Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 07

The Hickok chair, again.

Going everyday to a place which is self - identified as "work space" is a good mental discipline. John Steinbeck, who has rather fallen out of favor amongst the Kewl Kidz literary critics (probably because he wrote some awful tripe in an uncontemporaneous style--which is the kiss of death from critics, who will love awful tripe provided it's in the contemporaneous style), nevertheless wrote fascinatingly about his work patterns. For both East of Eden (I think, his greatest book, though not my favorite: that's reserved for the guilty pleasure of Sweet Thursday, his heartfelt apologia for his dead friend, the astonishing Buddhist oceanographer Ed Ricketts) and his unfinished The Acts and Legends of King Arthur, he maintained a parallel writing journal. The EofE journal was only published years after his death, but the Arthur journal was included in the posthumous publication--probably because the MS itself would have been too short. Steinbeck typically wrote these journal entries as letters, either to his editors and research assistants, or, in the case of EofE, to his sons. Eden was in some ways his most autobiographical book, though as he pointed out himself, virtually every novelist is writing semi-autobiographically (at least psychologically) all the time, and Eden's Cain-and-Abel theme, overlaid as a palimpsest on Steinbeck's own autobiographical myth, was an essential part of how he understood himself.

These are fascinating journals: not necessarily because they are full of great writing, but because they reveal the day-to-day psychological processes (sublime and banal) that are the actual warp-and-weft of the creative process. Steinbeck himself said that he wrote the journal entries as a "way of getting squirmed down into the chair" before he wrote the day's manuscript--and that is precisely why they are so interesting: you see him working his way from distraction into concentration.

"The Office" series is intended to do something of the same thing: it's a personal record of work attempted or accomplished, a trail of bread crumbs through the forest of a musicologist's professional research (including the banalities as well as the sublimities), and also--I hope--can provide some templates or tools of familiarization for those who are working out their own work methods.

And it helps me get squirmed down into the chair.

The texts, from bottom to top, are:

Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask

Lhamon, Raising Cain

(both the above cited in previous "Office" entries)

Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962)

Easily the earliest "modern" address to the topic of blackface minstrelsy, at a time when the topic was both taboo and misunderstood. Nathan brings to the investigation both very strong archival and primary-source skills, and also very solid music-analysis skills. Typically, and since Nathan, scholars have tended to rely upon either the first characteristic (Epstein, Lhamon) or upon critical approaches taken from other disciplines, especially theater history, semiotics, or American studies (Lott, Cockrell, Mahar). Since Nathan, there have been very few studies dealing with musical specifics and the larger implications of those specifics: an indicator of this is the degree to which much more recent scholars still reference Nathan's musical notes.

Michael D. Harris, Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Leftover from the article on blues in Southern film. Excellent (and beautifully produced) art-history and semiotics study of representations of blackness in European and Euro-American culture. Retained for the minstrelsy project because of the ways it illuminates visual and body languages, iconography, and the semiotics of visual representation. This is an example of the ways in which musicology that seeks to relate cultural context to musical content must draw upon analytical techniques, terminology, and/or methodologies from outside the realm of traditional musical analysis. The risk is always that we will borrow a tool (from anthropology, semiotics, or, in this case, iconography) with an incomplete understanding of its application and its limitations. It's impossible for a contemporary musicologist to be expert in as many different disciplines as s/he may find useful--so we have to be conscious of limitations and of our "amateur" status in those other disciplines.

But the advantage of such methodological borrowing, if pursued rigorously and carefully, is that we can avoid inventing the wheel: if there is already a sophisticated and effective analytical method for looking at the "iconography of the black body" in American popular culture, there is no need for us to invent an idiosyncratic, less-sophisticated repetition of it. This was brought home to me the first time I sat in a Performance Studies seminar with a revered mentor, the great scholar Dick Bauman: I felt as if my head was going to explode, because here was a discipline, drawing upon semiotics, drama theory, culture studies, folklore, and literary-criticism, whose applicability to the analysis of musical performance I could immediately see, but which had not yet (in 1989) been employed hardly at all by musicologists.

[lengthy interruption for a long conversation with colleague and Ph.D. candidate who, ironically, is dealing with just these issues of methodological borrowing]

Bob Carlin, The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007).

Have not had much chance to delve here--the text is very new--but Bob Carlin's work comes very highly recommended. A nice example of an entirely too-rare kind of scholarship: a player, and a non-academic, writing an important scholarly text on an underrepresented topic. The fruit of Carlin's decades of work on Sweeney and the banjo. However, a bit catholic in its coverage: separate chapters on "The Origins of Black Face Minstrelsy," Sweeney's biography, influence, impact upon banjo design, and so forth--but also more obscure relations: "British Minstrelsy After Sweeney,." "The Banjo in Australia," and so on.

Jacqui Malone, Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

A fine text on an underrepresented topic: the inherited and recurrent vocabularies of the body in the African-American tradition. Not many studies on this topic in African-American music scholarship, despite extensive new (last decade) scholarship on other dance vocabularies: Marshall and Jean Stearns's Jazz Dance is the other major A-A text I know. Malone's book is working some of the same turf as Lhamon's Raising Cain, tracing the recurrence of dances, terms, and body postures in A-A idioms since the 19th century. Malone is less strong on the roots of minstrelsy, but has a more extensive and detailed exegesis of the ubiquity of dance and the body in many A-A contexts outside conventional theatrical performance, especially in jazz dance, Motown choreography, and various hip-hop and black Greek step contexts.

Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues (Greenwood MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1999)

Another unusual text on an underrepresented topic. Though it is a conventionality for scholars of A-A music to address the "African roots of the blues" (going all the way back to Samuel Charters), few of these texts have been written by authors who actually had expertise in African music. More commonly, it's been American scholars or fans of the blues who have "gone back" to Africa and tried to find reasonably obvious and self-evident connections. Kubik's is thus a rare and valuable study, one much better-informed about the regional variations of musical parameters and priorities. Haven't delved too much, and it's not directly relevant to the minstrelsy topic, but it's an essential foundation for the "aesthetic continuum" model that both Malone and Lhamon work from.

Playing when published: Andrew and Jim Baxter, "Forty Drops"

No comments: