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

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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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 — Suzanne E. Smith

 

SO! Amplifies: Josh Shepperd on the Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress (from FlowTV)

Shepperd-RPTS-icon-350x350

 

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Thank you to Josh Sheppard and FlowTV for permission to reprint this excellent call to action. 

Primary Sources, Primary Sounds: The Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress

Sound history is cultural history. And a giant part of our history has yet to be preserved, researched, or taught in our classrooms. Our omissions are disproportionately distributed among the local and the liminal, the pastoral and the public, and marginalized and minority experiences. Sound trails continue where paper trails end, and we have an opportunity to provide new insight into the cultural history of the U.S. thanks to recent innovations in sound preservation technology. The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is a growing 125-faculty member and 275-archive Digital Humanities initiative working to broaden the historical record by unearthing, mapping, and making available materials that that chronicle experiences neglected in existing historical accounts, such as minority, political, orientation, social advocacy, and educational groups. Perspectives and events that have remained unaddressed by the primary document record will receive new recognition by focusing preservation on the conversational and community building character of noncommercial and local radio history.

Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago

Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago

A historical marvel of nation-building, serialization, and aesthetic innovation, radio has also been utilized for multiple purposes beyond entertainment: from education, to a technology of opinion-formation, to a medium for political problem-solving. Much of the early history of the ether consists of distance learning broadcasts, public forums, and civic debates, and in addition to local theatrical and drive time programming the task force is concerned with making these important historical records accessible for the first time. To frame the project in historiographical terms, the RPTF is approaching radio history as a study of what the Birmingham school might call the genealogy of how strategies for circulation of discursive codes, as representations, became central to an expanded concept of the public sphere that included popular culture. If we accept the historiographical argument that content representations are also implementations of discursive, political, and industrial strategies, then radio might be viewed as a medium in which institutional and intellectual projects endeavored to communicate with and persuade community members about a specific perspective or initiative. In this way, radio history has the capacity to reveal the development and dissemination of cultural aspirations and viewpoints, and its consequent archive can be understood as a series of concurrent media advocacies that sought to define conditions of social attunement.

[Reblogged from FlowTV, to continue reading Josh on the RPTF, please click here.]

RPTF Logo, courtesy of the author; designed by artist Daniel Murphy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies.  He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.

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SO! Reads: Daniela Cascella’s F.M.R.L. (Finding Materials for Remembering and Listening)

"The Meaning of It All" by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

SO! Reads3

***

Before I read F.M.R.L., I didn’t know Daniela Cascella or her work. I hadn’t read her first book or her blog or her Tweets; I hadn’t seen any exhibits she had curated or attended a reading. Instead, the words in her book introduced us.

Here’s how she was introduced, here in this exploration of how sound and writing intertwine:

  • A wanderer, traveling the globe to meet friends, attend conferences, read books (and more books, and more books)
  • An archivist, saving physical and digital boxes of sounds and words and quotes, all blended with her own notes and ideas
  • A listener, noticing the sounds of words as much as their meanings
  • A cave-explorer, digging ever deeper through layers of earth to find echoes of what has been buried—which is another way to say a wanderer, an archivist, a listener

How odd to meet someone through words alone, not knowing what she sounds like, what she would say if we met.

***

“you know you’re a Mac user when…” by Flickr user Nick Normal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve never told anyone this: I sometimes imagine descendants and friends sifting through my digital archives after I die, meeting me through my words and my collections.

“Collections” is too organized of a word, really. I save files, sometimes in clearly named folders, but just as often not: pdfs, docs, txts, sometimes containing my own words and sometimes others’. On 3.5” floppies, CDs, DVDs, in the cloud. Poems, essays, quotations, scans—I don’t even know what these people from the future might find, how these archives would introduce me to them.

Once, my first year in college, a girl I liked called me to complain about her boyfriend, and her words were so layered with meaning that I opened up a window of Word and started typing her words, verbatim. She was going fast, though, so when I got behind, I just hit enter and kept going. She must have heard the keyboard clicking, but she never said anything.

