“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.
The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.
I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.
However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.
Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.
“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much
To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.
The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.
We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.
One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.
But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.
Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.
Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral
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Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever
This 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 “refurbished” square and the displacement of their lives within it. For me, O’Keeffe’s ideas were electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via ReSounding Binghamton 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 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?
Last week, we heard from the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, Christie Zwahlen, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens. In coming weeks, we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffe‘s 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.” We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelin, who 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. This week, artist/scholar Luz María Sánchez gives us the privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, detritus.2/ V.F(i)n_1–1st prize winner at the 2015 Biennial of the Frontiers in Matamoros, Mexico —which uses found recordings and images to break the deleterious silence created by narco violence in Mexico.
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
detritus is an open-ended art project I started in 2011, that has as its main subject the portrayal of violence in Mexico. I introduce the sounds and images of what I call the Postnational Violence in Mexico using the concept of detritus as the nucleus; I use the cultural objects I produce through my artistic practice as the vehicle. detritus actually explores violence (1) as it is portrayed through media (radio, TV, newspapers and online platforms) and (2) as it is registered, manipulated and transmitted by the different participants of it –civilians, the government, NGOs, the military, the cartels–.
The first stage of detritus deals with Mexican media, specifically online newspapers, radio and TV, during the Presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). The whole strategy of [former] President Calderón —even before he took office— was to knock down violence associated to drug trafficking in Mexico and, actually, just a few days after he did his pledge as President of Mexico, he declared the war against drug trafficking that underwent from 11December 2006 —when Calderón actually started this war by sending 5,000 soldiers and police officers to the state of Michoacán— until the last day he was in Office: 31 November 2012.
During the six years that this war took place, former President Calderón appeared in military garments as “Mexico’s Drug War Commander in Chief.” The main target of this military strategy was to re-claim the control on those states where Mexican cartels were in charge. As Guillermo Pereyra argues in México: violencia criminal y “Guerra contra el narcotráfico” (2012), “Mexico’s Drug War” began as a decision to recover sovereignty in a context of political and social crisis. At the end of this period, there were more than 45,000 officers deployed in the states of Mexico, Baja California, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Durango, and more than 60,000 casualties. US media called this war “The Mexican War on Drugs” or “Mexico’s Drug War.”
The research for the visuals of detritus included every single [online] edition of Milenio and Jornada —Mexican national newspapers—from 11 December 2006 until 31 November 2012, and eventually it also included Proceso magazine and El Blog del Narco, an online independent news outlet. This research allowed me to investigate how the media has steadily been increasing the volume of news and images dealing with this war, therefore contributing to the “normalization” of the very violence it covers. As Colombian artist Doris Salcedo states the normalization of barbarism comes from the excessive number of deaths that violence is leaving to the society and, [I will add] to the excessive number of images and sounds that media and individuals put on circulation and make it viral through social networks and online independent outlets. All of us are, either as transmitters or as receivers, building this texture of violence.
At the end of 2013 detritus was completed: more than 10,200 images, all of them categorized in a database that includes: title of newspaper, section, header, author of the photograph, caption, and a brief description of the image itself. I used a very simple process of photographic manipulation to alter those 10,200 images. Once transformed, these images are projected, for a very short period of time [2 seconds each] in a large screen. We could be standing in front of this projection for hours and never see any of those images repeated. For those who are drawn to numbers, we could see that at the beginning of this war, during a whole weekend, there will be four or five images related to the subject; by the end of 2012, there were more than 40 images during the same period of time.
But the description of the horror through Mexican media does not include all the necessary voices. That is why civilians started a process to empower themselves using the tools they have at hand–such as mobile phone’s cameras–a medium they can use without restrictions. Over the Internet, civilians circulated images, videos, and sounds of their day-to-day experiences dealing with extreme violence. They are not alone on this viralization of violence through audiovisual documents: members of drug cartels and self-defense groups are also uploading their combats. The big difference is each group’s “agenda.” Civilians are in search of an arena to share their experiences; cartels and other military groups are either in search of validation or in search of documenting the systematic violence used in order to control whole populations.
Therefore, the audio complement I designed for detritus, first detritus.2 and then its current iteration V.F(i)n_1 , features the sounds of shootings, recorded by civilians who happened to be at close range. Generally this footage was taken via mobile phone and uploaded onto YouTube, and, unlike the newspaper representations, the image is not necessarily what is most engaging, since the individual that is making the recording is usually at floor level, protected, in order to avoid being hit by a stray bullet. But the sounds are pristine: even if the image is almost motionless -in the corner of a room, looking through a small part of a window-, the sound describes better what is at stake: violence at a very close range. The sounds on these recordings are very similar: the shootings are placed in the background, and we generally listen to voices in the foreground.
Each of the twenty recordings that integrate to create detritus.2 was taken from You Tube. The shootings occurred in the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Zupango, Orizaba, Saltillo, Juarez, Changuitiro, Purépero, Xalapa, Jiquilpan, Santa María del Oro and Mexico City. All of them, played together, contribute to the assembly of what Salcedo calls a texture of sound. The recordings are reproduced/played by twenty portable digital speakers in the shape of guns. These sound-reproduction machines are completely autonomous–no power or sound cables attached–and each speaker is a sound component by itself. Once the battery is worn, the sound is gone until the battery is recharged, therefore restarting the process performance / sound – waste / silence. Silence is one of the worst problems when dealing with violence.The government and the drug cartels alike don’t want anybody to openly discuss these issues. Working with families within specific communities in Mexico and the US will help make their stories visible -out of the anonymous data- and visibility could empower them.
But exploring the “normalization” of violence through media is not my only intervention with detritus and detritus.2. Far from the sound art movement, where soundscape often functions as a neutral label that includes organized sounds taken from the surroundings, detritus.2 deals with Mexican contemporary cities’ sounds, recorded and disseminated by the same individuals that live within these acoustic situations. Those are the sounds that [also] construct the Mexican landscape, telling the story of the failed nation. Taken together, the sounds of detritus.2 amplifies the fact that we are standing in front of the failure of the Mexican state as we know it, and its civilian population has been dealing with this irregular situation for many decades. We have witnessed drug cartels infiltrate every layer of life; and just because many civilians end up surviving —with and around it—does not make the problem disappear. On the contrary, every broken boundary makes the problem harder and harder to be resolved.
The failure of the Mexican State, or the “inferno” as is being called now, is something Mexico can no longer hide. When I say Mexico here, I am not referring to its general population–already exhausted already from decades on “survival mode”– but rather the Capitol elite: the government, investors, intellectuals, and journalists alike. This situation is not new to civilians living outside of Mexico City. Entire communities in the north of Mexico have been abandoning their belongings-jobs-lives, in extremely fast exodus, either to the US or to tranquil states like Yucatán. Thousands of mothers and fathers are looking for their sons and daughters taken by the cartels, in the best-case scenario they are put to work as slaves either at the drug camps or as prostitutes, in the worst they may be in the thousands of mass graves that pollute the country. Civilians understood early in the story that any complaint to the police would result in an even worse situation. For years, it has been known in the bus industry that a lot of young male and female travelers have been kidnapped to make them join this industry of slaves, and only recently they started to admit it: tons of luggage at bus terminals on the northern states of Mexico speak for those that went missing, and nobody said a word. Just the past 19 October 2014 a corpse of a went-missing-police-officer’s mother was placed in front of the Ministry of the Interior’s building: they never pursued an investigation over the disappearance of the young officer, and the last will of this ailing mother was her coffin to be placed in the street outside of the Ministry of the Interior as a way of extreme protest.
Listening Ahead: V. (u)nF_2
In the next phase of detrius.2, V. (u)nF_2–an acronym for Vis. (un) necessary force–I am making sculptural objects and sounds to construct a multi-channel sound-installation exploring the question: how do civilians in Mexico live through the extreme violence product of the fight against drug cartels in a state that has revealed its own failure? The artwork consists of a multiple series of custom-made ceramic-sound devices/megaphones in the shape of human heads/faces, molded after living family members of civilians that are still on the “missing” lists, maybe kidnapped and/or killed by drug cartels. In order to make an archive that includes each family’s data, I will collaborate with organizations that assist civilians on finding their relatives. To make a representative selection, I plan to analyze data through a mathematic-algorithm; chosen families will be invited to be part of the project. Each family will designate a member to participate symbolically as the “missing” person. A 3D-scan data portrait will be made of each participant, followed by a ceramic-3D-print. I will then install an electronic-circuit and megaphone inside of the hollow-human-head/faces-ceramic-objects. To develop the sound element –a thick stratum of noise– I will digitally modify a multiple-layered-construction of sounds after the stored data. The specifics of each story/participant will be presented at the exhibition space through an interactive database. Custom-made ceramic-objects/megaphones will be resting on the floor; in in order to cross the exhibition-space, visitors will have to carefully move these 3D-ceramic-portraits, each one representing an individual story.
V. (u)nF_2 is a gesture that listens forward, taking those 24,000–and counting–missing-individuals outside of data-archives and rehumanizing them through storytelling, 3D-scan/print technology and sound. The fact that I will use traditional methods to approach my subject —the horror of this war against civilians– but will also use state-of-the-art-technology in order to shape the hardware needed for sound-installation, combines a human-scale project with the possibilities of the digital-world, which places this project within the so-called Third-Industrial-Revolution but grounds it in the real.
Listen to other sound installations by Luz María Sánchez:
Frecuencias Policiacas// Police Frequencies: “Las grabaciones que forman parte del audio multicanal de la instalación, fueron llevadas a cabo en la central de radiocomunicación de la policía de Nuevo Laredo, y fueron facilitadas a la artista por reporteros del diario El Mañana en agosto de 2005. Los audios registran una confrontación entre la policía de Nuevo Laredo y un grupo criminal no identificado, y por las características de los mismos, se pueden escuchar a diversos elementos policiacos, así como a las controladoras de la radiocomunicación. La re-transmisión de estos sonidos en una matriz multi-líneal, colocan a la obra en nuevos niveles de codificación en los que la complejidad visual, auditiva y político social de esta realidad, se hacen patentes.” –Description by Roberto Arcaute y Manuel Rocha Iturbide
Frecuencias Policiacas// Police Frequencies: “The recordings are part of the multichannel audio installation carried out in the central police radio Nuevo Laredo, provided to the artist by El Mañana newspaper reporters in August 2005. The audio recorded a confrontation between police and an unidentified criminal Nuevo Laredo group. . .The re-transmission of these sounds in a multi-linear matrix placed to work in new levels of encryption that make evident the social visual, auditory and political complexity of this reality.” –Description by Roberto Arcaute y Manuel Rocha Iturbide
2487: “2487 speaks the names of the two thousand four hundred eighty seven people who died crossing the U.S./Mexico border . The work employs digital technology and sound as a means for transborder memorialization and protest, imposing the absence of those lost into the public sphere. Sánchez’ immersive sound environment remaps social history as the names of the deceased fly across the border through soundscape and digital media. Drawing from data acquired from activist websites, Sánchez created a sound map of names which she recorded digitally. Her final score, along with the database, has been exhibited widely but lives permanently on the world wide web, in commemoration and quiet protest. Sánchez’ work connects the digital and geographic landscape to the listener’s body, gaining entry through sound and transcending political and physical barriers”– Description from UCR Critical Digital 8/19/2012
Sound and visual artist Luz María Sánchez studied both music and literature. Through her doctoral studies Sánchez has focused on the role of sound-in-art since its inception in the 19th century through its evolution as an independent art practice in the 20th century. Sánchez then examined the radio-plays of Samuel Beckett linking them to the sound-practices that emerged in the mid-20th century. Sánchez has continued her research on technologized-sound: she was part of the conference Mapping Sound and Urban Space in the Americas at Cornell University, and her book Technological Epiphanies: Samuel Beckett’s Use of Audiovisual Machines will be published in 2015. Her artwork has been included in major sound-and-music festivals such as Zéppellin-Sound-Art-Festival (Spain), Bourges-International-Festival-of-Electronic-Music-and-Sonic-Art (France), Festival-Internacional-de-Arte-Sonoro (Mexico), and has presented exhibitions at Marion-Koogler-McNay-Art-Museum, Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, Galería de la Raza (San Francisco), John-Michael-Kohler-Arts-Center (Sheboygan), Illinois State Museum (Chicago/Springfield), and Centro de Cultura Contemporánea (Barcelona) amongst others. She was granted a special distinction in the category Nouvea-Musiques at the Phonurgia-Nova-Prix (Arles), was the recipient of a Círculo-de-Bellas-Artes-de-Madrid’s grant, and Yuko Hasegawa selected her for the Artpace-International-Artist-in-Residence. She is member of the Board-of-the-Sound Experimentation-Space at Museum-of Contemporary-Art (MUAC). Sanchez was recently awarded the First Prize of the Frontiers Biennial (2015).
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This 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.
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.”
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.
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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Over the next few weeks, Sounding Out! is proud to offer a new Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, the kind of resources whose recognition and preservation could not only change media history, but also how we conceive of media history – and the voices that belong in it.
Our writers are part of an effort that is historic in its own right, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), part of the National Recording Reservation Plan at the Library of Congress. Over the past six months, under the guidance of Christopher Sterling (George Washington University) and Josh Shepperd (Catholic University), the RPTF has drawn together more than 120 faculty researchers and advisors from across the country who in turn have spread the word to create a network of more than 270 archives that hold recordings of broadcast radio, with the goal of creating a national inventory of finding aids and encouraging preservation and modernization through digital access.
If you’ve got archival broadcast radio that can’t be got online and maybe nobody even knows about — in any format or genre, national or local, high-powered or low, commercial or college, in a display or a shoebox – then we want you.
The coming months will see a second campaign of archive recruitment – I’ve taken on a role as Network Director to help coordinate that – as the RPTF rolls out a new working association with the American Archives of Public Broadcasting and gears up for a conference at the Library of Congress in early 2016, for which radio historian Michele Hilmes will be the Program Director.
Drawing on this vast effort, SO! will be bringing you stories of gaps in the record, voices we’ve long missed and need to recover, and some we are in danger of losing for good. We begin with a post by Josh Garrett-Davis, a PhD Candidate at Princeton University pursuing unique research into the long-unrecognized and uncatalogued history of Native American broadcasting.
Pursuing that history requires hard work and persistence; it also requires reimagining what counts as an archive in the first place.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
Despite dire poverty across most of the archipelago of semi-sovereign Native American land often called “Indian Country,” radio receivers had become a normal part of life there by the Great Depression. For example, as contemporary publications and later memoirs and oral histories reveal, after work hours in the camps of the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program (the Indian CCC) from northern Minnesota to the Southwest and the West Coast, many men and women listened to the wider world—even following Admiral Richard Byrd’s broadcasts from as far away as Little America, Antarctica.
Listeners, yes. But when did Native people take up the means of production, so to speak, and generate broadcasts themselves? In his history of Native radio, Signals in the Air, Michael C. Keith quotes several sources suggesting little sustaining programming existed until the first Native-owned and -oriented station appeared in New Mexico in 1972. As a sort of internal colony of the United States, Indian Country heard only imperial broadcasts for half a century. The “right to establish their own media in their own languages” in addition to “access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination”—as described in the U.N.’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—arrived remarkably late, and are still not fully granted to Native people. Quite recent are the 53 stations catering to Indian communities, and vital national programs like Native America Calling.
But Native people did speak and sing over the airwaves in earlier decades. In some cases a direct or indirect archive even exists, and undoubtedly more will emerge as radio archives more generally are preserved and cataloged through efforts such as the Radio Preservation Task Force of the National Recording Preservation Plan. The trouble is that the cumulative archive of early Indian radio has not been identified as a valuable record or really as a coherent archive at all, perhaps due to compounded misconceptions of radio as an inconsequential documentary record, and of American Indians as technological naïfs. In this post I call attention to the scattered fragments of this archive, which should be recognized as an important heritage for the recent progress in Indigenous media, echoing the various ways Native people seized limited opportunities once broadcast technology appeared.
Here is an initial attempt to quilt a few of those pieces into a pattern:
Widespread broadcasting started at about the same moment—the 1920s—as the first agitation toward tribal political sovereignty in the (constrained) twentieth-century sense. In March 1925, the Cayuga statesman Levi General, who held the ceremonial title Deskaheh, delivered an address from a Rochester, New York, studio. As transcribed in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy)–produced book A Basic Call to Consciousness, he began, “Nearly everyone who is listening to me is a pale face, I suppose,” and went on to appeal to those palefaces for Iroquois sovereignty on land that, like his radio signal, straddled the Canada–U.S. border (18). He urged his listeners to write to representatives in both governments and “ask them to tell you when and how they got the right to govern people who have no part in your government and do not live in your country but live in their own” (22). General certainly grasped the democratic and transnational possibilities of the new medium as he spoke directly to the citizens of two newcomer nations and plainly described to them a Haudenosaunee sovereignty that must have seemed radical.
Around the same time, the Yakama/Cherokee singer Kiutus Tecumseh (aka Herman Roberts) used his celebrity to perform on radio stations across the country, adding political commentary on Indian policy between songs. Often the songs he performed were Indianist compositions by non-Indian composers; Tecumseh was, in historian John Troutman’s words, “‘playing Indian’ with a pointed, political message” (250). Ojibwe bass singer Chief Roaring Thunder (aka George LaMotte), meanwhile, performed on KVOO from Tulsa in the 1920s, as mentioned in the contemporary press.
So far no audio transcriptions of any of these pioneering broadcasts have turned up, though in the 1970s the publication Akwesasne Notes produced a reenactment of General’s address and sold it on reel-to-reel, cassette, and cartridge.
One Native radio voice of whom an audio archive remains is the humorist Will Rogers (Cherokee). Historians Lary May and Amy M. Ware have convincingly argued that Rogers espoused Cherokee values—which informed his communitarian politics—and sometimes advocated directly on Native issues. Part of the task of creating and preserving an Indigenous media archive is to recognize Rogers’s place in a genealogy: He united oratory like Levi General’s with the vaudeville sensibility of Kiutus Tecumseh and Chief Roaring Thunder. (Rogers could also stand in for a number of mainstream performers whose Indian heritage was not widely recognized, from Lee Wiley to Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix.)
World War II brought about vast changes in Indian Country, including increased exposure on the air. Great numbers of Native people served in the war effort—notably, in terms of radio, the Navajo and Comanche “code talkers.” But back home, the first sustained radio program, aptly named the Indians for Indians hour, began in 1941 on WNAD in Norman, Oklahoma. Don Whistler (aka Kesh-Ke-Kosh), the first Sac and Fox chief elected under the reforms of the “Indian New Deal,” created the show as a model of participatory programming and (fortunately for later generations) recorded more than a hundred programs on acetate discs before he died in 1951. Indians for Indians, which served and drew performers from perhaps twenty tribal communities and several Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma, persisted in various forms until the 1980s. The only show available online is one from 1976.
I have listened to most of the extant shows from the first decade—which are not endangered except insofar as they have been ignored—and it is a remarkable institution that adopted Will Rogers’s humor and brio while also foreshadowing the vibrant Native radio networks of today.
Archives are more scarce from elsewhere in Indian Country, but traces endure in archives and history books: The renowned Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser performed on the air in New Mexico as “the Apache Kid.” In the 1930s and ’40s, students from Santa Fe Indian School and Flandreau Indian School performed on radio shows in Santa Fe and Omaha, respectively. I have not found any recordings of any of these instances, but a few audio archives suggest transcriptions yet to surface: A Tuscarora farm family can be heard singing “By the Waters of the Minnetonka” on Major Bowes and His Amateur Hour on NBC in 1935. NBC also covered an American Indian Exposition and the Flagstaff All-Indian Powwow in the ’30s, which gave Native singers and speakers a national hearing. A non-Indian couple recorded Hopi and Zuni singers on an unidentified station in 1955 and 1956 from Parks, Arizona, a tape which was dubbed by an anthropologist and deposited in the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University.
There must be many other fragments, and we can hope that broad efforts like the Radio Preservation Task Force—as well as archival efforts originating among Indigenous organizations like Native Public Media, Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Native Media Resource Center, and Vision Maker Media—could turn up records of them.
Marshall McLuhan once wrote ominously of the “tribal drum of radio” leading the masses to totalitarianism. But that message, like the medium itself, could be interpreted in a much more constructive sense. When we gather together the early history of Native radio and assemble the intertribal quilt proposed above, the product seems to squarely refute the racial logic McLuhan implied. We may find instead that Indian people themselves recognized right away the importance this “drum” could and would have for maintaining vibrant language, musical, and oral traditions in the face of colonialism.
The Red Power movement is generally thought to begin with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969–71. Part of that action was the Santee Dakota poet and activist John Trudell’s creation, “Radio Free Alcatraz” on KPFA in Berkeley, California. We might hear these programs (preserved in the Pacifica Network’s archives) as heralding a new era of reservation stations and media advocacy by Native people. We could also hear them as descending from efforts—still unrecognized and uncatalogued—by Native innovators over the previous half century.
Josh Garrett-Davis is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University. His dissertation, “Resounding Voices: American Indians and Audio Technology, 1890–1969,” examines Native American use of phonograph and radio technology from the earliest ethnographic and commercial phonograph records to the founding of Indian-run labels and radio shows in the mid-twentieth century. He is the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains (Little, Brown, 2012), and a member of the collective M12, which promotes and creates art in rural places.
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Special thanks to Daniel Murphy for the RPTF Logo.