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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

S-town


S-town doesn’t stand for sustainability town, but the S-town project bears on sustainability because it’s a documentary project sort of like the ones that anthropologists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and sociologists undertake and call ethnography. S-town, as many readers will recall, was a very popular NPR podcast that aired early last spring. An example of personal journalism, it was a radio documentary edited by Brian Reed and sponsored by Serial and NPR's This American Life. Reed followed up an email received from one John McLemore, an eccentric resident of a small Alabama town, who called it in S-town. As I recall from listening to the podcast last April, the persistent McLemore invited Reed to visit and investigate an alleged murder. It turned out there wasn’t a murder after all, but McLemore fascinated Reed so much that he kept coming back, eventually becoming friends with him and learning about the community from McLemore’s perspective and meeting some of McLemore’s friends and acquaintances. The documentary gradually reveals aspects of McLemore’s mysterious life, as Reed came to understand it. Reed documented his conversations and phonecalls with McLemore by recording them with audio equipment. S-town consists of these audio recordings, edited and intermixed with Reed’s narration of his quest, first to investigate the supposed murder, and eventually to understand McLemore. But the narrative changes abruptly after McLemore commits suicide. Now Reed’s quest shifts: he wants to understand why McLemore killed himself, which must, he thinks, be further tied up in the mystery of his life. In the process, though, Reed has to contend with the people who want to inherit McLemore’s estate, or parts of it. One of McLemore’s closest friends, a man named Tyler, believes (probably correctly) that McLemore wanted him to have certain of his things upon his death. He takes them from the estate, whereupon McLemore's cousin and heir, who has not been in McLemore's life for many years, shows up to claim her inheritance and asks the police to arrest Tyler and charge him with theft. Reed is upset by all these events, and he feels sorry for Tyler, who as the story ends is facing a likely arrest and court date, while Reed tries to tie up the loose ends and offer his explanation of McLemore's life and death.
S-town gained a great deal of attention in the media. There were articles about it in The New Yorker, in The Atlantic, and on line, both as it went along and at the end. It was heralded as a breakthrough in personal radio documentary, but at the same time questions were raised about the ethics of what some saw as an invasion of privacy, first McLemore’s, and then Tyler’s. My take at the time was that McLemore probably was happy with the attention and would have welcomed the podcast. Tyler, on the other hand, was not one to want the spotlight. He had been in trouble with the law for the kinds of minor infractions that some teenagers and younger adults who have little in the way of education, resources or prospects get involved with. He was not someone who listened to public radio and probably did not understand the kind of project that Reed was involved in. Even if he did, he did not have the ability to protect himself very well other than by refusing to cooperate--but then, he would have compromised his relationship with McLemore, who had invited the attention; and McLemore was his employer. In many ways, Tyler was representative of the underclass of people ethnographers have documented in the South—poor whites—ever since they were sketched in nineteenth-century fiction as “Crackers,” and later portrayed as hillbillies. The best-known documentation of Tyler’s people in Alabama was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book originally published in the early 1940s by James Agee and Walker Evans, and reprinted many times since—also an example of personal journalism, as intense if not more intense than Reed’s radio documentary. Privacy concerns were expressed about it, also, but Agee and Evans used pseudonymns for their subjects. Reed’s documentary broadcast their real names.
As media events do, S-town faded from public consciousness during the summer. But then in September, it was revealed that Bryan Jones, the prosecutor in the case of the alleged burglary of a few of McLemore’s items after his death, had doubled the number of charges against Tyler, after having listened to what was revealed on the S-town podcast. He also argued against Tyler’s release on bail, based on some things Tyler said that Reed recorded and broadcast. Jones told the Tuscaloosa News that “In the podcast, he basically admits to the trespass and the burglaries and thefts.” What Jones didn’t say was that Tyler believes these items are rightfully his because, even though he had not specified it in a will, McLemore promised them to him. 
Last month, in a plea deal Tyler admitted guilt for taking lumber, junk vehicles, and a laptop computer from McLemore’s estate, in exchange for a ten-year suspended sentence, plus five years to be spent on probation per agreement. Would Tyler have been found out at all in the absence of the podcast? Probably; the McLemore heir reported the items missing, and the sheriff would likely have found Tyler and the items anyway. He made no attempt to hide them, and the old junk cars would have been obvious in his yard. Would the sentence have been less than it was? Probably, though some would argue he was lucky the judge didn't give him jail time. And what did Tyler think about his privacy having been compromised? “Hasn’t really helped much,” he told WTVM-13, a central Alabama news station. “Sometimes I regret ever speaking into that microphone because I was probably upset, or wasn’t thinking clearly.” 
Personal journalism of this sort is subject to invasion of privacy suits, of course, but there is little likelihood that Tyler or any of the inhabitants of S-town will sue. Ethnographers, also, are subject to similar legal action, but the professional ethics standards of our disciplines—anthropology, folklore, sociology, ethnomusicology—published on the websites of our professional societies, state that we have a responsibility to protect the interests of our subjects and consider the possibility of harmful consequences, inform our subjects of any, and obtain their informed consent in advance. Almost all do. I don’t know whether Reed obtained informed consent—possibly he did—but the point is not just to obtain consent, but rather to refrain from publishing ethnographic materials that could have harmful consequences. Cultural sustainability requires documentation, but documentation that does not conform to standards of ethics will not sustain anything—or anyone—in the long run.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Plantations, blues, and a Trump hotel in Cleveland

