“Folklore’s Filter” in the New York Times

A recent New York Times article on a Sacred Harp course taught in the Yale music department features my dissertation, “Folklore’s Filter: Race, Place, and Sacred Harp Singing.” The article places the course, taught by Ian Quinn, in the context of recent student protests over racial inequality on campus. For Quinn, “Once the racial tensions broke out on campus, it seemed to me particularly urgent that we spend time talking about” race and Sacred Harp. As Times reporter Phillip Lutz notes, my dissertation “has become a reference for Quinn as he readjusts the course materials as a result of the racial protests.” The article continues:

The dissertation examines how in the civil rights era, a growing number of folklorists began to document black shape-note groups, and festivals started to feature them next to their white counterparts. Speaking to students before the community members arrived to sing, Mr. Quinn invoked Mr. Karlsberg’s analysis of multiracial programming at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in 1970. He showed a video of the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers, a black shape-note group, performing at the 1983 Smithsonian festival.

But he said that such efforts at recognizing the tradition’s diversity had a limited effect on entrenched attitudes in schools, churches and other places where most of the singing is done. “By nature, Sacred Harp singing is a kind of conservative, tradition-bound practice,” he said. “That’s going to be the issue those of us who would like to see a more diverse community of singers will have to face.”

Mr. Quinn said Mr. Karlsberg’s dissertation represents one of the most sustained counterweights to Jackson’s work to date. Mr. Karlsberg, for his part, said sessions like Mr. Quinn’s might, when coupled with targeted outreach, constitute a forum for diversifying the Sacred Harp experience.

“The welcome mat is there, and the structure, the setup, the practices make it really great for that,” he said.

You can read Lutz’s article, “A Different Note on Race at Yale,” on the New York Times website. Thanks to Ian Quinn for reading my dissertation with his students, and to Phillip Lutz for thoughtfully engaging with the issues my work raises.

Racial Imaginaries and Folklorization at the Society for American Music

The Society's Fortieth Annual Meeting was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Society’s Fortieth Annual Meeting was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I spent an exhilarating and productive four days this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music (SAM) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I presented a paper at the conference titled “Shifting Racial Imaginaries in the Folklorization of Black Sacred Harp Singers from Southeastern Alabama.”1 In it I analyzed May 1968 interviews between white Buffalo, New York, music scholar William Tallmadge and black Ozark, Alabama, Sacred Harp singers Thomas Y. Lawrence and Dewey President Williams. I argued that the preconceptions of these three people represented (uneven) shifts in the racial imagination since George Pullen Jackson had interacted exclusively with white Sacred Harp singers a generation earlier.

I was thrilled to meet Doris J. Dyen and Deane L. Root at the conference, and especially grateful for their presence at my session. Dyen and Root conducted extensive fieldwork with the same group of black Sacred Harp singers in southeastern Alabama just a few years after Tallmadge visited and shared their memories and insights during the question and answer period after I delivered my paper.2 My session also featured Florida State musicology doctoral candidate Sarah Kahre, who presented a fascinating paper on what revisions of the tune “Boylston” in different editions of The Sacred Harp tell us about revisers’ priorities. Nikos Pappas, assistant professor of music at the University of Alabama, served as a gracious and effective session chair.

Other highlights of the SAM conference included singing with southeastern Pennsylvania Sacred Harp singing friends Oliver Kindig-Stokes, Ted Stokes, Ruth Wampler, and Tom Tucker, among others, at the SAM singing; good conversation with too many friends, old and new, to name; a memorable evening program featuring the music of seven Anabaptist groups; and a tasty dinner at the world’s largest Smorgasbord! I look forward to continuing to develop the ideas I presented, and to many more SAM conferences to come.

Notes

  1. This paper represented my first attempt at drawing on the research I conducted as a Sound Archives Fellow at Berea College in January. I’m thankful to the college’s Appalachian Sound Archives staff, especially Harry Rice and John Bondurant, for their support. I’m just as thankful to Kent Gilbert, who housed me during my stay in Berea, and to Meredith Doster, Nathan Rees, and Alan Pike, who offered feedback on an earlier draft of the paper.
  2. Doris J. Dyen’s dissertation, “The Role of Shape-Note Singing in the Musical Culture of Black Communities in Southeast Alabama” (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1977) remains the most thorough scholarly treatment of black Sacred Harp singing in southeastern Alabama. Dyen is particularly attentive to manifestations of racial inequality.