Every year at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) I find myself following the presentations in my areas of current interest, as well as attending, when I can, presentations of students and former students. Now, of course, they all are former students. SEM is a time to reconnect with many of them, and with colleagues; and it's a time to learn what people in the fields I’m most interested in are thinking.
Applied ethnomusicology is one of those fields. It was well represented in the pre-conference, themed in public sector ethnomusicology. The public sector refers to those government agencies funded entirely or almost entirely by taxpayer money. NGOs, private corporations, and academic institutions operate outside the public sector even though they may enjoy some government (i.e., taxpayer) funding. Applied ethnomusicologists are employed in all of those places—public sector, NGO, private corporations, and inside the academic world. But as an oversupply of ethnomusicology PhDs, coupled with shrinkage in the percentage of tenured and tenure-able academic positions, makes it harder to find academic jobs, the Society is concerned to find employment for its graduates outside the academy, and the public sector is one option.
As SEM met in Washington, DC this year, the American Folklife Center, a department of the Library of Congress, a public sector agency, hosted the pre-conference. The main theme was careers for ethnomusicologists in the public sector, although there was some spillover into the NGO and private sector areas.
I’d been invited to speak for ten minutes to the group about a landmark publication in the applied ethnomusicology, the first (and only) issue of the SEM Journal, Ethnomusicology, devoted to ethnomusicology in the public interest. Published in 1992, it came about primarily as a result of my efforts, and marked the first official recognition within the Society of the legitimacy of extra-academic ethnomusicology. I said something about how the issue did come to be, and then reviewed what had happened in the 25 years since then. I reproduce my presentation in its entirety here.
“Ethnomusicology in the Public Interest – 25 Years Later”
Jeff Todd Titon, Nov. 9, 2016, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
SEM Pre-Conference on Soundings: Public Sector Ethnomusicology in the 21st Century
I thank Nancy Groce and Judith Gray for inviting me to speak to you. I want to make three points. One, the special issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s journal, Ethnomusicology, on music and the public interest, published in 1992, was the culmination of decades of work in public folklore and ethnomusicology. Point two, in the period since 1992 public ethnomusicology has grown, institutionally, in practice, and by generating theory. Third, ethnomusicologists would be wise to respond to this growing body of theory and practice by integrating applied and public ethnomusicology more fully into graduate education.
To my first point, then. When in 1988 I was program chair for the 1989 SEM conference, I invited panelists for a plenary on ethnomusicology and the public interest. The public interest is defined as the welfare or well-being of the general public. When a year later then-SEM President Mark Slobin invited me to become editor of the SEM Journal, one reason I accepted was so that I could try to publish that plenary as a special journal issue.
This special issue featured articles by Dan Sheehy, Bess Hawes, Martha Davis, and Tony Seeger. As journal editor, I wrote an introductory essay entitled “Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology.” In it I wrote that “Public sector, applied, active, and practice ethnomusicology are the names that the authors in this issue give to what ethnomusicologists do in the public interest. What they have in common is work whose immediate end is not research and the flow of knowledge inside intellectual communities but, rather, practical action in the world outside of archives and universities. This work involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world. Ethnomusicologists aren’t the only ones who work in the field of music and the public interest. . . . But ethnomusicologists have a particular stake here.” Today I would describe our stake as twofold: one, to maintain our profession’s ethics of social responsibility in public ethnomusicology; and two, to advance the cause of what Alan Lomax called cultural equity.
The decades of work the issue stood on go back to Herbert Halpert, Charles Seeger, Alan Lomax, and other pioneers in multicultural democracy. Those pioneers’ like-minded descendants, among them Ralph Rinzler, Bess Lomax Hawes, Archie Green, Tom Vennum, Tony Seeger, and Alan Jabbour, in the 1970s and 1980s consolidated a public sector infrastructure for conserving the traditional arts, in the folklife division of the Smithsonian Institution, the Folk arts Division of the NEA, also here at the AFC, and in dozens of state-funded positions, all outside the academic world. A small number of ethnomusicologists with careers inside the academic world worked with that outside infrastructure; our numbers included Charlotte Heth, Dan Sheehy, Robert Garfias, Jackie Dje Dje, Lorraine Sakata, and myself among others. I started my engagement in public ethnomusicology working at the 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, having been invited to do so by Bess Hawes, then the festival director. I served under Bess and Dan Sheehy as a member of the NEA Folk Arts Panel in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1989, 1992, and 2014, and did numerous site visits for them over the years. Encouraged by Bess, and with the help of Jane Beck, in 1983 I convinced the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to hire a state folklorist. The first one they hired was an ethnomusicologist, Roberta Singer. This is the same position Maggie Holtzberg holds at the Massachusetts Cultural Council now, and where Cliff Murphy, who’s presenting here today, was an intern before he came to Brown to get his doctorate in ethnomusicology. What goes around, comes around: Cliff now holds the position as NEA Folk Arts director that Bess held.
My second point is that since 1992, our professional ethnomusicology societies, SEM and ICTM and others, have recognized that working for the public interest is an important part of who we are and what we do. In 1997 Doris Dyen and Martha Davis organized an SEM Committee on Applied Ethnomusicology, settling on a single name: applied ethnomusicology. In 2002 the Committee became a SEM Section, and today that Section is our third largest, with 300 members. Nearly one in three SEM members identify today as applied ethnomusicologists. In its first decade, our group made a space within SEM for ethnomusicologists whose work was primarily outside of the academic world. We sponsored panels almost every year in which ethnomusicologists employed in the public sector—that is, in government organizations supported by taxpayer money—and also those employed outside the public sector, in NGOs, and in the private sector, spoke about their careers. In the past ten years, now that more and more academics are doing applied ethnomusicology, the Section has become a home for everyone who is engaged in ethnomusicology in the public interest, no matter if they are employed inside or outside of the academy, because it is the nature and impact of the work that matters, not the place of employment. Applied ethnomusicology is a noble calling in and of itself. In 2007 the ICTM established a study group on applied ethnomusicology; its founding leader, Svanibor Pettan, is here today. In the new millennium, a steady stream of articles as well as two books emerged to theorize our subject. In the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, published last year, edited by Svanibor and myself, an international group of applied ethnomusicologists, some working in the public sector, some in NGOs, some in the private sector, and some within the academic world, contributed essays. In September 2015, in Ireland, a joint SEM-ICTM sponsored forum on community-engaged, activist ethnomusicology took place on the initiative of the presidents of both organizations, with dozens of presentations over a three-day period. Svanibor and I were among those who gave keynote addresses, and Oxford will publish a book from the conference.
The increase in practice, publications, and the institutional growth of ethnomusicology in the public interest within and outside of our professional societies brings me to my third point, which is that education for applied ethnomusicology has not kept pace. We do not yet have MA programs in public ethnomusicology, nor do we have applied ethnomusicology tracks within MA and PhD programs. Education in it remains mostly informal. Some professors are sympathetic, practice it and encourage it in their students. Other professors have little interest. Doctoral programs within top-tier universities are under pressure to turn out PhDs who will go on to teaching and research careers at peer institutions. That is how top universities are evaluated and it is on that basis that our graduate programs are funded. I am very proud of our Brown PhDs who have gone on to do public ethnomusicology—three of them are presenting here, by the way: Bradley Hanson, Maureen Loughran, and Cliff Murphy; and there are more—but it would take a different kind of university than Brown or its peers to establish an actual graduate degree in applied or public ethnomusicology. MA programs emphasizing public folklore already do exist, at Western Kentucky University, Indiana University, and Goucher College. Several MA programs in applied anthropology also exist. Why not public ethnomusicology? Those programs could feature academic courses, internships, and employ professors of practice. I believe they should have a thesis requirement that includes ethnographic fieldwork. Fieldwork requires many skills useful in public ethnomusicology—observation, documentation, organization, and social skills. Most important, fieldwork in ethnomusicology occurs today in a postcolonial atmosphere encouraging respect, collaboration, reciprocity, engagement and social responsibility. In that special issue 25 years ago, I wrote that fieldwork was best based not in investigative reporting or distanced, neutral observation, but in friendship with one’s field partners. As a younger generation of ethnomusicologists is increasingly motivated by social responsibility, they are increasingly making public ethnomusicology a central part of our field. Twenty-five years ago this was but a hopeful dream; today it is fast becoming a reality.