Preserving and Presenting Americana Music from The Ark
For decades, The Ark has been one of the most important acoustic music venues in the United States. Beginning modestly in 1965 as a church-supported community center with folk music at its core, The Ark is now an essential stop on the touring schedules of musicians and performers who loosely form the heart and soul of the Americana music movement. Unbeknownst to all but the musicians themselves, the longtime manager/director David Siglin carefully recorded from the central sound mixing board a majority of the performances at The Ark between 1969 and 1996, creating an extraordinary record (ca. 3,000 hours) of the Americana music scene as it transformed itself from an offshoot of the folk revival to popular and vital testament to the power of a distinctively American musical heritage. Mr. Siglin has donated his amazing collection of tapes, programs, schedules, photographs and associated archival materials to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
The University of Michigan seeks funding to preserve and make available in digital form the oldest and most fragile half of the sound recordings collection. Some 1,500 hours of live performances made over a dozen years between 1969 and 1980 exist on 364 very fragile ¼ inch reel-to-reel tapes and a smattering of cassette tapes. In preparation for this preservation and access project, we have completed an inventory of the tapes, matching them with programs and schedules from the period. We have completed a preliminary preservation survey of the collection and successfully tested the feasibility of retrieving the monaural analog signals from the tapes and converting them to digital files according to current preservation standards. We have also laid the groundwork within the University of Michigan to preserve the digital files, expose the recordings to performers and fans who can add value through community cataloging, and deal creatively with the somewhat daunting intellectual property issues that surround the broad dissemination of the digital files to communities of scholars, students and fans of Americana Music.
The project is an exciting and timely opportunity to join the best preservation and access technologies with social network strategies to tap the knowledge and memories of performers (and fans) in the contexts in which they were created and enjoyed. We have very strong support for the design and goals of this project from prominent performers at The Ark, from the Ann Arbor community, and from the University of Michigan. The products and documentation emerging from this project are intended to form a management model for collections of recorded sound from the second half of the 20th century, where extraordinary intellectual control challenges exist, and the danger of losing invaluable pieces of our past – to physical decay or to the natural passing of generations – is extremely high.
The artists represented in The Ark Collection show the range of Americana music. The most common musical forms presented at The Ark I were eclectic folk song revivalists such as Michael Cooney, Mike Seeger and Joe Hickerson, following in the footsteps of Pete Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers; musical troubadours cut from the cloth of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; string band music from the Appalachians and Ozarks, such as performed by the Putnam County and Highwood String Bands; folklorists such as Gamble Rogers and Utah Phillips, who combined story with song; numerous Irish, Scottish, and English folk acts, such as Clannad, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, and the Friends of Fiddler’s Green, who drew the connections between American folk and country music with their musical and cultural origins in the British Isles; and artists from the wellspring of regional music, such as Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.
This music is, by its very nature, intimate. The circuit for Americana music thrives in small – stage festivals; small venues such as school auditoriums, town and church halls, and coffeehouses; and house concerts, where enthusiasts open up their own homes to present touring artists to their neighbors. The setting of the original Ark on Hill Street proved a perfect combination of such venues. With a vibrancy that has been but sporadically recorded elsewhere (the Lomax recordings come to mind), this collection is a rare peek into the culture of Americana musicians and their audiences.
How To Help
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