Thursday, June 28, 2018

Experiential Ethnomusicology (Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, 1)

     In the last month I spent the better part of two weeks at academic conferences, one in California on cultural sustainabilities, the other in Newfoundland on phenomenology and ethnomusicology. Typical of academic conferences, those who gathered presented their research and exchanged ideas; but atypically, these were small conferences, with about twenty presenters at each one. Small conferences where academics gather over a single topic are more frequent in the humanities nowadays and, because they are focused on topics of special interest to those who participate, they can be more rewarding than the large, annual, professional disciplinary ones. On this blog I’ve had a lot to say in the last ten years about musical, sonic and cultural sustainabilities. I haven’t written much about phenomenology here, though, so perhaps it’s time to say something about it in connection with the history of ethnomusicology.
     Phenomenology is a word that sends most people to the dictionary. Seldom heard outside of academia, for decades it inhabited the discipline of philosophy, and then in the second half of the 20th century it escaped to other branches of the humanities. The key word in phenomenology is experience. Phenomenologists study experience, experience as presented to consciousness. More generally, phenomenology is the study of phenomena as presented to awareness. Physics, of course, studies phenomena—but as external objects, independent of personal observation. Experiences presented to my consciousness will differ from your experiences presented to your consciousness; but that table over there exists whether or not you and I are aware of it. When we are aware of it, it is present to our consciousnesses individually. You may be experiencing its shape while I may experience its shiny surface. Experience is personal and individual; and phenomenologists study it as it is present to consciousness. A phenomenological ethnomusicology emphasizes musical experience. Musical experience would appear an obvious direction for ethnomusicological inquiry; but according to Harris Berger, the convener of our conference in Newfoundland, and the editor of and a contributor to a book-in-progress, the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, phenomenology didn’t enter ethnomusicology until fairly late in its history, the 1970s and 1980s. Why not?
     It wasn’t because ethnomusicologists were unconcerned with musical experience altogether. The early ones (the comparative musicologists, beginning in the 1880s) were most interested in comparing how music was structured—scales, rhythms, melodies—among different social groups throughout the world. A notable exception was Carl Stumpf, interested in music psychology; but let that be. In the 1920s comparative musicology began to take social and cultural context more seriously, as evidenced in the work of Constantin Brailloiu in Romania and George Herzog in the US. In the 1950s, two American anthropologists, David McAllester and Alan Merriam, were asking their Native American informants (Navajo and Flathead, respectively) about their ideas about music—what it was, what it was for, and how they felt about it. Asking how they felt was to ask about experience. McAllester told me his Navajo friends found those to be very odd questions; they just didn’t habitually think about those things.  And so the answers he got were brief and not very informative. In the 1960s, when as a blues musician I asked my blues-playing friends the same kinds of questions, I got pretty much the same kinds of answers—it wasn’t something they thought about. Happy to talk about their careers in blues, some going back to the 1930s, and willing to critique other (usually more famous) musicians, they had not developed what might be called a theory of blues experience. When I told them that the blues historians and jazz critics wrote that blues is a cathartic experience, they laughed. They were professional musicians, after all. Blues was a way to make a living, not personal drama. They wouldn’t last long as performers if they had to purge themselves of melancholy night after night. 
     What Merriam, McAllester, and I had in common, in addition, was ignorance of the phenomenological tradition—or at least, I was ignorant, and I’m not aware that Merriam or McAllester ever indicated their debt to it. But in the 1970s I stumbled onto it in connection with a new research project, where experience was at the center of authentic performance, and where a rich tradition of talk about that experience had developed. In fact, talk was expected, as a way of validating the experience’s authenticity. My research project began in the mid-1970s, around the same time or possibly somewhat earlier than two other research projects where musical experience also was at the center, one undertaken by Ruth Stone and the other by Tim Rice. Even though each of us did something a little different, what we all had in common was that in that decade we encountered phenomenology. When we wrote about this research, we acknowledged how phenomenological methods had guided it, and our interpretative conclusions. Stone employed classic phenomenology to study the experience of time among Kpelle musicians in Liberia. Rice, drawing on the phenomenology of bodily experience, wrote about how his fingers learned to play the Bulgarian bagpipe when his mind was unable to grasp the technique by means of musical analysis. And I employed what my friend and colleague Dan Dennett later termed heterophenomenology, after I had read Ninian Smart’s brief on behalf of phenomenology in the study of comparative religion. I should add that Berger writes that it was with this research and writing by Stone, Rice, and myself, that phenomenology entered ethnomusicology. I’m not sure where Stone encountered phenomenology but I would guess through Husserl. Rice may have found it through Merleau-Ponty, and possibly he also had read the work of David Sudnow; but like me, he soon moved into the field of interpretive, or hermeneutic, phenomenology. I only know for certain the details of how I stumbled onto it, and how helpful it was to me as I was doing my research and writing about sacred speech, chant, and song in the 1970s and 1980s. That will be the subject of my next blog entry.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy--A Conference at UCSB May 24-26, 2018

     In an earlier entry I mentioned the upcoming conference on cultural and musical sustainabilities, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to take place later this month--May 24-26 to be exact. If you're in the Los Angeles/Santa Barbara area, it might be of interest to you. There is no admission charge. Here is the flyer advertising it:

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Dark Sustainability

     A recent essay in the New York Review of Books, by Shakespeare scholar Joseph Shapiro, connects a dark interpretation of Hamlet with the dystopian climate in academia today. A young scholar just published a book whose thesis is that all the older literary critics were wrong about Hamlet: he didn’t hesitate to kill Cluadius because he had an Oedipus complex, nor because he was a coward, nor because he was depressed. He didn't oppose murder on religious grounds. Rather, he was the embodiment of a Renaissance humanism that was collapsing because it failed to reckon with the predatory force of a heartless world. Hamlet is a weak idealist. 
     This kind of claim, coupled with the ascendance of dystopian visions among millennials (such as the author of the Hamlet study), made me wonder whether sustainability itself isn’t the product of a weak idealism in the face of a worldwide struggle for existence, to use the Darwinian metaphor. In other words, why think that it might be possible to sustain a sound commons, music, people and cultures, the environment of planet Earth? And yet, dark interpretations are just that: dark interpretations. Dark money and the dark internet are new, but dark, apocalyptic visions have been around at least since the Book of Revelation. Dark interpretations of sound as an instrument of power and control dominate contemporary scholarship on sound studies. To those writers, a sound commons appears unrealistic and utopian in the face of a crisis that is deeper than environmental. I agree that it is deeper than environmental. Since 2015, in my lectures and writings I have contended that sustainability is, ultimately, a crisis in ontology (being) and epistemology (knowing). 
     But since these dystopian visions are, after all, projections of the future, it’s possible to ask what it is in the present that gives rise to them. It’s not difficult to understand why they’re ascendant now, given the current political climate—one that threatens the institutions positioned to do something about sustaining music, culture, the environment, energy, food and agriculture, and so on. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, muses on the possibility that the dark future for humanities scholars is reflected in this writer’s new theory about Hamlet. He wonders if the writer is a scholar who, “Hamlet-like, expected, when their turn came, to inherit an academic kingdom”—that is, to become a tenured professor of literature at a college or university. But cutbacks in funding, coupled with those institutions’ turn to a corporate model of economic efficiency, have resulted in dismal prospects in this century for professors in the humanities—that is, many fewer tenured jobs, and many more bad (part time, underpaid) ones. Embittered, the scholar doesn’t blame the politicians or the political climate. Instead, the scholar blames the failure on the liberal arts themselves, which equips educators to think, and ponder, and contemplate, and cogitate, on political philosophy; but not to act on it, to fight back against the forces allied against it—and this failure, it seems, grows out of the very idealism built into the humanities themselves: not only that persons could be educated into wisdom, but that the world could be educated into justice.
     Of course, although Hamlet himself failed, Renaissance humanism did not fail. Yoking Hamlet to a collapse of humanism makes little sense, if history is consulted. Humanism’s educational values broadened and deepened, giving way to an even greater reliance in the 18th century on reason, then a period in which reason was coupled with feeling, followed in the later 19th century by the rise of science and the modern liberal arts university. To be sure, dissenting voices of modernism and post-modernism undermined humanist ideals, while powerful contemporary voices rise in a post-human assault on the humanities, sometimes in the name of a deeper ecology, but also (as in the case at hand) arising from a darker, dystopian vision of the world. Nor is this pessimism new: Hobbes and Malthus had it during the so-called Age of Reason, while the optimism fueled by the new science and technological advances of the late 19th century was also the time when the pessimism of social Darwinism implanted the struggle for existence into human nature itself.
     As it happens, this scholar who threw up the dark vision of Hamlet seems already to have inherited the kingdom. He's a “research scholar with the rank of professor,” at an Ivy-league university. It's not clear whether he holds a "continuing appointment" (tenure); but his research and writing accomplishments are significant, and his perch in the profession of English does not appear in doubt. His interpretation of Hamlet doesn’t arise from a personal failure to thrive within the diminishing world of scholarship and universities. The dystopian vision seems to be a contemporary cultural phenomenon, especially among millennials; and anyone who advocates for sustainability needs to reckon with it.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sustainability and the National Endowment for the Humanities

