Amy Elliott Bragg

Amy Elliott Bragg, preservationist and writer, discusses her relationship to Detroit music, Preservation Detroit, and her favorite Detroit music venue.

Carleton Gholz: This is #RecordDET, Record Detroit, this is the Detroit Sound Conservancy. My name is Carleton Gholz. I’m the Executive Director and Founder of the Detroit Sound Conservancy. We have with us tonight, Amy Elliot Bragg for the second interview of the night. Our first interview was Cully Sommers from the Detroit Public Library. And so we started off with a librarian and now we have a preservationist and I actually need the questions back. 

Amy Elliott Bragg: Sorry. 

That’s okay. It’s fine. I should memorize them by now.  I should have it all figured out. But Amy, why don’t you start us off and get us a little mic check here. Briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music. I’ll be interested in hearing what you say.  

The pride that you have your whole life in being from Detroit and, being able to kind of call home that legacy of Motown.

Bragg: My name is Amy Elliott Bragg, you already introduced me. I am the President of the Board of Directors of Preservation Detroit. I’m also an independent historian and writer about Detroit’s history, specifically in Detroit’s pre-automotive history. That is anything from 1901 and earlier. So, pretty broad, but, yeah, my relationship to Detroit music, I guess is that I’m from the area. I grew up in Farmington Hills. And, like a lot of kids who grew up in the suburbs, I kind of had a fascination with Detroit an attraction to Detroit for my whole life, because it was dangerous and far away and mysterious and my parents wouldn’t let me go there. So, you know, Detroit music was I guess a part of that experience and the part of the pride that you have your whole life in being from Detroit and, being able to kind of call home that legacy of Motown.  

Bragg: Of course, as you get older you realize that it’s not just Motown. It was part of coming of age in Detroit for me as well.  I was 17 when the White Stripes were like a big thing and like getting into the White Stripes and realizing that the White Stripes were part of this whole other scene of Detroit music was really exciting. I went to that show that they did at the DIA. 

Gholz: I was there as well. 

Bragg: It was a pretty great show. I haven’t seen them since. It felt like I haven’t needed to because I got into that show for a dollar and it was awesome. So yeah, I guess that’s it.  

Gholz: You went too fast, but that was great. What was the first Detroit record that you remember hearing? What was it? How did you hear it, and what’d you think?  

Bragg: I guess that’s a little bit of a tough question. Because I guess that the first Detroit records that I heard were all like Motown singles. Of course grew up listening to the oldies station. And when I was in my, like preteen and teen years, I was like, “Oldies,  that music is horrible and I need to like listen to what the cool kids are listening to.” And I think everybody goes through that and then eventually realizes that, all of that music is really great. And all of the pop music you listened to when you were 14 was not really great. And I loved Motown music and it took me a long time to realize that that music was actually, really, really great. I think I was in college when I started to kind of getting back into old soul music and down the alleyways of music that was a little more obscure than just the top 40 Motown hits that you heard on the radio when you were growing up.  

Bragg: And what did I think. I loved it. It was great. What’s not to love? 

Gholz: Where would you have gotten your first White Stripes? The assumption is a CD probably. 

Bragg: Yeah.

Gholz: So where would you have gotten that? Maybe you could tell that story?  

Bragg: Oh gosh. I don’t remember where I got it. Probably if I had to guess, I would say I got it either at Harmony House.

Gholz: At Orchard Lake. 

Bragg: and, well I went to the downtown Farmington, the downtown Farmington Harmony House off of Grand River. Or you know, I did a lot of CD shopping at the Borders music store. The one in Novi Town Center was my high school hangout and where I went to buy CDs, like a teenager from the suburbs [laughs]. 

Gholz: Novi Town Center represent. This is good. Motown is known the world over as we’ve just described. And we talked about before, describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention from your listening. Obviously the White Stripes have gotten a lot of attention, so maybe something else much.  

Bragg: Yeah, probably too much attention. I don’t really listen to the White Stripes anymore. I mean, I’m not into it. Well I, so as I mentioned the history that I’m into, that how I got into Detroit history was by getting into the Detroit history that nobody talks about. Everybody thinks that suburbs were created magically out of nothing. And that’s where we all grew up until we realized that it was horrible. And that’s not real history. That’s just, you know, mythology and I wanted to get deeper and to better understand that narrative, but also what happened in the 200 years before Henry Ford invented the automobile.  

I think that Detroit music did not start with Berry Gordy in his duplex and nor did Detroit history start with Henry Ford.

