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Sonic Salvation: A Story of How Listening Can Change Over A Lifetime

By the age of six, I could circumscribe my world in song. I was not particularly precocious — my world was just small. Ultimately, it would be fractured by its own rebellious genesis.

Two genres of folk music marked out the poles of my preciously tiny planet. Heaven’s jubilee rang in one ear: a cappella gospel, sturdily founded upon the biblical injunction to make melody in the heart. In the other ear, however, was the music of the devil himself: alcohol-drenched, two-stepping, hell-raising honky-tonk, enticing one to sin not just in the heart, but with the entire body. Together, they formed an eternally reciprocal refrain: Saturday night sin prompted Sunday morning renewal. There was little room for anything else, particularly dissent.

Sunday morning resounded with four-part harmony based on a shape-note system of musical notation, widely referred to as Sacred Harp. We sang again at our Sunday evening and mid-week services. Throughout the year, we also hosted regional “singings,” bringing together folks from other congregations, swelling our own sound by double. It was an easy form of music to learn by design, with its origins in early 19th-century America. Its strongest base was in the American South, and I inherited at least two generations’ worth of experience. It set the tone for my interactions with the world for the first three decades of my life.

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Taken at the Sacred Harp Museum by Flickr user Lance McCord, CC BY 2.0

Musicologists have documented and analyzed Sacred Harp thoroughly, with Alan Lomax having had a particular fascination for it. He considered it as not only an extension of four-square Anglo forms but also as the crossroads where the Reformation met the Democratic Experiment. In Lomax’s view—expressed in a 1982 interview at the Sacred Harp Convention at Holly Spring, Georgia—European migration to colonize America broke the established authority of the church, leaving every person to forge a singular relationship with God. This supposition harmonizes perfectly with the views of the congregational church I attended. We had no hierarchy, no choir, no piano. Every man, woman, and child added their voice, as best they knew how, to raise an egalitarian song of praise. Songs such as “This World is Not My Home,” “The Glory Land Way,” and “Blessed Assurance” exemplify the form: simple rhyme schemes; closely-yoked shifts in harmony and rhythm; and southern gospel’s initial shunning of poly-rhythms or syncopation.

For me, Sacred Harp music created an immersive and experiential soundscape; emotionally and spiritually motivating, it was the sound of temporal and eternal life.  Like our singing style, our church service presented a model for our lives outside the sanctuary. “Trust and Obey” was a frequently sung hymn—and it summed up our approach to life in all matters. Obedience was expected, deviation discouraged.

Worlds away from my sheltered existence, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement embraced a cappella singing as a powerful means to encourage, motivate, and activate. In the 2009 documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution, U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis said, “It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” His a cappella community was connected to the church and the streets, challenging the status quo, and seeking greater brotherhood. Mine was by the book, increasingly authoritarian, very narrow in scope and population.

Sacred Harp Singing, Bloomington, Indiana, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Jamison (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To us, the New Testament authorized one and only one instrument for offering songs to God: the unaccompanied human voice. The root of this belief was a concise motto coined in the early 1800s by Alexander Campbell, a leader in the Second Great Awakening: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Applying this principle, then, the apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, encouraged Christians to sing. But nowhere did he or another New Testament writer suggest using an instrument. This silence equals prohibition. It sets its own reality, ignoring abundant biblical evidence to the contrary: the Old Testament presents many examples of instruments used in worship, as does the New Testament’s Book of Revelations.

Our a cappella song service was, therefore, more than a sound—it was a belief system, a worldview in which other sounds or ideas were alien. We applied Campbell’s principle across-the-board, backing ourselves into corners: slaves were to obey their masters; wives were to submit to their husbands; children were to be fully subject to their parents. Questioning authority, let alone defying it, was strongly condemned by Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

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“The One and Only Lefty Frizzell” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC 2.0

Alternately, classic honky-tonk’s twangy resistance seemed to defy the innovations and complexity of modern life. As I was growing up, the sinful songs of Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and George Jones flowed like wine from my family’s record collection and radio settings. Songs of murder, drunkenness, alienation, revenge, adultery, and the workingman’s blues are staples of the honky-tonk catalog. Its celebrated ethic of “three chords and the truth” favored a rural do-it-yourself ethic. My church’s music was both challenged and validated by this unlikely and unruly roommate; honky-tonk was a matched bookend for Sacred Harp.

For in the background of many of those honky-tonk sounds, whether they were about larceny, war, or revenge on the boss, I heard the same harmony that filled my church. In the 1950s or so, southern gospel groups such as the Jordanaires, Blackwood Brothers, and the Statler Brothers, began backing country music artists including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Gary Stewart. Their sonic presence lent an almost holy sanction to the commission of sin, as if Jesus and Satan met after-hours to share a drink and balance the books.

