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World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015

blues

World Listening Month3For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s  new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS

As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”

“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

SO! Amplifies: Shizu Saldamando’s OUROBOROS

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory

On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901″ via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

 

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Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487′: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur

"Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar" by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve been hesitant to write about Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) because there are layers to the shit. Sonic, cultural, and political layers that need time to breathe and manifest. Some of those layers are pedagogical. For example, Brian Mooney brilliantly paired the album with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to help students work through themes of Black consciousness and self-love. Mooney’s lesson plan garnered Lamar’s attention and a recent visit with Mooney students. Lamar’s open grappling with art and blackness throw him into heavy debates about his worth as a cultural and even literary icon. Yet Lamar’s formula of introspective angst – the use of battling his own demons to shed light on broader American society – pulls me to think about how Lamar and TPAB fit into a long standing trajectory of Black folks’ self-examination in art as a frame for larger critiques of racial politics in American society.

Screenshot of album cover

Screenshot of album cover

I’m drawn to TPAB’s outro of the final track of the album “Mortal Man.” “Mortal Man” sonically invokes Lamar’s struggle to assume a position as a gatekeeper of a branch of hip hop that focuses on Black community and self-actualization. The track includes a sample from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview with Swedish music journalist Mats Nileskär. Lamar positions himself as the interviewer, asking a different set of questions that engages Shakur about walking the fault lines of fame, fortune, and Black consciousness in this current cycle of hip hop. The construction and execution of the interview revisits the lines between hip hop’s collective and generational responsibilities via Lamar and Shakur’s interaction. Their conversation moves from creative (and creating) political protest to larger philosophical questions within hip hop: self-consciousness, mortality, and death. Lamar parallels his angst with Tupac using his voice, with Tupac himself heralded as hip hop’s martyred t.h.u.g. with a conscience. In this contemporary moment where Black men’s mortality and worth is attached to being a thug and a problem, Lamar poses Shakur in “Mortal Man” as a keystone for connecting popular scripts with cultural expectations of Black masculinity and agency in the United States.

The song “Mortal Man” launches the interview. The track can be considered a double sample – it uses Houston Person’s cover of Fela Kuti’s song “I No Get Eye for Back.” Lamar’s voice is clear but the background track soft and subdued, forcing the listener to pay full attention to Lamar’s voice, which interrogates what it takes for one to be loyal or respected in mainstream America. Percussion (bass kicks, acoustic drums, soft piano chords) and bass guitar chords annotate Lamar’s solemn lyrical delivery. A horn and woodwind medley – lead by Houston’s tenor sax playing – punctuate Lamar’s chorus:

When the shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?

When the shit his the fan, is you still a fan?

Want you to look to your left and right, make sure you ask your friends

The instrumental accompaniment is soft and steady, suggesting Lamar’s question is a continuous negotiation or checklist for one’s proclamation of loyalty and respect. Lamar’s repetition of “when the shit hit the fan is you still a fan” addresses his fanbase and the followers of other notable Black cultural and creative leaders. They, like Lamar, are usefully flawed – whether by accusation or self-proclamation – and use their flaws to further their cause. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Moses, Malcolm X, and Michael Jackson all exhibited social-cultural and political agency for (Black) folks. Yet they also suffered scrutiny and disregard because of their personal lives or less-than-respectable experiences.

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

Malcolm X at Queens Court. Source=Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11166 Author=Herman Hiller, World Telegram staff photographer

I am especially intrigued by Lamar’s reference to Malcolm X as “Detroit Red,” a nickname X had as a young hellraiser before his conversion to Islam. Lamar’s reference to X in his youth here speaks to larger questions of respectability, Black youth, and protest. Detroit Red is young, flawed but influential, similar to Lamar and other young Black folks leading protests in this contemporary moment. Lamar’s roll call suggests a struggle with the question of authority, both as a creator of Black culture and how his music implies a larger struggle of contemporary Black agency and angst. Interviewing Tupac brings Lamar’s struggle to a head, evoking Shakur’s voice as a culturally recognizable authority of hip hop’s commercial progress and cultural process. The trope of a flawed nature as a departure point for creative expression and agency is a theme that runs throughout TPAB and the rest of Lamar’s musical catalogue.