I haven’t read that file for years, but it must be somewhere in the cave of my collections.

***

png;base6445b4d03606ce2862A colleague sees Cascella’s F.M.R.L. on my desk. His face scrunches as he tries to make sense of the letters on the cover.

“It’s a book I’m reviewing,” I offer.

“No, it’s just. . . .” He reads the subtitle. “I thought it was a play on the phrase FML or something.”

I know how he feels. Every time I see the book sitting there, new words and letters come to mind. I eventually heard it as ephemeral, but always after others:

Formerly. Fame, really. Female roll. F my real life. FM Radio, Live!

Here’s what it actually says on the cover: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound. When my colleague sees that subtitle, he experiences the tiny pleasure of “getting it,” of seeing what the letters “really” stand for, of feeling like these words now make sense in the way they were supposed to.

But inside the book, you quickly learn that in 1926, Louis Aragon also re-voiced ephemeral as F.M.R.L., but the letters stood for something different to him: frenzy, madness, reverie, love.

Cascella takes it further: the next page lists the other things that F.M.R.L. could stand for: footnotes, false starts, frenzy, and so on, each list of words ending in delightful ellipses, which seem to say, “And what does this F mean to you?”

“The Letter F for Flickr and Friends” by Flickr user Denise Womack-Avila, CC BY-NC 2.0

***

From Cascella’s blog: “The title is ‘F.M.R.L.': not ‘Ephemeral’. I chose this title because of its ambiguity and because it calls to be sounded. I chose it to draw the attention toward language as material; to stay away from any literal understanding of sound as ephemeral, as if unworthy of attention; and to prompt other departures from and into words and letters.”

***

A note I wrote in the margin: “So much of this book is an explanation of this book.”

Consider:

“I have a habit with listening. It makes me write even when I don’t now [sic?] what to say. . .” (9). Do you hear? she seems to say. I’m writing, and you’re listening in, but I’m not sure what it will mean to you, or to me. That’s how sound works.

“Each cluster of words is not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. I don’t want to explain them, but rearrange them and hand them over to you before they expire” (118). Do you hear? she continues. Will you listen? Can’t you make meanings without my explanations?

“SOUND: You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean” (2).

That last is from the dialogue that opens the book: SOUND and WRITER are “walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite” as they try to figure each other out. Or, really, as Writer tries to figure out Sound, trying to grasp and understand and explain. Sound seems ok living in the moment, singing.

As I read the rest of the book, I kept remembering that tension between writing and sound. It’s infused in the pages of the book like strong tea.

And I kept thinking of myself, as a writer and teacher of writing who is also a listener and a maker of sounds. I’m dedicated to writing and sounds, both. Maybe Cascella’s solution is the best: to love words, to read and memorize and archive them, but to never stop at what they signify, to always attend to the sounds they suggest as well, the puns of meaning hidden throughout all languages.

***

By writing about this book, I feel I’m writing against some of its core ideas.

Writing about is so descriptive, explaining, clarifying, cleaning up, setting the table for dinner because something important is going to happen soon, so wash your hands. When I write about, I take notes in the margins, but not the kind of notes where I exclaim in wonder or shock, or record my emotional reactions. Instead, when I’m in writing about mode, I jot marginal notes that summarize, explain, organize, keep track of everything.

An example: here’s a list of the page numbers where I noticed Cascella using the word ephemeral:

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Ah, now I have some ownership over this book. Ah, now I am on my way to understanding it.

This is how I feel when reading/annotating poetry: a little embarrassed when I annotate only to explain and clarify, but pleasantly engaged when I annotate my gut reactions, often written in exclamation points or question marks or stars, doubled or tripled when I really mean it.

***

This is a book that asks to be read all in one sitting, even though that’s impossible.

At least it’s impossible for me. Cascella’s soundings (which seems like a better word than writings) are thick with images and quotations and sudden jumps, which seems to suggest a slow attitude, like reading a poem or two a day instead of powering through an entire book as if it were a long sandwich.

But the echoes (and this is very much a book about echoes, and caverns, and geological layers) threaten to disappear from memory if you wait too long to read the next chapter. My longer reading sessions were always rewarded with subtle connections: a circle, an incantation that I’m sure she mentioned just a few pages back, hold on while I find it.

So maybe the best solution is to read it once quickly, attending to the echoes, and then again slowly, attending to the layers. It’s like watching Twin Peaks, like exploring a museum.

“The Lion Man” by Flickr user storebukkebruse, CC BY 2.0

An example: in the final section of the book, she describes The Lion Man, a 40,000-year old sculpture. “I cannot even figure the meaning of 40,000 years ago,” she writes (113). I pause, look up, and bite the end of my pen. I’ve heard these lines before, I realize. Did I read ahead, when I first got the book in the mail? Or did I read about The Lion Man online somewhere, maybe when Thomas Rickert is discussing the Lascaux paintings in his book Ambient Rhetoric? Was I thinking about it when singing R.E.M.’s “Texarkana” the other day in the shower, how the numbers in that song grow from 20,000 to 30,000 to 40,000?

But then, later, I skim through my marginalia and realize I was wrong: Cascella herself told this story, back on page 14, using the same words.

I’m tempted to explain to you the effect of this verbal echo, from sculpture to exhibit to Cascella’s archival notes to Cascella’s book, written in two different places. But right now, I have page 15 open, held down under my arms as I type, and there’s a sentence there that I double-starred, and to me, double-stars are rare and important. I starred: “Perhaps their [ancient art objects’] final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (15).

So I’ll hold off my explaining, my desire to clarify. But I’ll add another echo from Cascella: toward the end of the book, she writes the same sentence—”Perhaps their final appeal is for us to cease to aim at being clear and distinct” (120)—but this time, the pronoun their is describing sounds, bottled up and kept in the room of an enchanted child. On this page, I once again double-starred the line, even though I had forgotten that I had read those words before in this book. They affected me the way sounds affect me, with the slam and the flood of standing in the ocean, which then pulls back before repeating the same slam and the same flood.

***

“Lascaux II – Hall of the Bulls” by Flickr user Adibu456, CC BY-NC 2.0

“[W]e can compare the designed use of Lascaux as afforded by its spatial, acoustic, and material properties to musicians’ attempts to get a certain sound by recording in a specific environment.” —Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being

***

I recently taught Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying in a creative nonfiction class. I reread it on a plane ride to Florida and decided to write about my experience on the plane ride home. But when I opened my laptop, I found myself writing like Slater in little ways: invented scenes mixed into my nonfiction, insistent addresses to the reader (like “you have to believe me on this point”), sentences that drifted on, connected only by comma splices, there’s one there, they’re lovely sometimes, they were everywhere in my sentences.

What’s more, this echoing didn’t feel like a choice. Slater’s writing had become part of my internal archive, bubbling up unbidden.

***

Scholar of writing Peter Elbow emphasizes the importance of teaching students to trust their mouth and ears when making punctuation decisions. He admits that comma splices often feel right when you’re trusting the sound of your words, that there’s a connectedness you want with a comma that you don’t get with a pesky semicolon or period or even a lively dash.

“But,” he reminds us—and I hear some sad music in the background as I write this—”many teachers and readers who know the rules are unforgiving about run-ons.”

Do you see how Cascella is in my brain, connecting my mental archives with synthesizer cables? I can’t stop thinking about the rules of writing and the rules of sound, and how they might sound together if I just try plugging this here. . . .

