Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sustainability Stamp Blues

 The United States has just issued a commemorative stamp in its series honoring the statehood anniversaries of each state of the union. This time, the state is Mississippi, and on the stamp is a painting of an acoustic guitar being played by a person with a brown hand and fingers. At the upper right are the letters Mississippi; at the lower right the number 1817 (the year Mississippi became a state), and at the lower left the word “FOREVER” followed by USA. It is the 200th anniversary of statehood, and it’s striking that the image chosen to represent the state is that of an African American playing blues on guitar. (The painting was made from a 2009 photograph by Lou Bopp of blues singer and guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, from the town of Bentonia, the same town of legendary blues singer/guitarist Skip James whose 1920s recordings are among the most riveting early blues performances. Well-known to blues aficionados for seven decades, James' recordings entered the public sphere in the 2001 film Ghost World, where they were the center of attraction for the young heroine’s fascination with a record collector.)
    This wasn't the first commemorative to honor a Mississippi blues musician; in 1994 a 29-cent stamp was issued with an ugly painting of Robert Johnson's head that borders on caricature. Johnson had been the subject of blues revivalists' fascination in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s after the Blues Brothers film rekindled an interest in the genre. Columbia Records once again reissued Johnson's recordings, this time on CD rather than LP (the originals had been on 78s), and it seemed as if a US stamp with Johnson's image announced blues' mainstream cultural significance. The name "Mississippi" didn't appear on the stamp, which seemed more a coup for the blues and for Columbia Records, than for the state represented by Johnson's music.
    But now, 23 years later, various things about this state's official commemorative stamp are notable. Blues, as I’ve written before on this blog, is a poster child for music and sustainability, because despite predictions for more than a hundred years of its impending demise, blues managed to survive. The “FOREVER” in this stamp takes on a double meaning: not only the stamp but also the blues is viable, so it's implied, forever. With this stamp, blues reverses 180 degrees, from impending death to eternal life. Certainly, in the 1960s when I was a guitarist participant in the blues revival of that time, and a part of the blues music culture, I wouldn’t have predicted anything like this. Not that I thought the death of blues was imminent, but its immortality on an official seal of the United States would have been inconceivable. Not only that, but in some ways it'd have been unwelcome.
    It would have been unwelcome for record collectors, and for blues revivalists like me, because for us blues had become, in the 1960s, an alternative music, just as the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary had; and just as old-time string band music had become. Blues then was positioned, in the revival, not just outside of but in opposition to the music, and the values, of official, mainstream culture. Blues on a US stamp would have been viewed as an attempt to co-opt it and buy it off.
    A few other things about this stamp are troublesome. Although I named the musician in my first paragraph, nowhere is his name indicated on the stamp. African-American erasure, once again. Indeed, blues itself isn't mentioned on the stamp; genre is under erasure just as is the artist's name. Identifying the state of Mississippi with a blues guitarist is appropriate because since the early 1990s the state's tourism department has promoted blues to visitors, realizing that the blues draws music fans who'll spend money in-state when they come to festivals, museums, gravesites, juke joints, record stores, and in other places associated with blues, not to mention money spent for food, lodging, gifts, and other things. 

Fifty years ago, to celebrate the Mississippi sesquicentennial, the US issued another commemorative stamp. This was during the decade of the 1960s blues revival, and also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi being one of the most racially violent states. Ironically, perhaps, the 1967 Mississippi commemorative stamp then portrayed a Southern white magnolia, the state flower, worn by many a southern belle, representing beauty, purity, dignity and gracious living.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sustainability, Ethnomusicology and Applied Ecology

The history of applied ethnomusicology in the US goes back at least to the New Deal era, when ethnomusicologists were (comparative) musicologists and when Charles Seeger, the first president of the American Musicological Society, argued on behalf of an applied musicology that would be put to practical use in a democratic republic, for the benefit of society as a whole, rather than in service to high culture only. It was also an era of conservation, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, with agricultural conservation efforts underway in the Farm Security Administration, and the Works Progress Administration undertaking cultural conservation by collecting and encouraging popular and folk arts and crafts. The invaluable recordings by folklorists such as Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress were part of this effort. 
         The history of applied ecology goes back at least to the World War I era. The story will be a familiar one to anyone who’s followed the history of applied ethnomusicology. The professional society of ecologists, the Ecological Association of America (ESA), began in 1915, as an offshoot of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was founded to help unify a science that consisted of plant ecology, animal ecology, and so forth—a series of specialties without a general ecological theory. The ESA hoped to stimulate research and to serve as a place where scientists could share information. One of the ESA’s standing committees was devoted to another goal, using ecological research to advance environmental conservation. This "Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions" was led by the ESA’s first president, Victor Shelford (1877-1968), from 1917 to 1938. The next year, 1939, saw the publication of the most important work in general ecology in the first half of the 20th century, Bio-Ecology, co-authored by Shelford and Frederic E. Clements. The book advanced Shelford’s ideas of the biome and ecological succession, which he had introduced as early as 1912. Clements, of course, is known for his idea that ecological succession led to a climax community in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
         Shelford’s credentials as an eminent research scientist were beyond dispute, but when at the end of Roosevelt’s last presidential term he tried to steer the ESA into establishing a new organization, one devoted to conservation, the ESA balked. Its officers decided that as a scientific society they must avoid becoming a political advocacy group, which they feared would happen if they sponsored the conservation organization that Shelford wanted. Going further, they abolished the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions that Shelford had led for its first 21 years. Upset, Shelford left his professorship at the University of Illinois, and in 1946 founded the new organization himself, the Ecologists Union, aligning nature conservation with the goal of preserving entire ecosystems. That organization is known today as The Nature Conservancy.
         It would be interesting to know whether the ESA’s unwillingness to endorse applied ecology during the immediate post-World War II period was part of the general climate of distrust for social engineering that derailed applied ethnomusicology for several decades, a distrust fueled by the social and scientific experiments and the war on academic freedom in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Universities might offer protection from persecution if academics could establish that science was beyond politics. But applied ecology would not be derailed for nearly so long as applied ethnomusicology. Eugene P. Odum (1913-2002), son of the sociologist and folklorist Howard W. Odum (1884-1954), and a student of Shelford in the 1930s, in 1953 wrote the integrative textbook Fundamentals of Ecology, which laid the foundation of ecological science on the ecosystem, a foundation that would remain for at least three decades. 
        The idea of the ecosystem was not original with Odum--it had been defined as a unit of study by Arthur Tansley in 1935, and tested by G. Evelyn Hutchinson. In the Fundamentals Odum explained ecosystems in the then-novel terms of cybernetic systems theory, in which higher levels of organization have structures and functions as a whole—emergent properties—that can’t be predicted by analyzing their component parts. Yet in that book and increasingly so in its successive editions, Odum also advocated an applied ecology in which scientists would work as consultants in policy matters. He himself did so, in matters of nuclear power (“atoms for peace”) and in opposing pesticides. During the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Odum promoted the idea that ecology was an integrative discipline (much like an ecosystem itself) that served as a bridge between science and society. He always maintained the distinction between ecological science and environmental activism, and lamented that the distinction had blurred as the environmental movement gathered momentum: environmentalists were being labeled as ecologists even though they had no formal training in ecology. Yet he felt that it was most appropriate for ecologists to take a stand for the environment, and for ecological research to ground the environmental movement by providing a scientific basis for sound policies. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Whole Terrain and the Sound of Climate Change