The musical accompaniment to the “Mortal Man” song fades out and against a backdrop of silence Lamar begins to recite what he states is an unfinished piece. He begins, “I remember when you was conflicted,” which implies he is talking to himself or talking to someone else. The background silence that leads to Lamar and Shakur’s conversation is as telling as the conversation itself, sonically alluding both to Lamar’s ‘quiet’ struggles of self-affirmation and the possibility that someone other than the audience is listening. The quiet is Lamar’s moment of clarity; the listeners are with him at his most vulnerable moment. He uses the silence to focus attention on himself and without the ‘outside noise’ of others’ beliefs and impressions of his music and purpose.

“2Pac” By Flickr user
Tupac Amaru Shakur, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the interview takes place over 20 years earlier, Tupac’s answers are clear and ‘live.’ Shakur’s initial voice is pensive and calculating – he sounds like he is thinking through his responses as he speaks – but later sounds more relaxed, laughing and talking louder and faster. The decreasing formality of Shakur’s answers suggests his increasing comfort with the interviewer as well as confidence in his own answers (and ultimately in sharing his beliefs). Lamar’s use of Shakur’s voice serves as the ultimate form of crate digging, using an obscure (or rare) radio interview sample to create his own voice in hip hop. Lamar’s engagement with Shakur serves memory as a cultural archive and as a cultural production. He not only preserves Shakur’s legacy in his own words but uses Shakur as a departure point for how to blur acts of listening for hip hop fans in a digital age.

The act of listening takes center stage for the interview. The interview is presented as an informal sitdown, reminiscent of what takes place during studio sessions: artists share new material and garner advice from veteran artists. Both rookies and veteran artist listen for new perspectives and listening for suggestions to approach a topic or track. Listening here shows Lamar’s awe and respect of Shakur’s perspective and artistry but also hints at how his conversation with Shakur is ultimately a conversation with himself. Lamar starts the conversation with an unfinished piece about his angsts regarding commercial success and how it conflicts with his creative process. He then moves on to asking Shakur about how he grapples with his creative and political consciousness. The listening work taking place here is critical and archival: without Lamar’s (and Lamar’s audience) interest in Shakur’s creative process his voice loses authority and ultimately its power.

Image From NY Daily News

Image From NY Daily News

Tupac’s sonic ‘resurrection’ signifies his lasting effect in hip hop while serving as a springboard for Lamar’s own pondering about the purpose of his music and the burden of its success. Unlike the visual representation of Shakur via hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, Lamar’s use of Tupac’s sonic likeness offers an alternative entry point for engaging Tupac’s work outside of his rapping. For example, much of Shakur’s social-political work takes place in his poetry i.e. his collection of poetry The Rose that Grew from Concrete. Further, the ‘thingness’ of the hologram, a physical and technological manifestation of hip hop fans’ and artists’ revering of Tupac’s image and death, makes me think about the type of work the hologram was expected to perform as compared to the sonic ‘ghostliness’ of Tupac’s voice on Lamar’s track. If, as John Jennings suggests, the hologram manifested Tupac as a “ghost in the machine,” how does Tupac’s voice work as a ghost in the machine? On a visceral level hearing Tupac’s voice in conversation with Kendrick Lamar stirs feelings about whether or not he is dead or alive and his immortality as a hip hop icon.

Where the Coachella hologram visualized Tupac Shakur spirit, “Mortal Man” sonically evokes his spirit and the connection between his (im)mortality and storytelling. Lamar says: “Sometimes I be like. . .get behind a mic and I don’t what type of energy I’ma push out or where it comes from.” Shakur responds “because the spirits, we ain’t really even rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Listening to Shakur’s use of “we” out of historical context – the interview took place in 1994, 21 years before “Mortal Man” – suggests that Tupac himself is among the dead. He is a “dead homie” and telling a story that Lamar himself is trying to relay to his audience and himself. Yet the lingering possibility of Tupac’s mortality – most embodied in Tupac’s silence after Lamar’s discussion of the significance of a caterpillar to the album – is a powerful moment of protest. Shakur’s quiet and Lamar’s attempt to “call him back,” signifies a period in the conversation. Lamar is left to fend for himself, fighting a “fight he can’t win.” There is also the possibility that his exchange with Shakur is “just some shit he wrote,” an unfinished idea and story that he is still figuring out. Lamar’s rendering of Tupac’s voice makes me think about the DJ Spooky statement “the voice you speak with may not be your own.” Tupac’s ghostly voice and Lamar’s search for his own voice blend to present Tupac as a mouthpiece for not only himself but Lamar.

At surface level Lamar resurrects and interviews Tupac Shakur because of regional ties to West Coast hip hop and a nearly standard declaration in rap of Shakur’s influence and fandom. He is arguably the most celebrated and iconic figure in hip hop. Shakur’s untimely death and open struggles with seeking balance between fame and personal responsibility mold him as hip hop’s shining prince. Shakur’s family ties with the Black Panther Party – a member of the Panthers once called him an “eternal cub” – positioned him to use hip hop as a mouthpiece for contemporary Black protest. But Shakur’s branding of protest and hip hop was messy, in part because of a working understanding and maneuvering of his image as controversial and commercially successful.

“KENDRICK LAMAR” by Flickr user
Pemberton Music Festival (Credit: Andy Holmes), CC BY-NC 2.0)

The “Mortal Man” interview signifies sound’s ability to usefully bridge past and present social, cultural, and political moments. Lamar’s sonic evoking of Tupac Shakur demonstrates hip hop as a space of Black youth political protest. Lamar uses sound to render hip hop temporality and re-emphasize Black popular culture as a departure point for recognizing contemporary Black angst. The shrinking mediums of spaces available to indicate why and how #BlackLivesMatter position the sonic as a work bench for engaging race relations in a deemed post-racial era. The “Mortal Man” interview serves as a blueprint for connecting hip hop to longstanding conversations about Black protest as a (messy) cultural product.

Featured image: “Shot by Drew: Kendrick Lamar” by Flickr user The Come Up Show, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”— Toniesha Taylor

Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”

Hrston

100 Years of Lomax4Today, SO! finishes its series reconsidering the life and work of Alan Lomax in his centenary year, edited by Tanya Clement of The University of Texas at Austin. We started out with Mark Davidson‘s reflections on what it means to raise questions about the politics behind Lomax’s efforts to record and collect folk music, and continued a few weeks later with Parker Fishel‘s consideration of Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” and how it has been appropriated by musicians more recently. The third piece in this series was Clement’s own, which challenged us to consider the politics behind efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

We conclude with a piece by Toneisha Taylor, who urges us to think about the influence of John Lomax’s curatorial practice on Alan’s own, particularly the monumental Works Progress Administration project of recording interviews with elderly former slaves in the 1930s. At once a critique and a counternarrative, Taylor’s work urges us to think of the interviewees as co-creators of the “American voice” so important to both Lomaxes.

— Special Editor Neil Verma


I recently found myself in a discussion with white friends and fellow scholars about the Lomax recordings of the 1930’s where I, as the lone Black woman in the conversation, heard myself tell an inner truth that most Black folk know, but won’t speak on. I admitted to my small audience of friends and colleagues, in the vein of Black folklore scholar John B. Cade, a truth about the past: if you were a Black person living in Waller County Texas in the 1930s and white men came to your door with notebooks, questions and a voice recording device, you weren’t thinking to yourself, “let me be my most honest and authentic self.” Even if you knew the men to be John Lomax and Alan Lomax—those men collecting those songs from Black folks around and through these parts—you still didn’t trust them. Not really. Your whole life experience up until that point taught you better. It was still your life. And you knew that.

Although we scholars have not often been willing to admit it, those Black folks had an agency when it came to the myth creation and historical preservation associated with the Lomax archive. They knew what they were doing. They knew that they were telling their stories in a ways that served them best as John Lomax contemporary John Cade notes in his work “Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves.”

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940,  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In our modern day readings of the Lomax collections, it is not at all fair to take agency away from Black folk brave enough to share their stories, and to place the creative power in the hands of the Lomaxes and the white oral history and folk music collectors they worked with in the Federal Writers Project. To do that negates the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Cade, and other Black folklore and folk life collectors and scholars; it also negates the power of the narrators that shared their lives with John and Alan Lomax. By focusing on the sound recordings of former slaves, we can investigate the ways in which Black people who participated in the Works Progress Administration interviews coded their agency in their narratives. Moreover, we have an opportunity to investigate the ways in which the Lomaxes facilitated the agency of Black interview participants and Black folklorists.

The systematic collection of slave narratives as recorded by the writers and scholars participating in the John Lomax-directed Federal Writers Project  always had multiple goals. The Works Progress Administration conceived of the project as a way to employ out of work authors and underemployed scholars during the Depression. The Library of Congress and John Lomax saw the project as a method to collect first hand accounts of a dying history. The participants likely saw the opportunity as a way to be a witness to their own truths. During the 1930’s and 1940’s when the bulk of the collection was taking place other scholars such as Cade were working to collect narratives using similar techniques and research designs. Many scholars, at the time and afterward–famously John Blassingame and Henry Louis Gates–would question the authenticity of the transcribed narratives, there was always a sense that the WPA collected narrative left more questions than they answered. When the Library of Congress, with funding from Citigroup Foundation, put the narratives, transcripts, WPA collection reports, photographs and other documents up on the internets they opened the collection up to scholars to ask new questions. The digital representation of the WPA collection allowed for new options in research with the ability to hear the recordings the controversy over authenticity of transcripts seemed dated and immaterial. Now the questions can focus on embodied narrative, with access to the reports and memos written by WPA staff questions of intent and purpose can be asked. With a focus on sound studies we can ask about the ways in with interpersonal discourse in racialized moments are navigated between people with sociocultural difference.

This post focuses on the early collection work of John Lomax (Alan Lomax’s father and teacher), asking some critical questions about how the Lomaxes archived Black voices into the “American Voice.” In his piece, as part of this series, Parker Fishel discusses the purposefulness of Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey recordings notes. As Fishel notes one of the elements Alan offers in his notes are methods for critical listening. By focusing on both the recordings in the WPA Slave Narratives and letters and memos written by John and Alan Lomax directing the collection, transcription, and preservation of the narratives I focus on how taking the totality of the collection into consideration can change the view of the WPA Slave narratives. How was it possible that the Lomaxes preserved stories of Black American life while at the same time, silencing their subjects in other ways? How can we rediscover, conserve, and integrate the sounds of Black folk life into a more holistic understanding of the American past?

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Research

I discovered the work of the WPA Slave Narratives when I was in college. I was assigned a paper and went to the library to do some research. With the help of the research librarian I found the website (layout unchanged since the late-1990’s) for the WPA Slave Narratives. I wrote my paper, did well, and, like most undergraduates, moved forward with my life.

However, the voices of those Black folks continued to echo in the back of my mind. As I advanced in my academic study, I would “check up” on the website, you know, lurk. I would go in to see if there were updates or new information placed online. When I found information, I engaged the text. When the Library of Congress made the digital recordings available online, the collection included WPA recordings as well as other interviews recorded and collected with former slaves. The crackle of the recordings, coupled with the rhythm of voices of those women and men bold enough to share their stories, drew me in once more. In particular, I tended to return to recording of Aunt Harriet Smith. Her memory of her work, life, and religious experiences during slavery still interest me.

“Ex-slave Narratives – Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith”. Released: 2003.

Mrs. Smith, like all participants in the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, shares her personal narrative in such a ways as to engage the listener in the shared creation of a “memorable message.”  Memorable messages are stories that we get from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even strangers that transmit an experience so salient we bookmark the message and use it as a guide for future interaction, behavior—performance.Communication scholars have worked with memorable messages for decades (Knapp, Stohl & Reardon 1981; Camara & Orbe, 2010). In tandem with the narrative paradigm, memorable messages function within rhetoric to give rise to the central importance of the retelling of human experience as part of the collective human story (Fisher, 1984). The value of listening to the recording of Mrs. Smith, therefore, is in the way hearing her voice completes the accuracy of the narrative.For example, take a listen [about 5:31 in the recording] to the way she answers the interviewer’s question:

Well did you ever hear of any slaves being mistreated? Were there any tails going around?

