The Center for Popular Music: ‘A Gem in MTSU’s Crown’
Music lovers across campus and beyond would likely be delighted to spend a half hour picking through Dale Cockrell’s office collection of antique songbooks and sheet music.
Given the opportunity to tour the greater expanse of material his center houses, such a person may experience a (rather pleasant) panic attack.
Cockrell is the director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music, which is known almost exclusively to mass communication students who pass by its glass walls regularly as they go about their business. It is also used in history and music courses, which occasionally hold classes in the center.
The Center for Popular Music is the largest, oldest research center and archive of its sort in the world.
“It’s an enormous gem in MTSU’s crown,” Cockrell said.
While other university centers may host larger jazz collections or blues archives, Cockrell says there’s no center that tries to cover the whole range of pop music from the 18th century to the present—and all the various dimensions—like this center does.
And the dimensions are indeed various.
In the warehouse-like storage facility exists 200,000 LPs arranged by label and issue number and a sprawl of other recordings—45s, 75s, CDs and cassettes.
“We trace the music business by the media that is used to represent the music of the time,” Cockrell said.
Some of the center’s oldest materials are not recordings at all—though the center certainly houses some Edisonian phonographic cylinders—but sheet music, broadsides and songsters.
“Handwritten music manuscripts date from 1775 up to 1960 or so, and that’s an example of one person taking the time and trouble to write, by hand, the music that mattered to them. So that’s one form of a medium that’s sort of direct and up close,” Cockrell said.
Cockrell added that broadsides are similar to today’s 99-cent download; for a penny, someone could purchase the text to a popular song. Middle-class people may have purchased expensive sheet music to speak of status, but common citizens consumed their music through broadsides. The Center for Popular Music is home to the largest collection of American broadsides in the world. The collection is digitized and can be accessed through the center’s website.
The Center for Popular Music exists as a unique mirror of American culture. The center’s website cites the multicultural and international origins of American society, as influencing the materials that have been collected there.
“Everybody knows that the nation is a salad bowl of ethnicities, and music is always representative of that,” Cockrell said. “So we have a good collection of Scottish songs, Irish songs—we have a major collection of African-American music, and…anyone who is interested in following that strain through how it becomes part of what’s American music can, in fact, do that.”
The center has much to discover about American society, but it also shines a light on individuals—who they were, what they did and what music they loved.
“I often say that we have 350,000 stories here,” Cockrell added. “A song is a story, and if someone is interested in finding the stories that mattered to people at the time—just as today, you look on their iPod to find what their values are, what their consciousness is. And you look at the music to find out what the society was believing, and the stories they were telling about themselves.”
The center organizes much of its material into collections—the rock-and-roll collection, the gospel collection and most recently, the center received a grant to collect songs about Tennessee.
The Tennessee Historical Records Advisory Board issued a grant to the center to curate the Tennessee songs collection called “My Homeland: A Research Guide to Songs About Tennessee.”
Certainly citizens of the Volunteer State can rattle off a handful of songs meriting placement in the collection, and Cockrell hypothesizes that there is a reason so many tunes exist about Tennessee.
“I have this weird kind of theory that one of the reasons there are lots of songs about Tennessee is that it’s a pretty word. It’s got a nice rhythm to it—it’s got a melody. Songwriters are sensitive to that,” he said.
“When Stephen Foster was writing ‘Way Down on the Sewanee River,’ it was first of all ‘Way Down on the Pee Dee River,’ which is in South Carolina, and that just didn’t sound right. He had never been to the Sewanee River, hardly knew where it was, so a song that has become part of culture was changed simply because it sounded good,” Cockrell said.
That collection will be digitized, and Cockrell said when copyrights permit, it will include audio and interview clips and other digital content that supports and enlivens the site.
The Center for Popular Music is not available for general appreciation, as usage is limited to research. Individuals writing music, recording industry or history papers and essays would certainly be granted access to the center’s great expanse of musical history.