MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Archivists at Middle Tennessee State University are gathering recordings and sheet music to create an interactive website on songs about Tennessee.
The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/Op5JHQ) reports that the website “My Homeland: A Research Guide to Songs About Tennessee” will include eight state songs, raps and songbooks dedicated to the state.
Why so many? Dale Cockrell, director of the Center for Popular Music at MTSU, says the word Tennessee “has a rhythm and a melody in it.”
The website will include recordings and scans of sheet music and album artwork. Project archivist John Fabke says the information will be organized by the recurring themes he found in songs about the state.
The site will also include a section for teachers looking for music to use in class.
The project is being paid with by a $6,700 grant from the Tennessee Historical Records Advisory Board. The amount is enough to pay Fabke for four months of part-time work to comb through 300,000 cataloged songs and printed materials already held by the Center for Popular Music and two private collections of Tennessee-centric music that were recently acquired.
Fabke said his research found Tennessee described as a mythical “Shangri-La” attractive to everyone.
“It’s a place that you’re from, with the romance of where you’re from or going back to,” he said.
There are hundreds of songs that describe everything from the state’s wildlife to its history, including the feats of Davy Crockett.
“What is it about Tennessee? Is it this mythical place? Or an easy rhyme?” Fabke asked. “Or was there something going on that was more active and interesting than Louisiana or Michigan or Indiana?”
Fabke hasn’t gotten an answer to his question, but he said the center’s archivists think researchers will use the website for scholarly work.
“Because resources have been scattered, there has never been a systematic effort to gather and organize this powerful music,” Cockrell said.
Some of the features on the website include 1890s “songster” booklets that pair lyrics and medical remedies on facing pages, cylinder recordings from the early 1900s, and a 1930s recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
Martin Fisher, curator of audio collections at the center, will digitize recordings.
Fabke said it will be challenging to post only 550 images to the website, but researchers set that limit because they want a curated collection, not everything.
Although the website allows more access to digital versions of the songs, Fabke and Lucinda Cockrell said there’s really not a substitute for having the original items in hand.
“Once they’re scanned, people say: ‘Why not throw them away?’ “ Lucinda Cockrell said.
“First off,” she tells them, “they’re absolutely gorgeous.
“And we know that if it’s taken care of, it will be here in 500 years. The digital stuff: We have no idea. It’s not proven. We’re not just thinking of tomorrow. We’re thinking of eons down the road.”