Saturday, September 01, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 33 ("virtual back fence" edition)

Saturday, 1 Sept, back at The Office.

Further to yesterday's post about "half-perfect jewels," I was right about the Party Weekend: probably 150 kids at a newly-occupied rental place about halfway down our block. For a change, it wasn't immediately adjacent to our back yard, so not my problem--but I couldn't help sympathizing with those families, retired folks, and workin' people who have to live next door to a bunch of spoiled thoughtless children living away from home for the first time.

That in mind, just created a neighborhood blog over here. Sort of a "virtual back fence" for those who live, work, and care about quality of life in Tech Terrace.

Working today with the very lengthy front-matter of Lhamon's Jump Jim Crow, which is mostly a compendium of texts from songs, playbills, and theatrical productions. Lhamon is emeritus professor of English at Florida State and I'm hoping to meet up with him during a visit to the area in October. And he must have a heavy-duty collection of minstrelsy ephemera, as no one else has ever published such a complete primary-source reference. But his commentary in the front matter is very good, tracing many of the same points ("lore cycles," attraction-repulsion and dominant-subordinate dynamics, the significance and historical resilience of gesture, "the First Atlantic Street Culture", etc) he expounded in Raising Cain, but here in a much more linear and "straightforward" prose style.

People seem to respond to Lhamon's writing the way they do to Henry Glassie's Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community, or Ciaran Carson's Last Night's Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music, or Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. These are all books about music, culture, and history, by people who know their topics cold, but who have, by dint of preference, skills, professional background, aptitude, or other reasons, have chosen not to write in the prevailing/conventional musicological style. These books are sometimes non-linear, elliptical, subjective, impressionistic, poetic, or exhibit other qualities that make their "objective" scholarly "quality" difficult to tabulate. In my observation and experience, readers of any of these books tend to respond to them in a similar fashion to the ways that listeners tend to respond to Joseph Spence or NRBQ or Charles Ives or the Coen Brothers: they either love them, avidly devouring whatever's available by these artists, or laughing with hysterical joy or gasping with emotional tears at certain passages--or they hate 'em, and say "take it off! Take it OFF!" I won't say that reaction is a litmus test for me, but I will say that I tend to get along with those who love these artists and authors, rather than those who hate 'em (the great Charlie Hamm, a magisterial presence in American musicology, wrote a remarkably grumpy-old-fart-style review of Raising Cain in the Journal of the American Musicological Society).

These pheonomena are music, cultural reference, and semiotic expressions--they intend and and receive radically different responses from individual readers, listeners or viewers. If the job of musicology is to understand not only what happened, how it worked, and who was involved, but also what it meant--then dry-as-dust analysis and exegesis is not the only--or even always the best--method of expressing that meaning.

Further to yesterday's post about the slipperiness of cultural meaning, especially in those idioms that exploit their boundary/marginal status in order to carve expressive territory for themselves--and are treasured by their consumers for precisely that reason: it might be that making a film, or a photo-ethnography, or a play, or a poem, or a dramatic recitation, about the "meaning" of a piece of art, might just be, not only as valid an undertaking as writing an article--it might even explain more about that art, with even more insight.

The job is to create and articulate understanding. As musicologists, and scholars, and citizens of a larger world of discourse, we are not only entitled, but obligated, to create and articulate understanding using any and all tools we persuasively employ. We can dance, or paint, or chant, or sing, or versify, our research--if we create and articulate understanding.

That's our real job description.
Now playing: David Lindley - Mercury Blues

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