By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Music fans around the world have marked Aug. 16 as a day of mourning. No doubt most think back to 1977 when Elvis Presley sang his last tune.
But a few will have 1938 on their minds. That’s when a different American music pioneer died just outside Greenwood. Robert Leroy Johnson was a bluesman who had little commercial success during his lifetime, but his recordings still affect music that’s made today.
“We have his death certificate,” said Greg Johnson (no relation), curator of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi’s J.D. Williams Library. “It’s a certified copy. The original is on file in Leflore County.”
By itself, Robert Johnson’s certificate makes official the tragic death of a 26-year-old man.
But as part of the Blues Archive, it helps document Mississippi’s native music that grew out of slave spirituals and work songs and became the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s the history and culture of the state of Mississippi and the surrounding states. We save history before it is lost. We preserve it and make it available,” said Jennifer Ford, head of Ole Miss’ Department of Archives and Special Collections. “Most important is to make it accessible, to make it available to our patrons.”
Original Robert Johnson 78 rpm recordings, including “Cross Road Blues” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” are part of the archive. They’re treasured items, but they’re certainly not alone.
“It’s about 70,000 sound recordings, over 20,000 photographs,” Johnson said. “We have over 2,000 posters and over 5,000 books and periodicals. We have blues clothing, T-shirts and hats from festivals.”
“We have rare video of blues performances, too,” Ford said.
Those materials are available to anybody who wants to sample them.
“You have to show up from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and tell us what you want to listen to,” Johnson said. “We have a listening room. We have turntables set up.”
Of course, there are some caveats.
“We’re not going to let you listen to our original Robert Johnson 78s because they’re too valuable and rare,” he said, “but we do have compilations of Robert Johnson’s recordings on CD.”
The archive includes recordings on vinyl and CD, as well as cassette, 8-track and reel-to-reel tapes. There are devices that play music in all those formats, but it wouldn’t be wise to make them all available. Vinyl can be scratched; tapes can oxidize and degrade over time.
“It’s not everything, but we have a lot of these digitized,” Johnson said.
The Blues Archive has MP3 players with samplings of the blues, so newcomers who don’t know what they’re looking for can check out the life’s work of “Howlin’ Wolf,” “Son” House, “Sonny Boy” Williamson I and II, Junior Kimbrough, Charley Patton, B.B. King and many more.
“Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland died last week, so I put together a playlist in his honor,” said Johnson, who also created a temporary exhibit at the library to showcase Bland’s career.
Academics, writers and filmmakers with projects to research visit the archive, as well as people who just happen to wander in.
“There have been some who camp out for weeks. Others just for a few hours. Some just for a few minutes. They look at the display cases and leave,” Johnson said. “In the summertime, there are a lot of blues fans who stop by. They come to the blues festivals we have in the state.”
The fans are often interested in rarities.
“A lot of them like the videos of performances,” Ford said.
Johnson added, “They’re looking for something they can’t find back home, that they can’t find on YouTube.”
There also are people who have the blues in their blood. They visit to learn more about family history.
“’Mississippi’ John Hurt’s granddaughter, she came to see some recordings we had,” Johnson said. “Tommy Johnson’s granddaughter came. They want to see anything we might have on their relatives.”
A trip to Ole Miss can prove revealing for descendants of lesser known bluesman, the artists who don’t show up on many Internet searches.
“They recently found out their grandfather was a blues musician,” Johnson said. “They get really excited and want to find materials from their grandfather or family. That’s exciting, when they see a photo they’ve never seen. It’s very neat to be a part of that.”
The archive wouldn’t be possible without people like the legendary B.B. King, who donated his blues collection to Ole Miss.
“We do have a small acquisitions budget,” Johnson said. “I use it to purchase new music and new books. I purchase them now while they are still cheap and before they go out of print,” said Johnson, author of a book about the 100 essential blues books. It will be released in early 2014.
For older materials, the Blues Archive relies on the kindness of friends and strangers.
“Our Friends of the Library group, a lot of them donate,” Ford said.
When Percy Mayfield’s widow died, a donor bought the musician’s papers and gave them to the university.
“It was a bunch of papers, but we also got some handwritten lyrics,” Johnson said.
When collectors die, their prized materials sometimes get put away in attics and storage rooms, which aren’t nearly as good for old photos and recordings as the temperature- and humidity-controlled environment at J.D. Williams Library, where filters remove UVA and UVB light from the fluorescent lights and ornate windows are permanently shuttered.
“Collectors like their collections to stay together,” Johnson said. “That’s one reason they donate to the archive. They want their items together rather than sold off one by one.”
Last year, some of Mose Allison’s blues materials were donated. Another treasure trove documents The Red Tops, a dance band based out of Vicksburg in the 1950s.
A pile of papers and records tells the story of Trumpet Records, a Jackson company that was the first to sign Elmore James, Jerry “Boogie” McCain and Sonny Boy Williams II.
Johnson said his wish list would include any original recordings by Robert Johnson, and “if we could find a Willie Brown 78, I’d be really happy.”
There are some Elvis Presley tunes in the archive. He was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and rock ‘n’ roll grew out of the blues. Elvis’ work is in the archive to illustrate that fact.
“We play ‘Big Mama” Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ so they can compare,” Johnson said. “’That’s All Right Mama’ – (Arthur) Crudup did it before Elvis.”
For much of its early history, blues music wasn’t taken seriously by American listeners or academics. That began to change thanks to musicians from across the Atlantic Ocean.
“It did really take British rock bands doing covers and mentioning these artist that got white American youth involved,” he said.
The blues wasn’t considered a suitable subject for academic research for years. The first books started to come out in the late 1950s.
Ford said Ole Miss’ Department of Archives and Special Collections is home to papers from William Faulkner, Larry Brown, Willie Morris and Ellen Douglas.
“We also have collections on civil rights and the Civil War,” Ford said. “They’re important to the state.”
The Blues Archive exists because it’s become an acknowledged fact that an honest look at Mississippi must include its music. The blues is worth studying and worth listening to. Most of all, it’s worth saving.
“These things disappear,” Johnson said, “but we’ve got this collection in one area. It’s all here. It’s available to the public, for anybody.”
THE BLUES ARCHIVE is located at the University of Mississippi’s J.D. Williams Library. It’s open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, except during university holidays.
• For information, call (662) 915-7753, or email email@example.com.
• This is a link to the Blues Subject Guide, a digital catalogue of
the archive’s offerings: www.library.olemiss.edu/guides/archives_subject_guide/blues