Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Caviacchi perfom the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Today, the series kicks off with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as represented through sheet music embedded in his 1853 narrative, amplifying a sound that was key to both his freedom and his enslavement.–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Steve McQueen’s recent film Twelve Years a Slave has renewed interest in the original 1853 narrative, which has long been a valued resource for historians of nineteenth-century slavery, literature, and music. Because Solomon Northup was a highly-skilled fiddler and a keen observer of plantation culture, his autobiography is one of the most substantive accounts of musical life during slavery and, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that includes sheet music in its text. As such, it preserves in audible form a precious record of Northup’s musical artistry and facilitates a sound-based study of nineteenth-century black fiddling, a tradition that was flourishing during Northup’s lifetime.
Uncovering the sounds of vernacular music of the pre-recorded era can be incredibly challenging. For this reason, Northup’s descriptions, when coupled with musical notation, make it possible for us to hear something historically significant. Although “slave music” was all the rage in the 1850s due to the widespread popularity of blackface minstrelsy, print-based compositions by enslaved (or free) musicians are difficult to come by and even more challenging to verify. The tune presented in Northup’s memoir has its own complex relationship to the minstrelsy genre, but it remains a unique sample of African-American music that warrants close-listening.
I use performance as a research method for exploring historical vernacular music, offering here my interpretation of “Roaring River: A Refrain of the Red River Plantation.” As I discuss in an essay titled “Listening to the Past,” the process of performance illuminates the subtleties of musical expression. (Do I play it like this or like that? At what tempo?) The aim of such exercises is not historical accuracy, but rather, an attunement to the sonic possibilities of a given piece. These possibilities cannot tell me how Northup would have played the song or what it meant to him, but they allow me to consider the kinds of choices that he would have had to make as a performer, thus illustrating the intellectual and sensorial richness of his music-making. Rather than simply presenting and describing the sheet music, I aim to make it possible for people to hear what would otherwise sit silently on the page.
In the first recording I play Northup’s melody solo to give you a sense of the tune.
In the second, I am joined by guitar.
The use of guitar accompaniment would have been highly unlikely during the period, but it helps to support my amateur playing by providing a livelier, fuller feeling. Northup connected with banjoists, percussionists and dancers as an enslaved and free musician and it’s interesting to imagine how a single song like this would have been transformed according to the talents, desires, and constraints of the performers assembled. It is unclear from the narrative whether or not the tune is an original composition or something Northup learned while living along the Red River, where he was enslaved in Louisiana. One also wonders how many nineteenth-century readers would have plucked the melody at a keyboard or bowed it on a family fiddle. What might their motivations have been?
Though Northup does not discuss the fiddle tune in the text, he does describe the lyrics below it, remarking that they were accompanied by a percussion technique called “patting” among his fellow slaves. He describes this widely documented practice as follows: “The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing” (219). According to Northup, the lyrics that accompanied patting were often nonsensical because they were made to conform to the tonal and rhythmic pattern being patted. He offers “Harper’s Creek” as suitable for the practice but it’s worth noting that the lyrics voice a presumably white man’s desires to own a piece of land and a slave. Though presented below the sheet music at the end of the book, the lyrics are ill-fitting for the fiddle tune provided, which seems more likely to have been played without vocal accompaniment. In light of Northup’s descriptions, the sheet music creates an interesting blend of various performance modes, from popular folksy vocal diddy (with possible origins in minstrelsy), to patting, and fiddling. Here you can see a wonderful example of patting accompanying a nineteenth-century fiddle tune as performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and guest Danny Barber (Intricate patting begins at 1:22).
In addition to serving as auditory artifact, the presence of sheet music in the narrative relates to the way Northup’s musicality was commodified within the aesthetic economy of slavery during and after his captivity. After regaining freedom, his talents are presented for sale in the book presumably to appeal to the sort of audiences who would also have coveted the sheet music of minstrelsy, which caricatured and lampooned black performances. Popular appetites for representations of plantation culture left an imprint on Northup’s autobiography as well as other abolitionist publications, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Music-making was both labor and leisure for Solomon Northup and it profoundly influenced his experiences as a slave. His narrative also illuminates the far-reaching impact that he and other black musicians had on their communities as well as nineteenth century music.
Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It introduced me to great houses —relieved me of many days’ labor in the field—supplied me with conveniences for my cabin—with pipes and tobacco, and extra pairs of shoes, and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master, to witness scenes of jollity and mirth. It was my companion—the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. (217)
Solomon Northup’s biography is highly atypical of slave narratives because he is a free man who is sold into slavery. Some have criticized the popularization of his circumstances, arguing that because he conforms to modes of respectability as a literate, propertied black man, he serves as an ideal hero for white audiences while inadequately representing the experience of slavery. Though many aspects of Northup’s biography are unusual, his status as a highly sought-after musician is emblematic of a legion of black fiddlers who dominated music scenes North and South, from ballrooms to barns, beginning as early as the late seventeenth-century, as Dena Epstein explains in her indispensable study, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Music to the Civil War (1977).
