The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University: Documenting the Broad Range of American Vernacular Music

Article excerpt

HISTORY

The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) was established in 1985 as one of the "Centers of Excellence" in Tennessee's public university system. The aim of the Centers program was to create institutes that would foster advanced research and scholarship in fields in which the various schools had existing strengths. MTSU's location in Murfreesboro, thirty-five miles from Nashville, makes it a logical choice for a center related to popular-music scholarship. The university's Department of Recording Industry offers a successful music-business training program; in fall 1997, the department had an enrollment of approximately thirteen hundred majors. The MTSU Department of Music offers a bachelor's degree with emphasis in the music industry, and several members of the MTSU faculty - notably Charles Wolfe in the English Department - engage in scholarship related to popular music. Another important factor is the prominent role that Tennessee has played in the history and development of virtually all genres of popular music in the twentieth century, making the state a marvelous laboratory in which to study popular music.

An interdisciplinary committee drawn from the departments of Recording Industry, English, Music, History, and Speech and Theater, and headed by the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, drew up the proposal for a "Center of Excellence in Music Archives and Research" in 1985. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission approved the proposal in April 1985, and the Center officially came into being on 1 July 1985. The committee that created the proposal served as the search committee for the Center's first director. I was offered the position in September 1985 and began work in November.(1)

When I first learned about the plans to create a new research center for popular music, I realized that this represented an extraordinary opportunity for someone to build an archive and program from the ground up. Just how true this was became abundantly clear when I reported for work to an empty office. The first several months were devoted to such essential tasks as establishing an administrative office, hiring a secretary, and laying the foundations for the Center's physical and intellectual development.

The committee that first drafted the proposal and then conducted the search for a director assumed a final incarnation as a faculty advisory board. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, the Center is not part of any of the five undergraduate colleges at MTSU, and the director of the Center reports directly to the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. The board functions as a peer advisory panel that includes representation from various campus factions. I met with them frequently in the early days, and the members provided sound guidance, especially in matters of university policy. They did not dictate details of the Center's day-to-day operations, but rather allowed me considerable flexibility in shaping all aspects of the collections and programs. Their one clear mandate was that the Center should establish a large archive to serve as a major resource for the region. The board also agreed to my suggested name for the new enterprise: the Center for Popular Music.

The first home of the Center was in MTSU's Learning Resources Center (LRC). The collection was assigned space in what was originally the Environmental Simulation Laboratory, a large cylindrical structure - approximately thirty feet in diameter by thirty feet in height - attached to one end of the LRC; Center staff referred to it, with mock affection, as "the silo." The laboratory was a type of multimedia theater in which various environmental conditions supposedly could be replicated, but the capability of the facility had never been fully utilized. Plans for converting this space to an archive and library were drawn up with the help of Michael Sniderman, the set designer for the Speech and Theater Department. …