Curating Culture, Sustaining Music – Jeff Todd Titon

The following three paragraphs are part of the supporting materials for a grant application for the “Exhibiting Sound” project. The granting agency had asked me to write a page describing my appropriate prior “relevant experience” in exhibiting sound. I’ve never been comfortable exhibiting myself, but knowing that a honk of my horn would mean a stronger proposal, I honked it. I ran it by Marcia Ostashewski to make sure it met with her approval, whereupon she said yes and asked if she also could use it and the sound clip for a blog entry. I said that would be fine, and so here it is. –Jeff Todd Titon, 2015.

“Collaborating with musicians and their communities to help them sustain their traditional musical cultures and make them more resilient characterizes much of my work during more than 45 years as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist. Most of it has been in the US; but my mother was born in Canada (Edmonton), and I have crossed the border many times. In graduate school before I knew what curating or ethnomusicology was, I helped blues musicians’ careers when my interviews were published in blues magazines, leading to recording contracts and concert gigs. I did it out of a sense of reciprocity; after all, they were helping me learn their music. I’ve been a regular presenter at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, beginning in 1976, and at other festivals; I’ve made and exhibited documentary films on music and musicians; I’m the author or editor of more than seven books honoring, interpreting and celebrating expressive culture. A few days ago I gave the Botkin Lecture at the Library of Congress, where I spoke to a standing room only crowd in the Pickford Theatre about my field of applied ethnomusicology, in which scholars put knowledge to practical use, informed by a sense of social responsibility and justice, in a community for a musical benefit and a cultural good.

A couple of examples of my work in helping to curate and exhibit music, sound and culture: In 1988 I got to know Blanche Sockabasin and Wayne Newell, of the Passamaquoddy nation (in the state of Maine), both raised in Passamaquoddy-speaking households. When Wayne was a small boy, his teacher caught him speaking Passamaquoddy in school and told him, “You’ll never get anywhere with that.” It was forbidden to speak in the native language there, and Wayne resolved then to do something about that. He got a scholarship to Harvard’s graduate school of education. He returned to Maine and spent 35 years as an educator, traditional singer (with Blanche as his singing partner) and tribal leader. Marjorie Hunt of the Smithsonian Institution asked me to help bring Wayne and Blanche to the Smithsonian Folk Festival, and they appeared there as part of an exhibit on endangered languages and musics. This has had a revitalizing effect on Passamaquoddy language and music traditions.

Another example: In 1990, teaching at Berea College in Kentucky, I spent weekends with Old Regular Baptists, whose lined-out hymnody is the oldest English-language music practiced from oral tradition in the US. After they got to know me, their leader asked if I could help them conserve their music, which he knew to be endangered. I got them a self-documentation grant and taught them how to make good recordings, and they interviewed their elders and recorded much of the extant music. From this they circulated cassettes, and learned the songs orally. Smithsonian Folkways released two CDs from my field recordings of their music, and brought a group of Old Regulars to the Smithsonian Folk Festival, where they demonstrated it. Their last performance brought the festival director, Diana Parker, to tears. A few years later, many came to Yale where they demonstrated their singing and took part in an academic conference. Their leader, Elwood Cornett, said in an interview [the sound clip above] over a Kentucky radio station a few years ago, “It would appear to me that this way of singing is much more accepted right now than it was a few years ago and I think the interest of Jeff Titon [and some others] has made a lot of difference in that, and then our people have begun to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got something here pretty special.’ The Smithsonian has recorded a couple of CDs of our singing, and all of that has caused our people to say, ‘Hey, we need to, we want to hang on to this way of singing.’”

Below is an excerpt from a radio interview with Elwood Cornett, moderator of the Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists. Cornett tells how his community came to decide to conserve their centuries-old singing tradition.

Jeff Todd Titon is an ethnomusicologist, folklorist and Professor Emeritus of Music at Brown University. His fieldwork on religious folk and blues music, and his books Early Downhome Blues, Worlds of Music, Powerhouse for God, and American Musical Traditions have become mainstays of the discipline. Titon releases archival and field recordings through Smithsonian Folkways, and writes regularly for his blog Sustainable Music. His most recent work integrates music within the larger context of sound in the natural world and the built environment, and he has issued an appeal for a sound commons for all living creatures.

Interview produced by Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky; Radio WMMT-FM.
Interviewer: Josh Noah.

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