Prior to enslavement, fiddling, “the passion of [his] youth,” provides Northup with supplemental income that helps to sustain his family during periods of insufficient employment in agriculture and carpentry. Music was an ideal side-career for someone in such circumstances, though, as Northup’s story shows, it did not protect him from the dangers of being black in the United States. He is captured and enslaved while touring as a circus musician. Ferrying South toward the Louisiana plantations that would become his deplorable home, Northup’s freedoms are violently stripped away. But his talent as a first-rate fiddler travels with him, becoming a defining element of his experience of slavery.
Fiddles were extraordinarily popular instruments during the era. Lightweight, portable, and increasing in mass production during the nineteenth-century, a single fiddle could service a large dance if need be. As such, slaves were encouraged (or forced) to take up the instrument and musical ability was considered a highly prized skill. Fiddling granted (primarily male) slaves an unusual degree of mobility as well as opportunities for economic advancement. The fact that numerous runaway slave ads note that the sought-after individuals were fiddlers or had in their possession a violin suggests that the increased mobility and access to income may have facilitated escape for some. For more information about these trends and their eighteenth-century origins, I highly recommend Richard Cullen Rath’s How Early America Sounded (2003), an excellent cultural history of sound.
Just before being sold at market to his first master, Northup encounters an enslaved young man in possession of a fiddle and sizes him up by asking if he could play the “Virginia Reel,” a popular dance. The young man cannot and so Northup takes the instrument from him, boldly showing off his more substantial repertoire and ability, much to the delight of those around him. Though about to be sold into an unknown and terrifying fate, this seemingly mundane interaction underscores how important musicianship is to Northup’s identity and also how significant it was to the societies through which he was forced to move. Whether in New York State, a New Orleans slave market, or a backwoods swamp plantation, fiddling was a thoroughly popular form of entertainment, widely enjoyed by Americans, slave and free, rich and poor, native and immigrant.
Northup expresses pride in the fame he earns in the Red River region, noting that he was known widely as the “Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf.” Ole Bull was a famous Norwegian violinist, who was one of the first musicians to professionally tour the United States in the 1850s; he became a widely-known celebrity. Because of Northrup’s sought-after talents, his masters hired him out extensively to play at the fashionable balls of nearby plantations as well as the Christmas dances held yearly for slaves. At one ball, he was tipped seventeen dollars, an extraordinary amount that he used to furnish his cabin with bare necessities. In contrast to these more favorable gigs, Northup was also forced to perform during his savage Master Epps’ alcoholic binges. These events were held for hours on end in the middle of the night as Northup’s fellow slaves were commanded to dance. The violent, dreaded affairs interrupted precious sleep and were utterly humiliating for the participants. Depicted memorably in both the memoir and the recent film, the horrifying scenario shows the way slavery degrades Northup’s musicianship and his peers’ dancing, turning these arts into yet one more thing that the master possesses. For Master Epps, Northup is a mere musical device, a kind of proto-phonograph, full of tunes that can be made to play on command. Northup’s “passion” and economic livelihood are thus converted into a mechanized musical labor commodity under slavery.
Through Northup, we can see how before the eras of sound reproduction and broadcast, the circulation of music across North America was greatly facilitated by the forced migration of enslaved people. At the time of Northup’s capture, large numbers of mid-Atlantic slaves were being sold South to the booming plantations along the frontier of Louisiana and Texas. Northup brought a unique repertoire on his journey and he also learned new music that he transported back to the New York publishers of his autobiography. Afro-diasporic musicians began revolutionizing Western music centuries before Northup was born, and as we can see, continued to do so in profoundly significant ways in the Antebellum era both in spite of and due to the harsh conditions of their enslavement.
I’d like to thank the students in my course “Sounds of the South” for their lively discussion and excellent essays regarding music in Solomon Northup’s Narrative. I’m also deeply grateful to my musical collaborator, Eric Olsten.
Featured Image by Flickr User kubotake
Mary Caton Lingold is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University researching early Afro-Atlantic literature, music, and sound. She leads a collaborative experiment called the Sonic Dictionary at Duke’s Audiovisualities Lab and co-directs Soundbox, a project dedicated to enhancing the practice of using sound in digital scholarship.
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Although this year’s American Studies Association conference location is not as warm and sunny as last year’s (can we have all November conferences in warm, sunny places, please?), Washington DC has a lot to offer this year’s conference attendees. The title for this year’s annual meeting, which takes place from November 21 to November 24, 2013, is “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.” The focus on debt in all of its dimensions couldn’t be more timely, considering that the conference comes on the heels of a government shutdown that the United States is still getting over, in addition to formal and informal conversations about recovery. In this sense, Washington DC seems an ideal setting for the topic: it’s the center of many of these national conversations about debt.
It is no surprise then that, according to the co-chairs of this year’s programming committee, Roderick Ferguson, Lisa Lowe and Jodi Melamed, many of the panels chosen for this year’s ASA revolve around keywords such as “debt, obligation, ethics, collectivity, and dissent.” The focus on such topics may explain why there are less panels and papers that fall under Sound Studies. The connection between debt and sound may not be immediately apparent for some, which may either keep panels or papers that focus on sound out of the conversation. It may also be the case that the overall topic may not immediately resonate for those who work on or write about sound matters. Sound Studies is still staking its claim, loud and clear. For example, bright and early at 8:00 am on Thursday, November 21st, there’s the Sonic Lives of Debt panel, which looks at how debt is represented in music and sound in general. Another highlight from Thursday is one of two American Studies Journal panels, titled Chocolate Spaceship: Gender Politics and Afro-Futurism in Funk, with papers on Patti Labelle, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Roger Troutman.
