Tom Eblen: Sound archivists digitize more than 3,000 hours of recordings

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 29, 2013 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives' current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives' website: Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college's Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea's annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair's Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati's WLW-AM, Louisville's WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville's WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family's Louisville media empire.

"They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn't take them they would be thrown out," Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

"Like most media, it was never intended to be saved," Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. "For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist."

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children's radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV's famous kids' show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

"Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again," he said. "I'm trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document."

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master's degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That's the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

"The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle," Bondurant said. "We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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