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.
Although he achieved a host of national honors and adorned U.S. postage stamps, and although his song This land is your land is widely considered the nation’s second national anthem, Woody Guthrie committed his life to radical struggle.
Guthrie’s political awakening and activism can be traced throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the poison of McCarthyism. He played a major role in the development of a workers’ culture in the context of radical activism, particularly through his influence on the U.S. and international protest song movement.
This according to Woody Guthrie, American radical by Will Kaufman (Urbana: Universty of Illinois Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-1681).
Today is Woody Guthrie’s 110th birthday! Below, Emmylou Harris and his son Arlo present Woody’s classic take on a still-timely topic. Guthrie was inspired to write Deportee by what he considered the racist mistreatment of Mexican migrant farm workers before and after a 1948 airplane crash that killed 32 people. Subsequent news coverage only named the four U.S. citizens who died in the accident, so Guthrie sought to identify the 28 fallen Mexicans as real people as well.
On Ash Wednesday 1969, shortly after being released from a military prison in the neighborhood of Realengo, Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto Gil composed the song Aquele abraço (Big hug), which would eventually become a landmark in the history of Brazilian popular music.
It was his last day in Rio de Janeiro before he was placed under house arrest in Salvador (where he developed the melody and instrumentation for the song) and sent into exile due to his confrontation of the military dictatorship. The song became a kind of unofficial theme song of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In it, Gil referenced many personalities, events, neighborhoods, and traditions, creating a musical picture of the city. After his exile, the song acquired an added poignancy, as if he were greeting his beloved city from abroad.
Between that time and his work as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008, his musical innovations always went in tandem with his social and political activism, which were defining aspects of his career. Since the times of tropicália, Gil, along with his friend and fellow exile Caetano Veloso, has been at the center of some of the most important movements in Brazilian popular music. His imagination is boundless, his lyrics are superb poetic creations that honor the music and the cadence of the Portuguese language, and his effortless eclecticism continues to surprise.
Throughout his career, it was almost as if each new album stood at the beginning of something new. He has always been chameleonic and kaleidoscopic. No musical genre was beyond his reach: samba, choro, forró, reggae, rap, rock, folk song, ballad, candomblé. His works form a tapestry of the many musical traditions of Brazil, and it is literally impossible to single out any particular song as representative of his career.
His birthday comes two days after the traditional feast in honor of St. John (June 24), which is a major cultural event in northeastern Brazil, a showcase for the music, culinary traditions, dance, and costumes of the region. Here he is, donning a traditional hat from the heartlands of the northeast, celebrating the tradition in a live concert for the public of São Paulo. And so, “Aquele abraço” on his 80th birthday!
For a comprehensive biography, see GiLuminoso: A poética do ser–Gilberto Gil (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado, 1999; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-49790). Above, Maestro Gil in 2012.
“Rukmini Devi and I noticed a girl watching, day after day, from the window, the dance classes we were teaching in the Mirror Cottage in the Theosophical Society where Kalakshetra was then situated. The child did this invariably on her way back home from The Besant Theosophical High School.”
“Rukmini Devi—Athai—called the child inside and asked her: ‘Would you like to dance?’ The child’s joy knew no bounds and she readily tried to repeat the dance she had been viewing. Athai immediately arranged for her, Krishnaveni, to join Kalakshetra as a part-time student.”
Lakshmanan went on to become “a danseuse of exceptional talent, versatility, and genius. Indeed, a very rare combination of stage presence and presentation! Devoted and totally dedicated to her career, which balances both teaching and performing. Krishnaveni is God’s beautiful gift to the magic world of dance.”
Quoted from “Krishnaveni of Kalakshetra” (Sruti 241 [October 2004] 19–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-34001.)
Today would have been Lakshmanan’s 80th birthday! Below, rare footage of her in performance.
The story of jazz in China spans a century, encompassing the introduction of jazz in the early 1920s, its interruption under Mao in 1949, and its rejuvenation in the early 1980s with China’s opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping.
As a highly democratic form of music characterized by improvisation and individual freedom of expression, in the 1920s jazz embodied the antithesis of thousands of years of Chinese cultural history. A hundred years later, Chinese jazz is engaged in a balancing act between consumerism, political ideology, and censorship.
This according to Jazz in China: From dance hall music to individual freedom of expression by Eugene Marlow (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-7991).
Above and below, Li Gaoyang, one of the musicians discussed in the book.
“You know the reason that I really love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them. We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up… But we are reaching for them.”
Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall (2018)
Typically, academic writing on Laurie Anderson’s performative electronic storytelling has not explicitly addressed its musical characteristics. Instead, Anderson’s pieces are often viewed as postmodern performance, video, or multimedia art, and analyses have focused on (hyper)mediation; the technological fragmentation of the subject; politicized language games and multiplicities of textual meaning; and Anderson’s androgynous, cyborg performance personæ.
One major exception to this trend is Susan McClary’s chapter on Anderson in Feminine endings, which serves as the starting point for an analysis of O Superman that examines its harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic features, focusing on her resistance to establishing a tonic key, use of additive and subtractive processes, and avoidance of entrainable metric regularity.
Ultimately, these features culminate in a kind of estranging ambiguity, inviting us to actively shift how we listen to—and interpret—one of Anderson’s most enduring musical negotiations of the social, political, and technological terrains of American life.
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.
Comments Off on Performing Asian America: An annotated bibliography
In a 2004 interview, David Byrne recalled “In hindsight I realize that at first I used to get onstage out of some desperate need—I was so painfully shy that strangely it was the only way I could express myself. So it was cathartic and powerful, but hardly what you would call pleasure.”
“When Talking Heads became a big funk ensemble, I sensed there was something more. I began to dance, to enjoy myself, to sense the connection between secular music and the gospel church, with the ecstatic religions like Candomblé and Santeria.”
“Now it’s completely pleasurable—just the physical and emotional pleasure of singing is completely transporting. The act of singing recreates the emotions that went into the songs in the first place—like adding water to freeze-dried food, the emotions get reconstituted and the singing is the water you add. And I still dance, sort of.”
Over 150 countries around the world celebrate Labor Day, or International Workers’ Day, on 1 May. With origins in the mid–19th-century eight-hour workday movement, this date (May Day) was established in 1889 by the first congress of the Second International to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. Today, the holiday functions largely to recognize the struggle and achievements of laborers everywhere. The criteria by which music making is judged as work, the power of collectives to safeguard the rights of music workers, and the determination of appropriate remuneration for musical services are constantly being negotiated by musicians and institutions. Simon Frith’s article “Are workers musicians?” (cited below)—an exploration of how UK musicians’ unions have been shaped by the conceptual division of the musician as laborer-craftsperson, or professional—ends with a familiar opposition: music as work versus music as play. Frith elaborates:
The belief that music—making music—is in itself, fun, a pleasurable activity that shouldn’t be thought of as work is embedded in our culture. Music is something humans do; we are all musicians—hence the vast number of amateur musicians, people who play for love. Such love of music is, of course, why people are willing to pay for musical labour in the first place, but it also means, perhaps, that they don’t really regard or music as work. Its value is precisely as non-work. Musicians may, then, be workers, but they shouldn’t be!
Aside from the reductive tone of this quote’s opening sentence (one might rightly question, “Whose ‘cultures’?” and “In which contexts?”), the musician as non-laborer (or player, rather than worker), is a common trope encouraged by the music industry, fans, journalists, and even pop musicians themselves. To cite just one examples of the latter, Lou Reed, in an interview for the documentary Rock & Roll, recounts the conditions that led to his place in The Velvet Underground. He recalls, “I had a real problem with authority. Always have. I had a real problem with being able to hold a job, a normal job. I only had, I think, three in my life. Some lasted a half hour and some half a day. I had often thought, like, ‘What are you going to do, for a job? You can’t do anything’. And I fell into the band thing.” The positioning of popular music making as a desirable alternative to the repressive power structures foisted upon those with “normal” jobs facilitates the notion that pop offers a high (or relatively high) degree of autonomy to its practitioners. Reed’s experimental—some would say, and did at the time, “unlistenable”—1975 album Metal machine music would serve as just one of innumerable sonic examples of musicians complicating this putative autonomy. Whether resulting from an interest in drones, noise, minimalism, and the postwar avant-garde, or a defiant gesture to RCA Records, pop audience expectation, and genre boundaries (or some, all, or none of these), it made a statement on the (perceived or real) options available to a pop musician.
Frith’s remarks on music’s pleasurability and Reed’s appeal to autonomy are tenacious elements of discourses surrounding popular music making that have at times led to pop musicians being denied the status of worker. This denial is worthy of inspection and holds implications for other forms of music-related activities, but it is also glaringly limited. A more complete picture of a topic as complex, wide-ranging, and wide-reaching as music and labor would include numerous genres (traditional, art, and pop musics), activities (composition, performance, editing, recording), organizations (unions, libraries, private companies, state institutions), and functions (entertainment, ritual, edification). And of course, in the spirit of the holiday, it is worth remembering that music may be mobilized to serve the struggle for workers’ rights more broadly, through protests and activist movements that operationalize the emotionality embedded in chants, songs, and melodic speech. People sound defiance, and that too does work.
The following bibliography presents a selection of texts taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature that may advance our knowledge and awareness of specific aspects of music and labor. It comprises publications that are international in scope and that detail varying perspectives, genres, collective activities, and economies. It is hoped that they will serve as a spark for further research. But perhaps leave that for tomorrow and take today off.
Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor/Marketing Manager, RILM
Absher, Amy. “Traveling jazz musicians and debt peonage”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 37/2 (summer 2019) 172–196. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2019-18326]
Abstract: The story of three brothers—Charles, Chester, and Morgan Jones—and their lives as itinerant jazz musicians in the 1930s reveals the ways in which Black musicians were still effectively enslaved by white club owners and law enforcement. In 1937, they were jailed as a result of debt peonage, wherein an employer, Dewey Helms, withheld pay supposedly in the service of debt owed by the musicians. Rarely does jazz scholarship document this system of debt peonage, and in this case, the documentation relies heavily on records of the FBI, who interviewed the brothers, Helms, and others as part of an FBI investigation. The kind of coerced labor involved in this story is well-documented in histories of the Reconstruction through World War II. Stories of Black musicians during this period, however, are often colored with a romanticized illusion of freedom rooted in the creative nature of their work. The difficulties in studying musicians such as the Jones brothers without access to oral histories, accounts of their performances, or memoirs are explored. One of the only ways to examine a story such as this is through the lens of slavery and labor culture.
Alisch, Stefanie. “‘I opened the door to develop kuduro at Jupson’: Music studios as spaces of collective creativity in the context of electronic dance music in Angola”, Contemporary music review 39/6 (December 2020) 663–683. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-61691]
Abstract: Demonstrates how studios producing the Angolan electronic dance music (EDM) kuduro (hard arse) in the capital Luanda are usefully investigated as social spaces of collective creativity. Interviews, observations, close listening, and ethnographic participation are triangulated. Researchers often portray kuduro and other EDM styles in the Global South using what I name the–scarcity-resilience narrative. This narrative gives short shrift to the rich cultural resources that feed into EDM styles. It perpetuates problematic stereotypes about African people and occludes the deliberate labor that kuduro practitioners (kuduristas) invest in their craft. As kuduristas routinely affirm that sociability drives their interpersonal creative processes, kuduro studios are portrayed as social spaces and kuduro’s collective creativity is construed through extended mind theory (EMT). In the analysis, first kuduro studios in Luanda are introduced broadly and then the focus is on two influential kuduro studios: JUPSON and Guetto Produções. It is shown how kuduristas mobilize their collective creativity inside the studio by tapping into aesthetic strategies and conventions of the rich popular culture that surrounds them. Via EMT, aesthetic dueling is portrayed through puto-kota (elder-younger) relationships, call-and-response, and urban vocal strategies as collectively maintained social institutions. Inside the studio, kuduristas translate these rich resources into the sonic materiality of kuduro tracks which, in turn, are designed to achieve maximum audience response through mobilizing the social institutions when radiating out into the world. The scarcity-resilience narrative of Global South EDM is de-centered by focusing on collective creativity and, as such, a fresh epistemological position is offered on the study of music studios, Global South EDM, and popular music in Angola.
Ayer, Julie. More than meets the ear: How symphony musicians made labor history (Minneapolis: Syren Book Co., 2005). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-7672]
Abstract: A history of the grassroots movement that transformed labor relations and the professional lives of U.S. and Canadian symphony musicians. The struggles and accomplishments experienced by many visionary leaders of the 1950s to 1970s offer inspiration to new generations of musicians, students, teachers, music lovers, labor historians, and orchestra administrators. Minnesota Orchestra case history documents the growth of a major American orchestra in dramatic detail and anecdotes, showing the profound effect the musician’s labor movement has had on the profession.
Abstract: What is the ultimate song to celebrate Workers’ Day? Many will suggest “The Internationale” which had its roots as a poem written in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871 by Eugène Pottier, a transport worker. Set to music a few years later, it became the anthem for the wider progressive movement. But I would argue that trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s iconic and internationally popular song “Stimela”—the coal train—is perhaps a more appropriate anthem for Workers’ Day in southern and Central Africa. The song speaks about local history and the migrant labour system on the mines. “Stimela” reminds everyone that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the back of labour from all over Africa. They were the force that modernized the country. But the song is also internationalist in focus. Later recordings of the song typically begin with bass rhythms and percussion mimicking the sound of a train on its tracks.
Dedić, Nikola. “Muzika između proizvodnog i neproizvodnog rada”, Challenges in contemporary musicology: Essays in honor of prof. dr. Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman/Izazovi savremene muzikologije: Eseji u čast prof. dr Mirjane Veselinović-Hofman, ed. by Sonja Marinković, Vesna Mikić, Ivana B. Perković, et. al. Muzikološke studije: Monografije. (Beograd: Univerzitet Umetnosti, 2018) 472–484. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-11468]
Abstract: Identifies three models through which music is connected with the economy. Autonomy of art is shown as utterly relative autonomy, while the labor in art (music) is treated as a socially and economically determined labor. Those three models are: art (1) as a simple commodity exchange that rests on the law of simple supply and demand, then art as (2) redistribution of income through the intervention of modern state that carries with it a certain social division of labor (productive and non-productive classes) and finally, (3) it is art as a social practice of forming a monopoly rent. In our contemporary, capitalist society all three models coexist. However, in the history of Western art this was not always the case, and that is why our three-part system can be applied historically: the first model, we call it premodern, is characteristic of most precapitalist societies (at a time when there was no art, only techne, and when there was no idea of the autonomy of art which is obviously a consequence of a very specific social division of labor); the second model, we call it modern, appears with the administrative, bureaucratic state; the third model arises with the evolution of capitalist forms of production that, at one point, through art markets and the culture industry, begin to co-opt and commodify cultural products. The second and third models are, therefore, historically extremely specific and occur exclusively in bourgeois, capitalist societies.
Dreyfus, Kay. “The foreigner, the Musicians’ Union, and the state in 1920s Australia: A nexus of conflict”, Music and politics 3/1 (winter 2019) 1–16. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2009-3759]
Abstract: In September 1929, the general secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Australia (MUA) announced in the official journal, “there are no orchestras of any foreign nationality here now…the fight is over”, an extraordinary statement given that the nonindigenous musical traditions of this former British colony are entirely transplanted. The proximity of the date to the advent of sound films suggests a causal relationship, but the facts are more complex. The issue of foreign musicians became the site of a struggle for control of the labor market, a struggle rooted in the institutionalized racism of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the infamous so-called White Australia Policy), legitimized by the distinctive structures of the arbitration system and sanctioned by legal recognition of trade union autonomy with regard to membership regulation. The evolution and consequences of the MUA’s policy on foreign labor through the 1920s and its efforts to mobilize legislative support by appeals to popular concerns are examined.
Frith, Simon. “Are musicians workers?”, Popular music 36/1 (January 2017) 111–115. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-20901]
Abstract: Discusses working musicians in light of being considered laborers versus being considered professionals, and the historical role played by musicians’ labor unions.
Hildbrand, Sebastián Mauricio. “‘Todos unidos triunfaremos…’: La música para los gremios en el Teatro Colón durante el primer peronismo”, Recorridos: Diez estudios sobre música culta argentina de los siglos XX y XXI, ed. by Omar Corrado and Jorge Dubatti (Buenos Aires: Editorial de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras UBA, 2019) 273–309. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-27072]
Abstract: In 1946, Colonel Juan Domingo Perón came to power legitimately through the efforts of various sectors of society that promoted his presidential candidacy; among them the fundamental support of an as yet dispersed and inorganic labor movement. From then until the coup that ended his first period in office in 1955, he served as an effective channel for union demands on the state, as is well known; less familiar are his efforts on behalf of labor rights for the musicians’ union, in particular at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which constitutes a significant chapter in the reconstruction not only of the history of the opera house, but of musical life during those first Perón years.
Kahn, Si. Habits of resistance: Cultural work and community organizing (Songspeech) (Ph.D. diss., Union Institute, Cincinnati, 1994). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1994-4550]
Abstract: Songspeech is a communication mode that is useful in multicultural communication and consciousness-raising. It draws on a number of traditional cultural forms, such as oral poetry, southern storytelling, midrash, theater, preaching, and unaccompanied song. Songspeech is located at the crossroads of cultural work, community organizing, and power, where multicultural communication forms an integral part of social change organizing. At the heart of this work are issues related to race, gender, class, and the complex interplay between them. Three southern contexts are discussed: black studies (emphasizing the 1960s civil rights movement), women’s studies, and labor studies. Examples are drawn from popular culture, multicultural studies, and social change theory and practice, including oral history, poetry, storytelling, and musical performance styles. Additional examples of the use of songspeech include the Dutch resistance to the Nazis, occupational stress, the relationship between social work and social change, the relationship between culture and community, and the need to develop habits of resistance to injustice.
Karmy, Eileen. “Musical mutualism in Valparaiso during the rise of the labor movement (1893–1931)”, Popular music and society 40/5 (December 2017) 539–555. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-28773]
Abstract: The Musicians’ Mutual Aid Society of Valparaíso was active from 1893 to well into the 20th century in what was then Chile’s main port city. I examine the characteristics of this social organization of Chilean musicians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its relationship to the rising labor movement. Moreover, I report some relevant findings based on a range of archival material. To conclude, I discuss the role of the Mutual Aid Society of Valparaíso as a forerunner to the creation of the country’s first Musicians’ Union in 1931.
Milohnić, Aldo. “Performing labour relations in the age of austerity”, Performance research: A journal of the performing arts 17/6 (December 2012) 72–79. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-15379]
Abstract: Discusses labor in relation to the performance projects Call cutta (2005) and Call cutta in a box (2008) by the collective of theater directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Daniel Wetzel, know as Rimini Protokoll.
Scherzinger, Martin. “Music, labor, and technologies of desire”, Sound and affect: Voice, music, world, ed. by Judith Lochhead, Eduardo Mendieta, and Stephen Decatur Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021) 197–223. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-3926]
Abstract: Speculatively and critically diagnoses new forms of labor, affect, and technology that have taken shape in recent decades, arguing that musical practices are at once historical precursors of current mutations across these domains, key players in the crystallization of their new contemporary forms, and sites where their new shapes may be discerned and critiqued today. In particular, the ways are critiques in which the indeterminacy of affect, along with the kinds of connection that such open affective experience can facilitate, might now fall prey to new forms of harvesting, extraction, and exploitation, which were unforeseen in earlier affect theory and in some musicological literature that valorized affective and emotional experience. Writing with an eye to recent developments at intersections of machine learning, advertising, and cognitive science, it is cautioned that affective arousal could be colonized by militarized adaptation in the same way that interactive instincts could be colonized by industrial interpellation.
Schinasi, Michael. “Zarzuela and the rise of the labour movement in Spain”, Popular entertainment studies 8/2 (2017) 20–37. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-26626]
Abstract: Zarzuela—Spanish lyric theatre—traces its extraordinary popularity on the Iberian Peninsula to the reign of Isabel II (1844–68). Thereafter it never lost its public appeal. In the 19th century cultural commentators debated its debt to 17th-century antecedents. Notwithstanding differing opinions on this, clearly its modern form emerged from Spanish musicians’ attempts to found a new national opera. When they failed to popularize a genre entirely in music, what remained was the zarzuela, which has both singing and spoken dialogue. This article focuses on the social nature of musicians’ hopes for a national opera, the way this arises from their difficult material situation in the face of competition from foreign music and artists, and the politics of early Spanish liberalism. After documenting the depth of artists’ concern with material life and the social language of their plan for action it suggests that we view the rise of the mature zarzuela in the light of Spain’s incipient labor movement. By doing so we in turn gain insight into an important aesthetic feature of zarzuela.
Schwab, Heinrich W. “Das Lied des Berufsvereine: Ihr Beitrag zur ‘Volkskunst’ im 19. Jahrhundrets”, Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 63 (1967) 1–16. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1968-2481]
Abstract: Investigation of the song repertoire of the labor organizations from the standpoint of the history of the genre and in its sociological and qualitative aspects. Describes the various organizational song books (chemists, post and telegraph assistants, railway workers, surveyors) and interprets the textual and musical symbolism of the special club” or “class” songs.
Stahl, Matt. Unfree masters: Recording artists and the politics of work. Refiguring American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-9073]
Abstract: Examines recording artists’ labor in the music industry as a form of creative work. It is argued that the widespread perception of singers and musicians as free individuals doing enjoyable and fulfilling work obscures the realities of their occupation. Stahl begins by considering the television show American idol and the rockumentary Dig! (2004), tracing how narratives of popular music making in contemporary America highlight musicians’ negotiations of the limits of autonomy and mobility in creative cultural-industrial work. Turning to struggles between recording artists and record companies over the laws that govern their contractual relationships, Stahl reveals other tensions and contradictions in this form of work. He contends that contract and copyright disputes between musicians and music industry executives, as well as media narratives of music making, contribute to American socioeconomic discourse and expose basic tensions between the democratic principles of individual autonomy and responsibility and the power of employers to control labor and appropriate its products. Attention to labor and property issues in relation to musicians and the music industry can stimulate insights about the political, economic, and imaginative challenges currently facing all working people.
Toynbee, Jason. “The labour that dare not speak its name: Musical creativity, labour process and the materials of music”, Distributed creativity: Collaboration and improvisation in contemporary music, ed. by Eric F. Clarke and Mark Doffman. Studies in musical performance as creative practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) 37–51. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-34150]
Abstract: Explicitly offers a predominantly macro-social account, with musical creativity approached through the lens of labor. The author presents a broadly Marxist critique of the traditional romantic ideology of creativity (IOC), pointing out some of the contradictions of a capitalist system that presents all labor as alienated while regarding creative production as no kind of labor at all. As a consequence, creativity is conceived of and presented as entirely individualist and psychic, despite its organization in terms of an industrial labor market (the cultural industries). This organization of labor is manifestly a system of distributed creativity, which nonetheless clings to the radical individualism of the IOC. Through an analysis of the creative labor processes in diverse musical genres (the symphony orchestra, singer-songwriters, rock bands), the author points out the ways in which musical production, though thoroughly assimilated into contemporary capitalism, demonstrates outlier, or eccentric, tendencies, in which the primary creative agents operate with a high degree of autonomy, and in which artisanal forms of working are perpetuated. From this macro analysis of the contradictorily distributed nature of musical creativity, the essay moves to material production, making extensive use of the idea of coded voices. He points to both the abstract (schematic) and the concrete character of the coded voice, and he identifies translation (intercultural borrowing) and intensification (intercultural development) as the two primary generative processes that act upon them.
Woolhouse, Matthew and Jotthi Bansal. “Work, rest and (press) play: Music consumption as an indicator of human economic development”, Journal of interdisciplinary music studies/Disiplinlerarası müzik araştırmaları dergisi 7/1–2 (spring–fall 2013) 45–71. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2013-39541]
Abstract: Human development is addressed with respect to the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), a composite statistic ranging from 0 (undeveloped) to 1 (highly developed). Rather than merely industrial output, the HDI expresses the level of human wellbeing within a country (and is therefore arguably better suited to the study of music downloading than a purely monetary indicator such as Gross Domestic Product). HDI depends on three main factors: life expectancy, educational opportunity, and standard of living. We explore relationships between music consumption, human development, work and leisure, and unemployment levels in 27 geographically and economically diverse countries. We hypothesize (1) that countries with high HDI values will have increased download variability between periods of work and non-work, due to elevated levels of consumption-based leisure, and (2) that countries with high levels of unemployment will have decreased download variability between periods of work and non-work, due to a decrease in the population for whom there is a clear distinction between work and non-work. A music database, consisting of over 180 million mobile-phone downloads, is used to investigate our hypotheses. We discuss our findings in respect of HDI, the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, literature on paid and unpaid work, and the types of leisure enjoyed by people in different countries.
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In the mid-1950s Charles Mingus embraced the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz and the ecstatic worship and singing rituals of the Black Pentecostal church— two historical African-derived approaches that emphasized group expression.
Mingus used these two approaches to advance both musical expression and political and spiritual ideas, charting a trajectory toward group oneness. His recordings from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s progressed from short sections of collective interplay and group improvisation reminiscent of early jazz to longer forms of ecstatic ritual. This latter practice—in the form of solos, band, and audience participation—was a direct invocation of the spiritual communion or Holy Spirit possession that he had witnessed in Pentecostal church services as a youth.
This according to “Mingus in the workshop: Leading the improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal trance” by Jennifer Griffith (Black music research journal XXV/1 [spring 2015] 71–96; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-87883).
Today is Mingus’s 100th birthday! Below, Wednesday night prayer meeting (1959), one of the recordings discussed in the article.
The main entrance to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s exhibition Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars opens up on Lincoln Plaza, directly adjacent to the The Metropolitan Opera house. On a sunny day, the Met’s … Continue reading →
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 →
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 →