Saturday, May 16, 2015

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology?

    Daniel Drezner, a Tufts professor of political science, has been writing opinion pieces in the Washington Post and elsewhere offering advice to students who seek college and university teaching careers. Professors traditionally have sustained higher education (and themselves) by reproducing their kind through professional training in graduate school, leading to the PhD degree. More broadly, music education (formal and informal) sustains music cultures from one generation to the next. Today, as I’ve remarked here before, higher education (and the professoriate), as it has existed in the US for more than a hundred years, is in jeopardy. What else should undergraduate students who’d like to become ethnomusicology professors know about the future of that profession and their chances of being a part of it? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s see what Drezner has to say. Like ethnomusicology, political science (despite having the word science in its name) falls outside of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math)  getting the most support in educational institutions these days. The non-STEM subjects aren’t as popular as they once were, not because students don't like them, but because the public believes they’re not cost-effective career preparation. In other words, students graduating with high loan debt (as so many do today) are thought best served by specializing in STEM subjects because they're more likely to get a well-paying job. It's easy to make fun of the non-STEM major who winds up repeating "Would you like that for here, or to go?"--but back in the day the argument ran that a liberal arts major was better prepared as a citizen and human being for leadership or for professional school afterward. Today that argument is no longer as effective as it once was, though it's no less true.
    In 2012 Drezner wrote a column advising would-be graduate students in political science how to tailor their preparation, applications, and behavior toward getting into the school of their choice. Evidently at that time, he must have thought a PhD was a wise choice. But his most recent columns suggest that no one should enter graduate school in political science unless (a) they’re accepted to the top graduate programs (he does not name them), because otherwise they’ll never get hired as a professor after they graduate; and (b) their primary motivation is to learn, and they won’t be too disappointed if they can never find a full-time job as a political science professor anyway. The job market for political science PhDs hasn’t suddenly soured in the last three years. It was just as sour three, ten, twenty years ago. But Drezner now seems to be discouraging those he once encouraged. At least he’s not giving them false hope. He should know: in 2006 he was fired after having been denied tenure at the University of Chicago. But he landed on his feet and accepted a tenured position at Tufts, where he is now a full professor in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as well as a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for the Washington Post.
    Thirty years earlier I was certain that I would be denied tenure. Although my PhD was in American studies and my specialization was in ethnomusicology, I had the MA in English and elected to join an English department. My first fulltime teaching job began in 1971 in a tenure-track position at Tufts, Drezner’s current university. I was teaching American literature and folklore and, after a couple of years, on released time from English I also was teaching an ethnomusicology course in the music department. Although my dissertation was published by a respectable university press, I thought my interests were peripheral to the mission of both departments. Then to my great good fortune I won a year's fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a second book project. This was a rare honor, and it came during the year of my tenure review. I realized that even if Tufts denied me, that honor would help me obtain a good academic position elsewhere. But in 1977 Tufts decided to award me tenure in a joint appointment as associate professor of English and associate professor of music. Now half my teaching load would be in each department, while I could pursue my research interests in both fields.
    The year after my NEH fellowship leave I returned to Tufts and was made Director of Graduate Studies in English. Up for debate soon afterwards, not at my initiative, was whether as a faculty we should continue our Ph.D. program in English literature. The job market for English professors had gotten much worse in the past decade (as had the chances for tenure, once hired). Our PhD graduates were not getting the multiple offers or good jobs they had been getting five years earlier; in fact, some were getting none at all, and the future looked grim. Colleges and universities, expanding in the 1960s and hiring more and more faculty, had reversed course. Was it ethically responsible for us to continue the degree? Some said no; but others argued it would be unethical to stop it because that would cheapen the degree for those who already held it. No one doubted that we had a good program; but it was not at the same level as Harvard’s and Yale’s—we didn’t have the resources, and Tufts didn’t have the reputation. We met several times to discuss the question and after a few months we voted. If I recall right, there was one more vote in favor of keeping the program than eliminating it. Predictably, those in favor took it as a vote to continue, while those opposed took it as a vote of no-confidence and argued that we should therefore drop the program. But majority ruled, the program continued, and over the years fewer and fewer graduates received academic jobs in English. At about that time, I started telling applicants not to apply unless they understood that their job prospects would be uncertain. It was a disclaimer similar to Drezner’s advice today. And now Drezner repeats it, from the same university platform, but the difference is that it’s 35 years later; and also, of course, that he’s directing it into the public sphere. And on this platform I do the same.
    I guess that the job market in political science in 1980 wasn't significantly better than in English. I suppose it’s the same today, if not worse. When I moved to Brown in 1986 to direct their Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology, though, my responsibilities were both greater and different. Now I was wholly in a music department. Like English and political science, music was experiencing contraction rather than growth in one college and university after another, but I was in a subfield (ethnomusicology) that was expanding, however gradually, in a zero-sum game. Today, with many years of hindsight, I understand that although there were better and worse periods for jobs in ethnomusicology during the past 40 years, overall the number of ethnomusicology professors greatly increased during that period, while other positions in music decreased.
    In short, the fortunes of certain subfields may improve, while others decline. In the 1980s and 1990s humanistic anthropology was in the ascendance, but today the pendulum is moving back toward scientific anthropology. Ethnomusicology has been able to profit from cultural trends that some other fields have not: pluralism and diversity, for one, and the rising popularity of world music for another. Still, the supply today well exceeds the demand for college and university professors of ethnomusicology.
    How would I advise today’s student looking to obtain a doctoral degree in ethnomusicology? I still believe that anyone wishing to enter graduate school must consider the pleasures of mastering a body of knowledge, technique, and application, as an end in itself. How much of a reward would that mastery be, apart from a good academic job (or any academic job at all)? Tenure-track faculty positions open up each year even now, but I would guess there are five times as many qualified ethnomusicologists looking as there are positions for them. And many more apply who are not qualified. Outside of colleges and universities, positions for ethnomusicologists do exist: in museums, in other non-profit organizations, NGOs, arts councils, and the like; but most of these should require only the MA, not the PhD. It’s possible, also, to take that mastery and work in the music industry, or as an author and journalist. Graduate work in ethnomusicology may be combined with a degree in library science in order to prepare for a career as a music archivist. One may become an entrepreneur in the world music field, making films and producing recordings, though of course an ethnomusicology degree is not a prerequisite. I’m not aware of any MA programs in ethnomusicology tailored for these public and private sector jobs outside of academia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in five or ten years a few enterprising universities established them.
    Drezner writes that to have any chance at an academic career in political science today, it’s necessary to go to a top-tier university for graduate work. About twenty universities meet this criterion, he says. These would for the most part correspond to the top twenty in the US News and World Report's annual overall rankings of research universities. Brown is ranked 16th there; Tufts is 27th. But while most of those top twenty universities have PhD programs in political science, only nine of those twenty have a doctoral program with a specialization in ethnomusicology. Some excellent ethnomusicology PhD programs exist at lower-tier research universities: for example, at UCLA (ranked 23rd), Michigan (ranked 29th), NYU (ranked 32nd), Illinois (ranked 42nd), Florida and Washington (tied at 48th), Texas (ranked 53rd), Pittsburgh (ranked 62nd), Indiana (ranked 76th), and Florida State (ranked 95th). Instead of choosing a graduate program in ethnomusicology on the basis of the university’s reputation, then, it’s best for an applicant to seek out those professors whose published research they most admire, and then apply to the schools where they teach and hope to study with them. In my view, a student with a degree in ethnomusicology from Florida State does not have a significant disadvantage on the academic job market compared with a student from, say, Columbia (one of the top-tier universities). Still, those alone make nearly 20 doctoral programs in ethnomusicology, and taken together they're graduating more PhDs each year than there are academic jobs, while the previous years' graduates who remain un- or under-employed also are still looking. It's harder for them to find a tenure-track academic job than to find a publisher for their dissertation. The reverse was true in the 20th century. One last bit of advice: sometimes, musicians having a hard time making ends meet think a graduate degree in ethnomusicology will provide a day job for their musical career. I believe they should think again, because graduate work is so time-consuming it doesn’t leave enough time to sustain a musical career, let alone to keep performance skills at a high enough level even to have one.
       

