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. More to the point, there is a fundamental difference in the way we think about the power and influence of tradition and about the past and whether that past derives from Africa, Europe, or elsewhere. This is not to say that I discount the past, the impact of traditions. That would be foolish. But I do think I place far greater emphasis on social and cultural production in new sets of circumstances in colonial North America and across the history of the United States. This does not mean that Africa and Europe are not significant. It does mean that I think the circumstances of social constitution within the immediate and changing (and quite disparate) circumstances of colonial North America and the United States are essential to cultural analysis. It means, too, that the ideological formations that explain those social formations, and most notably for our concerns, the ideological formation of race, are most principally relevant to the making of black music. I do not think this is a heretical view; in fact, it is a normative view within the circumstances of contemporary studies of American slavery. That is why I turn to the work of Ira Berlin, Walter Johnson, and others so conspicuously in Lying Up a Nation. What may be somewhat heretical is my insistence that black music be seen as a fundamental part of the various historical instances of cultural production: that its historical analysis proceeds (for me, at least) by attending to the particular instances whereby black music emerges as a "difference" defined apart from the white majority normativity of the United States.

This is why I found your comments in the article so confusing. I never deny African influence; rather, I suggest that it is difficult to engage, particularly before the landmark work of Michael Gomez, which, despite certain misgivings about the way he essentializes African traditional groups, is one of the strongest Africanist arguments in the social history literature (1998). Even if I had had the pleasure of reading Gomez before Lying Up a Nation (I read him with great interest only after the manuscript was put to bed), I would not have changed my argument but perhaps only given greater specificity to the musical productions in Virginia and the low country, which were, without doubt, strongly Africanized by the early eighteenth century and revivified with new importations taking place into the early nineteenth century. But I speak to these matters already in the book, albeit as part of a primary emphasis on the creation of black forms as a North American phenomenon. I never state that "black music has no continuity with African music" (Floyd 2008b); indeed, the connections are so deep and so complicated as to challenge analysis. While such an analysis exceeds the principal concerns of my book, I would say that the African influence is deep across all of American music and that is one of the repressed facts of our history.

SF: Naturally, of course, social environment governs the nature and quality of such retentive forces, and it is clear that such explanations of power necessarily assume, and are usually considered within, a social context. It is clear also that you are concerned primarily about, as you say, "national ideologies of music," rather than "the particularities of retention," although you recognize retentions as valid phenomena, and you believe that agency is "constrained by the limits of social forces," while mine derives from "historical backgrounds" (Radano quoted in Floyd 2008a). This is where we part company, I think, for it seems to me that in the lexicon of Lying Up a Nation, the term black music is not music at all but narrative statements about music, and I believe that any statement about music cannot be considered valid until proven. I confess here that I have been more than leery about the thinkers you mentioned in your message (Foucault and others), not because I do not borrow from their sources myself, but because aspects of their theories, thought, and procedures strike me as flawed, specious, and too general to yield valid conclusions. In fact, I have always thought that poststructuralism had little to offer to music as an sonic phenomenon, and that work In that vein was not musical work at all but almost totally limited to what those critical theorists had to say about music. For me, statements about music must be validated by the analysis of the objects of the discipline, not by the analysis of sweeping ideas and procedures derived from literary and cultural disciplines, unless the components of those theories are deemed analytically compatible, both linguistically and semantically. You do, as you say, "rather plainly" recognize the indisputability of African retentions or continuities (Radano quoted in Floyd 2000b). However, your focus on the broader issues and the absence of any discussion about continuities, except to critique them as "a priori essences," suggests, or leads readers to infer, otherwise (Floyd 2008b).

The Musical Object, Interracialism, and the Making of Black Difference

RR: As we discussed on the phone, I would agree with you that we part company, as you put it, in our approach to the musical object. I guess I would simply argue that we can never locate a pure musical object existing autonomously, and most certainly not a historical one that preceded sound recording and that was largely bypassed by written representation. That is my view whether we are talking about black music, African music, European concert music, or any other kind of music. This is what I mean by a soundtext: musical objects are inherently saturated with "text," with meaning. The very notion of black music, as I see it, is something conceived within a specific order of thought that emerged in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century United States, and this public conception of a black form could only come about when African Americans challenged the concept of citizenship, demanding recognition. As such, the recognition of a black music was a public symptom, an indication, of the threat of black intrusions into the newly created American body politic. So, from this view, it is really impossible, I think, to separate a musical object from the very social basis of the making of blackness. (This, of course, once again, does not mean that African-based forms did not exist in North America previously, but only that the emerging modern idea of black music came about because of these particular social-historical circumstances.) I might add, moreover, that my position on the social basis of the musical object is not primary to black music; it is the way I study and teach music generally. And it has a lot to do with my misgivings about the lion's share of musicological research, which, in its continuing emphasis on repertory, perpetuates an ironically ahistorical (or at least presentist), text-based conception of music's history, even as the work concept has been given to critique (see Goehr 2992, for example).

A second point I want to stress is what I mean by the interracial making of black music. I am not arguing for recognition of a white role in the making of black music, along the lines of "we white folk matter too." I find those types of arguments not only problematic but, well, pathetic. By interracial, I am stressing the basis of black music's creation within the context of an American racial imagination--in a world where the belief in race and in racial difference reinforces belief in musical difference. That is, whites and blacks have inevitably interacted musically, particularly in those settings such as camp meetings. And they have inevitably interacted socially, building together, in their contested racial dynamic, distinctively American social worlds. But what I believe makes black music "black"--and what repeatedly prompts African Americans to reinvent new forms--is the national belief in an actual cultural and racial difference between black and white, a difference that gets coded musically as that which is "not white." This musical difference, then, inevitably derives from interracial engagement, both social and musical, and is something that whites have historically feared. (The concept of race itself is an expression of that fear, a way of keeping apart blacks and whites.) As such, "difference" refers to the musical qualities that African Americans produce and continually reinvent in order to distinguish themselves from whites, a distinction that has been important historically to both racial groups. But because difference can only arise from the existing musical world of the United States, it necessarily derives from musical interracialism, just as what sounds different is created by blacks in order to separate from (as it derives from) that interracialism. Calling my argument a kind of inclusionary interracialism without conflict--which several have done--as if black music speaks above all of racial assimilation, is, I believe, a misreading of my basic thesis. Instead, interracialism, as I employ it, refers to what has been repressed in the name of a white supremacist desire to maintain the idea of black and white.

SF: I will offer a few comments with the hope that they will further clarify my own work, and I will start with a very brief explication of my approach to the musical object. In my lexicon, the objects of black music are contingent--not only musically but socially and intellectually. There is nothing "pure" about them. I indicated this in The Power of Black Music and demonstrated it, in a different context, in "Black Music in the Circum-Caribbean" (1999). More than anything else, this contingency distinguishes black music and can be demonstrated, I believe, by comparing certain pieces from Slave Songs of the United States ([1867] 1995) with examples from late nineteenth- and twentieth-century spirituals, and with blues songs and gestures with the singing practices of certain contemporaneous African people (vis-a-vis the work of Gerhard Kubik, for example). I agree with your use of the term interracial to explain or refer to "black music's creation within the context of an American racial imagination" and your argument that the term "reinforces belief in musical difference" (Radano quoted in Floyd 2008a). However, because the term has connotations and implications that go beyond difference, some readers will take it to mean some kind of integration or amalgamation, both of which tend to suggest erasure rather than reinforcement. I think your use of interracial to refer, as you stated earlier, "to the musical qualities that African Americans produce and continually reinvent in order to distinguish themselves from whites" (Radano 2008) does not quite work, or may not be clean Moreover, the statement that follows--that black music "necessarily derived from musical interracialism"--muddies the water again, for the term interracialism carries that traditional baggage that, without careful explanation, can result in misunderstanding. Nevertheless, I am delighted by your clarification, but perhaps a term like black-white interaction would be less provocative and also more contextually clean

I think your comment about the racial past, as one inhabited by blacks and whites together is also problematic (Radano 2003, 139). Clearly there was black-white engagement on some level in the nineteenth century, but the term "together" seems an exaggeration. Musical engagement in that period was, in my view, a result of now-and-then and here-and-there encounters--with the exceptions being some of the early evangelical singing and that which took place on some plantations--not the degree of social togetherness that Lying Up a Nation deduces and extols. My concern here, however, is neither your idea nor your overall theoretical position, only with terminology. It seems that I cannot help but view as oxymoronic (for want of a better term) or as a non sequitur the notion of a generally "black and white together" social world within the brutality of slavery. I understand how difficult it is to express complex ideas succinctly; statements can seem to imply things that are not meant, thereby leading to incorrect inferences on the part of some readers.

RR: Your points are well taken, and I must say that I struggled with the fear that interracialism might be read as downplaying the huge, horrific criminality of white supremacy. Perhaps there might have been a better way to present the matter of interracialism, but I still feel that what is problematic about the term is precisely what gets us to notice something we so commonly deny. "Black-white interaction" does not quite get us to recognize how deep these interactions have been. Your alternative, I think, would give more credence to the illusion of racial stability than I want to convey. I do not believe that such stability exists inherently, but is only attempted through our commitments to race. And those attempts and commitments are what brought forth black music in the first place. As for the matter of degree of musical interaction, my studies brought me to a different view from yours. My readings suggest that musical exchanges were much deeper and more fundamental than we often recognize, and that they most certainly exceeded the circumstances of religious awakenings. But that is a debate we can reserve for another time!

Agency, Cultural Production, and Modernity

RR: Let us return to the matter of distinctiveness, to what identifies the qualities central to black music and the social order in which it has been constituted. This larger social order matters, I think, because it sets the contours in which African-American musical expression takes shape; it is key to the formation of what I called earlier (and in the book) its difference, which changes with respect to time and place. At times, it is deeply seated with African influence; at others, it is less conspicuously so. It is not simply a contour imposed on African-American music, but rather a contour that comes about socially and relationally, as a consequence of blacks and whites interacting within these broad social fields and within the ideological formations that inhabit as they inform social interaction. My discussion of call and response in chapter 3 of Lying Up a Nation is a primary indication of this. A musical practice that has backgrounds in Africa, primarily, but also in Europe, call/response gets coded as "black" within the historical context of the antebellum U.S. South. As whites retreat from this newly racialized cultural practice, blacks enact and enrich it. I do not think explaining call and response simply as an African retention is satisfactory for understanding the power it acquires in the United States. Working from the available evidence, I would argue that its power accrues from the particulars of the social circumstances of the 1810s-1840s. Suggesting that call and response is simply a "retention" does not do justice to its primacy and value, in my opinion.

As much as my book is a study of early backgrounds, it is above all an effort to explain the making of black modern forms. My interest in this respect is directed toward national formations, to the way in which a national idea about black music comes about and becomes central to the very idea of what constitutes the American nation. This is why I end with Du Bois, who set the program for the twentieth century. As such, I am less concerned about the particularities of retention, or with local expressions of black music, such as those in New Orleans, on the Sea Islands, or in church circumstances well into the twentieth century. It is, again, not a matter of lack of interest or respect for that work, but rather a concern that is secondary to my principal focus in this book on national ideologies of music. Rather than denying agency, moreover, I believe such a focus on ideology is the way we begin to understand agency. Yet my reading of agency is perhaps more constrained by the limits of social forces and less prone, as I take you to mean, to accept that agency derives from historical backgrounds. Agency, I think, is mutable, changing, and specific to the social fields in which individuals operate. My thinking on agency is more in coordination with Bourdieu's notion of habitus than with those who see it in terms of pure resistance. Perhaps Walter Johnson articulates this view more clearly than I can; his 2003 essay on the subject is quite masterful.

SF: My concept of Call/Response is not the simple call and response that you explain so well in chapter 3 of Lying Up a Nation. On the contrary, it is a complex of retained traits that, taken together, represent the practices and potential complexities of black music. (See page ninety-six in The Power of Black Music, where I discuss its interactions.) Regarding your commentary on agency, the fact is that one who creates and performs music is certainly an agent of musical expression and communication. This is what I meant by my "part company" comment earlier in this forum, for I also believe that "the social," as you imagine it, and "the musical," as I imagine it, are incompatible, unless such differences are understood and taken into account, or unless a compatible approach can be derived through some kind of fusion that results in a viable musical and social analysis.

Black Music as a Generative Force

RR: I just read through and have been thinking more about your comments, which are very valuable to me. While I will save the furthering of our debate for future exchanges, I would like to say quickly, with reference to your last comment, that Lying Up a Nation is absolutely, emphatically about the way in which black music participates and drives the formation of the very idea of race as it (black music) also undermines the belief in absolute racial differences. The very notion of black music's "difference" and the various formations it takes over time is, I would argue, at the basis of the racial idea of blackness itself. It is what musically distinguishes black from white, and it is what has historically served as a basis for African-American empowerment in various guises. I think this is something that social and cultural historians and literary critics have largely missed, and the book is in part a call to recognize the musical in the making of American history. Because of black music's centrality in racial formation, it is, I believe, the most significant musical expression in the making of what "American" means. This is my argument for the power of black music--it is at the center of America, even if it is not central to the conscious concerns of so many American lives.

SF: Your penultimate statement is itself a powerful one. Of course, the idea that black music is a "significant musical expression" is not new; in fact it is rather commonplace. It is your last phrase in that sentence--"in the making of what 'American' means"--that is so provocative. I find it breathtaking, and a little frightening too. The implications, which I will not try to explore here and now, could be far-reaching.


Allen, William France, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. 1867. Slave songs of the United States. Reprint, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1995.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. 1995. The power of black music: Interpreting its history from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. Black music in the circum-Caribbean. American Music 17, no. 1:1-38.

--. 2008a. Black music and writing black music history: American music and narrative strategies. Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1:111-121.

--. 2008b. Personal communication with Ronald Radano, June-September.

Goehr, Lydia. 1992. The imaginary museum of musical works: An essay in the philosophy of music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gomez, Michael. 1998. Exchanging our country marks: The transformation of African identities in the colonial and antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Johnson, Walter. 2003. On agency. Journal of Social History 37, no. 1:113-124.

Radano, Ronald. 2003. Lying up a nation: Race and black music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

--. 2008. Personal communication with Samuel A. Floyd Jr, June-September.

(1.) In The Power of Black Music I used the configuration Call-Response but am here replacing it with Call/Response to more clearly differentiate my meaning from that of the usual call and response and call-and-response terms.

RONALD RADANO is professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently at work on a book, tentatively rifled Listening for National Treasure: The Racial Properties of Black Music. He coedits (with Josh Kun) the book series Refiguring American Music for Duke University Press. SAMUEL A. FLOYD JR. is executive director emeritus of the Center for Black Music Research, which he founded at Columbia College Chicago in 1983. He is the author of The Power of Black Music (Oxford University Press, 1995) and is writing a new manuscript entitled "Music in the Black Diaspora: A World History of Black Music," which will be published by Oxford University Press. Floyd was the recipient of the Sonneck Society for American Music's Irving Lowens Award for Distinguished Scholarship in American Music (1991). During 2003-2004, he was the John Hope Franklin Senior Fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and in 2006 the Society for American Music honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.


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