The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds.

Detroit's Blue Bird Inn was one of the city's most prominent jazz venues from 1938 to the 1970s (image from Carelton Gholz)

Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn was one of the city’s most prominent jazz venues from 1938 to the 1970s (image from Carelton Gholz)

The fate of those contemporary musical landscapes is not simply a reflection of fickle tastes and unpredictable profits; instead, it is a testament to transformations wrought by postwar urban renewal, industrial collapse, suburbanization, and assorted other processes that have engineered cityscapes and reached well outside musical spaces alone.  Music landscapes have been preserved in many places:  Memphis’ Beale Street declined significantly in the 1960’s, but it never really disappeared; New Orleans’ Bourbon Street may be one the city’s most famous landmarks; and Austin, Texas’ musical scene is spread into pockets that cover the city and include virtually every musical oeuvre.  However, beyond a handful of tourist-friendly reconstructions, abandoned and declining musical communities hold an especially compelling—and wholly archaeological–mechanism to critically interpret American history.  That musical heritage is dealt a significant challenge by continuing urban decline and the reality that many Black and working-class communities have been erased by postwar spatial projects, left in ruins, or are facing the wrecking ball.

An undated image of Indiana Avenue commercial buildings after their decline (image Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Archives).

An undated image of Indiana Avenue commercial buildings (500 block) after their decline (image Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Archives).

Indianapolis, Indiana’s musical history is routinely told with reference to Indiana Avenue, where African-American musicians began to congregate in significant numbers around the turn of the 20th century.  The network of clubs on the Avenue is persistently heralded as a show of cultural resilience, and the rich world along the Avenue does say quite a lot about persistent African-American cultural traditions.  However, concluding the narrative at that point risks disingenuously ignoring music’s essential role in a local Black economy common to most 20th-century African-American communities; that is, music risks being reduced to an abstracted art and detached from a complex material and social world profoundly shaped by racism.

The Hindel Building, with the Walker Theatre in the background (Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library).

The Hindel Building, with the Walker Theatre in the background (Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library).

Music spaces along the Avenue were simply one dimension of a segregated economy that delivered essential goods, leisure, and professional services to African Americans who once lived all around Indiana Avenue.  That everyday Black economy collapsed after World War II as urban renewal projects depopulated the area, the interstate sliced through its heart, and disinterested municipal administrators let the community’s infrastructure—utility services, local schools, pollution management—collapse.  The Madame Walker Theatre sits on Indiana Avenue today and quietly provides musical offerings, but the remainder of the Avenue has been almost universally uprooted.  Visits to clubs like the Sunset Terrace (which opened on Christmas Eve 1937), The Oriental Café (advertised in 1938 as “Bronzeville’s Swankiest Nitery”), or The Mitchellyne are today pilgrimages to parking lots or undistinguished postwar architecture.

There is absolutely nothing about that Indianapolis history that is unique, one of many musical spaces and leisure districts razed alongside the communities from which musicians came and the business places that served the area.  Such narratives are not unique to predominately Black communities, but postwar urban engineers clearly took aim on African-American neighborhoods that had themselves been created by racist urban management.

Detroit's National Theater (image form Alfred Jameson).

Detroit’s National Theater (image from Andrew Jameson).

Ironically, perhaps, contemporary planners and cultural heritage policy makers seem eager to celebrate African-American music history, and Indiana Avenue is now one of the city’s six cultural districts, pinning much of its claim to fame on its jazz heritage.  However, there is nearly nothing to actually see representing the neighborhood’s musical heritage, with its clubs long-ago razed.  Tellingly, the national embrace of jazz, blues, and early rock is not mirrored by an equally energetic hip hop preservation movement, which is simultaneously being unceremoniously dismantled in many places (there are archival and educational organizations like the Hip Hop Culture Center and Cornell University’s Hip Hop Collection, but most of this good work is about hip hop culture and not hip hop place).  Hip hop and rap are perhaps living traditions rooted in contested landscapes, so they may not be sufficiently distanced to neutralize their threat; when they are eventually domesticated by consumer culture their landscape may well be gone or in ruins.  Much musical innovation occurs on social and spatial fringes that were already under fire by municipal planners and optimistic realty investors, so the claim for a noteworthy musical heritage may be insufficient to save these places.  The modest and often-unpleasant clubs that incubated garage bands or launched genres like punk were in many cases makeshift spaces and short-lived, financially unstable enterprises that instantly declined, and raves and much electronic music has been the province of utterly transitory spaces; much of this musical landscape and performance space was intentionally ephemeral.  Through the sober lens of heritage planning, the cost of saving small clubs or deteriorating housing projects may well be prohibitive and inspire little interest; some local communities may desire the blank slate that demolition and new construction promises.

