grooves on a disc and recreating the sound from these images. The recordings can be heard again without a stylus getting anywhere near the disc and damaging it further. Buried treasure revealed without even touching the fragile disc!

Two photographs showing the IRENE camera appartus with a record disc and the wavy black lines that are created from the camera's photographs of a disc.
The IRENE camera apparatus (left) and an IRENE scan (right). As the disc rotates, the IRENE camera virtually ‘unravels’ the spiral shape, producing images of long straight lines. These images can then be analyzed in custom software to extract the sound. Courtesy of the Northeast Document Conservation Center

And buried treasure it truly is. The chance to hear a live recording of the Stanley Brothers from Farm and Fun Time is tantalizing to say the least. Farm and Fun Time began broadcasting to a five-state area from WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia in 1946 and provided a platform for many of the first generation of bluegrass performers. Indeed, the program was crucial in the development of bluegrass music. The Clinch Mountain Boys, the band of Ralph and Carter Stanley, were featured on the first episode of Farm and Fun Time and continued to play on the show on and off for the next decade. The recording trapped in this degrading transcription disc is truly a piece of lost history. It is beyond exciting to have an opportunity to uncover it again!

Cover of The Stanley Brothers on WCYB album showing them standing in front of a WCYB mic.
This album is a collection of Stanley Brothers recordings from their time on WCYB — but not the one from the transcription disc! From the Birthplace of Country Music Museum Collection

Part of the Virginia Association of Museums Top 10 Endangered Artifacts honor is a People’s Choice voting contest. The artifacts that receive the most votes will receive conservation awards of $5000 and $4000 respectively. In other words, YOUR votes translate into dollars that will enable the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to work with NEDCC to scan the damaged disc and reveal this performance that hasn’t been heard in decades.

We hope you are as excited about this prospect as we are – and so we need you!

Please click on the link below and help us uncover this amazing piece of music history! You can vote daily from January 15 through January 24.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Caring for Your Family Treasures: Photographs

The holidays are upon us! Cozy gatherings with family and friends often lead to reminiscing about past gatherings, retelling funny family stories, and maybe even paging through photo albums. That works best, of course, if your family photos are actually in albums and not stacked in shoeboxes like mine are.

Two boxes overflowing with family photographs
Two of many photo boxes just waiting to be organized… © Emily Robinson

Because I am a museum collections manager, my family has decided that I should also be the family history collections manager! I’ve been slowly organizing our photos, documents, and special keepsakes and trying to apply my professional collections training to a home setting. And so I thought it would be a great time to share some tips and tricks so that you too can start to tackle elements of your own family history!

First up: photographs. There are many different kinds of photographs. Maybe you are lucky enough to have some glass slides or tin-type portraits of your ancestors. I can almost guarantee that you have a phone or computer hard drive full of digital photos. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m going to focus on what’s piled up in shoeboxes in most of our homes: photographic prints on paper. Here are some tips to storing and caring for these photos so you can actually enjoy them with your family…maybe next Thanksgiving!

Ditch the shoeboxes and the self-adhesive albums

Cardboard boxes and shoeboxes contain acids that will eventually harm your photograph collections. Old photo albums may also contain acidic paper that will brown and crumble over time. And remember those old “magnetic” self-adhesive albums where you place your pictures on a sticky page and then cover them with an attached plastic sheet? The sticky stuff will actually damage photographs as they years pass by.

A photo album label noting that it is acid, lignin and PVC free
Look for labels like this one to be sure your albums won’t damage your photographs. © Emily Robinson

Look for boxes and albums that are acid-free, lignin-free, PVC-free, and have passed the PAT (Photographic Activity Test). The scrapbooking craze of a few years ago was great for home archivists – it means there are a ton of great photo album and photo box options available at craft stores, big box stores, and online. Add some to your holiday wish list!   