Mrs. Smith answers:

Yes, I know of times when, mistreated people they did. I hear our folks talk ‘bout whopping, you know, cus they had to grease the back. To get the clothes from their back.

The tone in her voice and the engagement in her memory is so clear and certain that her insistence that the family she belonged to didn’t “mistreat their colored people” was honestly presented. Notably, even the short transcription I provided differs from the transcribed section of the same interview printed at the time of the collection.

As I discuss elsewhere, memorable messages as theory relies on the verbal and embodied telling of a story. Different from the womanist theorizing of re-memory, memorable messages are based on the lived experience of others not ourselves. Re-memory is the work done by the womanist who imparts the memorable message. In constructing the narrative I, as the womanist narrator, re-member my narrative as part of the life lesson I seek to impart to my reader.

John Lomax, Alan Lomax and the Power to Decide

The process of generating the WPA narratives was far more complicated than many realize. It is not tangential to the creation of the WPA Slave narratives that one way of entering the project was through the former slavemaster. In other words, Black participants were often identified by their former owners or the relatives of those owners to participate in the collection. Additionally, some of the interviewers were themselves know to be related to large slaveholding families. The combination of these facts likely impacted the creation of the narratives on the part of the Black participants. In  her essay “Ex-Slave Narratives: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project Reappraised” Lynda M. Hill focuses on the language and questions of Alan Lomax outlined in a number of his reports to his father and other directors of the WPA Ex-Slave Narrative collection. In their papers and notes, as well as their directives to those collecting the narratives—a list including Alan Lomax, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, John Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, John Henry Faulk, Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, Ruby Lomax and others—it is clear that both father and son wish for a greater humanity in the interviews.

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Where Alan and John seemed to disagree was on the content. John Lomax wanted a narrative concentrated on the participant’s life during slavery, where Alan also wanted to know about their life since. Alan seemed more interested in race relations, as well as the economic, political and social engagement of the participants. Both father and son seem quick to place the blame for lightness of the interviews on the interviewers they used and their inability or reluctance to ask probative follow-up questions.

The Lomaxes, Texans who spent much time in the Southern states collecting narratives, songs, and oral histories from African American community members, speak from a place of experience. When Alan Lomax suggests that interviewers need to “spend time” and “become friends” with individuals, he knows of what he speaks. While certain that members of the “ex-slave community” can be reluctant to share their stories and the truths of their inner lives with white outsiders, he is much less clear on how one might “become friends” with them. To modern ethnographers, Alan Lomax’s call to his contemporary white colleagues can read as harsh (or perhaps not harsh enough). For 21st century ethnographers, folklorists, and musicologists, it is common to “become friends” to engage in participant observation research where the scholar and his or her interlocutors have fewer social distances.

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alan Lomax also may not have always been aware of his own process of “becoming friends” and how much it was guided by his social and cultural capital. It is probable that Alan’s social relationships with his father, mother, friends, colleagues and business associates all made access to certain people much easier, and their willingness to share aspects of their lives with him more palpable. Where Alan saw “lightness” in other’s collections of ex-slave narratives, there was likely greater reserve on the part of both the interviewer and the speakers, given the vast social distances of the 1930s.

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang "Shing, Shing," at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang “Shing, Shing,” at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In April 1937, John Lomax himself seemed to recognize that the directives he sent to local field directors were not yielding the responses he thought they should, prompting a revision of the interview questions as and instructions. While both John Lomax and Alan Lomax pushed on local directors to hire African American interviewers, there was no formal incentive to follow through (65-66). Some local directors did hire African American interviewers, but would fire or replace them within a few short months. The field notes and interview transcripts collected by African Americans were often included in larger reports with notations suggesting the local director found the work inferior or suspect (66-67).

Critique and Understanding : Questions With and Without Answers

I continue to lurk about the WPA website to this day, wondering if the site’s peach background and sepia photograph header and text-only links create a statement of recording silence. As an early career faculty member with a keener sense of funding and project completion maps, I see the unchanged digital interface of the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 as a type of visual internet nostalgia, a way of placing Black voices in the record and then silencing or muting the power of voices by not attending to their narratives or, ironically, making those narratives easily accessible. Every time I check back, I question how the visual presentation of information is as critical to scholarly engagement as the recording itself.

Albeit in a new technical format, my critique is not novel, but rather one encoded in the report Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 Administrative Files compiled in 1941. Slave narratives tell us much of the daily interactions and histories of all parts of American life. John Lomax believed that their preservation in the moment was necessary. His sense of coding the narratives in more standardized, easy-to-read 1930s language did, however, point to the limits of his willingness to allow the narrative to stand in full voice. To John Lomax, it mattered that there was uniformity in the way that the written text of ex-slave narratives appeared. He knew part of the long project was a book length manuscript. The collection of narratives needed to present visually in a way that eased the reader, some of whom may have been reluctant to see Black lives as having authenticity. It is in this moment of graphic depiction that language becomes contested as some (perhaps rightfully,) argue the slave narratives are inaccurate reflections of slave life.

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Does it matter that the few sound recordings remaining from the WPA project are not coupled with the transcribed narratives and photographs of speakers listed on the Slave Narratives site? Yes. Through sound, listeners have a truer sense of the active creation of Black bodies by Black folks involved in their own documentation. Think back to Mrs. Smith and her description of the neighborhood girl that leaves with the union soldiers. Mrs. Smith activates a sense of freedom and sadness in those few sentences that is understood through the combination of her tone and words. Access to sound records in a digital format allows contemporary scholars the opportunity to compare the narrator’s voice and embodiment to the written document where possible. The Library of Congress and The American Folk Life Center actively document and curate the list of sound recordings and their origins. However, the preset format forces interested people into a game of lurker hide and seek on the LOC site to access them. It is this “work” that keeps the sound recordings, texts, and photographs far too distant from one other, allowing the narratives to be only minimally present and appear not to be valued. In their current format, the WPA recordings seem appropriated as a way of suggesting inclusion in American life, but not prioritized as valued American experience.

Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

Simon Walker, Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

One could argue that the reading of Black bodies as American bodies isn’t possible without the inclusion of Black voices in Lomax’s collection of Americana and folk music.The narratives of daily life during slavery and after shape our understanding of the bodies of Blackness and the human toll of bondage. When John Lomax, and by extension Alan Lomax, collected American folk music and actively sought the music and voices of Black southern musicians and story-tellers, they authenticated belongingness of Black peoples in the creation of the American voice. Lomax centralized Black life in American life. However, the Lomax team accomplished this archiving only with with the cooperation of Black narrators whose lives were central to the telling of American life. —what we need now are more questions that center on the documents, sounds and voices of the past—centralizing memorable message sound is the key.  In a contemporary context,the WPA narratives provide a space to investigate memorable message creation and the embodiment of Blackness in the project of American life.

Featured Image: Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen- Eatonville, Florida, June 1935.  Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/107444

Toniesha L. Taylor is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Interim Department Head in the Department Languages and Communication at Prairie View A & M University. She earned her B. A. with a double major in 1999 from California State University, San Marcos in Communication and Liberal Studies with a minor in History. She immediately began her graduate work at San Jose State University in Speech Communication completing an M. A. in 2002. Her research foci in African American, Religion, Intercultural, Gender and Popular Culture communication started during her undergraduate studies. She has cultivated those interest throughout her doctoral work at Bowling Green State University were she completed her Ph.D. in Communication Studies with a focus on Rhetoric. Her dissertation developed womanist rhetorical theory and analysis of African American women’s sermons in the contemporary Black Church.

Toniesha’s research, conference presentations and publications speak to her diverse interest. Her recent research and conference presentations include discussions on womanist rhetoric as method and theory; practical social justice pedagogy for faculty and students; critical engagement in popular cultural critique; digital humanities methods implications for activist recovery projects; African American women’s sermons and conversion discourses both historic and contemporary. Her recent publications include “Transformative Womanist Rhetorical Strategies: Contextualizing Discourse and the Performance of Black Bodies of Desire” in Crémieux, Lemoine & Rocchi (Eds.) Black Being, Black Embodying; Contemporary Arts & The Performance Of Identities and “Black Women, Thou Art Produced! Tyler Perry’s Gosperella Productions: A Womanist Critique” in Bell & Jackson (Eds.) Tyler Perry Reader.

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