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“Modular Synthesizer Desktop HDR” by Flickr user Peter Georges, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

In one of Cascella’s most fascinating chapters, she describes an experiment she performed on herself: “I learned by heart every week a paragraph from a new text that mentioned sounds, re-wrote it from memory the following week, and interpolated the missing parts with other words heard beside myself—an experiment in layered memory, as it corrodes and actualises my physical and emotional archives while I search for more voices: an echo cast into shape, to fold my enchantment with words round, and back dissolving, and again” (69).

She shares three examples, three “casts,” of these rewritings from memory. And I’ll be honest: when I first read this part of the book, I was excited at the idea of looking up the originals, of trying to catch exactly how much she did and didn’t remember—of reinscribing the authority of an ur-text, instead of allowing the echoes of the her-text envelope me.

So I looked one up. (I mean, Google Books.) And I compared. And I saw similarities and differences. Yep, there they were.

And out of nowhere, I felt ashamed. I felt like I was trying to break her experiment, her art, her practice. So I’ll leave it up to you: read her rewritings from memory—it’s chapter 11, I’ll wait while you find it—and decide for yourself if you want to know how much she changed or didn’t change from the “originals.” Decide for yourself how right/write or wrong it is to play with someone else’s texts. Decide for yourself if this is really how we do everything everyday anyway.

***

Slater’s Lying, the book I read on the plane, mixes truth and lies, a fact that aggravates some readers and enchants others. The thing is, she tells you exactly what she’s doing—I mean, the book is called Lying, and her first chapter, in its totality, is “I exaggerate.” Plenty of other obvious clues remind us that fact and fiction have been put in the blender of this book.

Cascella tells us what she’s doing, too. Eventually, you start to realize that explaining this book is one of the themes of the book—but no, explaining is the wrong word. More like inviting you to enjoy it the way she wants you to enjoy it.

Sometimes that invitation is rather direct: “I seek to reclaim the intermittent incoherence in listening as it urges to move through its residual presence into a marginated writing that is not a site of clarity but edge, horizon, fugue” (24). Bam. Pretty clear.

But often, she’s more invitational, writing in the second person, just to you: “Try and listen to them, one after the other, forget about genealogies and canons, listen to those vocal intertwinements and rhythmic mosaics” (30).

Then it’s back to her again, how she “want[s] words to follow the untidy movements in listening, to be mud and magma” (48), how she’s “drawn to listening to [sounds], to reinvent, recall and divine them in words” (68).

Her, you, her, you. Me. A swing, a dance, a recursive circle between telling and inviting.

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“Blah” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

“The moment I begin to write, sound is no longer sound” (39).

***

One reason Cascella writes this way: she’s frustratred with work on sound that ignores the affordances of sound. At sound art conferences, in discussions about sound art—they all seem to be so filled with words and explanations that she couldn’t help but explode words onto these pages in a different mode, like she does in this book.

“[C]oming back from yet another conference on sound,” she writes, “I would feel like I no longer knew how to speak, listen or write” (23). She’s tired of artists who make complex work but then use “trite and worn-out expressions that say no more” when describing it (55), “where sound becomes an apology” (108).

So this book uses sounds, and there’s no accompanying apology. Sorry.

***

I’m sitting outside at an academic conference for scholars in rhetoric and composition. I’ve seen some boundary-breaking stuff today, but I want more.

“I mean, sometimes I don’t want to have to tell the audience everything,” I say. I’m at a table with friends. We’re in Florida, so we’re drinking obscenely bright cocktails. “I want to throw ideas and sounds at them and let them connect the dots. These are smart people, right?”

Paul nods and pauses before speaking. We just met, so I think he’s trying to give good advice in as gentle a way as he can. “Yes. They’re smart. But there’s obviously a line, too, right? If you’re creating scholarship, you have to make moves that signal that you’re part of that community, that conversation. Otherwise, you’re making. . . .”

“You’re making art. Right?”

“Right. And art is important, and I agree that we need more artistic sensibilities in our field. But it’s not scholarship.” He pauses. “You have to play the game, too.”

I nod. I think he’s right. Sometimes, in some places, I need to play the game.

But not always. And in different fields, different modes of expression beyond the scholarly, the game is different, you can see it if you peek around the corner into other rooms. And if you break down walls, it’s all one big room. Which is exciting and terrifying and I want it all, all the ideas and methods and all the sounds.

“Sound six points” by Flickr user Sarah Barker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

***

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But still, you want the point. You want to know what this book will do for you, for your art, for your scholarship.

How can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

But ok. You’re not here to be moved. (Are you? I hope you are.) But if you’re not: what will propel your ideas, what will inspire your work after reading Cascella, what the take-aways are:

  • “Writing away from sound” as a different way to “write about sound” (44). That is, instead of explaining, to let the nature of sound itself inspire the kinds of work you do.
  • “Writing Sound” as an “encounter,” as “transcience” (54).
  • Acknowledging our archives and inviting them to the forefront of our writing, even when those encounters are messy or confusing.
  • Considering what we’re really doing in our art/theory/writing/sounding. Cascella says she’s not “a writer, a theorist, a critic” but “a handler of words, a listener, a reader” (90). Who are you? Who am I?

But how can I tell you anything at all, when all I know are sounds?

***

“I’m cut through by voices I don’t want to explain” (72).

Kyle D. Stedman is assistant professor of English at Rockford University, where he teaches first-year composition, digital rhetoric, and creative nonfiction. His work explores rhetorics of sound and music, intellectual property, and fandom. He tweets at @kstedman and hosts the podcast Plugs, Play, Pedagogy.

Featured image: “The Meaning of It All” by Flickr user Nick Webb, CC BY 2.0

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Machinic Ballads: Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox and the Categorization of Sound Culture

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100 Years of Lomax4

Today, SO! continues 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.

With Clement’s own article below, the series begins to rethink Lomax as a touchstone in current and continuing drives to collect, measure and compute sonic cultures, something that seems hot all of a sudden (see, for instance, coverage of recent digital analysis of trends in pop music at Queen Mary University of London). In her thoughtful, illuminating and inspiring article below, Clement challenges us to consider the politics behind these efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

— Special Editor Neil Verma

When the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization that Alan Lomax founded in 1983, announced the release of 17,000 music tracks from Lomax’s fieldwork collections, the New York Times heralded the release as a manifestation of Lomax’s Global Jukebox project, a computational experiment for accessing and studying his vast multimedia collection of the world’s culture. The Times piece likens Lomax’s project to Pandora, which allows the listener to search for music “like” music she has already found. Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed, also makes this comparison but modifies his description by proclaiming that unlike Pandora’s recommendations which are “based on personal taste” and “tend to lead sideways . . . to production style,” Lomax’s Global Jukebox idea held the potential to point a listener to “deeper principles of cultural and musical organization” (The Man Who Recorded the World 391).

Gobsmacked by whizbang possibilities, neither the Times nor Szwed discuss the deeper principles behind Lomax’s attempt to represent culture as a global search engine. In the context of the powerful work being accomplished in the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) community and my own project (HiPSTAS) to develop software for making sound collections searchable and accessible, In this article I will argue that how we build systems for searching and retrieving and browsing cultural artifacts as data is a profoundly political act. Recognizing such politics suggests that Lomax’s Global Jukebox project serves as a cautionary tale for how social and cultural contexts — or what Donna Haraway calls our “ways of being” — are reflected in the systems we develop.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image. John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

The Singer with the Song

The year that Alan Lomax was born (1915), his father John Alan Lomax published a landmark piece heralding seven new types of American ballads for study. American ballads, he argues “reveal the mode of thinking, the character of life, and the point of view, of the vigorous, red-blooded, restless Americans, who could no more live life contented shut in by four walls than could Beowulf and his clan, who sailed the seas around the coasts of Norway and Sweden” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 3). Unlike any other collection of ballads, John’s “American ballad” included the ballads of the miner, the lumbermen, the inland sailor, the soldier, the railroader, “the ballads of the negro; and the ballads of the cowboy . . . [and] the songs of the down-and-out classes, — the outcast girl, the dope fiend, the convict, the jail-bird, and the tramp” (3). Governed by a laudable goal to record the songs of folk cultures at the fringes of mainstream society, the senior Lomax’s view of the communities where he would collect his songs (including jails and state farms), was complex, and can fairly be called both progressive as well as racist (Porterfield 170).

John and Alan went on seven collecting trips together between 1934 and 1936 and co-authored five books on their return. On these trips, they collected songs from people on the street in cities like New Orleans and people in the country, from both church-goers and prisoners. While John held romanticized views of the “noble” southern black man, Alan, on the other hand, indicated a more nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent to his father’s attempt to generalize patterns of “folk” for study. Alan linked “the singer with the song” and was interested in the politics behind prisoners made to sing with guns at their backs and in the cultural lives of people that were so poor in means but so rich in “beautiful harmony, with enormous volume, with total affection” (Szwed 49). While Alan maintained that he was interested in the individual’s story, John believed that “a genuine ballad has no one author. It is therefore the expression of no one mind: it is the product of the folk . . . It might have been written by any one” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 1).

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see the full-size image.

John A. Lomax Collection in UT Folklore Center Archives, Small Multiples. Instrumental sections are in red, spoken sections are in green, and sung sections are in blue. Click to see a full-size version.

Taxonomies

The Global Jukebox project demonstrates an almost complete reversal in Alan’s concerns. The studies behind the Global Jukebox include Alan’s Cantometrics and Choreometrics, in which he produces taxonomies for studying song and dance and his Parlametrics project, an “experiment in metalinguistics,” which Alan and his collaborators describe as a taxonomy of “patterns of style” in speech based on dynamic changes in pitch, loudness, speed, spacing, rhythm, and timbre (“A stylistic analysis of speaking”). These taxonomies show that Alan’s early consideration for the individual performer gave way to a desire to make folk study more scientific as a cultural mapping like what his father espoused rather than what Szwed and others have seen as Alan’s concerns with the situated politics of individuals.

Alan’s Parlametric study serves as good example. Approaching delegates from the United Nations and soliciting mail-in samples from regions not covered by the U.N. volunteers, Alan and his team collected representative recordings of 114 languages. Then, in order to study the “generally neglected meta-communicational level” in these recordings, the team designed a rating system including 50 codes that (1) “described the distinctive features of each recording,” and (2) “tended to cluster the recordings into sets of similars” that Alan maintains anyone could “readily use” to record “salient differences in conversation style” (19). These clusters pointed to 14 factors that Alan and his team would use to categorize the cultures from which they received samples:

  1. Repetitiveness
  2. Timing
  3. Speech length
  4. Upglides
  5. Descending cadence
  6. Syllabification
  7. Drawl
  8. Empathy
  9. Space
  10. Dominance/Sharing
  11. Relaxed/Tense
  12. Noise
  13. Breathy
  14. Forceful

Using these factors, Alan makes some broad assertions. The association of clear syllabification” (the degree to which syllables run together) “is most strongly predicted among gardeners with domesticated animals” and “[t]he association of clear syllabification to feminine autonomy is suggested by the discovery that this mode of speaking predicts and is predicted by permissive rather than restrictive premarital sexual mores” (27). Further, “Dominance vs. Sharing of conversation space” is strongly correlated with settlement size and severity of sexual sanctions,” a statement that Alan immediately rationalizes by noting that “this relation between a more crowded social space, high sexual tension and increased rate of interaction seems to make good sense, even if it does not account for every possibility” (31).

These spurious and broad generalizations were what Lomax hoped to facilitate for all with his Global Jukebox as the access point for “the first numerical models of the full range of global cultural variation in holistic form” for “the scientist, the layman, and the student to explore, experience, and manipulate the broad universe of culture and creativity in a systematic fashion, with audio-visual illustrations at every turn of the road” (“The Global Jukebox,” 318). By leveraging his taxonomies of song, dance, and speech in the computer age, Alan could suddenly associate and differentiate cultures holistically and en masse.

A visualization of a song in ARLO

A visualization of a song in ARLO. Click to see a full-size version.

Machinic Methods / Humanistic Questions

As someone who works in the liminal spaces between the humanities and technology, between cultural studies and critique and the machines that increasingly function both as access points and barriers to our cultural artifacts, I see Alan’s switch to generalizable taxonomies as par for the course in the digital age. My own >HiPSTAS project’s primary objective is to develop a virtual research environment in which users can better access and analyze spoken word collections of interest to humanists. We understand that in order for us to search digital sound artifacts, we have to create taxonomies, metadata, keywords and other generalizable frameworks that facilitate discovery.

At the same time that we are using machinic methods, however, we can still ask humanistic questions that open up rather than close down debates and dialogues. In a recent test for the HiPSTAS project, for example, we used machine learning to analyze the recordings in the UT Folklore Center Archives, which comprises 219 hours of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax, Américo Paredes, and Owen Wilson, among others (UT Folklore Center Archives, ca. 1928-1981, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, Box 2.325/R). In our attempt to predict the presence of different sonic patterns including instrumental music, singing, and speech, the results of our analysis are noteworthy as the visualization shown in this brief movie demonstrates.


from Tanya Clement on Vimeo

Within the results, we see a visualization of how many seconds comprise each file (in blue) and how many of those seconds for each file our software has predicted the presence of instruments (green), speech (red), and song (purple). A subtle yet striking difference emerges in the comparison between the Lomax recordings (created 1926-1941), which are the oldest in the collection, and the others, which were created up until 1968. The Lomax recordings (primarily created by John Lomax) consistently contain the least amount of speech in comparison to what the other files contain.

Of course, there are a number of ways you can read these results. Given the conversation above, one could hypothesize that perhaps the Lomaxes were primarily interested in their participants’ songs rather than their stories. One could also think about it in terms of recording capabilities across time. When the Lomaxes were first recording, John Lomax writes, “The amplifier weighed more than one hundred pounds; the turntable case weighed another one hundred; two Edison batteries weighed seventy-five pounds each. The microphone, cable, the tools, etc., accounted for sufficient weight to make the total five hundred pounds. . . . In order to carry them in the car I tore out the back seat . . .” Even in 1967, forty years later, good recorders still weighed 70 pounds and required a car battery, but tapes were longer and costs were less. More tape and more time at less cost both financially and physically had a big impact on what researchers recorded. At the same time, the data shows that the later recordings are not much longer, but do seem to have more seconds of speech.

There is a danger in these kinds of machine-generated generalities. We employed taxonomies (instrumental, sung, speech) to teach the machine to categorize these patterns, but why these patterns? Are there others? Or did I choose these based on what I already wanted to say about the Lomaxes’ practices? And, I haven’t even mentioned here the subjective practices inherent to choosing algorithms for such work.

These kinds of questions require more research, and more contextualization than this aggregated data set can show. Just as the ballads that John and Alan Lomax once collected were written and sung by someone, so were the communities that Alan interpreted through his Parlametrics made up of individuals, not types. Perhaps Alan’s desire “to record the world” was just and Google, the collector, categorizer, and interface for all things on the Internet, isn’t evil. But the Global Jukebox Project serves as a cautionary tale about the politics behind the speed and efficiency that machinic methods seem to promise, a politics that needs to be far less opaque about its deeper principles and problems.

Tanya Clement is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research is scholarly information infrastructure. She has published widely on digital humanities and digital literacies as well as scholarly editing, modernist literature, and sound studies. Her current research projects include High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS).

Featured image: “Day 21 – Waveform” by Flickr user evil_mel, CC BY-NC 2.0

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