Friday, August 10, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 016

(Atypical) corner-front seat at the coffeeshop. This one is usually monopolized by the time I get here--and it sits right underneath one of the speakers playing whatever the staff currently want to listen to. But, Dharmonia's home (her pocket Dell in profile in this shot), and so the corner table provides a bit more space, and proximity to the all-important AC outlets.

Working with Rip Lhamon's Raising Cain book today. It's a fascinating and usually mind - bending experience to go back and re-read a scholarly analysis, with a specific research question or thesis in mind, having previously read the text with a less-specific more-general "digest" mentality. Lhamon's book (subtitled "Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop") is a very readable, very rigorous, and beautifully-written exploration of the "gestures" of expressive arts (especially dance and body posture, but also other visual data) as they recur in what he calls "lore cycles"--popular or vernacular idioms which, while typically undocumented or derogated by critical elites, have been shown empirically to be remarkably resilient, showing up again and again with remarkable high degrees of retention, of content and of meaning.

So that the dance/body postures which show up in an anonymous primitive sketch from 1820s New York ("Dancing for Eels 1820 Catharine Market"), Lhamon argues, recur for specific reasons in the much later iterations throughout the history of black dance (see, from the 1980s, M.C. Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em).

This retention itself has been remarked by other journalists and scholars, but Lhamon's analysis is particularly clear, particularly articulate, and, especially, makes a key new insight about the significance of these lore cycles.

We know that, historically, vernacular and "rough" idioms have been derogated and ignored (even if they were frequently appropriated) as "trash," ephemeral, primitive, and so on. Eric Lott's (Love and Theft) contribution has been to show the sexual attraction of the black and female "Other" that drove white attraction to minstrelsy, but Lott falls down when he tries to formulate a workable theory of the aesthetic pleasure that minstrelsy provided to such audiences, becoming mired in Freudian theories of the pleasure impulse and Richard Middleton's rather limited Marxist analysis of the difference between "musematic" and "discursive" repetition. Lott's limitation is that he does not have analytical tools which recognize the very different aesthetics and functionalist goals that drove African performance, both on the Mother continent and here in North America. Those different aesthetics and goals are precisely what scholars like Robert Farris Thompson (Flash of the Spirit; art history), Christopher Small (Music of the Common Tongue; music education and improvisation), and Charles Keil (Music Grooves) have identified; there is no real reason why Lott should omit these approaches.

Lhamon's contribution has been to recognize that iconography can be a tool to get at these African aesthetics of pleasure, and to show the degree to which those aesthetics of pleasure, though appropriated, synthesized, and "cut" into North American popular idioms, can be shown empirically and analytically to maintain remarkable retention. The question becomes then, not to what degree "Africanisms" were "appropriated" or "distorted" in minstrelsy, but its inverse: the remarkable degree to which white vernaculars--white pleasure--were "cut" by these aesthetics, and were thus "Africanized." The question is not, "to what extent were African-American musical folkways homogenized or distorted," but rather "how much were white vernaculars Africanized?"

And the answer is--one whole fuckin' lot.

The contribution of my own research in the minstrelsy project is to tie Lott's insights about white repulsion/attraction; Cockrell's about minstrelsy European, liminal, and carnivalesque roots; Lhamon's about visual vocabularies and lore cycles, together, in analysis of specific artists' works, sketches, letters, and journals, and to use the Lott/Cockrell/Lhamon tools to analyze the artists' visual sources as keys to understanding the performance practice and the actual synthesizing sound of early minstrelsy: to show, parallel to Lhamon, the degree to which sonic "lore cycles"--like Lhamon's visual lore cycles--can be shown to have "cut", reiterated, and "Africanized" 19th century white popular music.

That's the field I'm tillin'. In three weeks, I'm going to drive cross-country, to spend another three weeks in the archives with a scanner and a laptop. Can't wait!

Now playing: Dizzy Gillespie - Congo blues

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