Can Detroit’s 1960s-era sound be preserved?

etroit’s musical legacies include mold-covered audio tapes, abandoned poster collections covered in pigeon shit, stacks of rotting compact discs and countless corrupted hard drives. They include a once world-class soul studio with a backed-up toilet and audio tape recordings stacked to the ceiling – and another studio, United Sound Systems, simultaneously fighting the Michigan Department of Transportation, the U.S. Attorney’s office and aggressive Midtown and New Center gentrification. And as loud as some of those legacies are – including a deep cut from singer Barbara Lewis in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Moonlight, just to name a recent, poignant, example – some are ghostly silent.

One brief anecdote from my own Detroit music research: Last year I wrote a history of Detroit radio station WJLB for an academic book Listening Spaces not based on an extensive archive of digitized live radio broadcasts from the station’s vaults, which do not exist, but instead on newspaper clippings kept in an aging manila folder at the E. Azalia Hackley Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

Much like the threat of climate change, the threat to our musical heritage is real – and it is here now. In 2015, The British Library put a date on that threat, announcing they had 15 years to preserve their country’s analog audio through digitization before it was lost forever. But the problem is even more acute in cities like Detroit, where archival media lab resources and preservation dollars are, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. In other words, Detroit is a case study in sonic apocalypse despite (or perhaps because of) its place as a capital for 20th century sonic rebellion.

Not persuaded that we’re in the midst of an apocalypse yet?

When the group that I founded, Detroit Sound Conservancy, took photos in front of the Blue Bird Inn on Detroit’s Old West Side in 2012 to seed our social media presence, we weren’t yet seasoned enough urban spelunkers to even check if the back door was open. When we finally did – well over a year later – we realized that, despite being ransacked, the jazz club’s historical integrity hadn’t been completely destroyed. The pipes had burst. Mold had taken over. But against the back wall, as it had stood for almost 60 years, was the ship-like burlesque beauty of the stage.

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The building has been sold and resold, abandoned and neglected, since it finally stopped hosting events last decade. The current owner has not responded to our call to him asking for his vision for the future. Of course, there’s no shame in that game; so much in Detroit has been left to the same fate under forces – from foreclosure to fire – many times far too intense for any one resident. That doesn’t change the fact that the condition of one of the jewels within Detroit’s long musical 20th century is an allegory for where we are.

Detroit’s musical communities have been resisting before and after that fateful summer of 1967 that we are all reflecting on this year. The aforementioned Blue Bird was a site of sonic rebellion in the creation of bop. The jukebox at the blind pig at 12th and Clairmount was also a casualty that first night of the riots. And, just a few years later, there was even a studio sit-down strike at WJLB led in part by radio personality Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg. Another major moment was Don Davis buying United Sound from Jim Siracuse in 1972, which allowed him to, among many other things, record the band Death – whose album, For the Whole World to See, we now all recognize as a proto-punk masterpiece.

And, because of my participant-observer, raised-in-Troy biased mind, these stories must include the Little Rascals-esque group of kids, now aging adults of all races and backgrounds, who met in the 1980s and 1990s in long-gone places like the Freezer Theater, Todd’s and even the Packard Plant, for they were the inheritors of the big urban questions of the 1960s era. They were the ones whose busing routes were affected, whose parents got up and moved, whose musical keynotes were more likely Funkadelic and Gary Numan than early Motown or bop.

All of these legacies have a shelf life. Memories do not exist out of the active imaginations of those who can conjure and share them. The time to preserve the sounds and echoes of Detroit’s rebellious 20th century is now. The time to teach our children what 2-inch audio tape looks like, how to preserve it and then how to digitize it for their community as well as their own ears and imaginations is long overdue. The Blue Bird stage is now on display for a month in France for the world to see. Now let’s give those international audiences something to hear, again.

Dr. Carleton S. Gholz is the executive director of Detroit Sound Conservancy and co-curator at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) of the forthcoming exhibition Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance (Sept. 8, 2017-Jan. 7, 2018). More at csgholz.org.

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