Walking Through Music History at the Briscoe Center’s Latest Exhibit

From now through December, guests who walk into the exhibition area at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History are greeted by the iconic voice of Elvis Presley singing “That’s Alright Mama” playing from a speaker overhead. Blown-up iconic images of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Barbara Smith Conrad, BM ’59, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, line the entrance walls and each of the King’s quick strums propels guests back in time as they start their journey through music history 

At first, it can be hard to find a common thread between the memorabilia on display. In one corner, there is a handwritten letter hanging in a glass case between members of the band Faces, and screens to access recordings of “jam sessions” between the likes of Dylan and Cash. In another, there are Smith Conrad’s marked-up sheet music and Frank Zappa’s gig contract. But there’s a method to the madness. Every piece in the exhibit, which opened in May, has either an explicit connection to the university and Austin, or has developed one since arriving at the center. Smith Conrad was one of the first African-American undergraduates admitted to UT in 1956, whereas Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan’s son donated his belongings after a middle-aged McLagan decided to live in Texas, while recognizing the center’s impressive collection.  

“That’s what the Briscoe does, it cultivates established friendships and creates new ones,” says Briscoe Associate Director for Communications Ben Wright. “It’s not so much a story as it is a showcase of resources. The point is always research, to get folks in the reading room, so in that sense we almost sort of shy away from a strict sort of chronology.”  

The result is that the exhibit, which runs until Dec. 14, creates snapshots of what life was like for these artists during their time in Austin, for a brief moment as they played a show, or for longer, as they retreated from national stardom—or headed toward it. Painted by J. Anthony Wills and donated to the university in 1964, a portrait of John A. Lomax shows the well-dressed, famous folklorist in a three-piece suit and top hat, smoking a cigar. His likeness oversees anyone who comes to look at his life’s work and greatest passion—the preservation of American musical culture.  

Lomax’s recordings, equipment, and writings are a large part of the exhibit. While his musical conservation fits the theme, his specialization was American ballads. His musical fascination began at a young age with cowboy songs, which he writes about in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads that sits on display nearby. He personally recorded and transcribed sounds of herding cowboys and tenant farmers, along with residents of the Ozarks and, more famously, prisons. His musical work offers students, visitors, and experts a view of the music and culture of his lifetime and its intermixed origins, UT English professor Coleman Hutchison says.   

“Music is fundamentally an expressive form, and it’s also fundamentally an infectious form, something that people use to give voice to their experiences, their struggles, their frustrations, their joys,” he says. “Everyone from historians to anthropologists to cognitive scientists agree that there has always been something fundamental about music in the human experience.”  

Born in Mississippi, Lomax grew up in Texas. He ultimately found his way to The University of Texas at Austin, where he worked as secretary to the president. He also became the founder and editor of the Alcalde, and worked alongside then-UT physics professor C.P. Boner to refine his recording equipment. He was prolific, particularly in the 1930s and early 1940s, when he became an honorary curator of the Archive of American 
Folk Song, now American Folklife Center, at the Library of Congress. Lomax is a major player in the field of American music, a reputation he gained after he moved to Austin. A similar story holds true for another music legend on display that every Texan knows well: Willie Nelson.   

After a long-standing relationship with the late Darrell Royal and attorney Joe Jamail, BA ’50, JD ’53, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, Nelson donated many of his personal belongings to the Briscoe Center in 2013. His gifts include his Country Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award, a Farm Aid concert poster, and Gene Autry’s custom Lucchese boots, given to him by Autry’s widow, Ina. They convey not only the image of the icon, but also the lifestyle and culture of the times Nelson has lived through.  

“It’s the amalgamation of various traditions and interests,” Wright says. “There was a confluence of the hippie culture and the country culture. Nelson was both attracted to that and a co-creator of that scene.”  

Other big personalities on display in the exhibit include Bruce Springsteen, back in the days when he’d gear up in a leather jacket, curls flattened under large headphones, maybe warming up, before his first gig at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1974.  

There are many images of artists at the armory-turned-music venue, spanning from its opening in 1970 to its closing in 1980. During his 1975 concert at the Armadillo, Zappa ended his set with immortal words: “Goodnight, Austin, Texas, wherever you are!” The exhibition showcases the prime of the style and freedom of many artists, but also the ebbs and flows of music in general. An image of the Armadillo’s farewell billboard, displays a sobering reality to what the Austin music scene was then, and where it is now. At the bottom of the picture lies a variation of Zappa’s words: “Thankx [sic] Austin Tejas, wherever you went!”  

This nonlinear progression of musical success is also a characteristic the center wanted to capture. “That’s why it’s called ‘Greatest Hits.’ These are their treasures, off the archive,” Wright says. “The thing with a greatest hits album is that behind every hit there’s an album, there’s a B-side. We wanted to show the breadth of the collection.”  

Austin was a place for big-time and upcoming artists to grow a fanbase. Venues like the Armadillo, Vulcan Gas Company, and Antone’s were taking chances on upcoming, sometimes experimental musicians of the time, as is seen in clips from the documentary Janis Joplin Slept Here, on video display in the center. Joplin played with a group, the Waller Creek Boys, at Threadgill’s as early as the 1960s, and although she grew a large following, she played along many others who simply wanted to make music.  

“By the late ’60s we had the Vulcan Gas Company, a rock and blues emporium down on Congress, that lasted until the ’70s, and the Armadillo opened, then Soap Creek Saloon, in ’75 Antone’s, so you’re seeing a real flowering of venues in Austin,” says music archivist John Wheat. “That was characteristic of Austin, so was bringing people to Austin like The Flatlanders, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie. People coming to Austin after hearing what the music scene was—that just flowered during the decade.”  

Although the landscape of music has changed in Austin, these venues represent the opportunity for artists at any juncture and some are still in operation today. With a proposal by the Austin Music Commission and a vote at City Hall in 1991, Austin adopted the slogan, “Live Music Capital of the World,” given the number of venues in Austin per capita. Whether that title still holds up is unclear. Wheat says the events and venues pages of the Austin Chronicle and the collection display the current, large “live music” presence.  

“Musicians come and go, venues close and open, and so I think everyone who cares about live music understands that it’s an ephemeral experience,” Hutchison says. “What’s amazing is the Briscoe has these recordings that show the ephemerality.”  

Photograph courtesy of the Briscoe Center.


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment