Sustainable Music


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friendship, "Giving Back," and the Price of a Creative Economy

    About ten years ago John Fenn, interviewing me on the subject of applied ethnomusicology, asked why I thought so many graduate students in his generation were interested in it. I told him I thought they weren’t satisfied with the traditional circulation of knowledge inside the intellectual communities of the colleges, universities, museums, and archives; and that they felt, after getting to know the people whose music they were researching, a desire to “give back” something to those people and the music cultures they were not only learning about but learning from. (For that interview, see John Fenn, "A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon," Folklore Forum, Vol. 34, nos. 1 and 2 [2003], pp. 119-131. A free download is available at:
    “Giving back” is the way they phrase it now, and it’s also the way those of us in my generation did when engaging in the kinds of reciprocity that distinguished us from previous academic generations. As I said in that interview, I was “giving back” to the blues musicians I hung out with long before I even knew what fieldwork research or ethnomusicology was, for reciprocity is the way friends normally behave with one another. The gift exchange of giving back isn’t noblesse oblige, the way humanities institutions typically think about their public mission, to bring culture to the uncultured. It is reciprocity, a gift quid pro quo. The bluesmen I hung around with in the 1960s—Lazy Bill Lucas primarily, but also JoJo Williams, Baby Doo Caston, Lee Rogers, and Mojo Buford—were freely giving me their music, their thoughts, their time, their soul food. I’d learned to play blues guitar in high school and played it in college but I don’t think I really learned it until I started making music with these musicians, first jamming with them in their apartments and then eventually joining Lazy Bill’s band. And I was learning about the blues music culture, too: how to be in the world as a blues musician like them. These were priceless gifts to me, and I wanted to give something back if I could.
    But what? Maybe, I thought, I could help their careers by generating some publicity for them. I interviewed each of them about their lives in music and got these published in blues fan magazines, notably Blues Unlimited. This led to three record contracts for Bill, and many more gigs, including an appearance at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, for which Bill earned more money than he ever had been paid for any job in his life, before or since. 
    Although this could be regarded as “pay back,” because we each did help each other's careers, and that brought money in, I preferred to think of it as an example of a gift exchange. Making music as we did is a social activity in which musicians give to each other; these gifts enforce the gift-giving nature of friendship among musicians. They’d have given me these things whether I tried to help their careers or not. I’d have tried to give back in other ways if I could—and I did, in bringing food, transporting them around town on occasion, and so forth, the kinds of things friends do for each other anyway.
    But looking back on it, I now understand it as both a gift exchange and a commodity exchange; some of each, and both can be seen as investments in the future. It is difficult to talk about exchanges, even gift exchanges without talking in economic terms; but I trust that there is more to economics than commodity exchanges.
    In the so-called creative economy (see the blog entry for Feb. 19, 2011), when cultural policy increasingly becomes an arm of economic policy, where is the place for the unmerited gift, given and received, that is music (or any art, for that matter)? Economist David Throsby argues that art has a cultural value which transcends its price. Yet Throsby's arguments in favor of the creative economy all are use arguments which assign commodity value to music. And so while the music in the creative economy may be viewed as partaking of both gift and commodity exchanges, the price of emphasizing the latter is to risk atrophy to the former.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gift exchanges and "giving back"

    Ethics is a major concern today in the fieldwork research-based disciplines of cultural anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology. Each discipline’s professional society—the Society for Ethnomusicology, the American Folklore Society, and the American Anthropological Association—has, on its website, one page or several devoted to a statement of ethical principles by which its members abide (or ought to). The major feature of these ethics statements is a respect for the rights of our subjects—those people we work with and learn from. Beyond respecting their rights, many of us want to “give back” something to these people and their cultures, musical and otherwise, who have given so much to us. It’s helpful to think of this giving, and giving back, as gift exchanges.
      I’ve written and spoken a good deal about gift exchanges, about art as a gift, and about the difficulties that arise when cultural policies treat such gifts as commodities. It’s time to consider this giving and giving back as part of a gift economy, one which lies alongside our economy of commodity-based exchanges. I want to think about this in the context, also, of Veit Erlmann’s response to my public lecture at the University of Texas at Austin last February, when he took exception to my thinking about gifts and gift economies, citing the work of Jacques Derrida on the meaning of gifts in defense of his position.
      Marcel Mauss was the cultural anthropologist who opened the topic of gift exchanges, taking certain indigenous societies and various rituals of giving such as potlatch as examples. Mauss’s point, often forgotten, was not that in these societies gifts are freely given with no expectation of anything in return. Rather, as in the potlatch, receipt of a gift puts the recipient in a position of deep obligation to the donor: a gift comparable or greater must be returned. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, extended the topic to gift exchanges in pre-capitalist, pre-industrial (but not pre-market) Europe, in the medieval period. As in classic Marxian analysis, the important aspect of economic exchanges has to do with the kind of relationship that obtains between the people doing the exchange. In the commodity exchange, a legal contract binds the participants, but there is no personal relationship and no expectation of an exchange in return (unless the contract is violated). In the gift exchange, on the other hand, while there is no legal contract, there is a moral obligation that binds donor and receiver in a personal relationship that continues after the exchange. Derrida, characteristically eccentric, proclaimed that a gift was not truly a gift unless the donor remained anonymous to the recipient. Of course, with that kind of gift any relationship between donor and receiver is severed because the donor is unknown.
      Derrida’s proclamation calls attention to one kind of gift, and to the idea that distinguishing gift from commodity exchanges is, after all, a Western idea. In my experience the central notion of a true gift is that it is unmerited, not that it is anonymous. The donor gives without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This is the gift of music, or the gift of any art: the composer, the musician, the artisan does not deserve the gift, does not expect it. They are prepared for it and are open to receiving it but do not demand it, do not require it, do not think it is owed to them. Once received, however, it carries with it a sense of obligation. As Lew Hyde writes, in his book The Gift, the relationship now requires that the gift be used, not squandered; that it be returned, usually in a larger form, or that it be passed along. Above all, a gift may not be sold or discarded.
      Derrida's insistence on the anonymity of the donor in a true gift may apply to the gift of artistic creation, when the donor's presence is felt but not known, as when a musician feels that artistic creation is effortless, something that is being received as a gift while the artist is not actively forming it as the artist brings it into the world. As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, there are times when playing music that one feels as if the instrument is playing itself, or playing the musician, rather than the reverse. One's usual sense of agency is absent.
     On the other hand, many artists have identified the donor of this kind of gift with God. This is why Derrida's analysis can take us only so far, for in this case the donor is known. And, of course, it would be hard to overestimate Protestant Christianity’s influence on the idea of the gift in Western culture: the idea that Jesus’ death was God’s gift to an undeserving humankind. God’s grace, in other words, stands as an important model of, and for, the gift in Western culture. The idea that the Creation was God’s gift, in the sense that God’s hand was manifest throughout in its orderly pattern, constructed the Western idea of Nature from medieval Europe well into the nineteenth century. God stood behind Nature’s economy, gradually receding as the centuries wore on; yet even Darwin saw God’s trace, if not grace, within the natural world.
      Today it would be unusual to find a cultural anthropologist, folklorist or ethnomusicologist who would say that their desire to “give back” arises from Christian doctrine and ethics. Pressed for principles, they would defend it on the grounds of human dignity, inherent individual and cultural rights, updated principles of European and American cultural democracies rooted in Enlightenment philosophies. Alan Lomax’s phrase was “cultural equity.” Equity means fairness and impartiality; interestingly, like so many other terms that connote values, it also has meaning in economics, the world of commodity exchanges. One builds equity in a house; and a company’s total value of issued stock shares constitutes its equity, hence the phrase “equities” for stocks. Time and again the attempt to separate the world of the gift, and gift exchanges, from the world of commodities, and commodity exchanges, runs afoul of the way we habitually think of value. It is the same with “giving back,” as much of what the applied ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and public folklorists give back has commodity value—indeed, most of it. That will be the next topic.