Long Journey Home
By Bland Simpson and Cece Conway
Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 17-19
One of the world’s great collections of Southern and country music has come home, and therein lies a ballad.
Early one morning in late April, a truck from California rolled into Chapel Hill, bringing the John Edwards Memorial Collection–nearly a thousand boxes of old 78-rpm phonograph records, sheet music and faded letters–to its new and permanent home at the University of North Carolina. For this archive, assembled by a young Australian, shipped at his death in 1960 to a fellow collector in New Jersey, then back across America to a long residency at the University of California at Los Angeles, it was journey’s end.
“There’s almost no end to the variety of material in
those boxes,” said UNC’s Dan Patterson, after the dust had settled in late May. Patterson, the energetic director of the Folklore Curriculum here, was trail boss in the University’s drive to acquire the archive. “We hope we can find a copy of John Edwards’ will in there.”
Edwards’ will directed that the original collection–country music from the early period of its commercial history–be maintained in the United States for research purposes. When recipient Eugene Earle arrived with the archive in southern California in 1962, he and several other scholars and collectors–Archie Green. D.K. Wilgus, Ed Kahn, and Fred Hoeptner–formed the John Edwards Memorial Foundation and found housing for the archive at UCLA’s Center for Comparative Folklore and Mythology.
“We had wanted the collection to be housed in the South originally,” recalls Archie Green, “and we tried several institutions. But in the early 1960s, no Southern university was really committed to the serious study of any Southern vernacular music.”
The founders of the JEMF, like Edwards, understood that the record companies in the 1920’s and 1930’s had captured, in living sound, a host of emerging and evolving musical forms–repertories that did not interest scholars of that day. As documents of the vast impact of new technologies and commercialization on the old homemade music, these recordings in fact constitute a significant contribution to folklife studies.
During the two decades it was at UCLA on loan, the Edwards collection received the combined holdings of all its directors and other collectors and grew to include: fourteen thousand 78s, ten thousand 45s; a thousand LPs; correspondence and taped interviews with performers and other music business figures; six hundred song folios; sheet music; books; posters; photographs, and much more. And the Foundation enlarged its conception of the collection and embraced a wide range of traditional and commercial American music forms: cowboy, western, country western, old time, hillbilly, bluegrass, mountain, Cajun, sacred, gospel, race, blues, rhythm blues, soul, and folk rock.
Even before scholars had become fully aware of the collection’s significance, young musicians of the late 1960s were learning old-time styles and music from cassette tapes and from records pressed out of the Foundation’s collection. Now, the LP albums released by the JEMF have been turned over to Californian Chris Strachwitz, owner of Arhoolie Records and Down Home Music, who intends to keep the JEMF records in print and the label’s name alive and active.
In a recent edition of its Quarterly, JEMF executive secretary Norm Cohen wrote: “There is no denying that the creams of the founders of the JEMF over two decades ago have not been matched by reality . . . On the other hand, we have much to be proud of. We have led the way, in both printed and recorded media, toward the acceptance of country music and its related folk-derived forms as a subject for serious study at American educational institutions.”
Dan Patterson agreed. “Their Quarterly made the JEMF known all over the world.” And photographs from JEMF files, as well as references to materials there, abound in non-fiction works about country music. Cohen himself, in LONG STEEL RAIL, and JEMF president Archie Green, in ONLY A MINER, have used the collection’s riches in writing about railroading and mining songs.
Still, Patterson said, “The JEMF directors seemed to feel the collection was under-staffed and under-utilized at UCLA.” The JEMF’s reputation was firmly established, but the fate of its archive was not; the Foundation ran on grants, gifts and benefit concerts, and on the proceeds from high-quality but slow-selling records and publications. Patterson said he also believes the board in recent years began to think the collection belonged in the South, adding: “I think they decided it was unfair to deprive the South of a resource for the study of its own history.” At the heart of that study is the influence of the machine and technology on the South and the expression of Southern values in changing musical forms.
The first notion Patterson had that the JEMF was considering such a move came in 1979, when Green lectured in Chapel Hill. Patterson recalls: “He remarked, ‘Would UNC be interested in housing this collection?’- something like that. I thought, ‘Now, that wouldn’t happen.”‘ But in April, 1981, when Cohen came to Chapel Hill for a conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Patterson felt, “They were looking us over.” Cohen saw the 2500-LP Folk Music Archive that Patterson and his folklore students had built at UNC, and heard the plans the University had approved for its expansion.
It was Cohen who, in October 1982, suggested to Patterson at the American Folklore Society’s meeting in Minneapolis that, “If UNC is interested in the collection, it should make an offer now.”
Patterson moved quickly once back in Chapel Hill. With partner Donald Shaw–a former student, now a journalism professor and director of UNC’s Media Center–he interested University Library director James Govan, a former Chattanoogan, in purchasing the l collection. But Govan told Patterson and Shaw: “The library couldn’t staff it now–could you?”
In short order, Patterson and Shaw strung together enough baling wire to fence in the collection: interim storage space from the Undergraduate Library, money to transport the collection from California to North Carolina from the Music and English Departments (including some discretionary funds offered by professor and novelist Doris Betts), assistantships and summer staff from the deans of the graduate and summer schools, and an initial operating budget created with the help of the provost and the chancellor.
UNC made its offer in January, 1983. The JEMF board accepted the bid in February, generously sending the collection back home at a fraction of its estimated half-million-dollar value. And Patterson, Shaw, and a crew of students and library staffers were singing the final chorus to the Ballad of John Edwards as they rounded up the 929 boxes on a Carolina loading dock the sunny morning of April 21st.
“Negotiations went so fast,” Patterson said, “that the collection came at an awkward time. We can’t open it till we have public facilities. And we have to get staff positions and operating costs into the University budget. We need to educate ourselves–about equipment, so as not to damage the original materials when we make protection copies of the recordings, and about the l copyright laws, so there is no infringement when we make copies for the public. We have to inventory and catalog what we’ve got, and begin efforts to add to the collection.”
When UNC’s main library moves into a new structure, a substantial part of the basement of L.R. Wilson Library will house the media collection- that Shaw is building. Here the JEMF Collection will be the lodestar of the Southern Media Center and Folk Music Archive. But the move that frees up the space will not occur until at least December 1983, and Wilson Library will then undergo two years of renovation. Patterson anticipates the grand opening of the collection will be in 1985.
What we in the South now have–with the Edwards Collection here, and complementary collections at the Library of Congress in Washington and at the Country Music Foundation in Nashville–is the world of American country and ethnic music, from early times and in many forms, in context and within reach of musicians, scholars and listeners. The region owes a debt to an Australian who never set foot in the land whose music he loved. His name will now remain tied to the songs of the American South.
Bland Simpson has co-authored the musicals Diamond Studs, Hot Grog and Life on the Mississippi. He has written the recent novel of country music, Heart of the Country (Putnam, 1983) and its a lecturer in creative writing at UNC. Cece Conway its a lecturer in English at UNC, a folklorist and co-director of the recent film Tommy Jarrell–Sprout Wings and Fly.