An Ypsilanti musician sets out to document the sounds and songs of Michigan

A version of this story originally ran in Concentrate, Metromode's sister publication covering Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

In July, a line of musicians assembled outside of a one room schoolhouse in Mancelona, Michigan, a small town in the northern Lower Peninsula. They were waiting their turn to be recorded by an Ypsilanti musician on a mission. He recorded one song from each songwriter or band in one take. 

"All I do is sit there with a piece of shit recorder and a microphone," he says. And, over the last seven months, more than 150 musicians from around Michigan have done the same in different locations for a project called The River Street Anthology.

It all began in Ypsilanti when musician and historic preservation student Matt Jones felt the urge to document the local music scene for posterity. 

"I'm obsessed with history. I'm obsessed with preservation," he says. "It's so important that things like this never die out. All of us songwriters and bands, we can't just—poof—disappear. I need to keep everybody on the books."

So he began to ask area musicians if he could record them playing one song in one take. In the span of just a few months, his vision has gone from documenting 15 Ypsilanti songwriters to a statewide, all-genres, multimedia preservation project. And The River Street Anthology, is just getting started. 

Seven months of preservation

With more than 150 musicians recorded, it's hard to believe The River Street Anthology just began in March. 

"It's absurd," says Jones. "It's really seat of the pants, and it's word of mouth. And there's a lot of groveling on my part."

Though his original intention was just to record a number of his musical friends in Ypsilanti, once other musicians heard about it, the project grew to include more then 60 southeast Michigan artists. Then, he decided The River Street Anthology shouldn't be limited by geographical location. 

So he called his music contacts around the state, and planned days to travel around, recording for a day in various cities. He'd ask those contacts to call their local contacts, and pretty soon, he had days like he did in Mancelona: musicians lined up outside, not every one really sure what the project was about, but wanting to participate all the same. 

"Most people come in and they don't know what to expect, but they have their song and they're ready to play it, and they lay it down," Jones says.

This has happened in an art gallery in Marquette, The Orpheum Theater in Hancock, among other cities. And the historic document Jones is creating is no longer limited to just audio. He's enlisted the Mostly Midwest music blog to record video of his session, writers around the state to write about the music scene in their area, local photographers (including Concentrate's own Doug Coombe) to take photos, as well as asking the musicians themselves to write about the song they chose to record. 

"Context is everything in historic preservation," says Jones. "I want as much dimension as possible."

A new appreciation

Not only has the scope of The River Street Anthology changed since it began, but undertaking the project has changed Jones himself. 

"The experience has turned me from a super wound-up, hyper critical, cynical man into somebody who can't criticize anybody anymore," he says. "It's just so fun to watch people do what they love. If you don't love it too afterwards, you're probably a sociopath."

As much fun as Jones has had recording well-known musicians, from Seth Bernard to Breathe Owl Breathe, it's the unknown artists who may have never been recorded before, that really inspire him, even though that's not what he expected. 

"I wanted to have everybody included, but I kind of learned over time what 'everybody' means," he says. "As a musician, sometimes it's hard to be objective because you're so insulated with your friends who probably play a lot like you do."

Thanks to all of the musicians he's met over the past seven months, now, when he says "everybody," he means means everybody: all ages, all genres and all areas of the state. That's why he's got his eye on some of the places in Michigan he knows the least about.

"I don't know what happens up in places like Alpena," he says. "Those could be the best places to go. It would be nice to find some complete unknowns." 

The Anthology endgame

A common question Jones gets is about what the final product of The River Street Anthology is going to be. It's a tough one to answer when he himself isn't quite sure yet. He does want to make a physical album, but now, with the huge amount of music he's accumulated, he's not quite sure how it will work. He does plan to launch a website where people can download music, as well as host a release show and have some sort of album, or several volumes of albums to release. Eventually.

"Now, it's really just a historic document," says Jones. "It's going to be released, and it's going to be put into the Library of Congress, but as far as what medium it's going to be and when it comes out, I don't know yet." 

While that ambiguity can make his explanation of The River Street Anthology to potential participants a challenge, he feels confident all the answers will make themselves clear in time.

"I just keep telling people I'll know when it's done," Jones says. "And that's a really terrible strategy, because that means it could go on for the rest of my life, but…I mean…what's so bad about that?"

For a project that seeks to preserve Michigan's music for the ages, it seems there's nothing bad about that plan at all. 

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and a project editor for its parent company, Issue Media Group.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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