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Performing Asian America: An annotated bibliography

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

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  • 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 Literature with 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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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Analysis, Asia, Dance, Dramatic arts, Ethnomusicology, Jazz and blues, Musicology, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Uncategorized, World music

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

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.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

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)

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A banjo on her knee. I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument”, The old-time herald: A magazine dedicated to old-time music 8/2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-26661]

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)

John, Emma. “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior”, The guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-4111]

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)

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the old banjo: How an African instrument got a racist reinvention”, Collectors weekly (October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“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)

Shea, Andrea. “The banjo’s beauty, and its cultural baggage, is on display in a new digital museum”, WBUR: The ARTery (April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-2091]

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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American popular music

In 2017 the University of Oklahoma Press launched the series American popular music to explore the evolution of folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, jazz, and soul by looking at the ways music relates to the land and people. The primary focus is on music identified with Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions, following regional influences to the farthest extent of their reach.

Of particular interest are individual artists and how they express their ties to land and people uniquely and collectively. This series therefore considers the role that music plays in the lives of artists and the communities that identify with them, and demonstrates how the business of music has shaped their careers and legacies.

The inaugural volume, Sing me back home: Southern roots and country music by Bill C. Malone, presents the story of the author’s working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar on the subject before the field formally existed. The book draws on a hundred years of southern roots music history, exploring the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.

Below, Joe Thompson, one of the musicians discussed in the book.

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Harry Smith’s grand collage

The power of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music, which turns 65 this year, lies squarely in its use of collage.

Smith’s decisions in sequencing and juxtaposing the 84 songs encouraged a play of sounds and lyrical content that calls attention to similarities and differences, opening multiple meanings and allowing for many possible interpretations.

By privileging collage over narrative, Smith created a complex and nuanced work of social commentary. Through collage, the Anthology captures the ongoing negotiation of the various voices—past and present, black and white—taking part in the reconstruction of U.S. history. These voices remain audible today.

This according to “Collage, politics, and narrative approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music” by Dan Blim, an essay included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music: America changed through music (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 82–99).

Above, Smith ca. 1965; below, selections from volume II of the six-volume set.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, North America

Macy’s does the parade

 

While the public thinks of Macy’s as the main sponsor of NYC’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, not everyone realizes that the company’s own Department of Annual and Special Events is responsible for almost all aspects of the planning and execution of this annual tradition.

Employing over 50 people, this department is also charged with mounting flower shows, fireworks displays, and other events, but the parade accounts for most of its yearlong activities; these include designing, building, and organizing the handlers for the balloons and floats; managing celebrity appearances; and interviewing, reviewing, auditioning, and coordinating the high-school bands that travel to the city to participate.

This according to “In the wind…: Size matters. II” by John Bishop (The diapason XCVIII/6:1171 [June 2001] pp. 14–16). Below, Mickey and friends in 1935.

 

 

 

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“The star-spangled banner” turns 200

 

Around 1775 John Stafford Smith wrote a melody for verses celebrating the Anacreontic Society, a London amateur musicians’ supper club. With its stirring tune, The Anacreontic song soon escaped the confines of club ritual, appearing in popular song collections and inspiring parodies in London’s many theaters.

By 1790 the melody had become part of the core of the active U.S. broadside tradition; by 1820 Anacreon, as the tune was then known, was the vehicle for more than 85 sets of American lyrics.

A number of these songs were nationalistic, praising early presidents and articulating partisan conflicts. The tune became widely associated with U.S. patriotism, making it a natural choice for Francis Scott Key for his commemoration of the nation’s surprise victory in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Originally titled Defense of Fort McHenry, the song quickly became a U.S. patriotic favorite as The star-spangled banner.

This according to “A star-spangled biennial” by Jerry Blackstone, Mark Clague, and Andrew Kuster (Choral journal LIV/9 [April 2014] pp.6–17).

Below, the original song, followed by two iconic performances of the U.S. national anthem.

Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, 1991.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969.

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Gandy dancers

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). Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.

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Folk music index

folkindex

Jane Keefer’s Folk music index is a database of U.S. old-time recordings that can be searched by title, recording, keyword, or publisher.

Cross references to alternate titles, related pieces, and similar melodies constitute around 18% of the nearly 39,000 titles in the title index. The recordings indexed generally have a major emphasis on tradition-based material from both commercial and non-commercial performers, including a considerable amount of old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.

Although most of the recordings included are LPs, many have been reissued as cassettes and CDs.

Below, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers play Soldier’s joy in 1929—with a little help from some friends.

Related articles:

 

 

 

 

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Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections is a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting traditional cultures throughout Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This free online resource is part of the Library of Congress American Memory series.

Undertaken in conjunction with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, the Florida Music Project, and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Work Projects Administration, the collection features folk songs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures; and oral histories.

The website provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcriptions, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and an essay on Florida folklife by Zora Neale Hurston (inset). A new essay by Stetson Kennedy reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida, and an extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.

Above, construction workers gathered around the stove in the craftsmen’s barracks at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1940.

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