For artists and scholars of Sound Studies, the conference theme summons Jacques Attali’s famed text, Noise: The Political Economy of Music. His theoretical arguments about music as an audible mirror of capitalism, a structured representation of noise, and a means of understanding “debt” through sound, serve as an academic companion to this year’s lineup of panels and papers that address sound. Some sound-related panels complicate ideas of “dissent” and “debt.” Sonic Ledgers of Dissent (Saturday, 4:00-5:45 pm), chaired by Deborah R. Vargas, focuses on dissent addresses not only the State (FBI), but also gay rapper Caushun, racial musical miscegenation, and Black/Brown alliances in Los Angeles.
However, it’s not just a matter of the connection of the theme with sound. Last year, SO! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman pointed out in her ASA 2012 conference round-up that there were less sound studies panels than other years, and suggested that this turn may indicate that the field is entering a moment of reflection. Stoever-Ackerman rightfully argues that academic presentations related to Sound Studies are moving beyond making the presence of the field known and moving toward engaging with sound on a deeper, more complicated level. Consider how some of the panels listed below may not be precisely about sound studies, but include a sound-oriented approach. The panel Debts of Spirit and Substance includes a paper that looks at songs of protest: Glenda Goodman’s “Unsung Songs of the ‘Swinish Multitude’: Transnational Tunes of Eighteenth-Century Political Protest.” Another example is Sunday’s Latinas/os Onscreen and On/Off Air: Rethinking Contemporary Media Audiences and Discourses panel, which includes a presentation by Dolores Inés Casillas titled “Lost in Translation: The Politics of Spanish-language Radio Ratings.” It is encouraging to see how cultural critiques also include sound as a way to analyze and understand cultural phenomena.
The ASA Sound Studies Caucus is bringing it this year with three panels that carry the caucus’s stamp of approval. The three panels (two on Friday and one on Saturday) address questions of listening, recording, and memory. The Friday panel at 2:30, chaired by Nicole Hodges Persley, is titled Sampling Phonographies: Sonic Memory and the Long History of Sampling and stars two SO! contributors: Gustavus Stadler (“Charles Chesnutt, Sonic Memory, and Racial Terror”) and Meghan Drury (“Across Time and Space: Hearing Sun Ra’s Egypt”). Each of the papers on this panel discuss the intimate relationship between music’s ritual of sampling and racial memory. That 2:30 presentation is immediately followed by Musical Debts: Appropriations, Reparations, or New Traditions?, chaired by Barry Shank. Shank participated in this year’s cross-blog (and only!) virtual IASPM-US Conference panel on popular music and Sound Studies, Sonic Borders Virtual Panel. Musical Debts explores how music trespasses across racialized, global boundaries for capitalist gains. On Saturday, you can catch the last of the SSC panels, on listening and community: Connected Listening: Re-imagining Community Through Sound. Chaired by Michelle Habell-Pallan, the papers in that panel delve into the role of listening for communities of color.
If you can’t make any of the sound studies panels, make sure to check out the ASA Sound Studies Caucus+Journal of Popular Music Studies Happy Hour Meet and Greet on Friday, November 22, 2013. We’re big fans of the work going on at JPMS, and we’re thrilled to see them partner up with the Sound Studies Caucus. The Caucus’s co-conveners, Roshanak Kheshti, Deb Vargas, SO!’s own Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman and D. Ines Casillas, welcome colleagues equally steeped in topic of sound to help build this important caucus. From the get go, this Caucus has set out to not only bring scholars together under the umbrella of sound but to also push ideas of gender, race, and sexuality as integral components of Sound Studies. Sadly, the editorial crew of SO! will not be present for this year’s SSC Happy Hour, but be sure to swing by and meet some of our guest writers who will be at Glen’s Garden Market from 5:30 to 7:00 pm!
Lastly, if you are not presenting at ASA, not attending the conference, or simply want to check in on the action, take a glance at the official Twitter hashtag #2013ASA . Hopefully we’ll get to meet you at the next ASA meeting: Los Angeles, 2014!
Please comment to let SO! know what you think–both before and after ASA 2013. If we somehow missed you or your panel in this round up, please let our Managing Editor know!: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was co-authored. Liana M. Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!. Dolores Inés Casillas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara this fall. She writes and teaches on Latino media, language politics, and sound practices.
Featured photo: “Stormy Salute” by Flickr user Joey Gannon, CC BY-SA 2.0
8:00 am – 9:45 am
004. Debts of Spirit and Substance
Washington Hilton, C – Cardozo (T)
CHAIR: Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
James Deutsch, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
In Debt to The Poor of New York: Dion Boucicault and the Panics of 1837/1857
Gino Conti, University of Southern California (CA)
Oh, I feel, I feel, I feel: Moravians, Wasted Labor, and the Afterlives of Enthusiasm
Glenda Goodman, University of Southern California (CA)
Unsung Songs of the “Swinish Multitude”: Transnational Tunes of Eighteenth-Century Political Protest
Tanja Aho, State University of New York, Buffalo (NY)
Wives and/as Debt: Women’s Lived Dissent in the Eighteenth Century
COMMENT: Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
007. Sonic Lives of Debt
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Alexandra Theresa Vazquez, Princeton University (NJ)
Ray Allen, City University of New York, Brooklyn College (NY)
Holy Ground: Woody Guthrie’s Unsung Lyrics
Elliott H. Powell, New York University (NY)
Sampling among the Margins: Hip Hop, Indian Film Music, and the Sonic Life of Debt
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, University of California, Berkeley (CA)
Sound Nation Empire: Emory Cook’s “Sounds of Our Times”
Mark Krasovic, Rutgers University, Newark (NJ)
Steve Reich’s “Come Out” and the Sound of Evidence in the Long Hot Summers
COMMENT: Alexandra Theresa Vazquez, Princeton University (NJ)
014. Televising Multiculturalism and its Discontents
Washington Hilton, Georgetown East (C)
CHAIR: Sharon M. Leon, George Mason University (VA)
Allison McCracken, DePaul University (IL)
Blind Auditions and Vocal Politics: Enacting and Exposing Vocal Essentialism on NBC’s The Voice
Janani Subramanian, Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IN)
Mindy Kaling and Television Multiculturalism
Gregory Zinman, Georgia Institute of Technology (GA)
Nam June Paik and the Aesthetics of Interventionist Media
COMMENT: Sharon M. Leon, George Mason University (VA)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
019. Nineteenth-Century Public Lecturing, New Media, and Technologies of Orality
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Thomas Augst, New York University (NY)
Carolyn Eastman, Virginia Commonwealth University (VA)
Speechless: America’s First Celebrity Orator and the Origins of Nineteenth-Century Platform Culture
Granville Ganter, Saint John’s University (NY)
Anne Laura Clarke, Lecturer on History, 1822–1835
Tom F. Wright, University of Sussex (United Kingdom)
How Silence Spoke for Lucy Parsons
COMMENT: Thomas Augst, New York University (NY)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
048. Song, Screen, Stomach: Cultural Debt and Transnational Italian Americanism
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Grace Hale, University of Virginia (VA)
Joseph Sciorra, City University of New York, Queens College (NY)
“Core ‘ngrato,” a Wop Song: Mediated Renderings and Diasporic Musings
Benjamin Cawthra, California State University, Fullerton (CA)
Under the Volcano: Gordon Parks, the Bergman-Rossellini Romance, and Postwar U.S.-Italian Relations
John Gennari, University of Vermont (VT)
The Knife and the Bread, the Brutal and the Sacred: Family Trauma and Retaliatory Gastronomy in Louise DeSalvo’sCrazy in the Kitchen
COMMENT: Grace Hale, University of Virginia (VA)
050. American Studies Journal: Chocolate Spaceship: Gender Politics and Afro-Futurism in Funk
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas (KS)
Tammy Kernodle, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
Deconstructing the Groove: Meshell Ndegeocello and the Politics of Funk in Post–Civil Rights America
Francesca T. Royster, DePaul University (IL)
Labelle: Funk, Afrofuturism, Feminism and the Politics of Flight and Fight
Scot Brown, University of California, Los Angeles (CA)
Roger Troutman and Blues Afrofuturism
COMMENT: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas (KS)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
077. Transpacific Dissent
Washington Hilton, Monroe (C)
CHAIR: Yu-Fang Cho, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
Chris Suh, Stanford University (CA)
Beyond the Logic of International Indemnity: How an American-educated Korean Became an Anti-American Leader
Fritz Schenker, University of Wisconsin, Madison (WI)
Imperial Producers: Filipino Jazz Musicians in 1920s Colonial Asia
Elizabeth Son, Northwestern University (IL)
Monuments of Dissent: Transpacific Memorializations of Sexual Slavery and Social Justice Struggles
Jennifer Sun Kwak, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Spam, Sex Work, and U.S. Militarism: Consumption and Conscriptions of Empire in Nora Okja Keller’s Fox Girl
COMMENT: Yu-Fang Cho, Miami University of Ohio (OH)
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2013
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
144. Caucus – Sound Studies: Sampling Phonographies: Sonic Memory and the Long History of Sampling
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
Gustavus Stadler, Haverford College in Pennsylvania (PA)
Charles Chesnutt, Sonic Memory, and Racial Terror
Alexander William Corey, University of Colorado, Boulder (CO)
Collaborative Sampling: The John Coltrane Quartet’s Favorite Thing
Meghan Drury, George Washington University (DC)
Across Time and Space: Hearing Sun Ra’s Egypt
Jack Hamilton, Harvard University (MA)
Making Beats, Making Wakes: Loss, Memory, and Style in the Music of RZA and DJ Premier
COMMENT: Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas (KS)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
