Sustainable Music


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Team Fieldwork

I've neglected this blog while completing work on the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology and preparing and delivering a keynote address for the Ecomusicologies 2014 conference that took place in Asheville, North Carolina a few weeks ago. That was an extremely stimulating conference and I plan to say why in due course. Much of my reading lately has been in the area of sound communication among animals, following up on the ideas about sound signaling presence and co-presence. That field is dominated today by a cluster of assumptions coming from game theory, natural selection, and bio-economics. I will be posting some things about that in the near future.

Last week there was a lively discussion on the public folklore list concerning team fieldwork and the use of still photography. Betsy Peterson, head of the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, asked for information on those topics from those folklorists who undertook fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s. Shortly after the AFC was founded, in 1976, it sent teams of folklife specialists into particular geographical areas to survey the folklore in the region and, usually, turn the documentation into an exhibit which toured in that region and then was deposited in archives there or in the Library of Congress or both. Usually the teams were led by employees of the AFC, but they also utilized local-based folklorists who already knew something about the region's folklife. Although teams of two or three researchers were not new in folklore, these AFC teams were larger and in some ways resembled the teams of anthropologists and sociologists who assessed the social lives of people in a given geographical area. My response to Betsy was this:
     "Speaking from my North American perspective—I don’t know how this all went down in Europe or elsewhere back in the day, but when I studied folklore in the 1960s, what I encountered was “collecting” or survey work, rather than “fieldwork” in the longitudinal, Malinowskian ethnographic sense, or in the sense of some of the collaborative long-term team fieldwork projects that anthropologists were doing. Folklorists went into the field to survey and find and “collect” folklore, either individually or collectively (no pun intended). If memory serves, the language of the American Folklife Center’s early team projects was also expressed in terms of field surveys, which is what I understood them to have been. Documentation was part of the process of collecting. Earlier examples of collaboration in folklore field collecting include Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the late 1930s collecting epic songs together in Yugoslavia, and the collaborative field trips undertaken by Alan Lomax with Zora Neale Hurston and also with John Work, not to mention those that Alan went on with his father John. At some point in the 1960s/1970s the ethnographic turn in folklore seems to have replaced the idea of collecting (surveying). Now fieldwork was no longer regarded primarily as collecting folklore, but as doing ethnographies of expressive culture, in an anthropological sense, longer term and in one place. My work on the Powerhouse projects, Henry Glassie’s work in Ballymenone—there are several examples from the 1970s. My work on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, by the way. In anthropology, examples of larger teams doing anthropological fieldwork include the long-term projects undertaken by professors at Harvard and the U. of Chicago and their graduate students, after World War II. This isn’t to say there were no folklorists in the 1960s doing longitudinal work with individuals or in particular places, nor that they didn’t conceive of it as fieldwork; but it wasn’t the norm.
    When I studied ethnomusicology beginning in 1966 I encountered the term fieldwork, and I also encountered it the same year in an introductory anthropology course. Of course, the idea we were taught way back then was that a fieldworker was, ideally, a scientific observer, fly on the wall, investigative reporter, even when fieldwork was done by a group of fieldworkers; the notion that fieldwork involved collaboration among fieldworkers and “informants” (or what we’d call nowadays field partners, consultants, teachers, co-subjects, etc. as discussed recently on this listserv) was being advanced back then only by a few of the more radical action anthropologists.
     My own fieldwork in the 1960s I think of more as visiting than fieldwork, something I’ve actually written about here and there, the idea of visiting and friendship, collaborating with blues musicians, learning music from them, helping them in their careers by getting them gigs, recording contracts, etc. and mostly hanging out with them, not just learning about music but about a way of being in the world. There was a group of blues musicians in Minneapolis, Lazy Bill Lucas, JoJo Williams, Mojo Buford, Sonny Boy Rogers, kind of a floating group that congregated at Bill’s apartment on Lake Street, where we ate Bill’s fried chicken, drank Fox Deluxe beer, played music, and “shot the shit” (talked, as it was called back then) about life and love and music, made plans, and so forth. In the 1970s most of my fieldwork on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, with Ken George, who was a grad student in folklore at Chapel Hill at the time. (He’s since gone on to become a well-known anthropologist; taught at Harvard, Oregon, and Wisconsin, and is now teaching in Australia.) But even before then I wasn’t alone in that kind of fieldwork; when I taught at IU for a summer, Sandy Rikoon and I went together to a few Pentecostal and Baptist churches, where we documented the services, interviewed the evangelists, and so on. Sandy would remember that.
     Re visual documentation, again, this was something that was part of the ethnographer’s toolkit as I learned in studying ethnomusicology and anthropology back in the 1960s. I don’t recall it being a part of folklore studies, but certainly there were folklorists back then who were doing it intensively and well—Bruce Jackson and John Cohen spring immediately to mind. My own introduction to photography came from my father, who had me taking pictures and working in a darkroom as a young teenager; and after devouring _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ in high school, I decided I wanted to do what Agee and Evans did, which meant among other things making documentary photos. My dad had brought back a couple of 35mm cameras from World War II, a Leica and a Balda; he gave me the Balda to use. Interestingly, until he died I never saw the WWII photos he made in France as part of the American liberating army; he was one of those who never talked about the war, but he did save the photos and I have them now. In the 1960s I shot some 8mm movies of my blues musician friends and tried to synch them up with reel tape recordings I made at the same time, but I could never keep them in good synch and gave up. How I wish I’d had enough money or a grant to rent Super-8 synch sound equipment to do that back then. When I went with Bill and his friends to perform at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in 1969 and 1970, I made 5” reel tape recordings with a Sony TC-800B (called, at the time, the poor person’s Uher) portable recorder and shot still photos, this time using my dad’s Leica which by then he’d given to me. In the mid-1970s I got a $1500 grant from the NEA Folk Arts division (back then it had the words jazz and ethnic in its name also) for fieldwork with Rev. C. L. Franklin and with the grant money I promptly bought a videotape recorder, a combination of a reel video tape machine that could fit on a large backpack frame, along with an outboard video camera. It was called a video “portapak” and shot grainy black-and-white video on 1/2” reels, and I used it to make videos in the Powerhouse project as well as the Franklin project. I also took it along when Sandy Rikoon and I visited those churches in Indiana nearly 40 years ago."

     Last April I showed one of those old videos from 1977 at the conference celebrating Rev. C. L. Franklin's legacy, more than 35 years after I shot it, and nearly 30 years after Rev. Franklin's death. It turns out that the seven videos I shot of his preaching--all complete sermons, in 1977 and 1978--with that technically challenged portapak, are the only visual documentation made of his preaching; yet he was widely acknowledged as the finest African American preacher of his generation: as a preacher, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his contemporary, and of course King's sermons were magnificent political orations. But Franklin was regarded as the finer preacher.