February 20 , 2006
Emory team working to save N.O. music memories
BY Alfred Charles
Hurricane Katrina’s trail of devastation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast last year is well known.
But a team from Emory’s Digital Programs division, an electronic archival preservation project housed in Woodruff Library, managed to rescue a collection of tapes that contain interviews with some of the most influential musicians of our times, including Ray Charles, Jerry Garcia, B.B. King, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt and Celia Cruz.
The team is now working to convert the tapes from their current “old media” format into “new media” electronic files so that future generations of music lovers can hear the artists talk about their work in their own words.
“This is a labor of love that we have undertaken because we feel it is a very important project,” said Katherine Skinner, the Digital Programs team leader who is overseeing the effort, expected to take at least two years. “These are our cultural memories.”
Nick Spitzer, a music folklorist whose weekly two-hour show airs on about 225 public radio stations throughout the country and XM Satellite Radio, conducted the interviews. The show currently is not carried on public radio stations in Georgia, but Spitzer is scheduled to give a lecture March 9 in White Hall at 4 p.m. to talk about the rebuilding of New Orleans.
Each week, hundreds of thousands of listeners tune in to hear Spitzer’s show, “American Routes.” The broadcast, which began in 1997, originates from a studio in the French Quarter and features a wide range of music enjoyed along the Gulf South, including jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, country and rockabilly.
Over the life of the program, musical artists of every stature have appeared on the show to bear witness about their lives, work, influences and history. In a sense, the interviews are a road map of the roots of American music, and can perhaps offer some insight in the psyche of American culture.
The content of the shows was recorded onto digital audiotapes (DATs) and stored in a French Quarter building. Those tapes were the only archive of what transpired during the broadcasts.
When Katrina’s winds prompted the levee system in the Big Easy to give way, the tapes—and the rich musical history they contained—were at risk by encroaching floodwaters, which would ultimately swamp much of the city.
A two-man crew from Emory drove the eight-hour trek last Thanksgiving to New Orleans, where they found three large boxes containing dozens of tapes of show broadcasts.
They also found other stored material from the shows, but those reels were considered to be nearly unsalvageable. Although the French Quarter did not suffer the extent of flooding that occurred in other parts of the city, high humidity and less than ideal conditions—there was little electricity for weeks—apparently played a role in the demise of the reels.
The tapes that were salvageable were ferried to the Emory campus, where they were placed in quarantine while Skinner and her team began the process of assessing what they had while also launching the delicate effort to transform them into electronic files.
Skinner decided that Emory should get involved because the University already had a relationship with Spitzer that dated back several years and included ties to other faculty members. The relationship also included past work by Emory staff to improve the content of the “American Routes” Website.
Also, the decision to help was made easier by Emory’s current designation as one of eight lead institutions across the country working with the Library of Congress to collect and preserve materials that will form a national archive of digital resources that can be retrieved by future generations. The initiative seeks to preserve digital content that has a significant and cultural historical value.
As part of that project, Emory and its partner groups are working to compile a trove of electronic content devoted to Southern culture and heritage.
As a result, the effort to save the “American Routes” tapes fell under the auspices of Emory’s ongoing project with the Library of Congress, which liked the idea of preserving the shows. Linda Matthews, vice provost and director of libraries, gave her blessing to the rescue mission.
“We knew the value of the materials, and that without some assistance the tapes might well be lost,” she said. “We saw it as a contribution to help save some valuable cultural heritage materials.”
Jenny Yusin, a graduate student from California who is completing a fellowship at Woodruff Library, has been assigned the very time-consuming task of digitizing the tapes. She has to listen to the hour-long tapes in real time to ensure that the transformation process from tape to computer is working properly.
“It’s kind of intimidating,” she said. Even so, she said she is cognizant of the impact that the project can have. “When it’s done I think it will be an important contribution to the Emory library.”
Officials said it would take at least two years before all of the materials have been completely digitized.
And yet, Skinner said the time and effort is well worth it.
“We are making sure the heritage of this program will be available to music scholars,” she said. “We are building a very important repository.”
Links for additional information
American Routes radio show: http://americanroutes.com/
Woodruff Library: http://web.library.emory.edu/
Emory's digitalization collaboration project: http://metaarchive.org/