160. Caucus – Sound Studies: Musical Debts: Appropriations, Reparations, or New Traditions?
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Barry Shank, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Kirstie Dorr, University of California, San Diego (CA)
Sumanth Gopinath, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (MN)
Roshanak Kheshti, University of California, San Diego (CA)
COMMENT: Jonathan Sterne, McGill University (Canada)
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2013
8:00 am – 9:45 am
180. Caucus – Early America Matters: Commons Democracy
Washington Hilton, F1 – Fairchild West (T)
CHAIR: Dana Nelson, Vanderbilt University (TN)
Joanna Brooks, San Diego State University (CA)
Why We Left: Archives of Common Memory, Martial Power, and Peasant-Class Anglo-American Communities
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Northeastern University (MA)
Performative Commons in the Atlantic World
Melissah Pawlikowski, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Endeavors for The Common Good: The Communitarian Foundation of Frontier Republicanism and the Populist Push West
COMMENT: Dana Nelson, Vanderbilt University (TN)
181. Repudiating Debt Across the Americas: Latinidades, Embodied Performance, and the Archive as Site of Contestation
Washington Hilton, F2 – Fairchild East (T)
CHAIR: Ernesto Javier Martínez, University of Oregon (OR)
Magdalena Barrera, San Jose State University (CA)
Refusing Pedagogical Debts: Mexican Women in the Verbal and Visual Archives of Americanization
Laura G. Gutiérrez, University of Arizona (AZ)
Sell Your Love Steep: Prostitution, Indebtedness, and other Transnational Transactions in Rumbera Iconography
Marisol Negron, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Tributo a “El Cantante”: The Making and Unmaking of Héctor LaVoe’s Abjection
Micaela Díaz-Sánchez, Mount Holyoke College (MA)
From the Page to the Stage and Screen: Queer Chicana Cultural Production, Spectatorship, and Community
COMMENT: Ernesto Javier Martínez, University of Oregon (OR)
193. American Studies Journal: Groove Theory: Funk, Feminism, and Afro-Beat
Washington Hilton, Monroe (C)
CHAIR: Deborah Whaley, University of Iowa (IA)
Nikki A. Greene, Wellesley College (MA)
Don’t Call Her No Tramp: The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis and Renée Stout
Tony Bolden, University of Kansas (KS)
Groove Theory: A Vamp on the Epistemology of Funk
Alex Stewart, University of Vermont (VT)
Funky Drummer: Fela Kuti, James Brown, and the Invention of Afrobeat
COMMENT: Deborah Whaley, University of Iowa (IA)
12:00 pm – 1:45 pm
222. ASA Artist in Residence Ricardo Dominguez: Disturbance Research Lab: Digital Disobedience (Practicum)
Washington Hilton, International Ballroom West (C)
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
246. ASA Women’s Committee: Critical Conjunctures of Debt: Women of Color, Healthcare Disparities, and Advocacy
Washington Hilton, Jefferson West (C)
CHAIR: Alondra Nelson, Columbia University (NY)
Shirley Tang, University of Massachusetts, Boston (MA)
Invisible Debt: Digitizing and Voicing The Health Disparities and Experiences of Asian American Women
Jacki Rand, University of Iowa (IA)
Native Dissent and Debts of Imperialism: Choctaw Women, Violence, and Health Disparity in the Southeast
Koritha Mitchell, Ohio State University, Columbus (OH)
Pay Yourself First and Pay it Forward: The Black Girls RUN! Project
COMMENT: Alondra Nelson, Columbia University (NY)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
258. Caucus – Sound Studies: Connected Listening: Re-imagining Community Through Sound
Washington Hilton, Columbia Hall 9 (T)
CHAIR: Michelle Habell-Pallan, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
Jessica Schwartz, Columbia University (NY)
No Longer Can I Stay, It’s True: The Politics of Hearing Harmony in Marshallese “Free Association” Diaspora
Kevin Fellezs, Columbia University (NY)
You Listen But Don’t Ask Question: Listening for the Sounds of Hawaiian-ness
Eric Porter, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
Bill Dixon’s Voice
COMMENT: Michelle Habell-Pallan, University of Washington, Seattle (WA)
263. Sonic Ledgers of Dissent
Washington Hilton, Jefferson West (C)
CHAIR: Deborah R. Vargas, University of California, Riverside (CA)
Andreana Clay, San Francisco State University (CA)
Searching for Caushun: Homo Thuggery and the Search for Queer Black Masculinity
Gaye Theresa Johnson, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
The Future has a Past: Spatial Entitlement, Race, and Cultural Expression in Black and Brown Los Angeles, 1940–Present
Sherrie Tucker, University of Kansas (KS)
Following the State on the Dance Floor of the Nation: The FBI at the Hollywood Canteen
Shana Redmond, University of Southern California (CA)
All Around the World, Same Song: The Trials of Black Musical Genre and Racial Solidarity in the Twentieth Century
COMMENT: Herman Gray, University of California, Santa Cruz (CA)
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2013
8:00 am – 9:45 am
288. Folklorization on the National Mall: Representations of Culture through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Washington Hilton, Georgetown West (C)
CHAIR: William S. Walker, State University of New York, College at Oneonta (NY)
Virginia Myhaver, Boston University (MA)
Institutionalizing the Folk: Emergent Neo-Liberalism and the Mixed Legacy of the Bicentennial Folklife Festival
Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg, Emory University (GA)
Participation on Folklore’s Terms: Sacred Harp Singing at the 1970 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife
Olivia Cadaval, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
Negotiating Cultural Representations through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Diana Baird N’Diaye, Smithsonian Institution (DC)
Curating Crucial Conversations about Twenty-first-Century African American Diversity at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
COMMENT: William S. Walker, State University of New York, College at Oneonta (NY)
10:00 am – 11:45 am
300. Latinas/os Onscreen and On/Off Air: Rethinking Contemporary Media Audiences and Discourses
Washington Hilton, D – Du Pont (T)
CHAIR: Mari Castañeda, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
Jillian Báez, City University of New York, College of Staten Island (NY)
Losing Weight, Balancing, and Aging: Intergenerational Readings of the Mediated Latina Body
