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During the next few weeks I’ll be posting about the course I’m teaching on African American music.  Designed as a survey, it will trace developments from slavery to the present for a mix of music majors and non-majors.  The course begins with some philosophical issues about black music making in the United States, moves through eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century forms and practices.  We’ll conclude the course with a study of Mark Anthony Neal, a scholar whose work on music in the black public sphere has inspired a powerful generation of young scholars in the field.   All of this is laying the groundwork for a new book on black music and other expressive arts such as poetry, visual art, and film, which will cover the same historical period as the course, and of which I’m about 10,000 words in.  What I’ll share in the weekly posts will represent only a summary of musical, theoretical, and philosophical issues that we cover.  And of course, the ideas I share only form the foundation or spine of the book.  For example, the work on Mark Anthony Neal will help us understand a framework for thinking through the work of other contemporary scholars.

Here’s a broad description.

This course explores aspects of the origins, style development, aesthetic philosophies, historiography, and contemporary conventions of African-American musical traditions. Topics covered include: the music of colonial America, 19th-century church and dance music, minstrelsy, music of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, blues, gospel, the rhythm and blues constellation of idioms, and hip-hop.  Special attention is given to the ways that black music produces “meaning” and to how the social energy circulating within black music articulates myriad issues about American identity at specific historical moments.  The course will also engage other expressive art forms from visual and literary sources in order to better position music making into the larger framework of African American aesthetic practices.  We will read about and study visual art by African American artists from each period or thematic topic that we cover together with examples of poetry and film.

There have been many retrospectives written on black music in the United States from LeRoi Jones’ Blues People (1963) to Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans (1971) to Samuel Floyd’s The Power of Black Music (1995).  We might also add to this list Mark Anthony Neal’s What the Music Said (1999); Ronald Radano’s Lying Up a Nation (2003); Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music (2003); and most recently Melonee Burnim’s and Portia Maultsby’s African American Music (2006) and Burton W. Peretti’s Lift Every Voice (2009).  Of course, there are many others, particularly those focusing on single musicians and/or genres.  This wealth of knowledge has contributed powerfully to our understanding the repertories, creators, methods of dissemination, institutional structures, and reception histories of this body of music.  And the philosophical arguments—whether explicitly stated or not—in these studies offer a robust and sometimes contradictory set of notions about the myths of origins, social functions, and aesthetic systems of valuation for the music.

I always try to keep in mind this fundamental question, borrowed from the late English musicologist Christopher Small: “Why are these people making this music in this time at the place?” This query has guided my inquiries and teaching since graduate school, and it has always helped me to begin new projects and new courses.  It’s a wonderful equation that momentarily helps students to sidestep a reaction that many bring to the table in a history course on music—and that is whether they “like” the music in question or not.  When we deal with “people”—the musicians and their audiences—we try to understand the many tributaries and social experiences that comprise their identities.  Identity means here not a “Self” born and evolved in a social and cultural vacuum or reduced to a “skin-color” or sex.  It is, rather, the sum of the identifications made by (or made for) individuals from the range of cultural and social formations available to them at specific historical and moments and locations.  “Music” in this equation is, for me, a most important factor.  I insist that above all, the sonic formations—what precise things musicians do with sound and what audiences make of them requires us to make this a big part of the discussion and not ancillary to it.  Why would one have to say this in a musical study?  Because musical sound—instrumental, vocal, and otherwise—is a discourse that signifies meaning.  And this discourse (music) might do more powerfully sometimes than, say, the truth claim of a song lyric or even what musicians or critics say about the work.

All said, I wish to frame my thoughts here as a “criticism of black music.” A criticism of black music attempts to explain the cultural work the music performs in the social world.   This musico-cultural criticism ultimately seeks to explain what these various styles and gestures mean and how they generate and achieve their signifying affect.  It exposes some of the critical spaces left by earlier models and analytical methods, first by identifying a work’s significant musical gestures and then positioning those gestures within a broader field of musical rhetoric and conventions.  These musico-narrative conventions can then be theorized with respect to broader systems of cultural knowledge, such as the historical contexts in which a musical text or style appeared and the lived experiences of audiences, composers, performers, dancers, and listeners.  Thus, black musical criticism leaves no aspect of the musical process–creation, mediation, reception–untouched, and this fact alone frustrates anyone’s claim that a single study can provide “the” definitive account of a musical topic.  This analytical project provides alternative ways for scholars of black music history to access and discuss some of the historically and socially contingent meanings generated by a musical style and its surrounding practices.