The Vanity Ballroom in Detroit (image Albert duce).

The Vanity Ballroom in Detroit (image Albert duce).

Nevertheless, there is a compelling case to be made for a contemporary archaeology of musical landscapes and heritage that might reach beyond performance spaces alone to churches, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods where musicians’ experiences were rooted and where they honed their crafts.  John Schofield has perhaps led this charge, with studies of musical landscape in Cold War Berlin (in Brett Lashua, Karl Spracklin, and Stephen Wagg’s 2014 edited collection on place and music, Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place, and Globalization), his edited 2014 World Archaeology collection “The Archaeology of Sound and Music,” and a study with Brett Lashua and Sara Cohen of alternative musical histories in Liverpool.  He has been joined by Paul Graves-Brown, whose 2012 “Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End” provides a detailed dissection of the relationship between place, musical heritage, the surviving musical landscape in London (in The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past).

Sex Pistols graffiti (from Paul Graves-Brown, in The Guardian).

Sex Pistols graffiti (from Paul Graves-Brown, in The Guardian).

In a widely reported 2011 study, Graves-Brown and Schofield examined the heritage implications of a London flat adorned with 1975 Sex Pistols graffiti.  The straightforward and often-lewd marker art and the notion of celebrating punk history falls outside conventional aesthetic and heritage standards, and in the project’s widespread popular press some observers were predictably contemptuous, such as Jonathan Jones’ Guardian commentary dismissing the project as “clichéd dumbness.”  Nevertheless, the graffiti has been preserved nearly four decades because a series of residents valued punk’s historical moment and its material history, regardless of dominant notions of historicity, and the public attention for the project confirms the widespread fascination with such relatively recent music histories.

The Detroit Sound Conservancy may provide a model for an ambitious musical heritage project that includes an oral historical project, blog, and sound landmarks preservation program, with the latter including a thorough analysis of the endangered musical landmarks in the city.  Detroit stands in a somewhat distinctive position, marshalling a rich musical history while simultaneously confronting a dramatic decline that has left numerous musical landmarks under fire.  United Sound Systems, for instance, is a recording studio that since 1940 has hosted John Lee Hooker, Bob Seger, and Parliament Funkadelic, but it is now under threat from interstate widening; the Vanity Ballroom, a 1929 Mesoamerican-themed big band dance hall that began to cater to rock acts in the 1970’s, including Detroit staples MC5 and The Stooges, began a long vacancy in the 1980s and stands empty today; and the National Theatre is one of Detroit’s last vaudeville houses, an exceptionally distinctive Albert Kahn design that opened in 1911 but is today a shell.

The Grande Ballroom interior, 2010 (image Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom interior, 2010 (image Albert duce).

Among the best-known of Detroit’s now-declining musical spaces is the Grande Ballroom, a 1928 dance hall that between 1966 and 1972 hosted many of rock’s most prominent groups, including locals like MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges and their frontman Iggy Pop, and Alice Cooper as well bands including the Who, Cream, and Led Zeppelin (see Motor City Archives’ Grande Ballroom play list).  The documentary “Louder than Love – The Grande Ballroom Story” tells the story of the hall that is sometimes referred to locally as a rock Mecca, but it today has a hole in its roof (compare this 2013 urbex video).

There are myriad ways to conduct such projects.  Students in Wayne State’s Urban Archaeology Detroit program, for instance, produced videos on many of these Detroit landmarks for the Making Music in Detroit project.  The musical landscapes included the Grande, Hitsville USA, the Brewster Douglass Projects, the Blue Bird Inn jazz club, the “Motown Mansion” (Motown Record founder Berry Gordy’s home between 1967 and 2002), the Eastown Theater, and United Sound Systems (the project’s You Tube page has links to more case studies).

