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Gordon McCann and Missouri State University researcher Kristene Sutliff look through McCann's 40-year collection of Ozarks folk music. The collection, comprising more than 3,000 hours of music and 200 notebooks of related information, is being digitized at MSU.
Gordon McCann and Missouri State University researcher Kristene Sutliff look through McCann's 40-year collection of Ozarks folk music. The collection, comprising more than 3,000 hours of music and 200 notebooks of related information, is being digitized at MSU.

After 5: The McCann Collection

Posted online
One Saturday night in the early 1970s, Gordon McCann headed down to Emmanuel Wood's Ozark Opry.

It wasn't a fancy affair, but it would prove to be pivotal.

The opry was in an old false-front building on the northeast corner of the Ozark square. A lone light bulb hung from the ceiling; the front window was held together with duct tape. Around the walls were a "conglomeration of couches and chairs," McCann recalls.

The heart of this gathering, the music, wasn't even in tune.

"Good Lord, you'd have five guitars and two banjos and maybe one or two mandolins and none of them really were in tune and some guys knew maybe one chord," McCann says. "No matter what key you were in, they played in the key they knew."

But such gatherings had long been part of Ozarks life for good reason. Everybody had a great time.

"They would come in from all around the hills ... and this was their Saturday night," McCann says.

That first trip to the Ozark Opry launched McCann on a journey he wouldn't have predicted.

"I started taping tunes to learn them myself. I'd come down here to the basement in the corner where my wife banished me and play those tapes and play along. And the more I did that, the more I started to realize ... nobody read music," says McCann, who plays guitar, though he, too, doesn't read music.

The notion fascinated him. The tunes had passed from musician to musician through the generations without ever having been written down.

"Then I started taping for real," he says.

Initially, he was interested in capturing only the music. "At first, by mistake, I'd leave the tape player going," he says. McCann soon realized the conversations that cropped up between songs were at least as interesting as the music - stories about the players' families and where they learned the tunes.

About 40 years and 2,800 tapes later, McCann's carefully documented collection offers a rare view into Ozarks folk life. Next spring, anyone will be able to experience it.

McCann donated his collection in 2007 to Missouri State University. Last month, Kristene Sutliff, assistant head of the English department and director of the university's Ozarks Studies Institute, was awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to fund the Gordon McCann Collection Digitization Project. The grant paid for the project equipment, which will cost $50,900. Remaining funding was provided by the university's provost, Meyer Library, the colleges of Arts and Letters and Humanities and Public Affairs, and the Ozarks Studies Institute.

The project will ensure McCann's work is preserved for future generations.

Sutliff says the collection includes more than 3,000 hours of fiddle music and 200 notebooks full of tunes, musicians' names and transcriptions of conversations.

While tapes can be an unstable medium, Sutliff says McCann's recordings are in "remarkably good shape."

In coming months, five computers will run simultaneously to digitally capture the contents of the tapes.

When the project is complete, the collection will be available free to the public.

"I think it will generate scholarship because now there's this gold mine of material that you can explore," Sutliff says. "But I think people that just enjoy this type of music or enjoy Ozarks history and culture will enjoy just browsing through this collection as well."

John Wynn Jr. has long known about McCann's collection. Wynn started playing the fiddle when he was 10 years old. By the age of 13, he was traveling to fiddling contests.

"I just remember Gordon going to every single event, every fiddle contest," Wynn says, noting McCann had his recorder with him every time. "He's got a lot of history, I mean a lot of history, there."

When Wynn learns the entire collection is being digitized and made available to the public, his reaction is succinct: "Holy cow."

"I would love to hear those," says Wynn, who plays with the Honkytonk Renovators and Fly By Night among other bands. "I was part of them and I saw him do a lot of them. I'd especially like to hear some of the early stuff."

McCann hopes his collection serves as a building block for MSU's Ozarks Studies Institute.

"I'm hoping my stuff will be kind of a kick start for it," McCann says.[[In-content Ad]]

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