Saturday, July 28, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 05 (+ bonus)

First things first. This is the view from the Hickok station, but bumped sideways to monopolize a 4-seater table on this slow Saturday at the coffeeshop--need more space today to spread out additional work.

The texts, all things out of my own library which I am revisiting for the minstrelsy project, are:

Allen, Robert G. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Very interesting, detailed, and insightful study by a theatre and American-culture specialist about the social, class, and gender implications of burlesque, and the very complicated layers of semiotic association which the genre represents in late-Victorian American culture. I'll never look at a lobster the same way again...

Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fantastic work--all of Lott's work is--by an American Studies specialist. Very effective, deep, multi-faceted study of the way that minstrelsy embodied and enabled white, male, working-class critique of class issues in Jacksonian America.

Tawa, Nicholas E. High-Minded and Low-Down: Music in the Lives of Americans, 1800-1861. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

I studied with Nick Tawa at U Mass Boston in the 1980s, and didn't realize the treasure trove of primary-source information he carried in his head. It's only years later, as an American-music specialist, that I've come to realize how ground-breaking his books were: he was tilling the fields of American musical culture (at all social levels) before almost anyone was. His described and preferred research method was index cards, and the books read a little bit like that: more bibliography and source-study than analysis or interpretation, but invaluable as compendia of musical activity across social classes.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Rip Lhamon is an English professor, but has specialized in the theatrical and material culture aspects of minstrelsy. He's published several books (Jump Jim Crow is a fantastic resource of minstrel texts), but this one is both my favorite and his most far-reaching. Like a lot of American musicologists, Lhamon intuited that there are aspects of African-American performance aesthetics (garb, body vocabularies especially dance, terminology especially as regards expressive taste) which have been remarkably consistent and resilient through all the epochs of African-American impact on culture. This in itself is not a tremendous revelation, but the clarity and readability of Lhamon's prose, his obvious engagement with and love for the repertoires, and his very strong command of the earliest primary sources, make his linking of minstrelsy, vaudeville, "coon" shows, film, and MTV video especially immediate and compelling. Very moving.

Wondrich, David. Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003.

Like Strasbaugh, essentially a journalist's fan-letter to African-American popular culture, in Wondrich's case, black music from the 78 era. Very accessible, good for a general audience, but not providing much in the way of original insights (as opposed to original expression, which he's good with). Severely hamstrung by his lack of musical/technical knowledge or insight: that is not to say that someone writing on black music must have such knowledge--but lacking such knowledge makes it essentially impossible for Wondrich to talk about musical style traits. He tries to do so anyway, and is forced to coin his own idiosyncratic terms to describe musical phenomena (for example, in Wondrich's construction, "stomp" is a strong downbeat 4/4 emphasis, driving the straightforward dance grooves; while "swerve" in his construction is upbeat emphasis, hemiola, syncopation, and/or polyrhythm-polymeter. Of course these are essential characteristics for the discussion, but Wondrich expends unnecessary effort generating unique terms, which he employs inconsistently, and as a result distances his text from usability or interface with other analyses.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977 (rev. 2003).

Standard and seminal text, based in primary source study (newspapers, plantation records, printers' bills, street literature, etc), on African-American musical contributions prior to 1861. First published 1977, when it was a rare resource for this material; lightly revised in 2003, without a great deal of new material, by which time it had been supplanted by other, more up-to-date, and more critical/analytical texts. However, it's a while since I've read it, and I have not re-read at all in light of the minstrelsy project. Very often, we'll see things upon re-reading texts which we missed during the first reading: the Epstein is no exception.

Bonus image: because the view from the Hickok chair gets a little repetitive (like so many things in academic research), I append a bonus image. This is the back room at the same coffeeshop--originally the small theatre where they showed the art-films in the '70s, I'm told--now converted into an events and concert space. This is the first place I heard "Celtic" music in Lubbock, 7 years ago: I was in town in May 2000 for my interview sequence, and on the last free morning, after obligations were done and it had been made remarkably clear to me that the committee wanted to hire me, I rented a car and drove around the region. I was pretty sure the offer would come and I knew I needed some kind of information to give to Dharmonia regarding whether we could possibly survive living in the Buckle of the Bible Belt.

I drove all over, scoping out neighborhoods, and all the way out to the "resort lake" community in a canyon east of town--I was fuckin' desperate! But there wasn't much that was convincing, so I drove back into town, and while heading up the main drag east of the campus, I heard Cathy Jordan of Dervish singing on the radio. I was very excited, pulled over, and ran into the nearest 7-11, saying to the counter kid "what're the call letters of the public radio station around 89 mhz?!?" Figured out it was the local public radio affiliate, that the program playing Dervish was locally produced but now airing on tape.

While in the coffee shop, I looked at the local excuse for an arts weekly, and was shocked and pleased to see that there was a listing for a "Celtic music session". Belatedly realized that said bi-monthly session was happening today, and that it was happening (finishing up) right now. Ran back to the car, drove like a bat out of a hell the few blocks to this coffeeshop, and sneaked into the back room, where there were a half-dozen people playing tunes out of loose-leaf binders: mostly song tunes and harp tunes.

Seven years later, Dharmonia and I own a house (the first we've ever owned) a block away, and the teaching session I founded in Indiana in 1993, and have taught in Lubbockl since 2000, is moving into a new home in this same back room.

One insight that growing older makes available is that the Big Wheel really does come full circle. I'm glad to be here.

To work!

Now playing when I hit "publish": Burning Spear, "Slavery Days"


Mistykalia said...

I'm enjoying the "work station" series. Incidently, when I came up to audition at the college in '99 and was similarly driving around the town, I encountered the same public radio program - which encouraged me to track down the local "Celtic" scene which took me to the very coffee shop you speak of. A lot of the people I met there are still friends who I play music with. And I remember well when you first came out. The rest, as they say, is history. I'm excited to hear that the session will be returning there... somewhere, I still have one of the original posters for that first session...

Mac Tíre said...

Like mistkalia, I'm enjoying the workstation series.....particularly the books that you mention. Every time the words "seminal text" come up, I put it on the bibliography and say, "Oh thank god, another source."

I also remember asking myself if I could live in Texas. I think the deciding moment was after Dr. Garner had whisked me into your office at the mention of Traditional Irish Music, and when I mentioned Joanie Madden, you knew who she was. That combined with the Buddhist stuff on the walls/masses of books and CD's led me to think....."I can work with this."
Happy working!

CJS said...

Glad you're diggin' em. I'm finding a useful way to track my own work, and maybe--potentially--be a resource for other people who are thinking about getting a handle on their own work habits.