Wardlow Donates Collection (1990)

Since I digitized these interviews and stored them online in 2010, hardly anyone has used them for research.  I bet you will not do it either:


By Edwin Smith - Carroll County Conservative - September 13, 1990

Gayle Dean Wardlow of Meridian, the first Mississippian to conduct research on pre-World War II blues music in the state, has donated his collection of audiotaped interviews, photographs and notes to the University of Mississippi Blues Archive.

This collection is representative of almost 30 years spent tracing the musical and family backgrounds of some of Mississippi's most popular black blues musicians during the 1920's and '30s.

Wardlow, co-author with Stephen Calt of "King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton," personally delivered a portion of the materials in early August. He has expressed a commitment to give additional research work to the archive, which is part of the University's J.D. Williams Library.

"I've enjoyed a good association with Walter (Liniger, blues researcher at Ole Miss) and the Blues Archive over the past few years," said Wardlow. "I'm just awed that they would want it. I wanted the work I've done to stay in Mississippi and I know that by donating it to the archive, it's in the right place."

Liniger said the recent contribution is the culmination of three years of negotiations for Wardlow's collection.

"Many times, the best collections of field work done in blues research are not turned over to libraries or archives but kept by the researchers themselves. Often we have found collections stored in places where they deteriorate and, for all practical purposes, are lost to the rest of the world," said Liniger.

"This is why, when I discovered Gayle had such an extensive collection, I suggested that he place it in the Blues Archive. We're more than pleased that this rare information, which he shared with other well-known academics who used the in-formation in their own articles and theories, will now be properly preserved for the benefit of blues researchers everywhere," he added.

Wardlow's blues research evolved largely from his personal obsession with the music and its musicians. An avid record collector, he possesses more than 3,000 78 r.p.m. recordings made by early blues musicians shortly after the turn of the century. Artists by whom he has records and who have been subjects of his research include Patton, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Ishmon Bracey, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Son House.

"I always had a big interest in folk music. At first it was hillbilly and country music, but as Mississippi blues emerged at the forefront of international music, I was drawn to it," said Wardlow.

Once he started buying the records, Wardlow became interested in finding out all he could about the lives of the artists themselves. The task was not easy, considering that the artists themselves and most of the people who knew them were dead.

Wardlow credits H.C. Speir, a Jackson record store owner who recorded many of the early Mississippi blues artists right in his store, as having been most helpful in gathering leads to the artists' whereabouts.

"I basically knocked on doors, asking people if they knew the musician or anything about him or her. I took along the recordings to help jog people's memories during the inter-views," he said. "I was also the first researcher to use death certificates of blues musicians as a means of gaining vital information about them."

Another obstacle to Wardlow's research was the tension between the races during the late 1950's and '60s. "Blacks I tried to talk to were very suspicious of a white man corning into their communities asking personal questions. Usually I would have to talk to them several times before they would trust me and allow me to tape our interviews. I was even run out of town a couple of times, but that never stopped me.

The taped interviews from which Wardlow wrote his book provide the listener with personal information usually not given by other blues researchers. Wardlow said he deliberately wrote his manuscripts in a non-academic manner --a move which he says caused his book to be rejected three times before a publisher (Rock Chapel Press) agreed to print it in 1988. Since its release, more than 2,500 copies of the work have been sold worldwide.

"Obviously I didn't write the book for the money even though I'm pleased that it has sold relatively well," said Wardlow. "The most important thing about it is I wanted to a Mississippian to write about Mississippi blues musicians. It's nice to know that more and more Mississippians are recognizing the value of our state's rich black folk music heritage."


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