New uses for old interviews

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four men at bar

Left to right: Roger Gregory, Eric King, Tom Robinson, Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the bar at Blind Willies. October 24, 1990. (Photo: David S. Rotenstein)

Can you remember where you worked during graduate school? To pay my way through Penn in the 1980s and 1990s I worked in cultural resource management and as a freelance writer. Although history and material culture are my true professional loves, the writing gig was the more interesting, though less profitable, job.

During a two-year break from classes–it’s a long story–I began writing a blues column for a short-lived Atlanta alt-weekly called Footnotes. Between August 1990 and March 1991, I wrote performance reviews and feature stories about musicians derived from lengthy tape-recorded interviews. I also interviewed bar owners and others to develop background material for future stories.

By the time I decided to return to Penn to finish my coursework, Footnotes had folded and I had begun writing about folk and blues music for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Charlotte Observer, and other papers and magazines throughout the United States. Always the historian, I held onto my research files and interviews, including verbatim transcripts for many of them.

By the time I stopped writing, I had interviewed ZZ Top, BB King, Willie Dixon, Graham Nash, the Indigo Girls, Pat Benatar, John Lee Hooker, and dozens of other headliners, sidemen, and bar bands. I had interviewed folk festival organizers, radio DJs, and managers. I was even lucky enough to interview Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun about the then-planned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum and its first curator, Bruce Harrah-Conforth, for a Philadelphia Inquirer feature story about the museum.

Last year when we bought a house in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood, the previous owner told us about the neighbors, including one across the street who owns Blind Willie’s, an Atlanta blues bar founded in 1986. I asked if it was Eric King and she replied, “Yes.”

Eric had owned Willie’s back when I was covering Atlanta’s blues scene 22 years before. We renewed our friendship shortly after my wife and I moved in. Back in October 1990, Eric and I spent several hours at his bar with a microcassette recorder running, talking about the club’s history, the people who built it and who played there, and Atlanta’s blues and folk scene in the late 20th century. The interview was for background and it formed the basis for a March 1991 Footnotes article on the club’s fifth anniversary.

As the 2012 holidays rolled around I decided to dig out my old interview files. The plan was to finish transcribing the October 1990 interview with Eric and to give him a bound copy along with a CD with the very poor audio from the interview. It was, after all, done in a blues bar with very bad equipment.

As I was poring through my old files I realized that I had been hauling them around for a couple of decades and not using them. I got the idea to donate Eric’s interview package along with the interviews I did with Atlanta based musicians to the Atlanta History Center. After all, oral history and journalism are a natural fit.

But there was one problem. Back then, because I was a lowly freelancer converting interviews into quick money, I was thinking journalism and not history, so I didn’t get signed releases from the folks I interviewed.

I contacted the Atlanta History Center to see if they would be interested in the collection. They are and I secured the necessary release forms to include with the interviews I will be donating. Getting a neighbor to sign an oral history release is easy. But what about the other Atlantans I interviewed? Earlier this month I began emailing publicists and managers to begin the process of securing the signed releases.

Stay tuned for an update on how the release dilemma plays out and on the final donation.

~ David S. Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington DC, and beyond.