New uses for old interviews II: Wrapping it up
24 June 2013 – David Rotenstein
Back in February I wrote about some of the challenges of donating old interviews done during graduate school in the 1990s for newspapers to the Atlanta History Center’s archives as oral histories. After some interesting attempts to get release forms signed more than 20 years after the interviews were done and more than a few collisions with data rot, the donation was completed in June.
On May 7, 2013, I met with AHC vice president for research services Paul Crater in the lobby of the Kenan Research Center to deliver a stack of file folders that included interview transcripts, research notes, publicity photos, and artist clips and bios sent to me by record companies, publicists, bar owners, and local promoters. The materials included interviews with Blind Willie’s blues bar owner Eric King and Atlanta-area musicians I interviewed for Footnotes, a short-lived alt-weekly that published in 1990 and 1991. The files included interviews with local bluesers Tinsley Ellis, Roger Wilson, and Michael Stone (a.k.a. Stoney B. Blues). Also included was my file and transcripts from five interviews done between 1991 and 1994 with former Allman Brothers keyboardist and Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton sideman Chuck Leavell.
Though Leavell lives on a tree farm outside of Macon, Ga., he’s an influential musician who over the past twenty years has become a leading Georgia conservationist and advocate for preserving the state’s musical heritage. Out of the hundreds of interviews I have done since the late 1980s, the AHC donation was but a small fraction of my collection to ensure that the donation conformed to the institution’s mission to collect materials about the “people, places, and events of the Atlanta Metropolitan Region.”
In the February post I described how I was able to get King’s signature on an AHC release form: he and I are neighbors. Getting releases signed by musicians, some of whom have moved away from Atlanta or who have simply disappeared, was more of a challenge.
Leavell was one of the first to consent and he sent a scanned copy of his signed release via email. Wilson, who in the 1990s fronted a band called the “Low Overhead Band” and who in 1991 sent me his press kit via U.S. Postal service with postage due, had just one request of me before he was willing to sign the release. After a month of email exchanges, Wilson finally wrote on February 13: “If you will vote for me here now to get onstage with Eric Clapton at Crossroads, I’ll sign the release.” I did (and so did my wife) and he sent the signed release–again via the mail but this time with full postage.
Pierce Pettis isn’t a blueser but he is a new folk musician who lived in Atlanta in the 1980s and 1990s while he was married to a Georgia State University English professor. I had reviewed a 1992 show he gave in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I subsequently interviewed him for articles that were published in several newspapers. In early 2013 he was living in Alabama. I emailed his manager and a few days later Pettis replied, “As to the Atlanta History Center release . . . I’d be honored. Please feel free to send it.”
My newspaper interviews were done with an old Sanyo microcassette recorder and I transcribed most of the early ones (1990-1991) in longhand on yellow pads and then typed them into a word processing program on my old Kaypro computer and its replacement, an old 5.25-inch double-floppy drive Compaq. I kept most of my microcassettes with interviews I had done with big name artists like ZZ Top, BB King, Carlos Santana, and John Lee Hooker, but I recorded over many of my interviews with local musicians like my Footnotes colleague and editor Bryan Powell who also fronted a blues band: Spike Driver.
Powell and I alternated weeks writing the blues column that appeared in Footnotes. One of my first Footnotes interviews was with Powell in his apartment and my profile of him ran in September 1990. In November 1990, we did a memorable interview in an Atlanta bar with blues legend Johnny Shines that appeared in Footnotes under both of our bylines. By early 2013, Powell was doing corporate writing and he still played guitar and sang with a local blues band: the aptly named “Rough Draft.”
I tracked Powell down at a Rough Draft gig in late February and gave him a copy of the AHC release. My wife and I enjoyed some barbecue as we listened to the band’s first set. When I returned home to begin processing Powell’s file I discovered that all I had were my handwritten notes from the September 1990 interview, his press kit, and the clip from my article. The interview I did with him was typed directly into my Kaypro and when I tried to access the files that I had copied from the old 5.25-inch diskettes onto new media back in the mid-90s, I discovered that they were unreadable digital gobbledygook. All that I was able to transmit from my interview with Powell were the notes, clips, and an empty space that data rot and poor archiving practices prevented being occupied by my 1990 interview transcript.
In March, King and I spent a couple of hours in his dining room going over the transcript from his interview, his belated Christmas gift, and talking about Atlanta’s blues scene after I had left in 1991. It was a nice way to close out a project that had its accidental inception almost 23 years earlier.
Compiling the AHC donation package and tracking down the musicians was a fun diversion. The exercise underscored a couple of important points. First, the importance of getting releases signed for all interviews so that they may be accessioned into an archive and to ensure that interviewees’ intellectual property rights are protected. Second, the very real pitfalls of data rot: changing technology and the limited lifespans of software formats and recording media (analog and digital). I had dealt with some aspects of this when a client hired me to transfer two dozen oral histories done in the 90s on DAT to CDs and a hard drive. The foundation’s previous public history consultant had recorded them on her personal DAT recorder and the organization, lacking its own DAT machine, had no way of accessing the narratives recorded to mark its 50th anniversary.
On June 6, 2013 the Atlanta History Center sent the Deed of Gift forms for me to execute. Once signed and returned, my extracurricular excursion into Atlanta’s musical past and my own professional past was done. Now it’s on to the next phase: finding a home for the other interviews I did with musicians during my decade as a freelance music writer.
~ David S. Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington DC, and beyond.