Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by Black men.
The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.
The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38971).
Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.
November marks National Native American Heritage Month in the United States, honoring the first Americans’ contributions to the establishment and growth of the country. Exhibits and collections, song and dance recordings, visual art and imagery, poetry and storytelling, and teaching materials dedicated to National Native American Heritage are available through the portal https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/.
This bibliography reflects the diverse musical expressions and musical life of Native Americans over nearly three centuries, ranging from engagement with Christianity to cope with Colonial-era displacement, to Navajo heavy metal and Indigenous sound studies in the present. It comprises a wide range of document types, including monographs, collections, journal articles, and sound recordings.
Native Americans are both active and represented in traditional, popular, and classical music; music education; radio; and record production. The ways in which Native American music has been colonized and appropriated may be contrasted with the way in which it has been used by its practitioners as a means of cultural and spiritual agency and survival. Finally, although this bibliography centers on indigeneity in the United States, many of its ideas, traditions, and struggles find parallels in the experiences of Indigenous communities worldwide, and it is hoped that the research below may resonate with the musical-cultural experiences of those groups as well.
Cahill, Cathleen D. “Urban Indians, Native networks, and the creation of modern regional identity in the American Southwest”, American Indian culture and research journal XLII/3 (2018) 71–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-95806]
Abstract: The careers and political activism of Native opera singers in the Southwest of the 1920s are explored. A number of talented Native artists recognized that engaging their audiences directly in live performances provided opportunities for public education in addition to their economic benefits. Partnering with regional boosters, they built careers performing in multiple pageants and events sponsored by municipalities across the Southwest. Live performance with its direct access to audiences also facilitated their political agendas of publicizing Indigenous histories. Their careers highlight the mobility of Indigenous people, demonstrating how they helped create modern urban spaces across the American Southwest.
Diamond, Beverley. “Affect, ontology, and indigenous protocol: Encounters in Canada”, Ethnomusicology matters: Influencing social and political realities, ed. by Ursula Hemetek, Hande Sağlam, and Marko Kölbl (Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2019) 117–134. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-12878]
Abstract: Ethnomusicologists have, thus far, written extensively about Indigenous ontologies but less about the ways divergent ontologies shape intercultural diplomacy. This article attempts to think through several such spaces of intercultural encounter. It considers how Indigenous protocol plays a role in promoting respectful relations. But it also reﬂects on situations where a failure to consider the affect of protocol-related performances may be disrespectful and counter-productive. There is a need, then, for intercultural dialogue about the clashes of perspectives, and the affect of performances that surround difﬁcult moments of meetings, when one way of being in the world (i.e., ontology, simply deﬁned) meets another and seems utterly incomprehensible. Sometimes such incommensurability is rooted in language: that song or story are “law” for many Indigenous groups in North America (and elsewhere), for instance, is often a confusing notion for Euroamericans. This formulation is already stimulating action-oriented discussions about access to archives, and appropriations of Indigenous song. At other times, forms of relationality are at stake. For instance, many Indigenous expressive cultures assume kinship with non-humans, spirits, and other life-forms in a broad ecological system that differs fundamentally from, e.g., those who see the earth’s resources as economic investments, or those promoting “creative city” initiatives that see the arts as a vehicle for prosperity while disregarding human relations with other life forms. The affect of performances that assert presence and sovereignty on the one hand or guesthood on another is an important consideration when divergent viewpoints are at issue. In some cases, a focus on “affect” may help to reduce misunderstanding, while in other cases it may encourage respect for the performers who assert their values, understandings, and sovereign rights.
Fox, Aaron A. “Repatriation as reanimation through reciprocity”, The Cambridge history of world music, ed. by Philip V. Bohlman and Martin Stokes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 522–554. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-17019]
Abstract: Describes the process by which the Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional and Liturgical Music came to be housed at Columbia University, a process that began in 1962. The Boulton Collection’s history includes disputes between the collector and various institutions, and among and within those institutions as well, about the extent and nature of its contents. The collection is an assemblage of sound recordings made or acquired by the mid–20th-century music collector Laura Boulton (1899–1980) in a series of expeditions to dozens of countries over nearly 40 years. This essay examines her work as a particularly vivid example of the ironies inherent in ethnomusicology’s broader racist and colonialist legacy, a legacy embedded in the structure of the broader archive-building mindset upon which the discipline was constructed. Doing so allows us to think critically about that legacy and about how to address it and heal its lingering and still caustic effects on our discipline and its relations with its publics and constituents. Recovering, through repatriation, the cultural and scholarly value of archives like Boulton’s suggests ways to move ethnomusicology forward as an ethical as well as scholarly enterprise, by confronting the moral obligations the discipline has incurred, but not always honored, in the past.
Garrett-Davis, Josh. “American Indian Soundchiefs: Cutting records in Indigenous sonic networks”, Resonance: The journal of sound and culture I/4 (winter 2020) 394–411. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-54119]
Abstract: American Indian Soundchiefs, an independent record label founded by the Rev. Linn Pauahty (Kiowa) in the 1940s, developed a remarkable model of Indigenous sound media that combined home recording, dubbing, and small-scale mass production. Alongside other Native American media producers of the same era, Soundchiefs built on earlier engagements with ethnographic and commercial recording to produce Native citizens’ media a generation prior to the Red Power era of the 1960s and 1970s. This soundwork provided Native music to Native listeners first, while also seeking to preserve a “rich store of folk-lore” sometimes in danger of being lost under ongoing colonial pressures. Pauahty’s label found ways to market commercial recordings while operating within what music and legal scholar Trevor Reed (Hopi) calls Indigenous sonic networks, fields of obligation and responsibility.
