Krysta Ryzewski: #RecordDet Interview

Carlton Gholz:   This is Record Detroit. This is November 17th, 2014 at Urban Bean Coffee House in downtown Detroit off of Capitol Park. And tonight’s first interview is with Krista Ryzewski from Wayne State University Anthropology Department. She’s an Archeologist. And we’ll get right to it. Krista, thanks for coming. 

Krista Ryzewski: Thanks for having me. Carlton. 

Gholz: Briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Ryzewski: I am a Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State. I’m an Archeologist, but my focus in Archeology is not really the ancient Romans or Egyptians like one would think most Archeologists do if you’re not familiar with what it is we study. My focus is on the historical period in the United States and most specifically urban centers. So my interest is really in how urban centers form and how different kind of social groups come together to make and live in cities. 

My relationship to Detroit music is very much focused on the tangible remains of Detroit’s music history

Gholz: For instance. 

Ryzewski: For instance I mean I can, do you want me to talk about it?  [laugh] Maybe we will…

Gholz: Let’s come back. Let’s come back to it. What was the first Detroit record you remember hearing? What was it? How did you hear it? And what’d you think?  

Ryzewski: I would say that’s a tough question, but it’s actually a humiliating question. This is a super embarrassing question and I’m not sure if I need this to be permanently archived with the Detroit Sound Conservancy because the first Detroit music based album I remember hearing was in the first grade when we had to perform a Motown medley for our talent show and our class and our teachers dressed up as California Raisins and sang, “I Heard It Through the Grape Vine”. So that’s humiliating. But it was like a California Raisin mixed tape that had all Motown songs on it. Never going to live that day. So embarrassing.  

Gholz: I think most people have answered Motown, so I think that that’s totally appropriate based on what we’ve had so far. What was the first or best? It could be Detroit live music, but you wouldn’t have to, but maybe something you’ve seen here. So what was the best live music performance you remember hearing? Who was it, where was it? Who’d you go with? What do you think, best live concert experience here? If it’s a local group, great. But at least something you saw here.  

Ryzewski: That’s a tough one because

 I’m a total music junky, so I go to as many live performances as I can. 

Ryzewski: Can I tell you two? 

Gholz: Sure.

Ryzewski: Okay. One that really for me puts Detroit music on the map was this past summer, a Concert of Colors when Wayne Kramer and Melvin Davis played together. So you had the guitarist from MC5 playing with the Godfather of Northern Soul. And I feel like you don’t see that in a lot of cities. You see different genres and music separated, separate, and not really speaking with each other. But here they were totally kind of interdigitated and the crowd received them well. They played off of each other fantastically. And that to me it was something totally unique performance wise.

 I also saw Pat Lewis play last year. She was a backup singer for Aretha Franklin and others and she’s actually hugely famous over in the UK. And I’m not especially a huge Motown fan, but she was phenomenally talented and her voice was a testimony to all these sort of undocumented vocalists and talents who don’t really get the limelight. In music history in Detroit, the backup singers in the vocalist inspiration…

Gholz:  Where was that?

Ryzewski:  That was at St Andrews Hall The Shelter is that in the basement venues called I was in The Shelter. 

Gholz:  Motown….. this is, this works really well with the next question. Motown is known around you know, known around the world. Describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention. 

Ryzewski: Well, this is totally biased from my own perspective as an archeologist and one aspect that I have Detroit music history that I wish got more attention where the places of music making and those go hand in hand with the places of places…a lot of times of music consumption. But not always because places and music making can be people’s homes. It can be studios, they can be performance spaces, they can be music schools, they can be the hallways of apartment buildings. But a lot of these places are seminole landmarks in Detroit and people new to the city and old to this city, recognize them and feel a connection with these places because they feel a connection to the music. So there’s this weird kind of tension between buildings that are meant to last and music that maybe isn’t meant to last at least popular music when it’s first conceived of, but there’s so many of these places in Detroit and they kind of elude the tourist maps and the bus tours that circle the city these days and the bike rides that begin and end  at important bars or landmarks.  And I’d like to see more attention paid to these places.  

Gholz: Yeah, I think that leads really well into, you know, the music archeology class and what we were trying to do with the local Wiki and all of that. So maybe you could just talk broadly about that class and anything you want to say about that, that seems to be right. Great. Connected to that. So…

We archeologists are concerned with kind of the spatial layout of a phenomenon, a city, the music making spaces.  We’re concerned with not just one period in time, but how a place changes over time. So there’s the kind of horizontal and the vertical dimensions of music making. And I think archeology speaks of the tangible, the material, the stuff, the things. And so we’re trying to weave these all together.


Ryzewski:   So last spring 2014, I taught an upper level undergraduate and graduate level seminar called Urban Archeology. And I’m involved in a lot of what we call digital humanities projects right now. So trying to make history and archeology accessible and mobile so that you can be walking around or riding a bike or even sitting in the comfort of your home and you can take a virtual tour of parts of Detroit or parts of another city. And so we thought it would be fun to kind of trial run this virtual tour by focusing on music making places and from an archeological perspective. And I think that’s important that you know, the listeners out there understand what this perspective is. Cause it’s not just about artifacts. We archeologists are concerned, concerned with kind of the spatial layout of a phenomenon, a city, the music making spaces.  We’re concerned with not just one period in time, but how a place changes over time. So there’s the kind of horizontal and the vertical dimensions of music making. And I think archeology speaks of the tangible, the material, the stuff, the things. And so we’re trying to weave these all together. And so we chose these music making polices as our entry point for different stories. And we essentially created these YouTube videos that can be loaded into a geo storytelling platform and you can go on your iPhone and download the story. It’s geo located so you might be passing by the Grandy Ballroom or the Vanity Ballroom and you can get a little alert and up comes the story. And this is a prototype, this something, this is something that has legs and is funded at a broader level, digital storytelling project by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  So it’s a seed project right now, but if people like it, we’d like to add to the music layer. So anyway we picked 24 different places in Detroit and each group of students focused on four places and those four places were bundled around a genre of music. And these are somewhat superficial divisions, but they served as entry points. So, for example, since we are talking about Motown we picked four places that had genuine historical connections to each other but were very different in character. So they’re kind of an assemblage of different music making places. So of course you have Hitsville USA, but then you also have Berry Gordy’s mansion in Boston Edison, and you can’t have one without the other. You know, the ideas that are being fed into the music writing at Hitsville are being made at these parties that Berry Gordy’s house in Boston Edison.  But then you also have within that package, the Brewster Douglas,  Homes where a number of the artists and backup singers and musicians were living at the time. Then you also have the Donovan Building, which is now gone. It was torn down to make way for a parking lot and when the Superbowl was in town. So all of these places are linked to each other. So that gives us a kind of spatial layout of music making in the city. And it’s a kind of example of the nature of Detroit’s industry. Very different. Very kind of eclectic. You have recording studios that are houses, single family houses, right? And you see that at Hitsville, you see it at United Sound, you have apartment buildings where artists are getting forming groups and getting to know each other. You have regular business buildings and you have kind of domestic dwellings as well.  So, in a nutshell, we created 24 of these stories and it was a quick rapid fire, two-minute videos resulted. They’re, you know, in teaching any class, you have examples that are very strong and examples that could use some improvement, but these are all available on YouTube right now. You can go to ‘Making Music in Detroit’ or ‘Urban Archeology Detroit’ and view some of them. And like I said, archeologists care a lot about the change in time over time in particular places. So we actually looked at Detroit’s music making history not just at one period like Motown period or the techno period, the periods that it’s probably most well known for. But going back all the way to the late 19th century when Detroit was actually known to be a hub of instrument manufacturing. So we have the Wurlitzer Building and the Grinnell Piano Warehouse and the Cornell Piano Store. And the neat thing is all of these places have deep roots. Like you look at the Paradise Theater, early jazz venue in Paradise Valley later converted to the DSO, symphony hall. So Grandy Ballroom was 1920s era you know, ballroom, big band, jazz venue later converted into a rock venue. You said these places just don’t have one identity, they have lots of different identities, but the digital stories were kind of an entry point into telling some of those stories. So, it’s worth mentioning that I was kind of nervous about creating these two minute stories and giving the impression that we were trying to set the record straight about these places. We weren’t trying to create a grand narrative for them. We were trying to open a conversation and I was kind of looking, thinking hard about what can we do with these next, what can happen next and maybe I shouldn’t talk about this anymore.  Maybe this was a one off class project and then someone asked me about it over the summer. And I realized of the 24 sites that we’d looked at, three were already gone. They’d been demolished, or they’d been heavily damaged and they were irreparable. So, the Brewsters came down, east town had a fire and the roof collapsed. And then there are others that are still abandoned like Bluebird Inn. And so, yeah, I mean, these places need to be captured and at least recorded in some way that people can still experience them and visit them, even if it’s just virtually. So that’s our archeological contribution, I think to it. 


Gholz:  This is a time to plug next year’s conference,  Detroit Music Conference will be held at the Detroit Public Library on May 22nd, 2015 Friday at Memorial Day Weekend. And it’s, the concept right now is ‘The Place of Michigan, The Sound that Shaped America’. And the concept is to embrace not just Detroit music, but Michigan music overall and its impact on the modern soundscape. It’s very much about places and sound and music. And so I very much take inspiration from your words here. In your expert opinion, Krista  to being all over the world and the country what is unique about the things you see in these archeologically and in your research, but also in these classes, what’s unique about Detroit and what’s similar to other places? Like what are the similarities in terms of archeology that are the same?  That from your research or you know, Providence or whatever other places you are, and then what’s really, what’s different, what’s, does that make sense as a question?

Ryzewski: In terms of the history of the city?  

Gholz:   Yeah. In terms of just things that you find, you know, that you’re like, Oh, and that’s different than what you would find in another place. Or in what ways are we very similar to other places? Same problems, same issues, same materials. You know,  

One of the things to me that stands out most about Detroit is the kind of rhythm that continues in the city.

 Ryzewski:   I mean, Detroit has a lot of the same urban issues as a lot of other cities. I think the main difference here is that it’s on a different scale and the city compared to cities back out East is massive, huge… a 139 square miles. So when we think of a kind of an urban core even just a regular functioning city, Detroit is one of these cities multiplied seven and eight times over. You can fit New York and Boston and San Francisco well within the confines of the boundaries of Detroit and have room leftover. So you really just can’t essentially Detroit and say, this is Detroit. This is what it’s like to be here. This is what, you know, the cause of today’s situations are Detroit is unique in its scale. And I think archeologically, I mean, the material culture is not so different, especially when you’re talking historically because you know, we’re the era of industrial revolution and mass production, which a lot of it comes from Detroit spread worldwide.  So you see fingerprints from Detroit everywhere whether it’s automobile parts or other, other indicators from the 19th century pieces of stoves or the lumber industry or other things that they are manufacturing here. So I think one of the, one of the things to me that stands out most about Detroit is the kind of rhythm that continues in the city. Once you’re here and you get to know the city  you really get to kind of feel the soul of the city and something that everybody appreciates and respect, respects there is music, whether it’s Detroit, may music or other music, but it seems be a part of every conversation, every party, every line dance, every after hours, a good time. You know, everybody has a strong opinion about good music here and everybody has good taste in music. And I cannot say that for a lot of other cities I’ve been in, not just pandering.  

Gholz: Okay. I understand Before we get, we have sort of a final two questions where you give us some advice, but are you planning on continuing the class? It sounds from basically what you said, it sounds like you are instead of what’s the next step?  I mean it’s, you know, yeah. What’s the next step with that, those kinds of words. What’s your next sort of Detroit music-based thing?  

Ryzewski: Yeah. What can we expect? I mean, I teach the class every other year. I don’t know that I’ll do this exercise with that class again. That’s because we have this digital storytelling project that’s funded by the NEH and it involves several different departments at Wayne State, anthropology, modern languages, technologies, the technology center. And that’s ongoing now that that’s been, that got funded during this class. And so we are essentially creating the structure for creating these digital storytelling like videos and geo locational tours. So we’re creating the structure and the storyboard framework so that users can upload their own videos and create their own stories and kind of contribute to the database, for the project. The project is called ethnic layers of Detroit and within those ethnic layers of Detroit, we will be telling stories of music, stories of food, stories of culture, stories of places. So all of those kind of weave together to tell a story of placemaking in Detroit where music is an important part, but it’s not the only part. So ELD, you can check us out online. So that’s going on for the next 18 months and it’s happening now. So music will definitely play a role in those stories.  

Cultural heritage

Ryzewski: And how was it working with the local Wiki Ed <inaudible> from Ann Arbor Wiki was one of our guest speakers last week and I know your students use the Wiki. What was that experience like? Would you recommend that to other groups or teachers or students or anybody else or, yeah, just anything about the Wiki.  

Ryzewski: Yeah, I mean Wikis are a great tool for teaching and a great tool for kind of instruction in the classroom. Getting students and teaching them to write for public audiences and public consumption and in nonacademic language is a super important skill that they need to take into the world after they graduate. So that’s invaluable. But also the ability to comment and edit other people’s contributions in a constructive way, is something that you don’t usually get to train to do if you’re just writing research papers. So I would definitely recommend integration of Wikis into classroom based projects. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That’s a great resource.  

Gholz:  What do you think we lose if we do not? I mean, I think we were already hearing the answers already, but I’ll just give you one more strike at it. What do you think we lose if we do not preserve Detroit’s musical history? So you were saying already that some of these buildings have gone down. What’s the consequence of that for you? What are the stakes for you? 

Ryzewski: Yeah, I struggle with that question because are we trying to preserve the sound or the place that made the sound or the place where we heard that sound? You know, what exactly are we trying to preserve here? All of that? Some of it? The tangible, the intangible, you know, and when we talk about in archeology, when we talk about heritage, cultural heritage, we’re talking about tangible remains, landmarks and buildings and artifacts. But we’re also talking about intangible heritage, the songs, the dances, the performances. So I think what’s important is we need to strike a balance between the two and that we’re aware that with one comes the other. So while it’s wonderful to push to remember buildings, for what they once were, whether or not we can preserve them as an issue for the preservationists, we don’t want to do that at the expense of forgetting about the oral history archives and the musicians who are aging but still alive and have memories to share or the records collections that people have. So for me it would be striking a balance and maybe promoting more awareness about the resources we have at our fingertips and the ways in which we can kind of make them accessible to people who maybe can’t come to Detroit, can’t get here, want to visit Detroit virtually,  or want to be here and do, you know, more or less archeological field work in the city and go exploring these places and seeing them firsthand. It makes a difference for people to witness where history and music was made, I think. Yeah. Yeah.  

Gholz:  Our last question is since we’re only two years old, we’re young, you’ve come to some of our sort of advising meetings and quotes over the time.  Advise us on what should we be doing and concentrating on as we move as we move forward in the coming years for the Sound Conservancy, what advice would you give us as an organization?  


Ryzewski:  I think you’re already doing a lot of it in terms of creating a broad base of stakeholders in the community and identifying who the people are who are having these conversations and who are kind of stewards for the past and present of Detroit’s music history and creating collaborations and alliances with these folks and listening to what they have to say, but also contributing the group’s expertise to kind of initiatives to preserve Detroit’s sound and history. And I think that the conference that you guys have designed is top notch and that’s one of the best ways to get the word out and to involve communities locally and from a distance. And there’s huge interest. I’d tell you whenever I travel for work and I’m in conferences in Europe and the Caribbean and elsewhere I say I’m from Detroit and people are always like, Oh, what’s that? Like, you know, kind of tongue in cheek, but also really curiously. And you know, after they get over the kind of news media portrayals of Detroit, they want to talk about Detroit music and they want to learn more about it. And you know, depending on geographically where we’re located, it’s a different genre of music. But that’s something that’s a language everybody speaks. And I think the DSC is the dictionary and the translator to that language.  

Gholz: I love it when people give us our own slogans. It’s [laugh], we’re going to sign this release form and make sure we own that. This is the Detroit Sound Conservancy. Thank you Krista Ryzewski. We really appreciate you coming in tonight and we’ll talk soon.  

Ryzewski: Excellent. Thank you. Carlton. 

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