“I figured I’d be there for a year,” he recalls. But listening to the concerts there night after night, he soon realized, “I have to make copies of these shows. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
So he began asking performers for permission to tape. Most, but not all, said yes. “I remember when Joe Heaney [the famed Irish traditional singer] came to the Ark. He said, ‘I don’t want any tape recorders. Nobody can tape.’ And I said, ‘fine.’ So, we didn’t tape the show. And when I was driving him to the airport, he said, ‘Did you tape the show?’ I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, you said nobody could tape.’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t mean you!'”
Siglin continued asking, and performers “said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ Well, we [Siglin and his wife, Linda, who ran the Ark with him] never left, and I just kept doing it.” He saved every recording he made, though occasionally he would tape over a show to record another performance, “If the show had been … you know … bad. There were not very many of those.”
At one point, in 1995, much of the collection was nearly destroyed. The tapes were in boxes in the basement of the Siglins’ home when their water heater broke and flooded the basement. All the reel-to-reel tapes were soaked, along with many of the cassettes.
Luckily, he had a restoration connection through Grace Morand of the Chenille Sisters: “Her husband, Tom Hogarth, worked as a conservator at the university,” Siglin says. “He took all those tapes, they dried them off, gave them back to me, and he said, ‘Now these can only be played once. After that, the drop-off will be enormous.’
“I never stopped recording shows,” says Siglin. “I was making these recordings to listen to later on, and of course I never thought, ‘How am I ever going to listen to all these recordings? It would take the rest of my life!'”
Siglin’s plan to manage the Ark for one year turned into forty, and by the time he retired in 2008, he’d accumulated more than 350 reel-to-reel tapes, plus somewhere between 1,100 and 1,200 cassettes, totaling well over 3,000 hours of music from more than 1,600 shows.
Because many of the performers in the early days of the Ark were traditional musicians with few or no recordings, the tapes preserved their work for posterity. Later, when the Ark began also featuring singer-songwriters, who did have recordings, the tapes captured their live shows, introductions, anecdotes, and interactions with their audiences. Because the Ark booked a veritable who’s who of folk musicians, the collection preserves a unique take on the growth and development of American roots and folk music over a period of more than three decades.
In 2009, Siglin donated all the tapes, cassettes, photos, posters, monthly schedule postcards, and other Ark material to the U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. His goal was then, and continues to be, to have the entire collection digitized and made available as an online resource for scholars, students, and fans of the music. “These tapes are a history,” says Siglin. “And I think that’s very important.”
In 2010 the Siglin Music Preservation Fund was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to raise funds to complete the Ark Legacy Project. Since then, a pilot program has been initiated, with U-M School of Information students working under the direction of Prof. Paul Conway. The project has already had multiple phases, including graduate class projects, an Mcubed interdisciplinary project, a REMS summer project, and a doctoral student research project.
To date about sixty reel-to-reel tapes have been digitized–and as Hogarth promised, all survived the transition. Samples are already available on arklegacyproject.org, along with photos of performers and links to articles about its history. Musician Annie Capps designed and maintains the site and is continuing to upload music to it.
To finish the rest and do all the other work to complete the project, Siglin estimates the fund will need to raise at least $70,000. “We have not approached any major donors yet,” he says. “We’re about to go into that phase.”
“This project is going to be a treasure for all music enthusiasts, performers, music historians, and audiences,” says Kate Whitaker, longtime Ark board member and treasurer of the Siglin Fund.
“I loved watching other people perform and do great, and I loved watching the audience enjoy it,” says Siglin, now seventy-nine. “And that’s what it’s all about. It’s the music.”