Happy 6th Blog-o-Versary Team SO!
This year was tough, y’all. We know it. You know it. 2014-2015 was a year of rolling up sleeves, raging against the machine, typing furiously into the night, blocking the trolls, crying tears of frustration and anger, organizing heated meetings, fitting shoulders uncomfortably to various wheels while questioning exactly why and for whom, hugging our folks closer while unfriending Facebook “friends” like mofos, facing the millionth revision—or worse, the next police shooting, and the next and the next.
All of us have reeled at one time or another at what sometimes seemed like a Niagara Falls of quicksand: mounting challenges, unexpected setbacks, pay and budget cuts (if you had a budget to begin with), hashtag memorials, calculated attacks, haters far more malevolent than your basic Taylor Swift variety, general piling on, restrictive and invasive university policies, less jobs/more adjuncts, and racist, sexist, and classist aggressions, macro, micro and everywhere in between.
But to quote one of my favorite poems from Langston Hughes, especially in these times, we are STILL HERE. And that really is everything. We can move mountains with that. We can. And, to cite the ethos of the Sounding Out! Editorial Collective: We remain committed, undaunted,
AND. WE. CLAP. BACK.
Here, for example, is SO! regular writer, Cornell Science and Technology Studies PhD Candidate, and producer Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo performing as her (m)other brain rapper SAMMUS at Ithaca Fest in May 2015, where she debuted her powerful new song protesting state violence against black people, “Three Fifths,” produced by DNilz for the upcoming independent film “Rodney.”
Sammus closed her performance with a stirring sonic memorial to the unarmed black men and women who have been murdered by police in the U.S. over the last 20 years, as well as a call to action for white listeners to acknowledge their complicity in the “law and order” state and the agency they have to end the deadly terror of white supremacist policing.
Sammus’s music and lyrics have long inspired the SO! crew to keep on pushing–you’ll hear another of her songs on our mix–but especially this year. We talked a lot about how and why SO! continues to matter, specifically how can the collective labor here that seeks to understand sound as a medium of power be useful in struggles to make #blacklivesmatter once and for all, for example, or to end violence against transpeople? To dismantle debilitating gender stereotypes about women? To stop the marginalization and exploitation of immigrants and undocumented workers in the U.S.? And how to push the boundaries of US-centric sound work with local and/or comparative research from other countries–and vice versa? This year, we redoubled our collective efforts to produce top notch applied scholarship that intervenes in the challenges of our contemporary moment, not just the field of sound studies.
Not that we don’t plan to keep on pushing interventions there as well. Team SO! spent a lot of time earlier this year reflecting, in real time, on our origin story for an article we co-authored for the new Digital Sound Studies anthology edited by the Soundbox Crew (forthcoming on Duke University Press, digital entries already live here). We were grateful for the opportunity to articulate the politics of our founding and why SO! remains so vitally important to us (and we hope to you). Here’s an exclusive sneak peek of our upcoming chapter “The Pleasure (is) Principle: Sounding Out! and the Digitizing of Community”:
When we met in a humid apartment in upstate New York to plot a sound studies blog back in 2009, one of our key goals was to provide indelible visibility to the top-notch contributions we knew were being made to sound studies by scholars of color, graduate students, junior scholars and other groups marginalized in/by academia, so that their role in building this growing field could not be erased, ignored, silenced, hijacked, buried, or claimed by others better positioned by social and institutional privilege and its attendant cultural capital to gain conference spots and find publishers for their work. There is solidarity in the affects produced by giving voice, making visible, and, above all else: listening. Because connections undeniably matter, we decided to build our own, and to do so in a way that celebrated the people and the scholarship perpetually at the fringes of most fields, but especially those involving technology and music.
Through the experience of collaboratively reviewing our history and together calling a new creation into being once again, we realized—on an entirely new frequency—how Sounding Out! and the community it kindles consistently sustains the three of us through stormy times: personally, professionally, and politically. I am not sure if it clicked in while scowling through the umpteenth revision or LMAO-ing through yet another Hangout, but we all came around to the truth that the right kind of work, performed with your ride-or-die people, can energize rather than enervate, center rather than scatter, and make you want to keep on pushing, especially when being pushed. For us, it never has been just about sound.
So this year, for our 6th Blog-o-Versary, our theme, “Keep on Pushing,” honors the fact that sound can be both a balm and a motivator for years like this one and for times when the news is ENOUGH but we need to keep going. We also want to express our respect and gratitude for all the heavy lifting, daily grinds, and labors of love, pleasure, and sometimes frustration—both Tweeted and unsung—of ourselves and our ever-growing community of readers, writers, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, Link sharers, survey respondents, sticker distributors, folks who archive us, writers who cite us, teachers who assign us, and peeps who talk us up and give word of mouth. We are all putting in work in a thousand and one ways, big and small, to make this community bigger, badder, and deffer each and every year. And *that’s why we are still here.
Thank you and here’s to lucky number seven in 2016!
Liana’s back!!: We had a bit of a personnel shuffle last summer, but in the end the stars aligned and we got Liana back. She edited this year’s February forum on gender and voice (which you can check out here) and selected the tracks for this year’s mixtape for the second year in a row. Outside of Sounding Out! she’s been publishing more, getting her break in the Houston Chronicle online column Gray Matters, developing a column for Chronicle Vitae, and working on a book proposal due later this year. You can keep up with her writerly adventures on Twitter: @lianamsilva
INDEXING: We told you this year was all about the grind. We are working hard over here to make SO! more searchable. With 400 posts and counting over 6 years, we recognize that finding what you need grows more challenging every Monday. This spring, we debuted an alphabetical index of all of the themed series and forums and soon we will have completed full indexes by author soon and title soon, as well as some themed lists for teaching and general inquiry.
MLA INDEX IS UP AND RUNNING!: For folks privileged to have access to the Modern Language Association’s digital bibliography—perform a search for Sounding Out! and you will find links to all of our posts categorized as “articles.” The index is also searchable by author. Now we are officially, as Hammer would say, 2 legit 2 quit.
WE KEEP ON PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: Now that sound studies is increasingly becoming canonized and institutionalized, we feel it is increasingly important to continue looking for new avenues of interest and inquiry and to experiment with the form of the blog and podcast. This year we debuted a series of online sonic installations by artists and thinkers such as Salomé Voegelin (“Sound Art as Public Art”), the Berlin arts collective La Mission who performed a full series of sound and video installations in honor of José Esteban Muñoz for our Round Circle of Resonance series, and sound artists Sonia Li, Mendi + Keith Obadike and Anne Zeitz and David Boureau. We also began a new running series called “SO! Amplifies,” which allows us the opportunity to scout out innovative organizations, artists, installations, exhibits, community engagement projects, radio programs, etc. and bring them to your attention.
THURSDAYS STILL ON POINT! Special Editor Neil Verma has continued to rule the Thursday airwaves with his specially curated series of guest editors emphasizing sound and media. For a rundown of 2014’s programming see his excellent year in re-hear post from November 2014. Right now we are in the midst of the “Sonic Shadows” series with more excitement to come! And of course, Multimedia editor Aaron Trammell continues to curate an exciting and innovative open format podcast series on the last Thursday of every month. This year’s Blog-O-Versary mix is our 45th podcast!
RELAX! DON’T DO IT!: This year SO! started doing its part to promote healthier work habits by taking a week off here or there. We hope that, rather than disappointing our avid Monday morning readership, we have encouraged our community to stop and gather strength too (or at least to explore our extensive back catalog. 400 posts!). SO! is a marathon rather than a sprint and we are just getting started.
SPEAKING OF. . .
WE’RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW FOLKS FOR TEAM SO! Don’t forget we have our latest Call For Posts on “Sound and Affect” up and running with a deadline of August 15th. Please submit a pitch and/or spread the word!!
Highlight Reel: See what’s new with SO! authors and community members this year! Congratulations everyone (and don’t forget to keep those cards and letters coming!).
- Regina Bradley was selected as a 2016 Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow, Harvard University. She is also and incoming Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University in Georgia.
- Steph Ceraso finished her first year as an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her audio-visual project, “A Tale of Two Soundscapes: The Story of My Listening Body,” appeared in the open access collection Provoke! Digital Sound Studies and her article, “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences,” was featured in College English. She gave talks at Duke University, The University of Virginia, UCLA’s “Inertia: Sound, Media, and the Digital Humanities” Conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). Ceraso was also interviewed by The Guardian about teaching the podcast Serial. You can find more about her work and current book project at www.stephceraso.com.
- Stuart Fowkes’ Cities and Memory hit the 700 mark in terms of numbers of sounds, with more than 150 contributors and now over 200,000 listens. They’ve run open call sound project every few months, which have included: Oblique Strategies: more than 50 artists reimagining field recordings using Eno and Schmidt’s oblique strategy cards for inspiration; Quiet Street: a sound map of the city of Bath that was installed as part of the Fringe Arts Bath festival; Sound Waves: for World Listening Day 2015, a sound map and edited piece looking at the role water plays in our lives; and Dreamland: a commission by the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, UK, to reimagine the sounds of a theme park.
- Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo passed her Ph.D qualifying exams and has just returned from a research trip to Congo. She also has recently had the opportunity to put together some music and a sound installation for a stage play that will premiere at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem in early August 2015. The organizers have put together a fundraising campaign via Indie Gogo; they’re trying to raise $15,000, right now they’re just shy of $10,000–please join SO! in supporting her work here. As Sammus, she went on her first tour with rapper Mega Ran which included a performance at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter (@sammusmusic) or listen to her music, including her latest releases at http://sammusmusic.bandcamp.com/.
- Kristin Moriah’s article on Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Onkel Tom’s Hütte was recently published in Lateral, the Cultural Studies Association’s online journal. She will be presenting a paper entitled “Singing Books: The Curation of Sound in Sissieretta Jones’s Scrapbook” at the 2015 American Studies Association convention in Toronto.
- Visual Editor Will Stabile is still out there every day, making it happen. He asked that we not worry about him. We still check in on him regularly though.
- Justyna Stasiowska put together for the international conference “Post-technological experience. Art-Science-Culture” (Poznań 23-27 October 2014) the presentation “Soft machine – somaintrument,” on modes of programming perception in Maryanne Amacher’s instalations. She also presented “Ephemeral performance or how does sound smell,” focused on programing a synaesthetic expierience in Ephemera and creating a new academic format during “Fluid Sounds” (lectures, perfomances, performances and audio papers in Amager 18-21 June 2015). Lastly, she created a sound mix for a drag queen-inspired performance called Valentine Tanz, which focused on being a performance artist. The episode (the project is a series of performances), that she worked on juxtaposed the ballroom queer scene aesthetic with Marina Abramovic’s work on trying to deconstruct persona of a performer.
- Kyle D. Stedman is co-editing a digital collection on sound and writing pedagogy. If you’re interested on submitting an idea for how you use sound in the classroom, read the CFP or listen to the audio version at the Soundwriting Pedagogies project page. He also podcasts every month or so at Plugs, Play, Pedagogy, a show about teaching writing and rhetoric in the 21st century, which led to a workshop and presentation on academic podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference.
- Jennifer Stoever published three articles this year, “Fine-tuning the Sonic Color-line: Radio and the Acousmatic Du Bois” in Modernist Cultures, “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: New York’s Black Press Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign Against Noise,’” in Radical History Review, and “Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or (Re) Sounding Binghamton,” in the Proceedings of Invisible Places / Sounding Cities. Sound Urbanism and Sense of Place (you can download the full volume here). She was also named an Engaged Teaching Fellow by the Binghamton Center for Civic Engagement and enjoyed the hell out of herself co-teaching a radio arts course with filmmaker and Sound Artist Monteith McCollum. They produced an accompanying live radio show (listen here!).
- Aaron Trammell will defend his dissertation in September 2015 and will begin a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.
Neil Verma has had a busy year: the WOTW article ran in Velvet Light Trap, published a chapter on noir in Kiss the Blood of My Hands, wrote an article on Wyllis Cooper in the Journal of Sonic Studies, did a review about Sean Borodale’s “Mighty Beast” in RadioDoc Review, wrote an article on Game of Thrones in Critical Quarterly, did a short piece on listening in Lang’s Hangmen Also Die in Cine-Files, then this post on using podcasting to study podcasting in Antenna. He also co-programmed the conference Sonic Boom: Sustaining Sound Studies here at Northwestern, and did Network Director stuff for the Library of Congress RPTF.
- Alyxandra Vesey published three articles: “Mixing in Feminism.” Popular Music and Society (39) 4: 1-20; “Putting Her on the Shelf: Pop Star Fragrances and Post-feminist Entrepreneurialism.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (6): 1-17; and “Working for @LateNightJimmy.” Spectator: Performing Labor in the Media Industries 35 (2): 47-56. Also, as the graduate representative for the Women’s Caucus, she helped put on SCMS’s “Participatory Pedagogy” networking event and workshop at last spring’s conference in Montreal.
The theme for this year’s Blog-o-Versary post and mix was of course inspired by Curtis Mayfield and his early group The Impressions. Thank you for this sonic uplift!
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “Keep on Pushing” mix 6.0 with track listing
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
- 2014 #flawless 5.0 celebration and mix
- 2013 Blog-o-Versary 4.0: Solid Gold Summer Countdown!
- 2012 #Blog-O-Versary 3.0: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (The Awesomeness)!
- 2011 “Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox” 2.0
- 2010 First Blog-O-Versary party mix: A Celebration of Awesomeness
World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015
For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS
As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”
“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.
Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.
Today, 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.”
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Como Now? Marketing “Authentic” Black Music— Jennifer Stoever
Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America — Jeb Middlebrook
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Listening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES
ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST
This week, Sounding Out! is happy to share a podcast on nostalgia, performance, and sound. Please join host, Eleanor Russell (Northwestern University), as she guides us through through the popular sounds of the 1980s and compares her sonically-mediated memories to the lived perspectives of her co-hosts André Callot (Independent Artist) and Eric Wenzel (Roosevelt University). How do we remember urban space through sonic media, and is their a potential to queer our memories of the decade by revisiting our shared media ouvré? No matter where you stand on the issue, we recommend that if you enjoyed this week’s podcast you listen in on Eleanor’s other work exploring performance and sound at Noisy Ghost.
Podcast host Eleanor Russell is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Program in Theatre and Drama. Her research interests include sound studies, women’s stand-up and performance art, and feminist epistemologies and phenomenologies. She is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster at Northwestern. MA in Theatre History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, BA Religious Studies from Grinnell College.
Featured image by Domriel @Flickr CC BY-NC.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale” – Sonia Li
SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory– Stuart Fowkes
Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs – Tim J. Anderson