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From Iron Butterfly to Madame Butterfly and Back Again -- Working at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Written by Jennifer (Thompson) Thomas '95, music major

Recently, alum Jennifer Thomas  found a concert set list written by Elvis himself. “It was one of the awe-inspiring moments that makes this job at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame indescribably cool,” she says. (photo by Andy Leach)

Music permeates our lives. It’s everywhere: not just on our iPods and radios and televisions but in restaurants and clubs, department stores and doctors’ offices, ceremonies and celebrations. It’s an unshakable soundtrack, running through our minds, humming in our chests, issuing from our lips, dancing on our breath. Music recalls memories—from hazy ones of riding in a car with my dad as the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” played on the cassette deck to vivid ones like the flutter of my heart upon handling John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “In My Life.” That was during my job interview at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

How did I get to work at one of the premier rock and roll research institutions? I often ask myself. Sure, music has always been important to me. Some of my strongest memories of childhood are of my dad playing guitar and singing along to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and jamming on the drum solo from Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and of my mom playing LPs of both classical and rock music, telling me how hearing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” always made her smell yellow rice—a memory from her high school soundtrack—two parts bad cafeteria food, one part jukebox.

I didn’t start out at St. Mary’s College as a music major—my plan was to do something “practical,” like environmental engineering. During my freshman year I took a world music course with Dr. Donald Boomgaarden, now dean at the College of Music and Fine Arts at Loyola University in New Orleans. From the listening selections for the course, I became completely obsessed with the Ramayana Monkey Chant (or Ketjak), an early 20th-century Balinese music drama derived from an ancient exorcism ritual called sanghjang. A combination of chant, song, and dance, it depicts the triumph of good over evil as depicted in the Hindu epic poem, the “Ramayana.” I was enthralled with this incredibly unfamiliar sonic experience—the power of the human voice alone. You hear hundreds of men in unison or layered groups percussively chanting “tjak” at varying speeds and in spiraling rhythms with overlapping sung vocal lines. But let’s say it’s also easy to understand why my friends didn’t appreciate having to listen to it on my answering machine. That clinched it for me though − there was all this music out there in the world to discover and so much to sing.

After St. Mary’s, a master of library science degree from the University of Maryland-College Park with a specialty in archives, records and information management, a master of arts degree in the humanities from Central Michigan University, and 12 years of professional experience in archives and special collections led me to my current position as head archivist at Rock Hall’s new Library and Archives.

In the planning stages since the early 1990s, the Library and Archives for the Rock Hall only recently became a reality when the Metropolitan Campus of Cuyahoga Community College offered to share its Center for the Media Arts with us. The Library and Archives will be the world’s most comprehensive repository of written and audiovisual materials relating to the history of rock and roll. In our newly-constructed 22,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility, we will collect, preserve, and provide access to these resources in order to educate people about rock and roll, its roots, and its impact on society. In May 2011, the Library and Archives will open its doors and begin serving the needs of scholars, educators, students, the media, and the general public.

As head archivist, I have set up the policies, procedures, best practices,and workflows necessary to bring in new collections, to process the collections that the Museum has stored for the past 15 years, to digitize collections for access and preservation purposes, and to preserve both analog and digital formats of archival materials for posterity. I oversee a staff of four full-time archivists and many volunteers and interns, all working to arrange, describe, and preserve thousands of boxes of archival material, including personal papers, correspondence, photographs, handwritten song lyrics, business records, contracts, press kits, posters, flyers, concert programs, articles, and newspaper clippings. The collections focus on rock and roll and its precursors (blues, R&B, gospel, and country), plus related music genres (soul, hip hop, and reggae) and subjects like the music business and popular music criticism.

The Rock Hall's new library and Archives in ClevelandFinally, the Library and Archives will provide access to never-before-seen video footage of the Rock Hall’s events and educational programming, including the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies.  

The collections of the Library and Archives include the personal and business papers of record producer and Commodore label founder Milt Gabler, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, and Warner Brothers and Reprise Records executive Mo Ostin— who together discovered many of the artists and produced much of the music that helps to define our rock and roll experience including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, the Drifters, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, James Taylor, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Pretenders, the Ramones, Madonna, Depeche Mode, and Echo and the Bunneymen. Our collections contain personal papers of artists Big Joe Turner, Jim Morrison, Rick Nelson, Art Garfunkel, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kaye, members of the Talking Heads, the Everly Brothers, Soul Asylum, and Son Volt, among many others.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s reporter John Soeder, who received a sneak peek of the facility last March, called the Library and Archives the “attic of rock ‘n’ roll heaven.” Our director Andy Leach likes to call us the “Rock and Roll Public Library” and the “Smithsonian of Rock and Roll.” The Library and Archives hopes to be all these things to all people − much as rock and roll has proved to be throughout its long and storied history.

Mine has been a singular journey, from classic rock to world music and art music and back again, from listening to music to singing it and thinking critically about its meaning and form and function to my work to preserve access to its history and context. Without the intellectual challenge and nurture I found at St. Mary’s, I might have ignored the soundtrack that has been playing in the background of my life, leading me down the “long and winding road” back to music.

Jennifer (Thompson) Thomas, an Aberdeen, Maryland native, graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 1995 with a degree in music. She is the head archivist for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives.