In contrast to the first post in the series by Mark Davidson, which looked at how we have branded Alan Lomax, Parker Fishel‘s post considers how Alan Lomax fashioned himself—as both a collector and a publisher of other peoples’ music. The complexity of this task is inherent in the social and political ramifications of “saving” sound by making it “ours,” both in terms of singular ownership of singular recordings that had previously “belonged” to a community as well as the extent to which this practice brought these sounds to the wider culture.
Here, Fishel invites the reader to consider this complicated history that surrounds collecting and copyrighting folk music, what (and whom) the practice has excluded as well current performers who have been inspired by this preservation of our sound culture to perpetuate the practice: making it “theirs” and “ours” once again.
— Guest Editor Tanya Clement
The more one listens, views, and reads the work of pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the more inscrutable it becomes. Even if we set aside the sheer size and diversity of his collection, we are still left with a set of materials that eludes easy interpretation. Too mainstream for the academics and too academic for the mainstream, Lomax’s defiant, passionate quest to bridge the two worlds pioneered the study of sound as an embodiment of social and community dynamics. Yet in promoting American vernacular culture, Lomax also fashioned himself a folk hero, leaving us a legacy where the collector threatens to overshadow the collection. As arguably the world’s most famous folklorist, Lomax is responsible for much of the sound understood as authentic Americana.
Consider one vignette of many: the “Southern Journey,” a 1959-1960 recording trip that Alan Lomax undertook with Shirley Collins throughout Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. A world unto itself, the story of the Southern Journey reveals how these tensions shaped Lomax’s work and, to an extent, our understanding of a national cultural heritage.
To begin with, the Southern Journey sounded different than previous collecting trips due to the technological sophistication of the field recording set-up. Starting with a 1933 trip accompanying his father John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax’s previous recording expeditions in the South had relied first on Edison cylinders and then on disc-based recorders that had particular weaknesses in terms of fidelity. Surface noise obfuscated certain frequencies and reminded the listener that his or her experience was mediated. During the Southern Journey though, open reel magnetic tape, excellent microphones, and a mixer were employed to make what Lomax, in his tendency towards self-aggrandizement, claimed to be the “first” stereo field recordings in the South. Whatever the reality, the recordings were early efforts to use stereo in the service of field recording to capture more detail and nuance of a performance and its context.
Writing of the opportunity stereo presented for folklore, Lomax noted that “Folk music which, in its natural setting, is meant to be heard in the round, comes into its own with multi-dimensionality, for more than concert music, designed to project from the stage into an auditorium.” According to this reasoning, a good recording in stereo is more inclusive, grounding the listener’s position inside the soundscape of folklore’s community-based practice.
Yet, by nature folklore recordings have certain limitations. As jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews noted, “Our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” This murky dividing line is problematic in the context of ethnographic documentation. In the case of Alan Lomax, it’s further complicated by multiple motivations and goals that transform this line into a shifting set of markers.
Luckily, through diligent scholarship and Lomax’s own documentation, we are fairly aware of how this “realism” tension shaped his recordings in real-time performance and its public reception. Lomax sometimes auditioned performers when arriving in a new area; his book The Land Where The Blues Began (in part an reconstruction of the Southern Journey) was written 30-plus years after the fact from memory and a few scribbled notes on the back of tape boxes. However this knowledge impacts the supposed reality of the field recordings, it would be a mistake to reduce the extensive documentation of Lomax’s decision-making process to debunking. Rather, it is an aid for understanding what we’re hearing. By accounting for ethnographic and popularizing tendencies, what is really being developed is a guide for critical listening.
Part of that involved bringing in the recording industry. Starting with the 1939 Musicraft release of Leadbelly performances on 78-RPM discs, Lomax consistently used record companies as one means of bringing folklore to a wider audience. Commenting on the flurry of activity that accompanied Lomax’s 1959 return to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, noted folklorist Roger Abrahams commented, “To this writer it would appear that Mr. Lomax stayed up nights thinking of ways to sell folk-things to publishers, record companies, etc., ergo to the public.”
The Southern Journey was one such project, bankrolled by Atlantic Records. From nearly 80 hours of recorded material, Lomax curated two sets of releases in 1960, a seven LP Atlantic Records collection named the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” and the 12-LP “Southern Journey” series for Prestige International. In notes for reissues of the Atlantic set, Lomax admitted, “The set reflects, to some extent, what the Erteguns [Ahmet and Nesuhi, founders of Atlantic] felt might best reach their pop audience.” Examining how these recordings became canonical is to look at how new modes of cultural transmission affected folklore traditions.