Goodman, Glenda. “Joseph Johnson’s lost gamuts: Native hymnody, materials of exchange, and the colonialist archive”, Journal of the Society for American Music XIII/4 (November 2019) 482–507. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-11405]
Abstract: In the winter of 1772–73, Joseph Johnson (Mohegan/Brothertown) copied musical notation into eight books for Christian Native Americans in Farmington, Connecticut, a town established by English settler colonists on the land known as Tunxis Sepus. Johnson did so because, as he wrote in his diary, “The indians are all desireous of haveing Gamuts”. Johnson’s gamuts have not survived, but their erstwhile existence reveals hymnody’s important role within the Native community in Farmington as well as cross-culturally with the English settler colonists. In order to reconstruct the missing music books and assess their sociocultural significance, a surrogate bibliography is proposed, gathering a constellation of sources among which Johnson’s books would have circulated and gained meaning for Native American Christians and English colonists (including other printed and manuscript music, wampum, and legal documents pertaining to land transfer). By bringing together this multi-modal network of materials, redress is sought for the material and epistemological effects of a colonialist archive. On one level, this case study focuses on a short period of time in order to document the impact on sacred music of conversion, literacy, shifting intercultural relations, and a drive to preserve sovereignty. On another, a methodological intervention is presented for dealing with lost materials and colonialist archives without recourse to discourses of recovery or discovery, the latter of which is considered through the framework of archival orientalism.
_____. “Sounds heard, meaning deferred: Music transcription as imperial technology”, Eighteenth-century studies LII/1 (fall 2018) 39–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-95884]
Abstract: How notations of the traditional musics of Indigenous peoples by colonists in the 18th century came to be regarded as evidence in the mapping of global trade are examined, focusing on the example of a transcription by William Beresford, published in A voyage round the world; but more particularly to the north-west coast of America (London: Geo. Goulding, 1789). The book, an account of the fur trading voyage of the ship Queen Charlotte in 1786–88 consists almost entirely of material written by Beresford, the ship’s supercargo. Beresford’s transcription of an Indigenous (likely Tlingit) song from Norfolk Sound (now Sitka Sound, Alaska) included a description of the customary pre-trade ceremonies as a guide for future traders. The transcription itself reflects multiple performances, by different groups, as Beresford re-encountered this ceremonial song along the coast; it should be viewed as an invention as much as a documentation.
Gray, Robin. “Repatriation and decolonization: Thoughts on ownership, access, and control”, The Oxford handbook of musical repatriation, ed. by Frank D. Gunderson, Robert C. Lancefield, and Bret D. Woods. Oxford handbooks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) 723–737. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-11972]
Abstract: Focuses on the efforts of Ts’msyen from Lax Kw’alaams to repatriate songs and associated knowledge products from the Laura Boulton Collection of Traditional and Liturgical Music. It provides an overview of the sociopolitical context that created the conditions for the songs to be taken from the community, including an analysis of the contributing role of Western property frameworks in the dispossession of Ts’msyen knowledge, heritage, and rights. Based on a community-based participatory action research project with, by, and for Ts’msyen, this chapter offers decolonial considerations on the topics of ownership, access, and control from the vantage of Ts’msyen laws, ethics, and protocols.
Hauptman, Laurence M. “The musical odyssey of Cleo Hewitt, Cattaraugus Seneca, 1889–1987”, New York history C/2 (winter 1999) 246–268. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-32487]
Abstract: Caroline Glennora Cleopatra (Cleo) Hewitt (1889–1987), a Hodinöhsö:ni’ elder, was for four decades a music teacher at the Thomas Indian School and other schools for Native Americans in western New York State, as well as a piano teacher. Hewitt was also a violinist, but was blocked from a performing career due to her race. While Hewitt faced formidable obstacles as a Native American and a woman, her life story both confirms and contradicts the assimilationist narrative of Native boarding schools.
Levine, Victoria Lindsay and Dylan Robinson, eds. Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America. Music/culture (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-2103]
Abstract: A collaboration between Indigenous and settler scholars from Canada and the U.S., exploring the intersections between music, modernity, and indigeneity in essays addressing topics that range from hip hop to powwow, and television soundtracks of Native Classical and experimental music. Working from the shared premise that multiple modernities exist for Indigenous peoples, the authors seek to understand contemporary musical expression from Native perspectives and to decolonize the study of Native American/First Nations music. The essays coalesce around four main themes: innovative technology, identity formation and self-representation, political activism, and translocal musical exchange. Closely related topics include cosmopolitanism, hybridity, alliance studies, code-switching, and ontologies of sound.
Moling, Martin. “’Anarchy on the Rez’: The blues, popular culture, and survival in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation blues“, American Indian culture and research journal XL/3 (2016) 1–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-56019]
Abstract: The ingenious ways in which Sherman Alexie appropriates the blues as a vessel for Native Americans to creatively express their predicament and a subversive instrument in their struggle to resist colonial cooption are explored. In Reservation blues (1995), Alexie’s writing itself creates a Native American version of the blues that appropriates such blues staples as the AAB stanza, improvisation, and syncopation. The multiple references in the novel to mainstream popular culture are in contrast to the role of the blues, which arguably serves as the music of choice for Alexie’s principal project: the survival of Native America.
Moylan, Katie and Sheila Nanaeto. “‘Indigenous for days’: Indigenous internationalism in Native American music radio”, The global South, XV/2 (spring 2022) 176–192. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2022-7727].
Abstract: Community building in Indigenous music radio is identified and explored, drawing on music programming examples and practitioner insights from two Indigenous radio stations: KPRI FM (Rez Radio) and KSUT FM. Multifaceted music programming across the two stations embodies the concept of grounded normativity (Coulthard and Betasamosake Simpson) and expands capacities for tribal community building on-air, in turn reinforcing a cultural Indigenous internationalism. In particular, Rez dub reggae and Songs of the Southwest at KPRI and the Tribal radio morning show at KSUT enable and encourage Indigenous community building through place-based practices of music radio production which in turn embody possibilities for Indigenous resurgence (Corntassel).
