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Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey and the Sound of Authenticity


100 Years of Lomax4Welcome back to 100 Years of Alan Lomax, Sounding Out!‘s series dedicated to remembering, rethinking and challenging our understanding of this crucial figure in folk music history.

In contrast to the first post in the series by Mark Davidson, which looked at how we have branded Alan Lomax, Parker Fishel‘s post considers how Alan Lomax fashioned himself—as both a collector and a publisher of other peoples’ music. The complexity of this task is inherent in the social and political ramifications of “saving” sound by making it “ours,” both in terms of singular ownership of singular recordings that had previously “belonged” to a community as well as the extent to which this practice brought these sounds to the wider culture.

Here, Fishel invites the reader to consider this complicated history that surrounds collecting and copyrighting folk music, what (and whom) the practice has excluded as well current performers who have been inspired by this preservation of our sound culture to perpetuate the practice: making it “theirs” and “ours” once again.

— Guest Editor Tanya Clement

The more one listens, views, and reads the work of pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the more inscrutable it becomes. Even if we set aside the sheer size and diversity of his collection, we are still left with a set of materials that eludes easy interpretation. Too mainstream for the academics and too academic for the mainstream, Lomax’s defiant, passionate quest to bridge the two worlds pioneered the study of sound as an embodiment of social and community dynamics. Yet in promoting American vernacular culture, Lomax also fashioned himself a folk hero, leaving us a legacy where the collector threatens to overshadow the collection. As arguably the world’s most famous folklorist, Lomax is responsible for much of the sound understood as authentic Americana.

Consider one vignette of many: the “Southern Journey,” a 1959-1960 recording trip that Alan Lomax undertook with Shirley Collins throughout Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. A world unto itself, the story of the Southern Journey reveals how these tensions shaped Lomax’s work and, to an extent, our understanding of a national cultural heritage.

"Radio Recording, Late 20th Century" by Flickr user Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0

“Radio Recording, Late 20th Century” by Flickr user Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0

To begin with, the Southern Journey sounded different than previous collecting trips due to the technological sophistication of the field recording set-up. Starting with a 1933 trip accompanying his father John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax’s previous recording expeditions in the South had relied first on Edison cylinders and then on disc-based recorders that had particular weaknesses in terms of fidelity. Surface noise obfuscated certain frequencies and reminded the listener that his or her experience was mediated. During the Southern Journey though, open reel magnetic tape, excellent microphones, and a mixer were employed to make what Lomax, in his tendency towards self-aggrandizement, claimed to be the “first” stereo field recordings in the South. Whatever the reality, the recordings were early efforts to use stereo in the service of field recording to capture more detail and nuance of a performance and its context.

Writing of the opportunity stereo presented for folklore, Lomax noted that “Folk music which, in its natural setting, is meant to be heard in the round, comes into its own with multi-dimensionality, for more than concert music, designed to project from the stage into an auditorium.” According to this reasoning, a good recording in stereo is more inclusive, grounding the listener’s position inside the soundscape of folklore’s community-based practice.

Yet, by nature folklore recordings have certain limitations. As jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews noted, “Our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” This murky dividing line is problematic in the context of ethnographic documentation. In the case of Alan Lomax, it’s further complicated by multiple motivations and goals that transform this line into a shifting set of markers.

"30th January 2014" by Flickr user themostinept, CC BY-SA 2.0

“30th January 2014” by Flickr user themostinept, CC BY-SA 2.0

Luckily, through diligent scholarship and Lomax’s own documentation, we are fairly aware of how this “realism” tension shaped his recordings in real-time performance and its public reception. Lomax sometimes auditioned performers when arriving in a new area; his book The Land Where The Blues Began (in part an reconstruction of the Southern Journey) was written 30-plus years after the fact from memory and a few scribbled notes on the back of tape boxes. However this knowledge impacts the supposed reality of the field recordings, it would be a mistake to reduce the extensive documentation of Lomax’s decision-making process to debunking. Rather, it is an aid for understanding what we’re hearing. By accounting for ethnographic and popularizing tendencies, what is really being developed is a guide for critical listening.

Part of that involved bringing in the recording industry. Starting with the 1939 Musicraft release of Leadbelly performances on 78-RPM discs, Lomax consistently used record companies as one means of bringing folklore to a wider audience. Commenting on the flurry of activity that accompanied Lomax’s 1959 return to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, noted folklorist Roger Abrahams commented, “To this writer it would appear that Mr. Lomax stayed up nights thinking of ways to sell folk-things to publishers, record companies, etc., ergo to the public.”

The Southern Journey was one such project, bankrolled by Atlantic Records. From nearly 80 hours of recorded material, Lomax curated two sets of releases in 1960, a seven LP Atlantic Records collection named the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” and the 12-LP “Southern Journey” series for Prestige International. In notes for reissues of the Atlantic set, Lomax admitted, “The set reflects, to some extent, what the Erteguns [Ahmet and Nesuhi, founders of Atlantic] felt might best reach their pop audience.” Examining how these recordings became canonical is to look at how new modes of cultural transmission affected folklore traditions.

Sales Fact Sheet for Atlantic’s “Southern Folk Heritage Series”

Sales Fact Sheet for Atlantic’s “Southern Folk Heritage Series”

We can hear another tension being negotiated in the way Lomax celebrated performances, which today justly rank alongside those of the Great American Songbook. Yet, to see them that way negates the core strengths of folklore: flexibility to situation and contingency to community. In the field, Lomax asserted that “every performance is original, a fresh and intentionally varied re-creation or rearrangement of a piece.” At the same moment, however, Americanizing processes were transforming these flexible local improvisatory practices into fixed inscriptions of national character. With his public visibility and prestige, the pieces in Lomax’s books and records carried weight as definitive versions – claims Lomax perpetuated in order to unify some of his cultural theories. (It also didn’t hurt that the practice of early folklorists was to copyright these compositions, giving them a financial stake in perpetuating those performances as examples of exceptionalism.) As a result, the public adopted a set of arbitrary songs and sounds as markers of authenticity.

These concerns remain important in the music’s continuing, living traditions. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Ebony Hillbillies perform the full, eclectic spectrum of early African-American string and jug bands traditions. While Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton forges similar terrain using the African-American songster and blues singer as a model, Frank Fairfield addresses Anglo-American folk traditions. All of these projects remind listeners of the arbitrary divisions of authenticity forced on musicians practices by the race recording industry, which partitioned sounds as white and black and led to our modern taxonomy of genres. These performers use folklore to expose parts of the under-documented past, re-appropriating musical styles and often re-creating that world through the adoption of early 20th century language, clothes, and mannerisms.

Other contemporary performers handle these issues differently. Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) form the nucleus of Sounds of the South, a “loving reinterpretation of the sound, structure, lyrics, and spirit” of the Southern Journey recordings. Engaging both the African-American and Anglo-American traditions documented on that trip, the group finds its sound in their overlap. This a space shaped in part by the popularizing processes Lomax set in motion, a space where generations of listeners have been introduced to Mississippi Fred McDowell through a Rolling Stones cover. Approaching the music from this perspective and not from the background of a Forest City Joe or an Almeda Riddle, authenticity necessarily exists in a different realm: re-interpretation. The resulting arrangements, such as that of Estil C. Ball’s sacred composition “Tribulations,” give one illustration of how these dynamics play out sonically within the world of folklore and music that Lomax left behind.

For this particular piece, the words and melody of Ball’s “terrifying meditation on the end of days” are kept as links to the original recording. This frees the ensemble to follow its muse into the musical landscapes of the intervening 50-plus years, shaped as they were by the introduction of the vernacular into the mainstream (and vice versa). Ball’s melody evokes an archetype, the high lonesome sound of Appalachia; a trope it inspired in the first place. Yet, in this cultural confluence, there is also space for something like Matthew E. White’s soul-influenced electric guitar. In introducing of a style, tradition, and sound beyond the original recording, a color line is crossed that, while maybe not explicitly heard, was certainly present in the Jim Crow context of the Southern Journey. For Sounds of the South, authenticity exists beyond mere re-creation.

What might Lomax’s reaction to the Sounds of the South project be? Reflecting on the 1960s folk scene, Lomax wrote, “The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of the folk songs, as they exist in tradition.” On the other hand, Lomax might be heartened that many, whether cultural heritage institutions or record labels, are following in the footsteps of his own Association for Cultural Equity. Working on the scale that digital resources facilitate, these organizations are providing access to field recordings and their context in ways never before possible. (What remains to be seen is how this might impact the process of codification discussed above.)

In another way, the Sounds of the South marks a return to tradition. While the Southern Journey recordings are the primary inspiration, Sounds of the South member Joe Westerlund describes the project as something larger: “We wanted to include everything that we’re into, not just the traditional folk music that’s on this box set…We’re doing our whole experience as musicians.” That experience involves collaboration with folk artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard, as well as investment in their local cultural communities of Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Eau Claire, WI.

Alan Lomax (left) with Richard Queen of Soco Junior Square Dance Team at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina; via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection

Alan Lomax (left) with Richard Queen of Soco Junior Square Dance Team at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina; via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection

Lomax’s pedagogy of folklore situates authenticity as a function of these very types of activities. “Folk song lives in a rather mysterious world close to the heart of the human community and it is only through extended and serious contact with living folk traditions that it can be understood.” The particular tradition in which one participates makes little difference; rather emphasis is on the process of engagement and contact, which replicate older patterns of folklore transmission. So even if Lomax may have claimed there was a bit too much bel canto to suit his tastes, one can imagine his appreciation for Sounds of the South’s dedication to the meaning and spirit of the music.

Considering Alan Lomax, his work, and his legacy is a complex and often frustrating enterprise. Yet amidst parts that give us pause, there remain bits of enduring wisdom. Addressing a gathering of folklorists, Lomax asserted that “Underneath we are all morally, emotionally and esthetically involved with our material, and so all of us are artists and cultural workers, and there is no escape from that.”

Few of us devote ourselves to this kind of music (or any kind of music for that matter) as a detached academic exercise. It can take an example of the living tradition like Sounds of the South looking backwards and forwards to remind us of the full scope of our responsibilities. I can’t think of any more fitting tribute on the occasion of his centenary than to re-commit ourselves not to Alan Lomax, but to what caught his ear in the first place: the transcendent experience of sound.