This sonic emulsification of sin and salvation formed my youthful identity and bracketed a very small existence. My world consisted of very gendered personal struggles: man vs. temptation; man vs. alcohol; man vs. boss; woman vs. womanizer. The solution provided for these struggles was always the same: the efficacious grace of God. All failings and victories were personal, not structural or systemic. The fight against personal sin was the only fight.

Southern gospel music and honky-tonk have enjoyed an institutional relationship since the founding of the Grand Ole Opry in 1920s, sanctioning the blending of reprobation and redemption. Though initially politically ambivalent, the Opry listed towards social conservatism during the 1960s—Johnny Cash’s nascent social awareness notwithstanding. In 1970, however, the Opry and the industry it represented found itself an unlikely accessory to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” He declared October 1970 to be Country Music Month, and a few years later blessed the Grand Ole Opry with its first presidential visit.

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Screen capture from Billboard’s “Roy Acuff Teaches President Nixon the Yo-Yo at the Grand Ole Opry” (1974)

Politically conservative messages had entered country airwaves during the late 1960s, epitomized, if not pioneered, by Bakersfield stalwart Merle Haggard. His “Okie From Muskogee” ridiculed hippies, dope smokers, draft dodgers, long-hairs, flag burners, and college activists, all within a 3-minute single format. Though ostensibly written as a joke, it struck a chord among conservative, Christian, country music fans. Sensing a market, Haggard followed up with the flag-waving “Fightin’ Side of Me,” wherein he further shames pacifists.

These songs contained the truth as I believed it in grammar school: protestors, adulterers, and dope smokers were all in defiance of God. Haggard’s refrain in “Fightin’ Side”—“if you don’t love it, leave it”—made sense to me, and was safely non-challenging. Conveniently, the religious body of which I was a member had, a generation prior to me, actively opposed pacifism.

A world composed only of personal demons, however, leaves little room for social issues. Being so long accustomed to seeing the sin in man left me unable to recognize the sin in the system. Sam Cooke’s great risk in recording “A Change is Gonna Come,” for example, was lost on me, even though we both shared a battle between religious and secular personas.

I never heard his call to address greater systemic problems such as racism, audibly or socially. Even as I entered my 20s, my white patriarchal religious sonic defense system kept the freedom struggles of people of color at bay. Even if dissenting sounds managed to sneak through–Marvin Gaye’s struggles in “Inner City Blues” for example—I quickly dismissed them as exaggeration or the natural outcome of personal sin. I could not process a sound which conflicted with my God-given world view.  I saw only men and women avoiding their duty and surrendering to temptation.

My mother frequently said that the lives portrayed in honky-tonk songs were not her life. But in another sense, those desperate lives, and the more hopeful ones portrayed in gospel music, were our lives collectively. We were part of a greater social identity: Southern, white, Fundamentalist, change-averse, full of latent conflicts. Those sounds, rich with heritage and lived-in context, formed us. In other words, our vernacular limited our hearing. Our world was formed within a fixed sonic boundary, and we ignored, resisted and sometimes even combatted discordant sounds.

Within this soundscape, I had never heard of any march from Selma to Montgomery, not from church, family, the radio, or, sadly, even school. The larger movement of which it was a part—perhaps the biggest social movement of the 20th century—was inaudible and therefore irrelevant to me. When I did begin to hear of protests against white racial violence, I could only condemn anyone who defied authority. I did not know what to say about authority which abused the people. Raised to function in a law-and-order world, I could only repeat the Apostle Paul’s instruction that we all must obey authority or incur the wrath of God.

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“Selma Protesters Met By Police: 1965” by Flickr user Washington Area Spark, CC BY-NC 2.0

But thankfully, sound travels in subversive ways, such as through the transmitters of listener-supported community radio.

I found Dallas’ KNON completely by chance. Commuting to work through the city’s legendary rush hour, I’d get fidgety. While searching the dial, I heard a familiar song in an unfamiliar arrangement. I don’t recall the song now, but do remember its force: a honky-tonk classic played through a stack of Marshall amps, turned up to the proverbial ’11.’ Perhaps it was Leon Payne’s Lost Highway as rendered by Jason and the Scorchers—anarchistic, upending, challenging, it still carried enough familiarity to keep me listening. I stayed tuned in for the next song, then another. When the DJ, Nancy “Shaggy” Moore, signed off her show, I gave a listen to the next show—at least until they said something a bit too dissonant.

But the next day, I tuned in to Shaggy again. And I listened a bit longer when the next show came on. And even longer the day after that. Dallas at that time was wracked by racial strife, some of it focused on the politicized deaths of two police officers, one white and one black, in separate incidents. I had tuned out the duplicity, but KNON gave me reason to reconsider. City council member Diane Ragsdale, an African-American woman representing one of the city’s most trod-upon districts, refused to let the issue go. KNON provided the venue for her to express her outrage unmitigated, and to explain the inconsistencies in a way that an entitled white male suburbanite, such as I, could understand.

Tim Rice suggests that we are not free agents in the creation of our identities—but given the right stimuli, we will resist, to the point of rebellion, the personhood prepared for us.  The latent heretical ethics of Sacred Harp and Honky-tonk finally responded to the sonic stimuli flowing through the breach, triggering an insatiable devil’s advocacy: “Prove yourself to me,” I said to everything I had once believed, religious faith included. St. John wrote in his First Epistle: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” This was to be the last biblical directive I would follow.

My radical shift in musical listening also greatly impacted my political, and cultural beliefs and listening practices, something which continued throughout my life. For example, I ended my professional career as well, having understood the devastating effects that high tech industries have on the environment and workforce. I traded a six-figure salary for minimum wage in foodservice. Not once have I looked back.

“Kitchen Music” by Flickr User David Blaine (CC BY 2.0)

Kitchen work comes with immersive sound: machines hum and sometimes roar; the radio blasts through the static; humans must shout to be heard. Working throughout the western US, in a variety of independent restaurants, I learned to understand and speak Spanish. I participated in defying a language ban placed on my colleagues by an overbearing owner: I noted that she forbade speaking in Spanish, but not singing in Spanish. So sing we did, about needing a potato peeler, taking out the trash, and what we were going to do over the weekend.

As I worked my way up the ranks and crossed the country from California to Manhattan, I listened to the stories told me by immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Dominica, Morocco, South Africa. They shared their music with me, via radio, iPod, cassette, or any object we could plug into an overcooked boom box. Every song and conversation has pulled me into greater participation in their lives and the systemic issues faced by most of the world around me.

Dismantling one’s identity, regardless of how deliberately it is done, happens amidst lots of noise: illusions shatter, idols crash to the ground, walls tumble into rubble. Dissent comes in myriad expressions, and for me, it has come via my own three-chords-and-the-truth and through a multimedia socially-progressive dining event which I call Peace Meal Supper Club. Its very raison d’etre is to illuminate dissonance on issues such as the right to sanctuary, our diminishing seed supply, the plight of the rural poor, and other devastating threads of intersectionality. Music is a critical component of each event, as Otis Taylor, Lila Downs, and Caetano Veloso share playlist space with Manecas Costa and Majida El Roumi Baradhy. Old favorites like “Sixteen Tons” get their say, as well—for behind that song’s well-earned swagger is a system of devastating intersectional oppression that demands our action.

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Featured Image: Image of a Stained Glass Crosley Cathedral, Image by Tubular Bob

Kevin Archer is a multi-media artist who left corporate security for a DIY life as a farmer, activist, educator, and chef. He’s planted gardens coast-to-coast, and washed his own sauté pans from Denver to Mendocino, Santa Fe to NYC, and random locations in between. Kevin’s current project is Peace Meal Supper Club, a series of immersive dining events which explore ecojustice, human rights, the capitalistic conquest of the seed and soil, and the power of progressive movements. He has written for Civil Eats, No Depression, Secular Web, and the Museum of Animals & Society. He has spoken on the intersection of food and social issues at numerous conferences within the Eastern US.

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tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

What is a Voice? – Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

“HOW YOU SOUND??:” The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry – John Hyland 

The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom – Carter Mathes 

The Listening Body in Death – Denise Gill

Cardi B: Bringing the Cold and Sexy to Hip Hop

In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.

Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about trap in Cuba and about Latinx identity in Australia. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum on Thursday with a free playlist for our readers. Today we continue No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & Sound Studies with Ashley Luthers’ essay on femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music.

Liana M. Silva, forum editor

“Ran down on that bitch twice” was all I heard in this tight, dark basement filled with black and brown bodies, sweat dripping everywhere from everyone. Girls danced all over, yelling and shouting lyrics as they clapped and pointed along to the fast, upbeat rhythm of the song, feeling their own sensations and pleasure from the vibe, and rapping with the catchiness of the repeated phrase, “Ran down on that bitch twice!” As everyone was jumping, the space around me shook because there was so much body movement and flow; it was lit. This wasn’t the first time I heard Cardi B, but dancing along to her song “Foreva” was definitely the first I remember hearing her. Since that dark basement party, I realized that the attitude and energy Cardi B invokes through her raps and lyrics is addicting.

Listening repeatedly to “Foreva,” and the rest of her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol.1, has attuned me to Cardi B as a stone cold, gangster bitch: someone who is fearless, tough on the outside and inside. She doesn’t hesitate; she doesn’t bluff. She gets straight to the point and lets you know that she will fuck you up if and when necessary. A ‘G’ she is, as some would say when describing a person who shows no fear and is always hustling—except that someone is imagined as a black male from the so-called ‘hood who affiliates with drugs, gangs, etc. The music itself reflects this gangster feel, through the hard trap sounds and beats in every track. Trap music as a style and subset of Hip-Hop, and arguably a genre on its own, originated in Atlanta, and has over time become mainstream all across the U.S. specifically within the Northeast region. Within Cardi’s performed, stone cold bitch lyrical persona, she embodies an aggressive femme sexuality, a racialized femme hunger for sex with black men, and an emotional depth that makes her endearing to listeners. Her embodiment of this multiplicity—stone cold attitude, femme sexual thirst, and emotional complexity—can be heard in her music, through the explosion of beats, rhythms, and lyrics that keep listeners hooked to the sound of her self-image. In other words, Cardi B’s sonic and lyrical movements work in tandem with her audio-visual construction of black, Caribbean, Bronx femme desire.

Nowadays this audio-visual construction  is visible across her music and social media, but I want to focus on the image of her debut mixtape cover, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol.1. This image hailed me and continues to hold me in thrall after lengthy meditations on it. In it, Cardi B sits in the backseat of a car, high-rise apartments peering through the back window, with her legs spread wide open. Between her legs, a big, black, faceless, tatted man gives her head as she casually drinks her Corona. The man’s back sprawls in the place where we might imagine Cardi B’s junk/pussy; he’s her bitch. The audacity of displaying her desire mid-sex-act intrigues me and does more than merely assert black femme sexual desire. The media blew up when Nicki Minaj did her lollipop photoshoot in which her legs are wide open, and her crotch is heavily exposed. But Cardi B’s mixtape cover has a different impact, because of the positioning of its vulgarity and audacity.

I’ve seen pictures of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim where they’re half naked, open to giving men pleasure, and completely distorting the expectation of respectable black women to cover their bodies and assets. But what makes Cardi’s mixtape visual different even from Lil’ Kim’s and Minaj’s visual constructions is that it shouts power from the position often occupied by cis-male desire. Cardi B is seizing her own sexual power and gangster agency while she asserts her business hustle from the seated position of power that is often assumed by cis-male gangster rappers and performers. In the angle and composition of the mixtape image, we, as viewers, are positioned to look up at her as we witness her experiencing pleasure. She’s above us, and her chosen sexual object, who is a big black man, a figure whose masculinity is historically challenged by normative and respectability-obsessed society, and who is historically susceptible to being emasculated, is situated beneath her: there’s a troubling of power’s embodiment, specifically through sex, in this image. She’s visually insisting on getting play.

I connect Gangsta Bitch Mixtape Vol. 1’s cover image to the sounds, vibes, and lyrics of Cardi B’s tracks within the mixtape. In “Foreva,” for example, she raps, “Silly muthafucka who raised you/ a nigga with a pussy how disgraceful.” It’s at this point that we realize that the “bitch” that she “ran down on,” “twice,” is also a dude. In the lyrics, she alternates between beefing with trifling chicks and dudes; for Cardi, bitches breach a gender dyad. She raps from a masculine position as a femme, which ultimately illustrates her mixtape cover’s reversal of who is in the receptive and dominant position of sexual power. In “Foreva,” she’s talking down on black men the same way that most of these men speak on black women in the Hip-Hop industry. Cardi twists the normative misogyny and disrespect that is often demonstrated towards black women in Hip-Hop and instead uses that towards apostrophic black men. The lyrics of “Foreva” and the Gangsta Bitch mixtape cover both sustain this idea of Cardi B working within masculine tropes as a woman in the industry. On the mixtape cover, she is the one who is receiving pleasure, instead of giving it to a man. Lyrically and physically, she’s in a place where she’s on top, looking down on her subject/object of sexual desire, and inviting her audience to watch.