We can hear another tension being negotiated in the way Lomax celebrated performances, which today justly rank alongside those of the Great American Songbook. Yet, to see them that way negates the core strengths of folklore: flexibility to situation and contingency to community. In the field, Lomax asserted that “every performance is original, a fresh and intentionally varied re-creation or rearrangement of a piece.” At the same moment, however, Americanizing processes were transforming these flexible local improvisatory practices into fixed inscriptions of national character. With his public visibility and prestige, the pieces in Lomax’s books and records carried weight as definitive versions – claims Lomax perpetuated in order to unify some of his cultural theories. (It also didn’t hurt that the practice of early folklorists was to copyright these compositions, giving them a financial stake in perpetuating those performances as examples of exceptionalism.) As a result, the public adopted a set of arbitrary songs and sounds as markers of authenticity.
These concerns remain important in the music’s continuing, living traditions. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Ebony Hillbillies perform the full, eclectic spectrum of early African-American string and jug bands traditions. While Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton forges similar terrain using the African-American songster and blues singer as a model, Frank Fairfield addresses Anglo-American folk traditions. All of these projects remind listeners of the arbitrary divisions of authenticity forced on musicians practices by the race recording industry, which partitioned sounds as white and black and led to our modern taxonomy of genres. These performers use folklore to expose parts of the under-documented past, re-appropriating musical styles and often re-creating that world through the adoption of early 20th century language, clothes, and mannerisms.
Other contemporary performers handle these issues differently. Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) form the nucleus of Sounds of the South, a “loving reinterpretation of the sound, structure, lyrics, and spirit” of the Southern Journey recordings. Engaging both the African-American and Anglo-American traditions documented on that trip, the group finds its sound in their overlap. This a space shaped in part by the popularizing processes Lomax set in motion, a space where generations of listeners have been introduced to Mississippi Fred McDowell through a Rolling Stones cover. Approaching the music from this perspective and not from the background of a Forest City Joe or an Almeda Riddle, authenticity necessarily exists in a different realm: re-interpretation. The resulting arrangements, such as that of Estil C. Ball’s sacred composition “Tribulations,” give one illustration of how these dynamics play out sonically within the world of folklore and music that Lomax left behind.
For this particular piece, the words and melody of Ball’s “terrifying meditation on the end of days” are kept as links to the original recording. This frees the ensemble to follow its muse into the musical landscapes of the intervening 50-plus years, shaped as they were by the introduction of the vernacular into the mainstream (and vice versa). Ball’s melody evokes an archetype, the high lonesome sound of Appalachia; a trope it inspired in the first place. Yet, in this cultural confluence, there is also space for something like Matthew E. White’s soul-influenced electric guitar. In introducing of a style, tradition, and sound beyond the original recording, a color line is crossed that, while maybe not explicitly heard, was certainly present in the Jim Crow context of the Southern Journey. For Sounds of the South, authenticity exists beyond mere re-creation.
What might Lomax’s reaction to the Sounds of the South project be? Reflecting on the 1960s folk scene, Lomax wrote, “The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of the folk songs, as they exist in tradition.” On the other hand, Lomax might be heartened that many, whether cultural heritage institutions or record labels, are following in the footsteps of his own Association for Cultural Equity. Working on the scale that digital resources facilitate, these organizations are providing access to field recordings and their context in ways never before possible. (What remains to be seen is how this might impact the process of codification discussed above.)
In another way, the Sounds of the South marks a return to tradition. While the Southern Journey recordings are the primary inspiration, Sounds of the South member Joe Westerlund describes the project as something larger: “We wanted to include everything that we’re into, not just the traditional folk music that’s on this box set…We’re doing our whole experience as musicians.” That experience involves collaboration with folk artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard, as well as investment in their local cultural communities of Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Eau Claire, WI.
Lomax’s pedagogy of folklore situates authenticity as a function of these very types of activities. “Folk song lives in a rather mysterious world close to the heart of the human community and it is only through extended and serious contact with living folk traditions that it can be understood.” The particular tradition in which one participates makes little difference; rather emphasis is on the process of engagement and contact, which replicate older patterns of folklore transmission. So even if Lomax may have claimed there was a bit too much bel canto to suit his tastes, one can imagine his appreciation for Sounds of the South’s dedication to the meaning and spirit of the music.
Considering Alan Lomax, his work, and his legacy is a complex and often frustrating enterprise. Yet amidst parts that give us pause, there remain bits of enduring wisdom. Addressing a gathering of folklorists, Lomax asserted that “Underneath we are all morally, emotionally and esthetically involved with our material, and so all of us are artists and cultural workers, and there is no escape from that.”
Few of us devote ourselves to this kind of music (or any kind of music for that matter) as a detached academic exercise. It can take an example of the living tradition like Sounds of the South looking backwards and forwards to remind us of the full scope of our responsibilities. I can’t think of any more fitting tribute on the occasion of his centenary than to re-commit ourselves not to Alan Lomax, but to what caught his ear in the first place: the transcendent experience of sound.
Parker Fishel is an archivist, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. Presently he is the archivist at Grey Water Park Productions and an occasional DJ on WKCR-FM. As co-founder of Americana Music Productions, Parker is the producer of a forthcoming set of music, photographs, and scholarship documenting the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is also at work on Georgia Griot, a bio-discography of jazz musician Marion Brown. While getting an MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, Parker worked with the UT Folklore Center Archives and the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History.
Featured image: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” by Flickr user Bee Collins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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“Many men wish death up on me/ blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/ I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/ and niggas tryna take my life away” –50 Cent, “Many Men (Death Wish)”
After hearing about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I grappled with the urge to grab my godsons, nephews, cousins, brothers, and husband and never let go. I grappled with the Du Boisian question of the color-line, redressing it to consider “what does it feel like to be not only a problem but a target?” With these thoughts in my mind, I especially grappled with listening to the audio records of the 911 calls documenting the death of Trayvon Martin, just released late Friday March 16thby the Sanford police department.
I have mixed reasoning as to why I listened to the tapes. Part of me was just being nosy, but there was a deeper, far reaching curiosity stemming from my southern roots. As a Georgia girl, I was raised by Georgia men. My grandfather vividly recounted horrific stories of lynchings and beatings that happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” My mindset, like that of many, shifted to thinking about Trayvon’s death as a lynching. These tapes gave sonic urgency to a historically silent crime. In a word, Trayvon’s desperate screams gave voice to the countless men and women before him who died at the hands of white vigilantism.
As I listened to the distraught callers—and Trayvon’s final screams and pleas for his life—my mind became a mosh pit of emotions. Pissed, my mental playlist shuffled to 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Death Wish).”
I imagine Trayvon walking as the haunting piano and strings at the start of “Many Men” accompany his steps. He anxiously questions Zimmerman– “Why are you following me?” – in a similarly anxious way as 50 Cent can be heard asking “what’s taking homie so long, son?” and the shot rings out. As Trayvon screams and falls, the hard hitting boom fills the silent void. His lifeless body lays face down in the dirt, a lone piano softly signifying vulnerability as 50 Cent’s chorus starts: “many men wish death upon me/blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/and niggas tryna take my life away.” Situating Trayvon Martin’s final moments in a song by 50 Cent is discomforting, yet speaks to the reality and imaginative scripts of black masculinity as violent. The physical gunshot to Martin’s chest echoes the allegorical shots heard in the “Many Men” track and those in songs like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” as another example, simultaneously blur and re-enforce black death as fantasy and normative. The 911 calls documenting Trayvon Martin’s death heard in concert with 50 Cent’s song sonically reify (gun) violence as a dominant discourse of black male identity. Indeed, Trayvon, I know who shot ya and gave you a death wish. I cannot, however, understand why.
The sonic surveillance of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s run-in—documented by the numerous accounts of neighbors who heard something but did not go outside—presents a juxtaposition of expected black male identity with the vulnerability of a horrified child forced into a criminalized space of black masculinity. In Zimmerman’s 911 call–listen via the Huffington Post here–he nonchalantly and at time heavily sighs about Martin’s blackness and its associated threat – “he’s black,” “he looks suspicious,” “he’s up to no good.” The passivity of Zimmerman’s voice reflects his bridging of (young) black masculinity as threatening. The panicked callers’ voices, however, represent reprieve and reinstate Trayvon’s humanity. The Trayvon Martin 911 recordings, then, are a mixtape of his final moments, sampling the voices of the various callers to construct Trayvon’s fatal narrative. Ultimately, the callers give voice to the vulnerabilities that Trayvon was deemed unable to evoke or possess by default as a black male.
I use the word “mixtape” here to argue that the frequencies of trauma in which the (white) listener situates Trayvon Martin’s death must be heard within a larger understanding of sound as a commodified and racialized space. Ultimately, the recordings of Trayvon’s death are a sonic reflection of a long history of white America’s treatment of black bodies as capital. In negotiating the black (male) body as a commodity – which is historically and culturally significant – sounding the black male body as a commodity contextualizes this moment of expected black masculine performance for nonblack listeners. It needs to be noted how pathological black masculinity is profitable and mutually invested in by black men and white consumers alike. Briefly referring back to 50 Cent, he performs and is validated by the violence his narrative possesses. He knowingly invests in the exaggeration of his experience – he really was shot – and builds his image upon that paranoia. In In the Break, Fred Moten discusses the sonic commodification of blackness as “not what the commodity says but that the commodity says or, more properly, that commodity in its ability to say, must be made to say” (9). Situating black rappers’ narratives and, extensively, black men’s narratives as a commodity speaks to how the ambiguity of such narratives relegate blackness to a position of profitable, essentialized discourse. Moten suggests sounding blackness as a commodity is an effort to address these ambiguities, linking the privilege of speaking and constructing black (masculine) narrative, not content, as culturally and capitalistically recognizable and significant.
Trayvon’s political agency is invested in the violence placed upon his body by public scrutiny as a black man before there is any vulnerability as a child. Thrust instead into the position of ‘suspicious’ black man in a predominately white middle-class gated community, Trayvon the child bears the public scripts of expected black masculine performance, which are both visual and sonic. These expectations of popular culture and public opinion distort Trayvon’s sonic imprint, rendering him unable to vocalize and physically relay his desperate need for help.
As Mark Anthony Neal points out in a his March 19th New Black Man post “Hearing Trayvon Die” linking hearing Trayvon Martin’s death to a scene of a grieving Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) from the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Waters’s pain is heard but not seen: “part of the reason that Jeffrey Wright’s howling had to be experienced off screen is that we have little understanding of Black males, as vulnerable, in pain, under duress, in terror and confronting death.” The impact of the lack Neal describes emphasizes the necessity for a sonic imposition of such vulnerabilities. In this case, the agency of this need is heightened by the audience being forced to listen to Trayvon’s frantic screams for help on tapes, thus humanizing him before racializing his body.
Yet it is Trayvon’s alleged screams – which I undoubtedly believe ARE his screams– that also sonically invoke his humanity. On the recording, heart-wrenching screams for help are silenced by the forceful pop of a gunshot, the silence signifying multi-layered historical and cultural indicator of Trayvon’s worth as a black boy in American society. Trayvon’s screams vocalize the agonizing silent demise of the murdered black boys before him. . .Oscar Grant. . .Amadou Diallo. . .Emmett Till. His screams are an echo of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester’s screams, recorded in his 1845 Narrative, acknowledgement of the cruelty and continued viability of longstanding—even foundational—racial prejudice and violence that exists within the contemporary ‘postracial’ American agenda.
Moreover, Trayvon’s scream also concisely signifiy the ongoing “upheaval” and chaotic existence of black men that Moten suggests “pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity” (1). Trayvon’s screams amplify a tragic dimension of what I theorize as “sonic cool pose,” where black masculinity is only cool if accompanied – instrumentally, lyrically, and otherwise – with violence. In this regard, the sonic signifiers that mark death—like the gunshots and screams that introduce 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” for example—are Trayvon’s. Both built upon the traumatic condition frequently faced by men and boys of color, Trayvon and 50 Cent’s lived experiences can be heard as sonically interchangeable despite obvious differences in class position. Through sound and the American popular imagination, black manhood is virulently fluid. There is a universal, stereotypical understanding that black masculinity resorts to identical markers of lived experience. This awareness is especially heightened and dominant in sound, where 50 Cent’s shooting on the corner parallels Trayvon’s shooting in a gated townhome community.
The release of the 911 audio of Trayvon Martin’s death is a powerful intervention in maneuvering black masculinity and violence in American (popular) culture. There is a delicate and simultaneous reading of the recordings as a sonic realization of black masculine violence and a fetishizing of a violated black male body. The sounds they contain amplify a continued American investment and interest in the black pathological narrative while doubly intervening as an alternative reading of such negotiations of black manhood. Whether sounded across a courtyard in a gated suburban neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens—or in the isolation booth in a recording studio—these frantic and desperate screams are sonic imprints of his social-cultural relevance. They may bleed into one another, but they won’t fade away.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).