Blues tourism in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta has been around since at least the 1970s, but it’s been a niche industry because blues fandom peaked in the 1960s and despite occasional mini-boomlets since, it has never been the same. Even the interest in blues that followed The Blues Brothers (1980) film was short-lived. But now a new pair of blues brothers are bidding to make blues tourism big-league: Donald Trump, Jr., and his brother Eric are planning to fund a Trump hotel in Cleveland—that’s Cleveland, Mississippi, not Ohio. For it was in Drew, near Cleveland, Mississippi, that Charley Patton, considered the “father” of the Delta Blues, lived on Dockery’s Plantation where he sang and played blues. It was there that Robert Johnson hung out with Patton and his friends and, supposedly, learned to sing and play blues (although there are accounts of his having learned from Satan after meeting him at a crossroads). It was Johnson who along with Howlin’ Wolf (who also lived in the area) and played with Patton, influenced the post-WW2 Chicago blues sound that, again supposedly, became the basis for rhythm ’n’ blues and rock and roll in the 1950s. All of this is arguable, except for Patton’s home base in Drew, seven miles from Cleveland. And the fact that a Grammy Museum opened in Cleveland last year highlights blues history. (There is another Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.)
     The Trumps are reportedly partnering with the family of Suresh Chawla, Indian-American immigrants and hotel entrepreneurs, to build the hotel that would bear the Trump imprimatur and, presumably, lure tourists coming not only for blues but also for the Trump name. Suresh Chawla gave $50,000 to the Trump campaign and pitched the hotel at a Trump fund-raiser in Jackson, Mississippi in August of 2016. A story that ran last week in the Washington Post offered the outlines of the deal, but there were earlier reports about it last June. The trump-branded hotel will also boast a meeting hall built to resemble a cotton gin and, at the suggestion of the Trump family, a mansion made to look like an antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) southern plantation. In the wake of controversies surrounding removal of Confederate monuments built during the Jim Crow era, erecting an antebellum plantation in a town attempting to attract blues tourists strikes a doubly wrong note. 
     Antebellum plantations, after all, were the apotheoses of slavery. The wealthiest slaveowners lived in them, the ones that held the most African American slaves as property, in bondage, subject to torture if they didn’t labor hard to grow cotton and other crops, and maintain the life style of the plantation owner family. One of the mansions’ defining features were exterior columns in Greek Revival style, and no doubt the Trump mansion will boast these as well. As a four-star hotel, it will charge several hundred dollars per night for a visitor to stay there. Surely some of the workers in the hotel will be African Americans, descendants of slaves, as are the majority of laborers in the Delta today still. Yet it was out of slavery and its aftermath that their ancestors sang of freedom, in the spirituals and the blues. Erecting a symbol of slavery, torture, and the Confederacy in the heartland of the Delta blues is more than cheeky. But then Trump campaigned on bringing "the torture" back to the fight against terrorism.
     Some people, sympathetic to the long-lasting economic problems and poverty in the Delta, are willing (as Robert Johnson is said to have done) to strike a deal with the devil. In moments of desperation and hunger, people are willing to accept presumed solutions, no matter the cost in symbolism and historical irony. But would such a hotel enrich the region very much? Certainly it would enrich the investors, if it succeeded; and it would further swell the coffers of the President’s family, of which he is a member even though he is temporarily out of the real estate business. Whether it would bring much prosperity to the region’s population is questionable. A few local businessmen would reap the benefit of tourist dollars, to be sure; but would there be a significant increase in jobs? And because the original investment will be huuuge, it will enrich the banks (perhaps Russian banks?) until the loans are paid off. Blues tourism isn't a big business, and never has been; and Cleveland itself doesn’t have much to offer in the way of blues history or venues other than the new museum. 

   To add to the irony, the word “plantation” (to describe the place where a wealthy family lived to command a considerable agricultural operation) remained in common parlance in the post-bellum, Jim Crow Delta and elsewhere in the South. Dockery’s Plantation was an agricultural empire with dozens of African American sharecropper families living on its property. It was so vast and powerful that it issued its own scrip, or money. It also controlled the local police and the courts. Someone who ran afoul of the law risked disappearance, murder, and burial in an unmarked grave. As Lightnin’ Hopkins sang in "Tim Moore's Farm," putting the words in the mouth of a plantation boss, “Stay out of the graveyard and I’ll keep you from the pen[itentiary].” The sharecroppers lived in shacks not much different from antebellum slave quarters. It is unlikely that the Trump hotel will reproduce these. Dockery’s itself has turned into a blues tourist attraction and museum. Yet in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is reproduction of a post-bellum plantation complete with sharecropper shacks: the Hopson Plantation. 
Shacks, Hopson Plantation, Clarksdale, MS.
   This is an attempt at an authentic reproduction, with interpretation detailing the operation of a post-bellum cotton plantation in the Delta. We may hope that at least a few of the tourists who visit the Trump hotel in Cleveland will visit Dockery’s and the Hopson Plantation to find out a little about the conditions that spawned the Delta blues, not to mention the connections with rhythm ’n’ blues and rock ’n’ roll, and then think about what all this architecture represents. 


Sunday, September 17, 2017

US National Folk Festival, 2017

The National Folk Festival celebrated its 77th anniversary, in Greensboro last weekend, with a seven-stage musical extravaganza featuring traditional music performed by professional musicians from various parts of the US and the world. If you were in attendance, you could hear a variety of traditional North American musics, with the usual emphases: old-time music, bluegrass, and country; Cajun, Cape Breton, African American blues (Lurrie Bell) and gospel music (The Fairfield Four), Polish-American, and so on, mixed in with a smattering of ethnic musics not usually heard at these festivals--last weekend it was Egyptian music from New York City. Besides the music performances, more informal, educational presentations occurred, with musicians from different performing groups gathered on a single stage: for example, seven fiddlers, each representing different traditions and demonstrating similarities, differences, and the characteristics of genre and style. 
     The National is one of two major, annual, long-running US folk festivals. The other is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place in Washington, DC, whereas the National moves from one city to another every four years. The Smithsonian’s is more ambitious, with more stages, more performers, and a many more crafts artists besides, often demonstrating what they make, whether boats or baskets or Polish Easter eggs or any number of other hand-made objects. When the National was in Bangor, Maine, 2001-2003, the Maine Folklife Center partnered and offered a crafts stage with Native American basketmakers, state-based violin makers, and other crafts artists; in Greensboro there were crafts demonstrations in a North Carolina tent area. One stage at the National is always reserved for traditional dance music, and the crowd is always given a huge dance floor and encouraged to dance (see photo below). I was one of the presenters at the National this year, and it was my job to work a little at the dance stage and introduce Lurrie Bell and his Chicago blues band, and also Bruce Daigrepont and his Cajun band. There must have been 500 people happily dancing at each performance, while another few hundred looked on. Mutliply that by seven stages along with others moving about from one stage to another, or to the food concessions, and I guess about ten thousand overall in attendance. The National (and Smithsonian Folklife) festival have no admissions charge, but at the National a bucket is passed around for suggested contributions of $10 per person per day, and most people do contribute. The money is used to defray expenses. Other expenses are borne by corporate sponsors such as large telephone companies, along with local businesses, that get a chance to advertise at the festival. Sometimes the city council also contributes, hoping that the festival will attract out-of-town tourists whose expenditures will enhance the local economy. It’s good in that it brings people in the city together for a common, pleasurable experience; and in a city as diverse as Greensboro, this had a very positive impact. There was an atmosphere of celebration, a feeling that all traditions are valuable; there was no competition to speak of among ethnic groups, as there can be in certain European folk festivals.  
     The history of these festivals is complex and interesting. The National is much the older one and, like many that took place before the 1960s, it concentrated on Anglo-American musical traditions, implicitly promoting the idea that the US’ folk heritage is largely British, stemming from the British Colonies. The silent message was that the vast number of immigrants from outside of the UK, along with the Africans who were taken and sold into slavery, had less of a right to claim a pure American heritage. In the 1960s US immigration laws were relaxed, the nation began to be viewed as a mosaic of various ethnic groups, while the old "melting pot" idea came under pressure as ethnicity became a positive attribute and tracing one's roots became a pastime for some. The Newport Folk Festival added a significant number of African-American and Euro-American performers and traditions, and the Smithsonian (which began as the Newport was fading into obscurity) gradually increased ethnic as well as regional and class diversity among the performers and traditions they represented, making a special effort in the aftermath of the war in Indochina to bring displaced Asians and their traditions into the festival lineup. The National, also, became more diverse in its programming during this period. Soon, the Smithsonian festival partnered with folklorists overseas, and in most years traditional music and arts from one non-US nation was featured. For the US Bicentennial, the Smithsonian festival ran throughout the summer and traditions from many nations were on display along with their US diasporic counterparts, a festival extravaganza that has not been equalled since.
     The audience understands these festivals primarily as entertainment, but the festival organizers want also to inform and educate to some degree. The performers are unfamiliar to most of the audience, and in some cases the genres are as well. The presenters have the option of informing the audience, before the performers take the stage, about the traditions they represent, and something about the performers’ lives and careers. Of course, the audience grows impatient for the music if the presenters take more than a few minutes’ educating them. For me, this is a real danger because as a college professor I tend to lecture in a situation like this, so I have to remember to keep it short, especially when presenting on the dance stage. 
     At the Smithsonian festival, the stages are either performance stages or so-called narrative stages. In the latter, presenters engage the performers in conversations, and then performers demonstrate what they’ve been talking about—so it’s a much more educative environment. I recall that in the early 1990s, when I was working for the Smithsonian festival, in response to a few of my questions blues singer Johnny Shines delivered a scathing indictment of racism while explaining the history of blues. I had visited with Shines in his home in Alabama some years earlier, and found him to be not only a fine musician, singer and composer, but also a reflective person who, he said, had been writing his autobiography. I didn’t stay close to him, though, and by the time he died several years after performing at the Smithsonian festival, he hadn’t published the autobiography, nor did any part of the manuscript surface after his death. 


Customized antennas and other DIY electronics atop Big Joe Williams' 
station wagon, ca. 1980. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon.
     In 1976, the first time I worked at a folk festival—it was the Smithsonian—I was asked to present blues singer Big Joe Williams. At that time, the directors of the festival and the Smithsonian’s folklife division—Bess Lomax Hawes and Ralph Rinzler—were invested in the idea that folk music would be adulterated if presented accompanied by amplified guitars, electric basses, drums, and so on. Yet they understood that in the blues tradition, electronic amplification had become the standard after the second World War, and so they permitted a little of it, at low volume so that the sound didn't bleed from one stage to another. Big Joe had brought his own amplifier, a home-made rig consisting of an old floor-model radio from the 1940s, with a huge speaker, into which he’d placed an army surplus amplifier. It was very beat looking and at least 25 years old. Joe, who was quite a DIY electrician, carried it with him to his gigs in towns and cities up and down the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Chicago, where he traveled almost constantly. I recall that when Bess and Ralph took their first look at his amplifier, they recoiled, thinking that it must be an electrical hazard. But he demonstrated otherwise, and the gigantic amp that looked like an ancient radio became an object of the audience’s fascination, though of course for Big Joe it was just an amplifier. 
     Joe also played a 9-string guitar, which was a six to which he’d added three more, another home-made rig. I’ve never heard of anyone else who played a 9-string guitar, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter. The three added strings included one that doubled the G-string an octave higher, as in a 12-string guitar, giving Joe’s guitar the most distinctive sound of the 12-string, the octave G. Joe’s station wagon also was a magnificent DIY contraption, to the extent that he’d customized the electronics and several other aspects of the interior. It was quite a sight, and I took many photos of it. I’ve told elsewhere, in an interview, about an incident with Big Joe at that 1976 festival, one that has troubled me for many years; but there’s no need to go into detail about that here. 
     I’ve written here before, also, about the paradox in presenting mediated performances of "authentic" traditional musics which, in their natural contexts, are not mediated, even though they may be staged. Presenters, of course, are the chief mediators, explaining the musical traditions and saying something about the performers’ lives and careers, aspects of the performances that would otherwise be absent. And yet, insofar as a greater percentage of these performers are professional folk musicians today—due in no small part to support from festivals like these, and from state and local arts councils—most of their performances are staged and many are mediated. And some of the genres that they perform have been presented from the stage and on recordings for at nearly 100 years, including blues and old-time string band music, while for others the natural context is the stage, not the home. A more realistic description of these musics, I think, is that they have front-stage and back-stage aspects, neither more authentic than the other. Old-time, bluegrass, and country musicians, for example, perform from stages but also get together to play with and for one another informally at home and on the road in motels, and in campers at festivals, and so forth. In some traditions, what was once done in the home kitchens, on porches, or in living rooms with rolled up rugs and carpets, moved into community halls, or bars and pubs, or both, retaining the community flavor of a large family. And so there is that aspect of this music as well, back-stage and informal, that not only remains but is in a sense encouraged by festivals like the National and others that help support it in all of its aspects. 
    One of the best things about these festivals, over the years, is that they’ve encouraged people in the audience to learn and make music. At the National, two of my friends and colleagues, who teach in Greensboro, brought their four-year-old son; and he was thrilled to see and hear the music, especially up close. Bruce Daigrepont, leader of the Cajun band, noticed him, walked over to the section of the stage close to where his father was holding him on his shoulders, and moved his accordion back and forth towards and away from the youngster, who was entranced. Although the boy is too young to know what kind of music this is, surely he continues to identify music with movement and pleasure, something that will serve him well when he decides to take up music systematically and learn to sing or play or both, himself. He already pretends to make music—certainly he makes sounds—at home, on toy instruments; and it won’t be too long before he’s ready to apply himself to learn the skills needed to make real music.




     

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Post-Truth, Ethnography, and Religion in Appalachia

What’s happened to the ethnographic study of religion in Appalachia? In the last two decades of the 20th century it was a controversial, almost a hot topic within Appalachian Studies; in this century it’s cooled way down. At the 2016 Appalachian Studies Association conference, there wasn’t a single paper delivered on the subject, whereas in 1990 a special plenary session was devoted to a book that had recently been published on Appalachian religion, namely Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church (University of Texas Press, 1988). Perhaps the reissue of this book, forthcoming next year from the University of Tennessee Press, in a second edition with a new Afterword, will encourage more ethnographic research into this rich area of expressive culture.

Most of us who did this research in the last century have either grown old, lost interest, moved over to other subjects, or decided not to write much if anything about it any longer—or all of the above. The most prolific writer among us, Howard Dorgan, passed away. Why the current lull? It may be due to changing conditions within the academic world, or changes in ethnographic research and writing, or both. Typically, ethnographic research takes a long time. As opposed to survey work, which covers a broad area quickly (and sometimes superficially), ethnographic documentation means in-depth study of a single community for a year or more, though not necessarily a continuous year. Good (that is, accurate) ethnographic documentation requires meticulous attention to detail. Whereas religious beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples have always been an important topic for social and cultural anthropologists, the study of religion in the developed world, even among marginal groups, never attracted as much attention, nor did it carry much academic prestige. In today’s difficult job market, where hiring, promotion, and tenure often turn on research that makes a strong contribution to theory, and on topics that have broader than specialist appeal, the ethnographic study of religion in Appalachia has a hard time meeting either criterion. At the same time, ethnography itself has changed from an endeavor that attempted objectivity to one that recognizes the difficulties, if not the impossibility, of an objective approach. Religion is an especially difficult subject for ethnographers. Some religious practitioners feel that its essence is beyond the reach of science to begin with. Others make truth claims that ethnographers need to respond to, either by saying they are true, that they are false, or that it is best to set aside the truth or falsity of those claims and concentrate instead on describing the claims themselves, and the way they are practiced and experienced by the individuals and the social group that holds them. Documentation, once thought to be unbiased, no longer rests on so strong a scientific foundation; and the scientific study of religion was challenged even before ethnography itself was. Both its authority and its worth is questioned, and as a result it has become less appealing for this reason as well.

Recently, though, the dangers of living in a post-truth society, in which a fact is whatever one claims to be a fact, have become plain. In a review in the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), Sam Leith reminds us that the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truth leads to deception, including self-deception, which leads to misjudgment and ill fortune. This is true for populations and societies, as well as individuals and social groups. Ethnography’s claim to evidence-based solidity, if not complete accuracy, ought to become more attractive to those academics, and others, who resist the assault on settled opinion in matters of law, ethics, or, to take an example closer to the theme of this blog, climate change and sustainability. Possibly for that reason ethnographic research in general, and into religion specifically, will begin to gain more practitioners. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sustainability Stamp Blues

 The United States has just issued a commemorative stamp in its series honoring the statehood anniversaries of each state of the union. This time, the state is Mississippi, and on the stamp is a painting of an acoustic guitar being played by a person with a brown hand and fingers. At the upper right are the letters Mississippi; at the lower right the number 1817 (the year Mississippi became a state), and at the lower left the word “FOREVER” followed by USA. It is the 200th anniversary of statehood, and it’s striking that the image chosen to represent the state is that of an African American playing blues on guitar. (The painting was made from a 2009 photograph by Lou Bopp of blues singer and guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, from the town of Bentonia, the same town of legendary blues singer/guitarist Skip James whose 1920s recordings are among the most riveting early blues performances. Well-known to blues aficionados for seven decades, James' recordings entered the public sphere in the 2001 film Ghost World, where they were the center of attraction for the young heroine’s fascination with a record collector.)
    This wasn't the first commemorative to honor a Mississippi blues musician; in 1994 a 29-cent stamp was issued with an ugly painting of Robert Johnson's head that borders on caricature. Johnson had been the subject of blues revivalists' fascination in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s after the Blues Brothers film rekindled an interest in the genre. Columbia Records once again reissued Johnson's recordings, this time on CD rather than LP (the originals had been on 78s), and it seemed as if a US stamp with Johnson's image announced blues' mainstream cultural significance. The name "Mississippi" didn't appear on the stamp, which seemed more a coup for the blues and for Columbia Records, than for the state represented by Johnson's music.
    But now, 23 years later, various things about this state's official commemorative stamp are notable. Blues, as I’ve written before on this blog, is a poster child for music and sustainability, because despite predictions for more than a hundred years of its impending demise, blues managed to survive. The “FOREVER” in this stamp takes on a double meaning: not only the stamp but also the blues is viable, so it's implied, forever. With this stamp, blues reverses 180 degrees, from impending death to eternal life. Certainly, in the 1960s when I was a guitarist participant in the blues revival of that time, and a part of the blues music culture, I wouldn’t have predicted anything like this. Not that I thought the death of blues was imminent, but its immortality on an official seal of the United States would have been inconceivable. Not only that, but in some ways it'd have been unwelcome.
    It would have been unwelcome for record collectors, and for blues revivalists like me, because for us blues had become, in the 1960s, an alternative music, just as the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary had; and just as old-time string band music had become. Blues then was positioned, in the revival, not just outside of but in opposition to the music, and the values, of official, mainstream culture. Blues on a US stamp would have been viewed as an attempt to co-opt it and buy it off.
    A few other things about this stamp are troublesome. Although I named the musician in my first paragraph, nowhere is his name indicated on the stamp. African-American erasure, once again. Indeed, blues itself isn't mentioned on the stamp; genre is under erasure just as is the artist's name. Identifying the state of Mississippi with a blues guitarist is appropriate because since the early 1990s the state's tourism department has promoted blues to visitors, realizing that the blues draws music fans who'll spend money in-state when they come to festivals, museums, gravesites, juke joints, record stores, and in other places associated with blues, not to mention money spent for food, lodging, gifts, and other things. 

   
Fifty years ago, to celebrate the Mississippi sesquicentennial, the US issued another commemorative stamp. This was during the decade of the 1960s blues revival, and also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi being one of the most racially violent states. Ironically, perhaps, the 1967 Mississippi commemorative stamp then portrayed a Southern white magnolia, the state flower, worn by many a southern belle, representing beauty, purity, dignity and gracious living.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sustainability, Ethnomusicology and Applied Ecology

The history of applied ethnomusicology in the US goes back at least to the New Deal era, when ethnomusicologists were (comparative) musicologists and when Charles Seeger, the first president of the American Musicological Society, argued on behalf of an applied musicology that would be put to practical use in a democratic republic, for the benefit of society as a whole, rather than in service to high culture only. It was also an era of conservation, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, with agricultural conservation efforts underway in the Farm Security Administration, and the Works Progress Administration undertaking cultural conservation by collecting and encouraging popular and folk arts and crafts. The invaluable recordings by folklorists such as Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress were part of this effort. 
         The history of applied ecology goes back at least to the World War I era. The story will be a familiar one to anyone who’s followed the history of applied ethnomusicology. The professional society of ecologists, the Ecological Association of America (ESA), began in 1915, as an offshoot of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was founded to help unify a science that consisted of plant ecology, animal ecology, and so forth—a series of specialties without a general ecological theory. The ESA hoped to stimulate research and to serve as a place where scientists could share information. One of the ESA’s standing committees was devoted to another goal, using ecological research to advance environmental conservation. This "Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions" was led by the ESA’s first president, Victor Shelford (1877-1968), from 1917 to 1938. The next year, 1939, saw the publication of the most important work in general ecology in the first half of the 20th century, Bio-Ecology, co-authored by Shelford and Frederic E. Clements. The book advanced Shelford’s ideas of the biome and ecological succession, which he had introduced as early as 1912. Clements, of course, is known for his idea that ecological succession led to a climax community in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
         Shelford’s credentials as an eminent research scientist were beyond dispute, but when at the end of Roosevelt’s last presidential term he tried to steer the ESA into establishing a new organization, one devoted to conservation, the ESA balked. Its officers decided that as a scientific society they must avoid becoming a political advocacy group, which they feared would happen if they sponsored the conservation organization that Shelford wanted. Going further, they abolished the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions that Shelford had led for its first 21 years. Upset, Shelford left his professorship at the University of Illinois, and in 1946 founded the new organization himself, the Ecologists Union, aligning nature conservation with the goal of preserving entire ecosystems. That organization is known today as The Nature Conservancy.
         It would be interesting to know whether the ESA’s unwillingness to endorse applied ecology during the immediate post-World War II period was part of the general climate of distrust for social engineering that derailed applied ethnomusicology for several decades, a distrust fueled by the social and scientific experiments and the war on academic freedom in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Universities might offer protection from persecution if academics could establish that science was beyond politics. But applied ecology would not be derailed for nearly so long as applied ethnomusicology. Eugene P. Odum (1913-2002), son of the sociologist and folklorist Howard W. Odum (1884-1954), and a student of Shelford in the 1930s, in 1953 wrote the integrative textbook Fundamentals of Ecology, which laid the foundation of ecological science on the ecosystem, a foundation that would remain for at least three decades. 
        The idea of the ecosystem was not original with Odum--it had been defined as a unit of study by Arthur Tansley in 1935, and tested by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. In the Fundamentals Odum explained ecosystems in the then-novel terms of cybernetic systems theory, in which higher levels of organization have structures and functions as a whole—emergent properties—that can’t be predicted by analyzing their component parts. Yet in that book and increasingly so in its successive editions, Odum also advocated an applied ecology in which scientists would work as consultants in policy matters. He himself did so, in matters of nuclear power (“atoms for peace”) and in opposing pesticides. During the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Odum promoted the idea that ecology was an integrative discipline (much like an ecosystem itself) that served as a bridge between science and society. He always maintained the distinction between ecological science and environmental activism, and lamented that the distinction had blurred as the environmental movement gathered momentum: environmentalists were being labeled as ecologists even though they had no formal training in ecology. Yet he felt that it was most appropriate for ecologists to take a stand for the environment, and for ecological research to ground the environmental movement by providing a scientific basis for sound policies. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Whole Terrain and the Sound of Climate Change

Whole Terrain, a journal of reflective environmental practice, last month published an author interview in which I discussed my essay, “The Sound of Climate Change.”  The essay may be read on my academia.edu page. The author interview may be read on the Whole Terrain website. 
     I’ve written in an earlier blog entry about how the essay was generated from a question by musicologist Denise Von Glahn. She and Aaron Allen and Mark Pedelty and I were chatting just before the Ecomusicologies conference in September, 2014. We were talking about our upcoming event in the spring of 2015 at the University of Minnesota, on the topic of sustainability and sound. “What is the sound of climate change?” she asked, and immediately we knew we had a theme for the Minnesota event, ultimately titled “Music and Climate Change.” 
     Earlier in 2014, Cherice Bock, editor of Whole Terrain, had invited me to write an essay for their next issue. We discussed my writing on the threats to the environment of mountaintop removal in central Appalachia. I pointed out that blasting off the mountain tops dumps toxic chemicals into the streams that run down the mountain hollows. They poison everything in their path. People, animals, plants, ecosystems are damaged. 
     But a few weeks after I returned from the Ecomusicologies conference, a violent, early-season snowstorm compelled my attention. As I stood outside on my porch taking it all in, I realized I was hearing the sounds of climate change in the great wind and the crashing of toppled spruce and apple trees. I felt I was eavesdropping on nature’s alarm calls. I knew then that I must write about this experience, instead of mountaintop removal, for Whole Terrain. By the end of 2014 I’d finished my essay on the sound of climate change and sent it off to Cherice. In 2015 I spoke on the same subject in Minneapolis. That issue of Whole Terrain was published in the spring of 2016. The following summer Cherice interviewed me, transcribed the interview, and produced the short, edited version that was published on their site in April, 2017.
     I told Cherice in the interview, “. . . I heard the sound of climate change for myself in this . . . storm, and something compelled me to write about that topic for you instead. Of course, I’d read about climate change. I was very much interested in it. But it’s one thing to give assent to it as a threat or an idea, and it’s another thing to experience it for oneself. I heard it . . . [and] I could no longer walk out in the woods and be in nature the way I had been . . . I felt like . . . the land had been raped. These were very powerful feelings. I wondered how the other animals who lived on that land experienced it. I wanted to write about this. When you experience it for yourself, finding language that might be adequate to express your feelings is difficult but important to do. . . . Telling my personal story of loss also required telling a larger story of sound and climate change. . . We learn to trust our senses, attuned to our habitat, indoors and out. When familiar sounds leave, we become anxious. . . .”
     I was struck once again by the way personal experience compelled me to write about sustainability. A 2004 invitation to play neighborly music at the Common Ground Fair, a celebration of sustainable living, started me thinking about music and sustainability in the first place. Ten years of writing, mostly theory, about music, sound, and sustainability followed, with an environmental turn in 2011. I was prepared to hear the sound of climate change in the violent storm of 2014, compelled to write about it, and to theorize a sound ecology with a new urgency.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sustainability and the Hidden Life of Trees

Beech tree forest, central Europe. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
   By now many readers of this blog will have sat down with Peter Wollheben’s remarkable best-seller, The Hidden Life of Trees. Wollheben, a German forester, writes about forest sustainability, but there are takeaways for musical and cultural sustainability as well. Indeed, one of his major points is that trees have a kind of social and cultural life together. The author anthropomorphizes trees to an extent that bothers me; he attributes emotions and feelings to them, for example, as well as intentions and agency in ways that are striking. Nevertheless, he makes a convincing case that trees in a forest comprise an interactive community.
    In his first career, Wollheben was a professional forester, and managed a forest for commercial interests. In central Europe, as in many parts of the US, planned forests are planted (or replanted) with trees evenly spaced (or thinned to give them space) so they will grow fast for a quick harvest by large, efficient machines. Although he doesn’t specify, we infer that the forests he worked in were coniferous, with spruce trees the favored commercial species. At some point, he stopped managing commercial enterprises and instead began to manage an old-growth forest chiefly of beech trees, not for harvest but for preservation for the community nearby.
    When he began doing so, he observed that the beech forest (which had been growing for many decades without much human interference) was much different than the commercial forests he managed. The trees were much closer together—too close, in terms of the forestry management practices he’d learned—and yet they grew better, straighter trunks, and they grew more slowly and to a ripe old age: hundreds of years. It took them far longer to come into maturity, and they lasted many times longer than the trees in the commercial forest of conifers. They were well adapted to the soil, unlike many of the conifer forests that had been planted in unlikely places. He began to wonder if, for the health of the trees and the forest, it wasn’t better to manage as nature did, rather than to adopt the practices of forestry management—even so-called selective cutting and thinning and harvesting. Although he does not reference Thoreau, 150 years ago Thoreau came to the same conclusion, on reading an English book about planting walnut trees.
    Searching for an explanation about why this beech forest that seemed to violate all the principles of forestry management was able to maintain itself better than the managed one, he read reports by scientists. What most intrigued him was a paper published in 1997 by Susan Simard as lead author. Simard and her group observed that in the forest soil, fungi attach to tree roots and that, when trees grow close to each other, the roots and fungi of different trees intertwine, even among different species, and transmit carbon and other chemicals (glucose, for example) from one tree to another. In effect, the trees were feeding one another. Afterwards, Wollheben began to read of other experiments in which trees seemed to “help” each other, for example by sending out scents signaling the presence of a pest, that would cause other trees in the forest to erect chemical defenses against the pest. It was not a big step for him to conclude that the trees in a forest constituted a kind of symbiotic community, even though they were also in competition with one another for sunlight and water.
    One of the corollaries of this research, he concluded, was that trees closer to each other can help each other more—they are better off that way. Not only are their entwined roots better able to reach each other and exchange food, but the stronger trees often “feed” the weaker ones because it is beneficial to keep them all alive so they can “help” each other. When I walk out in the un-managed spruce forest behind my own house, I hear tree branches and sometimes the trunks, high up, rubbing against each other when there is a strong wind. I used to think that was unfortunate, that the trees were too close together. Now, after reading Wollheben, I realize that they are propping each other up against the possibility of breaking off or toppling over completely.
    In early October, 2014, a snowstorm with high winds occurred where I live on East Penobscot Bay. It toppled many trees, also snapping off branches. The earth was wet from recent rains, making it easier for the top-heavy trees to become uprooted if they had no nearby tree to prop them up. I noticed there were more snapped and toppled trees at the edges of clearings. Also, four apple trees in an old, planted orchard had been uprooted completely. I was able to save two of them with the help of a neighbor, and get them back upright after pruning them back heavily; they are growing again, but the other two were beyond help.
    Consider, then, the advice given by professional foresters for planning an apple orchard: plant the trees at some distance from one another so they avoid their branches touching. For a full-sized tree, that should be forty feet apart in all directions; but such a tree will not be able to extend its roots to entwine with its neighbor, for the roots spread about as far under the ground as the branches do above. Those trees will also be more susceptible to damage from wind and insect pests. Of course, for easier harvest they are planted at that distance; but it would not be that much more difficult to harvest apple trees planted closer together. The apples might be more numerous, but they would be smaller, and many would not fully ripen unless the branches were pruned so that in a heavy wind they would not prop each other up.
    In nineteenth-century New England, when a house was built, a small home orchard usually was planted out behind the house, the tree trunks about fifteen feet from each other. You can find these commonly with the older houses still standing, and even when the houses are gone and only the cellar holes remain, and the surrounding area has grown up into forest, a home apple orchard is likely to found within seventy-five feet of the cellar hole. The full-sized trees that grew up were able to live long as their roots and branches entwined, and the apples they produced--for cider, baking, and fresh eating--were easily enough harvested, by climbing the trees or using pole harvesters for the best specimens, while the cider apples were gotten off the trees by shaking the branches. Such an orchard stands in back of my own house, and these trees were not damaged in the 2014 snowstorm the way those planted in a field nearby, according to proper orchard practice, were damaged.
    In short, the trees in a natural forest, according to Wollheben, comprise a community, a kind of mutual aid society while at the same time they are competing with each other. By means of mutual aid they are able to sustain the forest far better, and for far longer, than a forest planted or managed according to the principles of contemporary good forestry practice. The same principle might be applied to the management of music cultures. Indeed, I have embraced it in earlier blog posts here: feed the cultural soil, do not target the individual plant. In other words, encourage the music culture, not individual musical genres. If the cultural soil is nurtured, the musical genres will develop and thrive. An endangered music will not thrive if the cultural soil is not working in its favor, no matter how much it is aided.
   

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Special Issue on Ecologies, Sound, Music



MUSICultures solicits articles for publication in a special issue on Ecologies, guest edited by Dr. Aaron S. Allen (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and Dr. Jeff Todd Titon (Brown University).  The goal of this special issue is to demonstrate and bring into conversation the diverse yet interconnected fields and disciplines that bring ecological approaches, methods, and thinking to considerations of sound and music. The plural form “ecologies” indicates that we welcome writings from diverse applied, artistic, scholarly, and scientific perspectives. Such perspectives include (but are not limited to) the natural sciences (ecology, conservation ecology, soundscape ecology, etc.), the social sciences (cultural ecology, ecological/environmental psychology, human ecology, political ecology, etc.), the arts and humanities (acoustic ecology, composition, deep ecology, ecocriticism, ecomusicology, ecophilosophy, environmental humanities, performance studies, sacred ecology, sound studies, etc.), and applied fields (administration, governmental officials, non-governmental organizations, policy makers, etc.).

Contributions may include original research, state-of-the-field summaries, position papers, review essays, or other approaches that range in length from circa 1000 to circa 7500 words.

MUSICultures is the peer-reviewed journal of The Canadian Society for Traditional Music / La Société canadienne pour les traditions musicales. It is a refereed journal published twice a year under the auspices of the Society. Membership in CSTM is not a prerequisite for publication.

MUSICultures publishes original articles in English and French on a wide range of topics in ethnomusicology, traditional music research, and popular music studies. The journal also publishes reviews of books, and sound and visual recordings.

Article proposals, consisting of a title and a 250-word abstract should be submitted in French or English by May 15, 2017, together with an indication of the type of contribution and expected word count. Complete contributions will be due by September 15, 2017. Articles on original research are normally in the range of 6,000-7,500 words, but shorter pieces in other styles are welcome.

Please visit the MUSICultures website for complete submission details:
http://www.yorku.ca/cstm/publications.

Submit manuscripts or questions to:
musicultures@cbu.ca<mailto:musicultures@cbu.ca





Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Most Elegant Experiment

    The term sustainability entered the public arena in 1987, with the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future). There, sustainability was introduced as “sustainable development” that meets the needs of the present without compromising future needs. Sustainability, then, was associated initially with developmental economics. Nowadays, of course, it's also associated with energy and carbon emissions, fossil fuels vs. renewables, and with everything from cultural traditions to consumer products, from agriculture to net neutrality, from the health of the human body to the health of economic and political systems.
     Is sustainability just an old wine in a new bottle? No; and yet many of its component ideas were in circulation earlier--perhaps most fully in the concepts of preservation and conservation. In my essay on sustainability for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I wrote at length about the similarities and differences among these ideas; I needn't repeat that here. But since I wrote that essay a few years ago, I've come to understand something of my own involvement in the history of this cluster of ideas, a history that goes back not just to the environmental movement of the late 1960s but even further, to my education as an undergraduate, when I studied with a biologist whose name was Oscar Schotté.
     Suppose we go back a little in time, then. Conservation ecology, or conservation biology as it was originally was (and sometimes still is) called, began during the environmental movement of the late 1970s. This branch of ecology was  founded by Michael Soulé; he is credited with naming it, and his writings on the subject were, in its earliest period, definitive. He aimed to enlist the principles of ecological science with the environmentalist agenda for conservation of species, populations, and ecosystems, in a period of environmental crisis. Conservation biology was an effort at sustainability before the word sustainability became current. Yet even earlier, in the late 1960s, the environmental movement was concerned with the sustainability of the planet in the face of an expanding human population coupled with a limit in the capacity of the earth’s resources to feed them. Moreover, in the 1970s the energy crisis turned the environmental movement to concerns over the finite amount of fossil fuel energy resources and the need to conserve and to adopt, when possible, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Again, the term sustainability was not in use to describe the population crisis or the energy crisis, but the concept was there, embodied partially in the term conservation.
    To come to my point: Another, even earlier era in which science was concerned with sustainability occurred just after World War I. A branch of embryology, experimental morphology, turned its attention to a practical problem: how to help wounded soldiers whose limbs had been amputated. It was known that some animals, such as newts, could grow new limbs after one was severed; why not humans? What, in other words, was the secret of limb regeneration? Oversimplifying, experimental morphologists introduced various environmental stimuli such as heat, light, and certain chemical compounds, to embryos see what the effects would be, hoping to find something that would induce regeneration. This branch of science flourished between the World Wars, and then gradually, as time went on and it became clearer that this was an extremely difficult and perhaps unsolvable problem, research money went elsewhere. Experimental morphologists were left to carry on their work with limited funds. Meanwhile, advances in molecular biology rendered this branch of embryology seemingly old-fashioned.
Schotte in 1970
    Amherst College, my undergraduate institution, had an experimental morphologist on its biology faculty. His name was Oscar Schotté. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years I interned on a human ecology project, and when I returned to Amherst I wanted to take a course in ecology. The college did not offer such a course, but my academic adviser told me that Professor Schotté had some knowledge of ecology, and so I went to see him. In those days students didn’t take independent study courses for credit, but when I told him of my disappointment in not being able to learn ecology, he suggested that I get hold of the basic ecology textbook, Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, and read through it. He volunteered to meet with me on occasion to discuss what I was learning, also. This was entirely a gift on his part; the college didn’t pay him to do this—he tutored me out of the goodness of his heart and his belief in science and, perhaps, in me. It did not trouble me that he was near retirement—in fact, he did retire a year after I graduated—or that my fellow students regarded him and his experimental morphology old-fashioned. He was the kind of professor who nevertheless commanded attention and respect, partly because of his old-world, European manner, and partly because this elderly gentleman struck a group of 20-year-olds as someone who might have been witness to the dawn of modern science. I liked his teaching so well that in the following semester I enrolled in his experimental morphology course.
Schotte in 1933
    A few years ago I began thinking back to Professor Schotté, when I was asked to be part of a plenary session on sustainability for AASHE, a group made primarily of academic scientists and engineers involved in university teaching and research in sustainability. They wanted to hear a perspective from a few of us in the humanities. On the plenary I was asked about my background in science in connection with my interests in ecology, and I mentioned Professor Schotté. Since then I’ve realized, with more gratitude than I showed him at the time, that even though I didn’t choose a career in science, his willingness to tutor me made it possible for me to get a basic understanding of ecological science many decades ago. I'd lost touch with him after graduating, so I began searching for more information about him.
Hans Spemann
    Oscar Schotté, it turns out, was born in 1895, either in Poland or Germany. He studied in Germany, obtained the PhD, and in the early 1930s he was working in the experimental morphology laboratory of Hans Spemann, in Freiburg. Spemann, born in 1869, must have been a formidable person; Schotté would mention him frequently as a role model. The two of them had designed an experiment and in 1933 published the results, an experiment which in its time had been thought significant. Two years later Spemann won the Nobel Prize. But they had not discovered the secret of regeneration. Schotté used to tell us, jokingly, that he would give his right arm to discover it.
   I had forgotten about Schotté, and I completely forgot the name Spemann, until my search on Schotté's life turned up a couple of very interesting—to me, at least—results. It happened that Spemann had studied with a scientist named Theodor Boveri at Wurzburg, who in turn had studied with Richard Hertwig in Munich, who had studied with Ernst Haeckel (b. 1834) in Jena. I had never heard of Boveri or Hertwig, but Haeckel was known to me as the person who in 1866, the same year he met Darwin, had invented the field of ecology, coining the word and defining it as the study of organisms and their relations to each other and to their environment. Haeckel was a polymath, among other things an artist (see below; the colors were added by someone else), but primarily an embryologist, like Schotté. It occurred to me that in those days embryology and ecological science must have been very close. And it occurred to me that I had been tutored in ecology by someone whose intellectual genealogy went directly back to the inventor of that science.
Ernst Haeckel
    A second thing I learned about Oscar Schotté was that there was very good reason for him to talk about Spemann four decades after the two of them had done their experiment and published the results. That experiment was exemplary in the history of biology. In 2003 the American Institute of Biological Science solicited nominations for determining the most “beautiful” or elegant biological experiments. According to an article published in The Scientist, one of the judges, Scott F. Gilbert, said that when teaching his students, he “often cites a few particularly elegant experiments. They include, for example, a 1933 experiment by Hans Spemann and Oscar Schotté in which the German biologists illustrated the importance of genes for specifying organ formation. Spemann and Schotte transplanted tissue from a salamander embryo's jaw-forming region into frog embryos and vice versa. The resulting frog larvae had salamander jaws, and the resulting salamander larvae had frog jaws. The embryos had signaled ‘make a jaw,’ but the genes in that tissue only knew how to make the type of jaw that the genes would allow. The experiment beautifully and succinctly brought together the notions of epigenesis and preformation, said Gilbert, and showed that both were critical in making an embryo.”
One of Haeckel's drawings
    I am sure that my fellow students and I thought, back in the 1960s, that scientific progress meant that new discoveries led to new theories that supplanted the old ones, and that as the sciences were able to penetrate further into the mysteries of cells, molecules, atoms, and so forth, older fields like experimental morphology and natural history must fall by the wayside. These scientific fossils weren’t worth paying attention to, even though the scientists who were prominent in those fields commanded respect. Perhaps Professor Schotté appeared to us as Louis Agassiz must have appeared after the 1860s to those who believed Darwin’s theory of evolution had supplanted the belief that Agassiz defended, in a kind of creationism of its time. Yet Agassiz was an eminent scientist whose natural history discoveries, and whose methods, were enormously influential in his day, and are still highly regarded. Who does not know the story of Agassiz and the fish, which his student was asked to describe in more and more detail, day after day, until he got it right?
    Moreover, to the historians and philosophers of science, discarded lines of research are nevertheless significant. Not only might their experiments be elegant, they may be exemplary, as in the case of Professors Schotté and Spemann. And, sometimes, older ideas come back around in different forms. Experimental morphology, like all ecology, was very much concerned with the effects of the environment on organisms, and vice versa. Today’s geneticists, after decades claiming that genetic programs alone determined animal behavior, now consider the genome rather than individual genes, and the way that the genome interacts with the environment. Sometimes these interactions result in modifications to the genome. In concept, this idea that the environment may modify the genome and resultant behavior is reminiscent of the concept that guided experimental morphologists to introduce environmental changes to the embryo to see what would transpire. And that same concept is apparent in the thinking of conservation ecologists today as they experiment with sustainability.
    No wonder, then, that some fifteen years after studying with Professor Schotté, when I was pondering the idea of music as a cultural system while writing the ethnomusicology textbook Worlds of Music, it occurred to me to think of a music culture as an ecological system. To be sure, in graduate school I’d studied cultural anthropology with a professor whose approach was shaped by the field of cultural ecology; that, also, must have steered me in an ecological direction when puzzling over how to think about music as culture. I hadn’t realized until recently, though, how much of a debt I owed to this old-fashioned, experimental morphologist, Oscar Schotté, whose experiment, co-designed with his teacher who went on to win the Nobel Prize, was cited as an example of the most elegant in biology.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Alan Jabbour (1942-2017), Sustainability Champion

    Alan Jabbour, who died on Friday the 13th of this month, was a leader in the cultural sustainability movement before the term sustainability came into fashion. Based in Washington, DC, from 1969-1999 he led three important federal organizations involved with musical and cultural conservation. In addition to his main work as an organization leader and administrator, he was a musician and a scholar. Besides, he was a loyal colleague to hundreds of public folklorists, and dozens of ethnomusicologists, who were active from the 1960s until now.
     As a graduate student in the 1960s at Duke, Jabbour was exposed to traditional fiddle music and eventually met Henry Reed, an octagenarian fiddler from Virginia whose music represented a 19th-century upland South fiddle repertory and style of playing. For Jabbour, who had been trained as a classical violinist from childhood, Reed became a mentor and his music a revelation, a window on an elegant era prior to commercial recordings, an era when amateur musicians played in their family circles and supplied music for community gatherings. Jabbour’s field recordings of Henry Reed’s fiddling may be enjoyed at https://www.loc.gov/collections/henry-reed-fiddle-tunes/about-this-collection/.
    After a brief period as an English professor at UCLA, Jabbour left to work in Washington as head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (1969-74). In 1974 he moved to the National Endowment for the Arts, leading their newly formed Folk-Jazz-Ethnic division. In 1976, he returned to the Library of Congress to direct the newly-formed American Folklife Center (AFC), now incorporating the Archive of Folk Song. In these positions, he initiated, coordinated, and administered various projects to conserve traditional cultures, their music and folklore. Notably, the AFC undertook field documentation surveys of folklore in various regions of the US, from the late 1970s through the end of the 20th century. These constitute an important snapshot of folklife in the last 25 years of the last century. These were professionally done, by folklife specialists trained in interviewing, recording, photographing, and so on. They are appropriately preserved in the AFC’s archives, while some of the highlights are available today on the AFC website. Decades hence, I believe, they will be recognized as a contribution as important as the FSA photographs and other cultural documentation undertaken at the Roosevelt Administration’s initiative during the late 1930s.
     None of this would have happened without Alan’s skillful leadership from the AFC, where the decisions were made concerning which regions of the US would benefit from surveys, where the negotiations were undertaken with the Congressional representatives from those regions, and with the local community leaders; where the teams of folklorists were assembled and instructed—always accompanied by some of the folklife specialists from the AFC—and where the materials collected were taken, inventoried, where the exhibits were designed, and where all the documentation eventually was housed. The results of these were exhibited in their regions and are housed permanently in the Archives of Folk Culture at the AFC, which incorporates the older Archive of American Folksong.
    Under Jabbour’s direction, the Center also sponsored conferences, where practitioners at the cutting edge of cultural conservation gathered to exchange ideas and information. At the same time, the Archive of Folk Song grew to become by far the leading repository of field-recorded traditional music from regional and ethnic groups throughout the US, at the same time encouraging the publication of the best of this music. Much of their work was documented in the Center’s Newsletter, which is now available on line.  As an administrator, he did not have as much time to work on his own projects that he would have, had he continued as a professor at UCLA. But he directed an organization that left an unparalleled cultural sustainability legacy, and many young folklorists who worked on AFC projects acknowledge their debt to Jabbour and the permanent staff of folklife spcialists who worked for him at the Library of Congress. He retired in 1999 for the next seventeen years pursued a career both as an independent folklorist and consultant, and also as a fiddler, appearing in concerts and teaching workshops at old-time music camps, always championing the music of his mentor, Henry Reed.
    In person, Alan—I will call him Alan from now on, because we knew each other—was a very tall, gentle man with a noticeably deep, echoing bass voice, a southern drawl acquired in his native Florida, and a courtly manner. He directed with a light hand, understanding that people did their best work when they could add their own ideas to the mix. He was very supportive of those whose work he admired, and quick to appreciate it. He bent over backwards to help those in need—so much so that when he stood up, he even appeared to be bending backwards.

Alan Jabbour with Gene Reed at Henry Reed's grave
    My own relationship with the American Folklife Center goes back to the 1960s, when I began depositing my field recordings of blues and African American preaching in the Archive of American Folksong. After the Archive became something more encompassing, a Center that initiated projects rather than chiefly acting as a repository for recordings and related material, I borrowed field equipment from them to make high quality recordings, contributed essays to several of their publications, worked as a consultant with Alan and some of the other folklife specialists on various projects, and continued to deposit field recordings. Most of my original field recordings are now in their archives, except for those I made in Kentucky. My Kentucky recordings are in the Sound Archives in the Special Collections of the Hutchins Library, at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky.  
     Alan and I met, also, as fellow old-time string band musicians. I’ve written here, before, about Breakin’ Up Winter and the special musical community surrounding the old-time string band revival; and I’ve written elsewhere about the special bond that can occur among musicians who, on account of achieving musical rapport, feel as if they’ve come to know one another more deeply than otherwise. We also became interested in each other’s scholarship on the subject—something that was an old interest of Alan’s and that gradually became an interest of my own. One of Alan's most important observations was that the main reason for the differences between the fiddle styles of Yankee New England and the upland South were the syncopated rhythms that the southern fiddlers had incorporated into their bowing technique, specifically the way they placed a strong accent on the back-beat, or offbeat, or upbeat, as it is variously called. African American fiddlers had originated it, he thought, and by the Civil War white fiddlers were also doing it.
    After Alan retired, I saw him less often, but he still came to American Folklore Society (AFS) conferences, and I can recall playing with him at the jam session when AFS was in Quebec City, and again at Breakin’ Up Winter only a couple of years ago. He also had begun to speak about the early phase of the old-time string band revival, in which he’d played such an important role, from the perspective of his own experiences with Reed and with the Hollow Rock String Band.
    I’m sure Alan left several unfinished scholarly projects at his death, as well as recordings that he made with his musical partner, Ken Perlman, and others. There may even be recordings of his fiddling along with the incomparable banjo of Blanton Owen, a feature of the AFS conferences in the 1970s. Probably he wouldn’t have wanted some of these to appear in the form he left them, but others—for example, papers that he presented publicly—will, I hope, be gathered in a collection and published by a university press or, perhaps, by the AFC that he loved and served so well for nearly 25 years.