By Tony Gonzalez / The Tennessean
MURFREESBORO - To the songwriters, Tennessee has always seemed worth singing about: a place to go "down South," by night train or choo choo, to waltz with the belles and boogie in the blue hills.
A state - no offense to the other 49 - with a pretty name.
"It has a rhythm and a melody in it," said Dale Cockrell, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University.
Propelled by a small grant, MTSU archivists are gathering recordings, sheet music and songbooks to create an interactive website titled " 'My Homeland': A Research Guide to Songs About Tennessee." It will include the nation-leading eight - yes, eight - Tennessee state songs, and raps, religious songbooks, Yiddish ditties and at least one vinyl record version, pressed in Japan, of Patti Page's take on "Tennessee Waltz."
Recordings and scans of the sheet music and album artwork will be available online and easy to sort, with a special section for teachers seeking music to use in classes.
The music and printed materials will be organized by the recurring themes that project archivist John Fabke has found in the songwriting.
In his research, Fabke said he found Tennessee described as a mythical "Shangri-La," where everyone wants to go.
"It's a place that you're from, with the romance of where you're from or going back to," he said.
Hundreds of songs - arguably more than all but a few other states - describe state wildlife, the feats of Davy Crockett, and a place almost constantly in motion, by road, river and rail.
"What is it about Tennessee? Is it this mythical place? Or an easy rhyme?" Fabke asked. "Or was there something going on that was more active and interesting than Louisiana or Michigan or Indiana?"
Assembling the collection doesn't give Fabke time to answer his own questions, but the center's archivists anticipate researchers will seize on the new website for scholarly work.
"Because resources have been scattered, there has never been a systematic effort to gather and organize this powerful music," Cockrell said.
A $6,700 grant from the Tennessee Historical Records Advisory Board will be enough to pay Fabke for four months of part-time work on the project. He has been combing through about 300,000 cataloged songs and printed materials already held by the Center for Popular Music, as well as two recently acquired private collections of Tennessee-centric music.
Those new collections contain more than 1,400 recordings, 600 pieces of sheet music, a few dozen books and posters and one exceptionally rare 16 mm short film.
The website will include 1890s "songster" booklets that pair lyrics and medical remedies on facing pages, early 1900s cylinder recordings, and a 1930s recording of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" performed by an orchestra in Lima, Peru.
"Pretty obscure," Fabke said.
In the coming months, Martin Fisher, curator of audio collections at the center, will digitize hundreds of recordings.
Together, Fabke and Fisher sampled the recordings last week in the audio work room, a wonderland of record players and even less common music machines - like an eight-track player.
The men grinned through playings of "Tennessee Waltz" that ranged from Page's ballad to a comical Yiddish cover, "Tennessee Freilach."
On "Tennessee Boogie," they listened to Hoyt Scoggins call out a woman with a "figure like a pinto bean."
And, having never heard it before, they gushed a little bit about a postcard record. It looks like a standard postcard and could travel by mail, but it also includes a thin plastic layer recording of a song extolling the virtues of Lookout Mountain.
Much of what the center keeps doesn't make much of a sound.
Acid-free boxes and papers preserve music magazines, sheet music, news clippings and posters.
Fabke said he'll be challenged to narrow down his digital scans of sheet music and labels to about 550 images to post at the project website. Researchers set that limit because they want a curated collection, "not just everything."
Along the way, Fabke and center Assistant Director Lucinda Cockrell also are repairing printed works before scanning them into digital format.
"You get a sense there's a lot of value in the original item just having the item in hand: the quality of color, the illustrations," Fabke said.
Looking over "Tennessee Waltz" sheet music again, Fabke pointed out tell-tale design differences that reveal the era of production.
The center, established in 1985, permits anyone to review materials and recordings. The new website will spread digital access to Tennessee songs. But Fabke and Lucinda Cockrell agreed there's no substitute for holding the items in hand.
"Once they're scanned, people say: 'Why not throw them away?' " Lucinda Cockrell said.
"First off," she tells them, "they're absolutely gorgeous.
"And we know that if it's taken care of, it will be here in 500 years. The digital stuff: We have no idea. It's not proven. We're not just thinking of tomorrow. We're thinking of eons down the road."
How you can help
Do you own historic recordings or have information about Tennessee songs? The MTSU Center for Popular Music accepts donations of important recordings, sheet music and other printed materials related to music. The center can be reached at 615-898-2449.
Browse the collection
Browse the MTSU Center for Popular Music's growing list of songs about Tennessee at http://popmusic.mtsu.edu.