On the one hand the amount of archival material we have about Sippie and the Thomas family is vast and pretty amazing. On the other there are a few significant gaps, and one of the reasons we created this website is to ask for your help.
We began with the material Ron collected during his 22 years with Sippie. He recorded hundreds of hours of performances, rehearsals, and interviews. He wrote a couple of papers about Sippie while studying ethno-musicology at Wayne State University in Detroit. And then there is “The Spiral,” a notebook in which Ron kept records of conversations with Sippie and discoveries he made along the way.
There are the notes Ron scrawled on hotel stationary after she revealed extraordinary things. There are press clippings, programs, contracts and letters. The photo archive is mind-boggling. There are videos of the interview Sippie did with David Letterman, of her comeback tour through Europe in 1966 with the American Folk Blues Festival (available on DVD but we also have the out-takes), and a film following Sippie and Bonnie Raitt as they toured. And so much more.
Some of the greatest treasures were in a trunk discovered at Sippie’s Aunt Elizabeth’s house in Detroit. It contained papers and photographs and other artifacts that survived the fire at Sippie’s brother George’s office in Chicago in the 1930’s. There are contracts and royalty statements going back to 1916. Sippie’s original 5-year contract with Okeh, signed by her and Ralph Peer in 1923. Correspondence between George and Peer, George and Clarence Williams, George and Sippie. Correspondence between Sippie and Buddy Taylor, her common-law husband in Detroit and the Guardian at the Gate Ron had to get through to get to Sippie. Buddy was a long-time Detroit DPW employee who was protecting not only Sippie but the numbers racket he ran through their house for one of the Detroit mobs.
Then there is the heroic work done by our dear departed friend Mike Montgomery, one of the greatest researchers and collectors to ever grace the planet. He copied all the papers in the trunk and organized them in three massive loose-leaf binders. He went to National Archives in Washington, D.C. and made copies of every copyright card registered by George, Sippie, and other family members, organized them in another binder, and annotated each page with any information he had about recordings. He made copies of all the lead sheets filed with the copyright applications. He collected as much of the published sheet music as he could find, along with piano rolls and, of course, the records.
We are engaged in an ongoing process of creating digital archives of this material, and of course the music tops the priority list. Thanks to Mike, who was one of the most prolific collectors of piano rolls in the world, we have high quality digital records (“files,” in the parlance of the day) of most of the piano rolls made of George’s compositions. Since piano rolls are digital documents to start with – holes in rolls of paper that either do or do not sound notes on a piano – getting high quality digital files was relatively easy (but I stress “relatively”). The rolls were simply played on a player piano (Ron has one and of course Mike had one, an upright which now occupies a reverential space in the atrium of Ron’s building in Farmington Hills, MI, with a facsimile of Hersal’s Hat perched on top) while recordings were made in real time.
Archiving high quality files of the phonograph records made by Sippie, Hersal, Hocile, and George is much more problematic. The music was captured almost a century ago in the grooves of discs and played back by dragging a needle through them. Even with the highest quality vinyl discs that are coming back into vogue today, from the very first time a needle scrapes through the grooves they begin to degrade. When you’re talking about records that are almost 100 years old made of much less forgiving material that have endured hundreds if not thousands of scraping and scratching needles and are covered with who-knows-what-from-where grit and grime while stored in less than optimal environments over the decades, well… like I said, getting the highest quality digital files is problematic.
Almost all the recordings made by Sippie and the Thomas’s have been digitized and are commercially available on CD, but we perceive several problems with them. First, in too many cases the 78’s used in the original digital transform were not in pristine condition. Second, when the analog recordings were “cleaned” to hide hiss and scratches and other imperfections, much of the ambience that gave the original acoustical recordings their character was lost. Most of this digital “cleaning” occurred many years ago when the software that executed the process was rudimentary. Today’s software is orders of magnitude better, able to remove the sounds of wear and tear while retaining much more of what was actually captured in the grooves. And finally, although there is much debate about it, CD audio is the most primitive digital quality out there.
While we have a complete digital archive of the recordings of Sippie and her siblings compiled from existent sources, our goal to supplement it with the highest quality audio possible by re-digitizing the music directly from the cleanest, clearest original 78’s we can find. WE have many of the records in our collection but many are in less than optimal shape. And this is where you can help. IF YOU ARE A COLLECTOR, OR KNOW OF A COLLECTOR, WHO MAY HAVE GOLDMINE STANDARD VG++ 78’S OF SIPPIE’S RECORDS THROUGH 1945 PLEASE CONTACT JOHN PENNEY AT TUNESAILOR@COMCAST.NET. Go to the discography page for a complete list of the records. We are not necessarily interested in purchasing these records for our archive, but rather in extracting the audio (or acquiring already extracted audio) for our archive. It is, after all, the official and authorized archive. We think it should be the best.
Thanks, and watch this space!