The Soundtrack Never Stops

Music always gives us a community, a place to gather, but also it’s the music that we love. It sort of resonates in our soul, so it nurtures us in so many ways. It gives us comfort, it gives us energy. It relaxes us. It riles us up. It makes us think about important stuff going on in the world.

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss is the Curator of the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC Chapel Hill, one of the nation's foremost archives of Southern music, art, and culture. He has produced several reissues with YepRoc Records including Doc Watson, Live at Club 47, Tia Blake: Paris and Montreal Demos, and Dolly Parton's first 45rpm single "Puppy Love/Girl Left Alone." Steve's articles have appeared in No Depression and ARSC Journal.

Learn more about the Southern Folklife Collection here. 

Listen to Doc Watson Live at Club 47 "Train That Carried My Girl From Town."

Listen to John Prine perform "Paradise."

"The Soundtrack Never Stops"

Melody: Welcome to Southern Futures. I'm your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion. Today we're talking archives, music in the archives as soundtrack for our history. These preserved stories of the south help us contextualize our current moment, issues we confront today link back to those stories. At UNC, scholars believe those archive narratives often very local, allow communities to create solutions. Our guest for this episode is Steve Weiss, who preserves and shares stories. Before joining UNC, Steve applied his archival expertise at CNN News and the National Archives. He's currently the curator of the Southern Folklife collection at UNC Wilson Special Collections Library. It's one of the world's foremost Special Collections for the study of Southern music, art and culture. Hello, Steve, thank you for joining us. What does music tell us about ourselves and what does music do for us?

Steve: Hi Melody, thanks for having me. You know, music always gives us a community, a place to gather. But also, it's just, you know, the music that we love, it really just sort of resonates in our soul. So, it nurtures us in so many ways, you know, it gives us comfort, it gives us energy, it relaxes us, it riles us up. It makes us think about important stuff going on in the world, you know, and on a professional level, you know, I'm always surrounded about music and that's really been a real blessing in my life.

Melody: Well, who do you keep returning to, Steve, during this COVID quarantine, share your playlist with us?

Steve: I’ve really sort of returned back to things that just sort of give me comfort in uncertain times, right? So, favorite musicians, you know, music from different decades, which remind me of like different times, better times. And one of the things that I've been doing for a few years, which is just kind of been a personal project has been really going year-by-year to understand music in all kind of popular genres that intersect. And by doing so, in a year by year basis, and you know, really investigating all the songs that came out in that particular year, it allows you to understand a chronology in terms of what influenced something else. You know, I made these playlists, basically, for my own enjoyment and education that were about, you know, the 90s or the 80s. So, it just kind of reminds me of who I was at the time, being in college, meeting my wife, all those kinds of experiences that were just, you know, just huge in my life, and so, just a lot of really good memories. But I mean, let's see. Who are some of the artists that I'm seeing here? Well, let's see: Natalie Merchant, Cocteau Twins, Matthew Sweet, The Jayhawks, you know, the Beastie Boys, Prince, Missy Elliott. I mean, it just goes on and on. I mean, some of this stuff was stuff I was really into at the time. But the great thing about revisiting it is I've been discovering some stuff that I wasn't really familiar with at the time, which now I go back to and I'm just totally amazed by.

Melody: So, blues, bluegrass country—all of those created in the south. What would you—what is Southern music?

Steve: Well, I think Southern music is probably the most unique part of American music. And that's the part that really sort of caught fire and became sort of a global phenomenon, in terms of the enjoyment of American music, which you can find, you know, in Europe, in Asia, all over the world. Everyone seems to love those vernacular music that come from the South. And, you know, I think of Southern music as that unique combination of cultures coming in contact with each other through native people through slavery, through immigration, all these sort of unique elements came together here in America and birth, I would say, you know, the blues first and then into jazz, into popular music, you know, it just there's like an explosion of different you know, you know, as the commercial industry came along, it all became sort of genres in terms of now we think of it as blues and bluegrass and country and Cajun and zydeco, and gospel and folk and old time music and rock and roll and rockabilly and southern hip hop, all these kinds of things are, you know, are part of this. And I think that's the part that just sort of, like, you know, really caught fire in a national way, in an international way.

Melody: You’re from Maryland, is that right?

Steve: I grew up in Western Maryland, and in a small town called Cumberland, which is in the Appalachians. My dad was really into country music. But I mean, my family, you know, immigrated to the United States in the in the mid-60s from Cuba. So, I heard a lot of music, you know, just in the home that wasn't really native to the region. So, you know, I hear a lot of flamenco music. What else? Santeria—my dad had like a field recording of Santeria, so we use I really enjoyed listening to that. When I was a kid, my sisters were into the Beatles. And so, you know, that was a big influence on me. This has always been a place of diversity, it might not have always been portrayed as that type of place. But the music reveals that this has always been a place of diversity.

Melody: Steve, I want to talk about music as this form of mourning during the COVID crisis.

Steve: When I was starting to realize the enormity of it, of the situation—with losing John Prine, I mean John had been sick from cancer for a number of years and rallied through it and done a lot of really successful work and was really beloved by the community as a songwriter. I mean, originally he's from Illinois, but he was one of the most influential songwriters on American country music and he has so many songs that are extremely powerful on a lot of different levels, I mean songs, like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Sam Stone,” a song about Vietnam. A song that really hit me and the one that I've been thinking about a lot, for a number of different reasons, is the song “Paradise,” which also, like those other songs I mentioned, appears on his on his debut album from 1971. That's on Atlantic Records. The last verse really gets me for a number of different reasons, but well, I'll just read it.

"When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn
And daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill
And daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal 'til the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
And daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am
And daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away"

So, yeah, incredible song. And it makes me think about a lot of different things. It's a place that I always go back to, in my mind, as everybody I think does what their hometown to a certain degree. But yeah, so there's a really strong message in this song about the environment, even though it's done in a very subtle way. It's not a, as what Bob Dylan used to refer, to a “finger pointing song.” It's a really gentle song that he wrote for his father. And, you know, when John died, you know, the family wasn't able to have a memorial service because of COVID and the social distancing required and it was so early into, you know, what was happening in COVID and, you know, I think a lot of people are sort of creating ways to acknowledge and have some kind of ritual, where traditional rituals can't happen. I mean, sadly, this is a time that's so filled with death and mourning. I mean, those moments always really make you go back and reflect on a lot of the musicians who have passed away. And that's part of the mourning process is like, for example, you know, the drummer Jimmy Cobb died the other day, not necessarily of COVID. But, you know, it made me really think about Miles Davis, his quintet and kind of blue and spending some time with those recordings, and just putting them on and being reminded of just what an amazing band that was, what a high level of communication between the musicians. What an amazing time that was, you know, the end of the 50s, the beginning of the 60s and how jazz was changing.

Melody: Music is occupying a virtual space, and we're sharing music virtually. So, are people still able to conduct research though in the archives, given the current COVID crisis?

Steve: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the library, even though, you know, our building is closed, we're off campus, the librarians are still busy working, we're open for research. We have lots and lots of material that's digitized and online. So, we're there to help them support research. You know, with the southern folklife collection alone, we've got close to about 50,000, streaming audio-visual files that are available online.

Melody: That’s a lot of digitizing a file. It's a lot—it's a lot of work to do that.

Steve: It is, it is. I mean we've been at it for a really long time. And we've been really grateful to get support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has allowed us to sort of kick our audio-visual digitization into very high gear. We're digitizing not only the AV holdings of the Southern folklife collection, but the other special collections and Wilson Library and we're also working with partners across the state to digitize their holdings as well. So, we're working with other institutions like UNC Pembroke, Forest History Center and UNC Asheville. You know, it's just great, and it's really great to see this material get out there to the public.

Melody: These materials are available to everyone. So, if you're interested in searching the archives, visit or email Steve and his colleagues at Steve, thank you for being here and for the work you do in preserving and sharing our history. Be sure to join us for our next episode, everyone. The Southern Futures podcast is powered by the Southern Futures initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For executive producer, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, sound editor Mark Meyer, and associate producer Ellie Little, I'm your host Melody Hunter-Pillion with Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.