SO! Reads: Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism
Calling devotees to prayer, preaching on the subway, broadcasted pre-recorded sermons from a moving car, organizing drum circles in the park, resounding church bells through the city – expressions of faith to some, a nuisance, or even a personal offense (or outright danger), to others. Must religion be so noisy? Must it also be so publicly noisy?
Religious studies scholar Isaac Weiner portrays public loudness as but one of many exigencies of the religious worldview in his recent publication, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism (New York: New York University Press: 2014). Weiner argues that the substantive content of religious doctrine – moral claims, theological arguments, etc. – both constitutes and is constituted by how its ideas are given expression. This might seem unremarkable. However, the claim allows Weiner to re-frame religious pluralism as not only a “matter of competing values, truth claims, or moral doctrines, but of different styles of public practice, of fundamentally different ways of using body and space.” (200)
So, according to Weiner, yes: Some religious groups must be so noisy, and must be noisy publicly. If they weren’t, their religious beliefs and doctrines would be deprived of the expressive forms that imbue them with significance.
Weiner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Weiner is not a card-carrying sound studies specialist. Nonetheless, his output is representative of a quickly accelerating interest about religion and spirituality within studies of sound and culture. Religion Out Loud is his first book, and builds from themes explored in his previous publications, including articles such as “Sound” (Material Religion 7, no. 1 : 108-115), “Sound and American Religions” (Religion Compass 3, no. 5 [September 2009]: 897-908), and “Displacement and Re-placement: The International Friendship Bell as a Translocative Technology of Memory” (Material Religion 5, no. 2 [July 2009]: 180-205). Forthcoming are several chapters and articles that closely relate to topics investigated in Religion Out Loud.
The text ranges from America’s colonial period through the early 2000s. It largely attends to legislative efforts seeking to circumscribe the practicing of what Weiner calls “religion out loud” – public, and perceivably exorbitant displays of sonic religiosity. On the other hand, Weiner also details the various ways in which religious practitioners have resisted legal containment. Weiner thus adds to an already copious literature about how contestations over sonic space reflect broader contestations over meaning and power, that includes texts such as Brandon Labelle’s Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (New York: Continuum, 2010), Karen Bijsterveld’s Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), and other religion-related work like Philip V. Bohlman’s “Music Inside Out: Sounding Public Religion in a Post-Secular Europe” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). This tension between the embodied practice and legal-discursive regulation of sonic spaces throws into relief what Weiner calls a “politics of religious sensation.” However, readers with an interest in the experiential dimensions of the “religious sensorium” should look elsewhere, perhaps the recent volume, Senses and Citizenship: Embodying Political Life, edited by Susanna Trnka (New York: Routledge, 2013). Religion Out Loud appeals more to readers with an interest in the political histories of religious rights and noise abatement policy, and the ways in which “religious sensation” has been regulated according to unstable conceptions of liberalism and pluralism in American jurisprudence.
In order to span such a long temporal trajectory (essentially the history of the United States!), Weiner anchors Religion Out Loud in three historically disparate case studies. Each is preceded by a chapter of historical and theoretical contextualization. This forces Weiner to rapidly chronicle decades of developments in noise abatement policy. Yet he does so with both scrupulousness and concision, leaving remarkably few holes left unfilled. This gives the reader the benefit of charting the long-term effects of the policy changes that Weiner more focusedly interrogates. His approach thus differs quite markedly from some other important sound/religious studies literature, such as Leigh Schmidt’s Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), which investigates a single historical period in more concentrated fashion.
From chapter one’s onset, I was struck by the impressive depth of archival research Weiner has infused into his arguments. As a result, Weiner’s more speculative conclusions – generally modest in scope – have no shortage of evidence, and are altogether convincing. In chapter one, for instance, Weiner details shifting perceptions of church bells in colonial and postbellum America, an area well tilled in sound studies by the likes of Alain Corbin (Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, trans. Martin Thom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) and Richard Cullen Rath (How Early America Sounded, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003). Weiner furthers this conversation by revealing how religious sounds such as church bells – what had receded to the background of what R. Murray Schafer called the “historical soundscape” – faced unprecedented scrutiny as the symbolic status of noise began to change. Likewise, city governments challenged congregants’ rights to occupy acoustic territory. In the burgeoning clamor of the modern city, noise meant progress and prosperity, for some listeners, but, for others, the stylized noise of religion practiced “out loud” signified a kind of regressive primitivism. Noise thus occupied both sides of the evolutionist coin that Weiner suggests ideologically underpinned religious self-understandings of the time.
