Preserving the Sites of American Music

By Special Contributor posted 01-12-2018 10:40


By Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris

It took me years to realize how many music sites surrounded me while I was growing up in Hampton, Virginia. I attended my first concert at Fort Monroe—a National Historic Landmark, National Monument, and a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation—right on a small parade ground that overlooks the Chesapeake Bay, where the post’s army band performed weekly. And as teenagers in the 1980s, my friends and I saw Duran Duran, Def Leppard, and other popular artists at the Hampton Coliseum. And of course, the famous Hampton Jazz Festival has brought jazz and R&B artists to the city since 1968. My appreciation for music sites got an early start. 


The Virginia Hampton military band at the Fort Monroe Civil War encampment. | Credit: Photo by C Watts licensed under CC BY 2.0

Like me, most people can remember where they attended their first major concert or the small, “hole-in-the-wall” venue that hosted a favorite up-and-coming artist. Historic preservationists can harness those memories to create converts to our cause. Remember the outpouring of support that Boston Red Sox fans showed in the effort to preserve Fenway Park? I have no problem considering every one of them a preservationist! Even if their interest ended when the ballpark reopened, that preservation ethic had still been unlocked. So why not tug at the aural heartstrings of music fans through the preservation of music-related historic sites? 

In my research, I’ve found organizations dedicated to the preservation of historic theaters, dance halls, zydeco and blues joints, and sites related to conjunto music in Texas. At the same time, we’ve already lost a number of music sites related to punk, disco, and house music—though there’s a growing effort to identify and preserve what remains. The site of Woodstock has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and there are efforts to add LGBTQ music-related sites to the National Register as well. And various campaigns by the National Trust for Historic Preservation have brought greater awareness to music-related sites like RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee; the John Coltrane Home on Long Island, New York; and the Miami Marine Stadium (view a Google 360 view of the stadium below). And because of those efforts from the National Trust, the preservation community as a whole better understands the cultural significance of these sites. There have also been successful community efforts to save the birthplaces/childhood homes of individual artists—Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers come to mind. But many other places have been lost—many that we may not even know about. 

Music as a Connector

Ron Woods and I—both National Trust alumni and the cofounders of the forthcoming Trust for American Music Sites (TAMS)—came up with the idea for “Music as a Connector,” a Learning Lab at PastForward 2017 in Chicago. Our goal was to help preservationists think of ways to pull at the aforementioned heartstrings. Ron moderated the panel, which included Aubrey Preston, who founded the Americana Music Triangle and was instrumental in  saving Studio A; Kim Campbell of the Historic Macon Foundation; Carolyn Brackett, a senior field officer in the field services department at the National Trust and the Trust’s point person for Nashville’s Music Row; and myself, representing TAMS. Each panelist focused on a regional, city, neighborhood, or individual music-related historic site and recounted the challenges and triumphs involved with preserving it. We sought to provide tangible examples of the work that aims not only to preserve music-related historic sites but also to use them to bring communities together. 

View of RCA Studiod A and B on Nashville's Music Row. | Credit: Rick Smith

During the discussion, audience members talked about their own experiences and challenges. They brought up Austin, Texas, where long-standing historic music venues are under threat because of recent noise complaints; Philadelphia, where many jazz and R&B historic music sites have been demolished; and Madison, Indiana, which has begun identifying music sites where up-and-coming artists have been living, recording, and performing.

“Music as a Connector” provided an opportunity to focus attention on the specific needs and challenges that music-related historic sites face and bring together those who are working to preserve such sites. Those of us who participated as panelists agree that these conversations need to continue, and we will seek to put together a session for PastForward 2018

The Future of TAMS

I consider TAMS the next step in the effort to preserve music-related historic sites. We plan to follow the example of the first phase of the National Trust’s African American Historic Places Initiative. In 2003–05 the Trust sought to capture a snapshot of the national landscape for African American historic places in order to provide a framework for helping them build site capacities, expand visibility, and work with academic institutions. TAMS is putting together a database of music-related historic places across the nation, and has already identified approximately 2,200 sites. TAMS will continue bringing attention to the importance of preserving music sites through its Twitter feed, Facebook group, and conference presentations. One of the key goals is getting more music fans to see the connection between their passion and the preservation of associated sites. TAMS will be just one component of the larger effort to preserve music related historic sites, and we want to work with all who are a part of that effort. 

So, as we head into 2018, we will continue the conversation that was started in Chicago by bringing different constituencies together to preserve our music-related historic sites. Stay tuned! 

Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris is an independent historian and preservation consultant.


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01-13-2018 19:08

I attended the “Music as a Connector” learning lab. Free Harris and the other panelists were informative and inspiring. It was my favorite session at PastForward17.

In Philadelphia, few music sites are listed on the national or local register. In the Winter 2018 issue of Extant magazine, published by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, I wrote about the building where Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created “The Sound of Philadelphia.” Never listed, the building was demolished in 2015 to make way for a luxury hotel and condos. Three years later, there's just a hole in the ground.

In the coming weeks, I plan to create a Tumblr of extant places that were never listed, including music sites such as the Showboat, Club 421 and CC’s Nightclub.

Faye M. Anderson
All That Philly Jazz