Sustainable Music


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Musical Sustainability, Permaculture, and the Democratization of American Folk Music

     Musical sustainability strategies are best off when nurturing the cultural soil. On this blog in 2009 I explained that meant “to concentrate efforts in musical and cultural sustainability on improving the conditions that give a life to traditional music and expressive culture, rather than simply targeting endangered musical cultures for support, as UNESCO (the major institution involved in cultural sustainability throughout the world) has been doing in its efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage.” I picked up on the same analogy in a paper delivered to the American Folklore Society in 2010, “Reconciling Ecology and Economy by means of ‘Nature’s Economy,’” published on this blog: “From organic agriculture to culture, apply the principle ‘Feed the soil, not the plant.’ Do not intervene to bolster specific expressive cultural genres—these will come and go naturally, and today in the internet age all are capable of staying in one form or another. Direct support to the social, political, and economic conditions or the cultural soil under which expressive cultures flourish and upon which they depend.”
The Land Institute: Research Plots on the Kansas Prairie
     Rather than discuss how scholars and practitioners have adopted and integrated that principle into their work in public folklore and applied ethnomusicology, I would like to trace one its sources, one that I didn’t fully acknowledge in my earlier writings: the work of Wes Jackson and The Land Institute. Jackson’s insights did not come from organic farming, as mine did, but I was aware of his radical agricultural work. A biologist and a professor in California, in 1979 he was struck by the ways in which industrial agriculture had all but destroyed the prairie ecosystem in his native Kansas, replacing it either with crop monocultures (corn, soybeans, wheat) or overusing it for cattle grazing. Overgrazing combined with weather events had destroyed and eroded much of the prairie land. Crop monocultures had replaced the original prairie ecosystem with an intensive agriculture on virtually all the arable land, one that required enormous amounts of energy to keep it going, all while the new ecosystem had to depend for life support upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides which destroyed the natural ecosystem and substituted an artificial one for it.
     In the next few years, Jackson developed a vision of a different kind of agriculture for the Kansas prairie, one based in principles of permaculture. Jackson wanted to restore the mixed perennial climaxed ecosystem that had been natural to that region prior to the arrival of industrial agriculture. But in addition, he wanted to find perennial crops that would grow in fields that would constitute agricultural patches within the surrounding prairie, a different agriculture and one that would be compatible with the prairie ecosystem. These would be perennial grains and legumes that would feed animals and humans. Once established along with companion plantings for mutual benefit, they would grow without need for much care until harvest. They would not need chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and they would not deplete the soil—rather, the legumes by gathering nitrogen from the air and moving it to their roots would enrich the soil. The grains and legumes would not need replanting every year, the way monoculture crops did.
     In 1981, in a lecture he presented to the Schumacher Society, he outlined his vision: “Our current agricultural system, which features annuals in information-poor monoculture, is nearly the opposite of the original prairie or forest, which features mixtures of perennials. If we could build domestic prairies, we might one day be able to have high-yielding fields that are planted, say, only once every twenty years or so. There would be mostly harvest after establishment, and from then on we would be counting on the species diversity that breeds dependable chemistry.” In the nearly 40 years since he founded it, The Land Institute has searched throughout the world for perennial grains and legumes that could be bred (by traditional methods and without genetic modification) for food production. Perennial grasses do exist, and animals feed on them; but they are not as high-yielding as they would need to be for human use, nor do they have the characteristics that humans want and need for their traditional uses as grains in food. If, for example, they are ground into flour, the flour needs to be able to work properly in breads, oatmeal and other cereals, and so forth. Jackson did not expect to solve these problems quickly and, indeed, it has taken all this time to find and develop a few promising perennial crops. One is the grain they are calling kernza; another is a potential substitute for soy, a plant in the sunflower family called silphium integrifolium. 
Kernza, courtesy of The Land Institute
Kernza grows successfully mixed into the prairie ecosystem, but its yields are not yet high enough. The sunflower plant is in an earlier stage of development, while they are still looking to identify potential species of legume crops for the mixtures of perennials that they want to introduce on a larger scale. Kernza is already being used in brewing craft beers, and The Land Institute is making seed available for farmers to test in other ecosystems besides the prairie, to see if it may be viable there. If I were twenty years younger I would plant a test area here on this island in East Penobscot Bay, where the natural ecosystem is a transitional area from deciduous to boreal forest. Meanwhile I’ll be in touch with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to learn if anyone is testing kernza in the state of Maine.
     The analogy between what Jackson has done, and musical sustainability, appears at first glance not to extend to methods in which perennial musics, so to speak, are found and developed and then introduced into the music culture in order to feed, as it were, the cultural soil. But on further reflection, this is what happened in the last century when American folk and traditional music gradually democratized to embody the nation’s cultural diversity and pluralism. In the first half of the century, the musical landscape consisted chiefly of popular and classical music. Folk music was thought to be chiefly Anglo-American, with ballads (particularly the canonic Child Ballads) the highest achievement. You could find lyrics to “Sir Patrick Spens” and other Child ballads in the American literature anthologies that high school and college students studied from. Negro spirituals also were recognized as major achievements. Efforts had been underway, though, to broaden the canon. 

Collections of folk music published in books by John and Alan Lomax, and by Carl Sandburg, were popular among the middle classes who wanted to sing folksongs in church, school, or home. African American worksongs, and blues, were included, as well as occupational and regional songs such as cowboy songs, and songs from various European immigrant groups. The folk music revival of the 1950s popularized blues further, while a few Jewish and Israeli songs (e.g., the Weavers’ hit song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”) were added to the mix, making it possible for folksingers like Theodore Bikel to entertain audiences with Yiddish, Hebrew and other songs, and for Pete Seeger to broaden his concert repertoire to include some African and Latin American songs.
     Arguably this musical democratization through diversity and cultural pluralism reached a climax in the 1976 American bicentennial, with at least two major events that cemented its legitimacy. One was the series of New World recordings. New World was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation to produce 100 albums of music representing not only classical music but also the music cultures of a great variety of ethnic groups. Of course this was not the first of these recording series—Folkways Records had presented music from a culturally and regionally diverse nation for thirty years beforehand—but as this series of recordings began to appear on LPs in every major public, college, and university library in 1976 and the few years to follow, it became a part of public culture in a way that it hadn’t before. The second major event was the 1976 Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Music (as it was called then), which took place on the Mall in Washington, DC, for the unprecedented period of two summer months, in which musics from various cultural groups and regions throughout the United States were presented, and in addition many were coupled with their sources and counterparts in a section of the festival called Old Ways in the New World. Musicians from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere were brought to the United States where they mingled with their American musical cousins and where connections between these musics were highlighted—and where some additional connections were discovered. I was fortunate to work at this festival as a presenter, and to experience some of it firsthand.
    I will have more to say about festivals and the movement toward a United States that recognizes cultural pluralism and diversity in future posts. Revisiting this movement, its fight for legitimacy, the ways it has been critiqued, and where it stands today in the so-called culture wars of American democracy, seems timely and appropriate.


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