Weiner further explores the progressive/primitive duality in his first case study – Harrison v. St. Marks of 1877– in which Weiner quite brilliantly unravels how both perspectives were articulated in legal discourse. According to Weiner, complainants challenged the long-presumed public-acoustic prerogatives of Philadelphia’s fashionable St. Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The main takeaway from the chapter is that St. Marks’s complainants voiced a formulation of suitable, modern, and thus normative religious practice as “properly disentangled from various forms of materiality and mediation, carefully circumscribed and respectful of its bounds, interiorized and intellectualized, invisible and inaudible.” (60) From the complainants’ perspective, noisy religion signified backward, immature religion. The court sided with this position, treating church bells as it would any other “extraneous” public noise. Yet in so doing, it ironically reinforced the cultural dominance of Protestantism. That is to say, by silencing St. Mark’s bells, the ostensibly secularized legal system set a precedent that legitimated the “subjugation” of all forms of religious practice to “proper modes of acceptable piety” – including “religious ‘others’” who lacked the pervasive influence that Protestantism could exercise in the public and political spheres, including the courts. (74)
In the second section, Weiner shifts his focus from acoustic territorialization to noisy religiosity as a form of dissent. He details how noise abatement legislation in the early twentieth century harkened a “new regulatory regime” that suppressed the activities of religious practitioners for whom “making noise was not merely incidental to their work; it was their work” (80). The Salvation and Army and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Weiner shows, aggressively challenged norms of community outreach through provocative exhibitions of religious devotion in public spaces. However, while exercising freedoms of speech, religion, and public assembly, such groups turned unsuspecting citizens into “captive audiences,” and thus infringed upon rights to privacy. The style of practicing some liberties, as many scholars and critics have suggested, has throughout history limited the enjoyment of liberties by other parties.
Moreover, as Weiner rightly suggests in his second case study, Saia v. New York of 1946, civil liberties have always been carefully regulated by the state. Samuel Saia, a Jehovah’s Witness, drove around the city of Lockhart, NY, and used loudspeakers to broadcast inflammatory sermons from his car. He loudly exercised his first amendment rights through what Weiner calls “sound car religion.” Yet the city managed to treat the sermons’ noisiness as extraneous to Saia’s religion, rather than acknowledging the practice as partially constitutive of it. Lockhart’s noise abatement ordinance thus infringed upon his right to religious free exercise. To that end, Weiner repositions McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message,” framing religion as media, as opposed to religion and media as separable concepts. Saia spread God’s word, and in doing so loudly fulfilled a core tenet of the Witness creed.
Throughout the case study, Weiner critiques the “liberal inclusionary ideology” that has come to characterize the Judeo-Christian tradition of American jurisprudence. But he curiously softens his otherwise pointed critique at the end of the chapter. Saia ultimately won the case, yet the Witnesses’ devotional style gradually became unmarked in the ensuing years, as they seemed to assimilate voluntarily to normative expectations of religious devotion. As such, Weiner suggests that dissenters in general often find that they can “afford to quiet down once they feel that their voices have been heard.” (135) While it is “important not to exaggerate the coercive effects of American law,” I would have nonetheless appreciated a more critical take on how the legal system had its cake and ate it too – that is, how it satisfied the demands of the Witnesses and also managed to keep them quiet. Indeed, Weiner’s mild conclusion may unsettle those readers who enjoyed the previous three chapters of incisive and nuanced analysis.
In the last section, Weiner shows how a controversial 1990 Supreme Court decision – Employment Division v. Smith, spearheaded by Justice Antonin Scalia – enacted into law a conception of religiosity as interiorized, intellectualized, and privatized. It favored majoritarian notions of religious free exercise such that dissenting – or noisy – religious practice by minority religious subjects risked criminalization. As a result, the granting of religious exemption from preclusive noise ordinances was left not to the courts to decide, but rather to the political arena. Potentially disruptive religious free exercise was no longer constitutionally protected. It now required approval from a political body. The last case study, then, does not deal with legal proceedings. Rather, it examines the public debates and media spectacles that surrounded al-Islāh Islamic Center’s petition to broadcast the call to prayer in Hamtramck, MI, in 2004. Al-Islāh was ultimately granted exemption from the local noise ordinance. But over the course of an exasperating six months of debate, Weiner demonstrates, formerly unvoiced identity politics that residents invested into the city’s sonic territories were brought to light in highly contentious ways.
Weiner identifies three rhetorical-discursive tropes that various parties used to debate changing the city’s noise ordinance to accommodate the call to prayer. One of them, pluralism, will likely be of most interest to readers (the others are exclusivism and privatism). The pluralist debaters envisioned the public sphere as a neutral space in which the particularities of religious difference were accommodated, but only according to an ideal of “agonistic respect.” Against this idealistic backdrop, pluralists interpreted the call to prayer not as broadcasters intended it to be heard, but rather as a symbol for the “potential for interfaith harmony.” (186) Weiner argues that the hearings refigured – effaced, even – the call’s meaning, since the Muslim community’s political recognition was achievable only by way of the discourse of pluralist forms of tolerance. In other words, if pluralist discourse takes the form by which Muslim faith can express itself, then Muslim faith itself risks effacement as a result of such “accommodation.”
Surprisingly, Weiner largely omits Muslim perspectives from the chapter. How did pluralist assimilation change the meanings of religious practice as the Muslim community saw it? How did the Muslims feel they had to modify their rhetoric of self-representation? Moreover, how did Muslims perceive – or perhaps even challenge – displays of Judeo-Christian devotion? Perhaps pursuing such questions exceeds the scope of Weiner’s project, as could the inclusion of many other issues that readers might think warrant consideration. For instance, Weiner gestures toward the sonic interpellation of Muslim and Christian subjectivity, but does not pursue the topic. Further analysis could productively complement recent work on religious acoustemology such as Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), Andrew J. Eisenberg’s, “Islam, Sound and Space: Acoustemology and Muslim Citizenship on the Kenyan Coast” (in Music, Sound and Space, ed. Georgina Born, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Jeanette S. Jouli’s “Beat-ification: British Muslim Hip Hop and Ethical Listening Practices,” and Ashon Crawley’s “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices.” Additionally, Weiner glosses over counterculture in the 1960s. How might a treatment of the Nation of Islam, for but one example, complicate his conclusions about the accommodation of religion practiced “out loud” in the period?
That notwithstanding, Weiner accomplishes his proposed task with great nuance, insight, and lucidity. Religion Out Loud skillfully unites archival research with ethnographic methods, a history of sound with a history of ideas. It will appeal to those with an interest in the “politics of sensation,” as Weiner suggests, and even more so to readers with interests in the contradictions of noise abatement policy, the legal history of religious rights, and ways in which they have contributed to religious soundscapes in the United States. And of course, it provides an emphatic—and important—affirmative to that longstanding question “must religion be so noisy?”
Jordan Musser is a graduate student in the musicology program at Cornell University. He has a primary interest in the social practice of musical aesthetics, with a focus on roles of the avant-garde in popular culture. Using theoretical frameworks from media, performance, and cultural studies, his recent projects have investigated virtuosity in 19th-century Europe, musical reenactment, the sonic imaginary, and politics of musical mythologization. In 2012, Jordan earned the M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Cornell, he was an editorial assistant with Grove Music Online, and held teaching positions from the early childhood to high school levels.
Featured image: “Microphone inside Al-Azhar Mosque” by Flickr user John Kannenberg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Fiddling With Freedom: Solomon Northup’s Musical Trade in 12 Years a Slave
Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Today, the series kicks off with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as represented through sheet music embedded in his 1853 narrative, amplifying a sound that was key to both his freedom and his enslavement.—Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Steve McQueen’s recent film Twelve Years a Slave has renewed interest in the original 1853 narrative, which has long been a valued resource for historians of nineteenth-century slavery, literature, and music. Because Solomon Northup was a highly-skilled fiddler and a keen observer of plantation culture, his autobiography is one of the most substantive accounts of musical life during slavery and, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that includes sheet music in its text. As such, it preserves in audible form a precious record of Northup’s musical artistry and facilitates a sound-based study of nineteenth-century black fiddling, a tradition that was flourishing during Northup’s lifetime.
Uncovering the sounds of vernacular music of the pre-recorded era can be incredibly challenging. For this reason, Northup’s descriptions, when coupled with musical notation, make it possible for us to hear something historically significant. Although “slave music” was all the rage in the 1850s due to the widespread popularity of blackface minstrelsy, print-based compositions by enslaved (or free) musicians are difficult to come by and even more challenging to verify. The tune presented in Northup’s memoir has its own complex relationship to the minstrelsy genre, but it remains a unique sample of African-American music that warrants close-listening.
I use performance as a research method for exploring historical vernacular music, offering here my interpretation of “Roaring River: A Refrain of the Red River Plantation.” As I discuss in an essay titled “Listening to the Past,” the process of performance illuminates the subtleties of musical expression. (Do I play it like this or like that? At what tempo?) The aim of such exercises is not historical accuracy, but rather, an attunement to the sonic possibilities of a given piece. These possibilities cannot tell me how Northup would have played the song or what it meant to him, but they allow me to consider the kinds of choices that he would have had to make as a performer, thus illustrating the intellectual and sensorial richness of his music-making. Rather than simply presenting and describing the sheet music, I aim to make it possible for people to hear what would otherwise sit silently on the page.
In the first recording I play Northup’s melody solo to give you a sense of the tune.
In the second, I am joined by guitar.
The use of guitar accompaniment would have been highly unlikely during the period, but it helps to support my amateur playing by providing a livelier, fuller feeling. Northup connected with banjoists, percussionists and dancers as an enslaved and free musician and it’s interesting to imagine how a single song like this would have been transformed according to the talents, desires, and constraints of the performers assembled. It is unclear from the narrative whether or not the tune is an original composition or something Northup learned while living along the Red River, where he was enslaved in Louisiana. One also wonders how many nineteenth-century readers would have plucked the melody at a keyboard or bowed it on a family fiddle. What might their motivations have been?
Though Northup does not discuss the fiddle tune in the text, he does describe the lyrics below it, remarking that they were accompanied by a percussion technique called “patting” among his fellow slaves. He describes this widely documented practice as follows: “The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing” (219). According to Northup, the lyrics that accompanied patting were often nonsensical because they were made to conform to the tonal and rhythmic pattern being patted. He offers “Harper’s Creek” as suitable for the practice but it’s worth noting that the lyrics voice a presumably white man’s desires to own a piece of land and a slave. Though presented below the sheet music at the end of the book, the lyrics are ill-fitting for the fiddle tune provided, which seems more likely to have been played without vocal accompaniment. In light of Northup’s descriptions, the sheet music creates an interesting blend of various performance modes, from popular folksy vocal diddy (with possible origins in minstrelsy), to patting, and fiddling. Here you can see a wonderful example of patting accompanying a nineteenth-century fiddle tune as performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and guest Danny Barber (Intricate patting begins at 1:22).
In addition to serving as auditory artifact, the presence of sheet music in the narrative relates to the way Northup’s musicality was commodified within the aesthetic economy of slavery during and after his captivity. After regaining freedom, his talents are presented for sale in the book presumably to appeal to the sort of audiences who would also have coveted the sheet music of minstrelsy, which caricatured and lampooned black performances. Popular appetites for representations of plantation culture left an imprint on Northup’s autobiography as well as other abolitionist publications, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Music-making was both labor and leisure for Solomon Northup and it profoundly influenced his experiences as a slave. His narrative also illuminates the far-reaching impact that he and other black musicians had on their communities as well as nineteenth century music.
Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It introduced me to great houses —relieved me of many days’ labor in the field—supplied me with conveniences for my cabin—with pipes and tobacco, and extra pairs of shoes, and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master, to witness scenes of jollity and mirth. It was my companion—the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. (217)
Solomon Northup’s biography is highly atypical of slave narratives because he is a free man who is sold into slavery. Some have criticized the popularization of his circumstances, arguing that because he conforms to modes of respectability as a literate, propertied black man, he serves as an ideal hero for white audiences while inadequately representing the experience of slavery. Though many aspects of Northup’s biography are unusual, his status as a highly sought-after musician is emblematic of a legion of black fiddlers who dominated music scenes North and South, from ballrooms to barns, beginning as early as the late seventeenth-century, as Dena Epstein explains in her indispensable study, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Music to the Civil War (1977).
