Reflections after Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA.

Morris Dancing in Charlottesville, VA, April 3, 2012. Snapped with terrible camera on my phone.

 

I spent the last few days of March and the first few days of April in Charlottesville, Virginia, attending a two-day conference at the University of Virginia on the Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America, organised by the ever energetic Prof. Bonnie Gordon and her stimulating and equally energetic grad students (high energy must be a UVa recruitment requirement). While I was there, I guest taught a grad class for Bonnie (I think I probably learned more from the marvelous discussion than anyone else did), sat in on one of her undergrad classes (a lively and enjoyable conference debriefing), and met up with a UCC graduate Sarah O’Halloran who is now a UVa Jefferson Fellow working on her doctorate in composition. I would like to thank UVa Department of Music, particularly Bonnie Gordon and Prof. Richard Will, for giving me such a warm welcome and generously including me in the conference hospitality. I learned such a lot from the people I met, and I hope we can stay in touch. I really enjoyed my brief time in such a vibrant environment. I also thank Bonnie’s family for putting up with me for almost a week.

It was a particularly interesting time to be talking about the use of sound to create racialised experiences because the complex history of slavery and racism that I heard about that weekend, and interpretations of the US Constitution, lies behind so many then-current news stories—the lynching of Trayvon Martin for walking while black, for example, and the murders by police of Dane Scott Jr., and Kenneth Chamberlain, an elderly veteran who was shot and killed in his own home. I’d suggest there may also be racist and sexist thinking behind the attempts to limit women’s access to contraception and abortion: rich women may be able to buy their way around those limits (paying the full price for contraception, and traveling for abortion services if necessary [that is what happens in Ireland]), but poor women (of all ethnicities and races) are hit with a double whammy. And that touches not only every heterosexual woman who is sexually active before menopause, but also any woman who takes contraception for other reasons, as Sandra Fluke reminded the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee back in February. What these forms of discrimination have in common, it seems to me, is a return to a narrow definition of ‘men’: men as Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Declaration of Independence seem to have understood it: wealthy, land-owning, adult, white males, rather than men in the expanded notion that means US people of all ethnicities and races and sexes and abilities. That is, an individual killing a young black man for being suspicious, the state’s initial failure to charge and prosecute that murder; a state’s murder of black men even outside of the ‘due process’ of trial, verdict and death penalty (moreover, as many death penalty abolitionists point out, black men make up disproportionate numbers of those in prison and on death row); and a state’s requirement for unnecessary penetration of a woman’s vagina removes each woman’s right to determine what happens to her body (since she is not even asked to consent, she no longer has full rights over her body: the state is claiming rights over her body—and slave owners like Thomas Jefferson claimed rights over their slaves’ bodies, male and female: how much choice did Sally Hemings really have when it came to bearing TJ’s children?)…. All these actions suggest that, to certain conservatives, only elite, white men like Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and other male former GOP candidates for nomination, are entitled to bodily integrity, autonomy, subjectivity, personhood, and constitutional rights. In effect, there is an attempt to scale back the advancements that recognize all US citizens and residents as ‘men created equal’ with ‘certain unalienable rights’ including ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.

So, what follows is a brief ‘review’ of some of the papers from the first day that really stuck in my mind. It’s by no means comprehensive and I haven’t tried to summarise every single paper. I intend to write a future post taking in the concerts, and the second day of the conference, but that’s going to take me a little longer still. (Although I’ll try not to do that at such great length.)

The conference has an associated exhibition, Sound in Early America, curated by Bonnie Gordon, Amy Coddington, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale, Courtney Kleftis and Gretchen Michelson. It is on display in UVa’s Small Special Collections Library until 20 August 2012. Their close examination of Thomas Jefferson’s music library invited conclusions that have caused controversy in some circles. While TJ’s daughters’ music was used heavily, the violin music does not look like it has ever been played and that casts doubt on TJ’s reputation as a violinist.

Bonnie Gordon’s introduction set the tone of the conference: this was to be no Thomas Jefferson love-in, but rather a critical evaluation. Gordon’s paper was so rich I can’t do it justice here, but three points Gordon made about soundscapes at TJ’s home, at UVa and in present-day Charlottesville particularly stuck in my mind. Thomas Jefferson lived in a large house on a hill, Monticello, carefully oriented so that he and his family were not disturbed by the existence of their plantation slaves; Bonnie memorably argued that the careful design and the plate glass windows were equivalent to noise-canceling headphones. The architecture and landscaping was soundscaping that blocked out the sounds of his slaves housed out of sight at the bottom of the hill. And as Bonnie notes, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville more generally are not exempt from a racially charged sonic history. As Gordon noted, the bell that called privileged young white men to their higher education also sounded to exclude slaves and former slaves. Henry Martin, who rang this bell on the hour, every hour, from 4am until 10pm, was himself a freed man.(1) In effect, Martin was a tool of the institution and spent his life re-sounding his exclusion, except for one day after the Civil War when students silenced the bell by cracking it. Finally, Bonnie noted that this history of segregated sound worlds persists into present-day Charlottesville. Inadequate public transport links, among other structural inequalities, make it hard for those living in predominately African American neighbourhoods to get to the main music institutions. And live performances of hip hop are just not heard in Charlottesville.

A couple of days after the conference, I was walking through Charlottesville and came across the morris dancers pictured above, their bells claiming a sonic presence in the town that it seems is not available to other groups. And the historical significance of tying bells on bodies varies by community: for these men, perhaps it is a way of sounding their connection to a long-standing European folk tradition. But bells on bodies could mean something entirely different: slaves were sometimes braced or welded in to ‘ponderous’  with bells so they could be heard if they tried to escape.(2)

That detail came from a book co-authored by the second conference speaker, Prof. Shane White. White spoke about the kinds of noises that Jefferson excluded from his house: the sounds of slavery (the title of his book, in fact). These ranged from plantation bells, the crying of people whose family were sold away, the sound of vicious beatings, baying dogs, as well as sounds that slaves made for themselves to commemorate the dead, to celebrate, to entertain. (Themselves and their owners: Sally Hemings’ sons played dance music for TJ’s daughters.) Slave masters had varying responses to the music produced by African American slaves and in African American churches: some were intrigued, others dismissed it as noise. And there’s plenty of evidence that the white perception of African American music as noise persists into the present. Jazz may have become America’s classical music, through a process Jeff Farley examines in a freely-available paper, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act’(3), and President William Jefferson Clinton could play jazz saxophone at one of his inauguration balls, but that wasn’t always the case, and some outgrowths of jazz (and I know I’m stepping into a contentious area here) are rejected as too noisy by the jazz mainstream and too ‘jazzy’ by the mainstream (if that’s the right word) of experimental music. I’m thinking here of free jazz/free improvisation/creative music in particular, but Farley suggests various fusions of jazz with pop/rock also upset the Jazz Police (the latter not Farley’s phrase). This is just one example: as George Lewis asserts, ‘virtually every extant form of black music has been characterized as “noise”.’(4)

Prof. Mary Hunter (Bowdoin) gave a brilliant paper on the work of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters. Hunter pointed out that there are real problems with simplistic notions of amateurism and professionalism, and music was women’s work even though they were not paid for it. TJ’s daughters, and no doubt many women like them, practiced daily and felt guilty if they didn’t do their work. The music written for them gave them an opportunity to show the fruits of their labour (‘It’s no accident that I play this passage correctly three times in a row; it’s the result of diligent work.’), and to display their bodies. And in this regard, it turns out women rubbed almond paste into their arms. Apparently almond paste is advocated by some today as a skin whitener. If that is what it was for back then, I would guess that accentuating pale skin would further highlight the ‘refinement’ of being able to spend most of one’s time indoors and out of sunlight.

Richard Will, with the aid of some students, gave a lively lecture-recital arguing on Scottish song as America’s national song. The thing that really interested me about this, as a Scot, is that I didn’t know any of the songs (maybe one; I don’t now remember) that were the best known songs in Virginia and America at that time, even though several Americans in the conference audience knew the songs. I’m not sure whether that was because I’m not a huge folky, or whether that’s the difference geography makes. Anyway, I was really taken with Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s description of encountering ‘a sweet Doric’ in her visit to Scotland. I know the Doric as the dialect spoken in the area I grew up in—I used to have a few words of it myself. Yet Coolidge seemed to be using it to describe the probably quite well-to-do accents of those she met in Edinburgh. This seems to a different usage from that current in Scotland at the time, when the Doric was a term used to describe the dialect spoken by low-status country dwellers.

Prof. Sophia Rosenfeld (Virginia) gave an excellent talk on ‘Atlantic Revolutions and the Right to be Heard’. This was about the relationship to the French Revolution and who gets to talk in parliament/national assemblies. Again, this has contemporary significance, since the ability to speak and to be heard is something that people have been thinking about quite carefully in the Occupy movement.

In many ways, the conference, even though it was ostensibly about the past, really connected to current political events as well as to current scholarly debates. And that is one of the things that made it such a successful and exciting event.

 

References

(1) On Henry Martin, see this fascinating roundtable discussion from UVa earlier this year. It’s well worth the hour. The final three panelists share important critical insights into the stories told by and about Martin, the politics around his life and his commemoration by UVa.

(2) Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 2005), 6.

(3) Jeff Farley, ‘Jazz as a Black American Art Form: Definitions of the Jazz Preservation Act,’ Journal of American Studies 45 (2011): 113-129.

(4) George E. Lewis, ‘Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in “Voyager”,’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 10 (2000), 33-39: 34.