When thinking about preservation, we tend to think about historic buildings, or maybe a pristine and unique natural area. We also are tempted to consider some of these places as having been preserved. The implication of this thinking, that preservation is ever a completed or finished act, is an idea that needs to be challenged.
Cultural and, specifically, musical preservation is in focus this week in Knoxville in the form of the Knoxville Stomp Festival. The festival celebrates the release of the newly re-assembled and re-mastered recordings made at the St. James Hotel in 1929 and 1930.
Events start tonight with the opening party at Westwood ($35) and continue for the next three days and nights with panel discussions, film and many, many performances. Virtually everything is free with the exceptions of the opening party and the presentation by Carolina Chocolate Drop member Dom Flemons at the Bijou Friday night ($25). You’ll find the whole schedule here.
So, what does this have to do with preservation? Plenty. For starters, these recordings were made in the St. James Hotel. Want to meet there for a drink to toast the record’s release? Of course, we can’t. A marker near its location notes the significance of the St. James sessions. It was located along Wall Ave. in what is now wasted space in front of the TVA towers. The hotel, built in 1905, was torn down in 1973. Here’s a great article on the topic – including great photographs – by my friend John Weaver.
But what of the music? It could be argued that the act of recording itself was an act of preservation. Without the recordings, no doubt, many of these songs would have been lost. So, they were preserved and that’s the end of the story, right? No. They were recorded and released as 78 RPM records. Want to spin a few? It would be difficult to find a player, but in recent years it was thought that the majority of the recordings had been lost – preservation undone.
And that is likely where the story would have ended had it not been for one collector in Maryland and one singularly focused record company in Germany. The company, Bear Family Records, which specializes in just this type of project, heard about the sessions and found the collector. It must be a pure labor of love – as preservation often is – because there is no hope for significant monetary return on such a collection.
So, the music was made, preserved, nearly lost and preserved once more. Preservation is more than simply making sure a thing continues to exist in the world. If it is hidden away, it is lost to the public knowledge and may as well be lost completely.
Which brings me to our larger musical heritage in Knoxville. If it isn’t accessible, or preferably visible, it is lost in a sense. I want visitors to our city – and our citizens – to know that we have a vibrant music scene. But I also want them to understand that it didn’t appear with Knoxville’s modern renaissance, but has roots deep into the city’s past.
The Cradle of Country Music Tour is an example of how that heritage might be preserved – but also of how it can slip away, once more. Before that brochure and tour, I’m not sure most of us knew about Knoxville’s musical past and the long chain of major musical stars and influences that called Knoxville home or the significant musical developments which happened here.
Years ago, a similarly musically obsessed friend of mine visited Knoxville and somehow learned about the tour and insisted that we walk it. I’m guessing this happened not long after it was developed in 1998. While I had enjoyed Knoxville’s contemporary music for years, it was my first introduction to Knoxville’s musical past, and I’d lived here for sixteen years at that time.
So the history has been preserved, right? A park was even dedicated and a monument erected. Mission accomplished? No. Eventually the brochure became scarce, the monument was removed – first the treble clef – and later the base which had the names in bronze. The markers which gave full descriptions of the significance of each site began to deteriorate. Many were replaced with small, simple markers including little more than a number on the tour, which was of no use without the brochure. I first wrote about this sad state of affairs nearly six years ago.
So, much of it has been lost, right? Not so fast. Preservationists in the form of the East Tennessee History Center, the Knox County Public Library and, particularly, Visit Knoxville, have stepped in, expanded and re-printed the brochure (it isn’t here just yet) and they began placing new markers yesterday.
One is pictured above – complete with the text that had gone missing from so many. Appropriately for this week, the first one placed was the marker for the St. James Hotel. I’m excited to get the new brochure and walk the tour, once more, and enjoy the fine, new markers.
But all is not well. I assume the new brochure doesn’t mention the “treble clef” or the park, for example. There is a small marker still there, but it’s embarrassing to point to that spot as our commemoration of our musical heritage. But the most unfortunate news related to that heritage is unrelated to the tour. I also wrote about the Knoxville Music History Mural almost six years ago. It wasn’t part of the tour, but could have been.
Commissioned in 2000 by Keep Knoxville Beautiful and painted by students from Laurel High School and artist Walt Fieldsa, the mural included paintings of some of the people the festival will celebrate this week, as well as many other better known figures. That sentence is past tense because the mural was covered over in a shocking move last week.
The building is owned by Leigh Burch, III and he told Wayne Bledsoe (from whose article much of this information was gathered) the mural had been vandalized and had to be painted over. To say people were skeptical is to understate dramatically. The Inside of Knoxville Facebook Page lighted up after Paige Travis posted what had happened. Liza Zenni, executive director of Arts & Culture Alliance, said Burch had expressed a desire to get rid of the mural and that she didn’t believe his explanation.
So, the best, most visible acknowledgement of our musical heritage was painted over quickly and without notice or any opportunity to preserve it. The artist says it can be recreated for just under $20,000, but that wasn’t likely necessary as the painting probably could have been repaired at much smaller cost. Some losses are intentional and this appears to be one. If it was defaced, shame on the people who did it. If it wasn’t, then shame on the person who had it painted over.
So, the battle for preservation is sometimes over ideas, memories and even murals. And it is never finished. Another battle awaits another day for another generation to fight. But we should celebrate our victories and continue to struggle for more. The newly constructed and placed markers is such a victory. The rescue of the St. James sessions is another. Come out and celebrate this weekend. Revel in the preservation of our past. And prepare for the next battle, as it will most certainly come.