BEREA, Ky. (FOX 56) — When the project archivist at Berea College walks into the special collections area these days, he’s almost walking on air. He has received more than 200 boxes of documents, books, audio and video recordings, and awards. And there’s more to come.
“I have not got enough time to describe to you the scale, the importance of this archival collection,” said Peter Morphew. “Needless to say, it is immense and exciting.”
Morphew loves to comb through records, and these days, they’re coming by the boxload from one source, iconic folk singer Janis Ian.
She’s a two-time Grammy winner with a 60-year career as a singer, actress, author, and activist. She burst onto the music scene in 1965 with “Society’s Child,” a single about an interracial relationship. Ten years later, she hit the Top Ten with “At Seventeen,” a song about the trials of young social standing. She was also a musical guest on the very first Saturday Night Live episode in the fall of 1975.
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Due to a recent virus that damaged her vocal cords, Janis Ian is unable to perform, forced to cancel a concert tour just as she was up for another Grammy for Best Folk Album of 2022: “The Light at the End of the Line.” That’s given her time to gather up her life’s work and send every item to Berea College. She’s not holding anything back.
“Well, you know that’s something nobody else has done that I’m aware of,” Ian said. “And I thought if you really want to educate people about a career that’s had almost 60 years in the music industry or the arts, let them see the book contracts, let them see the movie contracts. Let them see the behind-the-scenes negotiations. So, eventually, it will all be available Every scrap, as weird as that is.”
She chose Berea College because she and her wife believed in its tuition-free model and its history of social justice. They already endow scholarships there. She just had a feeling her things would be cherished at the small school, and they are.
“I think she feels like if she put it in one of the bigger places, it would get lost,” said Dr. Lyle Roelofs, the college president. “But here she can be beside luminaries like bell hooks, but still her stuff will stand out.”
“If you compare Berea to other places I’ve been, we put way more effort into understanding our own history, keeping track of it, but also adding amazing materials as they come our way,” Roelofs said.
Ian said another factor in her selection of Berea College is its commitment to making the items easily accessible to the public. She wants students and researchers to be able to get their hands on the items, even some quirky things such as a Janis Ian action figure or handmade gifts given to her by fans. Many of the clothes she wore on stage are in the collection.
She even donated her father’s 1937 Martin D-18 guitar and wants it to be played by students and faculty members.
Chad Berry, the school’s vice president for alumni, drove that guitar to campus from Ian’s Florida home to make sure it arrived safely. He and the other leaders at the college have become big fans.
“I was taking down Grammy Awards off the wall and packing them in Bubble Wrap. Janis and I were doing these things together and I just had a ‘pinch me” moment several times,” Berry said.
The archivists believe people from all over the country will come to Berea to dig through the materials that reveal the ups and downs of a life in the spotlight.
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Tim Binkley, the head of special collections and archives, said, “The question for Berea College was, ‘Is there a place for a popular artist in your coursework and in your studies?’ And the answer in my mind has always been yes.”
Ian says she hopes students learn that you can have those ups and downs and “still feel like you’re a success even when no one else does.” She said, “I mean, I turned down Woodstock. I turned down the music for ‘The Graduate,’ and here I am, still in this business!”
It will take months to catalog this vast collection, but archivists look forward to every minute of it. The plan is to have it available for public viewing and research this fall.
“We’re going to make every effort to give visitors a really good experience here,” said Morphew.
Ian says she feels better about her decision every day.
“I can’t think of a better place to house my life’s work. I really can’t.”