Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Southern Soundscapes

        Tom Rankin, an old friend and colleague who is director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, invited me to lead a class in the seminar he was giving last semester, on sacred space in the South. After I accepted, Patricia Sawin, the director of the curriculum in folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asked me to piggy-back onto the trip a lecture for the folklorists and American Studies group there. And so the latter week of April found me in North Carolina for three very pleasant days of conversation with old friends and new, and a guest seminar and lecture. A college campus is never lovelier than in the spring when the carefully landscaped pathways are a-bloom with pinks and whites and golds, the scents of fresh flowers enter through every pore, and the birds cavort and sing out their love of place. Everyone alive to the seasonal transformation walks around with a spring to their step. Conversations with Dan and Bev Patterson, Tom Rankin and his wife the fiction writer Jill McCorkle (Marta and I stayed at their wonderful farmhouse), and with Bob Cantwell at supper after the folklore lecture were especially stimulating; Tom and Patricia were splendid hosts, and I could see how, under Patricia’s perceptive leadership, and with help from some of those in American studies (including Bill Ferris, the former head of the NEH, whom I was glad to see again) the folklore program at Chapel Hill will be in good hands for he foreseeable future. For that lecture, I gave an overview of the music and sustainability project as it now stands. There are many rooms in this music and sustainability house, and I tried to lead them into each one of them and show them around, probably going too fast in some spots and lingering too long over others. By now readers of this blog will know something of the rooms and their furnishings.
        For Tom’s seminar, I presented on the topic “sound sacralizes space.” An entry to this blog on with that very title, a few days ahead of the seminar, summarizes what I spoke about. The topic is sound, a topic that encompasses music, at once shifting the subject from music to all sounds and soundscapes, and simultaneously emphasizing the “sound” aspects of music-making that are not usually given as much attention in musical description and analysis as the structural ones such as form, melody, rhythm, and harmony, or the cultural aspects that we ethnomusicologists pursue so vigorously. That is, the subject shifts to emphasize performance, reception, and aspects of sound such as timbre or tone quality; to the relationships between speech, chant, and song and the apparent boundaries between them; to the way sound is presented to consciousness; and to the way sound is in and affects life on the planet.
        I have written in earlier blog entries about acoustic ecology and the work of Bernie Krause, and his evidence for acoustic niches in the natural world. Recently on SEM-L, the listserver discussion group sponsored by the Society for Ethnomusicology but open to the general public, there’ve been several posts from people dissatisfied with the name “ethnomusicology.” Some proposed “sound studies” instead and, predictably, this was endorsed by a few who were interested in the subject, and dismissed by several who felt that with its history and the institutional gains made by ethnomusicology in the past fifty years, it should not be abandoned in favor of a new name that would be unfamiliar to most, while it did not even describe the subject that they were most interested in.
        Count me among those interested in sound studies, of course. I don’t think we have to give up the name ethnomusicology to situate some of our studies in the worlds of sound. Ethnomusicologists can study people making music, and we can also study it within the larger compass of sound studies, along with the acoustic ecology of the natural world, which humans are a part of.
        Recently I was reading in Thoreau, a naturalist who was especially alive to the soundscape. In later editions of Worlds of Music I’ve dwelt on the term (soundscape) in the first chapter, in presenting music within the compass of sound; and I quoted Thoreau’s description of a farm soundscape in Walden. Indeed, chapter 4 of this book is titled “Sounds” and is devoted to a description of sounds heard around the environs of Walden Pond. I also pointed out the justly famous passage from that book where Thoreau remarks on the daily intrusion of the train into the tranquil Walden scene, and pays attention to the soundscape as well as the landscape, describing the iron horse with its snort like thunder, and the smoke billowing from the engine “stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston…” In all of his writings Thoreau is remarkably observant of the natural soundscape; his ears were open as well as his eyes, and he counted on sound for knowledge as much as sight.
        By Thoreau’s time, the (white) man of the woods belonged to history, celebrated by James Fenimore Cooper in the person of Natty Bumppo, or the legends of Daniel Boone, reduced in the twentieth century to unintentional parody in Disney's Davy Crockett. But in Thoreau’s soundscape, the old idea that truth comes by hearing was given new voice and new form. There was a time in the pre-postmodern critical era when orality was a subject of much interest, the writings of Walter Ong especially, on the transition in Renaissance Europe from a predominantly oral (speech, song, hearing) culture to a written (sight, readling, writing) one. The manuscript and then the book, of course, figures mightily in this history. This topic was of considerable interest to folklorists, who trafficked then primarily in oral literature (song, myth, folktale), and to those cultural anthropologists such as Dennis Tedlock and Dell Hymes, who were fascinated by the performance of oral literature, which was inseparable from sound and gesture.
        And so the topic of sacred space is very Thoreauvian, but I see it also in the context of sound studies. It was in this intellectual atmosphere in the 1970s that I became interested in such things as the chanted and sung sermon, and sought to document and interpret these, and their sound effects, so to speak. For Tom Rankin, who is a visual documentarian and photographer, sacred space may be primarily a visual space; but he is not tone-deaf—in fact, he is a very perceptive listener and his documentation and interpretation projects have involved music as well as images.
        One question I thought about for that seminar was what, if anything, was special about sacred space in the southern US, in the South as a region. Southerners, of course, have for at least 150 years felt that the South was special; and I have experienced that heightened sense of place-awareness among some in that region. But I’ve also experienced it elsewhere—in the upper Midwest, and in Rhode Island, and as intensely in down east Maine as in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. The cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan termed it “topophilia,” or love of (one’s) place, and wrote a book with that title.
        And so the South is not unusual in having place-awareness; but what is it about its place-awareness, the way it constructs its place, its sacred space, that is unusual? Here, I think sound plays an important part. The sound of the preacher’s voice, the sound of lined-out hymnody, the sound of the old gospel music, the way sound sacralizes space, even in secular contexts, is not found in the same intensity elsewhere in the US. The number of fiddle tunes, for example, from the upper South, named to evoke specific places (and people) and their aura; the stories that memorialize those people and places when traditional musicians play those tunes—this is not the same in other parts of the US, where fiddle tunes today are a means to a different end, contest prize money rather than memory and evocation of the spirit of person and place, the “genius” of the place as it was termed in the England of Milton’s time, a practice that continues in the traditional music of Scotland and Ireland, and one that doubtless took root in the American South with those who migrated from there and spread that musical mind-set to the New World. Did it exist in the same way in France and French America? Among Asian Americans? Evocation and memory of the spirit of place does not seem to be present in quite the same way in traditional African American music. Such comparative analysis is a topic for an ethnomusicologist, but for another time.


  1. As someone who has lived in small towns in both the South and New England, I can say that your comments about love of place ring true.

    Painting with a broad brush, here's how I think about the differences between the two regions. In New England, the sense of place is often based on a strong communal identity that transcends the individuals in a place. Even if the open town meeting is today more an ideal than a reality for most town residents, there is still the sense that the borders of the town enclose a community of people with a shared history, and each town cherishes the unique aspects of its history.

    For example, Narragansett, Rhode Island, has a strong sense of local history based on a striking architectural landmark (the Towers), several beaches catering to different crowds, the fishing industry in Galilee, and so forth. But I think relatively few people who live there were born there. It's partly a bedroom community for Providence, and there are lots of part-year residents from Connecticut and New York.

    Westerly, Rhode Island, is a different matter. There is also a strongly marked local history (with granite as a founding industry, unlike in Narragansett). But in Westerly it appears that many residents actually were born there and have lived there most or all of their lives. Then there is the old-money enclave of Watch Hill.

    In the parts of the South with which I am familiar (Alabama and Tennessee), I do not find that civic or governmental structures provide such a narrative. The attachment to place is not an attachment to an incorporated town, but rather to the ancestral seat of one's family. These family members may actually be scattered some distance with the decline of the rural economy (and of factory towns like Gadsden, Alabama). One feels "closer" to family members in the next county than to unrelated people down the street. Churches, all day singings, fiddle contests, and the like function as extensions of the family beyond blood ties.

    Most pointedly, of course, the history of race relations has made it hard for black and white Southerners to form the same civic bonds seen in the New England town. (Which is not to deny that many New England towns have histories of class warfare and social strife, too.)

    In short, the Southern attachment to place seems to me more of a diaspora, whereas the New England attachment is more of a homeland. I'm thinking partly of Kiri Miller's work on Sacred Harp as I put these thoughts together, but I think there's a larger pattern at work.

  2. Thanks for the observations, Duncan. Kinship ties are communal in rural New England, too; but in my experience New Englanders don't mark celebrate the ancestral seat or "the old home place," as it's often called in the upper South and, as you know, referenced frequently in southern popular literature and music.