Founded in 1990 as a non-profit documentary collective, the Austin Blues Family Tree (ABFT) was conceived as an oral history project intended to capture a vanishing, but distinct cultural community in East Austin, Texas. Harold McMillan, a University of Texas graduate with an MA in American Civilization, recognized the need to create, as well as preserve, documentation about the lives and work of African American blues/jazz/gospel musicians in Austin. These individuals not only helped develop the unique sound of Austin blues, but also nurtured young white musicians, newly awakened to the music long familiar to segregated Texas black communities. Most of the now elderly (or deceased) musicians who were introduced into the Austin scene in the late 1940s-early 1950s drew on the influence of pianists/singers such as Grey Ghost, Robert Shaw and Dr., Hep Cat, legendary Texas blues guitarists T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins, country blues and gospel styles, and the touring territory jazz dance bands, connecting local musical roots to a distinct community-Black East Austin.
In Austin's Jim Crow past, the social segregation that relegated most African Americans to East Austin neighborhoods also spawned a community with strong cultural institutions, two colleges, commerce and a lively nightlife. In its heyday, the 11th-12th Street Corridor was indeed the home of Austin's most lively music scene. With desegregation, also came the gradual disintegration of the cultural core of Black East Austin, hence the obliteration of the East Side music scene. Unfortunately many of Austin's pioneering blues and jazz artists never found sufficient work or acknowledgement once the music scene moved west of Interstate Highway 35 (the Tracks). And, because the legacy of this creative community was rarely documented in the popular press or by scholars, histories of Austin-the Live Music Capital of the World-seldom acknowledge Austin's true community of jazz and blues pioneers.
The Austin Blues Family Tree Project seeks to address this scarcity of documentation, to increase awareness and to celebrate East Austin's African American musical roots. By systematically taping and collecting live performances of local blues and jazz artists, and by recording well planned interviews with musicians and their agents, the organization hopes to provide a more complete and compelling report on the rise and fall of the East Austin music scene. At a time when the remnants of the community are further besieged by gentrification and real estate development pressures, DiverseArts has taken on the challenge of fortifying Austin's African American musical legacy with our effort to reaffirm Central East Austin as the birth place of Austin's blues and jazz scene.
The production/collection phase of the BFT was during the decade of the 1990s as a series of annual African American History Month Concerts were staged specifically as a means to create a documentary trail of performances and oral histories of significant members of Austin's aging blues, jazz, and gospel musicians. Those concerts, along with selected Clarksville Jazz Festival performances and isolated club dates, constitute the bulk of photographs, audio-and videotaped materials of the archive. The collection currently includes interview transcriptions, hundreds of photo-negatives, and the production books, contracts, and administrative records of the decade of productions.
The current work of the Project focuses on the analogue-to-digital conversion of collected materials in preparation for broad dissemination through the WWW, a series of commercially available archival CD/DVD releases, and other activities to make the collection more accessible to the public.
The broad mission of the Blues Family Tree Project is to foster and sustain broad public appreciation and knowledge of the richness/significance of the musical traditions born in African American culture; and to actively engage in all aspects/facets of work to support in Austin the creation, performance, documentation/preservation, and dissemination of traditional African American musical culture.
Although valuable for scholarship in various fields including ethnomusicology history of African American culture and blues music, the collection is intended to allow the average citizen to explore the vibrancy of the historical East Austin music community and discover the relationships that connect this history to the music and careers of nationally recognized musicians such as Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan, W.C. Clark, Bill Campbell, the Fabulous T-Birds, Angela Strehli, and others. In combination with local collections, and those of Dallas and Houston, the Austin Blues Family Tree provides an unequaled and irreplaceable, resource to anyone interested in the music of Texas and blues in general.
Presently the ABFT collection consist of 150 hours of live performance recordings and 25 hours of oral histories including approximately 500 pages of transcripts from the interviews; an extensive photographic collection; and a 30-minute documentary titled Austin Texas: East Side Blues.