Bragg: You can’t see on the recording I’m doing air quotes. So I think that there are a lot of stories of Detroit music that are part of that as well. I think that Detroit music did not start with Berry Gordy in his  duplex and nor did Detroit history start with Henry Ford. I think that I’m interested in the pre-recorded music of Detroit and, you know, Detroit’s like the pre-ragtime music,  the Theodore Finney band and the Fred Stone band. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. 

Gholz: Say more!

Bragg: Oh well, Theodore Finney was a band leader. He came to Detroit I think in the 1850s. He was really just the most popular bandleader of his day. He was African American, and he was playing like kind of post-marching band music, but pre-ragtime music.  

Bragg: So still kind of introducing the syncopated beat. But, maintaining some of that more classical like brass, brass and drum sound. From what I understand, I’ve not heard any of his music. But he was known as kind of the, I read a newspaper article from the 1920s that called him the, “the grandfather of colored music in Detroit,” quoting from the newspaper, not using non-PC language. So Theodore Finney had a number of band leaders in his group, including Fred Stone. And Fred Stone went on to form his own ragtime orchestra after Theodore Finney died. Theodore Finney died in 1899. I love this story. He was riding his bicycle down the street and he was a violin player. He had his violin strapped around his back like, you know, wearing it like a backpack.  

Bragg: And he was carrying an armful of sheet music and he had a heart attack and he fell off his bike and his sheet music flew everywhere and he like, the story goes, stumbled over to some steps, the steps of a nearby bank building and just died in the middle of the street. Which happened a lot in those days. But yeah, when he died, Fred Stone kind of carried on his legacy. Fred Stone had a brother too, so sometimes they perform together as the Stone Brothers. But Fred Stone, was one of the most popular band leaders of his day. He was a favorite of Henry Ford. Henry Ford invited the Fred Stone band to play a lot of his high society events. Of course, Henry Ford being a lover of music and dancing as well. 

Gholz: Yes he was. 

Bragg: Fred Stone was beloved of the Ford family and he, Fred Stone wouldn’t have been here without Theodore Finney. So those are the kinds of stories that I think are less told and less appreciated in Detroit music history. 

Gholz: We have to talk after this about the fact that those materials are probably, the assumption is in the Hackley collection. 

Bragg: They are, 

Gholz: They are, well there you go. 

Bragg: Fred stone. I . . . 

Gholz: Here, say more please. 

Bragg: So far, I know this because I’ve looked up, I’ve done a little bit of very early research about, a lot of other people know a lot more about Fred Stone than I do, but, he, I have looked up in the Hackley Collection. Thank you to the beautiful digital collection that’s now available.

Gholz: Yes.

Bragg: I have looked up some of his sheet music and  there is sheet music that was written by Fred Stone in the Hackley collection published by Jerome Remick of course. 

Gholz: I am currently also the president of the Friends of the Hackley Board, so I should have known that. And so I’m so happy to learn something about something I’m supposed to know. But that’s great. That’s absolutely fantastic. 

Bragg: We’re all here to learn. 

Gholz: We’re all here to learn. Absolutely. 

Gholz: Talk a little bit about, Preservation Detroit, obviously want to give you opportunity to vet that and you know, why do you think it’s important obviously to save our architectural history, but specifically in terms of musical terms, I know that you have written an op-ed that was published by the Detroit Free Press about The National. So anything you want to say about Preservation Detroit, what you put, what you guys are doing right now and anything you want to say about architecture and sound.

Preservation Detroit’s mission is to promote and protect Detroit’s historic architecture and its cultural history as well

Bragg: Sure. So,  Preservation Detroit is Detroit’s oldest and largest historic Preservation advocacy organization. We were founded in 1975, so next year we will celebrate our 40th anniversary, which is very exciting. Preservation Detroit’s mission is to promote and protect Detroit’s historic architecture and its cultural history as well. So it’s not just about pretty buildings, but it’s about the neighborhoods and the streetscapes and the built environment that makes Detroit what it is. And we have a lot of really exciting stuff going on. You mentioned The National, The National has been kind of on our watch list for, you know, ever. But we’ve intensified efforts to kind of educate the public about The National. The National Theater is Detroit’s oldest existing theater building. It was built in 1911 by Albert Kahn. Few people realize that it’s an Albert Kahn.  


Bragg: It’s one of Kahn’s earlier designs. It’s also one of his only existing if not the only existing Albert Kahn theater building. So it’s really important and, you know, it’s, Detroit has a tremendous architectural legacy in the performing arts. It also just has a general like scene in the performing arts that’s really important. The National was a pre-cinema movie theater or was it, it was a theater theater where people performed on stage. It was a famous burlesque theater. And it kind of predates cinematic history in Detroit. And music is part of that as well. I think that, you know, I got into Preservation a little bit by accident and it’s because I have been a sort of historian and researcher and writer. And when I was approached by Preservation Detroit to get involved, I thought, well, I’m not, I don’t really know anything about buildings.  

The best way to preserve the history that I am interested in and that I want people to know more about  is to play a part in preserving the structures that tell that story.

Bragg: I don’t know anything about architecture. I can’t tell you the difference between architectural styles. I think architecture is great. It’s important. I think that people should advocate for it, but it’s not my thing. And I was kind of sold a pitch that you know, the best way to preserve the history that I am interested in and that I want people to know more about  is to play a part in preserving the structures that tell that story. And, you know, that’s really true. And I’ve found that to be true. One of the first things that, I did when I was first getting into history and research was think to myself like, Oh, where was that and how, you know, is it still there? Can I go see it? Can I stand in front of it?  

When you’re talking about venues where people performed, where the sound actually reverberated within a space, that’s really powerful to think about and to imagine that’s part of the way that we experience that history.

Bragg: Can I experience it personally? A lot of people who know me know that I have a thing for cemeteries, but it’s part of that same experience because if I read about somebody’s life and the work and the, you know, what they contributed to the city, I want to go see them and stand in front of them and kind of pay my respects. So it’s part of that same thing. And I think with sound especially when you’re talking about venues where people performed, where the sound actually reverberated within a space, that’s really powerful, to think about and to imagine that’s part of the way that we experience that history. I’ll never forget the first time I went to the Motown Museum, which is when I was way too old. I can’t believe nobody ever took me there  

It’s so important to me to be able to preserve those experiences for people in the future

Bragg: when I was a young person. I moved back to Detroit after living in Wisconsin for a few years. My now husband and I went together on one of our first dates, just standing in Studio A where they’re kind of like, this is where it all happened and you’re standing next to the piano. And of course they make it a very emotional experience for you cause they pump in the music and the songs that you love and know and have heard all your life when you’re standing in that room. It’s really moving. I definitely was brought to tears, just thinking about all of the people who’ve sat in that room and played the piano. And, even though we found out later, it wasn’t the same piano. But that’s another story. It’s so important to me to be able to preserve those experiences for people in the future.  

One of the challenges is recognizing the value of what we have

Gholz: What are some of the, it seems unlimitless what you could do in a place like Detroit, just from the surface. You know there are still buildings here. There’s clearly things that are not absolutely new, even here in Capitol Park that you might change or you might save or you might whatever. So what are the challenges? Or you can call it opportunities if you want to, but you know, what are the challenges in the 21st century for Detroit,  10, 15, 20, 30 years down the line to be that kind of place where anyone can see, “Oh, Detroit, you know, they really care about their history, their preservation,” et cetera.  

Bragg: It’s fair to call them challenges. They really are challenges there, you know, there is opportunity in that challenge, but it’s a really, really hard job to be very honest about it. You know, one of the challenges is recognizing the value of what we have. I think like a lot of other cities Detroiters get caught in this trap of, you know, well, that’s we’re very focused on condition, right? So we’re like, wow, that building is falling apart so nobody must want it and they haven’t wanted it for all this time, so it must not be worth anything to anybody and we’re better off tearing it down. We get obsessed with like, I think it comes from this kind of Midwestern you know, it’s very cliche to talk about  the Midwestern chip on the shoulder, but, you know, I think we’ve for too long have felt that we can’t have nice things in Detroit.  

Bragg: So when somebody wants to build a nice thing, like, I dunno, for example, a new hockey arena, people are like, “Oh, that’s so exciting. That’s great. That’s great. Yeah. I mean, it’s cool that he wants to tear down a bunch of buildings to do that because it’s a new hockey arena and that’s really great. It’ll bring jobs, will bring tourists. It will bring excitement. I’ll bring economic investment to the city.” And when you raise your hand and say, I’m sorry, there are some things we need to think through before, not even saying that a new hockey arena isn’t a good idea. I think it probably is. When you even raise your hand and say, I’m sorry, but we have to think about the buildings that are already there. The people that are already there, the experience that we already have created in that neighborhood.  

