Know Your Archives: The Center for Popular Music

Randall Stephens

It takes a certain temperament to be a historian.  For example, you have to, at least on some level, enjoy rummaging through dusty manuscripts and spending hour upon hour hunting down sources, reading, rereading, and conducting keyword searches until your fingers become arthritic claws.

I don't enjoy that last one, but I do enjoy visiting archives.  Some more than others.  I've been to a variety of amazing collections over the years.  Maybe only one of those, the Reading Room of the Library of Congress, matched shear beauty with the amazing scope of materials.  (Getting tired of reading through that bound volume of brittle 19th-century newspapers?  Have a stretch and look up at the beautiful dome.) For the most part, historians don't visit archives for the lovely vistas. Quite a few archives are situated in cold basements with little sunlight and flickering, humming florescent lights.  An ideal setting for a troglodyte, but not a vitamin-D-deprived historian.

Downtown Nashville, summer 2012
This past summer I went on the road to do some initial research for my next book project, currently titled The Devil's Music: Rock and Christianity from Elvis to Larry Norman.  It was a great experience.  All the archivists and assistants I encountered proved terrifically helpful.  I visited some really stunning collections.  Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center may lay claim to being the best place to study all things related to 20th-century Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular.  (Don't let their hopelessly outdated 1990s website make you think any less of the place.)  To the south of Wheaton I trekked to the Southern Baptist Historical Library. The staff their gave me numerous tips and helped me track down obscure pamphlets, documents, and letters that I could never have imagined even existed.  As a bonus, the Southern Baptist Historical Library is in Nashville.  Music nuts can take a break by boot-scooting over to the Country Music Hall of Fame or dropping some greenbacks at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, founded in 1947.

My favorite collection that I visited on this cross-country trip was the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. Seldom has research been more fun.  I perused dozens and dozens of books on rock history, gospel, and pop music.  (It was hard not to fall down an rabbit hole.) I listened to a rare, 1956 acetate interview with Elvis Presley from a Texas radio station.  Girls screamed in the background as a flustered Elvis answered with his typical "yessir." I thumbed through anti-rock diatribes from the Carter years.  Through it all I got a better handle on my topic. 

The Center holds acres of records, tapes, magazines, books, manuscripts, and much more. (Search there extensive collection here.)  And the staff at this place, the gem in its crown, could not have been more helpful.  With their aid I found enough research material to keep me working away for months. 

In the Know Your Archives interview embedded above, I speak with Dale Cockrell, Director, and Martin Fisher, Curator of Recorded Media Collections.  They describe the materials the Center collects, the kinds of research being done there, and pretty much explain why anyone doing anything on music history should make the trip to MTSU.