Sustainable Music

Translate

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Assisted Colonization?

Colonizing ground next to a sidewalk. Wikimedia Commons.

   It’s well known that the climate emergency is threatening the continued existence of numerous species, especially those in places subject to extreme habitat change or loss, such as on the Pacific island of Palau, where the combination of sea level rise with hotter temperatures could make Palau uninhabitable for many species found nowhere else. In response, the conservation community has floated the idea of moving populations of endangered species to other places thought to provide hospitable habitats, to prevent them from extinction. The name for this is “assisted colonization.” The downside of assisted colonization is that it is impossible fully to predict the consequences, bad as well as good, of introducing a new species into an ecosystem. Needless to say, the conservation community is not of one mind about this. The introduced species might well survive, but it might also become invasive and crowd out other species in the habitat, as happened when lake trout were introduced in streams to benefit recreational fishing, but it turned out that it was at the expense of other species of trout whose populations became endangered. Besides, the original intention of conservation ecology (aka conservation biology) was restoration of ecosystems to an earlier, healthier condition; assisted colonization would be a very new kind of goal that would, presumably, divert energy from conservation as originally conceived. Against this it is argued that humans have, intentionally as well as unintentionally by way of travel and exploration, introduced new species to ecosystems; assisted colonization would be just a more carefully considered way of doing what has been done for tens of thousands of years anyway, but this time explicitly for the benefit of the endangered species and for continued biodiversity.
    In 2006 I lectured to folklorists and ethnomusicologists about the advantages of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability. This idea of sustainability caught a tailwind and now, fifteen years later, the research into cultural sustainability is widespread, though more often from the standpoint of economics than ecology. Yet the contemporary debate over assisted colonization is worth considering in this light. Could endangered music cultures, for example, be assisted in moving to new geographical locations? In case this strikes you as a solution waiting for a problem, consider Old Regular Baptist singing, the oldest religious music in continuous oral tradition in the United States and identified as a national treasure. Old Regular Baptists’ “habitat” is in the upper South, in central Appalachia, where for the past hundred years most made their living from coal mining. But now mining is no longer viable and the music culture, which for generations fended off threats from other religious musical traditions, such as gospel singing, faces a different kind of threat: economic rather than cultural. They need to find another way to make a living and if they cannot in that place they will have to move. Where? Should applied ethnomusicologists direct them as a group to move en masse to a new location where they can prosper and maintain their religious communities and music? Certainly not; the idea is preposterous. The analogy between environmental and cultural intervention appears to break down at this point. Besides, the words "colonial" and "colonization" have a bad odor about them these days. And yet, it appears that some Old Regular Baptists are migrating on their own anyway, and have been doing so for decades, following the paths of Appalachian out-migration to southern Ohio, for example, and more recently into Florida, where they prefer to establish new communities of Old Regular Baptist families, and then later out-migrants feel attracted to move into these new communities, smaller of course than those in central Appalachia, and build some churches for themselves.
    Perhaps, then, applied ethnomusicologists could partner with community scholars to study these patterns of out-migration and community establishment, and see which ones have more success than others, and try to learn why. For example, a few churches were erected for Old Regular Baptists in Washington State in the last century, but these appear to have become extinct, so to speak, while the ones in Ohio have managed to maintain themselves. Possibly there is a role for applied ethnomusicologists here after all, acting more or less as consultants who would share the results of their studies with those considering out-migration as well as with those who have already out-migrated, with a view to strengthening their new communities by developing resilience. In this small way, assisted colonization might be something that ethnomusicologists and folklife specialists could do.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Sustainability and the Indigenous Americans

     The revelation that at least 215 students had died at the Kamloops (B.C.) Indian Residential School, in the news because of the discovery of unidentified children’s bones below the soil on the campus of this institution no longer in use, made me ask how widespread were these boarding schools for Native Americans in the US, and whether conditions in them were as bad here as in Canada. The answer is that there were hundreds in the US and that thousands, likely tens of thousands, of children died, whether by abuse or neglect, suicide or diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, influenza (the 1918-1919 flu took many of them), and others. 

I thought then of Thoreau who, almost alone in the 19th century when the schools were coming into existence (purportedly to “civilize” [i.e., Christianize] the Native American children, while extracting their language and culture), felt that there was much of value, and much to be learned, from American Indian languages and these cultures. He was intensely curious about how they had lived. “Some have spoken [so] slightingly of the Indians,” he wrote, “that they hardly deserved to be remembered”; but Thoreau wrote two thousand, eight hundred pages in his “Indian Notebooks” filled with his personal observations as well as quotations from historians and travelers. 

Thoreau found the “indigenous man [sic] of America” inexhaustibly interesting. Because, he wrote, they “inhabited these shores before us, we wish to know particularly what manner of men they were, how they lived here, their relation to nature, their arts and their customs, their fancies and their superstitions. They paddled over these waters, they wandered in these woods; and they had their fancies and beliefs connected with the sea and the forest…” Thoreau insightfully links indigenous ways of being and knowing with “place” (“these waters… these woods”). 

Joseph Polis
Among his notes he took pains to jot down words in the Penobscot language from his Indigenous guide in the Maine woods, Joseph Polis. Polis, who lived in Bangor, was fluent in both Penobscot and English. Aged 14 he had learned to write in English from a schoolmaster who taught on Indian Island (near Old Town). He also wrote in Penobscot; according to the research of historian Pauleena MacDougall, former director of the Maine Folklife Center, there are at least three extant letters from Polis in the Penobscot language; and besides providing words and translations for Thoreau, he wrote down a list of words for a priest named Vetromille in 1854.[1] Thoreau believed in the importance of words not merely as signs of natural facts, but as a medium between the natural fact and the truth that lay within it. In an Appendix to his book The Maine Woods were included several pages of Penobscot words and their translations, some with his own comments appended. While it would be a stretch to call him an anthropological linguist, there is a path from his ideas about words, natural facts, and the beliefs they signify to the ideas of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), and a kinship in the cultural relativism common to their approaches to language, thought, and reality. 

[1] Pauleena MacDougall, "Some Observations on the Penobscot Writing of Joseph Polis (1809-1884)," paper delivered to the 32nd Algonquian Conference, Montreal, Canada, Oct. 27-29, 2000. Accessible via the Digital Commons at the University of Maine, Papers on the Penobscot Language.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Salon April 9: Folk Knowledge, Environment and Sustainability

 On April 9 at 11 a.m. US eastern daylight time, Mary Hufford, Katey Borland and I will co-host an internet "salon" on folk knowledge, environment and sustainability. The salon, sponsored by the American Folklore Society Fellows, is open to those who attended the March 10 Webinar on Heritage, Folklore, and the Public Sphere:

To participate in the April 9 salon, one must pre-register here. Our  salon is a follow-up to my presentation on that topic for the AFS last March 10, which may be viewed here, beginning at 1 hour, six minutes, and thirty seconds in: Mary Hufford introduces me and I speak for ten minutes on this topic. If you prefer a transcript, in my previous blog entry I printed a draft which was identical to what I presented in the Webinar. I feel fortunate to have two outstanding salon co-hosts in Mary and Katey, each bringing their perspectives on the topic to the salon. Nonetheless, the idea for the salon is for us to host a discussion, not to present our ideas only. Several hundred people attended the Webinar; we look forward to hosting many of you on April 9 at 11 a.m. e.d.t. for a stimulating discussion. We want to hear what you think.

Environmental sustainability has been around in one form or another for more than a century but it has taken on a new urgency in our era of climate change. Cultural sustainability is a comparatively new topic. I began speaking about it to the American Folklore Society in 2006, drawing on sustainability discourses in ecology and also in economics (i.e., sustainable development). Modernization and development have taken a toll on the environment. Is sustainable development the answer? The United Nations thinks so. Or is sustainable development, like sustainable growth, an oxymoron? What is the place of culture, especially traditional expressive culture, such as folk and Indigenous knowledges, in public policy that emphasizes sustainable economic development?  Here is the description of the salon:

This salon will consider how public folklore and heritage programs can foster the sustainability of the natural environment and development of society as a whole.  How do cultural and environmental sustainability differ?  What difference does that make for folklore research and practice?  Querying assumptions bundled into sustainability frameworks, we will explore emerging models for culturally-driven sustainability. How do these models bear on the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? What opportunities does the U.N.’s IPBES program represent for public folklore?  What are the most productive questions that folklorists are exploring with communities to arrive at models for sustainable development?  



Sunday, February 28, 2021

Folk Knowledge and Environmental Sustainability: AFS Webinar March 10

Upcoming on March 10, 2021, six folklore/folklife specialists will be presenting briefly in a Webinar for the American Folklore Society, followed by open discussion. The topic of the Webinar is "Folklife, Heritage and the Public Sphere." It is free and open to all, but attendees must register by going to the AFS website. I was asked to speak on public folklore, heritage, and environmental sustainability. I've written a draft of my ten-minute presentation, which looks like it will be the last of the six:

“Public Folklore, Heritage, and Environmental Sustainability”

I begin with a story about folklife, heritage, the environment, and traditional, local ecological knowledge. This is the kind of heritage that is expressed in everyday occupational life. Although there’s a tourist product involved, my story is about scientific versus folk knowledges. I will ask you to bear my story in mind as I reference the 2005 UN Millennium Assessment Report on Ecosystems and Human Well-being and its more recent manifestation in the 2018 UN Regional Assessment for the Americas report from the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). These collaborative, science-informed documents are major international efforts intended to guide policy and decision-makers towards wise and sustainable use of environmental resources, including cultural resources. I will end with a few discussion prompts for you about my folklife story and how it aligns and does not align with the UN and IPBES policy recommendations. 

         First, the story. In 1979 I bought a summer house on an island off the coast of Maine. In retirement I live here year round. The island where I live contains a working waterfront that is central to the state's lobster fishing industry which today is worth nearly half a billion dollars. More lobster is landed on this island than any other port on the east coast, quite an accomplishment for an island of less than three thousand people. You have all tasted lobster I hope; it is one of the great delights of this world. Lobster fishing on the Maine coast has been integral to the folklife of its inhabitants since the 1840s. The lobster fishery is a classic example of a commons. Until the 1930s it was an unregulated commons; anyone could set their baited traps in the waters near the shore and haul them up hand over hand with a pulley, using a traditional locally built skiff called a peapod on account of its shape. By the end of the 19th century lobstering was Maine’s most valuable fishery. In the early 20th century the industry grew larger. Live and canned lobster was exported out of state, while boats became motorized, the trap ropes were hauled up with power winches, and productivity increased exponentially to meet the demand. But without a good understanding of how lobsters reproduce, the lobster population went through boom and bust cycles in the 20th century until conservation measures were introduced. Some of these were science-informed state regulations such as bans on fishing during certain times of the year. This is still the most frequent conservation measure for fisheries, even though it is a blunt instrument. Only this past summer the state of Massachusetts initiated a so-called “pause” in lobster fishing, despite the likelihood that the population decline was not because of overfishing but the result of lobsters migrating northward on account of the warming ocean. Other conservation measures have been introduced by the fishermen and women themselves, such as limitations on the number of boats permitted in a given area; and the catch, release, and v-notching of egg-bearing females. Taken together these measures smoothed the up-and-down population cycles somewhat but did not eliminate them.

In the early 1990s, when the lobster population was in steep decline, the Maine state fish and wildlife scientists diagnosed the cause as overfishing and proposed to the legislature a severe moratorium on lobster fishing. A local lobsterman and citizen scientist, Ted Ames, was skeptical. A moratorium over a period of years might keep the fishery afloat but it surely would sink the fishermen. Like most of the people on the island he was convinced that the lobster population was down because scallop draggers were wreaking havoc with the ocean bottoms where the female lobsters laid their eggs. Ames knew lobsters had favorite spawning grounds but he didn’t know just where they were, so he interviewed the elder island fishermen and in their oral histories he found out where the spawning grounds most likely were to be. So Ames and the local representative to the state legislature proposed an alternative: that instead of imposing a blanket moratorium they prohibit all fishing in a few designated areas. The legislature agreed to give it a try, the lobster population rebounded, and Ted Ames received a MacArthur Genius Grant. With the money he started a lobster research institute.

         Next I discuss the 2005 UN Millennium Assessment Report on Ecosystems and Human Well-being and its more recent manifestation in the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. These assessments and recommendations impose an economic calculus upon human well-being and the environment. Their framework is economic rationality, which thinks of the environment as a natural resource for human beings; that is, as natural capital. Natural capital provides ecosystem services including materials for food, clothing, shelter, fuel, manufacturing, and recreation. These ecosystem services are quantifiable and valued in market dollars. However, in somewhat of an afterthought, these international, intergovernmental experts acknowledged that ecosystems provide human beings with qualitative cultural services. Some of these so-called cultural services are education, beauty and inspiration; physical and mental health; and what they term “identity support“ through sense of place, purpose, and the sacred. Also among the cultural services that ecosystems provide are Indigenous, traditional and local knowledges. This is one place where folklife culture fits, as for example in the knowledge that the old salts from the island provided about the lobster spawning beds. The IPBES report admits that the value of cultural services is often difficult to quantify, measure, and enter into an economic calculus of cost-benefit equations for policy and decision-making, especially when conflicts arise among stakeholder populations having different worldviews. The IPBES punts here, and I quote:

 

While attempts at monetization of ecosystem services may lead to some insights on the values of nature, broader considerations related to spirituality, cultural identity or social cohesion are not easily characterized in this value system, making them too often underrepresented in decision making and in scientific assessments at subregional and regional levels… (Chap. 2, p. 88). Thus a multiplicity of valuation methodologies will be needed, as well as methods for combining the results in ways that do not selectively favor one worldview over [an]other. Such methodologies and strategies for combining results are not yet fully developed.… (Chap. 1, p. 24).

 

The pecuniary value of the old salts’ ecological knowledge is calculable in terms of the dollar equivalent of the catch; but there are cultural aspects of lobstering that are incalculable. My late friend Hap Collins spoke of taking pleasure in the beauty of fishing when you're out in your lobster boat on the ocean alongshore at dawn, the ocean fog is clearing off, the air is warming and the water is calm, you have a cup of coffee in your hands and you're approaching the area where your traps are and you anticipate your catch of the day. I know something of what Hap meant because I went fishing with him and I experienced it for myself. The MA and IPBES reports acknowledge the incalculable value of what we would call an affecting presence, yet they think of it as another aspect of natural capital for the benefit of human beings; and don’t quite know how to factor in its importance. Does it make any sense to speak of an economy of contemplation?

Finally, some prompts. Consider my lobster fishing story in light of the UN and IPBES assessments and recommendations. What are the consequences for public folklorists of thinking of folklife and the environment as natural capital, providing ecosystem services whose pecuniary worth can be measured? Was it a given that the government would agree to give Ted Ames’ proposal a try? Would a different state legislature have sided with the state fish and wildlife scientists, laughing off Ames’ oral history project and the old salts’ superstitions? What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking of the environment as natural capital that delivers to humans ecosystem services, including cultural services? Should public folklorists concerned with heritage endorse and work within this predominant contemporary policy paradigm that considers the environment to consist primarily of economic assets with measurable market values that enter into cost-benefit analyses during resource allocation planning and decision-making? More generally, how dependent is human well-being on economic success beyond a level of basic comfort? Should the well-being of other living creatures be considered? And is it folly to ignore that thinking of the environment as natural capital is what got us into our current environmental emergency—global warming, extinctions, pandemics—in the first place? Is it wise to think that having failed spectacularly in trying to control nature, the solution is for us to try to control nature more? Are other frames more desirable (e.g., deep ecology; rewilding; commons; environmental justice; etc.) and if so to what ends? You may recall the proverbial expression that the world does not owe you a living. Does it still make sense to think about rights and obligations relationally and interdependently: if the ecosystem owes us, what do we owe the ecosystem?

 


Saturday, January 30, 2021

Craft Heritage and the Sustainable Marketplace

Last month the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage began an online marketplace for “authentic craftwork created by artisans representing communities from recent Festival programs: Armenia, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, along with other countries around the globe, with more to come in the future.” Most of the crafts are traditional and reflect something of a community-of-origin aesthetic. A father-and-son duo from Brazil, to take but one example, “share [with whoever will buy them] hand-painted and woodblock prints that are traditionally used as covers for cordels, or epic poems,” according to the Center’s press release. The woodblock prints feature stylized natural objects such as birds and stars. But instead of being used as cordel covers, they are framed and for sale to anyone who would like to display them in their homes. The financial arrangement is intended to benefit the artists, less the costs of marketing and sales. It appears that some of the traditional uses for these crafts also continue, while others are endangered. In addition to benefiting the artists, these sales are intended to help sustain the craft traditions themselves. The buyers are like tourists at the Festival, who may purchase what they like, not only for display but possibly also as an investment that could appreciate in value, the way some folk art has done over the decades.

In the past here and elsewhere I’ve written critically about tourism and the heritage marketplace, wondering about the differences between the community aesthetic that produced such crafts and the tourist aesthetic that purchases them. I also worried about the effect of the tourist marketplace on the motives of the artisans and on the traditions. Folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett pointed out in the early days of heritage tourism that marking someone or something as cultural heritage added value to the person or product. I wrote about the dangers of confusing values with value: that is, confusing the cultural values of a community craft tradition with the pecuniary value of an art object in the heritage economy. I was concerned about the emphasis on exemplary artisans, in those instances when the object or skill was something functional  that nearly everyone in the community was expected to be able to accomplish. I recalled conversations from my time serving on grant-awarding panels for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, where passing on traditions within communities was favored over anything that smacked of commercialism. And yet what is to happen with craftwork that has outlived its usefulness within the community? Should it become extinct, or perhaps be kept alive as part of a diversity of cultural expression, for possible future usefulness?

Lobster fishing in a peapod, Maine, early 20th century.

In this connection I think now of the fifteen-foot, highly maneuverable rowboats that were in use for lobstering along the rocky coast of Maine, peapods as they were called on account of their shape. They were rowed from a standing position. Seaworthy craft, well-fashioned and graceful, they arose in the 19th century but nearly became extinct by World War II as lobster boats became motorized and traps attached to ropes were hauled up with power winches instead of by hand. A gradual increase in interest among tourists and newcomers and a repurposing of them primarily for recreation has insured their revival. No doubt heritage adds to their appeal; and besides, it is not as if peapods were not bought and sold in the marketplace when they functioned as lobster boats.

In the first half of the century a man living on the Maine coast might learn a number of craft skills with which to make a living. I knew one such, Hap Collins (d. 1990), who had learned how to mill shingles, how to fish for lobster, how to build rowboats, how to twitch logs out of the woods with work horses, how to build chimneys out of fieldstone or brick, and how to play the fiddle. In his old age he earned part of his living making paintings and model boats and selling them to tourists. I think of Hap and how he would embrace the online marketplace for his goods without a second thought. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Music Ecology, Ecosophy and Ecosystem Services

Reviewing the controversy over the so-called music ecology trope, i.e., the idea that a music culture can be regarded as an ecological system, I think it may be helpful to re-orient the division I drew about fifteen years ago between ecological and economic discourses surrounding sustainability. At that time I thought that the ecological discourse was best represented by conservation biology and its approach to environmental sustainability, while the economic discourse was best represented by the Brundtland Report’s Our Common Future and its emphasis on sustainable development. But for the past eight years or so I’ve found it helpful to think of the ecological discourse surrounding sustainability as more diverse than what conservation biology represented. 

It may be useful to distinguish between two strands within the ecological discourse on sustainability. One is an ecosophical strand, represented to some extent by the deep ecologists, who retain the idea that there is an optimal state towards which nature, in the absence of human intervention, inexorably moves; and that therefore human beings ought to either get out of the way or if intervention for sustainability is necessary, one must “help nature along” or “do as nature does” and “follow nature.” Human beings are viewed as part and parcel of nature, as inhabitants or citizens of nature, not as superior to it or dominant over it. This strand of thought is also found among many environmentalists who do not think of themselves as ecologists, or who often conflate ecology with environment, as in usages like “ecological collapse” instead of “ecosystem collapse.”

The other strand is pragmatic, and it is represented by contemporary ecosystem ecologists who think of nature as a complex system that  moves through one environmental disturbance to the next, each one followed by a regime change, and a temporary equilibrium which may be more or less desirable than the one prior. There is no such thing as a “natural” tendency to move toward an optimal, climax state of dynamic equilibrium. Human beings are still part and parcel of nature, but nature can also be evaluated in terms of the “services” or benefits that ecosystems offer to humankind. To that end, ecosystems are managed for movement in more desirable directions, and when those are reached they are sustained insofar as possible by means of resilience strategies.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Keeping Track of Writing Projects

Scholar sharpening his quill, by Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 17th c.)



 

    Although I don't have a quill pen, as does the scholar in this painting courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, I thought I’d offer readers glimpse into some of my scholarly writing projects going along during the second half of this calendar year, and where they stand. Compared to this blog which is aimed at the public, these projects may appear esoteric and begging for translation. That would be a useful future task for this blog. Yet this blog originally was intended as a research blog, a basket of ideas mainly for my own use. But the writerly voice that emerged wanted to write for the public, not mainly for myself. This entry will be a change of pace, then, because it's going to be much more like that basket.

    I want to say also that besides writing projects, like most people in the United States today I’ve been much absorbed this year with activities surrounding the upcoming elections, local, state, and national, to take place in only a few days, although the results may not be known as quickly this year as usual. But this isn’t a blog about elections and politics.

    It seems no week goes by without something needing to be done on an article, a chapter, or a review in progress. I couldn’t possibly have involved myself in these writing projects while I was a professor, because during the academic year I spent almost all my work time in teaching, advising, and administrative work. Now in retirement I have no teaching or advising obligations—at least, no formal ones—and the only administrative work I’ve been doing has been for the academic societies to which I belong. Before I retired, I was able to work on writing projects only during summers (when I had no teaching obligations) and semesters or years on leave with fellowships or grants, often combining those with sabbaticals. Now in retirement I have much more time to read freely, and to write when I wish to. Here, then, is a brief description of some in-progress writing projects.

    1. “Ethical Considerations for Ethnomusicologists in the Midst of Environmental Crisis.” This is my chapter in a book in progress edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond called the Routledge Companion to Ethics in Ethnomusicology.  The initial draft of my chapter was due on August 31. I just barely sent it in by the deadline. The abstract: "Ethnomusicologists’ “primary ethical responsibility is to their research participants,” according to the 2018 SEM Statement on Ethical Considerations. The Statement asserts further that in some cases this responsibility must be extended to “natural flora, and fauna, and human relationships to these.” What happens when these two principles are in conflict? I re-examine, from an ethical standpoint, a longitudinal research study among a musical community of coal miners whose industry harms the environment and themselves, rendering them vulnerable to both economic and environmental injustice. Resolution of this ethical conflict is rendered especially difficult because this community has a justifiable and longstanding distrust of outside do-gooders such as union organizers, social workers and environmentalists."

    1a. On October 23 I gave a brief and partial version of this chapter at a roundtable on “complicating the conversation about ethics in ethnomusicology” at the recent Society for Ethnomusicology conference.

    2. “Ethnography in the Study of Congregational Music.” This is a chapter on doing ethnographic fieldwork, with special attention to prospects and problems with ethnography in religious music-cultures. In this chapter I attempt to answer three questions: (1) What is ethnography? (2) What theories and methods offer a foundation for ethnographic research, and does religion present special difficulties? and (3) Why incorporate ethnography into studies of congregational music? The chapter is for a book long in progress that’s edited by Jeffers Engelhardt, Monique Ingalls, and Andrew Mall. It’s entitled Studying Congregational Music, also under contract with Routledge. This book has been in progress since 2015. Jeffers Engelhardt asked me if I’d write a chapter on ethnography for this volume in 2015; I accepted the invitation and submitted the chapter in May, 2016. More than four years went by as the rest of the authors wrote their chapters and the editors wrote their introductory material. Last month the manuscript underwent Routledge’s copyediting. My copyedited chapter was sent to me about two weeks ago, and I was given 7 days to go over the copyedits, answer questions, and make corrections. I managed to squeeze it in while also attending and presenting at the SEM conference, again just returning it before the deadline. Possibly I will see page proofs and have a chance to correct these as well, but it’s just as likely that the editors will take care of that. Most likely the book will be published in 2021, five years after I completed my chapter for it. That is a long time, but it’s not uncommon in an edited volume with a dozen or more contributing authors.

    3. “A Sound Economy.” This article is an expansion of one of the four topics of my “sound ecology” project. It is a chapter in a book in progress entitled Transforming Ethnomusicology, edited by Beverley Diamond and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, under contract with Oxford University Press. I wrote my chapter in 2017, basing it partly on my plenary address for the 2015 “Transforming Ethnomusicology” forum in Limerick, Ireland; and on one of my four public Basler Lectures at East Tennessee State University in March and April, 2016. A sound economy is characteristic of a sound community and arises from the recognition of co-presence and a universal kinship by means of sound experience. These ideas are much elaborated in my sound ecology project, the latest summary of it having appeared in the last chapter of my book Toward a Sound Ecology, published last August by Indiana University Press. Last month the manuscript for Transforming Ethnomusicology underwent Oxford’s copyediting. My copyedited chapter was sent to me about two weeks ago, and I was given three weeks to go over the copyedits, answer questions, and update the citations and references, and make other corrections. I spent a couple of days last week doing this in down time from the SEM conference, and have been working steadily on it this weekend as well. I hope to complete it and send it back to the editors in a few more days. Possibly I will see page proofs and have a chance to correct these as well, but it’s just as likely that the editors will take care of that. Most likely the book will be published in 2021, four years after I completed my chapter for it.