Bragg: You immediately get kind of shot down as somebody who’s standing in the way of progress and excitement and something new and, how could you say that about the Iliches they’ve done so much for the city? Like you, we hear that less than we used to I think, but it’s something that we still need to overcome. Obviously Detroit is a city on the rebound and there’s a lot of really exciting stuff happening here. I think we’re seeing more investment in historic preservation in the downtown area than we’ve ever seen before. Which is great. But I think we still have economic issues, somebody has got to buy the building and take care of it if it’s going to be saved. And that’s, you know, resources are still an issue.  

Bragg: I think even Capitol Park is, we’ve seen, slow development, some development. You know, a lot of these buildings are in very good hands, but we haven’t really seen them turn the corner quite yet. So it’ll take time and patience and I think it’s going to take foresight and that’s something that when you’re thinking in the long, long view about preservation is really important. And also often overlooked. Even I am guilty of looking at buildings that were built in the seventies or the eighties, and just thinking, “God, that building is so ugly. Oh, it’s so ugly.” But people thought that in the seventies when they were looking at buildings that were built in the 20s, and they were saying, “Oh, these buildings are so old that rickety, they look like my grandma’s house.”  

Bragg: “can’t we just get rid of this and build something new and modern and beautiful, why do we have to keep up these musty old structures,” which now we see as incredibly beautiful and valuable. So we tore down the Ford Auditorium a couple of years ago. That was tough. I think a lot of people looked at it and were like, what’s so special at that building? It’s really ugly. The acoustics are bad. That was something that we heard a lot as if that was a, like a valid reason to tear down sort of an icon of downtown Detroit. It was in the way of our beautiful riverfront vista, whatever. I think there was a lack of foresight when we looked at that building and we said, “I don’t know, it’s kind of ugly,” I think that in 30 years, people will be like, “Why did you tear that down, again? That was an incredible landmark of modern architecture. And you just couldn’t see it”. But that’s hard. You know,  

Gholz: What’s a recent, maybe you can describe a recent win. I know. I’m thinking about specifically the when I was not here yet. I was still away and I just came home and you were running around the city with the apps and you were, so I don’t know. I mean, just describe a win or something that you’re, maybe some digital stuff that you’re working on, whatever it is, that it’s recent that maybe points to, what you’re going to be doing for the next two, four, or five, 10 years.  

Assuming you want to be doing this for that amount of time. 

Bragg: So I don’t know about me personally. Maybe. Well, we’ll see. I think, I’m really both excited by and frightened by, the urgency and the momentum that’s happening in the city around blight and blight mitigation. So something that you are probably aware of that we’ve worked on this year in partnership with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. They led this effort actually and we were really lucky to partner with them on it. But we had the opportunity to participate in a historic resource survey early this year. The idea was that the Motor City Mapping Project had this really ambitious plan to survey every single parcel in the city. But the survey was basically about condition and occupancy, right? Is it vacant, does somebody live there? Is it a blighted, yes or no?  

Bragg: Tear it down, yes or no. And we felt like an important layer that was missing from that was architectural integrity and preservation priority, right? So it might be blighted and a little bit fire-damaged and nobody might be living there. But it might be a really remarkable example of the specific architectural character of that neighborhood. And we looked specifically at districts that are eligible historic districts because designated historic districts basically were protected from any federal blight funding, but eligible historic districts were not. And we felt it was really important to capture some data about whether or not buildings had architectural integrity and were important to the character of their neighborhoods. And we sent out about 60 volunteers over the course of two weeks in the middle of January during the worst winter of everyone’s remembered life.  


Bragg: And we sent people out into the field and they drove up and down the ice covered, snowy, dangerous streets with smartphone apps provided to us by a group called Local Data. And they entered data that mapped over the Motor City Mapping parcel survey about, the condition of houses, not the condition, but the integrity and the con and the sort of preservation character of houses in these neighborhoods. And I’m really proud of that. And we built really strong partnerships with the Land Bank, with the Blight Task Force, with Motor City Mapping. And we believe that data will be used to help inform decisions when people are looking at whether or not to demolish properties in these neighborhoods. I also said I was frightened by this. This process is moving incredibly quickly and I think that the thinking, which is not necessarily bad is that we need to take care of this issue in our neighborhoods right away.  

Bragg: And we’ve had a lot of deliberation, which has led to a lot of degradation in our neighborhoods. And people are sick of blight on their streets and I don’t blame them. And I think that it’s important to tackle that in full force. But I do think that we have to be thoughtful about what we’re losing when we do that. And what we’re going to do with all of those vacant lots, which are not necessarily better than, vacant structures. So I’m excited about that. It’s a great partnership effort. It’s a great technology effort. And I think that we have the opportunity to do more things like that in the future. But yeah, the time is now. So.  