 Avoid sticky situations

Have you ever come across an old piece of tape or the remnants of an old rubber band when going through old files? Blech. Avoid using adhesive labels, tape, post-its, rubber bands, or glue on your photos, especially for long-term storage. Adhesives will inevitably fail and rubber bands will dry up and get gummy. The sticky residue from all of these things will damage your photos. Look for albums with sleeves or use photo corners to put pictures in albums.

Pictures of people like to live in the same places that actual people like to live

Most of us have storage space in our basements or attics, but basements are usually too damp and attics too hot for photograph storage. Chemical deterioration doubles with each 10 degree increase in temperature, and damp conditions can lead to mold and insect infestation. Extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations cause structural damage – think of a wooden door swelling and shrinking. It’s better to keep your photos in a place where YOU would feel comfortable – a bedroom chest or guest room closet, for example, rather than a basement or attic (not that you’d feel comfortable stuffed into a chest or a closet, but you get the idea).

Photographs don’t like wet feet

Water pools on the floor when there is a leak or a flood, so your photos will be safer if they are up on a shelf. Aim for at least 6 inches off the floor.

Shelving that is raised off the floor
Purchase shelving units with shelves that can be installed at any height you choose for flexibility. © Emily Robinson

Don’t let memories fade away

Photographs, particularly color prints, will fade if exposed to light. The safest place to keep them is in albums, where they will only be exposed to light when you are looking at them. For framed photos, consider framing good-quality copies and keeping the originals in albums. At the very least, try to keep framed photographs out of sunlight and unfiltered fluorescent light. Professional frame shops offer treated acrylic that blocks the UV rays that cause fading, but keep in mind that this just slows fading. Nothing can prevent it altogether except blocking all exposure to light.

Bridal photograph of the author's mother, showing quite a bit of fading
This bridal photograph of my mother is badly faded after decades of display. © Emily Robinson

Information please!

Future generations will have no idea who’s who in an unlabeled photo! Use a soft pencil to label the backs of photos with dates, names, and places. Avoid permanent markers, which can bleed or break down and damage photos. Pigma Micron pens can work well depending on the type of paper your photograph is printed on, but in my experience the ink can sometimes smear when not allowed to fully dry.

The author and another family member on vacation in the 1980s
If you really hate writing dates on photographs, just make sure to always wear conspicuously trendy clothes in all your photographs. This photo from a family vacation is clearly from the 1980s. © Emily Robinson

Learn more about caring for your family photographs

There are a lot of professional resources out there that will also help you in your role as the family archivist. Check out the advice from the National Archives, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Most importantly, enjoy the time with your family and the trips down memory lane as you start taking care of your family treasures!

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

It’s Not You, It’s Us: The Heartbreak of Unsolicited Object Donations

As the museum collections manager, it’s my job to take care of and keep track of all the STUFF in the museum. Which is great, because I love old stuff! I love my old stuff. I love the museum’s old stuff. I might love your old stuff, too!

In the museum biz, though, we have to put the brakes on our love of stuff and be very thoughtful about what we bring into our permanent collection. We’re talking about a serious long-term relationship, to have and to hold, forever and ever. It’s not something to be entered into lightly. Have you ever brought an object to the front desk of a museum, only to be told that you need to make an appointment and come back later? What’s the big deal about dropping something off? Well, it’s not you, it’s us – I promise. Let me explain…

My other true love is paperwork

When we accept objects into the museum’s permanent collection, we really do mean permanent. The museum is promising to be stewards of these important historical objects and to keep them in perpetuity. As a nonprofit organization that serves the community, we take our duties as stewards of these objects seriously. We keep track of them and take care of them so they will be available to the community for research and via exhibitions and publications. Through saving objects and audio/visual material, we are saving and perpetuating the incredible stories of people in our community and region.

Keeping track of the museum’s objects, their condition, and their location involves a lot of database records, file folders, lists, photographs, tracking numbers…you get the idea. The Collections Management department is responsible for the large amount of tracking documentation and legal paperwork that follows each and every object we accept, so it makes sense for us to be the ones to be the gateway for object donations. Our friendly and hardworking Visitor Services staff has plenty to do without having to keep track of objects and huge amounts of paperwork, too! It would be tragic if something was dropped off at the front desk and it got lost in the shuffle, or if the amazing story behind an object got lost. To keep things straightforward and streamlined, our policy only allows the Collections Management staff to accept objects.

Our Visitor Services staff is the best! They cannot accept object donations, but they will be happy to give you the contact information for the Collections Manager. © Birthplace of Country Music

If I can’t have the one I love, I won’t have none at all

You may have heard the Smithsonian Institution referred to as “America’s Attic.” That makes collections managers cringe, because not only are attics too hot for storing museum objects, but attics are notorious for being disorganized. Also, sometimes they have squirrels in them. We pride ourselves here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum on being both organized and squirrel-free!

No squirrels allowed.

In order to remain so, we have a Scope of Collections. Instead of collecting anything and everything related to country music and Bristol, we collect objects that support the types of exhibitions we want to do. This is driven by the Birthplace of Country Music’s mission, which is to perpetuate, promote, and celebrate Bristol’s rich musical heritage; to educate and engage audiences worldwide regarding the history, impact and legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions from which we derive our name; and to create recognition, opportunities, and economic benefit for our local and regional communities. You can find a list of what we do and do not collect here! The Curatorial and Collections staff carefully reviews each and every potential object donation to be sure it fits our mission before we make room for it on the shelf – this is another reason we require an appointment to discuss donations.

I just need some space

We have our Scope of Collections not only as a guide to help us keep our collecting activity mission-driven, but also for practical reasons. For one thing, we want to provide meaningful collections for research and not collect the exact same things that other institutions are collecting. Additionally, we simply have limited space, time, and money! Before we agree to take an object or collection of objects, we have to make sure we have a safe place to put it. We also have to plan our budget to cover costs associated with processing new objects – things like archival boxes, supportive foam and tissue, new shelving, and staff time. Speaking of staff time, it can take weeks (or even years, depending on the size of the collection) to fully process a donation of objects. Because of these constraints, we must be careful to only accept objects that are truly within our scope.

The sight of archival boxes in a neat row makes a Collections Manager swoon. © Birthplace of Country Music

Call us, maybe?

If you think we might want your object to have and to hold, in the public trust, forever and ever, please don’t drop it off at the front desk. Your stuff is special! It deserves careful consideration and attention! To make sure I can provide that attention, please email me at erobinson@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org or call me at 423-573-1927. I will happily find a time for us to talk about the potential of a serious long-term relationship between the Birthplace of Country Music and your amazing STUFF!

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

 

From the Vault: The Beauty and Harmony of Shape Note Songbooks

By Hannah Arnett, September 26, 2017

Want to know what’s behind our closed museum vault door? With this occasional series, we take you behind the scenes to learn more about some of the interesting objects in our museum collections. 

This Saturday, September 30, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will be hosting a Shape Note Sing led by The Old Field Singers, an event that is free and open to the public – no singing experience necessary!

This event also provides us with a great opportunity to share part of our collection with you: shape note hymnals from the 1950s and 1960s, gifted to the museum by Dorothy Horne in memory of her mother, Ruth Hamm. I didn’t know much about shape notes before I did some research, but goodness, you don’t grow up Baptist without knowing somebody that remembers singing with shape notes. And I promise you, they’ll tell you all about it if you get them started.

The use of shape notes is rooted in the pre-Civil War South, and if you trace those roots back even further, you’ll find yourself in Great Awakening-era New England – though that’s a completely different blog post. For readers that don’t know, shape notes are a method of musical notation in which each tone is given a distinct shape and syllable to represent it. There are all sorts of shape note traditions, but Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony may be the most well known. The Sacred Harp tradition of shape note singing uses four syllables – fa, sol, la, mi – and four shapes. Christian Harmony – the tradition of The Old Fields Singers – uses seven shapes and seven syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. Both schools are named for the “tunebooks” associated with them.  If you want to learn more about the particulars of shape notes, this site may be a good place to start.

A scale from Vaughn’s Up-To-Date Rudiments and Music Reader. © James D. Vaughn, 1951; photo © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Dorothy Horne in memory of Ruth Hamm

Vaughn’s Up-To-Date Rudiments and Music Reader was one of the songbooks used by Ruth Hamm when she attended J. M. Dixon’s singing school in Kingsport, Tennessee. Mr. Dixon’s singing school was part of a larger shape note tradition. In the mid-19th century, singing schools sponsored by local singing conventions gained popularity in the south. These sorts of schools used a seven-shape system and relied on “little-books.” James D. Vaughn and Stamps-Baxter music publishing companies were popular suppliers of these kinds of songbooks. They also supplied the bulk of Mrs. Hamm’s collection!

Mrs. Hamm, according to her daughter, sang her entire life. “Mom grew up singing,” Horne remembers. “Her father sang in a quartet. She sang in a quartet, and she took us with her on the practice sessions and all of the places they sang. She later sang with the Happy Day Singers at the Senior Center here in Kingsport.” Throughout her singing career, Mrs. Hamm accumulated a variety of songbooks – 43 of which are now in our collection. They contain some of the most recognizable sacred songs in the south (and anywhere, for that matter): “Victory in Jesus,” “Rock of Ages,” and of course, “Amazing Grace,” to name only a few. Horne has a special connection with one songbook in particular. “My favorite songbook is Lasting Glory and the song I remember so much is ‘I Feel Like Traveling On,’” she recalls. “It is on page 29.  I can [still] see Mr. Dixon leading that song.”

The songbooks pictured here feature some of our favorite covers – you have to love their colorful, mid-century aesthetic! Songbooks © Stamps-Baxter Music Company and © James D. Vaughn; photo © Birthplace of Country Music

Mrs. Hamm’s songbooks have been through a lot. They’ve been worn all around the edges, marked on, and creased, and some have even had a run-in with water. Those imperfections are part of what makes these songbooks so special: it’s apparent that they’ve been used over and over again. They are well loved. They tell us that singing with these hymnals was an important part of Mrs. Hamm’s life – and likewise, the lives of many that sang by shape notes throughout this region. For those that sang with shape notes, attending singing schools and community sings were once an integral part of keeping in touch with your neighbors. Some sources even indicate that the possibility of courting drew in young members – if they weren’t already “drew in” by their parents.

Community-driven shape note singing in the 1950s and 1960s saw a decline after gospel quartet performances became popular. Although the act of singing in church is still an essential part of the religious experience, there are not anywhere near as many singing schools as there once were. Don Wiley, leader of the Old Fields Singers, notes: “Although opportunities exist today, folks lead busy, even frantic lives.” Those busy days unfortunately mean that shape note singing isn’t as much a part of people’s lives now.

The social aspect of shape note singing might seem irrelevant in this age of social media, where people have more convenient ways to catch up with friends and can “court” with a few swipes on their phones. I asked Wiley what he thought the “most important” reason to continue the tradition of shape note singing was. Wiley gave me an interesting answer: “I can’t do ‘most important’…it seems that the singing itself either strikes a chord inside a person, or not.”

If you do some digging on YouTube, or better yet, join us at the Shape Note Sing on Saturday, I can almost guarantee you that the chord Wiley speaks of will resonate in you. There’s something irresistible about voices raised in gorgeous harmony, led only by a conductor and printed shapes on a page.

The Old Fields Singers and visitors at past Shape Note Sings in the museum. The event always includes the social aspect of a potluck lunch during the noon break! © Birthplace of Country Music

Hannah Arnett was an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music Musem in the summer of 2017. She is a senior museum studies and history student at Tusculum College, set to graduate in December 2017. You can learn more about Saturday’s Shape Note Sing here.

Frames for Reference

By René Rodgers and Emily Robinson

Each year, the month of May is designated as National Photograph Month. In this day and age, every single day seems like it is devoted to photographs, as we are all constantly shooting pics on our phones — and finding our storage full of photographs of the minutiae of our lives.

With a museum devoted to the history and legacy of early commercial country music, a music festival in its 17th year, and a radio station on air each day, the Birthplace of Country Music is now the repository of a wonderful variety of digital and physical images. To mark National Photograph Month, we wanted to share just a few of our favorites from our collections:

Donated by the family of Karl Smith

Tennessee Ernie Ford on South Holston Lake, Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia

Ernest Jennings Ford – better known by his stage persona, Tennessee Ernie Ford – was born in Bristol, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919. Ford was a star behind the mic and on screen, and he was awarded three Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for his achievements in radio, recording, and television. During the height of his career, a visit from Ford to his hometown was an occasion for celebration, including a presentation of the key to the city, press meet-and-greets, and parades on State Street. Locals remember the times they met Ford on his returns to Bristol and speak fondly of his genuineness, his reverence and love for his hometown and the Appalachian area, and his star quality.

For Ford, coming home also meant being himself. He spent much of his life in front of an audience or a camera, but what he truly loved was getting back to his rural roots and enjoying the outdoors – at his ranch, in the woods, and on the water. This photograph, taken by his friend Karl Smith, shows him fishing from a boat on South Holston Lake, perhaps even catching his dinner!

© Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

Jesse McReynolds on Farm and Fun Time

In February 2017, Jesse McReynolds appeared on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time show, broadcast live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. On August 1, 1927, his grandfather Charles played the fiddle with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners as they recorded two songs for Ralph Peer at the Bristol Sessions. McReynolds followed in his grandfather’s musical footsteps, establishing a successful bluegrass career in a duo with his brother Jim and then as a solo musician – singing and playing fiddle and mandolin. McReynolds played his grandfather’s fiddle at the February radio show, bringing its history full circle – from its time at the 1927 Bristol Session to its place on stage at the Birthplace of Country Music. And at the age of 87, McReynolds’s hands show the strength and skill bought from a lifetime of playing.

Robert Alexander Collection, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Johnny Cash at the Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, Virginia

This photograph of Johnny Cash is full of energy – he’s seen here dancing at the Carter Festival in Hiltons, Virginia. Photographer Robert Alexander gives some insight into the image:

“[This photograph was] taken in August 1977 at the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Recordings held at the Carter Fold. After performing with June Carter on stage, Johnny changed out of his black outfit into informal clothes and danced a bit with the festivalgoers. This particular photograph was taken moments before he did a 360 cartwheel in front of the stage. I missed that shot.”

The Carter Festival was originated by Janette Carter in 1975 as a memorial festival in honor of her father A. P. Carter and is held annually at the Carter Family Fold. Johnny Cash married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June in 1968, and they came often to the Carter Family Fold to perform and revel in the music made there.

Bill Mountjoy Collection, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Photograph from WOPI scrapbook

Bill Mountjoy was a disc jockey, engineer, reporter, and executive for several radio stations in Northeast Tennesee, Southwest Virginia, and the Washington DC suburbs, including local station WOPI in Bristol. At the time of his death in April 2014, he owned Custom Audio/Video Services of Elizabethton, Tennessee.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Mountjoy’s scrapbook from his time at WOPI in our collections. It is full of wonderful memories and, like all scrapbooks, a few mysterious unlabeled photos, like this one from inside a lingerie store. Take a closer look at the banner and you can see that the store is running a “WOPI Special!” We don’t know what the radio station has to do with unmentionables, but we are intrigued… If you have any memories of this sale and can shed some light, let us know!

© Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Haley Hensley

Boo Hanks and Dom Flemons at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion

Boo Hanks, an acoustic guitarist with roots in Piedmont string band and blues traditions, learned the music he loved to play from his father and by listening to the records of Blind Boy Fuller. He passed away at the age of 87 on April 15, 2016. Hanks is seen here with his friend and musical collaborator Dom Flemons when they played together at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2015. This intimate shot hints at the close friendship between the two men.

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager and René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications, both at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.