Q: How did your experience as a musician inform the project?
It’s funny: I look back over the very long gestation and creation of this manuscript—whose earliest inspiration I trace, in the Forward, to a conversation with my roots-music friends Chipper Thompson and Roger Landes, on the porch of a slave-built tavern in Weston Missouri in 1998—and only with hindsight do I begin to realize just how many elements of my own musical life and values have coalesced in its creation. I’ve been an avid listener and dedicated student (later teacher) in the worlds of African American musics ever since the early 1970s, the year I heard Mississippi Delta Blues in New England coffeehouses, live in small rooms. I’ve studied a very wide range of other musics, as both player and scholar, within and beyond the academy, but blues and jazz and their earliest root-ancestors have been a touchstone I’ve returned to over four decades. At the same time, the other constant in my core musical identity has been Anglo-Celtic music—particularly Irish tradition dance music, another genre I’ve studied and played ever since those same early ‘70s coffeehouse experiences. So to stumble upon the cluster of antebellum idioms—both Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean—whose encounter was the seed from which minstrelsy grew, became a way to link two sides of my own musical consciousness with my professional identity as a historian.
I also have very extensive experience at the scholarly disciplines of both musicology—the study of musical behaviors in historically distant contexts—and ethnomusicology—the study of musical behaviors in culturally or geographically distant contexts. Both those academic music disciplines provided research and analysis tools which were crucial to the Creolization project: manuscript studies, iconography, demographics, kinesthetics, art history, semiotics, reception history, sociology, ethnography, and so forth. In that sense, one element of Creolization is absolutely a kind of “historical ethnomusicology”—a challenging but ultimately very satisfying and enlightening synthesis of scholarly perspectives and methods.
At the same time—and, I think, rather atypically for someone who specializes in 19th& 20th century American roots musics—I have over 25 years experience as a practitioner of historical performance—specifically, the reconstruction and performance of medieval monophonic song. Though that world of medieval performance practice is stylistically and chronologically very distant, indeed, from the wharves, canals, and ships’ decks of the creole synthesis, historical performance did teach me to look at musical behaviors within historical contexts, and to try to reconstruct both the physical performance practices—the motions of hands and body—and the expressive environments that shaped that musical experience. Staying conscious of, and seeking the reasons behind, the musical choices that individuals made in response to specific expressive contexts—using musical content (tunes, songs, body iconography, and so forth) to reflect contextual priorities, and analyzing performance contexts to try to illuminate musical choices, was thus truly essential to this study.
So in that sense I guess I could say that—not entirely intentionally, and certainly not with any prescience or “grand plan”—I’ve been working for over forty years to develop the skill-sets and analytical tools to understand just why in the world blackface minstrelsy was the way it was, and what it has to tell us—about that time, and our time.