Gholz: And we’ve talked about this a little bit, the Sound Conservancy would love to do a very similar kind of thing for the music structures and we’ll talk more about that, but maybe you could just give us some, we have a question here. Advise us. What should……the Sound Conservancy is only a couple years old. We just did this oral history project. We’re just sort of getting on our feet. We don’t have the 1975 history yet. 

Bragg: You don’t need it. 

Gholz: But what should the DSC be concentrating on most in the coming years, do you think? What would be how should we prioritize as we move forward?  

Bragg: Raise a bunch of money. [laughs] It’s really hard to do things. Speaking from experience as the leader of a nonprofit organization when you have no resources. But besides that I have been, I’m not saying this to flatter you, I’m really impressed with your efforts to date and the energy and the excitement that you’re bringing to this cause. And I think you’re filling a space in Detroit that we didn’t even know we needed filled until you came along to help us work on that. So kudos to you and everything you’ve done so far. I guess for me personally, I think your greatest value as an organization could be in sharing the variety and diversity of stories in Detroit about Detroit music. I think that like, this is a pointed question that you asked on purpose.  

Bragg: We all know about Motown. We all have our little niche excitements about Detroit history whether it’s techno or really underground hip-hop music or whatever. And I think that that’s all great, but there’s so much more, there’s so much richness to the history of music in Detroit and there are so many stories that people are just like don’t even realize are part of the musical history of the city. And I think that if you can share those stories and get people excited about those stories everything else will fall from that. I think that people, you know, we see that in preservation a lot too. Like people look at a building and they say, “Oh, I don’t, what’s so special about this? It’s not really that pretty, it’s not really that big. It’s not even really that old. Like what’s the point?” And when you’re able to tell the story about that building and the reason why that building is important to the wider context of history in Detroit, people are like, “Oh yeah, that’s great. Why would you tear that down.” If only I could tell more people this story and share that story more widely. I think that if you can do that with music history, you’ll be well positioned to pursue whatever other goals you have.  

Gholz: Is The National going to be standing in five years?  

Bragg: I think so, yeah, I actually do. Maybe not all of it, but I have….maybe it’s naive. I don’t know. I have some confidence that The National will stand at least in part. You know, we’ve been having a lot of kind of back channel conversations about the fate of The National. I don’t think anybody wants to see it gone. Its current owner is just sitting on it. I don’t think he wants to tear it down. The city does not want the current owner to own it anymore because the city doesn’t want to see it torn down. And there are plenty of potential buyers that the city of Detroit thinks it might interest in buying The National. And I don’t know that the chances are good that any of those buyers want to tear The National down either.  


Bragg: I think the biggest concern with The National, is its structural integrity, everybody I’ve talked to has basically agreed that the interior is, has been laying laid to waste pretty thoroughly. But you know, that facade is one of the most striking features of our downtown environment. And I think as more people spend time downtown, work downtown, live downtown, I think it’s impossible not to notice that building. And I don’t think most people are looking at that building and saying, “Oh, I’d really would like that to go away.” I think people are looking at that and saying, “what a wasted asset. Like why isn’t anybody capitalizing on this right now?” So  

Gholz: One last one last question. There have been a couple of signs and I don’t mean to pull this as a punch, but there’s been a couple of signs that have makeshift signs like Wurlitzer and The National, and I know that, I’ll post some and then Dan Austin will say that the information is not right here, 

Bragg: Of course

Gholz: but they’re really kind of fantastic. They’re sort of makeshift historical markers and historic marker process, very long, very difficult and kind of 

Bragg: Expensive 

Gholz: And sort of broken a little bit. And so I just wonder if you, I don’t know if you don’t have to out the person if you know them, whoever’s doing it, but if you just sort of comment on those, they’re so fantastic.  

Bragg: I love those. And, misinformation on those signs aside, I think they’re great. I have no idea who’s doing them. I think they’re brilliant. We have talked about co-opting that idea and spreading it across the city to other properties that we also think have stories that deserve to be told. So look out for that. But yeah, right now we’re not behind it. We don’t know who is.  I think they’re delightful. I hope it’s like a little 12 year old kid who just loves architecture so much, and they just want everybody else to love it too. That’s my dream vision of where, where those signs are coming from. 

Gholz: Amy Elliott Bragg, thank you so much for being with us on Record.  We’ll see you soon. 

Bragg: Yeah. Thank you. 

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