Archives and Creative Process: Blues Women and Rosetta Records (2024-2025)

Background

When writer, activist and record producer Rosetta Reitz created the Rosetta Records music label in 1980, she was motivated by her conviction that the 1920s and ’30s were the only time in the history of the blues when women reigned. Her desire to reissue the songs of those women, most of whom were Black, emerged from her concern that women were being erased from the histories and music playlists that, by the 1970s, largely omitted women from discussions of the important early influencers in jazz and blues. She set out to reintroduce the public to the women who not only sang the blues, but also wrote music and lyrics and played a full range of musical instruments. During the 11 years of Rosetta Records, she produced 19 records with songs performed by 96 women.

Reitz approached Black women's mistreatment by the music industry by counting and reading. For example, she counted how many recordings by women were issued between 1920 and 1942, and then noted the absence of most of those women in popular music histories and record reissues in the latter half of the 20th century. 

In 2023, women, and especially Black women, continue not to receive acknowledgment of their influence, as evidenced by recent disparaging comments made about women and people of color by Jann Wenner, the cofounder of Rolling Stone and longtime chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and also by their disproportionately low representation among Hall of Fame inductees.

Project Description

Building on the work of the 2023-2024 team, this project team will use historical, archival, cultural and social science methods, combining close reading and listening with quantitative data and text analysis, to identify patterns in the Rosetta Reitz archival materials. This analysis will lead to an improved understanding of the circumstances that led to the “unremembering” of the Black women who were central to the blues of the 1920s and 30s. The team will build a foundation for understanding why women and musicians of color continue to be disproportionately excluded from opportunities in the music business today and possible pathways for repairing these wrongs. 

Team members will continue biographical research on 96 artists on Rosetta Records, focusing in particular on those artists for whom there has been little research done to date. The team will transcribe lyrics of digitized music tracks, engage in exploratory digital text analysis of lyrics, create and/or edit Wikipedia pages for the musicians and create blog posts and interactive timelines of artists’ lives and work to publish on the project website. 

Team members will research legal and ethical issues regarding rereleasing music, royalty payments and streaming technologies; conduct comparative research on recording reissues contemporaneous with Rosetta Records; engage with scholars and music professionals inside and outside Duke; and collaborate with Duke and community organizations with related missions (e.g., Mary Lou Williams Center, Jazz@, NCCU Jazz program) to host public listening sessions with invited experts. 

Over the course of the year, the team will draft a research paper detailing findings from their text and/or data analysis related to lyrical patterns and/or patterns concerning 1980s Blues compilation reissues. The team will then develop and submit a proposal to Pop Conference 2025 on methodologies of care in work with musical archives. All gathered data will be submitted to the Duke Research Data Repository. 

Anticipated Outputs

Team website; new and expanded Wikipedia entries for 96 musicians; repository of data about recordings and singers; digital exhibition; research papers; written narratives; text/data analyses; interactive timelines; public listening session series; connection between artists and scholars; models of reparative justice in music; conference proposal

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students with interests or backgrounds in U.S. history, music, musicology, visual studies, data analysis and visualization, text analysis, cultural anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, feminism and/or digital media. 

Undergraduate team members will gain experience in some combination of: archival and historical research, textual analysis, music analysis, visual analysis, writing for a public audience, creating effective visual images, interviewing, event production and management, creation of digital or physical exhibits, development of print and digital advocacy campaigns and preparation of multimedia research presentations. They will have the opportunity to collaborate with music industry professionals, legal researchers, leading scholars and activists involved in music archival research.

A graduate team member will be selected to serve as project manager. The project manager will have opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership and project management skills, including workflow, multimedia data management, team building and management, budget management, conflict mediation and communication. Depending on their particular area of study, they may have the opportunity to mentor data collection, analysis and presentation.

Students are encouraged, but not required, to enroll in an affiliated course in Fall 2024 – ISS/CMAC/VMS 310S: Archives As Data: Structuring Information for Humanities Scholarship – taught by Hannah Jacobs.

Timing

Fall 2024 – Spring 2025

  • Fall 2024: Start team building; perform literature review; review project work to-date; develop familiarity with archive; select albums; transcribe lyrics and listening notes; identify themes; trace copyright and legal music ID; engage with music professionals and scholars; add to annotated bibliography; take notes for group autoethnography; prepare conference proposal
  • Spring 2025: Continue research; analyze data; add to and edit Wikipedia entries; present data; host public listening sessions; store research in Duke repository

Crediting

Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

See earlier related team Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care (2023-2024).

 

Image: Mean Mothers Vinyl Album, Rosetta Records, 1980, from Duke University Libraries

Image: Mean Mothers Vinyl Album, Rosetta Records, 1980, from Duke University Libraries

Team Leaders

  • Craig Breaden, Duke Libraries
  • Margaret (Lou) Brown, Franklin Humanities Institute
  • Anne Koppes, Arts and Sciences–Music–Ph.D. Student
  • Tift Merritt, Hungry River Collective, Rosetta Circle
  • Laura Micham, Duke Libraries

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Hannah Jacobs, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies