Sustainable Music


Friday, May 20, 2011

A Hoosier Mediation

Update: as of Oct. 1, 2012, a video of the keynote address that I gave at Indiana University (see below) in 2011 was posted in three parts on YouTube by Michael Goecke. I didn't know that a video was being shot of my presentation, but I don't mind its being on YouTube. It can be found and viewed here:
          Part One:
          Part Two:
          Part Three:

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      Last fall I was invited by the graduate students in folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University to give the keynote address at their 4th annual graduate student conference, on March 25, 2011, a conference in which they combine with graduate students in folklore and ethnomusicology from the Ohio State University, to present papers discussing aspects of their current research, usually either completed research based on Master’s theses, or ongoing research that is forming their PhD dissertations. In so doing they are getting professional training in research presentation, while they also have an opportunity to focus their research and get feedback from an audience of their peers and the various professors at the two universities. Indiana University has the largest and oldest folklore doctoral program in North America; with the demise of the folklore doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana's is also clearly the most distinguished. Their ethnomusicology graduate program, one of many distinguished programs in North America, was also one of the earliest, having begun when comparative musicologist George Herzog and anthropologist Alan Merriam joined forces on the faculty there in the early 1950s.
       When I asked why they chose me, I was told that my own research and publications had combined the disciplines of ethnomusicology and folklore for four decades; that in addition to having taught those subjects to graduate students at two universities, I had directed the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Brown for 25 years and had been elected as a Fellow of the American Folklore Society 13 years ago. I could also have told them that I taught, briefly, at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute in the summer of 1977, just prior to undertaking the documentary research that would form the basis of the Powerhouse for God projects (book, LP recording, and documentary film) although at that time I did not have anything more than a documentation project in mind.
       I could have told them that in 1977 I had the pleasure of a brief meeting with George List, then blind, but still the director of the ethnomusicology program at the Folklore Institute, and heir to the legacy of George Herzog, a student of Erich von Hornbostel, the father of ethnomusicology, and himself the most influential ethnomusicologist in the US between roughly 1930-1950. I could also have told them that I was invited to the home of Richard Dorson, the long-time director of the Folklore Institute. There, Dorson pointed to a line of books above his lengthy mantelpiece—a yard and a half long--written or edited by Dorson himself. 

       When I saw it, I was reminded of Thoreau’s sardonic remark that he owned a thousand books in his library, 900 of which he had written himself. That was because his books scarcely sold during his lifetime, and his publishers had sent the remaining copies back to the author. Of course, he is much read today. Dick Dorson was much read then by “professional folklorists,” a term that he insisted in using to distinguish those with the doctorate in folklore (or, I suppose, a reputation among academic folklorists for professional research, as his own doctoral degree was in American studies—the same as mine). Dorson also wrote and edited popular books of folktales for a general audience, lengthening the line of books on his mantelpiece more quickly than if he had limited himself to research monographs. These popular books were always well annotated, to distinguish them from those written and edited by amateurs. Dorson's ambitious plans for the Institute, partly realized, were cut short only a few years later when he died of a heart attack on the tennis court. 
        As a booster of graduate education and the professionalization of folklore as a discipline, Dorson had no equal. At the time of his death, strong doctoral programs in folklore could be found at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA as well as at Indiana. Today only the doctoral program at Indiana survives, and folklore as a discipline is much more diffuse than it was in Dorson's era. Folklorists have gone from a concentration in verbal forms such as the folktale, and an emphasis on folklore as text, to a variety of interests and methodologies, with verbal forms, material culture, aesthetics and the ethnography of everyday life among the most popular. An emphasis on folklore as process and performance, rather than as text, unites the academic discipline to some extent.
        Meanwhile, beginning in the 1980s, with fewer and fewer academic jobs available, professional folklorists began entering the public sector and non-profit worlds as arts administrators. Today more than half of the members of the American Folklore Society who hold full-time jobs (that is, excepting students) are employed outside of the academic world. When I joined both the American Folklore Society (AFS) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) in the 1970s, there were about half again as many members of the former society as the latter. That percentage stayed roughly the same until about 1990 when the number in AFS began gradually to decline while membership in SEM gradually increased. Doctoral programs in ethnomusicology, based in music departments or schools of music, can be found today in many fine US universities, including Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Ohio State, Wesleyan, Berkeley, and my own university, Brown, where one was started in 1967.
       Today the membership in AFS and SEM is the reverse of what it was about 37 years ago: SEM has about half again as many members as AFS, chiefly academics although an increasing number combine academic and applied work and some applied ethnomusicologists are employed outside the academic world. Nonetheless, folklorists continue to obtain academic jobs at various colleges and universities, in departments as various as history, anthropology, English, sociology, women's, cultural and American studies; whereas in my generation and earlier folklorists were housed chiefly in English departments. In addition, folklorists are enjoying distinguished academic careers, if not building doctoral programs in folklore, at various universities. In some places, folklore has colonized American studies programs; in others, folklore has gained sub-concentrations in traditional disciplines such as English; and in others, such as Western Kentucky and North Carolina, fine graduate programs have continued at the MA level. Of course, the economic downturn that began in 2008 has hurt the academic job market in folklore, ethnomusicology, and other disciplines in the humanities.
        It was good in 2011 to see the folklore and ethnomusicology graduate students at Indiana and Ohio State enjoying each other’s company and appreciating one another’s work. That was not the case at Indiana in 1977; and there was scarcely any ethnomusicology at Ohio State then. I had assumed, back in 1977 when I went to Indiana to teach in their summer session, that because the ethnomusicology doctoral program was housed within the Folklore Institute, that ethnomusicologists and folklorists would have had much to share in the study of music, which at that time was a more important part of folklore studies than it is today. I knew that several students of American folk music were there at the Institute pursuing a doctoral degree in folklore, and I assumed that they would benefit from a context where they could pursue their work in both folklore and ethnomusicology, as I had done in my own graduate studies a decade earlier at the University of Minnesota where I had studied ethnomusicology with Alan Kagan and folklore with Art Geffen and Marty (he never went by Martin) Roth.
        But a happy marriage between folklore and ethnomusicology was not what I found within the Folklore Institute in 1977. The folklore graduate students I spoke with who had wanted to do doctoral work in music had been diverted (and in some cases prevented) from doing so if they did not already have the equivalent of an undergraduate music major, including advanced training in music theory. If they had had it—and none of them did—they would have been welcomed into ethnomusicology courses; without it, they were not only prevented from those courses but also told by Richard Dorson that they did not have the professional qualifications to do research in music. Besides, Dorson distrusted these “folkies” interested in American folk music; to him they appeared too much like amateurs and indeed many of them actually sang and played this music—horror of horrors, as if in one’s heart one could be only either a musician or a scholar but not both. Never mind if they had serious research interests in the music they were singing and playing; in Dorson's view (and List's) they did not have the requisite distance from their subject to attain the necessary objectivity needed for professional research.
        In addition to the oral histories and tragic life stories that I was hearing from my new acquaintances among the graduate students—one of them, Neil Rosenberg, later wrote movingly about his frustrations (“Picking Myself Apart: A Hoosier Memoir,” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 108 (1995): 277-286)—I heard an opposite point of view from the ethnomusicology graduate students. I recall a meeting with them in which they expressed to me their opinion that this requirement (a strong background in Western music history and theory) for folklorists (and others) studying American folk music (or any other music, for that matter) at the graduate level was both necessary and appropriate; and did I, as someone who had had that background and was teaching both folklore and ethnomusicology at Tufts University then, not agree with them?
        Indeed, I told them, I did not. I told them I thought music could be studied “professionally” from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I told them I thought there was a distinguished history of literary critics’ studies of lyrics, insights which people like themselves, without an education in literature, probably would not have. I told them I thought there was a growing and fine sociologically-based study of music in the field of what was then called “popular culture studies,” later to become cultural studies. In the next few decades cultural studies, of course, produced many more studies of American popular music than ethnomusicology did. I told them that many folklorists had, in the past, made important scholarly contributions to the study of folk music, without having had the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in music. I asked them if they thought that Albert Lord, or for that matter Francis James Child, had undergone such music training? They had not. Finally, I told them it was arrogant to erect and maintain such barriers, and that they were wrong in thinking that in doing so they were shutting others out. In truth, I said, what they were really doing was shutting themselves out, out of what I saw as a growing interdisciplinary conversation about music that was taking place not only in folklore but also in sociology, popular culture, literary criticism, history, philosophy (aesthetics), and anthropology. 

       Ordinarily I would not have been so oppositional as a guest, or as bold and forthcoming as a young, visiting assistant professor. But I felt strongly that this policy, one that I understood was determined by George List (Dorson, who it was said didn't much like music anyway, simply enforced it), not only was hurtful to the folklore students interested in music, and of course to their career hopes; but it would also prevent a lot of good research from being done, and set back for years the study of American folk music. No other educational institution was so well positioned as the Folklore Institute to create a strong curriculum that would enable the most interested scholars, those most seriously committed, to research American folk music and obtain the doctorate with that specialty. (I should add that very few ethnomusicologists were interested in studying American folk music at the time; most were interested in exotic music and wished to travel to far countries.) Besides, things had happened fast to me while I was out there in Bloomington, in May and June of 1977. I could now speak to them from a position of security that was not simply intellectual, for my scholarship and teaching had just been independently validated. I suddenly had a research fellowship and, for as long as I wanted it, a guaranteed academic job. I had learned from the National Endowment for the Humanities that I'd won a year-long fellowship, and Tufts had just let me know that I was among the ten percent of their faculty that year who had been awarded tenure.
        I could have devoted the keynote address to this bit of history and personal drama--the topic was up to me--but because relations among folklore and ethnomusicology graduate students had greatly improved at the Folklore Institute during the past three decades, and this conference was proof of that, it would have been ancient history, sleeping dogs that should not be stirred, relevant only to those asking why it was that two generations of folklorists (my generation and the next) had not done as much research in United States folk music as one might have hoped, given the interest in the subject among the general public in the last half of the 20th century; or why it was that folklorists in the United States were so far behind their European counterparts in the study of their own folk music. And so I left these subjects, even though they have been on my mind for many years, for another time and place.
        But instead of exploring another facet of my argument concerning music and sustainability--authenticity--I decided to relate my interests in music and sustainability to the conference theme, which was “mediation,” broadly considered. One kind of media-ation relates to the information revolution and how people all over the world are increasingly surrounded by media representations of “the real thing,” or simulacra as Baudrillard put it. Besides, the folklorist and the ethnomusicologist are mediators in many ways. We mediate between our academic cultures and their people, on the one hand, and our subject cultures and their people when we do fieldwork. So, for example, I wrote an essay about mediation back in the early 1980s, discussing the navigation of roles, stances, and identities that the researcher (myself) assumes in doing fieldwork with religious groups, particularly when these groups were absolutist in their beliefs about the world. In my world, academics are relativists who “bracket” or suspend both belief and disbelief about such things as, for instance, whether God exists and whether one religious doctrine is true and another is false, while doing their research. Meanwhile we concentrate on ethnographic work: that is, trying to document and report accurately what it is that the people they are studying believe, the "native's point of view" as Malinowski famously put it nearly a hundred years ago. I added that it was ironic that one felt forced into this kind of objectivity when one does this kind of research without being a cultural insider or believer in the religious doctrine under study. On the other hand, many ethnomusicologists believe that participant-observation is usually a better path toward understanding than mere observation itself; except in cases like this where participation may be impossible. ("Role, Stance, and Identity in Fieldwork Among Folk Baptists and Pentecostals in the United States." American Music, Vol. 3 [1985]: 16-24.)
        I chose to speak about a different kind of mediation: a musical instrument as a mediator, in three different ways; and the instrument I chose was one of several which I have played for more than thirty years: the banjo. I spoke about the banjo as a social and cultural mediator; as a taxonomic mediator; and as a performance mediator in terms of its role in the old-time string band. Particularly in its role in the old-time string band, the banjo encourages the kind of creative improvisation that both sustains the the people who make music (makes it continually challenging and interesting) and also in so doing sustains (conserves) the music, gives it a future as well as a present.
        As a taxonomic mediator, the banjo troubles the most fundamental boundary level in the famous Sachs-Hornbostel musical instrument classification, between membranophone (the banjo’s skin head is a membrane and a sound producer) and chordophone (sound produced from vibrating strings). In terms of its physical construction it is both a membranophone and a chordophone. In one sense it is a mediator between the two classes; in another sense it is unclassifiable.
        As a sociocultural mediator, the banjo was brought to the New World by Africans. In the 19th century it was played by African-Americans and by the European-Americans who learned it from them. The banjo was crucial in the ongoing Black-white musical interchange, one that already, prior to the Civil War, had resulted in the first distinctively American music. This was long before ragtime and jazz, the musical genres that are usually (and incorrectly) pointed to in that regard. In this fusion the banjo and fiddle (an instrument that many Black Americans learned, as they furnished much of the dance music in the Colonies and the new Republic) were key. They altered the 19th century American musical soundscape, and set it in a direction—swing, flow, drive, pulse, participatory discrepancies, whatever one wants to call this rhythmic feel—that would integrate itself into popular dance music of all kinds in the 20th century. As Alan Jabbour has persuasively argued, Black ways of bowing the fiddle “spoke” syncopation and became a sine qua non of dance fiddling in the South. The same could be said of the banjo, whose drone string when played in the stroke or minstrel style gave the music an offbeat emphasis and a new rhythmic feel: swing.
    To illustrate the Black-white musical interchange I showed some of the paintings that William Sidney Mount rendered from the 1830s through the 1860s. Mount was the first and one of the few 19th century artists in the United States to paint vernacular musicians accurately and frequently. Usually regarded as a mere "genre painter," he was nevertheless a serious and fine artist whose work is unusually valuable to the music historian. The only other painter of comparable--actually greater--stature who painted fiddlers and banjo players was Eastman Johnson, and he was both a generation later and not as realistic or as detailed in his representations of instruments, playing postures, and the like. I myself became aware of the Mount paintings and sketches in the 1960s while a graduate student, and I reproduced one in my doctoral dissertation (1971) and my book that came of it (Early Downhome Blues [University of Illinois Press, 1977]). The Mount painting of a Black banjo player ("The Banjo Player," [1856]) has graced museum greeting cards and is well known to anyone with an interest in the history of the banjo; but here just below is one, "Dance of the Haymakers" (1845), that shows a young Black lad playing percussion and patting his foot (outside the barn) in a rhythm that very likely "swings" and encourages the white fiddler playing the tune, and the two young men dancing. Up in the loft a little white girl and her black companion (standing), possibly a "nurse," look on:

Of course, as would be appropriate at that time and place, he is outside the barn, not quite a part of the instrumental ensemble socially; but he is part of it musically. Mount painted music in his community on Long Island, New York. He was, himself, a fiddler and a tune collector and transcriber as well as a painter. He invented a cornerless fiddle that he called "The Cradle of Harmony," but he made his living as a painter, chiefly from portraits that were commissioned by patrons who could afford them. Among his genre paintings were about a dozen non-commissioned canvases depicting fiddlers, banjo players, and dance music. Most found buyers. His brother Robert was a fiddler and dancing master who traveled and instructed dance classes in the South. 
       While it is appropriate to give any artist license to paint from an inner vision, and not to take quite literally the representations that they make, however realistic they seem, in the case of Mount's music paintings there seems little reason not to take them as accurate renderings of the music in his community, though to be sure they are overlaid with sentimentality. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the little dog in the foreground would not be tearing into the carcass of the bird on the plate at the edge of the barn. But the musicians seem to have been real. In fact, the names of most of the musicians depicted in Mount's paintings are coming to light. They were local musicians that Mount saw and heard frequently. Some, like the fiddler depicted in Mount's painting "Just in Tune," he knew intimately: the model was his brother Robert. I told the audience that my musicologist colleague Chris Smith has been researching this and other aspects of Mount's work and is preparing a book discussing Mount and the evidence that these paintings and sketches provide for this musical interchange, and its sociocultural implications; and that it will surely be an eye-opening work of scholarship. Interestingly, because the Mount paintings of Black and white fiddlers and banjo players have been familiar to me for so many years, I had neglected to anticipate that they might be unfamiliar to this conference audience, even though many were doing research in American music. Indeed, they were unfamiliar; but the group of graduate students and professors were quite taken with them. If that is any indication of the potential audience for Chris Smith’s book, it will be even more appealing and important.
        Finally, I spoke about the banjo as a mediating instrument in the performance of old-time string band music, and I took up a subject that I’ve been fussing with for many years: how an old-time string band musician (in this case, a banjo player) learns to play a tune by ear as it’s being played, over and over again, a tune that he or she has never heard before. I am particularly interested in how the tune appears in the mind and in the fingers, how it is presented to the musician’s consciousness successively, each time it flies by, so to speak. To use a technical term, this is a phenomenological inquiry. As I’ve been trying to write an essay on this subject (and trying to use evidence not only from introspection based on my own playing, but also from others’ testimony as how the tunes appear to their consciousness—and not everyone reports this to be the same) for a number of years, I’m going to have to leave it at that, here. 
        I concluded the keynote address on the banjo as a mediator by emphasizing the creative aspects of learning to “set” a tune (either on banjo or fiddle)
by ear, a tune that one has not heard before, in real time; and I tried to indicate that the pleasure and the craft satisfaction found in doing it well (or reasonably so) is sufficient to make this way of making music fill a large part one’s musical life, sustaining both oneself as a musician and in the process sustaining a musical tradition. It is not an easy skill to learn, by the way; it may take several years, and it is particularly difficult on the banjo, because it is not possible to render the fiddler’s melody exactly as the fiddler plays it, at least not without sacrificing the rhythmic drive and swing that is the making of this old Southern sound; and so the banjo player must create a melodic setting that is complementary to that of the fiddle. These skills are not the same as those that improvising jazz musicians develop, by the way, although they are related; but that is yet another story which must be left for another time.
        After this keynote the audience engaged me in conversation about it for more than an hour. They were chiefly interested in the Mount paintings and what they might mean. I was happy to discuss that, and reminded them of Chris Smith's forthcoming book. I tried to steer the conversation back to music and sustainability when I could, emphasizing the Black-white interchange as an instance of the ways innovation gives life and sustains music while transforming sound and enhancing its bodily experience. We adjourned to a delicious and appropriate pot-luck dinner at folklorist and professor John McDowell's home in Bloomington, where the conversation continued for a few more hours before, exhausted from my flight from Providence that morning and my endeavors that afternoon, I left the gathering for the motel and a sound sleep.