Parker Fishel is an archivist, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. Presently he is the archivist at Grey Water Park Productions and an occasional DJ on WKCR-FM. As co-founder of Americana Music Productions, Parker is the producer of a forthcoming set of music, photographs, and scholarship documenting the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is also at work on Georgia Griot, a bio-discography of jazz musician Marion Brown. While getting an MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, Parker worked with the UT Folklore Center Archives and the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History.

Featured image: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” by Flickr user Bee Collins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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The Problem of Alan Lomax, or The Necessity of Talking Politics During the Lomax Year

Alan Lomax (left) and youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition

100 Years of Lomax4This week, Sounding Out! kicks off an exciting four-part series exploring the work of Alan Lomax, a key figure in sound culture studies, and one whose legacy is in the midst of being reconsidered and refreshed by many scholars, musicians and folklorists alike.

As Guest Editor, we are happy to welcome Tanya Clement, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. Clement has expertise in a wide variety of fields, from scholarly information architecture and digital literacies to modernist literature and sound studies, and she is currently helping to lead the High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), a project you should know about that’s using new technologies to analyze and increase access to a range of spoken word recordings.

I’ll turn it over to Clement to introduce the series, an expertly-curated set of reflections on what Lomax and his recordings have meant in the past and could mean in the future.

Special Editor Neil Verma

Alan Lomax (January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) was an archivist, ethnomusicologist, film-maker, folklorist, oral historian, political activist, scholar, and writer and many would say he has had the single most influential impact on the preservation of global music traditions. 2015 marks his centenary and this series of posts will both celebrate and interrogate his tireless and controversial crusade to bring attention to, understand, and preserve sound culture.

Below, Mark Davidson’s piece will introduce our collection with an exploration into the Alan Lomax “branding” as either saint or sinner with a call for transparency, context, and accuracy with regard to current scholarship and repatriation efforts surrounding the recordings Lomax made over six decades of work. In his approach to Alan Lomax’s Southern-based collecting work in our second article, Parker Fishel will consider the complex practice of documenting and preserving transforming dynamic community-based traditions into static texts that Lomax and others touted as authentic. Next, Toneisha Taylor will interrogate how the Federal Writers Project Folklore and Folkways collection projects, first formed by Lomax’s father, has framed how we encounter significant recordings about Black life in the Deep South during and after slavery. Finally, Tanya Clement will explore how Lomax’s ideas about Cantometrics and the Global Jukebox resound in recent work using computers to categorize and analyze sound in the 21st Century.

By revisiting Lomax’s collecting practices and the songs Lomax collected from alternate perspectives in the context of the diverse communities affected by his work, these posts are an attempt to use Lomax’s Centenary to celebrate the enduring resonance of folk songs in our sound culture and to bring awareness to the importance and complexities of its continued preservation.

— Guest Editor Tanya Clement

In 1987, two years after the three hundredth anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, musicologist Susan McClary published a now-classic article titled “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during the Bach Year,” in which she reflected on her experiences at a number of Bach events in 1985. Using Theodor Adorno’s 1950 essay “Bach Defended against His Devotees” (written on the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death) as a jumping-off point, McClary defied Bach scholars who viewed the German Baroque master’s music as sacrosanct and unimpeachable, and performed a brazen deconstruction of Bach’s most revered works: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Cantata No. 140 (“Wachet Auf”). For McClary, the turn was critical: “we must confront Bach and the canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it (p. 60).”

What, one might ask, does a canonical “classical” music composer, a contemporary musicologist, and a twentieth-century German theorist have to do with folk music collector Alan Lomax? Aside from a heavy degree of fetishizing by pale male scholars (myself included), it turns out quite a bit.

The “Lomax Year” began on January 31, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Lomax’s birth, with events throughout the United States and Europe including concerts, marathon film screenings, and radio broadcasts devoted to his life and work. Centennial events are ongoing throughout the year, including a panel at SXSW on March 21st in Alan Lomax’s hometown of Austin, Texas.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

But the current Alan Lomax revival began long before January 31. Over the course of the past five years there have been numerous books, including Lomax’s first full-length biography, websites devoted to his recordings (e.g., Louisiana, Kentucky), and recording reissues, all of which have garnered considerable attention in the popular media. There has been an ongoing film and recording series, The 78 Project, in which the project’s founders lug across the nation a vintage 1930s Presto recording machine similar to the kind Lomax would have used in search of contemporary musicians playing modern renditions of folk songs. Alan Lomax was even featured on The Colbert Report in March 2012, around the time that the massive Alan Lomax Archive of Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) launched. The TV spot included a discussion of Lomax’s legacy and a performance by Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and ACE executive director and musician Don Fleming, with Colbert helping out the proceedings.

Alan Lomax has become a brand, a larger-than-life figure looming over the entirety of folk music collecting in the United States. His name is the first on people’s lips when one mentions the subject (as I have found again and again in my own research on 1930s folk music collectors not named Alan Lomax). And he went to great pains throughout his life to promote this brand. It was, after all, the way that he was able to continue his life’s work. This branding effort continues to the present day, largely due to the efforts of the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded in 1983, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture) is housed. Alan Lomax became the first salaried employee of the Archive in 1937, working there until 1942 when he left for the Office of War Information. But Lomax kept in close contact with the Archive for the rest of his life, lording “Ayatollah-like” (I’ve been told) over the collections he did so much to foster.