I’ve written more about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) than the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on this blog, because the NEA is more directly concerned with music and sustainability. Of special interest to ethnomusicologists and folklorists is the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts division, which supports the diverse musical expressions across the US that don’t fall into the category of fine arts. Even though within their ethnic communities—particularly those with roots in Asia and the Middle East—they are regarded as fine arts, the NEA has always classified them as folk arts. 
     The NEH does support efforts to sustain musical expression and musical communities, but chiefly in the form of documentary film, archival preservation, research and scholarly publication. I’ve been fortunate to have received NEH support with two year-long research fellowships (in effect they replaced my salary), one in the 1970s and the other in the 1980s, each of which resulted in books about grass-roots religious music, preaching, belief and culture in the US—Powerhouse for God, and Give Me This Mountain. And because the NEH also is an ally to cultural and musical sustainability efforts, we’ve been wondering whom President Trump will nominate as the new NEH chairman.
      As the agency leader, the chairman sets the tone for the agency, and has a good deal of say in determining its emphasis. When Bill Ferris was NEH chair in the late 1990s, he supported studies of regional and local cultures, a bottom-up approach. Other chairs have emphasized a top-down approach in which the NEH encourages humanities scholars to teach classics of American thought (history, literature, the law, and so on) to the general public, in a sort of free adult education, conducted with lectures and discussions in public libraries and similar venues. I say top down because this approach is open to the critique that in choosing the reading list, the NEH is conducting a kind of cultural imperialism by telling the less-educated masses what they should read. Of course, the curriculum these days is more diverse than fifty years ago, but that may not matter as long as the public has no input. 
      At any rate, Trump’s nominee for head of the NEH is Jon Peede, whose brother Robert is a former top aide to Vice President Pence, and who is currently head of Trump’s advance operations. The prediction here is that Peede will be top-down. When the director sets this tone, it becomes hard for scholars to get NEH grants to support diverse musical and cultural traditions. I found this to be true for my own research efforts in the 1980s when the NEH was led, during the Reagan Administration, by Lynne Cheney, wife of politician Dick Cheney (who later was to become Vice President under G. W. Bush). Three of us were making a documentary film about expressive culture in a small church in rural Virginia. We’d already received support from the NEA and the Virginia Humanities Foundation, but the NEH denied us twice. After the second refusal, we found ourselves in Washington on an errand, with some time to kill. So we stopped in at the NEH and spoke with their program officer who’d been assigned to our application and asked her to elaborate on why our application had been turned down once, and then after we’d revised it, once again. She couldn’t really find a reason, except to say that it wasn’t competitive with more mainstream subjects. “You’re good scholars and film makers,” she said. “Couldn’t you choose another subject—say, a film about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?” We just looked at each other, shook our heads, and left. A film about Great Men in American History wasn’t what we had in mind. Those films were plentiful. They clogged the PBS-TV channels. We thought as independent film makers we were breaking new ground.
      Later, after we’d made the film we intended, we met with the program director of the PBS station in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the public broadcasting outlet that was closest to the church we’d filmed. He was no different from the NEH program officer. In this case, we’d already obtained a grant of $4,000 to pay the PBS station to help defray the costs of broadcasting the film locally and then mounting a campaign to offer it to PBS nationally. All the station had to do was accept the grant and follow through; but although the program director had been delighted with the project in its planning stages, once he saw that the film was not critical of this rural church, he refused to broadcast it or sponsor it up to PBS nationally. Our film didn’t align with his station’s mission. Eventually we found a PBS station in West Virginia, in Beckley, that did show and sponsor it. It turned out that the program director in Beckley had his PhD from the University of Texas. The director in Harrisonburg, we learned, was worried that the film wasn’t highbrow enough for his audience. “If they want to see worship like this, they can just turn on the commercial stations on Sunday morning,” he said. Not true, but that was the basis for his decision. Our documentary film can still be viewed, for free, here.
      Yet naming a new NEH had may not matter. Trump nominated him, but his 2017 budget proposed eliminating the agency (along with the NEA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB]) altogether. Congress pushed back and funded the agencies anyway. Trump’s 2018 budget once again proposes their elimination, while including $49,000 to pay for the “orderly closure” of the NEH. Strong protests from teachers, scholars, scientists and students, along with public intellectuals, independent scholars, and other supporters of intellectual life and public discussion and debate in this country, wouldn't likely be very orderly. Congress will probably ignore Trump’s proposal once again, but just as when a lie is told often enough it tends to become a truth, unless the opposition mounts an equally strong campaign, so supporters of the NEH and the NEA and the CPB will need to renew their support for these agencies, and lobby their Congressional representatives once again, for these agencies that support musical and cultural sustainability are thought to be endangered just as the traditions they support are. Write your representatives and tell them to fund the NEA, NEH, and CPB at least at their current levels.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Listening and Sustainability in the Atomic Age

     Recently the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its “doomsday clock” indicating the imminent danger of nuclear war to 2 minutes before midnight, the closest it has been since 1953 when Russia tested its first hydrogen bomb. Although climate change, cyber warfare, and increasing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were cited as factors, the main reason for advancing the doomsday clock was the danger of a nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the United States. The potential for catastrophe places the idea of musical and cultural sustainability in a planetary environmental context. 
     A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading an essay about sounds in an earlier time during our atomic age, specifically the sounds of Civil Defense during the 1950s. These alarm sounds including not only air-raid sirens but also public service radio broadcasts warning people to "stay alert, stay alive," as well as school exercises such as "duck and cover" and shelter drills. Civil defense issued LP records with one side dramatizing the effects of an atomic bomb dropped on a US city, and the other side instructing listeners to pay attention to the air-raid sirens and descend into their well-stocked fallout shelters so they would be able to survive. According to Civil Defense propaganda, civilization could be sustainable in the face of a nuclear war if only people listened closely, heeded the alarms, and sheltered themselves properly. Some cities and military bases would be bombed into oblivion, but the propaganda maintained that in other parts of the US people would be able to withstand the attack if they stayed in their shelters long enough to avoid the radiation fallout.
     Lyrics from two popular songs from the period were analyzed: "Sh-boom" and "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." The chorus to "Sh-boom" went, "Sh-boom, sh-boom, life could be a dream, sh-boom, sh-boom, if you would take me up to paradise up above, sh-boom, sh-boom, life could be a dream sweetheart." And "Thirteen Women" imagined a nuclear war in which one man survived, with thirteen women survivors fawning over him. According to the author, “Sh-boom” was intended to mimic the sound of an atom bomb, while the singer envisioned a life in heaven afterward; both song lyrics were said to reflect the atomic age in which people might survive a nuclear war if they heeded the sounds of the radio and the sirens and bells, while schoolchildren followed the sounds warning them to duck and cover or descend to the bowels of their school buildings. These sounds were the “alerts that triggered responses,” similar to the Pavlovian reactions to our smartphone notifications today; and they were the sonic texts that the author read to construct a history of the listening culture of the atomic age. 
     Yet the author wrote about this listening culture without listening to the people who lived through it. Many did not respond to those sounds as the Civil Defense intended. I am old enough to have lived through this period as a boy. I recall the duck-and-cover exercises we went through in elementary school. We used to repeat the instructions with our own variation: “Now children, go under your desks and bend over, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” In junior high, after the proper alarm sounds signaled, we practiced shelter drills, lining up in size order from shortest to tallest, and moving in a very orderly way down the stairs to the building’s sub-basement, where we stood silently for a few minutes until the all-clear alarm went off and we walked back up to our classrooms. I recall the air-raid siren tests that went off every Friday at noon without fail. 
     When I was a boy, my family listened regularly to the radio. Although I recall the Civil Defense pamphlets, and the upside down triangle signs on radio dials and elsewhere, I can’t recall hearing the public service announcements for civil defense, and “alert and alive” never registered with me. At about eleven or twelve years of age I was gifted with a pocket sized transistor radio, and I listened to a wide variety of radio stations and yet I can’t recall those announcements. I must have heard them, but for some reason they didn’t make the kind of an impression for me to recall what was in them. Duck-and-cover, shelter drills, air-raid sirens, and other exercises signaled by alarm sounds quickly became routine. We children made fun of them. Imagine a deliberate march in size order to a bare, underground hallway where we would wait for the building to collapse on top of us in any attack.
     Perhaps our ironic stance was an existential reaction, although at ten years old we knew nothing of Sartre and Camus. That I don’t recall the civil defense radio spots also suggests that at some deeper level I must have shut off my sense of alarm in the face of the un-faceable. I did not participate in the “listening culture” of the atomic age as it was intended for me to do. Neither did my friends. My parents might have encouraged me to participate, but I don’t recall they initiated any conversation about an atomic attack. In other words, I don’t know how they felt about Civil Defense and whether they listened carefully or had turned themselves off. Certainly, we never had a fallout shelter of our own nor made any preparations as a family for a nuclear attack. 
     The ways in which these alarms affected the lifeworlds of those of us who lived through the period were left out of this writer’s essay. Older people, children, men, women, wealthy people and those not so wealthy, people living in cities that would be sure targets and others living in remote areas, all participated to some degree in this Civil Defense listening culture, while most people listened to radios. If I had been asked, I could have said that the sounds did not have their desired effect on me and my cohort. We could not take them seriously. To survive, if we were forced to confront them, we had to take the sounds of alarm bells, sirens, CD radio spots, and song lyrics ironically.
Foam gnome, object and photo by Jeff Todd Titon
     Although I well recall “Sh-boom” from my pre-teen years, any sound and symbolism of the blast and a life afterward in Paradise was completely lost on my friends and me, who simply enjoyed the clever sounds without thinking much about the meaning of the lyrics. If we’d been asked, we’d have said that “Sh-boom” was about romance, not about a bomb and its aftermath. And “Thirteen Women” didn’t register on us because it wasn’t a hit song. (The flip side, “Rock Around the Clock,” registered very loudly. And schools regularly made up cheers for sporting events, imitating the song and adapting it.) Rock and roll lyrics weren’t meant to be taken seriously, anyway. Those of us old enough to recall the Steve Allen show on television will remember that this talented comedian regularly spoke rock and roll lyrics out loud as if they were profound poems, while the audience in the studio and at home laughed at them. For some of us, it was the first time we actually heard them as words, rather than as something different (sung sounds). This is an important point, I believe, for anyone who wants to understand the meanings of popular song lyrics from this era as they were experienced. Interpreting song lyrics as if they were poems overlooks the different meanings we took from them, not as verbal messages but as rhythmic sound clusters. Indeed, this was the only way we could experience the doo-wop layers of the songs. 
     Tom Lehrer, an important singer-songwriter in the folk music revival of the 1950s, laced his songs with satire and irony. To lyrics like Lehrer’s, some older teenagers (and adults, too) listened as if they were popular poems. One of them, explicitly about a nuclear holocaust, was “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” Among its increasingly outrageous rhymes are these: “Universal bereavement / an inspiring achievement” and “With complete participation / in the grand incineration” and “Just sing out a ‘Te Deum’ / when you see that I.C.B.M” and “When the air becomes uranious / and we all go simultaneous.” Irony would be a useful hypothesis for anyone interested in understanding the listening cultures of this atomic period from the point of view of the listeners. In our contemporary era of bigger nuclear buttons, and missiles and bombs, Lehrer’s songs and the desperate humor they carried are just as relevant, while music and sustainability takes on a different relation: singing for humans and for sustaining the environment by singing for peace. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sustainability is Environmental, Economic, and Cultural

Three Spheres of Sustainability, from Joshua J. Yates, "Abundance on Trial," The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2012.

     Musical and cultural sustainability are inseparable from environmental ecosystem sustainability. That’s been one of this blog’s themes from the outset. I advanced an ecological approach to musical sustainability beginning about 2006 with the Nettl Lecture at the University of Illinois, followed by presentations and panels at the American Folklore Society and Society for Ethnomusicology conferences—the latter published in a 2009 issue of the journal, The World of Music. Now a dozen years later, in May 2018, there will be a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, based on this very same proposition, that environmental and cultural sustainability are inseparable. 
     The conference announcement reads, in part: “Cultural Sustainabilities is a two-day conference driven by the proposition that environmental and cultural sustainability are inextricably linked. This conference brings together leading social scientists, humanists, and activists to address the premise that reversing or ameliorating the negative impacts of human behavior on the globe’s environment is at its core a human cultural question.” The conference is sponsored by the University of California, Santa Barbara, departments of Music, Anthropology, Media Studies, and Environmental Studies, with support from UCSB’s Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Music and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. The list of sponsors indicates that sustainability today is considered an issue for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In 2006, of course, that was not the case; beginning in that year I spoke, and then wrote, that in the university world of theoretical and applied knowledge, sustainability discourses resided primarily in economics (particularly developmental economics) and ecology (particularly conservation biology), while in the public arena sustainability was associated with environmentalism, energy conservation, and living a “green” life. In addition, sustainability thinking led to ecological economics, an alternative to neoclassical economic theory. Today a robust discussion of sustainability is occurring in the arts and humanities. Indeed, sustainability is now mainstream enough for it to be critiqued in the environmental humanities, who (mistakenly in my view) believe that it promotes a version of deep ecology as the sustainability ideal. 
     I’ll have more to say about that sustainabilities conference at UCSB as this coming May approaches—it is free and open to the public, and parts or all of it may be streamed on the internet—but what prompts this post is the assault on environmental and cultural sustainabilities underway by the current US federal Administration, personified by the policies put in place by the heads of the US Department of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) and the Environmental Protection Administration (Scott Pruitt). Yesterday, it was announced that 9 of 12 members of the US National Parks Advisory Panel resigned en masse, in protest, because during the year 2017, the first year that Secretary Zinke was head of Interior, he never once convened or consulted his advisory panel. After they resigned, a spokesperson for the Department of Interior told the board chair, Tony Knowles (former governor of Alaska) that their resignation was “welcome” because the board had ignored sexual harassment in the Parks, and that they had also ignored an invitation to meet on January 8th. Knowles told a NPR interviewer that these charges were laughable; no invitation for a meeting had ever come to the board, while they had in fact offered advice to the previous Administration on sexual harassment policy, which was a serious problem in the Parks (and in the Interior Department as a whole). Knowles suggested that the Adminstration’s spokesperson, associate deputy secretary Todd Willens, was inventing facts to fit the false narrative he wanted to present. Willens' moral condemnation of sexual harassment, like that of his boss, rings false considering the history of sexual predation that accompanies the nation's chief executive. Having served on an advisory board myself, and having experienced something similar when the organization got a new leader, I know what it means when the new head is unwilling to follow the advisory board’s advice. But seldom does the new leader ignore the board entirely. 
     The Parks represent natural ecosystems set aside for conservation and preservation, in a nation where for centuries economic development has exploited natural resources without much regard for sustainability. But now, according to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, even the Parks themselves are at great risk. They face a $12 billion backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance already, and it is clear from the environmental policies being put in place by the current Administration, that the Parks will not receive much federal help. One “solution” to their financial problem, scheduled to be implemented this year, is a rise in the Parks’ admission fees, by roughly 350%. Where it used to cost $20 to visit Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, this year the admission fee will rise to $70. (The advisory board had opposed the rate raise.) For a working-class family of four, part of the voter base that elected this President, a cost of nearly $300 in admissions alone would put such a vacation out of reach. And yet, these were meant to be “national” parks, available to all, not private land. As Woody Guthrie wrote in the song, “This Land Is Your Land,”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; 
Sign was painted, it said private property; 
But on the back side it didn't say nothing; 
That side was made for you and me. 

This verse is not listed in the Wikipedia entry for this song, by the way. Someone should update it. 
      I’ve posted blog entries here about partnering with Scott McFarland at the Great Smoky National Park in the spring of 2016, on a soundscape project, part of the Park’s “natural sounds and night skies” initiative to preserve the sonic ecosystems of the Parks for visitors and also for the benefit of all Park inhabitants (plants, animals) that cannot survive without sound communication. But the assault on the Parks is just part of a larger agenda, a policy encouraging coal mining, timber cutting, oil and gas drilling, and so on, in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as federally owned lands; and in areas where an environmental disaster such as an oil spill would have adverse economic impacts on local and regional industries. Opening up the Gulf of Maine, for example, to oil drilling—which the current Administration may well accomplish, despite opposition from all the state's Congressional representatives, including the very conservative Republican, Bruce Poliquin—could destroy the fishing and tourist industries that the state of Maine’s population greatly depends on. The impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico stood as a warning to the previous Administration; but under the current one it’s open season on the environment, for the benefit of the oil corporations and the wealthy who have effectively bought the government (see Citizens United) at the expense of the people. 
     No clearer examples of the interlinks between environmental and cultural sustainability can be found than in the damage done to people and their ways of life caused by environmental disasters. The fact that these environmental disasters result in large part from human economic activity fueled by belief in maximizing material wealth in the short run, does not prevent those presently controlling federal policy from exacerbating the problem and causing further environmental injustice while mounting a propaganda campaign of denial and reversal. Such policies may yet trickle down to reduce and then eliminate federal support for the arts and humanities, for public media (NPR and PBS). The propaganda campaign infects the public sphere and threatens academic freedom while it gaslights scientific truth, and puts colleges and universities’ disinterested pursuit of knowledge at risk, in the same way that the Parks, the environmentally sensitive areas, and American cultural values (such as democracy, equal opportunity, civil rights, and human rights) are also under assault. It’s taken a dozen years, but now sustainability is understood to be cultural and social, as well as economic and environmental, with important connections among them. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Natural Selection and the Invisible Hand

Invisible path to Oxford, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

     My sound ecology project led me to study animal sound communication, from three points of view: the modern science of behavioral ecology; indigenous ecological knowledges; and poetics, including zoomusicology. Zoomusicologists are especially interested in birdsong, from an aesthetic point of view. Sound functions for indigenous peoples as an indicator of nature: weather and climate, for example, and the locations and activities of animals, as well as spirit-persons. Behavioral ecologists study sound communication as part of the science of animal behavior: they are interested in understanding how, what, and why animals (and plants) signal information to one another by means of sound. Music may be understood as a special form of communication among human animals. Of course, compared with other animal sound communication, human music is thought to be complex in structure, to have aesthetic qualities, and to operate as part of the cultural matrix—that is, it varies among different peoples, it is learned and transmitted from one group and generation to the next, it is creative, and so on, making it different in degree (if not in kind) from the croaks of frogs and the chirps of crickets. And yet, I’ve wondered whether insights from the study of animal sound communication have bearing on music and sustainability, on the one hand, and on the place of sound and music in the contemporary environmental and cultural crisis, on the other.
     In reviewing the literature of behavioral ecology, I found that explanations of animal sound communication were based in the neo-Darwinian paradigm of fitness combined with modern gene theory. That is, individual animals communicated (in sound and by other means) in a struggle for survival with the result that those better adapted to their ecological niche would have the best chance of living longer, mating more often, and contributing their genetic inheritance to the ongoing gene pool of their species. Those better adapted exhibited advantageous variations compared with other members of their species: bigger, stronger, “smarter,” more flexible, and so on; or in the realm of sound communication they could vocalize louder, or longer, or in a more elaborate way, or more often, or when there was less interference from other sounds. As Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed, then, the animals who were better at vocalizing (all other things equal) would gradually comprise a greater percentage of their species, and over very long (geological) periods of time, would “transmute” (or mutate) into new species. 
     One of the things that struck me immediately about Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that its evolutionary algorithm operated like Adam Smith’s "invisible hand." In both, individuals acting in their self interest—that is, selfishly—were said to produce an overall outcome for the common, or public, good: whether for the better adaptation of a species, or the benefit of society (the market economy, with opportunities and benefits for more individuals). Darwin himself credited the genesis of natural selection to his reading of Malthus on population: “In October 1838 I happened to read . . . Malthus . . . and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.” 
    But recently in reading Silvan Schweber’s detailed examination of Darwin’s reading during the period that led up to his eureka moment, I found confirmation that Smith's "invisible hand" had also been an influence. With natural selection, as in the free market, there was no external intervention or regulation; things were said to work out for the best naturally, and of their own accord, as if guided by an invisible hand. Also, in reading Stephen Jay Gould’s summary of Darwin’s “middle road” the other day, I ran across a similar reaction to Darwin’s theory from none other than Karl Marx. Writing to Engels shortly after reading Darwin, Marx put it this way: “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘invention,’ and the Malthusian ’struggle for existence.’” Nature, in other words, operated in the plant and animal kingdoms as the free market did in the sphere of human economics.
     Gould himself had come to the same conclusion after reading Schweber’s 1977 essay. He wrote, “I believe the theory of natural selection should be viewed as an extended analogy—whether conscious or unconscious on Darwin’s part I do not know—to the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. The essence of Smith’s argument is a paradox of sorts: if you want an ordered economy providing maximum benefits to all, then let individuals compete and struggle for their own advantages. The result, after appropriate sorting and elimination of the inefficient, will be a stable and harmonious polity. Apparent order arises naturally from the struggle among individuals, not from predestined principles or higher control." Gould was quick to demur from Smith's classical economic theory: laissez-faire economics leads to oligopoly and inequality, not a stable and harmonious society. 
     Gould also went on to point out that just because natural selection and laissez-faire economics were analogous, that in itself did not mean they were wrong. Even so, I believe there are reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, it is also possible that Marx was right, in that natural selection is anthropogenic, projecting our human understanding of behavior onto the animal kingdom because we have no alternative: we can’t comprehend what it is to be a nonhuman animal. And for another, as I learned just recently, from a 2011 essay by Peter Harrison in the history of ideas, Adam Smith didn’t mean what Marx, Schweber, Gould, and I thought he meant by the invisible hand. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was understood, by Smith and others at the time he was writing, as deliberate intervention, “higher control” —in fact, it was taken to be the hand of God, hidden and invisible, yet working for the good of mankind. In other words, Smith’s free market was not free from the direction of God’s invisible hand. The irony is that Darwin’s natural selection was free from it. And so in this important aspect, Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the classical economic theory of Adam Smith are quite the opposite. Darwin himself would have liked to believe that God’s invisible hand was operating in the natural world, but could not bring himself to that faith, for various reasons that can be found in the voluminous literature about Darwin.
     Metaphors and analogies are necessary in scientific theories. Mathematical formulas represent ideas; Newton’s f=ma and Einstein’s e=mc squared are meaningless until the concepts are explained in words. “Relativity” is both a fact and a metaphor. Smith's "invisible hand" is a metaphor. In The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that he used the phrase “struggle for existence” in a “large and metaphorical sense including the dependence of one being on another.” And this is to say that for Darwin the “struggle for life” involved not only selfishness, but also interdependence and cooperation, something that is sometimes forgotten by contemporary neo-Darwinians fixated on what Richard Dawkins famously called “selfish gene theory.” Interdependence, after all, is the cornerstone principle of ecological science—the study of the relationships among organisms and to their environments—and one of the four principles of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


S-town doesn’t stand for sustainability town, but the S-town project bears on sustainability because it’s a documentary project sort of like the ones that anthropologists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and sociologists undertake and call ethnography. S-town, as many readers will recall, was a very popular NPR podcast that aired early last spring. An example of personal journalism, it was a radio documentary edited by Brian Reed and sponsored by Serial and NPR's This American Life. Reed followed up an email received from one John McLemore, an eccentric resident of a small Alabama town, who called it in S-town. As I recall from listening to the podcast last April, the persistent McLemore invited Reed to visit and investigate an alleged murder. It turned out there wasn’t a murder after all, but McLemore fascinated Reed so much that he kept coming back, eventually becoming friends with him and learning about the community from McLemore’s perspective and meeting some of McLemore’s friends and acquaintances. The documentary gradually reveals aspects of McLemore’s mysterious life, as Reed came to understand it. Reed documented his conversations and phonecalls with McLemore by recording them with audio equipment. S-town consists of these audio recordings, edited and intermixed with Reed’s narration of his quest, first to investigate the supposed murder, and eventually to understand McLemore. But the narrative changes abruptly after McLemore commits suicide. Now Reed’s quest shifts: he wants to understand why McLemore killed himself, which must, he thinks, be further tied up in the mystery of his life. In the process, though, Reed has to contend with the people who want to inherit McLemore’s estate, or parts of it. One of McLemore’s closest friends, a man named Tyler, believes (probably correctly) that McLemore wanted him to have certain of his things upon his death. He takes them from the estate, whereupon McLemore's cousin and heir, who has not been in McLemore's life for many years, shows up to claim her inheritance and asks the police to arrest Tyler and charge him with theft. Reed is upset by all these events, and he feels sorry for Tyler, who as the story ends is facing a likely arrest and court date, while Reed tries to tie up the loose ends and offer his explanation of McLemore's life and death.
S-town gained a great deal of attention in the media. There were articles about it in The New Yorker, in The Atlantic, and on line, both as it went along and at the end. It was heralded as a breakthrough in personal radio documentary, but at the same time questions were raised about the ethics of what some saw as an invasion of privacy, first McLemore’s, and then Tyler’s. My take at the time was that McLemore probably was happy with the attention and would have welcomed the podcast. Tyler, on the other hand, was not one to want the spotlight. He had been in trouble with the law for the kinds of minor infractions that some teenagers and younger adults who have little in the way of education, resources or prospects get involved with. He was not someone who listened to public radio and probably did not understand the kind of project that Reed was involved in. Even if he did, he did not have the ability to protect himself very well other than by refusing to cooperate--but then, he would have compromised his relationship with McLemore, who had invited the attention; and McLemore was his employer. In many ways, Tyler was representative of the underclass of people ethnographers have documented in the South—poor whites—ever since they were sketched in nineteenth-century fiction as “Crackers,” and later portrayed as hillbillies. The best-known documentation of Tyler’s people in Alabama was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book originally published in the early 1940s by James Agee and Walker Evans, and reprinted many times since—also an example of personal journalism, as intense if not more intense than Reed’s radio documentary. Privacy concerns were expressed about it, also, but Agee and Evans used pseudonymns for their subjects. Reed’s documentary broadcast their real names.
As media events do, S-town faded from public consciousness during the summer. But then in September, it was revealed that Bryan Jones, the prosecutor in the case of the alleged burglary of a few of McLemore’s items after his death, had doubled the number of charges against Tyler, after having listened to what was revealed on the S-town podcast. He also argued against Tyler’s release on bail, based on some things Tyler said that Reed recorded and broadcast. Jones told the Tuscaloosa News that “In the podcast, he basically admits to the trespass and the burglaries and thefts.” What Jones didn’t say was that Tyler believes these items are rightfully his because, even though he had not specified it in a will, McLemore promised them to him. 
Last month, in a plea deal Tyler admitted guilt for taking lumber, junk vehicles, and a laptop computer from McLemore’s estate, in exchange for a ten-year suspended sentence, plus five years to be spent on probation per agreement. Would Tyler have been found out at all in the absence of the podcast? Probably; the McLemore heir reported the items missing, and the sheriff would likely have found Tyler and the items anyway. He made no attempt to hide them, and the old junk cars would have been obvious in his yard. Would the sentence have been less than it was? Probably, though some would argue he was lucky the judge didn't give him jail time. And what did Tyler think about his privacy having been compromised? “Hasn’t really helped much,” he told WTVM-13, a central Alabama news station. “Sometimes I regret ever speaking into that microphone because I was probably upset, or wasn’t thinking clearly.” 
Personal journalism of this sort is subject to invasion of privacy suits, of course, but there is little likelihood that Tyler or any of the inhabitants of S-town will sue. Ethnographers, also, are subject to similar legal action, but the professional ethics standards of our disciplines—anthropology, folklore, sociology, ethnomusicology—published on the websites of our professional societies, state that we have a responsibility to protect the interests of our subjects and consider the possibility of harmful consequences, inform our subjects of any, and obtain their informed consent in advance. Almost all do. I don’t know whether Reed obtained informed consent—possibly he did—but the point is not just to obtain consent, but rather to refrain from publishing ethnographic materials that could have harmful consequences. Cultural sustainability requires documentation, but documentation that does not conform to standards of ethics will not sustain anything—or anyone—in the long run.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Plantations, Blues, and a Trump Hotel in Cleveland

Blues tourism in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta has been around since at least the 1970s, but it’s been a niche industry because blues fandom peaked in the 1960s and despite occasional mini-boomlets since, it has never been the same. Even the interest in blues that followed The Blues Brothers (1980) film was short-lived. But now a new pair of blues brothers are bidding to make blues tourism big-league: Donald Trump, Jr., and his brother Eric are planning to fund a Trump hotel in Cleveland—that’s Cleveland, Mississippi, not Ohio. For it was in Drew, near Cleveland, Mississippi, that Charley Patton, considered the “father” of the Delta Blues, lived on Dockery’s Plantation where he sang and played blues. It was there that Robert Johnson hung out with Patton and his friends and, supposedly, learned to sing and play blues (although there are accounts of his having learned from Satan after meeting him at a crossroads). It was Johnson who along with Howlin’ Wolf (who also lived in the area) and played with Patton, influenced the post-WW2 Chicago blues sound that, again supposedly, became the basis for rhythm ’n’ blues and rock and roll in the 1950s. All of this is arguable, except for Patton’s home base in Drew, seven miles from Cleveland. And the fact that a Grammy Museum opened in Cleveland last year highlights blues history. (There is another Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.)
     The Trumps are reportedly partnering with the family of Suresh Chawla, Indian-American immigrants and hotel entrepreneurs, to build the hotel that would bear the Trump imprimatur and, presumably, lure tourists coming not only for blues but also for the Trump name. Suresh Chawla gave $50,000 to the Trump campaign and pitched the hotel at a Trump fund-raiser in Jackson, Mississippi in August of 2016. A story that ran last week in the Washington Post offered the outlines of the deal, but there were earlier reports about it last June. The trump-branded hotel will also boast a meeting hall built to resemble a cotton gin and, at the suggestion of the Trump family, a mansion made to look like an antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) southern plantation. In the wake of controversies surrounding removal of Confederate monuments built during the Jim Crow era, erecting an antebellum plantation in a town attempting to attract blues tourists strikes a doubly wrong note. 
     Antebellum plantations, after all, were the apotheoses of slavery. The wealthiest slaveowners lived in them, the ones that held the most African American slaves as property, in bondage, subject to torture if they didn’t labor hard to grow cotton and other crops, and maintain the life style of the plantation owner family. One of the mansions’ defining features were exterior columns in Greek Revival style, and no doubt the Trump mansion will boast these as well. As a four-star hotel, it will charge several hundred dollars per night for a visitor to stay there. Surely some of the workers in the hotel will be African Americans, descendants of slaves, as are the majority of laborers in the Delta today still. Yet it was out of slavery and its aftermath that their ancestors sang of freedom, in the spirituals and the blues. Erecting a symbol of slavery, torture, and the Confederacy in the heartland of the Delta blues is more than cheeky. But then Trump campaigned on bringing "the torture" back to the fight against terrorism.
     Some people, sympathetic to the long-lasting economic problems and poverty in the Delta, are willing (as Robert Johnson is said to have done) to strike a deal with the devil. In moments of desperation and hunger, people are willing to accept presumed solutions, no matter the cost in symbolism and historical irony. But would such a hotel enrich the region very much? Certainly it would enrich the investors, if it succeeded; and it would further swell the coffers of the President’s family, of which he is a member even though he is temporarily out of the real estate business. Whether it would bring much prosperity to the region’s population is questionable. A few local businessmen would reap the benefit of tourist dollars, to be sure; but would there be a significant increase in jobs? And because the original investment will be huuuge, it will enrich the banks (perhaps Russian banks?) until the loans are paid off. Blues tourism isn't a big business, and never has been; and Cleveland itself doesn’t have much to offer in the way of blues history or venues other than the new museum. 

   To add to the irony, the word “plantation” (to describe the place where a wealthy family lived to command a considerable agricultural operation) remained in common parlance in the post-bellum, Jim Crow Delta and elsewhere in the South. Dockery’s Plantation was an agricultural empire with dozens of African American sharecropper families living on its property. It was so vast and powerful that it issued its own scrip, or money. It also controlled the local police and the courts. Someone who ran afoul of the law risked disappearance, murder, and burial in an unmarked grave. As Lightnin’ Hopkins sang in "Tim Moore's Farm," putting the words in the mouth of a plantation boss, “Stay out of the graveyard and I’ll keep you from the pen[itentiary].” The sharecroppers lived in shacks not much different from antebellum slave quarters. It is unlikely that the Trump hotel will reproduce these. Dockery’s itself has turned into a blues tourist attraction and museum. Yet in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is reproduction of a post-bellum plantation complete with sharecropper shacks: the Hopson Plantation. 
Shacks, Hopson Plantation, Clarksdale, MS.
   This is an attempt at an authentic reproduction, with interpretation detailing the operation of a post-bellum cotton plantation in the Delta. We may hope that at least a few of the tourists who visit the Trump hotel in Cleveland will visit Dockery’s and the Hopson Plantation to find out a little about the conditions that spawned the Delta blues, not to mention the connections with rhythm ’n’ blues and rock ’n’ roll, and then think about what all this architecture represents. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

US National Folk Festival, 2017

The National Folk Festival celebrated its 77th anniversary, in Greensboro last weekend, with a seven-stage musical extravaganza featuring traditional music performed by professional musicians from various parts of the US and the world. If you were in attendance, you could hear a variety of traditional North American musics, with the usual emphases: old-time music, bluegrass, and country; Cajun, Cape Breton, African American blues (Lurrie Bell) and gospel music (The Fairfield Four), Polish-American, and so on, mixed in with a smattering of ethnic musics not usually heard at these festivals--last weekend it was Egyptian music from New York City. Besides the music performances, more informal, educational presentations occurred, with musicians from different performing groups gathered on a single stage: for example, seven fiddlers, each representing different traditions and demonstrating similarities, differences, and the characteristics of genre and style. 
     The National is one of two major, annual, long-running US folk festivals. The other is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place in Washington, DC, whereas the National moves from one city to another every four years. The Smithsonian’s is more ambitious, with more stages, more performers, and a many more crafts artists besides, often demonstrating what they make, whether boats or baskets or Polish Easter eggs or any number of other hand-made objects. When the National was in Bangor, Maine, 2001-2003, the Maine Folklife Center partnered and offered a crafts stage with Native American basketmakers, state-based violin makers, and other crafts artists; in Greensboro there were crafts demonstrations in a North Carolina tent area. One stage at the National is always reserved for traditional dance music, and the crowd is always given a huge dance floor and encouraged to dance (see photo below). I was one of the presenters at the National this year, and it was my job to work a little at the dance stage and introduce Lurrie Bell and his Chicago blues band, and also Bruce Daigrepont and his Cajun band. There must have been 500 people happily dancing at each performance, while another few hundred looked on. Mutliply that by seven stages along with others moving about from one stage to another, or to the food concessions, and I guess about ten thousand overall in attendance. The National (and Smithsonian Folklife) festival have no admissions charge, but at the National a bucket is passed around for suggested contributions of $10 per person per day, and most people do contribute. The money is used to defray expenses. Other expenses are borne by corporate sponsors such as large telephone companies, along with local businesses, that get a chance to advertise at the festival. Sometimes the city council also contributes, hoping that the festival will attract out-of-town tourists whose expenditures will enhance the local economy. It’s good in that it brings people in the city together for a common, pleasurable experience; and in a city as diverse as Greensboro, this had a very positive impact. There was an atmosphere of celebration, a feeling that all traditions are valuable; there was no competition to speak of among ethnic groups, as there can be in certain European folk festivals.  
     The history of these festivals is complex and interesting. The National is much the older one and, like many that took place before the 1960s, it concentrated on Anglo-American musical traditions, implicitly promoting the idea that the US’ folk heritage is largely British, stemming from the British Colonies. The silent message was that the vast number of immigrants from outside of the UK, along with the Africans who were taken and sold into slavery, had less of a right to claim a pure American heritage. In the 1960s US immigration laws were relaxed, the nation began to be viewed as a mosaic of various ethnic groups, while the old "melting pot" idea came under pressure as ethnicity became a positive attribute and tracing one's roots became a pastime for some. The Newport Folk Festival added a significant number of African-American and Euro-American performers and traditions, and the Smithsonian (which began as the Newport was fading into obscurity) gradually increased ethnic as well as regional and class diversity among the performers and traditions they represented, making a special effort in the aftermath of the war in Indochina to bring displaced Asians and their traditions into the festival lineup. The National, also, became more diverse in its programming during this period. Soon, the Smithsonian festival partnered with folklorists overseas, and in most years traditional music and arts from one non-US nation was featured. For the US Bicentennial, the Smithsonian festival ran throughout the summer and traditions from many nations were on display along with their US diasporic counterparts, a festival extravaganza that has not been equalled since.
     The audience understands these festivals primarily as entertainment, but the festival organizers want also to inform and educate to some degree. The performers are unfamiliar to most of the audience, and in some cases the genres are as well. The presenters have the option of informing the audience, before the performers take the stage, about the traditions they represent, and something about the performers’ lives and careers. Of course, the audience grows impatient for the music if the presenters take more than a few minutes’ educating them. For me, this is a real danger because as a college professor I tend to lecture in a situation like this, so I have to remember to keep it short, especially when presenting on the dance stage. 
     At the Smithsonian festival, the stages are either performance stages or so-called narrative stages. In the latter, presenters engage the performers in conversations, and then performers demonstrate what they’ve been talking about—so it’s a much more educative environment. I recall that in the early 1990s, when I was working for the Smithsonian festival, in response to a few of my questions blues singer Johnny Shines delivered a scathing indictment of racism while explaining the history of blues. I had visited with Shines in his home in Alabama some years earlier, and found him to be not only a fine musician, singer and composer, but also a reflective person who, he said, had been writing his autobiography. I didn’t stay close to him, though, and by the time he died several years after performing at the Smithsonian festival, he hadn’t published the autobiography, nor did any part of the manuscript surface after his death. 

Customized antennas and other DIY electronics atop Big Joe Williams' 
station wagon, ca. 1980. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon.
     In 1976, the first time I worked at a folk festival—it was the Smithsonian—I was asked to present blues singer Big Joe Williams. At that time, the directors of the festival and the Smithsonian’s folklife division—Bess Lomax Hawes and Ralph Rinzler—were invested in the idea that folk music would be adulterated if presented accompanied by amplified guitars, electric basses, drums, and so on. Yet they understood that in the blues tradition, electronic amplification had become the standard after the second World War, and so they permitted a little of it, at low volume so that the sound didn't bleed from one stage to another. Big Joe had brought his own amplifier, a home-made rig consisting of an old floor-model radio from the 1940s, with a huge speaker, into which he’d placed an army surplus amplifier. It was very beat looking and at least 25 years old. Joe, who was quite a DIY electrician, carried it with him to his gigs in towns and cities up and down the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Chicago, where he traveled almost constantly. I recall that when Bess and Ralph took their first look at his amplifier, they recoiled, thinking that it must be an electrical hazard. But he demonstrated otherwise, and the gigantic amp that looked like an ancient radio became an object of the audience’s fascination, though of course for Big Joe it was just an amplifier. 
     Joe also played a 9-string guitar, which was a six to which he’d added three more, another home-made rig. I’ve never heard of anyone else who played a 9-string guitar, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter. The three added strings included one that doubled the G-string an octave higher, as in a 12-string guitar, giving Joe’s guitar the most distinctive sound of the 12-string, the octave G. Joe’s station wagon also was a magnificent DIY contraption, to the extent that he’d customized the electronics and several other aspects of the interior. It was quite a sight, and I took many photos of it. I’ve told elsewhere, in an interview, about an incident with Big Joe at that 1976 festival, one that has troubled me for many years; but there’s no need to go into detail about that here. 
     I’ve written here before, also, about the paradox in presenting mediated performances of "authentic" traditional musics which, in their natural contexts, are not mediated, even though they may be staged. Presenters, of course, are the chief mediators, explaining the musical traditions and saying something about the performers’ lives and careers, aspects of the performances that would otherwise be absent. And yet, insofar as a greater percentage of these performers are professional folk musicians today—due in no small part to support from festivals like these, and from state and local arts councils—most of their performances are staged and many are mediated. And some of the genres that they perform have been presented from the stage and on recordings for at nearly 100 years, including blues and old-time string band music, while for others the natural context is the stage, not the home. A more realistic description of these musics, I think, is that they have front-stage and back-stage aspects, neither more authentic than the other. Old-time, bluegrass, and country musicians, for example, perform from stages but also get together to play with and for one another informally at home and on the road in motels, and in campers at festivals, and so forth. In some traditions, what was once done in the home kitchens, on porches, or in living rooms with rolled up rugs and carpets, moved into community halls, or bars and pubs, or both, retaining the community flavor of a large family. And so there is that aspect of this music as well, back-stage and informal, that not only remains but is in a sense encouraged by festivals like the National and others that help support it in all of its aspects. 
    One of the best things about these festivals, over the years, is that they’ve encouraged people in the audience to learn and make music. At the National, two of my friends and colleagues, who teach in Greensboro, brought their four-year-old son; and he was thrilled to see and hear the music, especially up close. Bruce Daigrepont, leader of the Cajun band, noticed him, walked over to the section of the stage close to where his father was holding him on his shoulders, and moved his accordion back and forth towards and away from the youngster, who was entranced. Although the boy is too young to know what kind of music this is, surely he continues to identify music with movement and pleasure, something that will serve him well when he decides to take up music systematically and learn to sing or play or both, himself. He already pretends to make music—certainly he makes sounds—at home, on toy instruments; and it won’t be too long before he’s ready to apply himself to learn the skills needed to make real music.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Post-Truth, Ethnography, and Religion in Appalachia

What’s happened to the ethnographic study of religion in Appalachia? In the last two decades of the 20th century it was a controversial, almost a hot topic within Appalachian Studies; in this century it’s cooled way down. At the 2016 Appalachian Studies Association conference, there wasn’t a single paper delivered on the subject, whereas in 1990 a special plenary session was devoted to a book that had recently been published on Appalachian religion, namely Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church (University of Texas Press, 1988). Perhaps the reissue of this book, forthcoming next year from the University of Tennessee Press, in a second edition with a new Afterword, will encourage more ethnographic research into this rich area of expressive culture.

Most of us who did this research in the last century have either grown old, lost interest, moved over to other subjects, or decided not to write much if anything about it any longer—or all of the above. The most prolific writer among us, Howard Dorgan, passed away. Why the current lull? It may be due to changing conditions within the academic world, or changes in ethnographic research and writing, or both. Typically, ethnographic research takes a long time. As opposed to survey work, which covers a broad area quickly (and sometimes superficially), ethnographic documentation means in-depth study of a single community for a year or more, though not necessarily a continuous year. Good (that is, accurate) ethnographic documentation requires meticulous attention to detail. Whereas religious beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples have always been an important topic for social and cultural anthropologists, the study of religion in the developed world, even among marginal groups, never attracted as much attention, nor did it carry much academic prestige. In today’s difficult job market, where hiring, promotion, and tenure often turn on research that makes a strong contribution to theory, and on topics that have broader than specialist appeal, the ethnographic study of religion in Appalachia has a hard time meeting either criterion. At the same time, ethnography itself has changed from an endeavor that attempted objectivity to one that recognizes the difficulties, if not the impossibility, of an objective approach. Religion is an especially difficult subject for ethnographers. Some religious practitioners feel that its essence is beyond the reach of science to begin with. Others make truth claims that ethnographers need to respond to, either by saying they are true, that they are false, or that it is best to set aside the truth or falsity of those claims and concentrate instead on describing the claims themselves, and the way they are practiced and experienced by the individuals and the social group that holds them. Documentation, once thought to be unbiased, no longer rests on so strong a scientific foundation; and the scientific study of religion was challenged even before ethnography itself was. Both its authority and its worth is questioned, and as a result it has become less appealing for this reason as well.

Recently, though, the dangers of living in a post-truth society, in which a fact is whatever one claims to be a fact, have become plain. In a review in the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), Sam Leith reminds us that the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truth leads to deception, including self-deception, which leads to misjudgment and ill fortune. This is true for populations and societies, as well as individuals and social groups. Ethnography’s claim to evidence-based solidity, if not complete accuracy, ought to become more attractive to those academics, and others, who resist the assault on settled opinion in matters of law, ethics, or, to take an example closer to the theme of this blog, climate change and sustainability. Possibly for that reason ethnographic research in general, and into religion specifically, will begin to gain more practitioners. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sustainability Stamp Blues

 The United States has just issued a commemorative stamp in its series honoring the statehood anniversaries of each state of the union. This time, the state is Mississippi, and on the stamp is a painting of an acoustic guitar being played by a person with a brown hand and fingers. At the upper right are the letters Mississippi; at the lower right the number 1817 (the year Mississippi became a state), and at the lower left the word “FOREVER” followed by USA. It is the 200th anniversary of statehood, and it’s striking that the image chosen to represent the state is that of an African American playing blues on guitar. (The painting was made from a 2009 photograph by Lou Bopp of blues singer and guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, from the town of Bentonia, the same town of legendary blues singer/guitarist Skip James whose 1920s recordings are among the most riveting early blues performances. Well-known to blues aficionados for seven decades, James' recordings entered the public sphere in the 2001 film Ghost World, where they were the center of attraction for the young heroine’s fascination with a record collector.)
    This wasn't the first commemorative to honor a Mississippi blues musician; in 1994 a 29-cent stamp was issued with an ugly painting of Robert Johnson's head that borders on caricature. Johnson had been the subject of blues revivalists' fascination in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s after the Blues Brothers film rekindled an interest in the genre. Columbia Records once again reissued Johnson's recordings, this time on CD rather than LP (the originals had been on 78s), and it seemed as if a US stamp with Johnson's image announced blues' mainstream cultural significance. The name "Mississippi" didn't appear on the stamp, which seemed more a coup for the blues and for Columbia Records, than for the state represented by Johnson's music.
    But now, 23 years later, various things about this state's official commemorative stamp are notable. Blues, as I’ve written before on this blog, is a poster child for music and sustainability, because despite predictions for more than a hundred years of its impending demise, blues managed to survive. The “FOREVER” in this stamp takes on a double meaning: not only the stamp but also the blues is viable, so it's implied, forever. With this stamp, blues reverses 180 degrees, from impending death to eternal life. Certainly, in the 1960s when I was a guitarist participant in the blues revival of that time, and a part of the blues music culture, I wouldn’t have predicted anything like this. Not that I thought the death of blues was imminent, but its immortality on an official seal of the United States would have been inconceivable. Not only that, but in some ways it'd have been unwelcome.
    It would have been unwelcome for record collectors, and for blues revivalists like me, because for us blues had become, in the 1960s, an alternative music, just as the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary had; and just as old-time string band music had become. Blues then was positioned, in the revival, not just outside of but in opposition to the music, and the values, of official, mainstream culture. Blues on a US stamp would have been viewed as an attempt to co-opt it and buy it off.
    A few other things about this stamp are troublesome. Although I named the musician in my first paragraph, nowhere is his name indicated on the stamp. African-American erasure, once again. Indeed, blues itself isn't mentioned on the stamp; genre is under erasure just as is the artist's name. Identifying the state of Mississippi with a blues guitarist is appropriate because since the early 1990s the state's tourism department has promoted blues to visitors, realizing that the blues draws music fans who'll spend money in-state when they come to festivals, museums, gravesites, juke joints, record stores, and in other places associated with blues, not to mention money spent for food, lodging, gifts, and other things. 

Fifty years ago, to celebrate the Mississippi sesquicentennial, the US issued another commemorative stamp. This was during the decade of the 1960s blues revival, and also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi being one of the most racially violent states. Ironically, perhaps, the 1967 Mississippi commemorative stamp then portrayed a Southern white magnolia, the state flower, worn by many a southern belle, representing beauty, purity, dignity and gracious living.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sustainability, Ethnomusicology and Applied Ecology

The history of applied ethnomusicology in the US goes back at least to the New Deal era, when ethnomusicologists were (comparative) musicologists and when Charles Seeger, the first president of the American Musicological Society, argued on behalf of an applied musicology that would be put to practical use in a democratic republic, for the benefit of society as a whole, rather than in service to high culture only. It was also an era of conservation, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, with agricultural conservation efforts underway in the Farm Security Administration, and the Works Progress Administration undertaking cultural conservation by collecting and encouraging popular and folk arts and crafts. The invaluable recordings by folklorists such as Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress were part of this effort. 
         The history of applied ecology goes back at least to the World War I era. The story will be a familiar one to anyone who’s followed the history of applied ethnomusicology. The professional society of ecologists, the Ecological Association of America (ESA), began in 1915, as an offshoot of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was founded to help unify a science that consisted of plant ecology, animal ecology, and so forth—a series of specialties without a general ecological theory. The ESA hoped to stimulate research and to serve as a place where scientists could share information. One of the ESA’s standing committees was devoted to another goal, using ecological research to advance environmental conservation. This "Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions" was led by the ESA’s first president, Victor Shelford (1877-1968), from 1917 to 1938. The next year, 1939, saw the publication of the most important work in general ecology in the first half of the 20th century, Bio-Ecology, co-authored by Shelford and Frederic E. Clements. The book advanced Shelford’s ideas of the biome and ecological succession, which he had introduced as early as 1912. Clements, of course, is known for his idea that ecological succession led to a climax community in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
         Shelford’s credentials as an eminent research scientist were beyond dispute, but when at the end of Roosevelt’s last presidential term he tried to steer the ESA into establishing a new organization, one devoted to conservation, the ESA balked. Its officers decided that as a scientific society they must avoid becoming a political advocacy group, which they feared would happen if they sponsored the conservation organization that Shelford wanted. Going further, they abolished the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions that Shelford had led for its first 21 years. Upset, Shelford left his professorship at the University of Illinois, and in 1946 founded the new organization himself, the Ecologists Union, aligning nature conservation with the goal of preserving entire ecosystems. That organization is known today as The Nature Conservancy.
         It would be interesting to know whether the ESA’s unwillingness to endorse applied ecology during the immediate post-World War II period was part of the general climate of distrust for social engineering that derailed applied ethnomusicology for several decades, a distrust fueled by the social and scientific experiments and the war on academic freedom in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Universities might offer protection from persecution if academics could establish that science was beyond politics. But applied ecology would not be derailed for nearly so long as applied ethnomusicology. Eugene P. Odum (1913-2002), son of the sociologist and folklorist Howard W. Odum (1884-1954), and a student of Shelford in the 1930s, in 1953 wrote the integrative textbook Fundamentals of Ecology, which laid the foundation of ecological science on the ecosystem, a foundation that would remain for at least three decades. 
        The idea of the ecosystem was not original with Odum--it had been defined as a unit of study by Arthur Tansley in 1935, and tested by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. In the Fundamentals Odum explained ecosystems in the then-novel terms of cybernetic systems theory, in which higher levels of organization have structures and functions as a whole—emergent properties—that can’t be predicted by analyzing their component parts. Yet in that book and increasingly so in its successive editions, Odum also advocated an applied ecology in which scientists would work as consultants in policy matters. He himself did so, in matters of nuclear power (“atoms for peace”) and in opposing pesticides. During the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Odum promoted the idea that ecology was an integrative discipline (much like an ecosystem itself) that served as a bridge between science and society. He always maintained the distinction between ecological science and environmental activism, and lamented that the distinction had blurred as the environmental movement gathered momentum: environmentalists were being labeled as ecologists even though they had no formal training in ecology. Yet he felt that it was most appropriate for ecologists to take a stand for the environment, and for ecological research to ground the environmental movement by providing a scientific basis for sound policies.