Dolores Inés Casillas, University of California, Santa Barbara (CA)
Lost in Translation: The Politics of Spanish-language Radio Ratings
María Elena Cepeda, Williams College (MA)
Latinidad as Transnational Marketing Construct and Performative Category: Latina/o Youth Interpret Los Tigres del Norte and Calle 13′s “América”
Hannah Noel, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI)
Imagining NPR’s National Publics: Latinas/os and Neoliberal Models of Social Regulation
COMMENT: Mari Castañeda, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (MA)
When I heard of people flocking to recreate “Gatsby Dress” costumes for Halloween 2013, I couldn’t help but ponder the seemingly-perpetual cultural allure of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, particularly its latest cinematic incarnation in spectacular Baz Luhrmann-style. More than a little of the momentum of the recent revival, however, had everything to do with the film’s soundtrack–executive produced by Jay-Z (who also executive produced the film)–that drew heavily on hip-hop. This sonic move was not without controversy, however, sparking intense debate when the film was released in May 2013. Take this line from Vice Magazine’s UK music blog Noisey (from a post snarkily entitled “Who Let The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Happen?”) that describes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, from which many of the film’s songs are taken, as “a record that couldn’t be further removed from West Egg than a pauper trying to gain access to a Gatsby soiree.” This statement reveals more about this particular listener than it does about either the record or the film, which are intimately connected through the labor of Jay-Z and what I theorize here as a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism.”
I’ll admit that when I was first hip to The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, I thought it was boring and couldn’t stand Tom or Daisy Buchanan or their rich white folk problems. I rooted for Jay Gatsby but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was so sprung over Daisy, who wanted her daughter to be a “beautiful little fool” (17). But as I got older, I found myself returning to the novel time and time again, coming back to Gatsby like a forlorn lover and reconsidering what Jay Gatsby’s character represents: unrequited love, American idealism, (capitalistic) hustle, and (white) masculine performance. However, I’ve always been part of the camp that secretly hoped Gatsby was a black man passing for white, yearning for a life – and a woman – out of his grasp no matter how much “new money” he acquired.
It was not until Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby that I realized how hip (hop) Gatsby really could be.
Luhrmann’s modernization of classic literary texts is not new; Romeo + Juliet (1996) got me through high school readings of Shakespeare’s play in ways Sparknotes could not. While Shakespeare’s words remained intact, the scenery and aura of the play burst to life on the big screen. Luhrmann uses in that film sonic cues of contemporary (youth) popular culture to make Shakespeare’s characters relatable. Verona is a hip, urban hub of violence that vibrates to grunge and pop artists such as Garbage, Everclear, and Quindon Tarver instead of mandolins and harps. The grittiness of grunge rock signifies the grittiness of Verona street life while Quindon Tarver’s angelic voice signifies the innocence and vulnerability of (first) love.
But Luhrmann’s Gatsby takes it up a notch, looking to hip hop culture as a bridge between the roar of the 1920s and the noise of the present. Aside from the literal presence of hip hop sound – mostly snippets from Jay-Z and West’s Watch the Throne – the materiality of hip hop sound also serves to update the Gatsby narrative. Consider how Gatsby’s parties are loud and bass-filled with a live jazz band. The loudness of the party and “surround sound” stereo sound of the film amplifies the vibrancy of the Jazz era while drawing in the audience with a contemporary interpretation of live parties seen and heard in contemporary hip hop culture. “The question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience?” Luhrmann told Rolling Stone. “And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”
The film itself is stunning: vividly colored with panoramas and ground shots of New York City, Luhrmann’s film draws in an audience possibly unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s novel. The film utilizes the more traditional jazz aesthetic that captures the novel’s initial element, but invokes hip hop to span a generational divide and update the (black) cool factor of the film. Indeed, both jazz and hip hop best signify black cool and its commodification into mainstream white America. For example, Norman Mailer’s discussion of the white hipster and Jazz aficionado as a “white Negro” is also tantalizingly useful in thinking of Gatsby as a black man passing for white. His affinity for Jazz and throwing jazzy parties incites the probability of Gatsby’s racial and social background. The film uses sound to create a hybrid of timeless black cool, while highlighting the presence of African Americans’ contributions to American culture. Hip hop’s birthplace and the portal for many immigrants into America, New York is arguably America’s most mythological city, grounded in both white and African American culture memory as such. Jay-Z’s own mythic rise to fame, wealth, and power in New York City–exemplified in some lines from 2009′s “Empire State of Mind,” “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/ Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever/ I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere”– grounds the film’s rags-to-riches mystique.
In addition to such extradiegetic associations, the film’s soundscape itself enthralls, with brassy, lively instrumented notes of jazz – which carried the sonic narrative of the 1920s – sounds of the hustle and bustle of urban spaces, particularly New York City, and hip hop. The film’s soundscape presents a hybrid of sonic black identities – jazz and hip hop – and uses their blended aesthetics to speak to the continued framework of black popular culture as a gauge of Americanism. In other words, the marginalized perspective is used to decide whether or not something is authentically American or not.
Hip hop aesthetics bridge old New York with the current New York as a foundation of Americanness. Gatsby bridges the old adage of New York as a space of opportunity with the familiar New York adage that Harlem-born and Mt.-Vernon-raised P. Diddy drops in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,”a call back to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that is also echoed by Jay-Z that forms a foundational trope of the film and the novel. A particular striking example of the merging of these adages is a scene in the novel where Nick and Gatsby are on their way to the city. They pass a car with black passengers and a white chauffeur:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “Anything at all” (69).
While the novel does not describe a sonic accompaniment to Carraway’s observation of the black folks in the limousine, there is an inherent understanding of the “modish” fashion of the black folks as jazzy, as cool. In the film, there is an audible sound associated with the black folks. They are sipping champagne and listening to Watch the Throne. Although visibly symbolic of the 1920s – dressed in zoot suits and flapper dresses – the aural blackness associated with the scene suggests a merger of jazz and hip hop cool and cosmopolitanism.
In order to understand how hip hop updates the struggle for realness, entitlement, and respectability in the Gatsby film, it is important to return to the major sonic influence of the literal hip hop sound in the film: Jay-Z and Watch the Throne. Jay-Z’s work on the album raises questions of how hip hop culture impacts not only the American dream but the aspirations of mogul-dom seen and heard in the film and novel. Christopher Holmes Smith’s discussion of hip hop moguls in Social Text (Winter 2003) is particularly useful in teasing out the implications behind the hip hop mogul and such figures’ social-cultural responsibility to their respective communities. Holmes Smith argues:
The hip-hop mogul bears the stamp of American tradition, since the figure is typically male, entrepreneurial, and prestigious both in cultural influence and wealth. The hip-hop mogul is an icon, therefore, of mainstream power and consequently occupies a position of inclusion within many of the nation’s elite social networks and cosmopolitan cultural formations (69).
Jay-Z’s status as a hip hop mogul – serving both as a creative talent and corporate backer – lends credence to thinking about hip hop as a space of entitlement and a site of struggle to attain that entitlement. It is from this perspective that I think of Gatsby as a hip hop figure/mogul: his working class background, hyper-performance of white privilege, materialistic pursuit of wealth for visibility, and desperate need for approval as “authentic.” To borrow from rapper Drake, Gatsby “just wanna be successful.”
Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of Jay-Z as a hip hop cosmopolitan figure in Looking for Leroy (2013) further enables an understanding of how Jay-Z lends his (sonic) hip hop cosmopolitanism to sonically navigate between hip hop’s working class aesthetics and his own sense of entitlement because of the way he mobilized those working class experiences to become wealthy. While the film does have performances by artists who are not considered hip hop – i.e. Lana Del Rey, Jack White, and Florence+the Machine – Jay-Z’s use of his own raps, including tracks from the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne suggests a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism” complements any sense of the film as a case study of white entitlement. Tracks like “100$ bill,” “No Church in the Wild,” and “Who Can Stop Me” both prop up and tear down Luhrmann’s visual rendition of Fitzgerald’s critique of the uppercrust of America as corruptibly entitled.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an intriguing and useful tool through which to analyze the (in)consistencies of race and cultural authenticity in the United States. Both jazz and hip hop exist in the interstitial spaces that lie between black cultural expression and white entitlement to those expressions. Luhrmann uses hip hop’s sonic and cultural aesthetics to pump up the capitalistic and all-American narrative of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative in Gatsby by also declaring, “get yours by any means necessary.”
Featured Image adapted from Flickr User kata rokkar
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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“The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Soundtrack of Desire“– Marcia Dawkins
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2013 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. Once again, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO! regular Regina Bradley, questioning how American racial ideologies impact listening as a cultural, embodied act. Listen carefully, because we will be following Regina’s post with a special Sounding Out! Comment Klatsch on Wednesday, July 3rd that considers the consequences of racialized refusals to listen. What are the consequences of a listening that is interrupted? distorted? denied? perpetually deferred?—Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Rachel Jeantel gave me life with a curt “that’s real retarded, sir.” Responding to George Zimmerman’s attorney Don West’s suggestion that Trayvon Martin pursued and wanted to hurt Zimmerman, Jeantel undoubtedly lifted many eyebrows and possibly a few “hell naws” under the breaths of those watching her testify. Her response to West regarding his lack of understanding can be extended to assess the firestorm of controversy surrounding her testimony: questions of her literacy as oppositional to the prosecution’s hopes of conviction, surprise at her brashness and demonstrative gestures of irritation, and, worst of all, judgments about the literal and figurative fullness of her girlhood/womanhood and chocolate skin as signs to ring the alarm as grounds for dismissing justice for Trayvon Martin. Because her testimony operated outside of normal constructs of witness etiquette and respectability, it was greeted with a hailstorm of controversy paralleling the rawness of responses to scripted reality shows. The shallowness of “critique” of Jeantel—whom, it must be continually repeated, is not on trial—was disgusting.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, because if you were really listening to Rachel Jeantel, SHE told you. Jeantel’s delivery was particularly striking, offering her audience low timbred and often emphatic quips of “what?!” and “you ain’t get that from me” to indicate her irritation and frustration with West. Jeantel’s refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom – the epitome of a hyper-respectable space – destabilizes not only racial paradigms of black (southern) respectability but Americanized expectations of black women’s scripts of respectability. As Brittney Cooper points out, “Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages – Haitian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish and English – that she speaks.” Her people ain’t from hea and because of her upbringing can’t be categorized like other black girls from hea. In this sense, Rachel Jeantel is ratchet.
