Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture

By Lambrecht, Winifred | Western Folklore, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture


Lambrecht, Winifred, Western Folklore


Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture. By John Szwed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 283, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgments. $47.50 cloth)

Crossovers assembles in one volume a collection of thirty essays written over four decades, sometimes in collaboration with others, by the eminent Yale folklorist, anthropologist and cultural critic John Szwed. As its title indicates, Szwed's interest lies in cultural crossovers: "Americans have always been Creole - and whether 'creole' refers to food, speech, music, or race, it always means something made new, something emergent. . . . Try it another way: America has been postmodern from the gitgo. ... It is a country in which mixture is king" (174).

As a writer Szwed defies classification (though criticized by some readers as polemical and controversial) , his engaging thought transcending boundaries imposed by the academy and by the norms of scientific and popular discourse. His mastery of the literature and his own experience provide Szwed with a large pool of examples on which to draw to make a point. The bibliographical sources for his reflections illustrate his broad interests and give us valuable references. In his writings, Szwed insists on an encompassing cultural approach to the focus of his life's work: New-World manifestations of African aesthetics. Whether musing on the Afro-Cuban work of Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991 ) , on jazz in Russia or Argentina, on tap dance, or on Sun Ra, he draws attention to the complexity of all matters cultural, and to levels of reflection that go beyond the accepted norms of scholars of our times who tend to keep their remarks within the bounds of established disciplines. Our author points to the frustrations of "neglected" thinker Melville Herskovits, whose contributions have been, according to Szwed, misunderstood or ignored (though Africanists do acknowledge the magnitude of Herskovits's contributions to the field) ; to the enormous potential of the term "ghettoized" (15); or to dismissed genres, such as tap dance, whose criticism, if properly theorized, could have contributed to a lessfragmented-and therefore more global-approach to culture. He embraces paradox and urges an openness of mind.

Szwed does not limit himself to mere criticism, pointing only to lacunae in the scholarly literature of the fields that interest him; his contributions to applied anthropology, music history, and other topics are vast and always thought-provoking, providing new ways of thinking about well-worn topics. In his comments on blues, for example, he writes that as African Americans moved from an agrarian society to one based on urban wage-labor, the functions of sacred music were replaced, as an adaptive mechanism, by blues (33). …

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