Perea, John-Carlos. Intertribal Native American music in the United States: Experiencing music, expressing culture. Global music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-52557]
Abstract: Over time many Native American tribes have developed a shared musical culture that is prominently audible on local, national, and international stages. Northern and Southern Plains pow wow practices represent a singular performance encompassing disparate stories and sounds. Traditional sounds, such as pow-wow and Native American flute songs, have developed in tandem with increasingly recognizable forms like Native jazz and rock.
Peters, Gretchen. “Unlocking the songs: Marcie Rendon’s indigenous critique of Frances Densmore’s Native music collecting”, American Indian culture and research journal XXXIX/4 (2015) 79–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-89340]
Abstract: Criticisms of the work of Frances Densmore in Marcie Rendon’s play SongCatcher are identified and contextualized within Densmore’s own writings. The integration of physical and spiritual realities, as well as contemporary and historic settings, denies the common assertion that Densmore preserved large repertoires. Numerous musical performances remain intact within their broader context and call into question the value of the isolated and distorted recordings and transcriptions by Densmore. While Densmore’s analytical working method marginalized the Native individual experience and perspective, SongCatcher examines Densmore’s work through its impact on Native individuals and communities in the past and present.
Poirier, Lisa. “Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead: Jim Pepper and music of the Native American Church”, Journal of religion and popular culture XXX/2 (summer 2018) 120–130. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-95883]
Abstract: Jim Pepper’s 1971 jazz hit Witchi tai to is a contact zone in which cultures (Native and non-Native) collide. In the song, Native powwow culture and Native identities are reclaimed and reinterpreted within a jazz idiom. While Native supratribal identities are celebrated within this popular culture artefact, the song retains an opacity that resists absorption and cooptation by non-Natives. Witchi tai to is a song of Native religious reorientation within a context of modernity, and its legacy reverberates in at least two genres of contemporary Native popular music: Native American Church songs and Native American electronic dance music.
Prest, Anita and J. Scott Goble. “Language, music, and revitalizing indigeneity: Effecting cultural restoration and ecological balance via music education”, Philosophy of music education review XXIX/1 (spring 2021) 24–46. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-98113]
Abstract: Challenges are explored in conveying the culturally constructed meanings of local Indigenous musics and the worldviews they manifest to students in K–12 school music classes, when foundational aspects of the English language, historical and current discourse, and English language habits function to thwart the transmission of those meanings. In settler colonial societies in North America, speakers of the dominant English language have historically misrepresented, discredited, and obscured cultural meanings that inhere in local Indigenous musics. Three ways in which the use of English has distorted the cultural meanings of those musics are examined. How historical discourses in English have intentionally undervalued or discredited the values intrinsic to those musics are explained, also describing how some current music education discourse in English might work against the embedding of Indigenous meanings in school music education settings. Additional factors distinguishing Indigenous languages from European languages (especially English) are considered to show how a people’s language habits influence their perception of and thus their relationship with their natural environment. The role of music education in revitalizing local Indigenous languages and musics and advancing the cultural values of their originating communities is considered.
Przybylski, Liz. “Indigenizing the mainstream: Music festivals and indigenous popular music authors”, IASPM@Journal XI/2 (2021) 5–21. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-13635]
Abstract: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit music and dance practices have enacted Indigenous survivance since colonization began. Contemporary Indigenous performers within and beyond present-day Canadian borders continue this performative intervention through popular music, building sonic sovereignty. Rooted in dialogue with Indigenous music industry professionals and musicians, this article draws on ethnographic work with Indigenous music festivals, especially the sākihiwēfestival in Winnipeg, Canada where musicians from many Nations share stages. In response to music industry barriers, Indigenous media professionals created performance spaces for First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and international Indigenous musicians. With the imposition of performance restrictions due to COVID, musicians faced new limitations. On the heels of ongoing political changes, Indigenous music professionals navigated multilayered challenges for the 2020 festival season. As uncertainty continues around music festivals in the future, how decolonial possibilities are shifting around cultural and political change through music festival performance is addressed.
Reed, Trevor. “Sonic sovereignty: Performing Hopi authority in Öngtupqa”, Journal of the Society for American Music XIII/4 (November 2019) 508–530. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-11407]
Abstract: Explores the ways in which territorial authority or sovereignty emerges from within a particular mode of indigenous creativity—the creation and performance of Hopi taatawi (traditional songs)—despite the appropriation of Hopi traditional lands by the American settler-state. Hopi territories within Öngtupqa (Grand Canyon) are just a sample of the many places where indigenous authority, as expressed through sound-based performances, continues to resonate despite the imposition of settler-colonial structures that have either silenced Indigenous performances of authority or severed these places from Indigenous territories. Hopi musical composition and performance are deeply intertwined with Hopi political philosophy and governance, resulting in a form of sovereignty that is inherently sonic rather than strictly literary or textual in nature. Recognizing that this interconnection between territorial authority and sound production is common across many indigenous communities, listening to contemporary indigenous creativity should be considered both as an aesthetic form, and more importantly, as a source of sonic sovereignty.