Sonically, “Foreva” and other tracks fits within the genre of trap music. Many of the songs in the mixtape have aggressive beats. The genre is characterized by a deep, hard mood created by the fast beat: Justin Burton describes it as “one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates.” This is what we hear and feel from Cardi’s music itself. Specifically, the BPM for “Foreva” is 161 which fits into the range of typical Trap music. The way she sounds is what she embodies. The flow of “Foreva” tells us as listeners that Cardi B isn’t here to play and she damn sure won’t let anybody stop her from making her money. The rest of the music on the mixtape takes a similar route, in that these crisp rhythms speak to her power, her urban upbringing, coming from the Bronx, and her days as a stripper. She owns her sexuality and claims it through the music. The cover reflects this: she is poised and looking directly at us, her stone-cold persona manifested in how she also appears utterly unbothered by you, us, looking at her, looking at us.

Cardi B’s a freak. Clearly. (As if we didn’t know this.) But the way she visually and sonically expresses her sexual yearning is more complicated than the word freak can capture. The thing with Cardi B is, she’s not afraid. In fact, she doesn’t care about respectability. Even when she raps about making money or callin’ shots on someone, she never hesitates to slide in something sex-related because she knows she’s good at getting and giving play, both sexually and musically: “Fuck him so good he gonna want to spend all that/ Pussy got him on the jugg he gonna re-up and come right back.” If you read the lyrics from “With That,” you could think the lyrical subject is a male rapper, like trap’s Future or Gucci Mane. In fact, this song is a remake from Young Thug’s “With That,” which comes from his album Barter 6. Young Thug is one of the big faces in the Atlanta Trap music scene and his track “With That” reflects the life of a rapper like him. Poppin pills, stacking money tall, Thug knows he’s killing the game and shitting on these other rappers with his sounds–Cardi B echoes that bravado in her remake.

Drugs, sex, money, hustle: Cardi B, in a way, replicates the masculine attachment to these tropes. But we are not listening to an abstract, masculinist lyrical subject on her mixtape; we are listening to a black femme subject. So, this goes beyond ‘replication’, as we may wonder whether it has ever historically not been the case in the Americas that black women also had to hustle, grind, find stimulation to escape normative constraints, and take care of their sexual desires. Which is to say, black men are not the OG hustlers; arguably, black women are, and Cardi B channels that historical force in her audio-visual construction of a stone-cold bitch who knows how to get play, and still have feelings in a hatin’ ass world.

We’re introduced to this hard, stone cold Cardi B inside and outside of her music’s lyrics as she repeatedly performs that she is not at all ashamed of the fact that she used to be stripper, aka, someone who hustles hard. Her choice of the trap genre, as a black Latina, acknowledges the existence of that hustle theme within it—even honors it. Her refusal of shame and respectability affects that take a specific toll on black women in the Americas, circles me back to the welcoming aura she displays on the mixtape cover. She wants viewers to see her in her happy place; she wants us listeners to hear how good she is in bed; she wants the world to know she’s a freak. This is her way of fucking with the mythical construction of masculinity in Hip-Hop where cis-men are the most badass, aka, the “most political” subjects; she acts on her own urges and desires, which does a lot more than just show femme as “sexy.” She’s sexy and she’s cold and so is her music too: the kick drums, synth lines, and hihats make her sonically ominous and cold.

In one of Cardi B’s latest tracks, “Money,” I still hear echoes of “Foreva,” but I’m hearing so much more. I find myself paying as much attention to the audio as to the visual constructions that Cardi B’s generous yet cutting aesthetic offers: in the cover image for “Money,” we see her naked body, positioned in a way that shows off her peacock thigh tattoo, suggesting but keeping her junk from you. She’s wearing a plethora of gold watches, almost as if they’re long-sleeve gloves, and a gold hat, the shape of which channels both Beyoncé’s in “Formation” and Jeffery’s (aka, Young Thug) on the cover of Jeffery. Unlike the cover of the first mixtape, Cardi does not give us her hair in this image, and she does not give us her gaze; while she directs her face at the camera, the hat dripping with diamonds conceals her hair and her eyes from us—or, she is giving her gaze to herself, to the inward rewards of her hustle. The ice is cold, but the image is warm as a swarm of gold bling and golden light surrounds her.

Lyrically, on “Money,” she’s doing what she does best, rapping about her hustle, her money, and still managing to throw in a little something about her love for sex. Sonically, this is pure trap. We hear an orchestration of keyboards, brass, and drums. As for us, listening viewers, we not only consume her music, but also continue to take in everything Cardi B has to offer because it fascinates and pleases us. She returns our pleasure (in her pleasure) to us, and nothing less than that.