Any study of African American expressive practices must deal head on with the topic of race in America, certainly one of the much-discussed, yet easily misunderstood, aspects of identity and identifications (except, perhaps, sexual orientation).  I work with three broad manifestations of the “race idea”: social race, cultural race, and theoretical race.  Social Race: constitutes the lived experience of race in the everyday realm. This experience is contingent on many factors, including place and historical moment, among others.  The term tries to capture how social experiences mediate group and individual identities and, in turn, affirm who a group thinks it is in the world.   Cultural Race speaks to the explicitly performative and expressive realm of the social experience. These compelling, performed gestures (be they acted out in speech, music, or dance, etc.) allow our social identities a kind of materiality.  Theoretical Race comprises the densely theoretical, postmodern exegesis of race, particularly ones that privilege the society’s structural role over the historical agent’s self-fashioning, as in the much-used phrase “social construction.”  We can ask the same kinds of questions of this particular academic practice as we can of any other action: what cultural work are these theories doing for their audiences and practitioners?

There’s never a perfect way to enter into discussions of musical meaning.  In the first two chapters of my book Race Music, I offer ways into the topic of a sociological interpretation of black music or, perhaps better, the social process of black music.  Working against the idea that music can be an autonomous thing, the chapters situate meaning in African American musical practice as socially and historically determined through storytelling in the first chapter and through scholarly method in the second.  Each deals with how personal reactions and interpretations are, in the end, socially constituted even in the most “objective” presentation.  Subjectivity is everywhere.  To bring the point home, the musical example “Yearning for Your Love,” a slow jam by the Gap Band became the soundtrack for an important family event, my father’s funeral, the story of which, I tell in the book.  I combine sonic description and social setting as a way to springboard into my framework for a criticism of black music making, one that is less interested in making fetishes of musical works or musicians and more into “how” they mean.

Composer and scholar Olly Wilson wrote an influential article in 1983 titled “Black Music as an Art Form.”  In it he parses the terms “black music” and “art” through an analytical comparison of a work song “Katie Left Memphis” and a Miles Davis jazz recording of the song “Green Dolphin Street.” A groundbreaking thinker in ideas surroundign an African cultural heritage shaping contemporary music, Wilson uses the close analysis of sound to ground his argument.  One of his premises is how perceptual, intrinsic interest (together with African American musical priorities) combine to make Davis’ recording fit into the realm of “art.”  The work song, while also displaying an African sonic legacy, is valued as art primarily because of its utility or “function.” Throughout the course, we will question the mass/folk/art divide, especially through teasing out the utility or functionality of art discourse with regard to black music.

Throughout the course we will take up a number of controversial topics about black music history such as the participation of other ethnic groups, the historical practice and legacy of minstrelsy, the role of commodification and adaptation, and the logic and counter-logic of cultural continuity and historical contingency.

Let’s begin in earnest with an obvious question and answer that I hope will be illuminated over the next few weeks.  What is African American music?  It describes distinct configurations of sound organization linked historically and socially to people of African descent living within the United States.  While scholarship has identified a shared body of conceptual approaches to sound among the numerous idioms of African American music, musicians have employed them across various functional divides in American culture such as written and oral, sacred and secular, art and popular.  Although African American people have been the primary innovators among these idioms, due to mass mediation, the contiguous nature of culture sharing among American ethnic groups, an ever developing and sophisticated global market system, technological advances, and music’s ability to absorb the different meanings ascribed to it, people of all backgrounds have shaped, contributed to, and excelled in this fluid yet distinct body of music making. In addition, many historians of African American music have included the activities of blacks that participated as performers and composers in the Eurological concert tradition under this rubric.