Prior to enslavement, fiddling, “the passion of [his] youth,” provides Northup with supplemental income that helps to sustain his family during periods of insufficient employment in agriculture and carpentry. Music was an ideal side-career for someone in such circumstances, though, as Northup’s story shows, it did not protect him from the dangers of being black in the United States. He is captured and enslaved while touring as a circus musician. Ferrying South toward the Louisiana plantations that would become his deplorable home, Northup’s freedoms are violently stripped away. But his talent as a first-rate fiddler travels with him, becoming a defining element of his experience of slavery.
Fiddles were extraordinarily popular instruments during the era. Lightweight, portable, and increasing in mass production during the nineteenth-century, a single fiddle could service a large dance if need be. As such, slaves were encouraged (or forced) to take up the instrument and musical ability was considered a highly prized skill. Fiddling granted (primarily male) slaves an unusual degree of mobility as well as opportunities for economic advancement. The fact that numerous runaway slave ads note that the sought-after individuals were fiddlers or had in their possession a violin suggests that the increased mobility and access to income may have facilitated escape for some. For more information about these trends and their eighteenth-century origins, I highly recommend Richard Cullen Rath’s How Early America Sounded (2003), an excellent cultural history of sound.
Just before being sold at market to his first master, Northup encounters an enslaved young man in possession of a fiddle and sizes him up by asking if he could play the “Virginia Reel,” a popular dance. The young man cannot and so Northup takes the instrument from him, boldly showing off his more substantial repertoire and ability, much to the delight of those around him. Though about to be sold into an unknown and terrifying fate, this seemingly mundane interaction underscores how important musicianship is to Northup’s identity and also how significant it was to the societies through which he was forced to move. Whether in New York State, a New Orleans slave market, or a backwoods swamp plantation, fiddling was a thoroughly popular form of entertainment, widely enjoyed by Americans, slave and free, rich and poor, native and immigrant.
Northup expresses pride in the fame he earns in the Red River region, noting that he was known widely as the “Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf.” Ole Bull was a famous Norwegian violinist, who was one of the first musicians to professionally tour the United States in the 1850s; he became a widely-known celebrity. Because of Northrup’s sought-after talents, his masters hired him out extensively to play at the fashionable balls of nearby plantations as well as the Christmas dances held yearly for slaves. At one ball, he was tipped seventeen dollars, an extraordinary amount that he used to furnish his cabin with bare necessities. In contrast to these more favorable gigs, Northup was also forced to perform during his savage Master Epps’ alcoholic binges. These events were held for hours on end in the middle of the night as Northup’s fellow slaves were commanded to dance. The violent, dreaded affairs interrupted precious sleep and were utterly humiliating for the participants. Depicted memorably in both the memoir and the recent film, the horrifying scenario shows the way slavery degrades Northup’s musicianship and his peers’ dancing, turning these arts into yet one more thing that the master possesses. For Master Epps, Northup is a mere musical device, a kind of proto-phonograph, full of tunes that can be made to play on command. Northup’s “passion” and economic livelihood are thus converted into a mechanized musical labor commodity under slavery.
Through Northup, we can see how before the eras of sound reproduction and broadcast, the circulation of music across North America was greatly facilitated by the forced migration of enslaved people. At the time of Northup’s capture, large numbers of mid-Atlantic slaves were being sold South to the booming plantations along the frontier of Louisiana and Texas. Northup brought a unique repertoire on his journey and he also learned new music that he transported back to the New York publishers of his autobiography. Afro-diasporic musicians began revolutionizing Western music centuries before Northup was born, and as we can see, continued to do so in profoundly significant ways in the Antebellum era both in spite of and due to the harsh conditions of their enslavement.
I’d like to thank the students in my course “Sounds of the South” for their lively discussion and excellent essays regarding music in Solomon Northup’s Narrative. I’m also deeply grateful to my musical collaborator, Eric Olsten.
Featured Image by Flickr User kubotake
Mary Caton Lingold is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University researching early Afro-Atlantic literature, music, and sound. She leads a collaborative experiment called the Sonic Dictionary at Duke’s Audiovisualities Lab and co-directs Soundbox, a project dedicated to enhancing the practice of using sound in digital scholarship.
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How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent––Gayle Wald