Featured Image: Still from “Cardi B ‘Foreva’ (Live) Choreography By- Hollywood”

Ashley Luthers is currently a Senior at Wesleyan University studying English and Economics. She has spent the past year researching and studying Cardi B inside and outside of the classroom. Her final senior essay revolves around Cardi B as a black femme artist in Hip-Hop through an analysis of different theories surrounding the black female body.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley

What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music” -Robin James

“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt

“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Aaron Carter-Ényì delineates two central strands in Du Bois’s work that have proven key to what we now call sound studies–the historical and affective meanings that sound carries as well as its ability to travel great distances through time and space.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. – W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, p. 253)

W. E. B. Du Bois claimed to “know little of music,” yet his writings offer profound insights into aurality, foreshadowing the transdisciplinary of sound studies, by connecting language, music, sonic environments and aural communication. Du Bois published the souls of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, less than a decade after becoming the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895. In it, he addresses the color line, reflected in the policy of “separate but equal,” forming arguments that continue in Black Reconstruction in America. He also introduces themes that reappear in his later works including The World and Africa (1947), which formed the seeds of Afropolitanism and many modes of enquiry of Sound Studies. This short essay explores two concepts in Du Bois’s writings: that melodies may last longer than lyrics as cultural retentions; and, that drummed language may travel further than spoken language as communication.

By the time Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, what he termed the “Sorrow Songs” (alternatively Slave Songs or Spirituals) had entered the popular canon of American song. As incipits (or epigraphs) for each essay in the book, he entered the songs into a new literary and scholarly canon, ultimately changing the concept of what a book could be by fusing language and music in a new way. Even in a divided society following the U.S. government’s disinvestment in Reconstruction and the sharp uptick in lynching and other forms of racial terror, the “Negro folk-song” could not help but have a profound impact “as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (Souls XIV), particularly due to the efforts of Fisk’s Jubilee Singers. Du Bois’s choice to include musical transcriptions without lyrics at the opening of each essay in Souls reflects a view of melodies as having a life–and a value– of their own.

Du Bois paired a quote from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ” by Lord Byron with a musical citation from the African American spiritual “The Great Camp Meeting” to open Chapter III, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.”

Although Du Bois’s work quite clearly accounts for the development of what has usually been called the African American oral tradition, the concept of an oral tradition is credited to Harvard comparative literature scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who popularized the term in American scholarship by establishing a binary theory of orality and literacy, that not only pitted the two against each other, but implied that they were hierarchical, evolutionary phases of “culture” (1960). This divide both widened and became more nuanced with Walter Ong’s recognition of “secondary orality” (1982), acknowledging that aspects of orality persist in literate societies.

But much earlier than these texts, Du Bois offers an alternate theory of how orality and literacy work, and even concepts similar to secondary orality, in the last essay of Souls, “XIV On the Sorrow Songs.” Notably, he describes his earliest experience with African music via a song that “travelled down” from his “grandfather’s grandmother”:

The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development. My grandfather’s grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; and coming to the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic, black, little, and lithe, she shivered and shrank in the harsh north winds, looked longingly at the hills, and often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees, thus:

The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music (254).

Du Bois makes no mention of a spoken oral tradition throughout Souls. In fact, quite the contrary. In this passage, he implicitly argues it is not the meaning of the words, but the meaning of the music that survived the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Instead of an “oral tradition”, Du Bois identifies four steps in the development of American Sorrow Songs: (1) African; (2) “Afro-American”; (3) blending of “Negro and Caucasian” (a creolization); and (4) songs of white America influenced by the Sorrow Songs (256). The search for continuity between African and American culture has been a quest for many, including African-born scholars such as Lazarus Ekwueme. It is clear that melody (both pitch and rhythm) is the most idiosyncratic element of a piece, more so than lyrics, and is the most durable when a people and their culture experience extreme duress. As language (and certainly the meaning of the language) can fade (or be violently submerged)  in diaspora, melodies can often hold fast, and be held on to.

At an early date (1903), Du Bois already arrives at a point that is now a consensus: the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have closely retained African practices, such as the ring shout.

Gullah-Geechee ring shout performed by McIntosh County Shouters (Carter-Ényì, Hood, Johnson, Jordan and Miller 2018)

Du Bois states that the Sea Island people are “touched and moulded less by the world about them than any others outside the Black Belt” (251­–2). The Language You Cry In (1988), traces a Gullah song passed down back to its origins in Sierra Leone. Though separated by 200 years and 5000 miles, the melody was immediately recognizable to Baindu Jabati, a woman of the village, Senehum Ngola, even the lyrics were “strikingly similar.”

Sheet Music, “Old Folks At Home,” A project of the Digital Scriptorium Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

The Gullah-Geechee are exceptional because of their linguistic retentions, documented by Lorenzo Dow Turner in his 1949 book. The preservation of linguistic features was possible because of relative isolation, but as Du Bois notes, this source of African music is fundamental to American music in steps (2), (3) and (4), of which he offers famous examples of each. It is the recognition of the crossing of the African and African-American influence across the racial divide into the music of white America, in songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (more popularly known as “Swanee River”) that was the most controversial. Du Bois approaches this matter cautiously: “One might go further and find a fourth step in this development…” (256), but then goes full force: “a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies” (257).

Racist musicologist George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953) fought hard against the position that white hymnody had been influenced by black spirituals for much of his career. In “White and Negro spirituals, their life span and kinship” (1944), he argued just the opposite, that black spirituals were derivative of white hymnody and conducted an early corpus study to prove it. William H. Tallmadge, in “The Black in Jackson’s White Spirituals” (1981), summarizes Jackson’s findings:

Jackson, after examining 562 white items and 892 black items, found only 116 pairs which he thought demonstrated tune similarities, and of these 116, only 70 pairs actually prove to have had a valid melodic relationship… These seventy items represent slightly less than eight percent of the 892 black spirituals (150).

Jackson could not find the empirical support for his claim to of primacy (perhaps supremacy) of white spirituals, even with some ample confirmation bias. In fact, his findings fit well into Du Bois’s account, particularly his identification of step 3 in the development of the Sorrow Songs: “blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land” (256). Essentially, it took a nearly a century for musicology to recognize what Du Bois laid out in 1903.

The aural tradition Du Bois describes, which includes various versions of songs and the steps of sorrow song development, is more sympathetic to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s concept of “orature” than the Parry/Lord dichotomy. In “Notes towards a Performance Theory of Orature” (2007), Thiong’o points out that:

What is often arrested in writing is a particular version, a particular rendering, … as performed by a particular performers at a particular moment. Nature, then, in orature manifests itself as a web of connections of mutual dependence … in active communications within themselves and with others (5).

For example, the black and white spirituals with similar tunes in Jackson’s corpus both are and are not the same, which challenges the very notion of intellectual property (IP), and the flawed IP debate over spirituals that Jackson pursued. Even in a segregated society, under which racist laws separated the performers, a mutual dependence developed between black and white spirituals. Despite the affinity of the melodies and common heritage in the aural culture (and perhaps even common sources in either Africa or Europe), divisions were articulated in writing, through different hymnbooks and different words, once again supporting the veracity of Du Bois’s claim that the “music is far more ancient than the words.”

Waves on the Ghanaian Shore, Image by Flickr User Yenkassa (CC BY 2.0)

Later in his life, Du Bois’s attention turned more and more toward Africa. In The World and Africa (1947), he confronts colonialism and Eurocentric history, foreshadowing Afrocentrism and to some extent Afropolitanism. He also, very briefly, reprises his discussion of aurality, citing German musicologist and father of organology, Erich von Hornbostel, as affirmation of the virtues of both African and African American music from the 1928 article “African Negro Music”:

The African Negroes are uncommonly gifted for music-probably, on an average, more so, than the white race. This is clear not only from the high development of African music, especially as regards polyphony and rhythm, but a very curious fact, unparalleled, perhaps, in history, makes it even more evident; namely, the fact that the negro slaves in America and their descendants, abandoning their original musical style, have adapted themselves to that of their white masters and produced a new kind of folk-music in that style. Presumably no other people would have accomplished this. (In fact the plantation songs and spirituals, and also the blues and rag-times which have launched or helped to launch our modern dance-music, are the only remarkable kinds of music brought forth in America by immigrants (60).

Du Bois studied in Germany from 1892–94 before attending Harvard. According to Kenneth Barkin (2005), Du Bois’s “affection” for Imperial Germany has “remained a puzzle to historians” (285). Hornbostel too had a complicated relationship to Germany: though celebrated in his home country for much of his life, in 1933 he was forced into exile because his mother was Jewish; he died in 1935. The passage Du Bois cites from Hornbostel echoes some aspects of Souls XIV Sorrow Songs, particularly the centrality of the spirituals in American culture, but not all. In particular, “abandoning their original musical style … to that of their white masters” is incongruent with Du Bois’s earlier perspective. Though Hornbostel is clearly impressed with the musicality of black people(s), Hornbostel’s summary conclusions stated at the beginning of the same article do not mesh with Du Bois’s own (more insightful) work in Souls: “African and (modern) European music are constructed on entirely different principles, and therefore they cannot be fused into one, but only the one or the other can be used without compromise” (30).

Unfortunately, Du Bois does not contest Hornbostel with his narrative of continuity and “steps” of development from Souls. Du Bois recognized both the happenings and possibilities of creolization and syncretism in black culture of which Hornbostel only captures glimpses. Ultimately, despite a generally positive perspective on black music, Hornbostel’s position is one of not only continental, but racial, division, promoting segregation of musical practice as the only way. It is disconcerting that Du Bois cites this article and Hornbostel as a musical expert with its main argument when Du Bois identified the color line as the singular issue of the twentieth century.

In The World and Africa, Du Bois goal is a bit different: in the pursuit of repositioning Africa and moving towards both a corrected history and post-colonial future, there were stranger bedfellows than Hornbostel. A more pristine vision of recasting Africa and Africana aurality is found on the same page (99), in Du Bois’s mention of an astonishing form of music as communication, the talking drum: “The development of the drum language by intricate rhythms enabled the natives not only to lead in dance and ceremony, but to telegraph all over the continent with a swiftness and precision hardly rivaled by the electric telegraph” (99).

The recent intellectual current within African studies, Afropolitanism, is embodied in Du Bois’s juxtaposition of African tradition with modernity. A recent book on West African talking drums by Amanda Villepastour, Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá bàtá drum also draws an analogy to telecommunication. While Du Bois’s brief 1947 account is only a single sentence, Villepastour’s lengthy 2010 account confirms Du Bois conjecture was not a metaphor or empty comparison, the talking drum and telegraph share the same utility, and while we are keeping track, the talking drum came first and is a lot more efficient in terms of infrastructure.

Yorùbá talking drummers in Ọ̀yọ́, Nigeria (Carter-Ényì 2013)

For those unfamiliar with them, here are some rough calculations regarding how talking drums work. Singing or shouting is about 80 decibels (dB) at one meter. Drumming is over 100 dB at one meter. This 20 dB differential means that a speech surrogate (like a talking drum) could travel up to 10 times the distance under the same environmental conditions. With those intensities at the source, a loud voice could travel one kilometer before becoming inaudible (at around 20 dB), while a drum could reach 10 km, easily communicating with the next village.

Hausa Talking Drum, Image by African Studies Library BU (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Within a regional network of drummers that “speak” the same language—such as in the Yorùbá-speaking region of southwest Nigeria—long distance communication was possible, and much earlier than the telegraph. A recent study (2018) by Frank Seifert and his colleagues on Amazonian Bora drumming, “Reducing language to rhythm,” finds minute timing variations represent the placement of consonants suggesting there is detail in speech surrogacy, beyond the representation of lexical tone previously documented. Seifert’s findings suggest that the “precision” Du Bois described is exactly what talking drummers have (throughout the Global South). Now the “swiftness” part may have been a bit exaggerated (electric signals travel much faster than sound waves).

Du Bois’s practiced a transdisciplinary study of sound and understood Africa as Afropolitan long before most of the West. In addition to foreshadowing the interdisciplinary moves of sound studies—which also connects sound to speech to music and examines their coexistence—Du Bois’s thinking also prefigures the current intellectual (and urban-cultural) vogue of Afropolitanism, which has to some extent displaced the Pan-African movement that drew Du Bois to Ghana.In a 2016 interview, Achille Mbembe positions Afropolitanism as a way “in which Africans, or people of African origin, understand themselves as being part of the world rather than being apart.”    Much like the African cultures he first encountered in melody in the nineteenth century and then heard firsthand as a contemporary when he moved to Ghana in 1961, Du Bois heard beyond Eurocentric disciplinary divides of music and language that served to portray African cultures as somehow always already outside of modernity, yet not the right color of “ancient.”  Du Bois wholeheartedly believed music could change the narrative of Black life, history and culture, a message first crooned to him as a child between his grandmother’s knees, to which he never stopped listening.

Housatonic River, Great Barrington Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Home Town. Image by Flickr User Criana, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Featured Image: Brooklyn African Festival Drum, 2010, Image by Flickr User Serge de Gracia (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aaron Carter-Ényì teaches music theory, class piano, and music appreciation in Morehouse’s Department of Music.  He holds a PhD from Ohio State University (2016), was a Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria in 2013, and is a 2017 fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Recent scholarship appears in Africa (Journal of the International African Institute)EthnomusicologyMusic Theory OnlineOxford Handbook of Singing and Tonal Aspects of Languages; or is forthcoming in Performance Research and Sounding Out! He is the director of the interdisciplinary Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt) and is currently developing the Video-EASE Toolbox and ATAVizM. During the summer, he is a STEAM instructor for federally-sponsored student enrichment programs including MSEIPand iSTEM for which he provides workshops and courses in the Morehouse Makerspace.

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