Robinson, Dylan. Hungry listening: Resonant theory for Indigenous sound studies. Indigenous Americas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-4582]
Abstract: Listening is considered from both Indigenous and settler colonial perspectives. In a critical response to what has been called the “whiteness of sound studies”, how decolonial practices of listening emerge from increasing awareness of our listening positionality are evaluated. This involves identifying habits of settler colonial perception and contending with settler colonialism’s “tin ear” that renders silent the epistemic foundations of Indigenous song as history, law, and medicine. With case studies on Indigenous participation in classical music, musicals, and popular music, structures of inclusion that reinforce Western musical values are examined. Alongside this inquiry on the unmarked terms of inclusion in performing arts organizations and compositional practice, examples of “doing sovereignty” in Indigenous performance art, museum exhibitions, and gatherings that support an Indigenous listening resurgence are offered. It is shown how decolonial and resurgent forms of listening might be affirmed by writing otherwise about musical experience. Through event scores, dialogic improvisation, and forms of poetic response and refusal, a reorientation is demanded toward the act of reading as a way of listening. Indigenous relationships to the life of song are sustained in writing that finds resonance in the intersubjective experience between listener, sound, and space.
Samuels, David W. Putting a song on top of it: Expression and identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2004). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2004-16236]
Abstract: As in many Native American communities, people on the San Carlos Apache reservation in southeastern Arizona have for centuries been exposed to contradictory pressures. One set of expectations is about conversion and modernization—spiritual, linguistic, cultural, technological. Another is about steadfast perseverance in the face of this cultural onslaught. Within this contradictory context lies the question of what validates a sense of Apache identity. For many people on the San Carlos reservation, both the traditional calls of the Mountain Spirits and the hard edge of a country, rock, or reggae song can evoke the feeling of being Apache. Using insights gained from both linguistic and musical practices in the community—as well as from his own experience playing in an Apache country band—the author explores the complex expressive lives of these people to offer new ways of thinking about cultural identity. He analyzes how people on the reservation make productive use of popular culture forms to create and transform contemporary expressions of Apache cultural identity. Some popular songs—such as those by Bob Marley—are reminiscent of history and bring about an alignment of past and present for the Apache listener. Thinking about Geronimo, for instance, might mean one thing, but “putting a song on top of it” results in a richer meaning. He also proposes that the concept of the pun, as both a cultural practice and a means of analysis, helps us understand the ways in which San Carlos Apaches are able to make cultural symbols point in multiple directions at once. Through these punning, layered expressions, people on the reservation express identities that resonate with the complicated social and political history of the Apache community. This richly detailed study challenges essentialist notions of Native American tribal and ethnic identity by revealing the turbulent complexity of everyday life on the reservation. It is a multifaceted exploration of the complexities of sound, of language, and of the process of constructing and articulating identity in the 21st century.
Soltani Stone, Ashkan. Rez metal. DVD (Leomark Studios, 2022). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2022-7725]
Abstract: The remarkable journey of Kyle Felter and the Navajo heavy metal band I Dont Konform is traced, from the band’s early days to the recording of their debut album Sagebrush rejects with Flemming Rasmussen, the Grammy-award winning producer of Metallica, while telling the story of the thriving heavy metal scene on the Navajo reservations. A companion monograph is abstracted as RILM 2020-69069.
Soltani Stone, Ashkan and Natale A. Zappia. Rez metal: Inside the Navajo Nation heavy metal scene (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-69069]
Abstract: Bridging communities from disparate corners of Indian Country and across generations, heavy metal has touched a collective nerve on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona in particular. Many cultural leaders—including former Navajo president Russell Begaye—have begun to recognize heavy metal’s ability to inspire Navajo communities facing chronic challenges such as poverty, depression, and addiction. Heavy metal music speaks to the frustrations, fears, trials, and hopes of living in Indian Country. A seminal moment in Indigenous heavy metal occurred when Kyle Felter, lead singer of the Navajo heavy metal band I Dont Konform, sent a demo tape to Flemming Rasmussen, the Grammy Award–winning producer of several Metallica albums. A few months later, Rasmussen, captivated by the music, flew from Denmark to Window Rock, Arizona, to meet the band. Through a series of vivid images and interviews focused on the venues, bands, and fans of the Navajo Nation metal scene, a window is provided into this fascinating world. A companion documentary film is abstracted as RILM 2022-7725.
Veerbeek, Vincent. “A dissonant education: Marching bands and Indigenous musical traditions at Sherman Institute, 1901–1940”, American Indian culture and research journal XLIV/4 (2020) 41–58. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-69045]
Abstract: At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. government established a system of off-reservation boarding schools in an effort to assimilate Indigenous youth into the American nation-state. Music emerged as one of the most enduring strategies that these schools employed to reshape the cultural sensibilities of young Native Americans. A lively music culture could be found, for instance, at Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, which was home to a marching band and dozens of other music groups throughout its history. Although school officials created these institutions for the purposes of assimilation and cultural genocide, this music program often had a more ambiguous place in the lives of students. To understand the role of music within Sherman Institute during the early 20th century, the school’s marching band and the place of Indigenous cultural expression are examined. While the school had students march to the beat of civilization, young Native Americans found various strategies to combat assimilation using the same instruments. At the same time, they also used the cultures of their communities to navigate life in an environment that the government created to destroy those very cultures.
Wheeler, Rachel and Sarah Eyerly. “Singing Box 331: Re-sounding eighteenth-century Mohican hymns from the Moravian Archives”, William and Mary quarterly LXXVI/4 (October 2019) 649–696. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-32488]
Abstract: A single Mohican-language hymn verse, Jesu paschgon kia, from the Moravian Mission collection at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the focus of a collaboration between a historian, a musicologist, members of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, a scholar in linguistics, recording professionals, and students, as well as with the professional Mohican musician Bill Miller and the composer Brent Michael Davids. Applying what might be called a nanohistorical approach to the verse’s four lines of text, the history of the creation of Mohican-language hymns is traced at a number of different communities affiliated with the Moravian Church in New York and Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century. Building upon this historical research, Jesu paschgon kia is rendered as a living, multidimensional sounded text by creating three recordings, each of which highlights very different aspects of the collaborative work. These musical renderings of the verse stand as aural shorthand for the diverse meanings and interpretations of historical sources generated by varied relationships with and perspectives on those sources, speaking to recent calls for methodological innovation in the fields of history, musicology, and Native American and Indigenous studies.
Wigginton, Caroline. “Hymncraft: Joseph Johnson, Thomas Commuck, and the composition of song and community from the Native North American Northeast to Brothertown”, NAIS: Journal of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association VIII/1 (spring 2021) 19–55. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-10146]
Abstract: Hymncraft is the composition of a material text with songs of praise and veneration for the sacred relationships between communities, place, and beings, human and nonhuman. For Mohegan Joseph Johnson in the 1770s and Brothertown Narragansett Thomas Commuck in the 1840s, hymncraft was an instrument for choreographing new visions of community in order to counter colonization’s destructive fragmentation of their peoples and homelands in the North American Northeast. Their intergenerational tale begins with Johnson’s creation of now-lost manuscript music instruction books he called gamuts and continues with Commuck’s publication of his tunebook Indian melodies 70 years later. Their hymncraft extends and adapts their region’s multicentury custom whereby craft combines with sacred song to forge, arrange, and maintain relations among peoples. Rebinding communities first through scribal publication and then through print, they produced objects with diplomatic valences that enfold ancient and new technologies to serve their people’s pasts, presents, and futures.
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In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”
Jabbour knew the name only through accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Goin’ back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Goin’ back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.
The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.
This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-10837).
Below, Patsy Montana’s recording of Goin’ back to old Montana. In a letter to John I. White, Lowdermilk wrote “Patsy Montana liked it and wanted to sing it on her road appearances, so I just called it Goin’ back to old Montana and she recorded it for Victor and it was on the juke boxes for quite a spell. You can sing it Back to California or Oklahoma or Wyoming—or any damn place you want to go back to. So I figured it was an all-around western. I got paid for it by WLS, so I didn’t really care where the singer went back to.” (Quoted in Ten thousand goddam cattle: A history of the American cowboy in song, story, and verse [Flagstaff: Northland University, 1975; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1978-3562].)
More stories about the American Folklife Center are here.
Founded in Saratoga Springs by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, Caffè Lena is the longest continuously running folk coffeehouse in the United States. With its longstanding tradition of nurturing new talent, the venue hosted some of the first performances of Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and Ani DiFranco, as well as some of the last appearances of the legendary Delta bluesmen Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.
In August 2009, just in time for its 50th anniversary, the Caffè Lena Collection arrived at the American Folklife Center. This collection—a collaborative effort of the Center, the Caffè Lena History Project, and the Saratoga Springs History Museum—includes vintage photographs, articles, and letters; rare reel-to-reel recordings of performances; and oral history recordings with musicians, patrons, and staff members. The Center is making plans for digitizing the materials.
This according to “Celebrating 50 years of American folk music history: The Caffè Lena Collection arrives at the Library of Congress” by Jocelyn Arem (Folklife Center news XXXII/1–2, pp. 3–6; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-8282).
Above, Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Spencer, and Pasha, 1962. (All rights reserved by the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC.)
The term “Asian American” refers to people of Asian descent who have settled in North America beginning in the mid-18th century. Encompassed within the term is a wide range of ethnic groups and immigrant experiences stretching from Japan, Korea, and China, to India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The earliest Asian immigrants were Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and South Asians who came for economic reasons and worked on building the railroads or in agriculture. Subsequent waves of migration since the 1960s have included refugees escaping from political conflict in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Laws passed in the United States such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which barred further immigration from Asia, and Executive Order 9066, which facilitated the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II, highlight instances where Asian immigrants encountered racism and segregation. Many have overcome such challenges by maintaining connections with their homelands, especially through music, dance, and the dramatic arts.
The diversity of social classes and ethnic heritages of Asians in North America are represented in a wide range of performance traditions. Using the term Asian American music, for instance, has been highly contested and can refer to any music made by Asian Americans or simply music made about the Asian American experience (Wong 2004). Some artists have voiced concerns about the phrase “Asian American music” suggesting it could be essentializing or implies a unified aesthetic. Dance scholars have made the case for establishing Asian American dance as a critical field of inquiry bringing topics of Asian American studies into dialogue with dance studies. By interrogating issues of racial belonging and identity, citizenship, and model minority stereotypes in the context of dance, the field offers a framework for Asian American embodiment.
The scope of Asian American music and performance also has a historical component given the different waves of migration. Early Chinese immigrants of the 18th century brought to North America their love of Cantonese opera and narrative song traditions often heard in the Chinatowns that emerged in cities across the continent. From 1890 to 1924, Japanese immigrants brought various folk, popular, and classical music and dance to places such as California and Hawai’i. After 1965, the constituency of Asian America was transformed by an influx of different types of migrants including laborers from the Philippines, China, and Japan, war refugees (Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan), and educated professionals and wealthy entrepreneurs from across Asia.
Active scenes for various genres of Asian music and dance emerged along with newer styles blending Asian and Western musical elements. The establishment of San Jose Taiko in the context of the 1960s Asian American political movement opened a space of racial consciousness even as it forced dancers, choreographers, and musicians to navigate the external pressures of representing the often essentialized ideals of Asian America. Some immigrant musicians enthusiastically learned instruments such as piano and violin and became active in Western art music, citing it as a form of social capital that could lead to upward mobility. Others immersed themselves in jazz and hip hop, creating new experimental genres. Today, Asian Americans are singer-songwriters, metalheads, rappers, and performance artists as well as butoh dancers, taiko performers, and bhangra musicians. Each of these shifting artistic identities has contributed to the nuanced complexity of representation that comprises Asian American music and dance.
