Friday, May 18, 2018

Dissertation Digest: Race and Respectability in Early Country Music

By Sam Parler

When Beyoncé took the stage with the Dixie Chicks to perform “Daddy Lessons” at the 2016 CMA Awards, she reignited the long-simmering debate over country music’s racial identity. Reactions were swift and polarizing. Over social media, some country fans invoked race to decry Beyoncé as an opportunistic interloper; as a black pop singer, they argued, Beyoncé didn’t really fit the typical rural, white image of “real” country. (Predictably, internet trolls engaged in more overt race-baiting.) Beyoncé’s defenders responded by citing country music’s long history of African American performers, with nods to Ray Charles, who recorded an album of country standards in 1962, as well as 1970s Hall-of-Famer Charley Pride and contemporary singer/songwriter Darius Rucker. This echoed the assessment of country music scholars, who have long acknowledged the genre’s indebtedness to black musicians.<1>

But the question remains: if country music has always had its share of black performers, why do audiences still think of it as a genre primarily by and for white people? The answer is, of course, complicated. In my dissertation, “Musical Racialism and Racial Nationalism in Commercial Country Music, 1915-1953,” I focus on the role of media and respectability politics in country music’s early turn towards a white identity. In the 1920s, many of the earliest country musicians projected a working-class image, epitomized in the figure of the hillbilly. As the genre grew in visibility and commercial viability, however, some musicians sought to deflect this negative stereotype in order to expand potential listening and purchasing  audiences. To do so, these musicians often explicitly invoked a white identity to reframe country as a timeless, upwardly mobile, and American genre. As I argue, this shift relied upon the cultural logic of racial segregation and white supremacy as well as new technologies that divorced sound from the performing body. Over the course of four performer case studies, I examine how different media industries of recording, radio, publishing, and film deliberately crafted this white image, and how this ultimately made country music appear more respectable by midcentury.

Efforts to define country music as white began with the recording and radio industries in the 1920s and 1930s. As Karl Hagstrom Miller has documented, record companies developed “hillbilly” and “race records” categories to advertise vernacular music by white and black musicians respectively, regardless of musical style.<2> The resulting “musical color line” obscured performers of color who contributed to the stylistic and institutional development of country music. The Native Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Hoʻopiʻi, whose innovative approach to the steel guitar was adopted by contemporaneous white musicians, was one such performer. (For example, compare versions of “Ten Tiny Toes” as recorded by Hoʻopiʻi and by white hillbilly artist Jimmie Davis.) Despite stylistic overlap, Hoʻopiʻi’s music was advertised by record companies as an exotic novelty, a view reinforced by his work in the Hollywood film industry (such as the 1932 short Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle). Hoʻopiʻi’s cultural identity thus stood in direct contrast to country music’s presumptive Anglo-Saxon origins and rustic authenticity, even while he was playing the same tunes.

By comparison, audiences accepted African American harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey as a country musician precisely because radio rendered his performances racially anonymous. Bailey performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry radio program in the 1930s. In the context of these country music broadcasts, audiences heard his performances as white or un-raced rather than black. This racial confusion was by design: broadcasters discouraged Bailey from singing or speaking on the air and obscured his race in publicity materials. Bailey’s onomatopoeic repertory, including his popular “Pan American Blues,” also eschewed any obvious racial markers. Investigation of both Bailey and Hoʻopiʻi thus exposes the ironies of country music’s putative white identity and the ways in which new media amplified or masked racial difference.

As country gained greater national exposure in the 1930s and 1940s, some performers sought to escape the genre’s working-class stereotypes. White performers Carson Robison and Gene Autry both promoted an explicitly white, American identity that sought to appeal to middle-class audiences, yet their paths to middle-class respectability were strikingly different. Robison made his career as a singer-songwriter in New York, ingratiating himself with pop music publishers that typically barred country music as undesirable. Realizing his outsider position, in professional circles Robison struck an ambivalent tone towards country’s working-class status, emphasizing instead its Anglo-American origins and miming the rhetoric and formal sophistication of Tin Pan Alley in his compositions. During World War II, his mimicry included over a dozen anti-Japanese songs employing racial epithets like “yellow scum” that mirrored Tin Pan Alley stereotypes. Perhaps intentionally, in stressing the patriotic zeal of country music, these jingoistic songs helped Robison to achieve greater professional security within mainstream pop while also making country music appear whiter.

Like Robison, western films by Gene Autry downplayed country music’s working-class status, this time by swapping out the hillbilly stereotype for that of the rugged, all-American cowboy.<3> Autry’s performances of country music figure prominently in these films, underscoring whiteness through contrast with the culture of American Indians. In particular, Autry’s politically-conscious “pro-Indian” films in the late 1940s argued that the socioeconomic challenges faced by Indian communities could be remedied via assimilation to white cultural norms, including country music. This scene from The Last Round-Up (1947), in which Autry joins Indian students to perform “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain” at a reservation school, dramatizes this assimilationist ideology nicely. As the Indian characters struggle to adapt, country music is reframed as a central facet of white American culture, no longer marginalized as working-class and disreputable.

As with many other genres, country music was and is on one hand a fundamentally multiracial music, and at the same time inescapably racialized. Contrary to popular historical narratives of its origins, country music’s white identity was not inherent in the music itself but intentionally constructed by performers, entrepreneurs, and audiences. Far from denigrating country music as uniquely retrograde in its racial politics, however, this dissertation suggests that a middle-class investment in whiteness is largely responsible for country’s racial identity. As in other corners of classical and popular music, messages of racial nationalism by the likes of Autry and Robison arose as a strategic response to class-based concerns over the music’s social prestige.<4> This dissertation also continues the important work of documenting the careers and artistic influence of country musicians of color. Uncovering the contributions of figures like Bailey and Ho‘opi‘i reveals the limitations and contradictions of current genre labels and should point us towards a more nuanced, less segregated history of U.S. popular music.
<1>Some examples include Pamela Foster, My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage (Nashville, TN: My Country, 1998); and My Country, Too: The Other Black Music (Nashville, TN: My Country, 2000); David Morton and Charles K. Wolfe, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991); Diane Pecknold, ed., Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and the CD compilation From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Bros. 46428, 3 CDs, 1998).
<2>Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
<3>For a more thorough comparison of the hillbilly and cowboy figures, see Bill C. Malone, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993).
<4>This was hardly a new phenomenon. In the early 1900s, first- to third-generation immigrants like George M. Cohan and Al Jolson combined nationalist sentiments and racial humor, including blackface, to help shore up their whiteness for middle-class Broadway audiences. Beth Levy has observed a similar strategy of racial nationalism among twentieth-century American composers like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, who used cowboy and frontier themes to define themselves both within and against the European-dominated world of classical music. See Elizabeth Titrington Craft, “Becoming American Onstage: Broadway Narratives of Immigrant Experiences in the United States” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014); Beth E. Levy, Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); and Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants and the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Samuel Parler is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at Denison University. His research focuses on respectability politics in the U.S. music industry, considering how issues of class, race, and media intersect to create new commercial genres and aesthetic hierarchies. This includes current projects on early country music, 1960s novelty songs, and the rise of budget classical recordings. He is a recipient of the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship and the Mark Tucker Award from the Society for American Music. He completed his Ph.D. in historical musicology at Harvard University in 2017.

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Will we remember the way we were?" The past and future tenses of Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor"

By Lauren Eldridge
"Care for me, care for me, you said you care for me
There for me, there for me, said you'd be there for me"
This couplet serves as the foundation for both the songs at #1 and #9 on the Apple Music charts as of Friday, April 13, 2018 by two artists listed several times on the Billboard Hot 100. Drake's "Nice for What" and Cardi B's "Be Careful" both sample "Ex-Factor" by Lauryn Hill (1998). By reading sampling as a vital creative process, these three songs become links in a chain connecting four decades of black American music.

Beyond the coterminous release of "Nice for What" and "Be Careful," there is much to think through in regards to the past and future tenses of "Ex-Factor," a single from Hill's 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.<1> "Ex-Factor" itself is the product of a sample of a sample of a cover.  Hill's opening verse - "It could all be so simple" - draws on "Can It Be All So Simple" by the Wu-Tang Clan (1993), which in turn samples Gladys Knight's voice in "The Way We Were" (1974), a cover of the same song by Barbra Streisand (1973). The first few moments of "Ex-Factor" are reminiscent of "Lovin' You" by Minnie Riperton (1974), with instrumentation that resembles acoustic piano and guitar, respectively, and chirping birds. This evocation of 1970's soul music, an intentional nostalgia meant to signal a dreamscape, serves to establish a sonic framework for the unrequited affection of the singer; the listener is meant to understand that this story will not end well. The specific callback to Riperton is in sharp contrast with the rest of the album, which combines such disparate sonic forces as the record scratches on "Lost Ones" and the gentle finger snaps on "Nothing Even Matters." Yet, each of these elements have the effect of invoking a sense of place, whether that scene is a street rap battle (Lost Ones) or a café ballad (Nothing Even Matters).

Though the beginning of "Ex-Factor" pulls from the past, it is the song's hook that is sampled by Drake and Cardi B. "Be Careful" plays with the word "care," eliding the refrain "be careful with me" with "care for me," resulting in the polysemic "be careful with, care for me, always said that you'd be there for me, there for me." The subject matter aligns closely with that of "Ex-Factor"; once again, the listener should not hold their breath for a happy ending. In stark contrast, "Nice for What" is ebullient in nature, praising its subject matter. The rapper (Drake) rebukes the singer (Hill) as she confesses "I keep letting you back in; how can I explain myself?" In this song, "care for me" becomes an incessant backdrop reinforcing the unnecessary nature of concern. Broken promises, intoned over and over again, lock together in a dance floor to which the listener is called by the emcee. But who is this emcee, especially in a song that samples from a subgenre of hip hop dependent on the right voice to get the party started?

"Nice for What" is an interpretation of bounce music from the North American Gulf South region. As a genre, bounce can be distinguished by its particular use of samples - extremely short sound clips are looped together to create a tapestry of danceable music. This music is then mixed and remade in live performance. Because a great deal of importance is placed on live performance, songs may have two subjects: one that can be grasped through the lyrics, and the other following the command of the master of ceremonies. After listening to a few moments of "Nice for What," it becomes clear that the dance caller isn't actually Drake, but another's voice at a remove, reproduced in lower definition. The sampled figure arguably more present than the spectral timbre of Lauryn Hill's nostalgia is bounce musician Big Freedia.<2> Her voice is frequently instrumentalized, mechanized, and compartmentalized into ever-reducing fragments of phrases that build new thoughts, new jokes, and new insights (see, for example, the descending chromatic scale that introduces the "Queen Diva" on the track "Explode" from Just Be Free).

At about 2' 07", Big Freedia interjects Drake's isolating call and response with a call and response of her own that literally crackles with liveness. The track abruptly shifts from a blend of smoothly constructed studio voices to Big Freedia calling on a microphone with feedback and an audience screaming in response. Drake does manage to signify on the verbosity of bounce music, a verbal density that results from multiple levels of sampling. Now "watch the breakdown": the track reduces all the way down to the Hill sample to rebuild over the next thirty seconds or so into its most recognizable bounce state. In order to fulfill the requisites of the genre, Drake himself is sampled, cutting and mixing earlier sing-song fragments into the 3-3-2 rhythm that undergirds the bounce.

Gladys Knight begins her version of "The Way We Were" (and the Wu Tang Clan's) by asserting that "everybody's talking about the good old days," but continues to wonder at the inevitability of the passage of time, and that future people, perhaps even her descendants would refer to her turbulent present reality as the "good old days." Lauryn Hill has noted the significance of her song being sampled in live performance, thus elevating it to the level of a "classic." These examples demonstrate the power of music legacy, in that sampling provides the opportunity to hear simultaneously "the way we were" and also what we might become.

<1>This year marks the 20th year anniversary of this celebrated album's release, for which Hill has planned a 26-city tour.
<2>Though beyond the scope of this piece, Big Freedia is a major national representative of this otherwise regional genre. Helpful resources in understanding her media reception can be found in the writing of Myles Johnson for Vice and Ben Dandridge-Lemco for the Fader.

Lauren Eldridge is an administrator and lecturer at Spelman College. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Music in 2016, and usually writes about classical music in Haiti.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Sound of Empathy in George Lewis’s Afterword

By Alexander K. Rothe

Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). I approach the opera as an opportunity to examine the role of community and empathy in Lewis’s works. Though Lewis discusses empathy in terms of a specific community—the AACM on the South Side of Chicago—I apply his thinking to the role of the listener in general. Lewis’s musical works, especially Afterword, demonstrate the sound of empathy—the sound of pushing existing boundaries while at the same time calling on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser.

(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, from left to right: Julian Terrell Otis, Gwendolyn Brown, and Joelle Lamarre. Photo by George Lewis)

In a recent interview, George Lewis describes his conception of community and empathy in Afterword:
Community is essential to the opera’s themes. What we’re seeing is a community in formation. People are coming together to find commonalities, and they need to come together because nobody is really supporting them. […] And we’re seeing the stresses and strains of community formation—disagreements of different kinds. But at the same time there is a need to forge a community that is accepting of different points of view. This is when you get to the empathy part. Empathy is also fundamental to the creation of this community; we need empathy to establish community. People need to be receptive and open. They need to even make themselves a little vulnerable, and we see this in the opera as well. There is a sense in which people aren’t sure what’s going to happen.<1>

At the AACM’s first meeting in May 1965, musicians gathered to discuss how they could survive in an environment where black musicians were being pushed out of the South Side of Chicago. Confronted with an exploitative music industry and a city council that sought to shut down music venues on the South Side, the musicians voted to form an organization for the promotion of creative music—original music outside the restrictive genre markers of the music industry.

A key aspect of the AACM from its inception, genre mobility refers to transcending the existing musical system and its genre boundaries, drawing on a broad range of different musical languages. Through genre mobility, AACM members were able to resist restrictive genre markers while exploring new networks and infrastructural pathways.

As described by Lewis in his 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, in the early days of the AACM, empathy was especially evident in Muhal Richard Abrams’s aim of “awakening the psyche” of his fellow creative musicians. On the one hand, this was a commitment to original music and the need to be supportive of fellow creative musicians. On the other, it involved concern for the “spiritual growth” of the community—to provide free education for young musicians and present imaginative programs of creative music to the public.

The Sound of Empathy and Genre Mobility

Drawing on the scholarship of Suzanne Keen, I interpret empathy as a shared experience and feeling. Keen discusses empathy as including two aspects: it is a spontaneously shared emotion that also involves cognitive perspective taking.<2> This perspective taking is always shaped by cultural and individual factors of memory and experience. In a chapter on empathy, improvisation, and embodied cognition, Vijay Iyer likewise stresses how our perception of others is grounded in a culturally-situated understanding of embodied action.<3> According to Iyer, empathy is a kind of action understanding that activates similar motor programs in the observer’s brain when experiencing music—i.e. bodies in motion.

Ryan Dohoney’s research on Julius Eastman has been instrumental in shaping my thinking about empathy in terms of genre mobility. In a chapter on Julius Eastman’s life and music in New York City in the period between 1976 and 1990, Dohoney examines how Eastman was able to connect diverse networks at venues such as The Kitchen, Environ, and Paradise Garage.<4> During this period, Eastman composed and performed music that defies a single genre label—mixing extended vocal techniques, experimental music, improvisation, and disco.

George Lewis’s music demonstrates a similar sort of empathy through genre mobility and drawing on multiple networks. In Lewis’s music, the sound of empathy is of pushing existing boundaries, giving rise to a feeling of instability that calls for the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. In the process of doing so, it activates the desire for change in everyday life.

(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, 1:45:44-1:58:19; Ojai Music Festival performance, June 9, 2017, Libbey Bowl, Ojai, CA)

The sound of empathy is especially evident in scene 4 of Afterword, entitled “First Meeting.” Based on Lewis’s transcript of an audio recording of the founding AACM meeting in May 1965, this scene depicts the musicians in the process of deciding to perform only original music. As the musicians discuss various types of music, Lewis uses the opportunity to compose music that comments on music (music about music)—a tradition that stretches back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

A close listening of this scene reveals that there is no over-arching global form. Instead, Lewis works with modules—approximately ten to fifteen measures of music at a time—which he brings back, but changes with each repetition. The layering of ostinatos and sustained chords results in a thick, complex sound. Lewis creates a shared feeling of instability by means of jump cuts between sections and extended techniques that destabilize pitch (e.g., glissando, microtonal inflection, tremolo). In the vocal writing, he contrasts recitative-like passages, which are unmetered and occur over sustained chords, with metered arioso passages. Lewis stresses the clarity of the text through syllabic treatment.

A key technique of genre mobility is musical signifyin(g), a practice of quoting or referring to preexisting material that in turn changes it by adding a new layer of meaning—whether playful, subversive, or as a means of paying tribute to someone or something (on musical signifyin(g), see Samuel Floyd).<5> Afterword’s scene 4 includes a number of examples of musical signifyin(g). When soprano Joelle Lamarre’s avatar sings “we thought of all the things we are,” the music references the jazz standard “All the Things You Are” (1:47:07). Given that the AACM members rejected the genre marker of jazz, this reference is a playful subversion of existing genre boundaries. When the text alludes to music on the radio (“The other music is already being presented; record companies, disk jockeys, everyone is promoting it”), Lewis signifies on the groove-oriented nature of much popular black music in the mid-1960s (funk and R&B; 1:51:38). Lastly, whenever the text refers to original or creative music (1:48:19, 1:50:01, 1:54:16, 1:56:51), Lewis layers multiple loops on top of each other. He is signifyin(g) on the idea of creative music as involving the complex layering of sounds. In sum, we encounter a sense of empathy through the shared feeling of instability along with the shared experience of Lewis pushing existing genre boundaries.

The Improvising Listener

The absence of a global form, the complex layering of loops, and stark contrasts of sound—these are all techniques that call on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. While Afterword’s score is fully notated—i.e. there is no improvisation at the level of the performers—this does not exclude the possibility of the improvising listener. Lewis writes of the listener:
[...] We can understand the experience of listening to music as very close to the experience of the improviser. Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store, and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it.<6>

In other words, the listener participates in the performance as an improviser, which is akin to the experience of improvisation in everyday life. In Afterword’s scene 4, the improvising listener navigates multiple layers of sound and creates a pathway through disparate blocks of sound. The fact that the singers’ text always remains in the foreground in no way diminishes the role of the listener as creative improviser. By experiencing this scene in the context of a musical language of instability, we have all the more appreciation for the difficult task confronted by AACM musicians at the first meeting. While the listener to some degree self-identifies with the AACM musicians, empathetic listening in this case refers more broadly to the shared feeling of instability and pushing existing boundaries.

In recent years, empathy—as a mode of emotionally engaging with music and literature—has received much criticism. Molly Abel Travis argues for the necessity of moving beyond the self-identification of empathy, instead adopting an attitude of openness to experiences of difference that “interrupt our epistemological projects to contain the other.”<7> However, it is exactly this attitude of openness that Lewis’s opera fosters by pushing existing genre boundaries. In doing so, he creates a shared feeling of instability that simultaneously activates the listener’s own mobility as a creative improviser. As listeners to Afterword, we encounter a model for thinking about improvisation in everyday life, seeking similar experiences of pushing boundaries of social injustice.

<1>Lewis quoted in Alexander K. Rothe, “An Interview with the Composer,” VAN Magazine June 22, 2017.
<2>Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4 & 27.
<3>Vijay Iyer, “Improvisation, Action Understanding, and Music Cognition with and without Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, ed. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 81.
<4>Ryan Dohoney, “A Flexible Musical Identity: Julius Eastman in New York City, 1976-90,” in Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, ed. Renée Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2015). See especially 126f.
<5>Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., “African-American Modernism, Signifyin(g), and Black Music,” in The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 87-99.
<6>George E. Lewis, “Mobilitas Animi: Improvising Technologies, Intending Chance,” Parallax 13, no. 4 (2007): 113.
<7>Molly Abel Travis, “Beyond Empathy: Narrative Distancing and Ethics in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace,” Journal of Narrative Theory 40, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 232.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University, where he completed his PhD in Historical Musicology in 2015. His interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany. His research has been published by Musical Quarterly and Tempo, and he has received research grants from the Fulbright Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).