Sustainable Music


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sustainability and the National Endowment for the Humanities

I’ve written more about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) than the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on this blog, because the NEA is more directly concerned with music and sustainability. Of special interest to ethnomusicologists and folklorists is the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts division, which supports the diverse musical expressions across the US that don’t fall into the category of fine arts. Even though within their ethnic communities—particularly those with roots in Asia and the Middle East—they are regarded as fine arts, the NEA has always classified them as folk arts. 
     The NEH does support efforts to sustain musical expression and musical communities, but chiefly in the form of documentary film, archival preservation, research and scholarly publication. I’ve been fortunate to have received NEH support with two year-long research fellowships (in effect they replaced my salary), one in the 1970s and the other in the 1980s, each of which resulted in books about grass-roots religious music, preaching, belief and culture in the US—Powerhouse for God, and Give Me This Mountain. And because the NEH also is an ally to cultural and musical sustainability efforts, we’ve been wondering whom President Trump will nominate as the new NEH chairman.
      As the agency leader, the chairman sets the tone for the agency, and has a good deal of say in determining its emphasis. When Bill Ferris was NEH chair in the late 1990s, he supported studies of regional and local cultures, a bottom-up approach. Other chairs have emphasized a top-down approach in which the NEH encourages humanities scholars to teach classics of American thought (history, literature, the law, and so on) to the general public, in a sort of free adult education, conducted with lectures and discussions in public libraries and similar venues. I say top down because this approach is open to the critique that in choosing the reading list, the NEH is conducting a kind of cultural imperialism by telling the less-educated masses what they should read. Of course, the curriculum these days is more diverse than fifty years ago, but that may not matter as long as the public has no input. 
      At any rate, Trump’s nominee for head of the NEH is Jon Peede, whose brother Robert is a former top aide to Vice President Pence, and who is currently head of Trump’s advance operations. The prediction here is that Peede will be top-down. When the director sets this tone, it becomes hard for scholars to get NEH grants to support diverse musical and cultural traditions. I found this to be true for my own research efforts in the 1980s when the NEH was led, during the Reagan Administration, by Lynne Cheney, wife of politician Dick Cheney (who later was to become Vice President under G. W. Bush). Three of us were making a documentary film about expressive culture in a small church in rural Virginia. We’d already received support from the NEA and the Virginia Humanities Foundation, but the NEH denied us twice. After the second refusal, we found ourselves in Washington on an errand, with some time to kill. So we stopped in at the NEH and spoke with their program officer who’d been assigned to our application and asked her to elaborate on why our application had been turned down once, and then after we’d revised it, once again. She couldn’t really find a reason, except to say that it wasn’t competitive with more mainstream subjects. “You’re good scholars and film makers,” she said. “Couldn’t you choose another subject—say, a film about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?” We just looked at each other, shook our heads, and left. A film about Great Men in American History wasn’t what we had in mind. Those films were plentiful. They clogged the PBS-TV channels. We thought as independent film makers we were breaking new ground.
      Later, after we’d made the film we intended, we met with the program director of the PBS station in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the public broadcasting outlet that was closest to the church we’d filmed. He was no different from the NEH program officer. In this case, we’d already obtained a grant of $4,000 to pay the PBS station to help defray the costs of broadcasting the film locally and then mounting a campaign to offer it to PBS nationally. All the station had to do was accept the grant and follow through; but although the program director had been delighted with the project in its planning stages, once he saw that the film was not critical of this rural church, he refused to broadcast it or sponsor it up to PBS nationally. Our film didn’t align with his station’s mission. Eventually we found a PBS station in West Virginia, in Beckley, that did show and sponsor it. It turned out that the program director in Beckley had his PhD from the University of Texas. The director in Harrisonburg, we learned, was worried that the film wasn’t highbrow enough for his audience. “If they want to see worship like this, they can just turn on the commercial stations on Sunday morning,” he said. Not true, but that was the basis for his decision. Our documentary film can still be viewed, for free, here.
      Yet naming a new NEH had may not matter. Trump nominated him, but his 2017 budget proposed eliminating the agency (along with the NEA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB]) altogether. Congress pushed back and funded the agencies anyway. Trump’s 2018 budget once again proposes their elimination, while including $49,000 to pay for the “orderly closure” of the NEH. Strong protests from teachers, scholars, scientists and students, along with public intellectuals, independent scholars, and other supporters of intellectual life and public discussion and debate in this country, wouldn't likely be very orderly. Congress will probably ignore Trump’s proposal once again, but just as when a lie is told often enough it tends to become a truth, unless the opposition mounts an equally strong campaign, so supporters of the NEH and the NEA and the CPB will need to renew their support for these agencies, and lobby their Congressional representatives once again, for these agencies that support musical and cultural sustainability are thought to be endangered just as the traditions they support are. Write your representatives and tell them to fund the NEA, NEH, and CPB at least at their current levels.