What's Behind the Grammy Foundation's Preservation Grant to Appalshop?

Back in 2013, I dissed the propensity of the Grammys for giving awards to less-than-compelling musical artists. I've felt guilty about it every since.

My burden is even heavier in light of the Grammy Foundation's latest round of great philanthropic work. It awarded a $10,000 grant to the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Appalshop, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary arts and education center, to preserve and digitize original recordings of its Seedtime on the Cumberland summer music festivals from 1987 to 2000.

Appalshop's predicament probably sounds familiar to other nonprofits attempting to preserve original recordings. Archivists have to wade through roomfuls of analog cassettes. Some tapes are marked, others not so much. What's on them is anybody's guess.

Art, as we all know, is a subjective thing, but experts can agree that certain recordings are more valuable than others. And Appalshop's tapes contain artistically relevant music. Situated in the heart of Appalachia, Appalshop's festivals included some of the region's foremost bluegrass and old-time music performers, including Etta Baker, Hazel Dickens and Jean Ritchie.

The recordings represent "the earliest generation recordings of these performances," according to Appalshop archivist Caroline Rubens. "They are so valuable."

Appalshop's situation is common, yet not every under-staffed music education nonprofit drowning in boxes gets a useful grant from the Grammy Foundation. What did they bring to the table?

First, in my estimation, they effectively articulated the intrinsic artistic value of this material. If the tapes were to deteriorate so much that this rich, local music was lost forever, that would be a bad thing, and the Grammy Foundation agreed.

Secondly, there's the sheer quantity of material. "There's about 60 or 70 tapes that we will be preserving, which comes to about 120 hours of material," said Rubens.

Lastly, Appalshop has a plan that prioritizes the preservation of material deemed to be the most at risk. The organization has recordings in obsolete formats that are no longer playable in the 21st century, so the first order of business is "to identify which formats are most in danger and are no longer able to be digitized." These undesirables will be discarded, freeing up archivists to focus on material than can be salvaged.

The grant proves that there is more to the Grammys than handing out awards to, say, Carlos Santana, who, in my opinion, hasn't been artistically relevant since the late 1960s. So again, if you're out there, Grammys, I apologize. Oh, and if Carlos Santana is reading, I'd also like to apologize to him as well.

Sorry, Carlos.