Shelf Life- Southern Culture Isn’t on the Skids at a North Carolina Campus Library
Mention the name John Edwards in North Carolina nowadays, and most people will think you’re referring to the state’s junior senator — the one who isn’t Jesse Helms. In certain circles around Chapel Hill, however, the name carries another significance.
Many years ago and half a world away, there was another John Edwards, in Sydney, Australia. Until his death in 1960 in a car accident, Edwards worked for the Australian Department of Transport. He was also an avid hiker (there’s even a mountain named in his honor, Mt. Edwards).
But his real passion was American country music. In his short life, Edwards amassed an impressive collection of 2,500 rare recordings, plus photos and correspondence. His will specified that his record collection be housed in the United States after his death.
You could look at the John Edwards collection as a grain of sand that has since turned into an enormous pearl. His archive was at UCLA first, from 1962 to 1983, during which time it grew significantly with the addition of country, blues and folk recordings from other collectors. But the Edwards collection really mushroomed after it was moved to the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus in the late 1980s, where it was merged with UNC’s Folklore Archives to form the core of the Southern Folklife Collection.
Today, the Southern Folklife Collection dwarfs the original Edwards archive. It includes about 90,000 recordings in almost every format imaginable — vinyl albums and singles, 78-rpm records, cassette tapes, wire recordings. It even has old-style cylinders and something to play them on (one of only seven handmade Archeophones in existence), and yes, 8-track tapes. The collection also includes about 5,000 photographs, more than 3,000 videotapes, and 18 million feet of motion picture film.
“Music is at the center of the collection, but it’s not only music,” says Glenn Hinson, chair of UNC’s folklore curriculum (which oversees the collection). “The Southern Folklife Collection gives a remarkably deep picture of the South that you just don’t find anywhere else. I would say it’s the largest and deepest collection of Southern vernacular music and narrative that you’ll find anywhere on earth.”
The web version of the Southern Folklife Collection (www.lib.unc.edu/mss/sfc1/) includes photos and online streaming audio files. But the web version just can’t compare to the experience of actually going in-person to the fourth floor of the Wilson Library, a few blocks away from the North Carolina Tar Heels’ hallowed Smith Center basketball arena. It’s the library equivalent to Championship Vinyl (the vintage record store immortalized in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity).
Spend a few hours poking around the shelves, and you’ll run across some remarkable treasures from every Southern-related genre of music imaginable. There’s a copy of Rounder 0001, the very first record ever issued by the Rounder Records folk label in 1971, a self-titled album by banjo legend George Pegram. Or a stash of great-looking albums by North Carolina country bandleader Glenn Thompson, whose backup band featured the Louvin Brothers at one time. Or box sets devoted to people you’ve never heard of (A Song For Every Season: The Singing Tradition Of The Copper Family Of Rottingdean, Sussex). Or more contemporary recordings, including a box set by…Garth Brooks?
“Hey, a hundred years from now, people might really like that,” says sound and image librarian Steven Weiss. “Maybe they’ll listen to Garth Brooks and go, ‘Wow, all the country music from back then was really great.’ You just never know. Listening to 78s now, it’s hard to hear a bad one. They’re always fun to listen to, at least.”
Weiss says the library gets about 500 requests per year for materials, often from record companies. Photos are especially in demand for reissues such as Smithsonian Folkways’ 1997 reissue of the Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music, which featured a number of photos borrowed from the Southern Folklife Collection. “Bear Family Records also just did a bunch of Carter Family reissues, and used just about every photo we had of them,” Weiss says, referring to the renowned German archival record label.
The collection’s most prized artifacts are in the library’s stacks, off-limits to the public for security reasons. But if you can manage to arrange a VIP tour, you’ll see a few things that are sure to make your jaw drop. Piled on a set of shelves are the contents of the late newsman Charles Kuralt’s office, including his old manual typewriters. Near that, the tapes from all the Ken Burns’ PBS series are neatly lined up — everything except for his most recent film, Jazz, which is expected to arrive in the next year or two.
One shelf over are the original master tapes from the Broadside series, recorded for the folk magazine of the same name. The spines of each box carry masking tape with handwritten identifying labels: Pete Seeger, Janis Fink (better-known as Janis Ian), Eric Andersen, some guy named Bob Dylan. You can also find Dolly Parton’s first-ever recording from 1960 at age 13, “Puppy Love” b/w “Girl Left Alone”, in the set of master tapes for Louisiana-based Goldband Records. (You can hear that one online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/sfc/goldband/artists/dolly_parton/)
Heady stuff. But it’s just as satisfying to contemplate some of the collection’s more obscure artifacts, compiled in the course of ongoing fieldwork by UNC professors and students. Hinson tells of finding a gospel record store in Philadelphia that was on the verge of going out of business. The store had been a center for displaced Southerners who moved North, and turned out to be another unexpected motherlode.
“These Southern gospel artists who’d moved to Philadelphia would come to this store and record vanity discs,” Hinson says. “And the store owner would press copies to play in his store, too. He was going to throw them all out. Instead, after the store closed down, all these acetates came down here along with the machine they were recorded on, the sign from the store and hundreds of pieces of gospel sheet music from the 1930s and ’40s. Little treasures like that, we’ve got a lot of. The diversity of sounds here is just stunning.”
Not just sounds, either. Hinson’s UNC ethnography classes involve fieldwork and interviews on all things Southern, and his students’ tapes and transcripts eventually wind up in the Southern Folklife Collection. Some of these studies seem straightforward enough, such as documenting weekly bluegrass jam sessions that take place at a Chapel Hill pizza joint. But others are profoundly…well, odd.
“Some undergraduate students I had a while back did a project on cricket ranchers,” Hinson says. “These guys who raise crickets in mobile homes that are essentially ‘ranches,’ and they actually talk in terms of ‘20,000 head of cricket.’ This grew out of students looking at the alternate economy that developed through bait shops, where people ease their way out of the mainstream economy and become things like cricket ranchers.”
A librarian’s work is never done.
The Southern Folklife Collection is located on the fourth floor of the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus. It’s open for research between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays, with limited service available on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Materials cannot be removed from the premises. The staff suggests contacting them ahead of time to make sure that what you want to see and hear will be available: 919-962-1345 or email@example.com.