Internet Autobiography: History & Prehistory

This morning I attended a blogging workshop at American University (#tbdau). Sponsored by TBD, the topic was finding your blogging voice and it gave me a chance to think about this blog and its antecedents.

I first thought about writing for a living after I took some time off from graduate school to do a little self discovery on the beach in my hometown (Daytona Beach) and on a bar stool in the Oyster Pub (it’s a long story). I asked my undergrad folklore professor — I graduated from Georgia State University in 1986 with an anthropology degree — for some advice on how to get into the newspaper business and he put me in touch with colleague who taught  journalism who told me to write about what I know best.

The outcome from that conversation was an article in the Georgia State University student newspaper, The Signal, on proposed archaeological legislation that ultimately became the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

My first byline. The Georgia State University student newspaper, May 1990.

Up to that point I only knew how to make a living as an archaeologist and as a folklorist. I had worked as an archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Transportation and for consulting firms. I had also packed in two years of coursework in Penn’s now-defunct doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife and had done some work in public folklore. One of those folklore gigs was fieldwork in Arkansas, especially around the blues-rich Mississippi Delta. In Arkansas, I interviewed musicians and even recorded lunchtime blues performances on a Helena street corner. So there I was at a crossroads (pardon the blues imagery here): should I write about archaeology or blues music? I took the music route.

John Weston and Mary Matthews, Helena, Arkansas, 1988.

That was 1990 and Daytona Beach was no place for an archaeologist ditching grad school to try and break into a new line of work. So I headed back up to Atlanta where there was a thriving blues scene with bands being booked nightly in places like Blind Willie’s and plenty of mainstream and alternative newspapers and magazines. I ended up selling insurance and writing a weekly blues column for the short-lived Footnotes weekly. Most of the time, the Footnotes checks bounced and the insurance gig came in really handy for paying the bills.

ZZ Top. Biloxi Sun Herald Marquee (weekend section) cover story. April 12, 1991.

When Footnotes crashed and burned in early 1991 I was sitting on a rare interview with ZZ Top that I had done with the band in their dressing room after a Chattanooga concert. With no place for the interview to run, I fired up my old dial-up Dialog research service and found the contact numbers for features editors at daily newspapers in cities hosting the ZZ Top tour. I hit pay dirt with the Biloxi Sun-Herald, whose arts and entertainment editor agreed to take my article and pictures I shot at the Chattanooga concert. She also put me in touch with her colleagues at other Knight-Ridder papers. I soon found myself writing for the Charlotte Observer, Palm Beach Post, Wilkes Barre Times Leader, and the Atlantic City Press (covering casino lounge acts in a weekly column titled, I kid you not, “Loungin’ Around”).

My first Philadelphia Inquirer article: July 1991 interview with Tabby Thomas

Around this time I had decided to go back to Penn to finish the doctorate. Fortunately for me, the two major Philadelphia dailies were Knight-Ridder newspapers. I was able to sell my first story, an interview with Louisiana blues guitarist Tabby Thomas, to the Inquirer two months before I returned to Philly and to classes at Penn. That led to more Inquirer assignments and I began reviewing folk music concerts and writing longer features. I wrote about the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, and I covered the 1992 Pittsburgh newspaper strike by interviewing one of the town criers hired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

By 1994 I had finished my coursework, taken my comps, and broken up with a fiancé. I headed west to take a consulting job in Pittsburgh. Once in Pittsburgh, I started writing about music and other things for the Post-Gazette. I wrote about a local lawyer hunting early American forts in the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania, a woodworker and retired coal miner who once made mine sounding sticks, and a mechanic who made “muffler men” sculptures. I covered school board meetings and borough council meetings in-between interviews with musicians passing through or coming to town.

Although writing about culling deer herds in suburban areas, high school vandalism, police and fire chiefs, charitable groups’ playgrounds, and idiosyncratic artists helped pay my tuition and rent, my favorite work was interviews. Between 1990 and 1995 I had interviewed B.B. King, Carlos Santana, ZZ Top, Graham Nash, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, Kathy Mattea, Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton), Ahmet Ertegun, Sun Ra, Mark O’Connor, John Lee Hooker, and far too many sidemen and other musicians to count in one sitting. The World Wide Web was a new toy back then and I wanted to try it out by building a Website.

My first Web effort, begun in 1995, was a lame text-only outing using my Penn student account’s Web space allotment. I took the text from some of my interviews, coded them into HTML, and flung them up on the “Ziggy’s Blues” site I created and named for my overweight gray cat. (I think I may have a copy of the original files somewhere on an old HP backup tape that won’t run on any hardware or software released after 1999. This link is to a 2000 version captured in the Internet Archive.)

Ziggy’s Blues was a real surprise. I found that music writers were adding it to their lists of music sites on the Web and it ended up being cited in several published directories. Graduate students and others cited it in theses, dissertations, and research papers and I once saw a screen capture (back around 1998) on CNN. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles even quoted from my interview with John Lee Hooker in the obituary Pareles wrote after the guitarist’s 2001 death. One Chicago writer even profiled the site in a 1999 newsletter published by Buddy Guy’s nightclub. I even got an entry in one of the first journalism Websites: “Newsies on the Net.” In 1998 Tom Mangan, Newsies on the Net curator, wrote about my early effort:

That’s Doctor Rotenstein to the rest of you uneducated swine! David is a genuine PhD. folklorist who seems to make a living from it; on the side he has written about folk music and the blues for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Charlotte Observer, among others. He’s also into cultural resource management; the link will describe what that means, precisely.

Blues on the Web column. Buddy Guy’s Legends newsletter, May/June 1999, p. 26.

I used Ziggy’s Blues as a platform to learn about the Web and as a way to market myself as a consultant. I also found that the Website was a useful archive for articles published by the defunct Footnotes, Creative Loafing, and Florida’s JAM Entertainment News that likely would never find homes in any research library. Little did I know that in 2001 the Tasini v. New York Times Co. case would result in all freelancer work being pulled from online databases.

Ziggy the cat died in 2002 and I just sort abandoned his site over the following few years. The last version I edited still lives at one of my Websites.

So here I am in 2010, blogging and tweeting as Historian4Hire @DavidRotenstein, a consulting historian doing oral histories, historical research, and historic preservation work. I’m still looking for my voice and maybe one day I’ll find it. In the meantime, thank you TBD for making me part of your Community Network and for making me think a little bit about my own history.

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein

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