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Music Sustains People


     I’m writing from Minneapolis, where I traveled to take part in an event on music, sound, and climate change. A year and a half ago, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I met to give a plenary “trialogue” on sound and sustainability at a conference in Nashville, and afterwards we were invited to do a reprise at the University of Minnesota. This is the event that came of it, in celebration of Earth Day, a week later than the actual day but nonetheless the time when it could be arranged for all. The event takes place later today, but I flew in from Maine two days ago, and had a chance to walk around the university yesterday.
Vincent Hall, Univ. of Minnesota, April, 2015
Much of its appearance has changed. The grand old buildings remain, including Northrup Auditorium, with its imposing Greek columns, and Vincent Hall, with its, where many of my classes were held. Much new modern architecture, quite out of keeping with the old, has been erected throughout the campus, forming blocks of high-rise steel and glass and concrete and granite, with massive faces and few windows, in some ways looking like vast parking garages, but reminding me most of the Soviet-era buildings I saw in Beijing five years ago. One of the professors planning the event, Mark Pedelty, confirmed that impression when we had supper in Dinkytown last night, calling it Stalinist. At that point I began to couple the architecture with the ubiquitous strategic planning that has been going on at colleges and universities over the past fifteen years or so, doubtless also reflecting their transformation from educational non-profit institutions run more or less at a loss, funded by philanthropists and state legislatures, into corporations run to break even, still dependent on donations but less and less so on government funding, while the expenses of maintaining them, pro-rated on a per-student basis, have increased enormously. I’ve blogged about this before; there’s no need to repeat it, except to say that even though I wasn’t surprised to see it at my graduate alma mater, my spirits did not rise as I’d hoped they would.
    In some ways it’s surprising that I’ve been back only once before, and that was around the early 1980s, when one of the professional societies I belong to met in a downtown Minneapolis hotel, and I managed to skip out for an afternoon visit. At that time the campus had not transformed so. Today, it seems much more a model of efficiency. Buses and light rail transport students who crowd the streets, making the sidewalks look like Manhattan during rush hour. The streets and roads of the campus itself are curved, well landscaped, and do not have the look of a city; yet on the outskirts the city is clearly there. Dinkytown has upgraded and yet it was still recognizable in shape. I could see the ghosts of old shops and restaurants like Valli Pizza, where our blues band performed weekends in the “Grotto Room” in the cellar. Of course, the Valli no longer was there.
But on Washington Ave. still stood Stub and Herbs [always missing the apostrophe], now a sports bar and tavern. Stub and Herbs, or Sturbs as we used to call it, was our favorite bar on the east bank of the river, and my old friend Cameron Nickels forever burned it into my memories by deciding he would have a fiddle recital there.
    Cameron, like me a graduate student in American studies but a year ahead of me, shared my love of music and rekindled my interest in old-time and bluegrass. He was a fine singer and guitarist, and joined me as an instructor in the Scholar Music Workshop (attached to the Scholar Coffeehouse), and later in the Mill City School of Folk Music. He decided, about 1968, that he was going to learn to play the fiddle. Aged 27 or so, starting from scratch on the violin is difficult even for an experienced musician with a good ear, which he was and he had. He set himself the goal of a public fiddle recital after six months, and he asked me and another friend, Charlie Angermeyer, to accompany him. We ran thru a set of old-time songs and tunes that Cameron had learned from old hillbilly 78s, some of them recycled by the New Lost City Ramblers. He felt that bluegrass fiddling was too difficult to learn in six months, but that old-time might be possible. It turned out to be possible, barely.
    Listening back to the recording he made of it, I realized that there’s a difference between what a musician hears while performing with others, and what the audience hears. I’m not talking about a need for monitor speakers so the band can hear itself coming through the PA system, if any, but rather a difference between listening while making music and listening back to it afterwards. Listening while making music, I was intent on playing what I had in mind to play, and constantly listening to what I was playing as feedback. Of course, I also heard what Cameron and Charlie were doing, and tried to keep time with them (and succeeded); but mostly I was listening to myself, partly because I had just learned the tunes and songs. If I had known them a long time, they’d have been second nature and I could have, and would have, listened more carefully to the others rather than mostly to myself blending with them.
    Listening back, of course, I heard myself as an accompanist, while the fiddle stood out—as it should have. Now I heard the marks of a beginning fiddler, the same kinds of issues that arose when a dozen years afterward I, too, started playing the fiddle. The fiddle’s timing wasn’t always where it should have been, sometimes a bit late and sometimes a bit early. Whereas in guitar and banjo repetitive motion can set up a regular pulse beat, on the fiddle the bowing motion usually doesn’t do so except for brief periods of shuffle rhythm lasting perhaps only a second or two. Besides rhythmic issues, playing in tune is another. Precise intonation is notoriously difficult on the violin or any of the stringed instruments that do not have frets; and when a musician used to playing a fretted instrument such as a guitar takes up an unfretted one, the results can be even more problematic because intonation has not been troublesome on the earlier instrument. Worse yet, a musician usually has a “head tune” in mind—that is, an ideal melody is heard silently in the brain while its approximation is executed on the instrument. A beginning fiddler tends to confuse the two, and hear the head tune as if it’s sounding aloud; or, the musician hears them both and they blend, the melody in the mind masking the problem of playing out of tune, so that it seems more in tune than it is. But listening back to a recording, a beginning fiddler is without that head tune in mind, and hears how far out of tune the playing was.
    Of course, I don’t mean to be critical of my friend here; my own struggles on the fiddle were just as difficult, if not more so. When I began fiddling, our cat would not stay in the same room. Soon he learned to leave as I started to open the violin case. I supposed that some high-frequency squeaks beyond my hearing range were painful for him. But after a couple of years of playing, the cat no longer left the room. I don’t think it was because he was becoming hard of hearing, but because I was no longer making painful sounds. I know that even after two years I was having trouble with accurate intonation, and that for anyone who starts late in life, it’s a continuing problem—one that diminishes but never leaves entirely. After warming up, intonation seems to get better—and no doubt it does, but I think that, also, the ear adjusts. Again, listening back to recordings—this time, my own—showed that to be true.
    All those memories came back with a rush as I recalled Cameron, Charlie, and me standing up in the front of a narrow, rectangular space, on a small stage, performing for family and friends at his fiddle recital about 45 years ago. I can visualize the others—Charlie with his uncombed, long hippie hair; Cameron’s neat as always, his body stretched to its full height as he tucked the fiddle under his chin and played short, sawing bow strokes and as we all sang, and played, not especially well, but competently enough for the occasion, considering. And it was a success in the sense that we got through it, and Cameron could say that he had his fiddle recital, and then—. Well, for whatever reasons, he continued to play the fiddle but only from time to time, never progressing far enough to his satisfaction, while his singing and guitar playing continued strong. After he moved to take up a teaching job at Madison College, later James Madison University, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he fell in with several music groups singing and playing old-time and bluegrass music over the years, spending many of them in bands with “Two-Gun” Terry (whose last name escapes me), a fine fiddler who was kind of a local legend. Possibly because his music was more involved with rehearsals and performances than jam sessions, Cameron didn’t play the fiddle as much—there were others who could do that better, and so he stayed with what he could do well. I am speculating some here, because I know he enjoyed a good jam session too; but perhaps he felt that even there, he didn’t want to play the fiddle very much, as it would impose some on the others.
    Cameron left the University of Minnesota and found a teaching job the year before I left to do the same. We’ve kept in touch over the years, seeing each other from time to time. He had a fine time as an English professor, somewhat of a curmudgeon in his community as I understand it, an early champion of women’s rights (unusual for a man at that time and place), and a specialist in the literature of humor. He wrote several essays for academic journals and published two books on the subject, one on New England humor and the other on Civil War humor. Now retired, he is still reading and writing—and enjoying music. I’ll tell him about this visit, and send him a picture of Stub and Herb’s. Music and sustainability isn’t only about how culture workers can partner with people in musical communities to achieve goals of sustaining the integrity of music cultures in the face of inevitable change. It is not only about how people may sustain music, but also about how music may sustain people.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Old Regular Baptist Field Recordings Chosen for National Recording Registry

    Two days ago, the Library of Congress announced its list of 25 recordings named this year as "American Treasures" to the National Recording Registry, recognized for their “cultural, historical, and/or aesthetic merit” in contributing to American society and its aural history. The announcement was broadcast by the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio as well as other national networks such as CBS. I was surprised but gratified to see that among those selected they chose a CD made from my field recordings of Old Regular Baptist singing. This is a major honor for the Old Regular Baptists, and it will help them in their efforts to maintain their musical tradition, which dates back to the 16th-century English parish church. Their lined-out hymnody represents the oldest living English-language oral tradition of religious music in the United States.  
     These sound recordings are part of a larger collection of my field recordings documenting Old Regular Baptist traditions: singing, praying, and preaching, along with interviews conducted with elders in the church. They span a period of from 1979 until now. I couldn’t have made them without the help of Berea College and three of its faculty members: Loyal Jones, John Wallhausser, and Bill Tallmadge. Other individuals and institutions that helped along the way were my employer, Brown University; Daniel Sheehy and Anthony Seeger of Smithsonian Folkways Records, which in 1997 released the CD that was selected for the Registry; and the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk and Traditional Arts Division, which supported the portion of this ongoing project that led to these recordings in 1992 and 1993. The recordings were the culmination of a self-documentation project grant from the NEA that I got for the Old Regular Baptists. It enabled them to record endangered songs from their elders, some too ill to attend church any more. I taught them how to use the recording equipment purchased on the grant, and accompanied them on their first recording trips to elders’ homes. Later, I returned to make the high quality sound recordings that would become that CD. Folkways released a second CD in 2003 from recordings I made in 2002. Elwood and Kathy Cornett, Jim and Dosh Fields, Don and Shirley Pratt, Ivan Amburgey, Mackenzie Ison, Ruth Frazier, Bob Banks, and Squire and Claudette Watts are among the Old Regular Baptists I must thank for their participation, along with many others too numerous to mention but whose names are on the albums as song leaders and speakers who related what the sound of the singing means to them.
    I looked at the list of recordings selected for the National Registry since these honors began in 2002. Only about a half dozen folklorists and ethnomusicologists’ field recordings have been chosen in the dozen years of the program’s existence. I was surprised at how few there are. My recordings now join those of Frances Densmore, Franz Boas and George Herzog, David McAllester, and Alan Lomax. Boas, the most important American anthropologist of his day, began ethnographic documentation of music in the 1880s, accompanied by the polymath Carl Stumpf, who was instrumental in establishing comparative musicology in Germany.      
Frances Densmore, 1916
Frances Densmore’s recordings were made early in the 20th century for the Bureau of American Ethnology. I remember seeing volume after BAE volume of her transcriptions in the University of Minnesota library, when I was a graduate student in Alan Kagan’s ethnomusicology seminars. Alan gave us an assignment to transcribe in musical notation one of Densmore’s field recordings of Native American music. He did not identify it by name until after we completed our transcriptions. I can still remember the title that Densmore wrote down for it: “Song to a Little Yellow Wasp.” I may even have my transcription in a file cabinet somewhere. Herzog, of course, was recognized as the leading US comparative musicologist from about 1930 until the early 1950s; he had assisted von Hornbostel at the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and after emigrating he received his doctorate from Boas in 1928. Dave McAllester was one of the four founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He taught at Wesleyan University, collaborated with me on a book, and became a friend. After he retired, we kept in touch and I visited him in his new house in the Berkshires, where he had also built a wigwam and meditated inside it at times. I thought he would live forever, but he died in 2006.
David P. McAllester, 1963
Alan Lomax is, of course, well known as both a folklorist and ethnomusicologist. I got acquainted with him in the mid-1970s when, as a young assistant professor, I asked if I could hear his Cantometrics training tapes. He invited me to New York and after I spent some time with him, I brought back on the train to Boston a carton of a dozen reel-to-reel tapes. Not only did I listen to them, but so did my students; and that began a collegial relationship that lasted until he died in 2002.
    It feels good to have my field recordings join theirs, but I know that there are many deserving documentary collections besides these, made by thousands of folklorists and anthropologists and ethnomusicologists ever since J. Walter Fewkes recorded Passamaquoddy singing in Maine 130 years ago. Fewkes' earliest ethnographic sound recordings also are honored on the National Recording Registry, and copies are still being circulated among Passamaquoddy today. But even more important, they are still being sung.       

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

After Santa Fe

James W. Day, © Univ. Press of Kentucky
Courtesy Jean Thomas Collection, U. of Louisville
    I'm slowly catching up on various fall events where music and sustainability was thematic--this time, the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), which took place in Pittsburgh last November, in the week following the AFS conference. I stayed in Santa Fe a few extra days, and caught up with an old friend, Steve Green, who lives there and works as an archivist for the Western Folklife Center. We had three long breakfasts filled with talk that went through to lunch every day, there was so much to talk about. He's been researching and writing a major book about the events surrounding the promotion of folklore in the early part of the 20th century, focusing specifically on the folkloric entrepreneur Jean Thomas and the fiddler she promoted, James W. Day, whom she cast as the character "Jilson Setters." In the 1920s she toured Day to standing room theater crowds in New York and London, as he represented something about an older, and surer, America than the culture appeared to many at the time. Steve is an indefatigable researcher who understands how to ferret out archival evidence like no one else I know, and over the years he has accumulated a treasure trove of information on these people and this cultural moment.
    I was sorry to leave Santa Fe, a city impressive for its scale and its food, not to mention the collision of cultures there. I'd toyed with the idea of not attending the ethnomusicology conference this year, because I'd already planned so much traveling; but I received two invitations to do things there and decided I ought to go. The President of SEM had asked me if I was planning to come, because the Society wanted to give me an award; and I'd also been asked by the Graduate Student Section to be the discussant for a forum on applied ethnomusicology, which they wanted to explore both as a field in itself and also as an area for possible employment after obtaining their degrees. I assented, but with the caveat to the students that I felt anyone who wanted to "do" applied ethnomusicology would be better served if their motivation was a sense of social responsibility rather than concerns about employment. Music sustainability as cultural policy is one aspect of applied ethnomusicology.
    Many applied ethnomusicologists do think the field offers, or should offer, employment opportunities outside of the academic world. This is correct, although more academics practice applied ethnomusicology than those holding non-academic jobs. Yet, the defining characteristic of applied ethnomusicology isn't the place of employment, but the nature of the work: putting ethnomusicology to practical use in helping to enhance the quality of people's lives. Today, as it has developed in various parts of the world, applied ethnomusicology usually involves some kind of activism and advocacy, an intervention into a community, almost always in partnership with people in those communities, for the common good. Over the years I've formulated this in various ways; my latest one is for the Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which is due to be published later this year. At the SEM conference, I spoke about these things, and was pleased that the forum speakers addressed those issues and for the most part didn't do what many had done in the past, namely, speak autobiographically about their own career path in applied ethnomusicology outside the academy as an alternative kind of employment.  As I said at the forum, for most people "academic" is the alternative path. Many people in my generation (and later generations) entered the academic world as an alternative to employment in the business world, and the phrase "ivory tower" suggests that the general public views academia as alternative to the mainstream. Applied ethnomusicology puts it back into the mainstream in service to cultural equity and social justice.
    One other thing happened at this conference that I must not forget to remark on, and that is that I was able to acknowledge publicly my debt to Alan Kagan, who taught ethnomusicology to me when I enrolled in his graduate seminars at the University of Minnesota nearly fifty years ago. Long retired but still active, Alan embodied dedication, both to his field of ethnomusicology and to his students. His office was always filled with students; and if one wanted to see him to talk about one's research, or perhaps about something that was going on in seminar, one had to wait with other students outside for a long time, because Alan always saw each student one at a time and gave them more than their due. At the conference last fall, SEM gave me an award recognizing lifetime achievement in research and teaching. I'm grateful to the Society for that. The award carries with it a free, lifetime membership in SEM. After receiving this award, presented to me by two professors whose doctoral dissertations I'd supervised a couple of decades ago, I said I hoped to keep that membership a long time; and then I acknowledged Alan Kagan as my own teacher. He was there in the audience--this was at the end of the conference when everyone was gathered in a hotel ballroom--and he stood up to a long round of well-deserved applause.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sound research over the years

    In early November, right after a horrific snowstorm that knocked out the electricity for five days, and snapped off or toppled over many white spruce trees in the nearby forest, I flew from Maine to Santa Fe for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society. I hadn't planned to give a paper this year, but I was asked to be on a panel called "Leaders in the Field," where a number of us older hands would be interviewed for posterity. The session was going to be videotaped and go into the Society’s archives. The irony struck that, having spent so much of my professional life documenting others, now I was to be a subject. Well, fair’s fair. Besides, professors are willing to talk about and share their research. To think and talk about its trajectory over the past forty years was an invitation I couldn't pass up, and didn't. So when it was my turn I told some stories about my interests in music and sound over the years and where that’s led. Here are a few of them.
    I was asked how I first got interested in music, and replied with a story my mother told me. She said that my first words were sung, not spoken. Evidently my family were avid radio listeners, and what caught my ear came out in song (phonetically) as “Pepi coda hitta pot.” The melody, not the mispronounced words, made it clear to my mother that what I was singing was a Pepsi jingle (“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot”). I sang before I spoke.
    I’ve told the story many times about the conversation my American studies program adviser had with me after I told her that I was going to write my dissertation on blues. “Has any scholar written on ‘that music’ before?,” she asked. “Not to my knowledge,” I replied. I didn’t know of any doctoral dissertations on blues, or any that analyzed the music. Books on blues were mainly artist biographies, written by fans, although some  researchers like Paul Oliver had written well about themes in the lyrics and other subjects. (I was unaware at that time that Bill Ferris was then writing a dissertation on blues at Penn; I got to know him later when he taught at Yale.) I thought my program adviser was asking whether I’d be making an original contribution to knowledge by writing on this subject. “Have you thought seriously about the consequences of your decision?” Consequences? I thought that the consequences of making an original contribution, if it were any good, would be satisfaction for the author and the reward of the doctoral degree. “Yes, sure,” I said, somewhat mystified by this question. And that was the end of the discussion.
    A few years later, when people began to ask me what I was doing teaching in an English department with a degree in American studies and a dissertation on blues, I would reply that in addition to writing about the music I was making a case for blues as African American cultural expression that resulted in worthy literature in and of itself. One didn’t have to go to the writings of Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown to find good blues poems; they were right there in the blues songs themselves, recorded from the 1920s onward.
    But gradually it dawned on me that the reason they were asking, and the reason why my program adviser had questioned me about my choice of dissertation topic, was that my path already was quite unusual. My adviser was worried for the future of my academic career and was asking if I’d realized that the likely consequence of choosing to write about ‘that music’ was academic suicide—i.e., whoever was going to hire this misfit? Luckily, I was too naive to think that research wouldn’t be rewarded on merit rather than choice of subject and, luckily, I was hired in a tenure-track job at a good university when such jobs were a lot more plentiful than they are today. As a graduate student I didn't think very much about careers; I just assumed it would take care of itself if I did well enough as a teacher and scholar.
    Fifteen years later, merit didn’t triumph over subject choice. Three of us were trying to raise money to make the Powerhouse for God documentary film about a powerful preacher-singer and his family in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge. Although we were successful with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities turned us down three times. After our third grant proposal was unsuccessful, we found ourselves in DC—we’d started shooting the film, and we needed to get some equipment repaired—and while cooling our heels we got an appointment to meet with the NEH program officer. She told us she was very sorry we’d been denied funding so often, because it was obvious that we were fine film makers and that the scholarship behind the film was thorough. The problem, she said, was our subject. Appalachia was too obscure, and religious subjects could be controversial. “Couldn’t you make a film about the life of Lincoln? I’m sure you could get funding for that,” she wound up. We walked out without saying another word.
    One more story. I’ve often been asked how I got interested in doing research on the musical sermons of Rev. C. L. Franklin. Most people think I came to it through listening to his daughter Aretha, and learning about her background. Franklin was the most highly regarded black Baptist preacher of his generation; as the head of the National Baptist Association observed, he had a “whoop that comes along once in a hundred years.” (Whooping is what black preachers—and others—call the traditional musical delivery, where the preacher comes to a climax, improvising the words and singing them to a melody that carries them.)  But that wasn’t how I learned about Rev. Franklin.
    Instead, it happened when I was a graduate student, and when in addition to my studies and teaching duties I was playing guitar in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. One Saturday night we got back early in the morning around 2 a.m. from a gig and I crashed on Bill’s couch. The next day he shook me awake at 7 a.m. and said, “Come on, boy. we’re going to church!” I hadn’t known Bill played piano at a nearby church—St. Mark's Baptist Church—but he was there most Sunday mornings accompanying the gospel songs, and he thought it’d do me some good to hear another kind of music. I stumbled off the couch and we got to the church, and I did enjoy the songs. Of course, I’d heard black gospel music for years, but what I hadn’t heard was whooped preaching. Rev. George Trawick was the preacher, and I was transfixed by this sound that was new to me. Later, I asked Bill about it, and he said I ought to listen to Rev. Franklin’s sermons. He just happened to have some albums that were recorded in New Bethel, in Detroit, Rev. Franklin’s church. They were very popular, he said. Indeed, Rev. Franklin was a rock star among African Americans of his generation, though completely unknown outside of the black communities. As soon as I heard Bill's records of Rev. Franklin's sermons, I knew I had heard a rare and gifted orator and poet-preacher with a remarkable musical delivery in his sermons that were improvised at the moment of performance, without a printed manuscript.
    And that was the start of my research on Rev. Franklin and the sound of the whoop. It was around 1969 that I heard Rev. Trawick. I already was working on my dissertation on blues, and I realized that I should complete that project before going on in earnest with this new one. So I did, and then in 1976 I met Rev. Franklin for the first time. I phoned him up, told him I wanted to visit, and asked him to suggest a weekend. He hemmed and hawed—I thought it was because this was an unusual request (coming from a professor of literature, at that)—and finally he offered a date, saying that on that weekend his daughter Aretha would be there. I said that would be fine, “but it’s you I want to see.” “Oh well then,” he told me, “come anytime!” I wonder what my American studies program adviser would have said about that research topic.
    Researching blues turned out not to be the lonely pursuit my adviser thought it would be. In addition to Bill Ferris at Penn, David Evans was researching blues at UCLA, and later several other scholars took up the subject, notably Houston Baker and Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. Angela Davis, known to me as a radical feminist and advocate of black power in the 1960s, later wrote a superb book about the vaudeville blues singers of the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and others. But black preaching remained an obscure research area—and to some extent it still is, although that may be changing. In the 1970s I did visit with Rev. Franklin, and over the course of several months interviewed him more than a dozen times about his life and preaching, and videotaped seven of his sermons. In the 1980s I wrote an essay on him in a book published by the Library of Congress, and wrote a book about his life and sermons that was published by the University of Illinois Press. The book did not interest my fellow folklorists and ethnomusicologists very much, nor were my colleagues in American studies much more than curious. It did sell, slowly but steadily, to scholars in African American religious studies.
    I’ve mentioned Rev. Franklin in this blog a few times before. For years I’ve been wanting to figure out a good way to publish the videotapes that I recorded of his preaching, so that they would reach what I came to realize was their target audience: the scholars of black preaching, the African American theologians, and the preachers themselves who wanted to see as well as hear this man whose whoop came along once in a hundred years. It wasn’t until the summer before last that, after I'd been looking for the target audience for many years, the target audience found me instead, and asked me to give a keynote at the first conference to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Franklin. Held in Detroit last April, “The Voice of a Prophet” (2014) attracted about 500 scholars and preachers and theologians and lay people. I showed the last two-thirds of one of my videos shot of Rev. Franklin in Detroit in the 1970s, and soon half the room was standing, cell phones in hand, copying the grainy, black-and-white video that was projected on the screen. (Some of that is on YouTube now.) There’s to be another conference this coming April, and I will show another video. I’m sure it won’t be too long before arrangements are made to publish these videotapes in a form that will enable them to take their place in this community after all these years of sequestration, or curation, or whatever one calls it.
    And so those are just some of the stories I told at the folklore conference. Elders are expected to have them, and I do. But I wouldn’t want them to upstage the research itself on blues or the sound of black preaching. When asked what theme I thought had unified my research over the years, I didn’t hesitate: it was sound, I said, whether the timbre of blues, or the elaborate songs of Old Regular Baptists, or the whoop of the black preacher, or its white preaching sound counterpart (that can be heard in John Sherfey’s chanted sermons, from my Powerhouse for God project, or the even more musical chant of Old Regular Baptist preachers). I concluded by saying that my appeal for a sound commons for all creatures, and current studies of animal sound communication, are a continuation of this lifelong pursuit of sound. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blues as a Sustainable Music

    Writers have lamented the impending death of blues for nearly 100 years, yet as Mark Twain supposedly quipped when told that his obituary had been published, the death rumors appear to have been exaggerated. Endangerment and unsustainability are built into the idea of blues and many other musics, yet somehow they’ve managed to persist in one form or another. Is there a lesson of resilience here?
    Writing about blues in the 1920s, the folksong collector Dorothy Scarborough predicted that blues would be gone when the current generation of singers passed away. Like most of this writing about endangerment, hers distinguished between an authentic blues and a transformed, popularized version: the folk blues versus the kind of blues being sung from the vaudeville stage for cheap entertainment. Today, of course, we think of this vaudeville blues as equally authentic, and we honor the contributions and innovations of such vaudeville blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey along with their downhome blues cousins like Charley Patton and Son House who were making commercial 78 recordings right along with the vaudeville singers, but whose songs met Scarborough’s criteria as folk songs.
    I write about it from personal experience as a blues musician, experience that goes back to the blues revival of the 1960s. The occasion now is a project for a vinyl record scheduled to be released this year or next, containing some recordings that I made at the 1969 Ann Arbor, Michigan Blues Festival. This, coupled with a revised chapter on blues for the 6th edition of Worlds of Music, the introductory textbook in ethnomusicology that I’ve co-authored with several other ethnomusicologists and which has been in print since 1984, has turned my thoughts back to a music that has been with me all my life; for I must have first heard it from my father, who played blues as an amateur jazz guitarist.
    The generation that performed at that 1969 festival has, mostly, disappeared; and the same can be said about the 1970 festival, except for a few (myself included) who were quite young then. And yet the blues is still around, as a niche music like so many other niche genres (classical, jazz, and so forth) that once had greater claim on the popular imagination, not to mention the pocketbook. Recordings keep blues alive, of course, but so do concerts and festivals, while young musicians are still learning to play it; and if fewer now make a living from it, or listen to it, nevertheless blues persists, and recognizably so, in a variety of older and newer incarnations. It seems to be an example of a sustainable musical genre.
    Both older and newer incarnations were apparent in the 1960s when I was a part of the blues music culture. Most of my participation took place in Minneapolis, where I was a graduate student, and where, in addition to my academic studies, I played blues guitar, eventually joining Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. Bill represented the older incarnation within the blues revival; born around the time of the first World War to a family of African American sharecroppers in Arkansas, he migrated with them gradually north, looking for better living conditions, eventually landing in Chicago during its blues heyday, and performing with some of the better known musicians of that era, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Mabon, Big Joe Williams, and Snooky Pryor. With his blues partners Mojo Buford and Jo Jo Williams, he moved to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, where they thought there would be less competition among musicians for jobs. And there was; but the audience was smaller as well. Nevertheless, they stayed; and as the Sixties wore on, and the audience for blues began to shift demographically to include a much larger percentage of white people, Bill’s popularity grew along with the blues revival. The newer incarnations were apparent in some of the younger blues musicians, whether forming their own bands or, like me, joining with some older groups. I was well aware, then, of death knells for blues that had already been sounded for more than forty years; but like most of my contemporaries, I thought even then that the rumors of impending death were exaggerated.
    Our band was invited to play at the second (1970) Ann Arbor Blues Festival; we went and as band leader Bill earned more money from that appearance than from any other, before or since. At the first festival, in 1969, I was only a spectator. I went with some other musicians and we sat in the audience, some sleeping in a car and some in a tent during the morning hours, and eating sandwiches and drinking beer from coolers. The festival lasted three days and nights, and featured most of the prominent blues singers and blues bands of the day, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Son House, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Freddy King, Albert King, Magic Sam, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, and the list went on and on.
    In those days I had made what was then a large purchase from my meager funds as a graduate teaching assistant, to buy a portable, reel to reel tape recorder, a Sony that used 5” reels which could record up to 25 minutes per side, and which ate up D-size batteries at an alarming rate. It was not a very high fidelity recorder like the Uhers and Nagras that were available to professionals for astronomical prices, but it was what would today be called prosumer gear, for the advanced amateur, with a mic of comparable quality. I had been making field recordings of music as a graduate student, and so bringing it along to record these festivals was an exciting but normal thing for me to do. I did it, recording as much of the festivals as I could afford, for tape (and batteries) were expensive. I wish, now, that I’d had the sense to try to beg or borrow some synchronized sound film equipment, but that seemed out of reach in so many ways that I didn’t give it any thought at the time.
    By the time the 1970 festival was over, I’d recorded about 18 hours of highlights from those festivals. Over the years I’ve listened back to them and wished I could have made recordings directly from the mixing board, but instead these were made from the audience and dependent on the sounds that were amplified by the mics, the PA system and the musicians’ own instrument amplifiers. Compared with the sound of studio-made recordings, their technical quality is fair at best; but they are reasonably faithful reproductions of the sound that the festival audience heard. I took one of those recordings, a song by Magic Sam, and put it in Worlds of Music, but other than that none of the recordings ever was published and few of them circulated. At the time, I was under the impression that both festivals were being recorded by professional sound technicians, targeted for issue on LP recordings soon afterwards. A sound truck from Atlantic Records was prominent at the 1970 festival, and I worried that our band’s performance might not have been up to their standard. I need not have worried, because no recordings ever were released; and years later, I was told that those professional recordings had somehow disappeared. I knew that at least one other person, John Fishel, had made recordings from the audience, as I had done, because some of his were issued by Delmark Records several years later; but until a couple of years ago when his brother and his son were in touch with me about my recordings, I hadn’t realized that ours were the only ones to survive, more than forty years later.
    Jim Fishel was in touch with me asking whether I still had those recordings and if so, what were they, and would it be possible to use one or two for a reissue project that he and his son Parker were proposing through a retro Nashville outfit, Third Man Records. They were planning to release a vinyl LP set commemorating the 1969 festival in recordings, for the niche audience for blues was also inclined toward the older formats, such as vinyl, rather than CD. In fact, back in the 1960s when LPs were current, many blues aficionados preferred the sound from the original shellac 78 rpm records. Jim and Parker were especially interested in my recordings of Son House; later, it turned out he wanted to hear what I had recorded of Freddy King. I retrieved these and digitized them, edited them, and sent them along. Parker was very pleased with the results, and it now looks as if some or all of them will make it onto the reissue. The Fishels are doing this in the right way, licensing the recordings and paying the musicians or their heirs. The music from both festivals was magnificent; and although these recordings don’t have the sound quality of those made with professional equipment, their sound quality has something in its favor that high fidelity recordings from that era do not. That is, in keeping with the retro aesthetic, they have the quality of being well worn, or broken in, with the aura of good and proper use about them. There is something in the hipster aesthetic that prefers the older analog sound (tube equipment, etc.) to the pristine sterility of digital sound. Like a black and white still photograph, these recordings evoke the historical past, which of course they now represent.
Son House. Photo ©1970 by Jeff Todd Titon.
     Recordings like this are, I suppose, one way of sustaining music, a means that I am willing to be part of. But it falls far short of the lived experience of those festivals and the sounds that I remember and which, for me, are evoked by those recordings. I do wonder at their transformation into exotic and distanced objects for a new generation of listeners, but then I remind myself that when in the 1960s I listened to recordings by Mississippi delta blues singer Charley Patton, made in the 1920s, they were similarly exotic and distanced for me. Yet for Jo Jo Williams, the bass player in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band, they evoked lived experience. Jo Jo had lived in the delta and as a teenager slipped out of his family’s shack to go hear Charlie Patton and Son House at the all night dance parties they played for, way out in the country on Dockery’s Plantation. When I spoke with Jo Jo about Charley Patton, he recalled those experiences for me, as I myself was able to recall the Ann Arbor blues festivals when Parker decided he wanted to interview me about them, and about the blues revival of the 1960s. Blues has shown remarkable resilience, yet its sustainability lives in the cycles of experience and memory, from one generation to the next, while the role of recordings is evocative but secondary. That, for me, is a more satisfying way of thinking about sustainability in music cultures.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Amateuring at Sustainability

   There was far more to the ecomusicologies 2014 conference last October than the two presentations I reported on. In many ways it reminded me of the cultural sustainability conference at Sterling College a year and a half ago, in that unlike the usual conferences I go to, which are sponsored by professional academic societies, the people attending came together out of a common interest in ideas. Scientists, humanists, artists, musicians, and political activists, some employed in colleges and universities and some not, gathered to share ideas and, to an extent, music. At this conference I heard ecomusicologists speak about folksingers who championed environmental causes, philosophers who speculated on whether animals responded to human music, activists working with indigenous communities to sustain local knowledge about sound and the environment, composers who took their inspiration from listening to the sounds of the earth and its inhabitants while sleeping out in the desert, scientists reporting on the responses of birds and plants to sound, and musicologists who applied ecocritical perspectives to the environmental compositions of contemporary composers. And that is still just scratching the surface: we heard music, we took an environmental soundwalk, we watched and discussed a documentary film about wood used in building guitars that had become endangered, and many other things. Among many surprises, I found myself listening without warning to my own recordings of hermit thrushes, played back in a presentation by David Rothenberg, whereupon he took out his clarinet and played along. He used the thrush recordings from Worlds of Music, where since the 4th edition (2002) they've helped stimulate readers to think about the continuum (or boundary) between sound and music. I was fortunate to have been invited to deliver a keynote address, and I spoke to them about my belief that ecomusicology could make a fundamental difference in a period of global climate crisis. It could do this by re-orienting humans to relationships based in sound interactions among living beings—in more technical terms, what I’ve written and spoken about over the last few years as a relational ontology and epistemology, based in the recognition of co-presence, through the medium of sound vibration. In other words, ecomusicology may help bring about the revolution in consciousness required for a human commitment to interdependence and its full environmental implications.
    I am not used to such conferences these days. The spirit of amateurism is in them, where most participants temporarily put career considerations aside in favor of a willingness to admit ignorance, a desire to contribute to a common project, and an interest in adventuring outside one’s area of expertise to learn different ideas and ways of thinking about them. Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) conferences from the 1970s were closer to these in spirit, while the Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences, which I also attended back then, were not. I had an advanced degree in English and my academic appointment was in Tufts University’s English department, so the MLA was my professional association; but I held the doctorate in American studies with a dissertation in ethnomusicology, so I attended SEM out of interest. I didn’t know, then, that in a few years I would be holding a joint academic appointment in English and ethnomusicology, or that I’d eventually move to another university (Brown) to direct their doctoral program in ethnomusicology.
    The MLA conference was huge—perhaps ten thousand in attendance, compared with a few hundred at SEM—and like a smaller class size, the smaller SEM conference size encouraged a fuller exchange of ideas. Besides, a major part of MLA was devoted to career-building and job interviews. Newly-minted Ph.Ds and other young unemployed or underemployed English professors met with teams of interviewers in small, stuffy hotel rooms for roughly fifteen minutes at a time, with offers, careers and lives hanging in the balance. I recall that this aspect of MLA was called the “meat market,” likening the interviewers to buyers inspecting meat in a butcher shop, and the job candidates to cuts of meat, some prime, some choice, some not so favored—not a happy comparison. We all hated the superficiality of it—inspectors and “meat” alike; but in the name of efficiency we did it.
    In top and second-tier colleges and universities at that time, English department life was almost deliberately inefficient by comparison, and anything but professional—sometimes (for me, then) maddeningly so. The English gentleman amateur was the unspoken ideal. The drudgery of professionalization—“Grub Street”—was out of character for those inclined toward a contemplative, literary life. For example, we didn’t try to coach doctoral students in the ways of the world that would help them get a good teaching job, something that seemed to me irresponsible even then, and certainly now. The literary life had its pleasures and rewards; but in those days I thought this ideal of the amateur went a little too far. Let me offer an example. Our university faculty, filled with scientists, engineers and other practical-minded people, decided to institute a Grievance Committee, charged to hear and to give informed and objective advice in response to complaints from any faculty member against others, including colleagues, department chairs, administrators, and so forth. I was elected to be a member of this university committee. After a year of hearing enough grievances to plot a dozen academic novels, I went to my department chairman and told him I’d been impressed with the work that this committee was doing. Before I could go any further, he asked whether I myself had a grievance with our department. No, I said, I did not; but I added that I thought it might be a good idea if our department established a grievance committee among ourselves, a departmental version of the larger one. “I don’t think that would be wise,” the chairman told me, “because then we would have grievances!”
    At the time, I thought he was joking; but later I realized he was quite serious—and speaking from the position of the literary culture he’d adopted. I should have known—I did know—that in English departments in those days, informed by the spirit of an idealized English aristocracy, one kept one's grievances private. Gentlemanly it was, because this was in fact a male society; but it was not long before this male dominance and its accompanying sexism was challenged and, thank heavens, overturned within the English profession. But back then the gentleman amateur prevailed, and while at times I enjoyed imagining myself a part of it, chiefly I felt myself surrounded by departmental colleagues as quaint as Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey.
    Now I look back on those colleagues, and those days, with a lot more tolerance and, I hope, understanding. I don’t miss the men’s club or the sexism, but I do miss the spirit of amateurism. I've written often about amateuring here before; it's one of the themes of this blog. Today’s young professors have undergone, in their graduate education, a great deal of what is called professional development, another word for systematic advice on building a career. This is useful advice for competing on the job market, which has become far more difficult to navigate than it was forty years ago. But it is not, I think, useful advice for encouraging the free flow of creative ideas among those whose real work isn’t to advance a career but to educate, to contribute to knowledge and understanding, and see to it that this helps make a difference in the world. This is what tenure is supposed to convey on professors—academic freedom—but with a much smaller percentage of tenured appointments today, with more job competition, and with more need for professional development, conferences like those on cultural sustainability, and ecomusicology, are now fewer and farther between.
    I would not leave this topic by endorsing amateurism as an end in itself. We want master surgeons, not amateurs, doing heart and brain surgery—any kind of surgery. But master surgeons, like all good professionals, keep learning. What I’m endorsing here is the spirit of amateurism—being willing to admit that one doesn’t know; to share, rather than own, ideas; to take intellectual risks; and to change one’s mind. These qualities were all on display in abundance at those conferences, while the excitement of learning and sharing ideas was contagious.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ecomusicologies 2014 and the Sounds of Plants

     Scientists have known for many years that plants emit sounds, and also that they respond to sounds—for instance, they make noises when fluids move rapidly up and down their stems. Plants also move towards or away from sounds as they also do when stimulated by light. From time to time, claims have appeared that plants grow better when spoken to encouragingly. The Daily Mail reported in 2009 the Royal Horticultural Society's conclusion that “talking to your plants can really help them grow faster.” Charles Darwin’s great granddaughter, Sarah, who took part in the Society's experiment, turned out to be the champion talker: reading from On the Origin of Species caused her plant to grow nearly two inches taller than the control. Elementary school science projects include experiments “to find out whether plants respond to human speech,” asking students to think about how plants communicate, what types of messages they send one another, and how vibrations affect plants.
    As an organic gardener, I knew that legume roots were colonized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but it didn’t occur to me to ask how the bacteria in the soil found the rootlets to grab on to. If I’d thought about it, probably I’d have said these were random encounters, or that perhaps the rootlets emitted some kind of chemical that was attractive to the bacteria. It would never have occurred to me to think that bacteria might have been responding to vibrations in the soil made by disturbances when the rootlets expanded and grew. But after listening to Monica Gagliano at the conference, and then reading many of her articles published in the scientific literature, I know that this is very much a possibility. Gagliano is an Italian scientist who worked in the laboratory of Stefano Mancuso, one of the most important contemporary researchers in the field of plant intelligence. Currently she's a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia.
    Gagliano claims that plants not only communicate with soil bacteria and other creatures, but that they communicate with each other, by means of vibrations which she is willing to call sound. “Vibrations are sound,” she replied when I asked her if she made any distinction between them. For a scientific realist sound is a feature of the external world and consists of waves inside a medium that are set in motion by vibrations. Plants, obviously, vibrate; their cells, for example, vibrate at the microscopic level continuously, just as human cells do. Perhaps the problem humans have in accepting plant communication via sound is that we commonly think of communication proceeding from vocal cords to ears, and of course plants have neither. But it doesn’t take long to realize that sound communication doesn’t need vocal cords—just think of musical instruments, or animals signaling by sounding parts of their bodies—and that sound vibrations can be felt in various parts of the body, not just the ears—think of the deep bass of an organ, for example. Assuming that communication is the transfer of information, then for it to take place there must be a transmitter, a receiver, and the information itself. On those grounds, plants qualify. Evolutionary biologists believe, further, that living creatures must have evolved through natural selection so that communication is a specific adaptation to their environment, not merely a by-product of some other activity.
    Gagliano reports that plants not only emit sounds but also detect them and modify their behavior accordingly. ”Preliminary investigations of both emission and detection of sound by plants indicate that plants have the ability to detect acoustic vibrations and exhibit frequency-selective sensitivity (i.e., plants respond to the same range of frequencies that they emit themselves) that, in turn, generates behavioral modifications. Hence, the relevant question is not about whether plants have evolved to detect and respond to sound waves or vibrations in their environment, but how and why they do it (italics in original).1/ These are all good questions, yet it seems to me that numerous additional experiments are needed before one can be reasonably certain that sound communication is normal among plants. Scientists may more confidently proceed to the “how” and “why” after more instances of the “what” are confirmed. Incidentally, I’m making the distinction here between sound communication between plants, versus that between plants and non-plants (e.g., bacteria, insects); I believe we have a good deal more evidence for the latter, and much less for the former.
    For readers who’d like an overview of plant communication within the larger field of plant intelligence, I recommend a New Yorker essay by Michael Pollan which appeared less than a year ago. (Thanks to Tyler Kinnear who called that essay to my attention.) Gagliano’s research is mentioned, but the essay focuses on the work of her mentor, Stefano Mancuso, and also gives a good deal of space to the skeptics who wonder whether it’s a stretch to call plants intelligent or communicative. Of course,  skeptics also cast doubt on animal intelligence and communication, claiming that the human varieties are different in kind as well as degree. Still, it seems to me that considering sound communication among animals, and even among plants, offers perspective on sound communication among humans, its evolution and functions, which must be helpful in considering sound, music, and sustainability over the long term for all living creatures.

1/ Monica Gagliano, "Green Symphonies: a call for studies of acoustic communication in plants." Behavioral Ecology doi:10.1093/beheco/ars206, 25 November 2012, pp. 789-796.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ecomusicologies 2014 and Birdsong

     Ecomusicologies 2014 took place last month in Asheville, North Carolina, prolonging the pleasant autumn and combining it with an exchange of eclectic ideas related to sound (and music) and environmentalism. Among the most stimulating, for me, were presentations on birds altering their songs in response to changes in their environment, and on the sound vibrations plants make or respond to. I relate these to my interests in the ways living creatures communicate via sound, announcing their presence, experiencing co-presence with another creature, and then acting on the basis of that communication. As I wrote in the previous entry, the field of animal sound communication has become increasingly important to me, as I try to understand music, its evolution and meanings, within the broader context of sound communication among living beings.
    Birdsong has interested scientists as well as musicians and composers. Earlier in this blog I wrote about birdsong and two naturalists who had a keen ear for it: Henry David Thoreau and Donald Borror. Most scientists agree that birds sing (and call) to attract a mate, signal danger, indicate where they are, mark their territory and keep rivals out, or keep a flock together. They haven’t much considered whether birds sing for pleasure, but that opens up a large topic--do animals make sounds for fun as well as function--and is for a later blog post. Here I want to write about Kera Belcher and John Quinn’s report on their experiment to see whether Carolina Chickadees altered their songs in response to the sounds of predators. It’s not just the experimental result that interests me, but also what they’d learned from previous studies of birdsong in order to construct their hypothesis.
    Belcher, who presented the report, noted that experiments have confirmed that birds change their songs in response to noise interference. That is, they tend to shift frequency to avoid the interference. The Chickadee, they then told us, was among a special class of birds thought to be sentinels, whose danger calls warned other species as well as their own. You may have seen how, in wintertime, chickadees travel in flocks and appear at home feeders with other species such as goldfinch and nuthatch. They do that here in East Penobscot Bay, and they’re also joined by juncos—although the juncos feed on the ground nearby. For their experiment, Belcher and Quinn decided to introduce a predator species to see if it would trigger the alarm call and warn the other birds as well as their own species. Evidently it did, as the Chickadees always arrived first at the feeder after the predator was introduced, before the other species in the flock were seen at the feeder.
    In a charming revelation of experimental improvisation, Belcher noted that their simulated predator (a stuffed owl) didn’t stand up to the weather, so they decided that she herself ought to serve as the experimental predator. I can just imagine her swooping down toward the feeder, yelling and waving her arms, in the campus area reserved for the test. Clearly, this is a preliminary experiment; and it wasn't clear to me whether the bird was altering its call in response to noise interference, or simply sounding its normal alarm call in the presence of the predator; but it shows something of the kind of research that’s going on.    

Photo by Jeff Titon, 2004
Why Belcher and Quinn would present their research to a group of ecomusicologists is an interesting question. I’m sure they’ve already done so before ecological scientists; perhaps they wanted to find out how humanists would react? I suspect many in the audience had at times tried to sing with birds, imitating them or trying to communicate with them, just for fun or possibly more than that. It wouldn’t take much to convince me, for instance, that the Black-Capped Chickadees (photo, left) giving their “gargle” call (dee-dee-dee) when I’m outside near an empty feeder are scolding me to remind me to refill it. But it never occurred to me that the number of “dees” in their call was significant. Belcher and Quinn said contemporary research was revealing that it is.
     In the next entry I’ll write about the ecomusicologies 2014 conference presentation by the Italian scientist, well funded by the Australian government, who’s studying the sounds plants make. Not “how to talk to plants,” as one of the New Age books had it a few decades ago, but ways in which plants produce and respond to sound vibrations, perhaps to communicate with other living beings.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Team Fieldwork

I've neglected this blog while completing work on the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology and preparing and delivering a keynote address for the Ecomusicologies 2014 conference that took place in Asheville, North Carolina a few weeks ago. That was an extremely stimulating conference and I plan to say why in due course. Much of my reading lately has been in the area of sound communication among animals, following up on the ideas about sound signaling presence and co-presence. That field is dominated today by a cluster of assumptions coming from game theory, natural selection, and bio-economics. I will be posting some things about that in the near future.

Last week there was a lively discussion on the public folklore list concerning team fieldwork and the use of still photography. Betsy Peterson, head of the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, asked for information on those topics from those folklorists who undertook fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s. Shortly after the AFC was founded, in 1976, it sent teams of folklife specialists into particular geographical areas to survey the folklore in the region and, usually, turn the documentation into an exhibit which toured in that region and then was deposited in archives there or in the Library of Congress or both. Usually the teams were led by employees of the AFC, but they also utilized local-based folklorists who already knew something about the region's folklife. Although teams of two or three researchers were not new in folklore, these AFC teams were larger and in some ways resembled the teams of anthropologists and sociologists who assessed the social lives of people in a given geographical area. My response to Betsy was this:
    
     "Speaking from my North American perspective—I don’t know how this all went down in Europe or elsewhere back in the day, but when I studied folklore in the 1960s, what I encountered was “collecting” or survey work, rather than “fieldwork” in the longitudinal, Malinowskian ethnographic sense, or in the sense of some of the collaborative long-term team fieldwork projects that anthropologists were doing. Folklorists went into the field to survey and find and “collect” folklore, either individually or collectively (no pun intended). If memory serves, the language of the American Folklife Center’s early team projects was also expressed in terms of field surveys, which is what I understood them to have been. Documentation was part of the process of collecting. Earlier examples of collaboration in folklore field collecting include Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the late 1930s collecting epic songs together in Yugoslavia, and the collaborative field trips undertaken by Alan Lomax with Zora Neale Hurston and also with John Work, not to mention those that Alan went on with his father John. At some point in the 1960s/1970s the ethnographic turn in folklore seems to have replaced the idea of collecting (surveying). Now fieldwork was no longer regarded primarily as collecting folklore, but as doing ethnographies of expressive culture, in an anthropological sense, longer term and in one place. My work on the Powerhouse projects, Henry Glassie’s work in Ballymenone—there are several examples from the 1970s. My work on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, by the way. In anthropology, examples of larger teams doing anthropological fieldwork include the long-term projects undertaken by professors at Harvard and the U. of Chicago and their graduate students, after World War II. This isn’t to say there were no folklorists in the 1960s doing longitudinal work with individuals or in particular places, nor that they didn’t conceive of it as fieldwork; but it wasn’t the norm.
    When I studied ethnomusicology beginning in 1966 I encountered the term fieldwork, and I also encountered it the same year in an introductory anthropology course. Of course, the idea we were taught way back then was that a fieldworker was, ideally, a scientific observer, fly on the wall, investigative reporter, even when fieldwork was done by a group of fieldworkers; the notion that fieldwork involved collaboration among fieldworkers and “informants” (or what we’d call nowadays field partners, consultants, teachers, co-subjects, etc. as discussed recently on this listserv) was being advanced back then only by a few of the more radical action anthropologists.
     My own fieldwork in the 1960s I think of more as visiting than fieldwork, something I’ve actually written about here and there, the idea of visiting and friendship, collaborating with blues musicians, learning music from them, helping them in their careers by getting them gigs, recording contracts, etc. and mostly hanging out with them, not just learning about music but about a way of being in the world. There was a group of blues musicians in Minneapolis, Lazy Bill Lucas, JoJo Williams, Mojo Buford, Sonny Boy Rogers, kind of a floating group that congregated at Bill’s apartment on Lake Street, where we ate Bill’s fried chicken, drank Fox Deluxe beer, played music, and “shot the shit” (talked, as it was called back then) about life and love and music, made plans, and so forth. In the 1970s most of my fieldwork on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, with Ken George, who was a grad student in folklore at Chapel Hill at the time. (He’s since gone on to become a well-known anthropologist; taught at Harvard, Oregon, and Wisconsin, and is now teaching in Australia.) But even before then I wasn’t alone in that kind of fieldwork; when I taught at IU for a summer, Sandy Rikoon and I went together to a few Pentecostal and Baptist churches, where we documented the services, interviewed the evangelists, and so on. Sandy would remember that.
     Re visual documentation, again, this was something that was part of the ethnographer’s toolkit as I learned in studying ethnomusicology and anthropology back in the 1960s. I don’t recall it being a part of folklore studies, but certainly there were folklorists back then who were doing it intensively and well—Bruce Jackson and John Cohen spring immediately to mind. My own introduction to photography came from my father, who had me taking pictures and working in a darkroom as a young teenager; and after devouring _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ in high school, I decided I wanted to do what Agee and Evans did, which meant among other things making documentary photos. My dad had brought back a couple of 35mm cameras from World War II, a Leica and a Balda; he gave me the Balda to use. Interestingly, until he died I never saw the WWII photos he made in France as part of the American liberating army; he was one of those who never talked about the war, but he did save the photos and I have them now. In the 1960s I shot some 8mm movies of my blues musician friends and tried to synch them up with reel tape recordings I made at the same time, but I could never keep them in good synch and gave up. How I wish I’d had enough money or a grant to rent Super-8 synch sound equipment to do that back then. When I went with Bill and his friends to perform at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in 1969 and 1970, I made 5” reel tape recordings with a Sony TC-800B (called, at the time, the poor person’s Uher) portable recorder and shot still photos, this time using my dad’s Leica which by then he’d given to me. In the mid-1970s I got a $1500 grant from the NEA Folk Arts division (back then it had the words jazz and ethnic in its name also) for fieldwork with Rev. C. L. Franklin and with the grant money I promptly bought a videotape recorder, a combination of a reel video tape machine that could fit on a large backpack frame, along with an outboard video camera. It was called a video “portapak” and shot grainy black-and-white video on 1/2” reels, and I used it to make videos in the Powerhouse project as well as the Franklin project. I also took it along when Sandy Rikoon and I visited those churches in Indiana nearly 40 years ago."

     Last April I showed one of those old videos from 1977 at the conference celebrating Rev. C. L. Franklin's legacy, more than 35 years after I shot it, and nearly 30 years after Rev. Franklin's death. It turns out that the seven videos I shot of his preaching--all complete sermons, in 1977 and 1978--with that technically challenged portapak, are the only visual documentation made of his preaching; yet he was widely acknowledged as the finest African American preacher of his generation: as a preacher, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his contemporary, and of course King's sermons were magnificent political orations. But Franklin was regarded as the finer preacher.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

So help me Kentucky: music, culture and poverty according to the New York Times

Illustration by Kelsey Dake. New York Times Magazine, 6/29/2014
Not long ago, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, on rural poverty in general, and eastern Kentucky in particular. Kelsey Dake's illustration of an imaginary license plate fronted the article. In it, the author, Annie Lowrey, reviewed  government efforts to help the poor people of this economically-distressed region, becoming even more distressed as ever fewer workers are needed in its coalmining-dependent economy. Coal itself is under pressure from environmentalists, government regulations, and from reduced demand for coal in the US. She concluded that given the history of failed efforts to aid the people through welfare, and to better the educational, health, and public works infrastructure of the region, efforts that span the period from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s to Barack Obama’s 2014 declaration of the region as one of five “promise zones” targeted for federal aid, it would be best for the people to pack up and move where the jobs are—to the fracking economy in North Dakota, for instance, or to cities like New York that “punch their weight” economically.
    Predictably, scholars and activists in Appalachian Studies punched back, skewering Lowrie as another of those hit-and-run journalists, those instant experts from away who think they know how to solve Appalachia’s problems and don’t mind telling everyone how to do it. But instead of advocating for more economic aid, or libertarian incentives such as lower taxes, her solution was get out and find your fortune where the jobs are; go to the cities. Lying behind this solution lurks a hipster mentality: cities are happening places and maybe you can be lucky enough to relocate there.
    Laughable if it weren’t so pathetic, the Times’ reporter’s diagnosis and prescription fails to understand the real economic causes of the people’s difficulty: a collusion among business leaders, many of whom are absentee coal company owners, and corrupt politicians, to colonize the region and exploit its population along with its natural resources. Since the 1960s, Appalachian Studies economists have drawn the analogy to third-world countries, with king coal as the empire and Appalachia as the exploited colony. Having earlier this year published an essay on “Music and Poverty” with Appalachia as one focus, I too am counted among those who pointed out the history of economic exploitation and corruption as the major reason for poverty, in opposition to the libertarian diagnosis of a culture of dependence, or the liberal diagnosis of a lack of opportunity and infrastructure. In fact, I argued that my colleagues in folklore and ethnomusicology had overlooked the economics of poverty when considering cultural sustainability; and that prescriptions for cultural and musical sustainability that did not also take economics into account were doomed. Now I want to argue for the other half, the idea that prescriptions for economic sustainability are doomed without considering culture.
    Culture comes into play in the Times’ reporter’s essay in a potentially productive way only at the very end, and the reporter fails to recognize it for what it is. She quotes a regional official as telling her that her prescription—pull up stakes and leave Appalachia—is “a really hard pill to swallow. People are really connected to place here. For a lot of people, [pulling up stakes and moving out] is the last thing they’re doing. They’re holding off until they have no other choice.” The Times reporter fails to ask why they are so attached to place. Undoubtedly they’re more attached to their lives in their homeplace than she is to hers in New York. She is mobile; they should be too.
    The Times reporter is blind to the positives in Appalachian traditional life, the reasons why so many of them want to stay there. Why the blindness? The only good thing about Appalachia she will concede is that the countryside is pretty. Indeed. The article notes that a team of Times economics experts rated counties all over the US on the “quality and longevity of life” based on “six basic metrics.” Before continuing, suppose we do a little experiment. What would you say are among the six qualities you look for in the quality of your life, related to place? Clean air and water? Closeness to nature? People who are kind to one another, who take care of their elders and children rather than farming out care to so-called professionals? A place where you know your neighbors, and if you’re going to live next to them for a length of time, where you and they will give one another the benefit of the doubt and be slow to anger? A place where people aren’t fixated building McMansions or connoisseurship in fine wines, fine arts, fine living and boasting of it to others? Places that are real places instead of just addresses, rungs on a ladder to success?
    Of course, the Times experts didn’t consider any of those qualities. Instead, they considered educational attainment, household income, jobless rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate. Obesity rate! Imagine using that as a criterion in, say, a Pacific Island paradise. Educational attainment? Well, it raises a person’s income, but also their desire for more. And it raises the blood pressure. How can one measure what a person knows, who they are, by their terminal degrees? How many well-educated fools do we have running the show in DC? Come on. Household income? That family taking care of children or an elder is going to take an income hit. No question about it, but for some people it’s a quality of life tradeoff: lower income, better quality. Think about it. Disability rate? Couldn’t that be related to things like how dangerous your job is? Farming is the most dangerous. Coal mining isn’t exactly in the safety zone, either. I’ll bet McDonald’s employees get in plenty of accidents also, despite degrees in hamburgerology. What about sitting in front of a computer screen networking your way to entrepreneurial happiness? Pretty cushy if you can make it work, and even if you can't. Oh yes, your ankles swell and your eyes go bad, but it takes years before the effects are felt. Besides, just go to the gym to counteract the effects.
    The Times reporter points out that among the bottom ten counties in the US rated on those six metrics for quality of life and longevity are six from eastern Kentucky, including Magoffin County. Interesting. Magoffin County, like so many eastern Kentucky counties, is rich in tradition. The music of Old Regular Baptists in the region is the oldest English-language singing tradition in the US, a rich, powerful expression of faith that is among those cultural expressions that keeps the people there. Richness, not poverty: rich in cultural tradition, rich in hope. Eastern Kentucky is home to a rich literary tradition as well, and not just literature but also the language of everyday expression. Ever heard it? You have to stay there awhile before you will. Magoffin County produced one of the finest traditional fiddlers of the 20th century, John Salyer. He was a farmer. The town he lived in, Salyersville, was named after his grandfather. He played music for local dances and entertained at parties, face to face, where everyone from the community knew each other. And it was a community. His farm was reckoned the third best farm in the county. He refused an offer to make commercial recordings. The story goes that the record scout heard of his prowess, came to visit and sign him up, found him outside plowing his field, and offered him a contract right then and there. But Salyer saw right through it: the pay for the fiddler was miniscule compared to the company’s share. Same as the share for the coal miner compared to the coal executive. “Get up, Sal,” he said to his horse, “we can do better plowing.” And so he was content to make music so that people he knew could lift their feet on a Saturday night. Cultural richness is not measured by the six metrics the Times experts used. What do they know of the quality of life? Are they happy, or driven?
    The Kentucky license plate that illustrates the article (see above) shows a thoroughbred horse, a map of the state in outline, and the words “HELP ME” in bold letters. Characteristically, Appalachia is under erasure: it is nowhere to be seen in this symbolic license plate. Anyone who didn’t know eastern Kentucky as a poster child for poverty in America would think that “Help Me” was directed at the entire state, or maybe the Kentucky racing breeders represented by the horse. The Times article reminded me of something Elwood Cornett said when 25 years ago I asked him how he felt about people coming into eastern Kentucky and studying Old Regular Baptist people and their music. “We’re not anxious to be studied,” said the leader of the largest Association of Baptists in the area. People, he said, have “flown in and flown out, and taken a shallow look at us, and what they have written about us is just as shallow.” He could have been talking about the Times article. But, he added, when people visit who are respectful, and serious of purpose, “we don’t mind” being looked at. “We are just who we are,” and who we appear to be, he said. The Times reporter, like so many, didn’t stay long enough to take in anything other than what she expected to find. How unfortunate that she had such a platform as the Times, to perpetuate the Appalachian stereotypes, mis-diagnose, mis-prescribe, and then fly back back to New York, where she may already have moved on to the next rung of her career ladder. “Annie Lowrey was, until recently, an economics reporter for The Times,” the blurb accompanying the article informs us. She was 6 years old when Cornett told me about people who fly in and fly out. Born in 1984, she was educated at Harvard. Prior to being an economics reporter, she covered economic policy for the Times. Before that, she was the "Moneybox" columnist for Slate Magazine. What is her new job? I don't know, but I don't guess she's looking to move to eastern Kentucky: no moneybox for her there. Pity; she might learn something if she stayed there a while.