From its deep roots in punk rock to a thriving jazz scene centered on Howard Street, Akron’s history can be traced through the music it has spawned over the decades.
Last year the Akron Heritage Music Project worked to tell the story of Akron’s past by connecting notable places with sounds from artists who are active today.
The project culminated in eight parts that each include a podcast, recording session, live performance, and interview with a local musician to shine a light on a particular historic site or part of Akron’s heritage.
Kevin Richards, founder and artistic director of Roots of American Musicpreviously created a similar project called the Ohio Heritage Music Project that associates an artist with a certain historical place within state borders.
Richards incorporated a lively element to the concept, bringing Clint Holley’s Serious tube mobile recording unit for capturing a musical performance on site.
After the Ohio Heritage Music Project was completed within a year, they focused on Akron and received funding from the GAR Foundation and Knight Arts Challenge to move forward with the $60,000 project.
Producing the project during a pandemic
Holley said the original idea was to go to various locations in Akron and record there, like they did with the previous project.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, all Akron Series progress was stalled. They resumed the following year, rethinking how they would fare virtually.
“We had to cram eight podcasts into eight months in 2021,” Holley said. “And so we really got into it, and it became a real team effort.”
Holley said he conducted much of the research at prominent venues around the city and will oversee live-streamed performances.
Justin Tibbsmusician and director of social media for the Roots of American Music, lined up the artists who took part in the project.
“It’s been a really amazing process to learn why musicians do what they do and what their inspiration is for so much of the music they create.”
Richards has connected with community partners.
“We all really had to do our part to make sure these things were done once a month, and it got pretty cumbersome,” Holley said.
While $35,000 of the project’s funding came from Akron’s foundations, project organizers had to find the rest on their own.
Richards said the original plan was to hold eight public concerts, one of which would be a punk-rock show in a decrepit factory to capture the courage of the 1970s. Sound of Akron.
“That all went away with COVID, so we had to move or focus out of Akron Recording Company, which is a historic building. It is an old soap factory. It’s at least 100 years old,” Richards said.
Akron Recording Company provided a space to record the virtual concerts and podcast interviews.
Tibbs said Ben Patrick, who runs the recording studio, was excited about the live streaming component of the project.
“I’m very grateful that he let us use that facility there to do all the live streams and part of the interview process there. You know, he had a great team behind him, and it went well,” Tibbs said.
He said he, Holley and Richards would bring in the musicians who participated in each episode and do a sound check at the facility.
Holley would conduct interviews in a separate part of the recording studio.
“It’s been a really amazing process to learn why musicians do what they do and what their inspiration is for so much of the music they create,” Tibbs said.
The original Ohio Heritage Music Project used the historic direct lacquer-to-nitrocellulose recording method, which explains how music was captured directly to disc in the 1920s and 1930s.
Richards and Holley took this method of recording on the road to capture stories and music from around the state.
The stories and live musical performances were turned into podcast episodes hosted by Holley.
A notable episode included retelling the history of abolitionist leaders from John Rankin House to Ripley.
tennessee musician Kiah amythystknown for her song, “Black Myself”, provided the music.
Another one episode focused on Cleveland’s 78th Street Studios and its connection to legendary comic book creator R. Crumb.
The episode’s music featured Tim Easton, Spyder Stompers, and Sugar Pie.
Akron’s project highlights the same range of historical moments and places, from the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t IA Woman” speech.
“I believe Duke Ellington stayed at the Mathews Hotel. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, all these great African American artists used to perform in this area of Howard Street in Akron.
“We made a list of, I don’t know, probably about 20 different topics,” Holley said. “And then we started to reduce it.”
Richards said the first idea he had for the Akron Heritage Music Project was the story of Howard Street and its vibrant jazz and blues scene.
“Before the freeways came in and destroyed every neighborhood, this was the place to go,” Richards said. “I believe Duke Ellington stayed at the Mathews Hotel. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, all these great African American artists used to perform in this area of Howard Street in Akron.
The result episode featured interviews with Joe Mosbrook and Theron Brownwith a performance by the Tommy Lehman Quintet.
“Tom and I worked together in the music scene for a really long time, being in the Acid Cats,” Tibbs said.
He said he was given the subject matter for each episode in advance and was tasked with finding local artists who exactly matched the theme and a specific genre of music.
“I was like, ‘I’m your man.’ I know the scene pretty well,” Tibbs said.
Tibbs is known as a prolific jazz musician in Akron, playing in bands such as JT’s Electric Blackout, The Angie Haze Project, The Speedbumps, Thieves of Joy and more.
“We tried to do something that was appropriate for each of the subjects,” Holley said. “And, you know, like the Sojourner Truth, which was one of my favorites where we did all the female singer-songwriters.”
Liz Bullock, Bethany Joy, Angie Haze and Cathalyn of The Katy were the musical guests for the episode,”Sojourner Truth – In Search of Truth.”
“We brought in these four, and we had them do like a kind of singer-songwriter,” Tibbs said. “And they also went in one round, so I think they did two or three songs each. And then at the end they did a song together… it was like a really cool episode that feels completely different from all the other ones we’ve done.
Supporting Akron Artists
Richards rates the episode “Read – Write – Route 21as a feature, as it highlights how hoards of laborers from West Virginia and Kentucky ventured to Akron to find jobs 100 years ago.
“To be able to associate that [episode] with a honky-tonk and a country band like Cory Grinder and the Playboy Scoutsyou know, it was a great match, but it just took a lot of time and thought,” Richards said.
This episode, released in September 2021, was the last in the eight-part series.
Richards said he felt good about offering the option to pay local musicians for their performances during the pandemic.
“I’m amazed at how great a team we were. Clint and I, Justin Tibbs, George Blake backstage, and everyone at Akron Recording Company. I mean, it was a lot of work, but we pulled it off,” Richards said.
Holley added that funds have also been given to Akron Recording Company, which has been hit financially by the pandemic as musicians embrace home recording or go on hiatus.
“Kevin would give the musicians a check every time they played, and sometimes they’d say, ‘This is the first time we’ve played with other human beings in a year,'” Holley said. “So that was a really good illustration of how I think this is all supposed to work, where the money really reached the people who needed it at that particular time.”
Roots of American Music hosts another series in Cleveland called raise their voiceswhich highlights artists and leaders from marginalized communities in the region.
The next Lift Their Voices concert will take place on Wednesday.
Singer and writer Kari Rutushin will perform pre-war acoustic blues, jazz, rags and pedals, alongside string artists Ray DeForest, Jack DiAlesandro and Richards.
The theme of the evening will be the immigrant populations who built subway systems in the 1900s.
Find event details and tickets at themusicsettlement.org.