    4. “An Ecological Approach to Folklife Studies, Expressive Culture, and Environment.” This article, like the first three, came as the result of an invitation—in this case from a group based at Indiana University that go by the acronymn DERT, which stands for Diverse Environmental Research Team. DERT consists of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and ecomusicologists. The article will be published in a book under contract to the University of Illinois Press, entitled Diverse Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Environmental Change, edited by John McDowell, Katherine Borland, Rebecca Dirksen, and Sue Touhy. In this article I attempted once more to advance an ecological approach to folklife and the performance of expressive culture, returning to a topic that I first broached in my 1988 book, Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church. The abstract: "The performed word, whether spoken, chanted, or sung, offers more than an expression of culture in aesthetic form. From an ecological point of view, it articulates changing historical and contemporary relations among living beings and their environments. Theories from ecosystems ecology, when applied to sociocultural systems as well as biological ones, reveal that the performed word adjusts connections among people, material culture, animals, plants, landforms, and other aspects of the physical environment. Sacred language in particular is imbued with the power to alter relations and, therefore, to change beings, the environment, and the course of future events." The article goes on to illustrate these claims through a case study of environmental affordances, catastrophes, and life story narratives in a community in Virginia’s northern Blue Ridge Mountains, over a time depth of approximately 150 years. The DERT team editor that I worked with was more interested in the performed word than in ecology. In 2018 expanded the my 2017 draft of this chapter by adding a few pages about expressive culture, while I insisted on maintaining what I had written about farming, family, husbandry, and the effects of a changing physical environment, encouraging various adaptations and requiring others. I reviewed the copyedited manuscript two years later (i.e., in late July and early August), sending it back to the editors then. I hope to see page proofs either later this year or early next. We expect that the book will be published in 2021.

    5. “Earth Song: Music and the Environment.” Like the first four, this essay was written on invitation. In 2019 I was approached by Huib Schippers, then director of Folkways Records, about writing a short article for Alexander Street Press for a curriculum accompanying various albums featuring music and environment, in the Folkways Records catalog. It was to be a brief essay, no more than 3000 words (the first four averaged 8,000 words). I said I would do so, as long as I could write about the deep connections between music, sound, and nature. After they agreed, I wrote the essay and completed it shortly after Thanksgiving, 2019, and returned it then. In 2020 I’ve been corresponding all the while with Huib and some others who were hired for the project, advising them as they prepare a list of further readings to go with this essay and the curricular unit that it’s a part of. I’m not sure when it will be published; perhaps next year, perhaps later.

    6. A “response” chapter based on my presentation for an online conference at Dartmouth College, entitled “The Power of Song: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe,” to take place in early December. This, also, came about as a result of an invitation. I’m to respond to three presentations on “musical icons,” that is, people who make music and who have become performers who are more than just famous; they have become cultural symbols, they and their careers embodying beliefs deeply embedded in their societies. So far two of the three papers have arrived, but only one arrived by the deadline. As a result I’ve blocked out my response to that paper and will need to incorporate my response to the second paper shortly while I await the third. After the conference they will revise their conference papers and turn them into articles, and I will revise my conference response for publication in the book.

    7. “Eco-trope or Eco-tripe? Music Ecology as a Complex System.” This is an article in progress for a book edited by Aaron Allen and myself, called Sounds, Ecologies, Musics, under contract with Oxford University Press. The article is an expansion of part of my invited keynote address to the Irish ICTM conference in 2017, and part of the abstract goes like this: “Complex ecosystems analyses, environmental philosophy and ecological knowledges (from both Western science and indigenous populations) of sonic behavior, in both human animals and other-than-human animals, are complementary in ways that hold out the promise of re-centering sound connections and kinships. In this way, music/ecology becomes more than merely a metaphor. Employing ecological principles to understand sonic behavior among organisms and their environment, the music/ecology metaphor offers a path toward sound communities, sound economies, and a sound ecology.” My progress on this article has been gradual as I’ve been attending to the five that I listed above. I’m going to try hard to keep my desk mostly clear for the next couple of months so that I can finish up a draft.
 
 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Another Progressive College in Trouble... or Is It?

Last year I wrote about the difficulties being faced by many of the small, progressive, liberal arts colleges founded in the 1960s and 1970s when the so-called counterculture was able to establish experimental institutions for higher education. Hampshire College was the focus of my attention then. Early this year I learned that Marlboro College, in Vermont, had sold its beautiful, rural campus in southern Vermont and would become a "college within a college" at Emerson College, in Boston. Although Marlboro's students, faculty, and alumni hoped that it would be able to maintain its identity inside Emerson, the sale of its bucolic land in Vermont, which offered opportunities for science and nature study not so easily available in Boston, caused a great deal of sadness. I had visited Marlboro in the mid-1990s as a faculty member from another university (Brown) who was invited to be a member of a graduating senior's thesis committee. I came away very impressed with the college, its commitment to its students, and its pastoral setting. 

Now another rural, progressive school is in trouble: Unity College, in Unity, Maine. This college is one of a few in Maine specializing in environmental science, where the oldest and best-known of these is the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. In rural Unity and the region surrounding the college, there are many environmental opportunities. Nearby in Thorndike is the home base of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the largest such association in the New England Region, and one that hosts an annual fair that attracts 80,000 people. Unity college itself was known for its participatory and horizontal governance, giving faculty and students a significant voice in the college's decisions. Unity College had fallen on hard times before, in the 1980s, but had kept its identity and its campus; and it appeared in this century that it had turned the corner. An anonymous donor gave the school $10 million, while Half Moon Gardens and the McKay Agricultural Station in Thorndike were donated to the college. However, a new president and a new vision has transformed the institution, a transformation that was underway well before the pandemic put a strain on its finances. He is a graduate of University of Phoenix, a for-profit, chiefly online and distance-learning institution. In the past few years he and the college trustees have changed a horizontal governance into a hierarchical one, removing students and faculty from key roles in the decision-making process.

Unity College Campus, Unity, Maine

  In August Unity College projected a $12 to $14 million tuition deficit for the coming academic year. But the college had also been gradually ramping up its online educational component, and to the president of the college the pandemic offered an opportunity to convert the school to an online distance-learning model almost entirely. In August Unity's president announced that they would "permanently eliminate" its campus model. They are considering selling their 240-acre campus in rural Unity, while they have acquired a few very small properties elsewhere that can host gatherings. In any case, they will not be using the campus as a residential college much longer. In August the president also announced that eliminating the campus also means firing or furloughing 30% of its workforce. These drastic measures are meant to keep the college afloat during difficult financial times, but these measures appear permanent whereas the pandemic may not last more than a few years. The college's commitment to Unity and the surrounding region, filled with countercultural progressives of all ages, appears to be over. Predictably, there has been a good deal of opposition to the college's transformation, from faculty, students, alumni, and people living in the region.

It remains to be seen whether a for-profit, distance-learning environmental science school can succeed at all. Environmental science, like most sciences, is a hands-on affair. It's hard to do science laboratories on line. In a biology lab, unlike in a history class, for example, professors and teaching assistants need to teach technique and supervise experiments, with living objects. In a good, small, advanced science class, such as one I took in experimental morphology when I was a college student, students become apprentices to the professor. We would, from time to time, adjourn from the lab to the professor's home for an informal continuation of the discussions. This is one of the important advantages of a small residential college, but it would appear to be endangered, if not lost, at Unity. 

The example of Unity College may be a harbinger for the sustainability of small colleges in the post-pandemic era, but it's important to ask what is lost as well as what is gained when online and distance learning comes to replace face-to-face education. So far, the forced experiment of online learning going on in the year 2020 suggests that if the financial balance sheet is sustainable only through distance learning, the educational balance sheet will come up short.


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Toward a Sound Ecology


 
My new book, Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, was published a few days ago by Indiana University Press. It is available in paperback, or clothbound, or as an eBook, either from the Press here, or from major booksellers, or from your favorite independent bookshop. The book is my selection of twelve previously published essays, plus a new essay published here for the first time, “Sustainability and a Sound Ecology.” 

This is the table of contents, with the year that the essay was written in parenthesis following the title:

Introduction

Section I: Field Work: Folklore and Ethnomusicology
1. The Life Story (1978)
2. Ethnomusicology as the Study of People Making Music (1988)
3. Text (1995)
4. Knowing Fieldwork (1993)
5. Applied Ethnomusicology: A Descriptive and Historical Account (2015)

Section II: Cultural and Musical Sustainability
6. The Real Thing (1999)
7. Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint (2009)
8. Sustainability, Resilience and Adaptive Management for Applied Ethnomusicology (2015)

Section III: Toward a Sound Ecology
9. A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures (2012)
10. The Nature of Ecomusicology (2013)
11. Thoreau’s Ear (2014)
12. The Sound of Climate Change (2014)
13. Sustainability and a Sound Ecology (2018)

In the previously unpublished “Sustainability and a Sound Ecology” I ask what happens in those moments when we are in the world and know the world chiefly through sounds? What if we gave pride of place to sound worlds rather than object worlds, social group worlds, or text worlds? To put it yet another way, what happens in those moments when we feel our sensations, our being, and knowing centered in sounds? If we privilege how we feel and what we come to know in those re-oriented moments, how might we re-form our communities, economies, and ecologies and how would these differ from those as humans conceive of them at present? Is it possible by means of a thought experiment based in a sound connection to erect a just alternative to the alienated communities, neoliberal political economies, and behaviorist ecologies that drive humans toward injustice, and the planet toward extinction? To do so is to put us on a path of sound ecological rationality, which I believe will lead every being to a more sustainable world. This sound ecological rationality contrasts with and stands in opposition to the now-dominant instrumental economic rationality.

I’m grateful to the editors of the series it appeared in, Music, Nature, Place (they are Denise Von Glahn and Sabine Feisst), to the editors at the Press who kept after me to make this collection (they are Raina Polivka, Janice Frisch, and Gary Dunham), to the external reviewers who told the Press that it was worth publishing (I learned only recently that they were Kate Galloway and David McDonald), and to the production staff at the Press for producing a very attractive book.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Participatory Music and the COVID-19 Challenge

Old-Time Music Jam Session, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

    Live, participatory music-making is social, and the sociality of participatory music-making is threatened under the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written extensively about how the sociality of making music together in groups such as the old-time jam session models participatory democracy, face-to-face exchanges in community, and a sound economy. Nowadays many of us are reduced to making music via Zoom, which on account of time delays built into the transmission of sound, is a poor substitute. Instead of all playing simultaneously in each other’s presence to create an emergent group sound that is greater than and different from the sum of its parts, we mute our microphones while playing along with a single unmuted leader who can’t hear what the others are doing. Nor can the non-leaders hear one another. Instead of participatory democracy we have a single leader and many followers. The followers can hear the leader but not each other. Leaders can only hear themselves. This is the opposite of the jam session ideal, socially and politically as well as musically.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sustaining Blues, Sustaining Minneapolis


    The uprising in Minneapolis going on this week reminds me of the uprisings and the atmosphere surrounding African and Native Americans 1965-1971 when I lived there. The blues musicians I played with were concerned with survival—their own, and also that of the blues. Their paychecks came from bars, nightclubs, concerts and festivals where they performed. Blues was undergoing a revival then, and the blues audience was shifting in that decade from mostly black to mostly white. Work wasn’t hard to find, but the musicians were worried that the new audience would move on to something else, and they—we—didn’t know when that would be. (It turned out to be around the time Nixon resigned from the presidency.)

Looking back with today’s ideas about musical conservation and sustainability it’s easy to see that we were concerned about blues’s sustainability. My African American friends also were concerned about the sustainability of their lives. Police in Minneapolis were tougher on African Americans even than they are now. It was after all a time when the Civil Rights Movement was becoming militant and turning into Black Power. In 1967 a series of uprisings on Plymouth Ave., on Minneapolis’ north side, involved looting, burning, and shooting. None of my musician friends was directly involved with these uprisings, but the cops suspected anyone and everyone who was black. One of their friends, guitarist Sonny Rodgers—I was barely acquainted with him—was in prison. (His Wikipedia profile fails to mention this.) I don’t remember what charge he was convicted on, but I do know that my other blues friends avoided the cops whenever possible. When Rogers got out of prison, he got back to blues and in 1990 his recording of “Cadillac Baby” won a W.C. Handy award.

But I’m digressing here. It was a time of increasing demands within the black community, then just as now. In 1968 black students at the University of Minnesota occupied the administration building for eighteen days, demanding an African American studies program. The University established a Native American studies program, but African American studies had to wait for a few more years.

Some turned to the arts. Milt Williams, a black activist playwright, put together a musical “revue” that he called “Dat Feelin’,” a history of African American music. It was performed in 1970 in the city's most prestigious venue, the Tyrone Guthrie Theater. He asked our band, led by Lazy Bill Lucas, to represent blues. We were to be stationed in a slave hut, where Bill was to sing a blues song and we were meant to accompany him. I asked Williams if he wanted a white boy (to use the prevailing black vernacular) involved, playing blues in a slave hut. He said yes. He added, not unkindly, that I was a member of the band, I belonged there, and I would have to make the best of it. It wasn’t the first nor the last time I stood out as the only white person in an otherwise all-black group of people.

Minneapolis, 1970. L-R: J. Titon, W. Lucas, G. Buford.
There was other unrest in Minneapolis at this time, especially over the Vietnam War; but nothing like the Plymouth Ave. uprisings that lasted, off and on, for a year. We were on the north side of Minneapolis from time to time, playing blues in all-black bars, but never during the uprisings. Besides, Bill lived on the south side, in an apartment just off Lake Street; and we spent many hours in his apartment drinking Fox Deluxe beer (it cost only $3 a case, including the deposit), eating (fried chicken, mostly), and playing blues. 

It turns out that the Minneapolis uprisings going on this week were on the south side, not the north side, of the city. In fact, the 3rd police precinct building that was burned Thursday night was only a few blocks from Bill’s apartment. This photo of myself (on the left), Bill (center), and George “Mojo” Buford (right), was taken in 1970 in an alley across the street from where Bill lived. Bill died in the last century, but the uprising was happening right in his old neighborhood. I recognized some of the buildings. History repeats itself. Will we learn anything this time?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

BLAST: a citizen initiative to stop noise pollution



BLAST

"Ban Leafblowers And Save Our Town"

How can noisy machines help clean the world, when noise itself is a form of filth?--Ashleigh Brilliant, BLAST "leader by default"

On the evening of the Santa Barbara municipal elections, self-described BLAST "leader by default"Ashleigh Brilliant paraded about the election station. Brilliant was armed with a push broom and a victory statement reinforcing Santa Barbara's disgust for "the noise, dirt, and pollution of a device which should never have been permitted in our city in the first place." Finally, three tries at a referendum and fifteen years of work to ban leafblowers won out for Brilliant and his coalition. According to Brilliant, leafblowers are "...the least justifiable and most obnoxious technological monstrosity I can think of. And it's not really a leaf blower, it's a dirt blower. I mean, how many fallen leaves do we have to deal with?"

"A ban is a very easy law to understand," he says. "You just can't do it at all with that machine." Before the ban was in effect, Brilliant resorted to self-help measures, once physically removing the leafblower from a nearby gardener's back. One year later, Brilliant grabbed the leafblower from the gardener and repeatedly smashed it to the ground, but only after begging the gardener on bended knee to stop using the blower.
Leaf blower decibel count. LOUD!
It is no surprise that forty cities in California alone, and over three hundred cities nationwide, have banned leafblowers. There are as many ways to describe the noise that leafblowers emit as there are people who are disturbed by them. From fifty feet, gas-powered leafblowers create up to 70 decibels of noise. Most would identify with the high grinding whine we know so well, not to mention other environmental hazards created by leafblowers such as exhaust fumes and swirling clouds of airborne debris.

Leafblowers grew in popularity since the 1970's. Santa Barbara has "regulated" leafblowers for the past ten years, but the city still suffered with lack of enforcement and regulations that were not restricitve enough. At one time the city tightened existing regulations, but to no avail. BLAST was formed in February 1997, and fifty unpaid volunteers collected more than nine thousand signatures asking to put the issue on the ballot in November of 1997. In early November, 54.5 percent of voters elected to place a total ban on all leafblowers within the Santa Barbara city limits.

Some of the resources that BLAST used to quiet the neighborhoods include an official "ballot argument" stating BLAST's position, bumper sticker, an "initiative measure" containing the ordinance purpose, summary and language; and the "notice of intent" to circulate the initiative petition, containing a statement of the reasons for the ban. To view these items, click on the links from each phrase.

BLAST's pre-election opposition came in the form of the City Parks and Recreation Department, professional gardeners and landscapers, garden supply shops, and one of the nation's leading leafblower manufacturers. They formed a coalition to oppose the ban called CORE: Citizens Opposed To Radical Enactments. These parties claim that irresponsible leafblower users are the problem, and recent market innovations include leafblowers that are half as loud as the former machines. They raised more than $10,000 to further their opposition, while BLAST's campaign was so low-budget that they did not reach the threshold requiring that they report their spending. CORE members claimed that owners of commercial and office buildings will be hit hardest, where leafblowers are used on a grand scale to clean parking lots and walkways.

Money is also a consideration, with leafblower advocates claiming that leafblowers save a great deal of time and labor and contribute to the appearance of the city. Brilliant counters this by stating that if all gardeners have to compete under the same restrictive regulations, nobody will have a competitive advantage. Also, "cleanliness" has gotten out of control-- what about the need for a natural setting? Brilliant believes that it is not a matter of right and wrong: "Our opponents are just as interested in a beautiful city as we are. It's just that they have a more narrow vision of that beauty."

The ban takes effect in February of 1998, although the City Parks and Recreation Department stopped using the machines shortly after the election, beginning a process of major change for the City of Santa Barbara.

From the BLAST web page, archived on the NPC (Noise Pollution Clearinghouse) Quietnet website. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Noise Pollution and the EPA: Celebrating Earth Day



Planet Earth: the "blue marble" photo.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day and Earth Week. The NASA “blue marble” photograph of Earth, taken from space, was published two years later. The photograph gave us a new perspective. It showed once and for all how all Earth’s creatures were bound together on a journey through the solar system, bounded as we were by Earth’s fragile biosphere.
Hazardous chemicals. Wikimedia Commons.

Environmentalism in 1970 was all about curbing pollution of the commons: air, water, soil. The villains included atomic waste, pesticides, toxic metals, automobile exhaust, sewage, factory smokestacks, plastics, and so on. We were intent on making Earth a healthier place for humans primarily, but also for other species, especially endangered species. In response President Nixon set up an environmental council and, following their recommendations, asked Congress to set up a federal agency to monitor the environment, to organize and coordinate federal programs and to assist states, and to issue guidelines and regulations, all to reduce pollution. Seven months after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was established.
Industrial noise pollution. Wikimedia Commons.


The EPA soon became concerned with noise pollution as well. Although local governments had long enacted noise ordinances, the 1972 Noise Control Act gave the EPA authority to regulate noise associated with construction and transportation. The EPA began to work with aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and airports to reduce engine noise and re-route takeoffs and landings to avoid the most heavily populated areas. In 1979 the EPA established a new noise label program to give home products like vacuum cleaners, shop tools and chainsaws decibel ratings, indicating those to which prolonged exposure was unhealthy. I recall when I bought my first chainsaw in the early 1980s that I also purchased noise-canceling headphones. Coordinating efforts through the EPA Office of Noise Abatement and Control, the EPA also got Congress to establish the 1978 Quiet Communities Act. 

One of the most important things the EPA did in its early days was to encourage scientific research on the psychological and physiological effects of noise pollution. In 1978 the Noise Abatement Office published a helpful pamphlet, Noise: A Health Problem. It summarized research on the effects of noise on hearing loss, heart disease, special effects on children and the unborn, intrusion at home and work, sleep disruption, and mental and social well-being. Among its conclusions were the following:

*Noise can cause permanent hearing damage, and people with hearing loss suffer discomfort and social isolation.

*Noise produces stress that contributes to heart disease and other illnesses.

*The fetus is not fully protected from noise. Noise may threaten fetal development.

*Noise may hinder language development in children.

*Noise hampers work efficiency.

*When sleep is disturbed by noise, work efficiency, health and well-being may suffer.

*Noise can cause extremes of emotion and behavior.

*Noise can obscure warning signals, causing accidents to occur.


In 1981 the Noise Abatement Office published a lengthy and still very useful Noise Effects Handbook: A Desk Reference to Health and Welfare Effects of Noise. Whereas Noise: A Health Problem was aimed at a popular audience, the Noise Effects Handbook included data from scientific research and made a convincing case for the harmful physiological and psychological impacts of noise pollution.
Pittsfield, Maine. Photo by Jeff Titon

Although funding for the Noise Abatement Office was stopped by the Reagan Administration in 1982, as the federal government gave over noise abatement responsibilities to state and local governments, the Noise Control and Quiet Communities Acts were never rescinded. They remain in effect today, although they are unfunded and unenforced. Meanwhile, a great many state and local citizens groups and NGOs organized in opposition to noise pollution. Among them were HORN (Halt Outrageous Railroad Noise), and BLAST (Ban Leafblowers and Save our Town), a Santa Barbara, CA organization. The next blog entry shows how BLAST became a model for citizen activism through the ballot with petitions, bumper stickers, and other measures. When a majority of the citizens of Santa Barbara voted in favor of the ban in the November, 1997 election, it took effect the following February.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A sound way to think about novel coronavirus protein structure

MIT composer and engineering scientist Markus Buehler has created a musical composition based on the patterns in the novel coronavirus' spiked protein structure. The music, which sounds to me a little like a serene composition for gamelan, can be heard here. A story in today's Washington Post goes into more detail. Buehler hopes that this sonic way of perceiving the protein structure may help medical researchers understand the virus in a new way and may aid in finding ways to fight it.
Novel Coronavirus Spiked Protein Structure

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Coronavirus soundscape - an ecocentric perspective

Hairy woodpecker. Photo by J. Titon
 What is the new soundscape of the novel coronavirus? In the built environment I hear less noise. Less noise from traffic, from shops, restaurants, factories. In the mix of traffic noise, more from work trucks and emergency vehicles with sirens; less from cars. More prominent in the spring soundscape now are the songbirds, singing away at dawn and through the day, staking out territories, looking for mates to build nests, and raise new broods. The human sounds, called anthrophony by soundscape ecologists, have diminished. More prominent now is biophony, the sounds of animals, and geophony, the sounds of wind, rain, thunder, and the like. Scientists tell us that songbirds find their acoustic niche in the soundscape so they can communicate with the least amount of interference from other sounds. Those who dwell near highways have evolved to sing in a higher-pitched range than others of their species who dwell far from highways. With less highway noise for a while, those birds will find less interference and be able to communicate better. Every morning at dawn I hear a pair of woodpeckers drumming their song, one closer and louder, the other farther away and softer. While human life seems to be in a mostly suspended state, it is comforting to hear the songbirds.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Musical Sustainability and the Novel Coronavirus


Coal miner, West Virginia. Wikimedia Commons.
While musicians throughout the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with new songs and virtual performances and concerts meant to express solidarity and hope, musical and cultural sustainability is yet at great risk from the novel coronavirus. As I’ve written here before, as the last century drew to a close, arts policy had settled on a strategy of marking outstanding musical traditions as cultural heritage worthy of preservation and encouragement, and marketing these traditions so that they would become economic engines, wittingly or unwittingly transforming them into commodities in the process. International arts policy emanating from UNESCO considered the greatest threats to musical traditions to be modernization and development that would cause cultural drift and the abandonment of traditions by succeeding generations. Alan Lomax warned in the 1970s of what he foresaw as “cultural greyout” as a result of Western media dominance throughout the world. I became aware of environmental threats as well, such as those from floods, mine cave-ins, and earthquakes, after working with communities in the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky. When I began thinking about sustainability it occurred to me that economic threats, such as regional overdependence on single industries such as fishing, or coal mining, to the communities that sustained musical traditions, could put a population out of business in short order, causing out-migration, cultural dispersal, and disruption of musical as well as cultural traditions. I don’t know that any of us in the world of public folklore and applied ethnomusicology in the US envisioned a threat to musical sustainability from a pandemic.

Now we know. And we know, also, that the most experienced and wisest tradition-bearers in those communities are the elders and by virtue of age and health conditions, therefore among the most vulnerable in those communities. A recent newspaper article highlights the risk faced by Kentucky coal miners, where black lung disease, on the decline until a resurgence in the 1990s, compounds the likelihood of death from COVID-19. Although mining now employs less than ten percent of the population of Appalachia, in some areas such as southeastern Kentucky a majority of the elder population were coal miners earlier in their lives and one in ten now suffer from black lung, while the area has a higher incidence of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—all conditions of comorbidity with the virus. A retired coal miner, Jerry Coleman, said “A lot of people don’t understand coal mining and the damage it’s done to our lungs. Now that everyone is phasing out coal, they’re all forgetting about the poor old coal miner.” Making things worse, rural hospitals in the coal mining region of Appalachia, like rural hospitals all over, have been closing due to lack of funding, and in some areas the nearest hospital is an hour or more distant. “Nobody knows what this virus is going to do when it gets to this area,” said Jimmy Moore, a 74-year-old black lung patient in Shelby Gap, Kentucky, who spent 22 years in the mines before retiring in 2000. His 51-year-old son, he said, has an even more serious case of black lung. “It’s probably just going to wipe us out.”