Tuesday, February 24, 2015

After Santa Fe

James W. Day, © Univ. Press of Kentucky
Courtesy Jean Thomas Collection, U. of Louisville
    I'm slowly catching up on various fall events where music and sustainability was thematic--this time, the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), which took place in Pittsburgh last November, in the week following the AFS conference. I stayed in Santa Fe a few extra days, and caught up with an old friend, Steve Green, who lives there and works as an archivist for the Western Folklife Center. We had three long breakfasts filled with talk that went through to lunch every day, there was so much to talk about. He's been researching and writing a major book about the events surrounding the promotion of folklore in the early part of the 20th century, focusing specifically on the folkloric entrepreneur Jean Thomas and the fiddler she promoted, James W. Day, whom she cast as the character "Jilson Setters." In the 1920s she toured Day to standing room theater crowds in New York and London, as he represented something about an older, and surer, America than the culture appeared to many at the time. Steve is an indefatigable researcher who understands how to ferret out archival evidence like no one else I know, and over the years he has accumulated a treasure trove of information on these people and this cultural moment.
    I was sorry to leave Santa Fe, a city impressive for its scale and its food, not to mention the collision of cultures there. I'd toyed with the idea of not attending the ethnomusicology conference this year, because I'd already planned so much traveling; but I received two invitations to do things there and decided I ought to go. The President of SEM had asked me if I was planning to come, because the Society wanted to give me an award; and I'd also been asked by the Graduate Student Section to be the discussant for a forum on applied ethnomusicology, which they wanted to explore both as a field in itself and also as an area for possible employment after obtaining their degrees. I assented, but with the caveat to the students that I felt anyone who wanted to "do" applied ethnomusicology would be better served if their motivation was a sense of social responsibility rather than concerns about employment. Music sustainability as cultural policy is one aspect of applied ethnomusicology.
    Many applied ethnomusicologists do think the field offers, or should offer, employment opportunities outside of the academic world. This is correct, although more academics practice applied ethnomusicology than those holding non-academic jobs. Yet, the defining characteristic of applied ethnomusicology isn't the place of employment, but the nature of the work: putting ethnomusicology to practical use in helping to enhance the quality of people's lives. Today, as it has developed in various parts of the world, applied ethnomusicology usually involves some kind of activism and advocacy, an intervention into a community, almost always in partnership with people in those communities, for the common good. Over the years I've formulated this in various ways; my latest one is for the Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which is due to be published later this year. At the SEM conference, I spoke about these things, and was pleased that the forum speakers addressed those issues and for the most part didn't do what many had done in the past, namely, speak autobiographically about their own career path in applied ethnomusicology outside the academy as an alternative kind of employment.  As I said at the forum, for most people "academic" is the alternative path. Many people in my generation (and later generations) entered the academic world as an alternative to employment in the business world, and the phrase "ivory tower" suggests that the general public views academia as alternative to the mainstream. Applied ethnomusicology puts it back into the mainstream in service to cultural equity and social justice.
    One other thing happened at this conference that I must not forget to remark on, and that is that I was able to acknowledge publicly my debt to Alan Kagan, who taught ethnomusicology to me when I enrolled in his graduate seminars at the University of Minnesota nearly fifty years ago. Long retired but still active, Alan embodied dedication, both to his field of ethnomusicology and to his students. His office was always filled with students; and if one wanted to see him to talk about one's research, or perhaps about something that was going on in seminar, one had to wait with other students outside for a long time, because Alan always saw each student one at a time and gave them more than their due. At the conference last fall, SEM gave me an award recognizing lifetime achievement in research and teaching. I'm grateful to the Society for that. The award carries with it a free, lifetime membership in SEM. After receiving this award, presented to me by two professors whose doctoral dissertations I'd supervised a couple of decades ago, I said I hoped to keep that membership a long time; and then I acknowledged Alan Kagan as my own teacher. He was there in the audience--this was at the end of the conference when everyone was gathered in a hotel ballroom--and he stood up to a long round of well-deserved applause.

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