Host: Hey everybody and welcome to Well Said, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s podcast where we talk with students, faculty and staff about what’s going on on campus and around the world. And today we’re talking about the Southern Folklife Collection and it’s recent partnership YepRoc records to reissue some music stored in the collection’s archives with Steve Weiss, the curator of the Southern Folklife Collection.
Host: Through this new partnership with the local record label, the Southern Folklife Collection will be able to reissue some of its rare music from its archives and make it available to music listeners around the world with the first release coming out this weekend on Record Store Day. But let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about music in this archive. How has the Southern Folklife Collection acquired such rare music?
Weiss: The Southern Folklife Collection is an archive dedicated to southern music, art and culture. We’re an archival repository so part of what we do is we collect materials, we preserve them and we make them accessible and promote them for use. So since our beginnings we’ve been collecting materials. Southern Folklife Collection started a little bit over 27 years ago, so we have a collection now of over a quarter of million sound recordings.
Host: Why are all these albums being saved in the Southern Folklife Collection? What makes them so special?
Weiss: They’re chosen for their historical or cultural significance. Some of them are on the National Recording Registry, which is a registry that the Library of Congress keeps of the nation’s most historically important recordings. To give you an example, you know, one of the recordings is Dolly Parton’s first single, which she cut when she was 13 years old for a little record company in Lake Charles, Louisiana called “Gold Band Records.” It’s the first song that she ever recorded and released. It was also one of the earliest songs that she ever wrote, which she wrote with her uncle. And it’s a song called “Puppy Love.” And we just thought, you know, it has great historical significance. You know, a lot of people love Dolly Parton and would really enjoy being able to hear it and it’s great to have an opportunity to get material out of the archive so a broader audience can enjoy.
Host: What other music is stored in the Southern Folklife Collection over at Wilson Library. Is all this music Dolly Parton-esque and country or does the musical archive over there span several genres?
Weiss: It’s varied. One of the interesting things about the materials that we have is, some of the things have been strategically collected, you know, to fill a particular need and some have just sort of come to us. And I think what’s interesting about our holdings is although it may not be a complete collection — you know, a lot of these archival materials are kind of spread across other institutions like the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress or the Country Music Foundation for example — but the materials that we have showcase a particular musician or a particular style of music at a certain period of time. And I think that is one of the things that’s so valuable about collecting these materials and making them accessible.
Host: Generally speaking, why is music so important to understanding the history of southern culture?
Weiss: Well, I would say, you know, culture and history go hand-in-hand. You know, they both inform each other. They both provide a context. A lot of the recordings that I listen to, it’s really wonderful to be able to enjoy just purely on a level of art. It’s also really interesting when you start digging into what was going on at that particular time. In a way, you can get inside the heads of the people at the time in terms of like, “Well what were they thinking about? What were they going through? What was life like at that particular moment in time?”
Host: Let’s jump back to this partnership with YepRoc Records and how did this partnership began in the first place?
Weiss: Releasing material from the Southern Folklife Collection is something that I’ve wanted to do since I first got to UNC. And it wasn’t until I met Billy and Glen at YepRoc where I realized, you know, there could be a local partnership to do this.
Host: As part of this partnership YepRoc Records is planning on releasing three albums from the Southern Folklife Collection. What are these first three albums that are now going to be available to music listeners?
Weiss: The first one that’s going to be released is Dolly Parton’s single “Puppy Love,” with the flipside is “Girl Left Alone.” It’s a 45 RPM vinyl record that’s being released for Record Store Day, which is April 22. The other two releases will be out in the fall. One is a live recording of Doc Watson recorded in 1963. It was the year that he went solo after playing with Clarence Ashley’s group. So that’s a live recording that was made in 1963 at Club 47, which is a little folk music club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And the third recording that we’re releasing is a compilation called “Swampland Jewels,” and it’s a collection of Cajun and zydeco music from Lake Charles, Louisiana, recorded by a local independent record company called Gold Band Records, who started after World War II.
Host: Of all the music in the Southern Folklife Collection, why were these three picked to be released?
Weiss: I would say both the Dolly and the Gold Band compilation “Swampland Jewels,” we recently did a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve the Gold Band collection because we have all the master tapes as well as the business records of that record company. And, you know, going through the material our engineers were diligently digitizing all this material, occasionally, you know, a gem would come up and we’d say “Wow. That would that be really cool.” And I think you know with all of the… well with those two releases they’re just things that we’ve wanted to do for awhile. You know, it just seemed like a natural thing to reissue that music and put it out there in the sort of newly digitized format. And the Doc Watson project, that is a tape that was recently donated to us and it was just a remarkable tape. We thought, “Wow. This really would be something that fans would enjoy.” It adds to our knowledge of what that year was like for Doc and also it’s just a nice addition to his catalog.
Host: These records that you’re talking about are decades old and to bring them up to modern standards must be pretty difficult. So what’s the process of taking something like Dolly Parton’s first song that she recorded and making it ready for today’s music listeners?
Weiss: Well I’ve been I have been working on that for the last couple weeks for this Swampland Jewels project. There’s a number of steps involved. I would say, you know, the first step is just trying to identify the material you want to use and trying to find it in its best available form. You know one of the things that’s been tricky with the Gold Band collection is there’s many, many different generations of tapes. So one of the things that I’ve been working on is trying to trace the recording back to its original session tapes. So it’s been really interesting as an archivists to sort of get behind the other side of the desk and become a researcher and try and track some of these things down. So I mean once the songs are identified and found in the best available form in the best available sound quality, if they haven’t already been digitized they are digitized. And then from there it’s a matter of if there’s restoration that’s involved, because some of these tapes are really old, you know, doing digital restoration and then compiling the compilation and then taking it to mastering studio to turn it into a finished record. There’s been some of the steps that are involved. I would say another big piece of it too is securing the rights in order to release this material. There’s a record company that’s in, I think they’re in Mississippi, and the name of the record companies called “Big Legal Mess.” And we get a kick out of that because doing these projects you know involves a lot of copyright, a lot of negotiation.
Host: What’s the future of this partnership? You have these three records that are going to be released throughout the year, but are there more that you want to have reissued?
Weiss: There’s this one project that’s moving forward, which is from a collection that’s privately held —more than likely will come to the SFC — but it’s a recording of these young musicians who were recorded in the 60s on a radio program and they’re known as “The Bluegrass Champs.” A number of them were from the Stoneman family and they’re just young bluegrass hot shots from the 60s. The recording is remarkable because its just live and has so much energy and there’s not a whole lot of documentation of them and it’s just a great sounding record. It’s gonna be a lot of fun to release that one. And there’s a couple other projects that are just sort of percolating, but I’m still trying to get my thoughts together on, you know, exactly what we’re going to release in 2018. Oh, one project I was going to mention. I am interested in releasing an EP, which is like a 10 inch record, a vinyl record of one of the artists in our collection her name is Tia Blake. She recently passed away. She lived in Pinehurst, North Carolina. And she has a really fascinating story and she’s not really well known. She’s kind of a cult classic. She released one record that was released in France, I believe in 1970. It has, the record has a cult following, oddly enough. But the music itself is just remarkable and what we’re looking to release are some songs that she wrote and recorded for the CBC. Those are just, just beautiful records.
Host: What do you want music listeners to get out of this partnership and the release of such rare music?
Weiss: Well, I think it puts the music back in circulation — wide circulation — so that way, you know, it’s accessible to musicians, fans, scholars so, you know, people can use it as a resource. And people use our collection all the time for lots of different uses. One of the most amazing uses that I’ve seen since I’ve been there was, you know, the Carolina Chocolate Drops when they were still busking on the streets of Chapel Hill, you know, came into our archive to learn songs from some of the collections that we had and also just learned some of the styles of music. And it was just really exciting to see that material get into the right hands and make its way out to the public. It’s an exciting process.