As I previously define in an analysis of Beyonce’s “Bow Down,” [sonic] ratchetness is a means of navigating sliding representations of respectability within American popular culture. Jeantel’s testimony, however, thinly treads between ratchetness as performative discourse and lived experience. Her reference to the television show The First 48, during a line of questioning regarding how she knew the police would contact her, for example, signified to some that Jeantel was oblivious to the judicial process.
Upon closer examination, however, The First 48 is a touchstone in understanding her negotiation of the criminal justice system as a series of steps/performances surrounding the policing of black bodies from her native Miami (which, it seems, is always on the show). It provides a widely acknowledged– and commodified – representation of black trauma in relation to the U.S. justice system. Jeantel’s ratchetness, then, is a tragicomedic site of cultural and gendered trauma accessible to the national public. Her personal loss of a close friend is overshadowed by her performance of that grief in a space of hyper-respectability. Her emotionally charged question “are you listening?” jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?
Jeantel’s performance of ratchetness both pointed out and disrupted America’s racialized and gendered listening practices. I’d like to suggest her two-fold performance of ratchetness – sonic and cultural, imposed and embodied –presented ratchetness outside of a strictly pop culture lens. Instead, Jeantel’s performance and lived experiences present ratchetness as an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.
The lightning-speed meme-ification of Jeantel invoked flatter, more familiarized representations of ratchet. Because of our inability to translate Jeantel’s grief as “respectable,” she bore the brunt of public scorn and attempts of humiliation. The idea that Jeantel signifies a real life Precious, for example—the main character of Lee Daniel’s Oscar-nominated 2009 film adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, played by Gabourey Sidibe—demonstrates increasingly blurred lines between black women’s performative and lived experiences. It should be noted that Sidibe herself was frequently attacked in the press and on the Internet, to the point where she told her co-star Mo’nique in Interview Magazine, “I try to stay off the Internet. Just because people hurt my feelings sometimes. . .a lot of people commented that I’m an incredible actress. But other opinions weren’t so nice, physically or whatever.” Jeantel-as-Precious inadvertently suggests Jeantel’s ratchetness is grounded in the sense that she is plus-sized, dark, “illiterate,” and from a working class background. Precious-as-Sidibe becomes the medium through which Jeantel’s (il)legible womanhood is comprehensive.
Further, meme-ing Jeantel as Precious solidifies her working class background and ultimately her testimony as a threat to Trayvon Martin’s (re)deemed middle class respectability as a portal of victimization. Returning to Cooper’s observations of Jeantel’s use of hybrid-linguistics, it is Jeantel’s sonic delivery that most threatens Martin’s perceived and scripted middle class respectability. Jeantel’s use of so-called “broken” English has overwhelmingly been heard by what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls America’s dominant “listening ear” in “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in Blackboard Jungle” as a marker of her working class background – not her trilingual background – and thus, it sonically aligns Martin with the black working class and voids prospects of him being considered a victim of violence rather than its perpetrator. Don West’s treatment of Jeantel on the witness stand attempted to impose a parallel between Jeantel’s alleged “illiteracy” and Martin’s criminality. The “crime” of illiteracy within the courtroom and supposed “crime” of Martin beating Zimmerman into shooting him co-exist within a policed space of (white) respectability that black bodies are frequently forced to adhere.
Jeantel retaliated against West’s attempts to back her into this tight space, however, with her emphatic use of “sir.” Jeantel’s brilliantly subversive tactic demonstrates ratchety resistance because it provides a subtle inversion of the white supremacist discourse directed towards her. Her use of “sir” reminded me of the unnamed protagonist’s grandfather at the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who on his deathbed commanded his family to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth:” “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Indeed, Jeantel busted “the lion’s mouth” wide open vis-à-vis a hybridized slang and an emphatic “yes sir” or “no sir.” Most importantly, Jeantel sustained her dignity and self-respect in the process. Jeantel’s mastery of a low, monotone “sir” signifies her existence outside of the politics of respectability that frame not only black women’s experiences but blacks’ submission to white supremacy.
Where West and others focused on her facial features or even her delivery of “sir” as a sign of (dis)respect, what was lost upon many was how her aurally subversive delivery of arguably the most hyper-respectable word in (American) English kept her in command of her testimony.
Rachel Jeantel is ratchety brilliance. She witnessed, performed, and sounded her truths in ways that complicated if not contradicted the normative discourse policing black women’s bodies. Although much of her cunning was shortsightedly heard as uncouth and aural evidence of a lack of (middle class) home training, Jeantel signifies the usefulness of ratchet as a form of resistance to the white privilege that dictates respectable spaces like the U.S. courtroom. Sir.
R.N. Bradley recently graduated with a PhD in African American Literature at Florida State University and is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death–Regina Bradley
The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?-Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman