Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Response/Process Paper 6

Reading the Sources on “the Interracial Origin of Appalachian Fiddle Music”

Though I still haven't got all the materials I think I should read, I'm feeling a little bogged down in reading the books and articles I do have. That is not to say I don't find them interesting. On the contrary, They are fascinating in the extreme. All of them are things I would like to read and absorb on their own. For instance, “Singing the Master”1, Roger D. Abraham's study of early African-American culture has a large section of slave's accounts of “corn-shuckings”, where plantation owners would invite their friends (other slave owners) to bring their slaves to participate in shucking the corn harvest. The labor involved in processing the entire harvest was so great that the slaves belonging to any one plantation were insufficient to the task. So during that season, the owners would take turns going with all available slaves to their neighbor's places and having large parties, where the slaves would be encouraged, with liquor and food, to make a game of the work, competing, one plantation against the other, to see who could shuck the fastest. The labor of the slaves was then enjoyed as a spectator sport by the masters and their families. The slaves employed techniques of group organization which were straight out of Africa: the best singers would stand on top of the pile of corn and lead their teams through song, which often had a strong call-and-response component. There was also a good deal of horseplay tolerated by the masters, including members of one side trying to surreptitiously throw unshucked cobs back on to the pile of the opposing team, or the stricture that the girl who could shuck the fastest “had to be kissed”. The accounts collected by Abrahams are really fun to read: a little jarring in their caricatureish plantation dialect, but very colorful, funny, and filled with detail. I don't know exactly how to incorporate this source into my argument, but I suspect it's giving me some important background.

Another source I've enjoyed reading is a scholarly article by ethnomusicologist Chris Goertzen, called “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method”1. I had never heard of the Historic-Geographic method before, but apparently it was developed in Finland in the 19th century to analyze folkloric items as to their relative positions of origin in space and time. By identifying and cataloging various aspects of the items, and then charting the differences and similarities within a sample of similar items, the scholar can make inferences as to when and where a given item came from without any other record but the item itself. Goertzen has applied this technique to fiddle tunes, and specifically one tune, or family of tunes with the name “Billy in the Low Ground”. Goertzen's style is dense and his data are extensive, to the extent that even I, a smart-ass amateur musicologist, find my eyes glazing over while trying to figure out what his findings mean. I think that therein lies the key to my question. I'm not going to find out anything that musicologists haven't known for a long time concerning the interracial origin of Appalachian fiddle music, but if I'm smart, focused, and even lucky, I might be able to present the subject in a fresh way that will be easily graspable by the general, educated reader. This must be my goal: I must read a lot, but not too much; not more than I have time and space to digest, synthesize, and put into a coherent form in 15 pages. This is not going to be easy. I feel pulled in many different directions by all this material. If a source doesn't seem irrelevant to, or at least distant from my problem, then it seems to be already saying what I wanted to say, and with much greater authority than I could ever say it. I know these concerns are typical for beginning scholars like myself, and I have faith that my path will become clearer as I read more, and as I interview my primary sources. I simply trust, with alarming naiveté, that I will find away to write a worthwhile paper.

1Roger D. Abrahams. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the

Plantation South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) 203—328.

1Goertzen, Chris. “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 448-473.

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