The Lomax Year has also been the impetus for a healthy reappraisal of Lomax’s life and career, as evidenced by a recent Studio 360 radio segment, produced by Richard Paul and featuring Dom Flemons, Karl Hagstrom Miller, Dwandalyn Reece, and Patricia Turner. In the 13-minute-long spot, Lomax is at once heralded as the potential grandfather of rock ’n’ roll while also criticized for the time that he and his father spent recording black prison inmates in the South, and the overall “folk construction” in which they engaged. The intervention is not unlike McClary’s call to “confront [Lomax] and the [traditional music] canon and resituate him in such a way as to acknowledge his prominence in musical and non-musical culture while not falling victim to it.”

"Lightnin' Washington, an African American prisoner, in the prison hospital at Darrington State Farm, Texas" by Alan Lomax.

Lightnin’ Washington, an African American prisoner, in the prison hospital at Darrington State Farm, Texas

But the “re-situation” suggested by this exposé borders on the same sort of constructed truth of which Lomax himself is accused. By listening to the segment one might come to the conclusion that Lomax had no time for any types of African American music outside of prison inmates: “It would take 14 years before Lomax ever recorded in a black church and he never recorded at a black college.”  Or one might think that the Lomaxes’ quest to find “pure” or “unadulterated” versions of songs was unique. Both statements are simply not true. Alan Lomax, in his official capacity with the AAFS, worked with numerous collectors who recorded all types of music. Just one example of many is his collaboration with John Wesley Work III of Fisk University to record African American folk songs and spirituals for use by Fisk and the Library of Congress. As far as fetishizing the untouched or “pure products,” it is a practice that persists in ethnographic research to this day.

Defending Alan Lomax in this way is not a position with which I am comfortable. But relegating him to a decade of his life, and conflating him with “the sins of the father” is no better a stance. There are plenty of places where Lomax can, and should, be justly criticized. There is his practice of taking composer credits for other musicians’ performances (which he somewhat awkwardly defended in a 1990 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross). Then there’s the instructions he gave other AAFS fieldworkers to actively deceive their informants: “The recording interview can be as significant as the song itself and is valuable as a fresh field document, especially, if the informant does not know that the interview is being recorded, and if he never learns it.” And there’s a statement he made to Federal Writers’ Project historian Jerre Mangione in which he boasted that his father was “a fucking genius at getting blacks to sing” while describing, excitedly, the dangers of recording in the Jim Crow South. Not to mention Zora Neale Hurston putting Alan Lomax in blackface as they traveled the South. And these instances all fall within this same five-year period of Lomax’s life.

Stavin' Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad "Batson" accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

What falls away in these discussions is perhaps the most critical piece to this puzzle: the individuals behind the recording. Who were they, and what were their lives like outside of the three minutes that are etched into a lacquered aluminum “acetate” disc? Aside from a few notable exceptions (e.g., Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton), most of these performers remain unknown to the general public. Through this particular sin of omission, we fall victim to the fallacy that perhaps Alan Lomax really was the progenitor for the “never-ending folk music revival,” or that he really was the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll. Few scholars have even approached the problem of dealing with the performers in any substantive way, with the exception of perhaps Stephen Wade through his recent book The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The problem of the individual extends to the various recent “repatriation projects” that have been underway for some years. Given what we know about Lomax’s fieldwork co-creator-credit practices, how transparent have these repatriation efforts been able to be? What do these plans include for the forthcoming “definitive Centennial box set”?

Talking politics during the Lomax Year is not blasphemy. It is necessary. But the overall reliance on knocking down Alan Lomax™ misses an important point. It is nearly impossible to make the overly simplistic and poorly nuanced argument that Lomax was simply a product of his time, when that time spanned the better part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The problem of Alan Lomax, then, is acknowledging his importance while resituating him within the larger narrative of traditional music research in the twentieth century, not as a brand, but as an individual in a larger network collectors, institutions, and musicians who fought against what the rapid disappearance—what Lomax called “cultural grey-out”—of music and culture throughout the world. Doing so won’t solve the problem, but it’s at least a start.

Mark Davidson is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural musicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing up a dissertation on WPA folk music collections, including Sidney Robertson Cowell’s California Folk Music Project; Herbert Halpert’s Southern States Recording Expedition; and the Florida Federal Writers’ Project’s statewide folk music recording survey (which included Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy). Mark has also been working with Tanya Clement and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas to launch a website of the Lomax family’s recordings in Texas. He received an MSIS from the UT School of Information in August 2014, and has worked for the Journal of the Society for American Music since 2008.

Featured image: Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition. All images via the Library of Congress Lomax Collection.

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Listening to and through “Need”: Sound Studies and Civic Engagement

Continuing Promise 2011

ActsofSonicInterventionThis April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0”–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.

Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues.  In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and  then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently square and the displacement of their lives within it.  For me, the idea was electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via the ReSounding Binghamton project and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project.  Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my own efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge.  Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?

In the forum we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffes newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” Artist Luz Maria Sanchez will give us privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, “detritus.2: The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico.”  We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelinwho will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening.  Today we begin with longtime SO! community member and writer, Christie Zwahlen, Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens.  If you decide that a community is in need, can you still hear what they have to say?