Eastown Theater, Detroi (image from memories_by_mike)

Eastown Theater, Detroit (image from memories_by_mike)

An archaeology of musical landscapes is perhaps ambitious, but it might start by simply illuminating the prominence of musical performance spaces and recognizing their place in everyday life.  Music itself is a transitory expression, and it may seem to leave few material “fingerprints,” but it is hard to conceive of a historical narrative of musically rich places like Indianapolis and Detroit that ignores music.  It seems impossible to examine the heritage of 20th century youth cultures without examining the centrality of music, and now many of those musical experiences have become historical landscapes in ruins or on the precipice of ruination.  The contemporary fascination with places like Indiana Avenue and the Grande Ballroom is fueled by the prominence of music in so many peoples’ experiences and landscapes, and perhaps archaeology’s focus on the quotidian remains of such experiences might fuel a genuine preservation movement focused on music heritage told in broad and ambitious terms.



Russell W. Archer

2003 If these walls could jump ‘n’ jive : a study of buildings and sites associated with jazz music in Indianapolis and Richmond, Indiana (c. 1910-1960).  Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Ball State University.


Clyde Nickerson Bolden

2009 Indiana Avenue: Black Entertainment Boulevard.  AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana.


Paul Graves-Brown

2009 Nowhere man: urban life and the virtualization of popular music. Popular Music History 4(2):220-241. (subscription access)

2011 Sex Pistols Graffiti: The End of the FutureThe Guardian 23 November.

2012 Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End. In The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past, Sarah May, Hilary Orange and Sefryn Penrose (eds). Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology 7. Archaeopress, Oxford.


Paul Graves‑Brown and John Schofield

2011 The filth and the fury: 6 Denmark Street (London) and the Sex PistolsAntiquity 85(330):1385-1401. (subscription access)


Brett Lashua, Sara Cohen, and John Schofield

2010 Popular music, mapping, and the characterization of LiverpoolPopular Music History 4(2):126-144.


Preston Lauterbach

2011 The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Norton, New York.


Lissa Fleming May

2005 Early Musical Development of Selected African American Jazz Musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940sJournal of Historical Research in Music Education 27(1):21-32. (subscription access)


John Schofield

2014 Characterizing the Cold War: Music and Memories of Berlin, 1960-1989.  In Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization, eds. Brett Lashua, Karl Spracklen, and Stephen Wagg, pp. 273-284. Palgrave Macmillan, London.


David Leander Williams

2014 Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, Legacy, and Legends of Indiana Avenue.  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.



Blue Bird Inn image from Carleton Ghloz

Eastown Theater image from memories_by_mike flick’r page

The Grande Ballroom 2009 image from Albert duce Wikimedia commons

The Grande Ballroom Interior image 2010 from Albert duce Wikimedia commons

Indiana Avenue 500 block undated image and Hindel Building image from Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library

The National Theatre 2008 image from Andrew Jameson Wikimedia commons

The Vanity Ballroom 2010 image from Albert duce Wikimedia commons


Posted on August 16, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Thankyou for a poignant piece, music will always be a trigger to remember times in our personal histories. Also, a big pat on the back for your referencing, very useful 🙂

  2. I was on Beale Street last year over the Thanksgiving holiday and happened to be there while a funeral procession was going down the street for one of the old time club owners. It was an interesting moment but also had the feel of one generation passing and left me wondering if the next one would be as celebrated. Nice post.

  3. Reblogged this on Tangled Web.

  4. Reblogged this on jenn plays recorder and commented:
    Thinking ’80s thoughts of clubbing in Northbridge (Western Australia), happy times 🙂

  5. In my youth, rural America was well-populated with dance halls, which were places that catered to families and all age groups. Dancing was a popular recreational activity. I haven’t seen a functioning dance hall pop up along a rural road in decades.

  6. Wow! I really enjoyed reading this, thank you for a great post!

  7. Their is a strong growing music scene in North West Arkansas, you should check out that community

  8. The last of the famous places in Chicago were in the process of dying out when I was a college student in the late ’70s. I haven’t come to accept the temporary nature of these things, but really, clubs don’t last forever, do they? Just have to find the new ones.

  1. Pingback: The Music of objects – Archaeology on the Frontier

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