Questions on the Vernacular Music Research Archive
In 1945, I started searching for old out-of-print recordings of jazz, blues and gospel music such as I had heard as a child but could by then hear only rarely on the radio or in person here in Philadelphia. That meant digging through dealers’ old stocks and piles of castaways in thrift stores, and then seeking out others who were interested in such music. I used my lunch money to buy what I found.
By 1946, I started playing cornet again (as I had in a middle-school marching band) but the music I could find in music stores and the Free Library had very little to do with what I was hearing on the old records, so I began to search for old printed music – both songs and instrumental pieces. The songs were not hard to play, but the early ragtime piano music and jigs-and-reels for violin were very tough. I had to transpose down an octave and up a whole tone, and that in densely syncopated 2/4 or dotted 6/8 and 9/8. There was no way to hear such music being played.
I lived about two blocks from the Curtis Institute and my father arranged for me to take lessons from James Huston, an advanced student. (He was later a soloist in the Goldman Concert Band.) Huston disdained popular music (as did I) and we spent much of the lesson time arguing about whether King Oliver and Duke Ellington were worthwhile. He had me work through the Arban method which I didn’t have the wit to apply to what I wanted. It was mostly note reading, not breathing, phrasing, tone production, rhythms or forms, all of which a student badly needs.
My motivation then was to provide myself an education in identifying and performing the sorts of music I was passionately interested in and which no school, library or public performers knew or cared anything about. After those early years, my interests broadened, and the Archival activities grew like a snow-ball. I went through copyright files at the Library of Congress, did consulting work, formed and played in reportorial orchestras (with dance instructors), furnished xeroxes and tape recordings to scholars and collectors, produced recordings, wrote articles and “album notes”, and actively traded surplus material with others.
As an aside, I refer to the VMR “archive” to distinguish from it from “collections” which do not ordinarily have recorded music together with printed music, periodicals, books, etc. A library would term it a “special collection”, or else throw out much of it – as some have done in the past.
2. The VMR Archive today.
The situation is greatly changed. Now, University presses and others publish carefully researched histories and anthologies, and companies re-issue early recordings – some very scarce – to the extent it is hard to keep up with the output, let alone read or hear it all.
The archive at present is safely housed, stored in a meaningful and accessible manner, and indexed in several ways to promote retrieval. A computer database for the orchestrations in process and only about 4,000 have yet to be accessioned. The process of culling about three percent of duplicate books, sheet music and recordings continues. We will sell duplicates and are now grading and pricing them.
3. Primary Audience
The persons who have made direct use of the Archive have been scholars, historians, collectors, musicians, orchestras, members of ASCAP, public institutions including the Library of Congress, Rockefeller Foundation, Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Public Television and Radio, etc., and also commercial record companies and radio and television stations.
But the ultimate beneficiaries of such uses have been the audiences – members of the general public who like to hear music, or dance to it, or read about it, or to relive the things their parents, grandparents and forebears experienced during their lifetimes.
4. Future of the VMR Archive
I hope some institution will recognize the value of such an integrated collection, perhaps as a complement to some existing collection of either other sorts of music, or one lacking aspects of the VMR archive.
I am at an age that I need to arrange for the transfer of the archive to others who can better utilize it, and who will preserve it for the future. I hope my family can be compensated for the considerable investment in the archive, so it would be well for an interested institution to have an angel who would like to make it happen.
A number of collectors of printed music, recorded music, or books have counseled me not to entrust the archive to an institution (horror stories abound), but to sell them the parts they are interested in, a procedure which would diminish its value as a research facility.