–JS, Editor-in-Chief

Community engagement is an important piece of Sound Studies 2.0, the latest iteration of the field that moves beyond discovering and justifying sound as an object of study and toward a politics and praxis of intervention. New knowledge about sound and listening can both be produced through and actively inform community-based work. Likewise, sound studies can inform the theory and practice of community engagement in meaningful ways.

Listening plays a critical role in the field of community engagement, insofar as our work is undertaken in response to community-articulated needs. Though needs can be expressed through various modes, listening to residents and community partners remains crucially important to our work as practitioners. As has been reiterated countless times, the strength of relationships is what drives and sustains community-based work and enables collaborative endeavors. Yet, as important as listening is to this work, it is rarely, if ever, discussed in sonic terms. We know that listening both produces and perpetuates power inequity, yet have neglected to examine how listening mediates our understanding (or lack thereof) of community needs.

Thus, as Jennifer Stoever’s recent  Sounding Out! post argues for the importance of a civically engaged sound studies, I am also arguing for the importance of a sonically informed community engagement praxis, one that demands self-reflexivity about our own listening practices as we attempt to identify community needs. What does “need” sound like? To whom? How has the state of being “in need” been sonically constructed by dominant modes of listening and the sonic color-line? How can we, as Community Engagement practitioners, guard against the compulsion to hear needs articulated in the absence of their verbal expression?  In other words. what do we hear–or not hear–when we listen through the power-laden filter of “neediness”?

Old Navy Community Service, Image by Flickr User Jorge Quinteros

Old Navy Community Service, Image by Flickr User Jorge Quinteros

Like Sound Studies, Community Engagement is considered a relatively new field. Often equated to a movement within higher education, it has built steam on the strength of its learning outcomes for students engaged in Service-Learning and other high impact learning experiences. Furthermore, many higher education institutions explicitly prioritize working with their communities towards positive public outcomes in their mission statements, positioning outcomes for community residents as equally important to student learning.

Both research and practice have taught us that community engagement is most effective when based on community-articulated needs.  Projects should address genuine needs as voiced by the community. As Barbara Jacoby writes in Service-Learning in Higher Education, “an effective [service-learning] program allows for those with needs to define those needs” (42). This central tenet of community engagement praxis issues a power check on community-campus partnerships and attempts to shield community members from the sometimes arrogance of University “experts” who falsely believe in their ability to speak on behalf of Others, re-enacting the very processes of silencing and oppression this work seeks to eliminate. Community voices are often stifled in unequal research or “service” encounters and are also often mis-heard by what Stoever calls the listening ear, which hears non-normative speech as an indication of need. Furthermore,the idea that need can be self-identified implicitly speaks to the recognition that visual markers of social difference affect our opinions and perceptions of others–particularly when those Others are from marginalized communities. Because of this, the voices of community residents are often figured as the gateway to “pure” knowledge about community needs.

While the concept of “voicing” needs in community-engaged work is broader than its sonic meaning (e.g. referring to the collection of data via surveys, needs assessments, other written communications, etc.), meeting face-to-face and speaking with community residents is still considered a best and necessary practice in the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The material “touch” manifested through the vocalic body connects us in ways that email, needs assessments, and other forms of digital communication cannot compete. Of constant concern to community engagement practitioners is how we can better respond to community-articulated needs and how best to inform ourselves of their existence. Missing from the discussion, however, is an interrogation of how listening shapes the way we hear needs articulated. What does someone in need sound like, or rather, what has our culture determined what someone in need sounds like? Are we hearing needs articulated where they do not exist? As much as the field of Community Engagement prioritizes listening in its praxis, the process itself is not understood as a material one. If we are basing our work on the voiced needs of community residents, how can we do this well without investigating our own listening practices or acknowledging at the most basic level that listening is a social process, not just a physiological one?  Delving more deeply into these questions can help us to develop a sonically-informed community engagement praxis, one which takes into account our own biased ears as we engage with community members.


Fairview Spanish Service Learning 2011, Image by Flickr User Mosaic36


To think through the damage that mis-hearing need can do, I want to examine the case study of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was a key witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial in July, 2013.  Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whom Zimmerman stalked and shot to death as Martin walked home from the corner store to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida.  Many commentators placed blame for Zimmerman’s acquittal on Jeantel’s voice and use of African American Vernacular English, which were denigrated and dissected by courtroom officials, the media, and the Twittersphere. When the trial was over, a self-dubbed “village” of mentors descended on Jeantel, determined to provide her with a plethora of services that she, in fact, resisted. Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article “For Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, a ‘village’ of mentors trying to keep her on track,” details Rachel Jeantel’s “transformation” after the George Zimmerman trial. A prime example of the way certain voices and bodies are figured as expressing need without ever saying a word, this “village” of mentors inferred from Jeantel’s voice a great longing for help.

As courtroom officials and many in the social media cosmos painted a sonic image of Jeantel as untrustworthy and unintelligible, Karen Andre–an African American lawyer and old friend of Jeantel’s lawyer Roderick Vereen–was thinking about what she could do to help the young woman she heard and saw on the stand. Taking the lead in Jeantel’s cultural makeover, Vereen is referred to as the “village elder.” Since the case ended, he has made Jeantel his project, despite, as Thompson reports, their expectations “differing wildly.”

Rachel Jeantel and Mentor Roderick Vereen

Rachel Jeantel and Mentor Roderick Vereen

As Karen Andre watched Jeantel’s testimony on television, she contacted Vereen directly to offer herself up as a mentor, because “simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.” But it was not only Jeantel’s appearance (which was itself highly criticized) that motivated Andre to contact Vereen. Regina Bradley uses the term “sonic ratchetness” to describe Jeantel’s testimony and its reception as “an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.” It was this sonic ratchetness which signaled to Andre that Jeantel needed assistance–assistance becoming the “respectable” black woman to which she undoubtedly aspired. Though many spoke out in defense of Jeantel, the degree to which negative portrayals of her were accepted as fact further evidence the pervasiveness of the sonic color-line in guiding our response to black vocalics–as deficient, non-normative and indicative of need. In essence, through her speech, Jeantel has been characterized and interpreted by many (including members of the black professional class) as a charity case.

On Jeantel’s “progress” thus far, Vereen remarks, “her word choice was terrible [during the trial]. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly. Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” As a black professional operating daily within the cultural norms of the U.S. court system, Vereen hears Jeantel’s use of African American vernacular as objectionable. By emphasizing her improved proficiency with white heteronormative discourse and increased “openness” as major accomplishments vis a vis her “progress,” Vereen highlights Jeantel’s manner of speech as both a determinant of need and a barrier to her functioning within the normal parameters of American social life. Vereen “helps” Jeantel by disciplining her speech to conform with normative white speaking and listening practices.

When asked about the public commentary surrounding her and her testimony, Jeantel says she “had to laugh it off.” Suddenly interrupted by Rose Reeder, another village mentor, who urges, “No. Be Honest,” Jeantel concedes that she was angry about being judged. Reeder’s censuring here evidences the ways in which Jeantel is silenced by the “assistance” being provided her. Interrupting Jeantel in this manner forces her to disclose personal information, at the risk of seeming like a liar. In capitulating to her mentor, Jeantel gives up a very basic right of expression. In effect, Jeantel’s improved “openness” to adults (thanks, village!) functions to silence and distort her authentic voice.


Rachel Jeantel during her makeover from Ebony Magazine post-Zimmerman trial.

“I think the thing that moved me most,” says Tom Joyner, another of Jeantel’s mentors and host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.” Ironically, Joyner who has offered to pay for Jeantel’s tuition at any historically black college of her choosing, is not listening well either. As the Washington Post piece also highlights, Jeantel and her Creole-speaking mother were rarely (if ever) consulted as to what types of aid were actually needed or desired (if any). Instead, Joyner and the village interpreted Jeantel’s voice alone as adequate evidence of need sans investigation.

What Joyner and others hear and what Jeantel is actually asking for continue to be incongruous. Jeantel would like to pursue a career in fashion. Joyner’s foundation refuses to pay. Vereen’s prescription is for Jeantel to attend Florida Memorial, a small historically black university in Southern Florida. As to whether the “village teachings” actually worked, Vereen condescendingly avows, “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.”

The manner in which Jeantel has been forcibly coerced to abandon her “sonic ratchetness” (at least in public), provides an important warning to those of us engaged in work which advances the “public good.” It should lead us to question whose good we are enacting and how our ideas about the public good are informed by what we hear and mis-hear.

As is often the case in community-based work, it is fruitful to return to Kretzmann and McKnight’s asset-based community development (ABCD) model in thinking through an ethical course of action.  The ABCD model focuses its attention on a community’s assets instead of its needs or deficiencies, empowering even the least empowered members of a community to use what skills and talents they possess to work towards changes they desire. Viewing alternative modes of articulation as an asset (vs. an indicator of inherent need) may prove useful in staying attentive to our listening practices as they relate to marginalized communities. Though denigrated as improper speech, culturally specific modes of articulation convey meaning in their distance from the norm. These modes of articulation are complex in their practical and historical constitutions. Both in what is said and not said, we must acknowledge that our listening ears fabricate meaning beyond the verbal, and that sonic constructions of Otherness can distort and inform how we hear needs articulated.


Featured Image: MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Kim Williams talks with a student while painting a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released) 110519-N-NY820-275

 Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.

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Echo and the Chorus of Female Machines


Gendered Voices widgetEditor’s Note: February may be over, but our forum is still on! Today I bring you installment #5 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice. Last week Art Blake talked about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Before that, Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have one more left! Robin James will round out our forum with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.

This week Canadian artist and writer AO Roberts takes us into the arena of speech synthesis and makes us wonder about what it means that the voices are so often female. So, lean in, close your eyes, and don’t be afraid of the robots’ voices. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor

I used Apple’s SIRI for the first time on an iPhone 4S. After hundreds of miles in a van full of people on a cross-country tour, all of the music had been played and the comedy mp3s entirely depleted. So, like so many first time SIRI users, we killed time by asking questions that went from the obscure to the absurd. Passive, awaiting command, prone to glitches: there was something both comedic and insidious about SIRI as female-gendered program, something that seemed to bind up the technology with stereotypical ideas of femininity.

"Maria the Maschinenmensch" by Flickr user Timothy Rose, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Maria the Maschinenmensch” by Flickr user Timothy Rose, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Speech synthesis is the artificial simulation of the human voice through hardware or software, and SIRI is but one incarnation of the historical chorus of machines speaking what we code to be female. Starting from the early 20th century Voder, to the Cold-War era Silvia and Audrey, up to Amazon’s newly released Echo, researchers have by and large developed these applications as female personae. Each program articulates an individual timbre and character, soothing soft spoken or matter of fact; this is your mother, sister, or lover, here to affirm your interests while reminding you about that missed birthday. She is easy to call up in memory, tones rounded at the edges, like Scarlett Johansson’s smoky conviviality as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, a bodiless purr. Simulated speech articulates a series of assumptions about what neutral articulation is, what a female voice is, and whose voice technology can ventriloquize.

The ways computers hear and speak the human voice are as complex as they are rapidly expanding. But in robotics gender is charted down to actual wavelength, actively policed around 100-150 HZ (male) and 200-250 HZ (female). Now prevalent in entertainment, navigation, law enforcement, surveillance, security, and communications, speech synthesis and recognition hold up an acoustic mirror to the dominant cultures from which they materialize. While they might provide useful tools for everything from time management to self-improvement, they also reinforce cisheteronormative definitions of personhood. Like the binary code that now gives it form, the development of speech recognition separated the entire spectrum of vocal expression into rigid biologically based categories. Ideas of a real voice vs. fake voice, in all their resonances with passing or failing one’s gender performance, have through this process been designed into the technology itself.



"Kempelen Speakingmachine" by Fabian Brackhane (Quintatoen), Saarbrücken - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Kempelen Speakingmachine” by Fabian Brackhane (Quintatoen), Saarbrücken – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The first voice to be synthesized was a reed and bellows box invented by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in 1791 and shown off in the courts of the Hapsburg Empire. Von Kempelen had gained renown for his chess-playing Turk, a racist cartoon of an automaton that made waves amongst the nobles until it was revealed that underneath the tabletop was a small man secretly moving the chess player’s limbs. Von Kempelen’s second work, the speaking machine, wowed its audiences thoroughly. The player wheedled and squeezed the contraption, pushing air through its reed larynx to replicate simple words like mama and papa.

Synthesizing the voice has always required some level of making strange, of phonemic abstraction. Bell Laboratories originally developed The Voder, the earliest incarnation of the vocoder, as a cryptographic device for WWII military communications. The machine split the human voice into a spectral representation, fragmenting the source into number of different frequencies that were then recombined into synthetic speech. Noise and unintelligibility shielded the Allies’ phone calls from Nazi interception. The Vocoder’s developer, Ralph Miller, bemoaned the atrocities the machine performed on language, reducing it to a “series of miserable grunts.”

From website Binary Heap

From website Binary Heap-

In his history of the The Vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tompkins tells how the apparatus originally took up an entire wall and was played solely by female phone operators, but the pitch of the female voice was said to be too high to be heard by the nascent technology. In fact, when it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair, only men were chosen to experience the roboticization of their voice. The Voder was, in fact, originally created to only hear pitches in the range of 100-150 HZ, a designed exclusion from the start. So when the Signal Corps of the Army convinced President Eisenhower to call his wife via Voder from North Africa, Miller and the developers panicked for fear she wouldn’t be heard. Entering the Pentagon late at night, Mamie Eisenhower spoke into the telephone and a fragmented version of her words travelled across the Atlantic. Resurfacing in angular vocoded form, her voice urged her husband to come home, and he had no problem hearing her. Instead of giving the developers pause to question their own definitions of gender, this interaction is told as a derisive footnote of in the history of the sound and technology: the punchline being that the first lady’s voice was heard because it was as low as a man’s.



Screen shot of Amazon's page for Echo

Screen shot of Amazon’s page for Echo

In fall 2014 Amazon launched Echo, their new personal assistant device. Echo is a 12-inch long plain black cone that stands upright on a tabletop, similar in appearance to a telephoto camera lens. Equipped with far field mics, Echo has a female voice, connected to the cloud and always on standby. Users engage Echo with their own chosen ‘wake’ word. The linguistic similarity to a BDSM safe word could have been lost on developers. Although here inverted, the word is used to engage rather than halt action, awakening an instrument that lays dormant awaiting command.

Amazon’s much-parodied promotional video for Echo is narrated by the innocent voice of the youngest daughter in a happy, straight, white, middle-class family. While the son pitches Oedipal jabs at the father for his dubious role as patriarchal translator of technology, each member of the family soon discovers the ways Echo is useful to them. They name it Alexa and move from questions like: “Alexa how many teaspoons in a tablespoon” and “How tall is Mt. Everest?” to commands for dance mixes and cute jokes. Echo enacts a hybrid role as mother, surrogate companion, and nanny of sorts not through any real aspects of labor but through the intangible contribution of information. As a female-voiced oracle in the early pantheon of the Internet of Things, Echo’s use value is squarely placed in the realm of cisheteronormative domestic knowledge production. Gone are the tongue-in-cheek existential questions proffered to SIRI upon its release. The future with Echo is clean, wholesome, and absolutely SFW. But what does it mean for Echo to be accepted into the home, as a female gendered speaking subject?

Concerns over privacy and surveillance quickly followed Echo’s release, alarms mostly sounding over its “always on” function. Amazon banks on the safety and intimacy we culturally associate with the female voice to ease the transition of robots and AI into the home. If the promotional video painted an accurate picture of Echo’s usage, it would appear that Amazon had successfully launched Echo as a bodiless voice over the uncanny valley, the chasm below littered with broken phalanxes of female machines. Masahiro Mori coined the now familiar term uncanny valley in 1970 to describe the dip in empathic response to humanoid robots as they approach realism.

If we listen to the litany of reactions to robot voices through the filters of gender and sexuality it reveals the stark inclines of what we might think of as a queer uncanny valley. Paulina Palmer wrote in The Queer Uncanny about reoccurring tropes in queer film and literature, expanding upon what Freud saw as a prototypical aspect of the uncanny: the doubling and interchanging of the self. In the queer uncanny we see another kind of rift: that between signifier and signified embodied by trans people, the tearing apart of gender from its biological basis. The non-linear algebra of difference posed by queer and trans bodies is akin to the blurring of divisions between human and machine represented by the cyborg. This is the coupling of transphobic and automatonophobic anxieties, defined always in relation to the responses and preoccupations of a white, able bodied, cisgendered male norm. This is the queer uncanny valley. For the synthesized voice to function here, it must ease the chasm, like Echo: sutured by a voice coded as neutral, but premised upon the imagined body of a white, heterosexual, educated middle class woman.


22% Female

uWf1j1iP_400x400My own voice spans a range that would have dismayed someone like Ralph Miller. I sang tenor in Junior High choir until I was found out for straying, and then warned to stay properly in the realms of alto, but preferably soprano range. Around the same time I saw a late night feature of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, struggling to lose her crass proletariat inflection. So I, a working class gender ambivalent kid, walked around with books on my head muttering The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain for weeks after. I’m generally loud, opinionated and people remember me for my laugh. I have sung in doom metal and grindcore punk bands, using both screeching highs and the growling “cookie monster” vocal technique mostly employed by cismales.

EVAGiven my own history of toying with and estrangement from what my voice is supposed to sound like, I was interested to try out a new app on the market, the Exceptional Voice App (EVA ), touted as “The World’s First and Only Transgender Voice Training App.” Functioning as a speech recognition program, EVA analyzes the pitch, respiration, and character of your voice with the stated goal of providing training to sound more like one’s authentic self. Behind EVA is Kathe Perez, a speech pathologist and businesswoman, the developer and provider of code to the circuit. And behind the code is the promise of giving proper form to rough sounds, pitch-perfect prosody, safety, acceptance, and wholeness. Informational and training videos are integrated with tonal mimicry for phrases like hee, haa, and ooh. User progress is rated and logged with options to share goals reached on Twitter and Facebook. Customers can buy EVA for Gals or EVA for Guys. I purchased the app online for my iPhone for $5.97.

My initial EVA training scores informed me I was 22% female; a recurring number I receive in interfaces with identity recognition software. Facial recognition programs consistently rate my face at 22% female. If I smile I tend to get a higher female response than my neutral face, coded and read as male. Technology is caught up in these translations of gender: we socialize women to smile more than men, then write code for machines to recognize a woman in a face that smiles.

As for EVA’s usage, it seems to be a helpful pedagogical tool with more people sharing their positive results and reviews on trans forums every day. With violence against trans people persisting—even increasing—at alarming rates, experienced worst by trans women of color, the way one’s voice is heard and perceived is a real issue of safety. Programs like EVA can be employed to increase ease of mobility throughout the world. However, EVA is also out of reach to many, a classed capitalist venture that tautologically defines and creates users with supply. The context for EVA is the systems of legal, medical, and scientific categories inherited from Foucault’s era of discipline; the predetermined hallucination of normal sexuality, the invention of biological criteria to define the sexes and the pathologization of those outside each box, controlled by systems of biopower.

Despite all these tools we’ll never really know how we sound. It is true that the resonant chamber of our own skull provides us with a different acoustic image of our own voice. We hate to hear our voice recorded because suddenly we catch a sonic glimpse of what other people hear: sharper more angular tones, higher pitch, less warmth. Speech recognition and synthesis work upon the same logic, the shifting away from interiority; a just off the mark approximation. So the question remains what would a gender variant voice synthesis and recognition sound like? How much is reliant upon the technology and how much depends upon individual listeners, their culture, and what they project upon the voice? As markets grow, so too have more internationally accented English dialects been added to computer programs with voice synthesis. Thai, Indian, Arabic and Eastern European English were added to Mac OSX Lion in 2011. Can we hope to soon offer our voices to the industry not as a set of data to be mined into caricatures, but as a way to assist in the opening up in gender definitions? We would be better served to resist the urge to chime in and listen to the field in the same way we suddenly hear our recorded voice played back, with a focus on the sour notes of cold translation.

Featured image: “Golden People love Gold Jewelry Robots” by Flickr user, CC BY 2.0

AO Roberts is a Canadian intermedia artist and writer based in Oakland whose work explores gender, technology and embodiment through sound, installation and print. A founding member of Winnipeg’s NGTVSPC feminist artist collective, they have shown their work at galleries and festivals internationally. They have also destroyed their vocal chords, played bass and made terrible sounds in a long line of noise projects and grindcore bands, including VOR, Hoover Death, Kursk and Wolbachia. They hold a BFA from the University of Manitoba and a MFA in Sculpture from California College of the Arts.

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