Interpreting the African-American Musical Past: A Dialogue

Article excerpt

The following dialogue between Samuel Floyd and Ronald Radano developed from a series of written exchanges and conversations over the course of the summer of 2008. It was prompted by Floyd's essay "Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies," which appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Black Music Research Journal (guest edited by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.), and its characterization of Radano's book Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music (2003). What ensued became for both scholars a remarkable intellectual journey that they have offered to share with BMRJ readers. Floyd and Radano have rearranged their written communications--which appear here largely verbatim--in order to fit a series of key topics that emerged out of the conversation and have added additional information to give the dialogue greater formal coherence.

The Matter of Origins

RR: One of our key differences, Sam, appears to be what it is that we hope to recover when we study the African-American musical past. As deeply indebted as I am to your work, most notably The Power of Black Music (1995), I believe we differ in our intellectual aims and in what we think we can hope to access and gain from the past. My primary goal has been to try to explain the way in which black music has come into being as a modern phenomenon, and the key explanatory apparatus is, I believe, the American belief in race. Race, not black culture as such, for I think that race is primary to cultural formations involving music in the United States, particularly in the case of African-American traditions. This is why the subtitle of Lying Up a Nation is "Race and Black Music." Now, I can see how this position might bring about objection, because it might appear as if I am setting aside those matters that have traditionally been critical to our understanding of black music's development: racially coherent cultural formation and change, the legacies of Africa, and the power of southern vernacular expressions, among others. But it is not a matter of denying their importance. I state rather plainly, for example, that African retentions are indisputable (2003, 10), and my discussion of Jon Butler's provocative argument, which you conflate with my own, is ultimately meant to sustain the African retentions position, not to question it. It is rather a matter of what those retentions mean to the history of black music, how they came about, and how they have variously informed the music's making and experience. It is the racial formation of blackness that I have sought to apprehend historically, a formation that necessarily involves a social complexity.

SF: Your clarifications have revealed your intentions and meanings much more clearly than they are stated within the encumbrances of the more complex narrative of your book. They make it clear, for example, that you recognize that black music in the United States has deep connections with African music, that those connections have been suppressed, and that both African and European legacies have played roles in the making of black music. Perhaps your concerns for social matters tend to suppress these beliefs. You also believe that U.S. black music need not necessarily be understood according to European or African backgrounds, and you do not believe that Call/Response, simply as an African retention, is a satisfactory "response" with which to understand black music's power. I agree with you on this, given your use of the word "necessarily," but I also believe that a history of black music that does not promote such understanding will always be bereft of a valid notion of origins. Regarding my term Call/Response--it is not a retention. On the contrary, it embraces retentions (including call-and-response) that, in various and complex ways, contribute to the making of the music's power. (1)

The Power of Tradition

RR: What seems to me to be a fundamental difference in our thinking, then, is not the question of African influence, but rather the consequence of that influence and the role it can play in historical analysis. …