The following bibliography represents selected texts taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature that enhance our knowledge of music, dance, theater, and Asian American experiences. It comprises publications that detail varying perspectives, genres, mediums, and activities.
Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Associate Editor, RILM
Baily, John and Asif Mahmoud. Tablas and drum machines: Afghan music in California (London: Goldsmiths College, 2005, motion picture). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-17147]
Abstract: A film exploring the musical life of the Afghan community in Fremont, California, with particular attention to issues of cultural identity.
Bryant, Lei Ouyang. “Performing race and place in Asian America: Korean American adoptees, musical theatre, and the land of 10,000 lakes”, Asian music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music 40/1 (winter–spring 2009) 4–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-344]
Abstract: The Walleye kid: The musical, written by R.A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase with music and lyrics by Kurt Miyashiro, was one of two musical productions incorporating themes of transracial and transnational adoption staged in the Twin Cities in the spring of 2005. The musical, produced by the Minneapolis-based Asian American theater company Mu Performing Arts, follows a young Korean American adoptee’s journey of self-discovery while adjusting to life in rural, white Minnesota. The production is used as a case study to examine the creative processes used in contemporary Asian American artistic expression, the Korean American adoption experience in Minnesota, and the use of the musical theater to express complex issues surrounding the transnational adoption experience.
Cayari, Christopher. “The education of Asian American music professionals: Exploration and development of ethnic identity”, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 228 (spring 2021) 7–24. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2021-3584]
Abstract: Asian American people make up approximately 5.8% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019) and pursue careers in a variety of musical professions. However, a monoracial view of Asian Americans that conceives of all Asian Americans as a homogenous group without regard to ethnicity or cultural background has led to widespread stereotypes. The desire to acculturate to U.S. culture and Western European art music ideals can pressure Asian Americans to play certain instruments, restrict their involvement to areas of music, or force them to portray their ethnicity in offensive ways. This study looked at the racial and ethnic identity development of nine Asian American music professionals from various career paths in education, performance, curation, and history through a Web survey and subsequent semistructured interviews. Findings pertained to the musical upbringing of participants both inside and outside of school, the social contexts that affected participants’ musical endeavors, pressures from dominant cultures that participants faced while in school and during their careers, and the actions participants took in their careers that were a result of growing up as Asian Americans in various music learning contexts (e.g., school, community, familial, and informal).
Chambers-Letson, Joshua. A race so different: Performance and law in Asian America (New York: New York University Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-29192]
Abstract: Taking a performance studies approach to understanding Asian American racial subjectivity, the author argues that the law influences racial formation by compelling Asian Americans to embody and perform recognizable identities in both popular aesthetic forms (such as theater, opera, or rock music) and in the rituals of everyday life. Tracing the production of Asian American selfhood from the era of Asian Exclusion through the Global War on Terror, the book explores the legal paradox whereby U.S. law apprehends the Asian American body as simultaneously excluded from and included within the national body politic. The last chapter examines the group Dengue Fever and the racialization of Cambodian-America.
Hong Sohn, Stephen. “Calculated cacophonies: The queer Asian American family and the nonmusical musical in Chay Yew’s Wonderland“, The journal of American drama and theatre (JADT) 29/1 (fall–winter 2017) 20p. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-50880]
Abstract: Chay Yew’s productions commonly address queer Asian American experiences and associated themes, including the struggle to survive amid hostile familial ties and exclusionary social contexts. This article explores such issues through an extended analysis of Wonderland, a dramatic production involving four roles. Three of the roles—a Man, a Woman, and a Son—comprise an Asian American nuclear family. The fourth figure, a Young Man, is revealed to be playing the Son as an adult. Each role bears the burden of expanding the audience’s vision to include the queer Asian American as part of a domestic social construct that better integrates non-normative sexualities as part of its core foundation. The article shows how Wonderland diagnoses this problem through its thematic depictions and offers an intriguing intervention through its deployment of form—what Yew describes as a “nonmusical musical”. I investigate the “nonmusical musical” as a quintessentially queer racial performance form that employs what I term as calculated cacophonies, which elucidates how Wonderland uses dialogic, sonic, and thematic relationalities to undercut the portrayed destruction of the Asian American family. The presence of calculated cacophonies allows Wonderland to spotlight some guarded optimism: there may be a sustained possibility for the queer Asian American son to find a place in the heteronuclear family.
Liu, Sissi. “‘Kungfu/jazz’ as a new approach to music theatre making: Fred Ho and ‘manga opera'”, Studies in musical theatre 11/2 (2017) 197–214. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literaturewith Full Text, 2017-35087]
Abstract: Kung fu and jazz—performing art forms that originated from the racial others—will be used as shorthand for two concurrent, interdependent, and dialectically opposing cultural processes: one that prioritizes boundary formation or reinforcement, and one that favors boundary elimination or crossing. The processes of kung fu and jazz are analyzed in the case of Ho’s Voice of the dragon (2006), and the paradoxical process of negotiating between the two are explored in Ho’s creation of a new genre, manga opera. I propose that in a world of increasing global encounters, racial and ethnic multiplicities, and political and cultural complexities, kung fu/jazz provides a politically progressive and transgressive approach to the process of boundary-conscious musical theater-making.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu. Alien encounters: Popular culture in Asian America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-17171]
Abstract: Showcases innovative directions in Asian American cultural studies by exploring topics ranging from pulp fiction to multimedia art and import-car subcultures. Contributors analyze Asian Americans’ interactions with popular culture as both creators and consumers. The volume reflects post-1965 Asian America paying nuanced attention to issues of gender, sexuality, transnationality, and citizenship, while unabashedly taking pleasure in pop culture. Issues of cultural authenticity are raised by addressing Asian American participation in hip hop and jazz, the emergence of an orientalist “Indo-chic” in U.S. youth culture, and the circulation of Vietnamese music variety shows. Taking popular culture seriously reveals how people imagine and express their affective relationships to history, identity, and belonging.
Sharma, Nitasha Tamar. Hip hop desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a global race consciousness. Refiguring American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-5669]
Abstract: Explores the worldviews of young U.S. people of South Asian descent (self-identifying as Desis) who create hip hop music. Through their lives and lyrics, hip hop Desis express a global race consciousness reflecting both their sense of connection with Black Americans as racialized minorities in the U.S. and their diasporic sensibility as part of a global community of South Asians. The author emphasizes the role of appropriation and sampling in the ways that hip hop Desis craft their identities, create art, and pursue social activism. Some of the Desi artists at the center of her ethnography produce what she calls ethnic hip hop, incorporating South Asian languages, instruments, and immigrant themes. Through ethnic hip hop, Desi artists such as KB, Sammy, and Bella Deejay express alternative desiness, challenging assumptions about their identities as South Asians, children of immigrants, minorities, and U.S. people. Desi artists also contest and seek to bridge perceived divisions between Black and South Asian Americans through racialized hip hop. It is described how they uncover connections between South Asians and Black Americans, highlighting in their lyrics links such as the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Mahatma Gandhi. By taking up themes considered irrelevant to many Asian Americans, Desi performers including D’Lo, Chee Malabar of Himalayan Project and Rawj of Feenom Circle create a multiracial form of Black popular culture to fight racism and enact social change.
Villegas, Mark R., Kuttin Kandi, and Roderick N. Labrador, eds. Empire of funk: Hip hop and representation in Filipina/o America (San Diego: Cognella, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5390]
Abstract: Gives long overdue attention to the most popular cultural art form practiced by recent generations of Filipina/o American youth. The anthology features the voices of artists, scholars, and activists to begin a dialogue on Filipina/o American youth culture and its relationship to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. The text also offers the opportunity to question the future of hip hop itself. Individual chapters explore Filipina/o American hip hop aesthetics, community-building, the geography of hip hop in Filipina/o America, sexuality and power, activism and praxis, visual culture, and navigating the hip hop industry. This text gives readers a thoughtful introduction to an often-overlooked aspect of American society and culture.
Wang, Oliver. Legions of boom: Filipino American mobile DJ crews in the San Francisco Bay Area (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-13936]
Abstract: Armed with speakers, turntables, light systems, and records, Filipino American mobile DJ crews, such as Ultimate Creations, Spintronix, and Images, Inc., rocked dance floors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. This book chronicles the remarkable scene that eventually became the cradle for turntablism. These crews, which were instrumental in helping create and unify the Bay Area’s Filipino American community, gave young men opportunities to assert their masculinity and gain social status. While crews regularly spun records for school dances, weddings, birthdays, or garage parties, the scene’s centerpieces were showcases—or multi-crew performances—which drew crowds of hundreds, or even thousands. By the mid-1990s the scene was in decline, as single DJs became popular, recruitment to crews fell off, and aspiring scratch DJs branched off into their own scene. As the training ground for a generation of DJs, including DJ Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, the mobile scene left an indelible mark on its community that eventually grew to have a global impact.
Wong, Deborah. Louder and faster: Pain, joy, and the body politic in Asian American taiko. American crossroads (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-7730]
Abstract: A cultural study of the phenomenon of Asian American taiko, the thundering, athletic drumming tradition that originated in Japan. Immersed in the taiko scene for 20 years, the author has witnessed cultural and demographic changes and the exponential growth and expansion of taiko particularly in Southern California. Through her participatory ethnographic work, she reveals a complicated story embedded in memories of Japanese American internment and legacies of imperialism, Asian American identity and politics, a desire to be seen and heard, and the intersection of culture and global capitalism. Exploring the materialities of the drums, costumes, and bodies that make sound, analyzing the relationship of these to capitalist multiculturalism, and investigating the gender politics of taiko, the book considers both the promises and pitfalls of music and performance as an anti-racist practice. The result is a vivid glimpse of an Asian American presence that is both loud and fragile.
Wong, Yutian, ed. Contemporary directions in Asian American dance. Studies in dance history (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-1207]
Abstract: The definition of Asian American dance is as contested as the definition of “Asian American”. The term encompasses not only a range of national origins but also a dazzling variety of theoretical frameworks, disciplinary methods, and genres—from traditional to postmodern to hip hop. Contributors to this volume address such topics as the role of the 1960s Asian American movement in creating Japanese American taiko groups, and the experience of internment during World War II influencing butoh dance in Canada. Essays about artists look closely at the politics of how Asian aesthetics are set into motion and marketed. The volume includes first-person narratives, interviews, ethnography, cultural studies, performance studies, and comparative ethnic studies.
Yoshihara, Mari. Musicians from a different shore: Asians and Asian Americans in classical music (Philadelphia: University of Temple Press, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-5967]
Abstract: An examination of the phenomenon whereby musicians of Asian descent enjoy unprecedented prominence in concert halls, conservatories, and classical music performance competitions. A confluence of culture, politics, and commerce after World War II made classical music a staple in middle-class households, established Yamaha as the world’s largest producer of pianos, and gave the Suzuki method of music training an international clientele. Soon, talented musicians from Japan, China, and South Korea were flocking to the U.S. to study and establish careers, and Asian American families were enrolling toddlers in music classes. This historical backdrop is punctuated by interviews with Asian and Asian American musicians, such as Cho-Liang Lin, Margaret Leng Tan, Kent Nagano, who have taken various routes into classical music careers. They offer their views about the connections of race and culture and discuss whether the music is really as universal as many claim it to be. A Japanese translation is cited as RILM 2013-34104.
Zhu, Ying and Quynh Nhu Le. “Body, time, and space: Poetry as choreography in Southeast Asian American literature”, Dance chronicle: Studies in dance and the related arts 39/1 (2016) 77–95. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-26748]
Abstract: This collaboration between a dance scholar and a literary/critical race studies scholar engages cross-disciplinary strategies of reading poetry to complicate contemporary discourses surrounding Southeast Asian American cultural productions. We offer an analysis of Phayvanh Luekhamhan’s Rubber bands and Diep Tran’s Schools, focusing on their incorporation of elements integral to both dance and Southeast Asian diasporic poetry: body, time, and space. Choreographic in form and content, these poems shed light on the embodied repercussions of imperialism, war, and migration, and call forth the moving body as central to both recording and cultivating the formation of communities in diaspora.
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From New Year’s festivities in the highlands of Mexico to backyard get-togethers along the back roads of central Texas, Mexican people living on both sides of the border use expressive culture to construct meaningful communities amid the United States’ often vitriolic immigration politics.
Huapango arribeño, a genre originating from north-central Mexico, carries the voices of those in Mexico, those undertaking the dangerous trek across the border, and those living in the U.S. The genre refigures the sociopolitical and economic terms of migration through aesthetic means, illuminating the ways transnational music-making is at the center of everyday Mexican migrant life.
This according to Sounds of crossing: Music, migration, and the aural poetics of huapango arribeño by Alex E. Chávez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2017-45167).
Above and below, Guillermo Velázquez, one of the musicians discussed in the book. Don’t miss the step dancing toward the end!
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Slahal is an Indigenous team-oriented gambling game that involves skill, luck, strategy, supernatural assistance, and a specific song genre. As part of a long tradition of Indigenous gaming in the Pacific Northwest, it has become a popular form of intertribal competition throughout the region.
Song is integral to slahal; the songs, with their catchy melodies and driving frame drum accompaniment, are sung loudly and enthusiastically by the hiding team. Group singing provides opportunities for individual expression through variation of form and rhythmic accompaniment, as well as polyphony and antiphonal singing.
This according to Slahal: More than a game with a song by James Everett Cunningham, a dissertation accepted by the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1998 (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-22855).
The soundtrack for the reality television show Flying wild Alaska uses audioreelism—sound-design components that express the lived realities of indigenous peoples—to portray the daily life of an Alaska Native family in the airline business. It also uses sound worlding—bringing the world into being through sound—and audible indigeneity—the stereotypical ways in which listeners determine whether or not music sounds Native.
This soundtrack is unprecedented in its use of music by indigenous musicians from Alaska and the circumpolar Arctic. Featured artists set lyrics in indigenous languages to popular musical styles such as hip hop, rap, funk, and R&B. The overall sound combines local musical styles, licensed third-party music by indigenous artists, synthesized distortion effects, and sounds such as propeller engines, aircraft alarms, and bird strikes.
This range of sounds unsettles conventional musical representations of The North. Audioreelism and Native sound worlding therefore challenge settler-colonial representations of the indigenous Arctic.
This according to “Inuit sound wording and audioreelism in Flying wild Alaska” by Jessica Bissett Perea, an essay included in Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2019, pp. 174–97).
Above and below, Pamyua, one of the groups whose music is used in the series.
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John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.
The Banjo at the Crossroads
The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.
This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:
Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.
In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.
Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Conway, Cecilia. “African banjo echoes in Appalachia: A conclusion”, From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, ed. by Kip Lornell. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010) 15–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-54]
The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)
Dubois, Laurent. The banjo: America’s African instrument (Cambridge: Belknap, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-935]
The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)
In an article titled In praise of banjo-picking women published over 10 years ago in the pages of The old-time herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)
Eyre, Banning. “Banjo adventure”, fRoots 31/9 (March 2010) 29–31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-20391]
In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw down your heart: Africa sessions (2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)
Gussow, Adam. Beyond the crossroads: The devil & the blues tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-28092]
The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “The Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)
A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)
“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)
McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s hammer ring: Moving beyond black and white images of Appalachian music”, Kaleidoscope of cultures: A celebration of multicultural research and practice, ed. by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010) 93–99. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-14904]
Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)
Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko”, fRoots 31/5–6 (November–December) 19. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-22415]
A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachia is part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)
Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)
Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo roots and branches. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-6748]
The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)
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On the coast of Washington and British Columbia sit the misty forests and towering mountains of Cascadia. With archipelagos surrounding its shores and tidal surges of the Salish Sea trundling through the interior, this bioregion has long attracted loggers, fishing fleets, and land developers, each generation seeking successively harder to reach resources as old-growth stands, salmon stocks, and other natural endowments are depleted.
Alongside encroaching developers and industrialists is the presence of a rich environmental movement that has historically built community through musical activism. From the Wobblies’ Little red songbook (1909) to Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River collection (1941) on through to the Raging Grannies’ formation in 1987, Cascadia’s ecology has inspired legions of songwriters and musicians to advocate for preservation through music.
The divergent strategies—musical, organizational, and technological—used by each musician and group to reach different audiences and to mobilize action suggest directions for applied ecomusicology at the community level.
This according to A song to save the Salish Sea: Musical performance as environmental activism by Mark Pedelty (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
Seven strings/Сім струн (dedicated to Uncle Michael)* For thee, O Ukraine, O our mother unfortunate, bound, The first string I touch is for thee. The string will vibrate with a quiet yet deep solemn sound, The song from my heart … Continue reading →
From 4 to 8 October 2021, The Barry S. Brook Center for Music Research and Documentation hosts the virtual conference Responses in Music to Climate Change. The event brings together scholars, performers, composers, and activists, with the goal of exchanging … Continue reading →
Introduction: Dr. Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted a series of daily tweets during Black History Month (February 2021) providing information on some under-researched Black … Continue reading →
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →