Arts and Humanities
Mon April 21, 2014
Louisville Underground Music Archive a Scholarly Home For City's Punk Rock Past
Who knew that those old concert flyers you’ve been holding onto since high school could be important? At the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library, the Archives and Special Collections librarians are cataloging and preserving mementos from the bygone indie rock scene into the Louisville Underground Music Archive, a scholarly repository of local music history.
It started when the library accepted a donation of two vintage sets of local ‘zines, Burt the Cat and Hard Times, that chronicled the Louisville music scene in the '90s. Carrie Daniels was processing them, and she recognized her fellow archivist Heather Fox, who’s also a musician, on one of the covers.
The idea for a local music scene archive was born.
Their idea quickly took on a new urgency when several pillars of the local music scene passed away, including Jon Cook of Crain and Jason Noble of Rodan, Shipping News and Rachel’s.
“We started losing members of the music scene, and that really brought things to a head. We realized we had to start collecting now, it had to be more than a cool idea. Because material was going to get lost,” says Daniels. “If the flyers get lost, if the music gets lost, if the set lists disappear, then an essential part of the scene is lost forever.”
“And we know people in the future will want to look back and learn about this music scene,” she adds.
A university library might not be your first stop when you’re looking for rock band mementoes, but Daniels says the special collections archives aren’t just for, well, old stuff.
“I think sometimes people forget that old stuff was new and hip at one point, and somebody took some kind of action to preserve it, to keep it safe,” she says.
That’s what Daniels and her fellow archivists to do with artifacts from Louisville’s punk, hardcore and indie rock music history.
“We are interested in taking anything and everything related to the music scene, things that people won’t even think could be useful to an archive,” says archivist Elizabeth Reilly. “Every little piece tells the bigger story.”
The Louisville Underground Music Archive will focus primarily on the 1980s and ‘90s, a particularly important and prolific time period for Louisville music. Bands like Slint, Rodan, and Kinghorse all came from that scene and had a lasting influence on the larger world of music. (If you're unfamiliar, you can see videos of several Louisville punk bands through history on this YouTube page.)
“I grew up outside of New York City, then I went to college in California, then I was living in San Francisco in the late-'90s, and some of my favorite bands were Slint and Rodan, these bands I didn’t even know were from Louisville,” Reilly says. “So it’s really exciting to me as a fan of this music to be working to collect it and to work with the people who created it.”
The archive is actively collecting personal papers and correspondence and mementoes of the scene, as well as documentation of live shows and the creative process. That includes show flyers (they’re particularly quirky, as they rarely include the year with the date of the show), t-shirts, original artwork for album covers, photos, videos and audio recordings, and anything that documents the creative process of an artist or band.
“The Rachel's, for instance, donated their materials here,” says archivist Sarah-Jane Poindexter. “It covers their creative process of creating the music as well as the artwork and packaging, their press release, their tour information, how they planned their tour and executed it, as well as fan mail.”
It’s actually not that unusual for university libraries to collect this kind of thing – there’s the D.C. Punk Rock Collection at George Washington University, the Riot Grrrl Zines at NYU and the Bay Area punk poster collection at Stanford, just to name a few.
But why would someone want to donate a bunch of old punk tapes and show posters to a library? Preservation, for starters. Stored in a cardboard box in a basement, they’re vulnerable to moisture, mold, pests. People move, die, clean house. Most of the ephemera in the collection is pre-digital – photocopied paper flyers, handwritten lyric sheets, demo cassette tapes.
“That material has a lot of emotional and sentimental value to the individuals who hold it, and I respect that deeply, as somebody who has hoarded her own personal archive for years,” says Daniels. “But the beauty of donating it to somewhere like Archives and Special Collections is that it joins a bunch of other collections, all of which inform each other. It’s a community of collections that tells a larger story.”
And an archive makes informal history accessible. Ask veteran Louisville drummer Thommy Browne about the scene when he was young, and he’ll paint a picture of a totally different kind of show.
“I just remember it being packed. Now when you go see all-ages shows you’ll be lucky if there are 100 or 200 kids there. But at The Machine, there was anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 kids, all the time, because there was nothing else to do,” says Browne, whose past bands include Enkindel and By the Grace of God. “Bands like Sunspring and Endpoint and Crain would play there and kids would just flock to it.”
Browne’s been drumming in Louisville punk and hardcore bands since the early Nineties, and he has boxes and boxes of mementoes to show for it. Now he’s a married father of three, with a career and a house in the suburbs with plenty of space to store all of this stuff, including boxes he’s kept on behalf of friends. He has stacks of handmade demo tapes – some quite rare.
“This is the Big Wheel demo, which was Peter Searcy’s band after Squirrel Bait. This is a demo they recorded before they recorded the East End LP,” he says, sifting through the stacks. “My older brother had one, so I took it.”
(Searcy was in high school when Squirrel Bait was active in the mid-'80s. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters once told Rolling Stone they’re one of his favorites.)
Inside the archive, more connections like that wait to be discovered. Like this gem, unearthed in the papers of Jon Cook, who co-founded the acclaimed math rock band Crain. His family donated his papers to the archive after Cook’s death last year. Buried in his notebooks and souvenirs, says Reilly, is a letter from Minor Threat frontman and D.C. hardcore pioneer Ian MacKaye, documenting a watershed moment in indie rock history.
“It has a date on it, and he’s telling Jon the name of his new band, which is Fugazi,” she says.
But you don’t have to been on first-name basis with Ian MacKaye to be significant to the archives.
“We’ll take the smallest of the small bands,” Reilly says. “But if someone has stuff related to My Morning Jacket, we’ll certainly take that.”
The archive will be available soon to scholars and to the community, anyone who wants to research—or just re-live—Louisville’s music history. Read more about how to donate materials.
Other special collections in libraries across the country:
Michigan State University: ‘Zines special collection (significant core from UK punk scene)