Whole Terrain, a journal of reflective environmental practice, last month published an author interview in which I discussed my essay, “The Sound of Climate Change.”  The essay may be read on my page. The author interview may be read on the Whole Terrain website. 
     I’ve written in an earlier blog entry about how the essay was generated from a question by musicologist Denise Von Glahn. She and Aaron Allen and Mark Pedelty and I were chatting just before the Ecomusicologies conference in September, 2014. We were talking about our upcoming event in the spring of 2015 at the University of Minnesota, on the topic of sustainability and sound. “What is the sound of climate change?” she asked, and immediately we knew we had a theme for the Minnesota event, ultimately titled “Music and Climate Change.” 
     Earlier in 2014, Cherice Bock, editor of Whole Terrain, had invited me to write an essay for their next issue. We discussed my writing on the threats to the environment of mountaintop removal in central Appalachia. I pointed out that blasting off the mountain tops dumps toxic chemicals into the streams that run down the mountain hollows. They poison everything in their path. People, animals, plants, ecosystems are damaged. 
     But a few weeks after I returned from the Ecomusicologies conference, a violent, early-season snowstorm compelled my attention. As I stood outside on my porch taking it all in, I realized I was hearing the sounds of climate change in the great wind and the crashing of toppled spruce and apple trees. I felt I was eavesdropping on nature’s alarm calls. I knew then that I must write about this experience, instead of mountaintop removal, for Whole Terrain. By the end of 2014 I’d finished my essay on the sound of climate change and sent it off to Cherice. In 2015 I spoke on the same subject in Minneapolis. That issue of Whole Terrain was published in the spring of 2016. The following summer Cherice interviewed me, transcribed the interview, and produced the short, edited version that was published on their site in April, 2017.
     I told Cherice in the interview, “. . . I heard the sound of climate change for myself in this . . . storm, and something compelled me to write about that topic for you instead. Of course, I’d read about climate change. I was very much interested in it. But it’s one thing to give assent to it as a threat or an idea, and it’s another thing to experience it for oneself. I heard it . . . [and] I could no longer walk out in the woods and be in nature the way I had been . . . I felt like . . . the land had been raped. These were very powerful feelings. I wondered how the other animals who lived on that land experienced it. I wanted to write about this. When you experience it for yourself, finding language that might be adequate to express your feelings is difficult but important to do. . . . Telling my personal story of loss also required telling a larger story of sound and climate change. . . We learn to trust our senses, attuned to our habitat, indoors and out. When familiar sounds leave, we become anxious. . . .”
     I was struck once again by the way personal experience compelled me to write about sustainability. A 2004 invitation to play neighborly music at the Common Ground Fair, a celebration of sustainable living, started me thinking about music and sustainability in the first place. Ten years of writing, mostly theory, about music, sound, and sustainability followed, with an environmental turn in 2011. I was prepared to hear the sound of climate change in the violent storm of 2014, compelled to write about it, and to theorize a sound ecology with a new urgency.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sustainability and the Hidden Life of Trees

Beech tree forest, central Europe. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
   By now many readers of this blog will have sat down with Peter Wollheben’s remarkable best-seller, The Hidden Life of Trees. Wollheben, a German forester, writes about forest sustainability, but there are takeaways for musical and cultural sustainability as well. Indeed, one of his major points is that trees have a kind of social and cultural life together. The author anthropomorphizes trees to an extent that bothers me; he attributes emotions and feelings to them, for example, as well as intentions and agency in ways that are striking. Nevertheless, he makes a convincing case that trees in a forest comprise an interactive community.
    In his first career, Wollheben was a professional forester, and managed a forest for commercial interests. In central Europe, as in many parts of the US, planned forests are planted (or replanted) with trees evenly spaced (or thinned to give them space) so they will grow fast for a quick harvest by large, efficient machines. Although he doesn’t specify, we infer that the forests he worked in were coniferous, with spruce trees the favored commercial species. At some point, he stopped managing commercial enterprises and instead began to manage an old-growth forest chiefly of beech trees, not for harvest but for preservation for the community nearby.
    When he began doing so, he observed that the beech forest (which had been growing for many decades without much human interference) was much different than the commercial forests he managed. The trees were much closer together—too close, in terms of the forestry management practices he’d learned—and yet they grew better, straighter trunks, and they grew more slowly and to a ripe old age: hundreds of years. It took them far longer to come into maturity, and they lasted many times longer than the trees in the commercial forest of conifers. They were well adapted to the soil, unlike many of the conifer forests that had been planted in unlikely places. He began to wonder if, for the health of the trees and the forest, it wasn’t better to manage as nature did, rather than to adopt the practices of forestry management—even so-called selective cutting and thinning and harvesting. Although he does not reference Thoreau, 150 years ago Thoreau came to the same conclusion, on reading an English book about planting walnut trees.
    Searching for an explanation about why this beech forest that seemed to violate all the principles of forestry management was able to maintain itself better than the managed one, he read reports by scientists. What most intrigued him was a paper published in 1997 by Susan Simard as lead author. Simard and her group observed that in the forest soil, fungi attach to tree roots and that, when trees grow close to each other, the roots and fungi of different trees intertwine, even among different species, and transmit carbon and other chemicals (glucose, for example) from one tree to another. In effect, the trees were feeding one another. Afterwards, Wollheben began to read of other experiments in which trees seemed to “help” each other, for example by sending out scents signaling the presence of a pest, that would cause other trees in the forest to erect chemical defenses against the pest. It was not a big step for him to conclude that the trees in a forest constituted a kind of symbiotic community, even though they were also in competition with one another for sunlight and water.
    One of the corollaries of this research, he concluded, was that trees closer to each other can help each other more—they are better off that way. Not only are their entwined roots better able to reach each other and exchange food, but the stronger trees often “feed” the weaker ones because it is beneficial to keep them all alive so they can “help” each other. When I walk out in the un-managed spruce forest behind my own house, I hear tree branches and sometimes the trunks, high up, rubbing against each other when there is a strong wind. I used to think that was unfortunate, that the trees were too close together. Now, after reading Wollheben, I realize that they are propping each other up against the possibility of breaking off or toppling over completely.
    In early October, 2014, a snowstorm with high winds occurred where I live on East Penobscot Bay. It toppled many trees, also snapping off branches. The earth was wet from recent rains, making it easier for the top-heavy trees to become uprooted if they had no nearby tree to prop them up. I noticed there were more snapped and toppled trees at the edges of clearings. Also, four apple trees in an old, planted orchard had been uprooted completely. I was able to save two of them with the help of a neighbor, and get them back upright after pruning them back heavily; they are growing again, but the other two were beyond help.
    Consider, then, the advice given by professional foresters for planning an apple orchard: plant the trees at some distance from one another so they avoid their branches touching. For a full-sized tree, that should be forty feet apart in all directions; but such a tree will not be able to extend its roots to entwine with its neighbor, for the roots spread about as far under the ground as the branches do above. Those trees will also be more susceptible to damage from wind and insect pests. Of course, for easier harvest they are planted at that distance; but it would not be that much more difficult to harvest apple trees planted closer together. The apples might be more numerous, but they would be smaller, and many would not fully ripen unless the branches were pruned so that in a heavy wind they would not prop each other up.
    In nineteenth-century New England, when a house was built, a small home orchard usually was planted out behind the house, the tree trunks about fifteen feet from each other. You can find these commonly with the older houses still standing, and even when the houses are gone and only the cellar holes remain, and the surrounding area has grown up into forest, a home apple orchard is likely to found within seventy-five feet of the cellar hole. The full-sized trees that grew up were able to live long as their roots and branches entwined, and the apples they produced--for cider, baking, and fresh eating--were easily enough harvested, by climbing the trees or using pole harvesters for the best specimens, while the cider apples were gotten off the trees by shaking the branches. Such an orchard stands in back of my own house, and these trees were not damaged in the 2014 snowstorm the way those planted in a field nearby, according to proper orchard practice, were damaged.
    In short, the trees in a natural forest, according to Wollheben, comprise a community, a kind of mutual aid society while at the same time they are competing with each other. By means of mutual aid they are able to sustain the forest far better, and for far longer, than a forest planted or managed according to the principles of contemporary good forestry practice. The same principle might be applied to the management of music cultures. Indeed, I have embraced it in earlier blog posts here: feed the cultural soil, do not target the individual plant. In other words, encourage the music culture, not individual musical genres. If the cultural soil is nurtured, the musical genres will develop and thrive. An endangered music will not thrive if the cultural soil is not working in its favor, no matter how much it is aided.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Special Issue on Ecologies, Sound, Music

MUSICultures solicits articles for publication in a special issue on Ecologies, guest edited by Dr. Aaron S. Allen (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and Dr. Jeff Todd Titon (Brown University).  The goal of this special issue is to demonstrate and bring into conversation the diverse yet interconnected fields and disciplines that bring ecological approaches, methods, and thinking to considerations of sound and music. The plural form “ecologies” indicates that we welcome writings from diverse applied, artistic, scholarly, and scientific perspectives. Such perspectives include (but are not limited to) the natural sciences (ecology, conservation ecology, soundscape ecology, etc.), the social sciences (cultural ecology, ecological/environmental psychology, human ecology, political ecology, etc.), the arts and humanities (acoustic ecology, composition, deep ecology, ecocriticism, ecomusicology, ecophilosophy, environmental humanities, performance studies, sacred ecology, sound studies, etc.), and applied fields (administration, governmental officials, non-governmental organizations, policy makers, etc.).

Contributions may include original research, state-of-the-field summaries, position papers, review essays, or other approaches that range in length from circa 1000 to circa 7500 words.

MUSICultures is the peer-reviewed journal of The Canadian Society for Traditional Music / La Société canadienne pour les traditions musicales. It is a refereed journal published twice a year under the auspices of the Society. Membership in CSTM is not a prerequisite for publication.

MUSICultures publishes original articles in English and French on a wide range of topics in ethnomusicology, traditional music research, and popular music studies. The journal also publishes reviews of books, and sound and visual recordings.

Article proposals, consisting of a title and a 250-word abstract should be submitted in French or English by May 15, 2017, together with an indication of the type of contribution and expected word count. Complete contributions will be due by September 15, 2017. Articles on original research are normally in the range of 6,000-7,500 words, but shorter pieces in other styles are welcome.

Please visit the MUSICultures website for complete submission details:

Submit manuscripts or questions to:<

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Most Elegant Experiment

    The term sustainability entered the public arena in 1987, with the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future). There, sustainability was introduced as “sustainable development” that meets the needs of the present without compromising future needs. Sustainability, then, was associated initially with developmental economics. Nowadays, of course, it's also associated with energy and carbon emissions, fossil fuels vs. renewables, and with everything from cultural traditions to consumer products, from agriculture to net neutrality, from the health of the human body to the health of economic and political systems.
     Is sustainability just an old wine in a new bottle? No; and yet many of its component ideas were in circulation earlier--perhaps most fully in the concepts of preservation and conservation. In my essay on sustainability for the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I wrote at length about the similarities and differences among these ideas; I needn't repeat that here. But since I wrote that essay a few years ago, I've come to understand something of my own involvement in the history of this cluster of ideas, a history that goes back not just to the environmental movement of the late 1960s but even further, to my education as an undergraduate, when I studied with a biologist whose name was Oscar Schotté.
     Suppose we go back a little in time, then. Conservation ecology, or conservation biology as it was originally was (and sometimes still is) called, began during the environmental movement of the late 1970s. This branch of ecology was  founded by Michael Soulé; he is credited with naming it, and his writings on the subject were, in its earliest period, definitive. He aimed to enlist the principles of ecological science with the environmentalist agenda for conservation of species, populations, and ecosystems, in a period of environmental crisis. Conservation biology was an effort at sustainability before the word sustainability became current. Yet even earlier, in the late 1960s, the environmental movement was concerned with the sustainability of the planet in the face of an expanding human population coupled with a limit in the capacity of the earth’s resources to feed them. Moreover, in the 1970s the energy crisis turned the environmental movement to concerns over the finite amount of fossil fuel energy resources and the need to conserve and to adopt, when possible, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Again, the term sustainability was not in use to describe the population crisis or the energy crisis, but the concept was there, embodied partially in the term conservation.
    To come to my point: Another, even earlier era in which science was concerned with sustainability occurred just after World War I. A branch of embryology, experimental morphology, turned its attention to a practical problem: how to help wounded soldiers whose limbs had been amputated. It was known that some animals, such as newts, could grow new limbs after one was severed; why not humans? What, in other words, was the secret of limb regeneration? Oversimplifying, experimental morphologists introduced various environmental stimuli such as heat, light, and certain chemical compounds, to embryos see what the effects would be, hoping to find something that would induce regeneration. This branch of science flourished between the World Wars, and then gradually, as time went on and it became clearer that this was an extremely difficult and perhaps unsolvable problem, research money went elsewhere. Experimental morphologists were left to carry on their work with limited funds. Meanwhile, advances in molecular biology rendered this branch of embryology seemingly old-fashioned.
Schotte in 1970
    Amherst College, my undergraduate institution, had an experimental morphologist on its biology faculty. His name was Oscar Schotté. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years I interned on a human ecology project, and when I returned to Amherst I wanted to take a course in ecology. The college did not offer such a course, but my academic adviser told me that Professor Schotté had some knowledge of ecology, and so I went to see him. In those days students didn’t take independent study courses for credit, but when I told him of my disappointment in not being able to learn ecology, he suggested that I get hold of the basic ecology textbook, Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, and read through it. He volunteered to meet with me on occasion to discuss what I was learning, also. This was entirely a gift on his part; the college didn’t pay him to do this—he tutored me out of the goodness of his heart and his belief in science and, perhaps, in me. It did not trouble me that he was near retirement—in fact, he did retire a year after I graduated—or that my fellow students regarded him and his experimental morphology old-fashioned. He was the kind of professor who nevertheless commanded attention and respect, partly because of his old-world, European manner, and partly because this elderly gentleman struck a group of 20-year-olds as someone who might have been witness to the dawn of modern science. I liked his teaching so well that in the following semester I enrolled in his experimental morphology course.
Schotte in 1933
    A few years ago I began thinking back to Professor Schotté, when I was asked to be part of a plenary session on sustainability for AASHE, a group made primarily of academic scientists and engineers involved in university teaching and research in sustainability. They wanted to hear a perspective from a few of us in the humanities. On the plenary I was asked about my background in science in connection with my interests in ecology, and I mentioned Professor Schotté. Since then I’ve realized, with more gratitude than I showed him at the time, that even though I didn’t choose a career in science, his willingness to tutor me made it possible for me to get a basic understanding of ecological science many decades ago. I'd lost touch with him after graduating, so I began searching for more information about him.
Hans Spemann
    Oscar Schotté, it turns out, was born in 1895, either in Poland or Germany. He studied in Germany, obtained the PhD, and in the early 1930s he was working in the experimental morphology laboratory of Hans Spemann, in Freiburg. Spemann, born in 1869, must have been a formidable person; Schotté would mention him frequently as a role model. The two of them had designed an experiment and in 1933 published the results, an experiment which in its time had been thought significant. Two years later Spemann won the Nobel Prize. But they had not discovered the secret of regeneration. Schotté used to tell us, jokingly, that he would give his right arm to discover it.
   I had forgotten about Schotté, and I completely forgot the name Spemann, until my search on Schotté's life turned up a couple of very interesting—to me, at least—results. It happened that Spemann had studied with a scientist named Theodor Boveri at Wurzburg, who in turn had studied with Richard Hertwig in Munich, who had studied with Ernst Haeckel (b. 1834) in Jena. I had never heard of Boveri or Hertwig, but Haeckel was known to me as the person who in 1866, the same year he met Darwin, had invented the field of ecology, coining the word and defining it as the study of organisms and their relations to each other and to their environment. Haeckel was a polymath, among other things an artist (see below; the colors were added by someone else), but primarily an embryologist, like Schotté. It occurred to me that in those days embryology and ecological science must have been very close. And it occurred to me that I had been tutored in ecology by someone whose intellectual genealogy went directly back to the inventor of that science.
Ernst Haeckel
    A second thing I learned about Oscar Schotté was that there was very good reason for him to talk about Spemann four decades after the two of them had done their experiment and published the results. That experiment was exemplary in the history of biology. In 2003 the American Institute of Biological Science solicited nominations for determining the most “beautiful” or elegant biological experiments. According to an article published in The Scientist, one of the judges, Scott F. Gilbert, said that when teaching his students, he “often cites a few particularly elegant experiments. They include, for example, a 1933 experiment by Hans Spemann and Oscar Schotté in which the German biologists illustrated the importance of genes for specifying organ formation. Spemann and Schotte transplanted tissue from a salamander embryo's jaw-forming region into frog embryos and vice versa. The resulting frog larvae had salamander jaws, and the resulting salamander larvae had frog jaws. The embryos had signaled ‘make a jaw,’ but the genes in that tissue only knew how to make the type of jaw that the genes would allow. The experiment beautifully and succinctly brought together the notions of epigenesis and preformation, said Gilbert, and showed that both were critical in making an embryo.”
One of Haeckel's drawings
    I am sure that my fellow students and I thought, back in the 1960s, that scientific progress meant that new discoveries led to new theories that supplanted the old ones, and that as the sciences were able to penetrate further into the mysteries of cells, molecules, atoms, and so forth, older fields like experimental morphology and natural history must fall by the wayside. These scientific fossils weren’t worth paying attention to, even though the scientists who were prominent in those fields commanded respect. Perhaps Professor Schotté appeared to us as Louis Agassiz must have appeared after the 1860s to those who believed Darwin’s theory of evolution had supplanted the belief that Agassiz defended, in a kind of creationism of its time. Yet Agassiz was an eminent scientist whose natural history discoveries, and whose methods, were enormously influential in his day, and are still highly regarded. Who does not know the story of Agassiz and the fish, which his student was asked to describe in more and more detail, day after day, until he got it right?
    Moreover, to the historians and philosophers of science, discarded lines of research are nevertheless significant. Not only might their experiments be elegant, they may be exemplary, as in the case of Professors Schotté and Spemann. And, sometimes, older ideas come back around in different forms. Experimental morphology, like all ecology, was very much concerned with the effects of the environment on organisms, and vice versa. Today’s geneticists, after decades claiming that genetic programs alone determined animal behavior, now consider the genome rather than individual genes, and the way that the genome interacts with the environment. Sometimes these interactions result in modifications to the genome. In concept, this idea that the environment may modify the genome and resultant behavior is reminiscent of the concept that guided experimental morphologists to introduce environmental changes to the embryo to see what would transpire. And that same concept is apparent in the thinking of conservation ecologists today as they experiment with sustainability.
    No wonder, then, that some fifteen years after studying with Professor Schotté, when I was pondering the idea of music as a cultural system while writing the ethnomusicology textbook Worlds of Music, it occurred to me to think of a music culture as an ecological system. To be sure, in graduate school I’d studied cultural anthropology with a professor whose approach was shaped by the field of cultural ecology; that, also, must have steered me in an ecological direction when puzzling over how to think about music as culture. I hadn’t realized until recently, though, how much of a debt I owed to this old-fashioned, experimental morphologist, Oscar Schotté, whose experiment, co-designed with his teacher who went on to win the Nobel Prize, was cited as an example of the most elegant in biology.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Alan Jabbour (1942-2017), Sustainability Champion

    Alan Jabbour, who died on Friday the 13th of this month, was a leader in the cultural sustainability movement before the term sustainability came into fashion. Based in Washington, DC, from 1969-1999 he led three important federal organizations involved with musical and cultural conservation. In addition to his main work as an organization leader and administrator, he was a musician and a scholar. Besides, he was a loyal colleague to hundreds of public folklorists, and dozens of ethnomusicologists, who were active from the 1960s until now.
     As a graduate student in the 1960s at Duke, Jabbour was exposed to traditional fiddle music and eventually met Henry Reed, an octagenarian fiddler from Virginia whose music represented a 19th-century upland South fiddle repertory and style of playing. For Jabbour, who had been trained as a classical violinist from childhood, Reed became a mentor and his music a revelation, a window on an elegant era prior to commercial recordings, an era when amateur musicians played in their family circles and supplied music for community gatherings. Jabbour’s field recordings of Henry Reed’s fiddling may be enjoyed at
    After a brief period as an English professor at UCLA, Jabbour left to work in Washington as head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (1969-74). In 1974 he moved to the National Endowment for the Arts, leading their newly formed Folk-Jazz-Ethnic division. In 1976, he returned to the Library of Congress to direct the newly-formed American Folklife Center (AFC), now incorporating the Archive of Folk Song. In these positions, he initiated, coordinated, and administered various projects to conserve traditional cultures, their music and folklore. Notably, the AFC undertook field documentation surveys of folklore in various regions of the US, from the late 1970s through the end of the 20th century. These constitute an important snapshot of folklife in the last 25 years of the last century. These were professionally done, by folklife specialists trained in interviewing, recording, photographing, and so on. They are appropriately preserved in the AFC’s archives, while some of the highlights are available today on the AFC website. Decades hence, I believe, they will be recognized as a contribution as important as the FSA photographs and other cultural documentation undertaken at the Roosevelt Administration’s initiative during the late 1930s.
     None of this would have happened without Alan’s skillful leadership from the AFC, where the decisions were made concerning which regions of the US would benefit from surveys, where the negotiations were undertaken with the Congressional representatives from those regions, and with the local community leaders; where the teams of folklorists were assembled and instructed—always accompanied by some of the folklife specialists from the AFC—and where the materials collected were taken, inventoried, where the exhibits were designed, and where all the documentation eventually was housed. The results of these were exhibited in their regions and are housed permanently in the Archives of Folk Culture at the AFC, which incorporates the older Archive of American Folksong.
    Under Jabbour’s direction, the Center also sponsored conferences, where practitioners at the cutting edge of cultural conservation gathered to exchange ideas and information. At the same time, the Archive of Folk Song grew to become by far the leading repository of field-recorded traditional music from regional and ethnic groups throughout the US, at the same time encouraging the publication of the best of this music. Much of their work was documented in the Center’s Newsletter, which is now available on line.  As an administrator, he did not have as much time to work on his own projects that he would have, had he continued as a professor at UCLA. But he directed an organization that left an unparalleled cultural sustainability legacy, and many young folklorists who worked on AFC projects acknowledge their debt to Jabbour and the permanent staff of folklife spcialists who worked for him at the Library of Congress. He retired in 1999 for the next seventeen years pursued a career both as an independent folklorist and consultant, and also as a fiddler, appearing in concerts and teaching workshops at old-time music camps, always championing the music of his mentor, Henry Reed.
    In person, Alan—I will call him Alan from now on, because we knew each other—was a very tall, gentle man with a noticeably deep, echoing bass voice, a southern drawl acquired in his native Florida, and a courtly manner. He directed with a light hand, understanding that people did their best work when they could add their own ideas to the mix. He was very supportive of those whose work he admired, and quick to appreciate it. He bent over backwards to help those in need—so much so that when he stood up, he even appeared to be bending backwards.

Alan Jabbour with Gene Reed at Henry Reed's grave
    My own relationship with the American Folklife Center goes back to the 1960s, when I began depositing my field recordings of blues and African American preaching in the Archive of American Folksong. After the Archive became something more encompassing, a Center that initiated projects rather than chiefly acting as a repository for recordings and related material, I borrowed field equipment from them to make high quality recordings, contributed essays to several of their publications, worked as a consultant with Alan and some of the other folklife specialists on various projects, and continued to deposit field recordings. Most of my original field recordings are now in their archives, except for those I made in Kentucky. My Kentucky recordings are in the Sound Archives in the Special Collections of the Hutchins Library, at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky.  
     Alan and I met, also, as fellow old-time string band musicians. I’ve written here, before, about Breakin’ Up Winter and the special musical community surrounding the old-time string band revival; and I’ve written elsewhere about the special bond that can occur among musicians who, on account of achieving musical rapport, feel as if they’ve come to know one another more deeply than otherwise. We also became interested in each other’s scholarship on the subject—something that was an old interest of Alan’s and that gradually became an interest of my own. One of Alan's most important observations was that the main reason for the differences between the fiddle styles of Yankee New England and the upland South were the syncopated rhythms that the southern fiddlers had incorporated into their bowing technique, specifically the way they placed a strong accent on the back-beat, or offbeat, or upbeat, as it is variously called. African American fiddlers had originated it, he thought, and by the Civil War white fiddlers were also doing it.
    After Alan retired, I saw him less often, but he still came to American Folklore Society (AFS) conferences, and I can recall playing with him at the jam session when AFS was in Quebec City, and again at Breakin’ Up Winter only a couple of years ago. He also had begun to speak about the early phase of the old-time string band revival, in which he’d played such an important role, from the perspective of his own experiences with Reed and with the Hollow Rock String Band.
    I’m sure Alan left several unfinished scholarly projects at his death, as well as recordings that he made with his musical partner, Ken Perlman, and others. There may even be recordings of his fiddling along with the incomparable banjo of Blanton Owen, a feature of the AFS conferences in the 1970s. Probably he wouldn’t have wanted some of these to appear in the form he left them, but others—for example, papers that he presented publicly—will, I hope, be gathered in a collection and published by a university press or, perhaps, by the AFC that he loved and served so well for nearly 25 years.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Endangering Classical Music by Dumbing It Down

    Nearly three years ago, I posted an entry on classical music as an endangered ecosystem. I’ve also posted, in years past, on how public radio’s commitment to classical music has declined in our new—not really so new anymore—century, viewing this as a symptom of endangerment. There have been others, none greater than the decline in funding for classical music teaching in the schools, at all levels: K-12 predominantly, but also at the college and university level. But that is a topic for a different post.
    As 2016 comes to an end, I want to return to one of my old topics in this subject, classical music on public radio—specifically, public radio in the state of Maine. Two momentous changes occurred this year. One is that the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) changed its name to Maine Public (MP). That’s it—Maine Public. The new name could mean anything—a water or gas or electric public utility, for example, or perhaps the state’s public library system, or the state public relations council, or the public health commission, or any of several other public entities. To the network, it’s a bit of a brag: we are the public, the name seems to be saying, no need for further identification. To any public employee in the state, the name could be confusing, even off-putting. Two was the creation of a second radio channel, Maine Public Classical. Whereas it had been possible to stream classical music 24/7 from the MPBN website, the new channel also broadcasts over the air, both on the FM band and on HD radio. This certainly increases the availability of classical music on the radio in the state, and suggests that it may not be so endangered after all.
    In fact, Maine has more classical radio stations than this. Some of the college and university radio stations play a bit of it, but there is another full-time station, WBACH, which can be heard from two stations in the state, one in the largest city, Portland, and the other in mid-coastal Maine. They stream the “world classical network,” from Cape Classical 107.5. It’s not exclusively Bach, although his music is well represented, and most of what’s heard is from the 18th and 19th centuries. Maine Public Classical’s station, which can be heard over the air in most but not all sections of the state, now programs the few shows that were left after years of classical music’s gradual shrinkage, the morning classical program from 9 to noon, the 8 pm hour’s symphony broadcasts from New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. and one weekly broadcast from a chamber music concert in the state of Maine, and Saturday afternoon opera. The Maine Public station, the same over-the-air station that reaches the whole state and has done so for decades, is now mostly talk, plus a couple of hours of music in the evenings and a little more on weekends that is difficult to categorize—more on that in another post, perhaps—but at any rate it’s meant to appeal to an under-40 audience. The same repertoire of talk shows one hears on most public radio stations today can be heard here in Maine, most of the time—BBC news all night, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, news talk shows like those hosted by Diane Rehm, and Tom Ashbrook; politics and the arts shows like those hosted by Terri Gross; and so on, along with a re-configuration and reduction in local news reporting.
    One would think that with WBACH and Maine Public Classical, the audience for Western art music was being better served than before. Certainly more classical music is more easily available over the air now than it was three, six, ten years ago. But what classical music is it? Is it the same classical music that was available in earlier years? No. There’s a much higher proportion of pop classics, and easy pieces—almost nothing that is atonal, for example. There’s a much higher percentage of short pieces. Strings predominate. Vocal music is in short supply. On “Classical 24,” the out-sourced service that Maine Public Classical uses for several hours a day, most pieces played are 20 minutes or less in length. If a piece is longer, then one movement from it is played, without apology. Composers, beware: if your compositions are longer than 20 minutes, they won’t be played in their entirety. Maine Public Classical does broadcast one other syndicated show, Performance Today, that is more varied than the others, in the sense that the host offers biographical tidbits about the composers, interviews performers, even offers listeners a little quiz--all in the name of educating the public and making classical music more attractive. A wider variety of pieces, and much more modern music, is played on Performance Today; yet most of them are, still, short.
    It was the polymath musicologist Charles Seeger who made fun of one of the synonyms for classical music—“serious music”—calling the name preposterous, as if no other music could stake the same claim. Had Seeger lived to hear the dumbing down of classical music on radio, he wouldn’t have needed to comment. Altogether, this dumbing down of classical music endangers it as much as, if not more than, its absence on radio.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ethnomusicology in the Public Interest -- 25 Years Later

    Every year at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) I find myself following the presentations in my areas of current interest, as well as attending, when I can, presentations of students and former students. Now, of course, they all are former students. SEM is a time to reconnect with many of them, and with colleagues; and it's a time to learn what people in the fields I’m most interested in are thinking.
    Applied ethnomusicology is one of those fields. It was well represented in the pre-conference, themed in public sector ethnomusicology. The public sector refers to those government agencies funded entirely or almost entirely by taxpayer money. NGOs, private corporations, and academic institutions operate outside the public sector even though they may enjoy some government (i.e., taxpayer) funding. Applied ethnomusicologists are employed in all of those places—public sector, NGO, private corporations, and inside the academic world. But as an oversupply of ethnomusicology PhDs, coupled with shrinkage in the percentage of tenured and tenure-able academic positions, makes it harder to find academic jobs, the Society is concerned to find employment for its graduates outside the academy, and the public sector is one option. 
    As SEM met in Washington, DC this year, the American Folklife Center, a department of the Library of Congress, a public sector agency, hosted the pre-conference. The main theme was careers for ethnomusicologists in the public sector, although there was some spillover into the NGO and private sector areas.
    I’d been invited to speak for ten minutes to the group about a landmark publication in the applied ethnomusicology, the first (and only) issue of the SEM Journal, Ethnomusicology, devoted to ethnomusicology in the public interest. Published in 1992, it came about primarily as a result of my efforts, and marked the first official recognition within the Society of the legitimacy of extra-academic ethnomusicology. I said something about how the issue did come to be, and then reviewed what had happened in the 25 years since then. I reproduce my presentation in its entirety here.


“Ethnomusicology in the Public Interest – 25 Years Later”
Jeff Todd Titon, Nov. 9, 2016, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
SEM Pre-Conference on Soundings: Public Sector Ethnomusicology in the 21st Century
     I thank Nancy Groce and Judith Gray for inviting me to speak to you. I want to make three points. One, the special issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s journal, Ethnomusicology, on music and the public interest, published in 1992, was the culmination of decades of work in public folklore and ethnomusicology. Point two, in the period since 1992 public ethnomusicology has grown, institutionally, in practice, and by generating theory. Third, ethnomusicologists would be wise to respond to this growing body of theory and practice by integrating applied and public ethnomusicology more fully into graduate education.
   To my first point, then. When in 1988 I was program chair for the 1989 SEM conference, I invited panelists for a plenary on ethnomusicology and the public interest. The public interest is defined as the welfare or well-being of the general public. When a year later then-SEM President Mark Slobin invited me to become editor of the SEM Journal, one reason I accepted was so that I could try to publish that plenary as a special journal issue.
   This special issue featured articles by Dan Sheehy, Bess Hawes, Martha Davis, and Tony Seeger. As journal editor, I wrote an introductory essay entitled “Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology.” In it I wrote that “Public sector, applied, active, and practice ethnomusicology are the names that the authors in this issue give to what ethnomusicologists do in the public interest. What they have in common is work whose immediate end is not research and the flow of knowledge inside intellectual communities but, rather, practical action in the world outside of archives and universities.  This work involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world. Ethnomusicologists aren’t the only ones who work in the field of music and the public interest. . . . But ethnomusicologists have a particular stake here.” Today I would describe our stake as twofold: one, to maintain our profession’s ethics of social responsibility in public ethnomusicology; and two, to advance the cause of what Alan Lomax called cultural equity.
    The decades of work the issue stood on go back to Herbert Halpert, Charles Seeger, Alan Lomax, and other pioneers in multicultural democracy. Those pioneers’ like-minded descendants, among them Ralph Rinzler, Bess Lomax Hawes, Archie Green, Tom Vennum, Tony Seeger, and Alan Jabbour, in the 1970s and 1980s consolidated a public sector infrastructure for conserving the traditional arts, in the folklife division of the Smithsonian Institution, the Folk arts Division of the NEA, also here at the AFC, and in dozens of state-funded positions, all outside the academic world. A small number of ethnomusicologists with careers inside the academic world worked with that outside infrastructure; our numbers included Charlotte Heth, Dan Sheehy, Robert Garfias, Jackie Dje Dje, Lorraine Sakata, and myself among others. I started my engagement in public ethnomusicology working at the 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, having been invited to do so by Bess Hawes, then the festival director. I served under Bess and Dan Sheehy as a member of the NEA Folk Arts Panel in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1989, 1992, and 2014, and did numerous site visits for them over the years. Encouraged by Bess, and with the help of Jane Beck, in 1983 I convinced the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to hire a state folklorist. The first one they hired was an ethnomusicologist, Roberta Singer. This is the same position Maggie Holtzberg holds at the Massachusetts Cultural Council now, and where Cliff Murphy, who’s presenting here today, was an intern before he came to Brown to get his doctorate in ethnomusicology. What goes around, comes around: Cliff now holds the position as NEA Folk Arts director that Bess held.
    My second point is that since 1992, our professional ethnomusicology societies, SEM and ICTM and others, have recognized that working for the public interest is an important part of who we are and what we do. In 1997 Doris Dyen and Martha Davis organized an SEM Committee on Applied Ethnomusicology, settling on a single name: applied ethnomusicology. In 2002 the Committee became a SEM Section, and today that Section is our third largest, with 300 members. Nearly one in three SEM members identify today as applied ethnomusicologists. In its first decade, our group made a space within SEM for ethnomusicologists whose work was primarily outside of the academic world. We sponsored panels almost every year in which ethnomusicologists employed in the public sector—that is, in government organizations supported by taxpayer money—and also those employed outside the public sector, in NGOs, and in the private sector, spoke about their careers. In the past ten years, now that more and more academics are doing applied ethnomusicology, the Section has become a home for everyone who is engaged in ethnomusicology in the public interest, no matter if they are employed inside or outside of the academy, because it is the nature and impact of the work that matters, not the place of employment. Applied ethnomusicology is a noble calling in and of itself. In 2007 the ICTM established a study group on applied ethnomusicology; its founding leader, Svanibor Pettan, is here today. In the new millennium, a steady stream of articles as well as two books emerged to theorize our subject. In the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, published last year, edited by Svanibor and myself, an international group of applied ethnomusicologists, some working in the public sector, some in NGOs, some in the private sector, and some within the academic world, contributed essays. In September 2015, in Ireland, a joint SEM-ICTM sponsored forum on community-engaged, activist ethnomusicology took place on the initiative of the presidents of both organizations, with dozens of presentations over a three-day period. Svanibor and I were among those who gave keynote addresses, and Oxford will publish a book from the conference.
    The increase in practice, publications, and the institutional growth of ethnomusicology in the public interest within and outside of our professional societies brings me to my third point, which is that education for applied ethnomusicology has not kept pace. We do not yet have MA programs in public ethnomusicology, nor do we have applied ethnomusicology tracks within MA and PhD programs. Education in it remains mostly informal. Some professors are sympathetic, practice it and encourage it in their students. Other professors have little interest. Doctoral programs within top-tier universities are under pressure to turn out PhDs who will go on to teaching and research careers at peer institutions. That is how top universities are evaluated and it is on that basis that our graduate programs are funded. I am very proud of our Brown PhDs who have gone on to do public ethnomusicology—three of them are presenting here, by the way: Bradley Hanson, Maureen Loughran, and Cliff Murphy; and there are more—but it would take a different kind of university than Brown or its peers to establish an actual graduate degree in applied or public ethnomusicology. MA programs emphasizing public folklore already do exist, at Western Kentucky University, Indiana University, and Goucher College. Several MA programs in applied anthropology also exist. Why not public ethnomusicology? Those programs could feature academic courses, internships, and employ professors of practice. I believe they should have a thesis requirement that includes ethnographic fieldwork. Fieldwork requires many skills useful in public ethnomusicology—observation, documentation, organization, and social skills. Most important, fieldwork in ethnomusicology occurs today in a postcolonial atmosphere encouraging respect, collaboration, reciprocity, engagement and social responsibility. In that special issue 25 years ago, I wrote that fieldwork was best based not in investigative reporting or distanced, neutral observation, but in friendship with one’s field partners. As a younger generation of ethnomusicologists is increasingly motivated by social responsibility, they are increasingly making public ethnomusicology a central part of our field. Twenty-five years ago this was but a hopeful dream; today it is fast becoming a reality.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Environmental Humanities, Music and Sustainability

Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, E. Penobscot Bay, ME
    Environmental humanities is only six years old, one of a proliferating number of fields prompted by the current environmental crisis. My interests in sustainability and music have taken me, over the years, into a number of environmental areas: conservation biology, human ecology, ecological economics, and ecomusicology, to name a few; and now environmental humanities. Environmental humanities, according to one definition, is meant to integrate humanistic research on the environment from cultural geography, ecocriticism, cultural anthropology, environmental philosophy, and political ecology. The ideology behind it seeks to move beyond a “holistic vision of nature as a privileged place in the history of ecology,” to an understanding of humans and our concerns “within the everyday places in which we live.” It is said to turn away from a conception of an ideal nature constructed as unspoiled (by human culture and corruption) wildness, to an idea of an environment that humans have impacted for millennia, with problems such as climate change and environmental injustice. This conceptual shift turns away from the radical environmentalism of deep ecology, and toward an integration of the human, and humanities, into environmental thinking, at least inside the academic world. Instead of envisioning the restoration or preservation of wilderness ecosystems, “environmentalists are re-envisioning nature as pervasively and enduringly shaped by humans. These concepts are beginning to put pressure on the key concept of ‘sustainability,’ which has organized a good deal of environmentalist thought for the last two decades.”
    One way of looking at the way these developments are “pressuring” sustainability is to consider the critique of the sustainability from within resilience thinking. Advocates of resilience (and I am one) maintain that, first, sustainability is a goal, not a strategy; and second, that insofar as sustainability implies maintaining a climax equilibrium state of natural balance, it is out of step with current thinking in ecological science, which has abandoned the idea of the balance of nature. In chapter 5 of the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I develop this critique of sustainability and discuss resilience as a better way of thinking about musical and cultural continuity and integrity. My thinking about resilience has, itself, changed over the years, from skepticism to a guarded optimism.
    Fall is conference season for me, and only last week I was asked to present about environmental humanities at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting, in Miami. I spoke about how folklife studies, with its long history of ethnographic documentation of traditional beliefs, customs, and practices, including folk medicine, agricultural adaptations, and beliefs about the place of humans in the natural world, could contribute to the discussion of traditional ecological knowledges in the environmental humanities. I was asked, also, to speak about my own background in the disciplines related to the environmental humanities. I might have said something about studying with Leo Marx, my honors thesis adviser at Amherst College. Marx is surely one of the earliest environmental humanists, an ecocritic whose book, The Machine in the Garden, measures the impact of technology on the American pastoral ideal, as revealed in the literature of writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, and especially Thoreau.
    But I chose instead to speak about my background in ecology, mentioning my introduction to the subject when I spent the summer after my sophomore year working in a human ecology project, for Dr. Lawrence Hinkle, at the Cornell Medical School, in Manhattan. In the following academic year, I studied with Oscar Schotté, a biologist whose academic pedigree extended back to Ernst Haeckel, the German embryologist who in 1866 coined the term ecology and defined it as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence.’”
    I went on to talk about my sound ecology project, and concluded (again, in response to my assignment) by repeating some of the conclusions I’d come to after decades of research in fields related to environmental humanities. These included the four principles of interdependence, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship. They also included some of the conclusions I’m coming to from my sound ecology project, concerning the implications for communities, economies, and ecologies of a sound ontology and epistemology. I also spoke about these a few weeks ago in a keynote address to the southwest chapter of the American Musicological Society, while an earlier formulation of these ideas on a sound ecology are scheduled for publication in Ethnologies later this year, or early next.
    It was fascinating to see the explosion of the environmental humanities at the AFS conference. There were two days of panels on the subject last week, whereas in previous conferences not much if anything. On the panel with me were several friends and colleagues whose thinking has inspired me for many years, including Rory Turner, founder of the cultural sustainability MA program at Goucher College; and Mary Hufford, whose pioneering work in public ecology and folklife is finally getting the recognition that it has long deserved.
    The conference season is always stimulating, as I feel pulled in two directions: one, I want to be with my colleagues, learning from them and sharing ideas; two, I want to be back at home, developing those ideas, thinking, reading, and writing. I have one more conference this fall, the ethnomusicology meeting in Washington, DC in a week. For that, I was asked to speak about public ethnomusicology 25 years after the publication of the first (and only) issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Journal that was devoted to the topic of ethnomusicology in the public interest. This topic falls within another relatively new field, public humanities. And all of this—environmental humanities, public humanities, and so forth—arises in a crisis period when “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” as the saying has it.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Prisons and Music

    Prisoners in the US are uniting in opposition to overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor for starvation wages. Prisoners traditionally protest by defiance and disorder, riots included. Today they are organizing a national prison labor strike. This strike was the subject of an hour-long program, on On Point (WBUR-FM, National Public Radio), Sept. 28. Prisoners spoke from behind bars to air their grievances and describe their actions. Authors and analysts provided other views, while the call-in audience expressed theirs. The prisoners want an end to the overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor—which in their view amounted to a kind of slavery, the overcrowding in prisons likened to the overcrowding on slave ships. They didn’t deny that they should “do the time if they did the crime.” But they proposed reform: rehabilitation, job training, and a fair wage in exchange for the manufacturing and construction jobs they were forced to do.       
Huddie and Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935
Aside from the issue of justice (social, racial, economic) that the program raised and to which I responded, I was reminded of the long historical association of music with prisons. Work songs and blues and ballads were collected from prisoners by folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 1940s, by University of Iowa professor Harry Oster in the 1950s, and by Harvard Junior Fellow Bruce Jackson in the 1960s, among others. The location wasn’t chosen because the guards could order the prisoners to make music; the reason to collect from prisoners was that they, particularly those who had been in prison for decades, were more likely to know the older folk music and perform it without having been influenced so much by contemporary popular music. In 1933 the Lomaxes discovered Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), a singer and twelve-string guitar player with great musical skill and a broad folksong repertoire, in the Louisiana penitentiary. After his release in 1934, they took him on tours to perform for the music lovers who formed the beginnings of a folk music revival in the 1930s. Leadbelly had a powerful stage presence. When they took him to Harvard, where both John and Alan had studied, they made sure to seat the British ballad expert, George Lyman Kittredge, in the front row. Kittredge, or “Kitty” as he was called, had taught both Lomaxes, and had encouraged John to collect cowboy songs. Then an old man, retired, Kittredge found Leadbelly’s intensity too much to bear. “He is a demon, Lomax,” Kittredge was reported to have said, whereupon he left the concert. Demon or not, Leadbelly’s folksong legacy fills several boxes of records and tapes in the Library of Congress, and has been issued and re-issued on multi-volume LP and CD sets over the years.
Lazy Bill Lucas, 1969. Photo by J. T. Titon
    Not only did prisoners sing for collectors, but musicians sang for prisoners. Musicians performed for prisoners’ entertainment: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) may be his best known song, and his album, “Live at Folsom Prison” (1968) remains popular. Accompanying blues singer and pianist Lazy Bill Lucas in 1970, I played guitar in Minnesota’s Sandstone Prison, entertaining the inmates. It was an interesting trip north from the Twin Cities. I’d forgotten that I had a bottleneck slide in my guitar case. In those days we made them by breaking off the necks of red bordeaux type wine bottles, then smoothing out the glass's jagged edges. I guess my edges weren’t smooth enough for the guards, who confiscated the bottleneck when they inspected us on entering. For a moment I wondered if they’d arrest me for trying to smuggle a weapon in. They didn’t.
   Another interesting part of that trip to Sandstone Prison was that the guitarist John Fahey went along, to be the opening act. I wondered how entertaining his guitar solos would be in prison. I never found out. John had flown in from California on a brief concert tour. But he'd been in a fight at his motel the night before, and was now in no condition to play music. How he got into that fight: he and his road manager didn’t know that the Minnesota state high school wrestling championships were being held at the University of Minnesota then, and that the wrestlers were staying at the same motel, the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge. The wrestlers partied all night and after John couldn’t stand the noise any more, he went into the hallway in his pajamas and told them to quiet down. Not a good idea. Even worse, he told them not to mess with him because he had a black belt in karate. Maybe he did, but he was no match for the group that pummeled him. So Bill and I and our drummer, John Schrag, did the concert by ourselves. It never occurred to me to try to collect any music from the inmates. They were appreciative, mostly of Bill, who rose to the occasion.
    Some eight years later, when I was a professor at Tufts University, I worked briefly with a teacher at Framingham Women’s Prison. Framingham is one of the western suburbs of Boston. We were teaching writing. It represented a cultural shift: instead of collecting music from a captive audience, we ethnomusicologists and folklorists began working to help rehabilitate and empower prisoners, often through music. That work has continued. A recent example was presented at the conference in Limerick, Ireland, on ethnomusicology and activism, a little more than a year ago. Andrew McGraw, an ethnomusicologist teaching at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, discussed how he worked with prisoners to establish a recording studio in the Richmond City Jail so they could explore sound and record their hip-hop tracks. So, when I heard that radio program yesterday, I thought of how folklorists and ethnomusicologists had been involved over the years with music and prisons. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this involvement started well before the Lomaxes, possibly in Europe. Did it? And what might be the role of music in the national prison labor strike today?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sustainability, Sound, and the Study of Folklore

      Historically, folklore (as a field of study) held sound and sustainability in high esteem. Sound because of the emphasis on orality, or oral tradition (the sound of folklore as spoken or sung, for the folk were thought illiterate). Sustainability because folklorists thought folklore was always endangered, dying, or dead. In the late 1960s a revolution in folklore studies began to change much of that way of thinking, but for centuries people interested in folklore elevated sound and worried about sustainability.
    The earliest folklorists in Europe weren’t called folklorists. Aristocrats during the late medieval and Renaissance periods conceived an interest in ways of life that were being lost, or had been lost. They traveled searching out ruins, and collected objects from former times that they put in what were called cabinets of curiosity. (These were the forerunners of museums.) Later, they began to focus on peasant life and oral folklore; in the 1600s the poet Sir Philip Sidney mentioned the ballad "Chevy-Chase," and in 1711 Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator about it:
Jos. Addison, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“The old song of 'Chevy-Chase' is the favourite ballad of the common people of England, and Ben Jonson used to say he had rather have been the author of it than of all his works. Sir Philip Sidney in his discourse of Poetry, speaks of it in the following words: 'I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart more moved than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung by some blind crowder with no rougher voice than rude style, which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobweb of that uncivil age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?' For my own part, I am so professed an admirer of this antiquated song, that I shall give my reader a critique upon it without any further apology for so doing…”
     Never mind that Addison’s critique focused on a different ballad of the same title; an interest in what were called “popular antiquities” had been established in the literate classes of Europe by 1700, while well before the US Civil War we have the Brothers Grimm with their collection of Märchen, or folktales, and the invention of the English word “folk-lore,” by William Thoms. To the antiquarians, one of the most interesting aspects of folk-lore was how it spread; and the antiquarians settled on the idea that an illiterate peasantry must have passed along the songs and stories and proverbs and riddles by word of mouth, or “oral transmission,” as it was called—by sounding it, in other words. Its sustainability was guaranteed by sound, but at the same time memory was not always accurate, and so the folk-lore gradually changed as it moved from one person to the next, one generation to the next, one place to the next. Invention, too, played its role in oral tradition. A literate culture, they thought, could not have folklore because its literature was written down; once that occurred, the text or the music could not vary. Oral tradition, therefore, was characteristic and important; but also impermanent, unlike writing. So sounding was both the means by which folklore was sustained, but also its Achilles heel.
     In the 1960s folklorists began to pay more attention to written-down folklore. The literate/illiterate dichotomy had grown impossible to sustain with regard to folklore, at least in the US, where (overlooking servants and sharecroppers in their histories) our historians tell us  we never had any peasants. US folklorists could (and did) argue that the working-classes had folklore, but many among them were literate. So it goes, and so it went; and the situation is even more complicated now, as it turns out that many of the old ballads like "Chevy Chase" originated in print and were passed along in print as well as orally, among the literate classes as well as (perhaps better than) the peasants, at least after the medieval period. Besides, at around the same time folklorists were devaluing orality, they were finding that being anthropologists of folklore, rather than collectors of it, had more appeal. Indeed, in the US beginning in the 1950s, at Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania, folklore became a profession, professionalized; with professors of folklore holding PhDs in the subject, beginning to replace professors of English with PhDs in English and a research and teaching interest in folklore. Graduate students in folklore increasingly produced ethnographies of folk communities and one aspect of their folklife—material culture especially—while the older collections of ballads and folksongs, and folktales, often done by amateurs, did not seem as deep, as exciting, as important.
     Orality need not disappear in the wake of an ethnographic approach to folklore, though. An emphasis on folklife as it is lived has led me, over the years, to a phenomenological perspective: how orality is experienced as sounding. For although sound dissipates, it is experienced unlike other sources of sensation: sound waves vibrate our eardrums and set our bodies in motion; sound vibrates living beings into co-presence with other beings. In sound, we experience connection and co-presence. This connection need not be positive. Sound can unite and make us feel at one with each other and the world, but it can also divide or control, as when used for torture. Sound can make a being happy but it can also drive one mad. A sound ecology will take both possibilities into account, and recognize the debt it owes to folklore studies.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Song of the Loon--Is It Sustainable?

Common Loon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, nature lovers have experienced the ecosublime in the laughing, raucous, slightly unnerving song of the Common Loon. Zoomusicologists--those who work from the premise that animals make sounds for aesthetic as well as purely functional or instrumental reasons--also hear in the loon song an intentional utterance outside the signal-response theories of animal communication scientists. But the loon, which is the national bird of Canada, and which has been heard for centuries on the lakes of the state of Maine--I have heard it here--is mostly absent in southern New England, due to changes in habitat brought about by modernization and development in the previous 150 years. Gone completely from Massachusetts by the turn of the 20th century, the loon has been making a small comeback there, with 45 breeding pairs--male and female--reported last year. Now comes the news that the Biodiversity Research Institute, in the city of Portland, Maine, will add ten breeding pairs to that population in Massachusetts, in hopes of accelerating the comeback.
     Restoration ecology, of which this is an instance, is one of the most common examples of a sustainability strategy. As cultural and musical sustainability strategies borrow liberally from ecological ones, it is easy to see how cultural policy targets particular genres for revival, just as restoration ecology targets particular species like loons. I have written elsewhere about the dangers from unintended negative consequences resulting from targeting particular species, comparing it to feeding the plant rather than improving the soil. For cultural and musical sustainability, feeding the cultural soil has proven out to be a better sustainability strategy over the decades, although in the short run--a year or five--feeding the musical genre can yield impressive (but unsustainable) growth.
     Restoring the Common Loon to Massachusetts--if the ten pairs are successful in increasing the population, more will follow--seems innocent enough. It isn't likely that an increase in loons there will upset the food chain, or that dire consequences will follow. But in the long run, as the Audubon Society tells us, climate change will force the loons northward to Canada, anyway. Even Maine will lose its loons. The state of Minnesota, in losing its loons to Canada, will also be losing its state bird. These losses will occur by the end of the current century. And so I do wonder what is the point of this restoration ecology, at least from the perspective of the loon. It is unsustainable. From a different perspective, of course, whatever entertainment the cry of the loon may provide for the human population of Massachusetts, may be counted as a positive, at least for a few decades until climate change makes the habitat no longer suitable there.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Natural Sounds in the National Parks

Scott McFarland demos recorder in the Park
    In an earlier blog entry I mentioned a collaboration with Scott McFarland, biologist at the Great Smoky National Park, who is in charge of their Natural Sounds project. Just yesterday, a long “cover story” by Erin Young was published in the Knoxville Mercury, featuring Scott’s work there. This summer, he has been setting out sound-monitoring digital recorders in several Park locations that will document the soundscapes continuously for thirty-day periods (after which time the batteries must be changed). The recordings will not only measure human-caused (anthropogenic) sounds, such as those made by vehicles, construction, airplane flyovers, and so on, but also those geophonic sounds made by wind and water, and the biophonic sounds made by animals. These recordings will be compared with some made 10 years ago in the same locations, to determine the changing sounds and measure the various noise levels, all with a view to minimizing noise pollution to enhance the visitor experience as well as the acoustic habitat for the plants and animals.
    I was on the phone with Scott a few days ago to obtain his permission for a different recording—the one made of our symposium on music, sound, and environment last April—to be placed in ETSU’s Sherrod Library, where it will be available for educational purposes and fair use. At that symposium, Scott and I, along with ecomusicologists Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn, Mark Pedelty, and Chad Hamill, spent an afternoon and evening in a public conversation which ranged widely over that theme. We were especially caught up with the alterations to the soundscape being caused by climate change, and other anthropomorphic changes to the sonic habitat. The symposium was well-attended—seats had to be added for an overflow crowd—with faculty and graduate students traveling from universities out of state, as well as in-state, to hear and then participate in the question-answer period at the end of each of the two sessions.
    This year marks the hundredth-year anniversary of the US National Parks. With the attendant publicity, it is good to have some of it directed to the National Park Service's (NPS) Natural Sounds conservation project. And it is good to have people like Scott McFarland working on it. He was most generous with his time, visiting ETSU twice—once for this symposium, and another time for a presentation in a seminar I was teaching on ethnomusicology and the soundscape ecology of Appalachia—and hosting me when I visited the Great Smoky National Park. On my visits I noticed a few signs on the highway that read “Quiet Walkway,” pointing to trails leading into the woods. I decided to try one and learn how quiet it was. About a mile in, I found a few small streams, the water coursing over the rocks, making the usual pleasant geophony, while mockingbirds sang occasionally. Yet I could still hear the vehicular traffic and construction noise, and I’m sure that the mockingbirds could hear it as well. I’ve mentioned in earlier blog entries the acoustic niche hypothesis, that animal species communicate in particular sound niches so as to minimize interference from other sounds. As they move to different habitats and experience different sounds—including anthropogenic ones—they must adjust their niches to the changes in the soundscape. Experiments with birds and their songs appear to confirm this hypothesis. Evidently they can learn to do this within a generation or two—it isn’t a matter of evolution by natural selection.
    Scott intends to head to coastal Maine with his fiancée in late September, and we hope to meet up near Acadia National Park, where he will spend some time. Perhaps a NPS Natural Sounds program could function there, as well. Acadia is well known for its partnerships with natural scientists who have been studying the changing animal and plant communities there; could sounds be next?