Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 08

Tuesday morning (Dharmonia gets home tonight).

Remarkably unproductive day yesterday, mostly because of an unexpected and rather unpleasant dental event. Concentration's difficult today, due to discomfort and also looming additional work.

However, further browsing in the Nathan Dan Emmett and the Rise of Negro Minstrelsy has both confirmed and nuanced my sense of the limits of current minstrelsy scholarship. As I commented yesterday, Nathan's book, though published way back in the early 1960s, is still commonly referenced for specific musical details on the repertoire. The majority of scholarship (some of it extremely good) since Nathan has been on the semiotics, theater history, cultural and physical vocabularies and the allusions they make, context, and so forth. There has been, in other words, a relatively dearth of commentary or analysis on musical content: typically, more recent scholars have referenced Nathan's detailed exegesis of the interplay between Anglo-Celtic and Afro-American tune-types, and the rhythmic implications of both the borrowed melodies, and the instruments (fiddle and banjo) on which they were realized.

This has helped to clarify for me the particular gap in the scholarship which I am identifying, and which, no doubt uncoincidentally, I feel equipped by background, training, prior work, and aptitudes to address: the elements and implications for performance practice. Clearly, there is a demonstrable musical synthesis going on in minstrelsy, for analysis of which Nathan's book is the cornerstone. Similarly, there is a demonstrable cultural synthesis (and cultural work) going on, as the more recent scholarship of Lott, Mahar, Cockrell, and Lhamon confirms. There are bits and pieces of analysis in these later scholars' work (and in that of Jacqui Malone) of the physical/dance vocabularies which the period iconography reveal. There are even period recordings and/or reconstructions of the sound of the later "classic" minstrel troupes, in the cylinder materials collected on sets like Monarchs of Minstrelsy, though those latter collections, having been recorded in or after the 1880s, are necessarily retrospective, nostalgic, and reflect the "late Golden Age" of post-Civil War minstrelsy.

What we don't have is much--if any--information about the performance practice and actual sound of the earliest roots of blackface minstrelsy, the period before the 1843 foundation of Emmett's Virginia Minstrels: the period of early Jacksonian democracy c1815-30, when GW Dixon, with "Coal Black Rose," and TD Rice, with "Jump Jim Crow," were first introducing the synthesis of the ancient technique of blackface "delineation" and actual African music/dance practices to urban audiences at the Bowery and Chatham Theaters in Five Points.

The reason my particular visual artists' iconographic evidence is important is because (a) the artists were musicians and demonstrably accurate reporters of musical data; (b) the artists were present in NYC in the 1820s and '30s; (c) in these artists' works you can see blacks and whites interacting musically, and you can see the incorporation by each group of physical vocabularies and performance practices from one group to the other, and vice versa. This in turn makes it possible to use musicology's already-existent tools for iconographic analysis (this is precisely what scholars of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque dance do).

Iconography is essential for looking at historical dance vocabularies. Absent audio recordings or technical dance notations (Labanotation, etc), text descriptions of dance are not adequate. This is why the study of dance iconography in any era is an essential element of understanding that era's dance musics--particularly when those musics are swiftly synthesizing and evolving. And doubly, triply important when those synthesizing dance vocabularies involve a percussive "sounding" element to the dancing. And quadruply important when those percussive "sounding" dance vocabularies are remarkably receptive to one another. Black cloggers, character dancers, and those "jumping Jim Crow" must have found points of resonance with Anglo-Celtic hard-shoe and step-dancers.

This is why iconography, dance, the physical techniques of instruments, and, overall, the issue of performance practice is both essential to understanding the sound and the cultural synthesis of early minstrelsy, and represents a gaping hole in the current scholarship.

That's the field I'm tillin'.

Playing when published: The Carter Family, "Sow 'Em on the Mountain"

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