We left the car near the campus park and, using our visitor map, wandered our way toward building 20, the number that indicated the location of the Mississippi Blues Archive. The bright green lawns and red-bricked buildings had a startling effect on driving-weary eyes. We scanned the archways of the uniform colonial buildings until the etched words Library appeared and we entered into the air-conditioned lobby of the J.D. Williams library at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.
Greg Johnson, curator of the archive, agreed to interview with us despite his heavy workload and preparations for his upcoming wedding. We located his office on the second floor, made introductions, and seated ourselves in the school-standardized furniture allowing our eyes to adjust to the flicker of fluorescent lights.
“The blues archive became available in 1984 to the public,” Greg began. “It contains 70,000 sound recordings of Edison wax cylinders, 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassettes. We have books, business records and recording contracts of artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. We even have a collection of blues clothing like old festival T-shirts and hats.” Our opening question having been sufficiently answered, we continued on.
He seemed to enjoy answering our questions and listened to each new one with patient nods that caused his waist-length hair to ruffle. Curator of the collection since 2002, he has an authoritative grasp on the contents and has had a significant hand in bolstering the collection further.
Greg’s role as curator requires him both to acquire and catalogue materials. It is a meticulous job that requires not just an interest in the material but in the regimented preservation of delicate and rare items. He elaborated, “If it’s records, we’ll place them into an acid free archival record sleeve. If it’s for paper based collections, we remove staples and paperclips because those rust. We put UV filters on all of our light bulbs. We have a walk in cold room for photographs. It’s about 41 degrees. Like a big meat locker.”
When searching for new materials, he prioritizes items that will broaden the scope of blues knowledge not to increase the collectible value of the archive. He was firm about this point when we goaded him to share “white whale” record stories. “Most of these rare recordings you can hear a copy even on YouTube,” he maintained. “It may not be a good copy or transfer, but that data is there. I’m looking for materials that will further the scholarship.”
Around about this time in the interview, our camera ran out of battery. Flustered we racked our brains for how to proceed. Without hesitating, Greg walked over to his desk and offered us a camera that he had lying around. He said, “We’ve got so much stuff in here. Occasionally neighboring departments come to us to borrow equipment, knowing we’ll likely have it.”
Back on track, camera rolling, he led us from his office to tour the physical archive. We padded down the carpeted hallway and glimpsed our last ray of natural light before descending into the library book stacks. Winding through the narrow corridors we reached a locked gate. Greg deftly unlocked the heavy security gate from his ring of keys and ushered us into the main section of the archive.
We walked past stacks and stacks of blues recordings and ephemera. The university now boasts perhaps the most extensive collection of blues related information, yet it has been a gradual accumulation. “The Blues Archive started when B.B. King donated his personal collection,” Greg told us. A large wall in the collection is dedicated to his 8,000 sound recordings of blues, jazz and a surprising amount of popular music. “He had a lot of foreign language courses,” Greg mused. Supposedly, he wanted to be able to greet his international audiences in their native language.
After the initial contribution from B.B. King, many more donations followed. Greg led us to the walls of LPs and boxes filled with 78s from various contributors. A notable contribution came from Sheldon Harris, music historian and author of Blues Who’s Who. When he passed away in 2005, his research files, 78s and LPs were all donated to the archive. “Going through his collection in Brooklyn, I was so nervous,” Greg recalled. “I went there to pack it up and ship it back to Mississippi and of everything that was shipped back, the only damage done was to a few Peggy Lee records so that was a relief!”
When we resurfaced from the library stacks, Greg explained that we couldn’t play the rare 78s he pulled for us, but offered to give them a spin in the laser player. The laser turntable is ideal for playing delicate records since it does not damage the disk with a stylus. Instead, it reads the disk by translating grooves, damaged or not, into zeros and ones.
He took a rare Robert Johnson copy of “32-20 Blues/Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, placing it gingerly in the tray, explained, “Sometimes the label catches so I have to lift it as it’s going in.” The tray shuddered closed. It waited a second. An LED display showed a block-shaped record and needle poised to meet. Slowly the image of the needle dropped with Pac-Man jerkiness and we all held our breath. The sound that emitted from the speakers was a harsh hiss interspersed with subaquatic guitar strums, as if Robert Johnson were thrashing against a current, his mouth filling with water every time he opened it to sing. Greg adjusted the sound using an equalizer, but once the static frequency was removed there was almost no audible sound emitting from the record. After a few more tries he admitted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get this to play.”
Greg had warned us beforehand that the laser player might not work. It’s a temperamental machine and can vary with each record played. The failure of the twenty-first century machine to play Robert Johnson, however, seemed appropriate given the mystique of the famed delta bluesman, and if anything made us appreciate the cultural and technological divide even more.
Special collections and archives are phrases we associate with exclusive corners of the academic realm, however, leaving the interview there wasn’t much in the collection that we weren’t able to see. Our visit to Ole Miss’ Blues Archive was a testament to the vision of archival curators: to make cultural histories and materials available to everyone. All year round, Greg shares his time and knowledge with blues scholars, filmmakers and fans alike. He never once rolled his eyes at our naïve questions, and never insinuated that our interest in vinyl was narrow. What he offered was a glimpse into a system that favors a broad perspective and an appreciation for the work that bridges the gap between mythical performers and the physical remnants of their legacies.