Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Underwriting History: The Role of Sound Recording Collectors in Shaping the Historical Record

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Underwriting History: The Role of Sound Recording Collectors in Shaping the Historical Record

Article excerpt

Brilliant images of iconic Bourbon Street and a raucous brass band flash across the television screen accompanied by an authoritative voice announcing that "New Orleans is hip-hop, honky-tonk, and Cajun thunder." (1) This is how the advertisement for the New Orleans-based whiskey brand Southern Comfort characterized itself and the city of New Orleans in an advertisement airing 2009-2010. These musical characterizations of the city are not unique to Southern Comfort, indeed, the equation of New Orleans specifically with brass band and jazz as well as honk-tonk, zydeco, and increasingly bounce style hip-hop is precisely the image of New Orleans presented by mainstream media. This musical image of New Orleans, represented in vinyl by the equally iconic Gillespie, Marsalis, Ruffins, and Lil' Wayne, extends beyond popular media and into academic scholarship where these very specific musical styles are legitimated as the de facto cultural music of New Orleans. In this very process of commercial and academic legitimation, however, a wealth of music of local origin is excluded from the cultural make-up of the city's official soundscape. Despite its unofficial existence beyond the gaze of popular media and academia, this music is equally born from the culture, people, and events of New Orleans and contributes back to the cultural character of the city. Bands such as the Morning 40 Federation incorporate musical tropes of the New Orleans brass bands and New Orleans style blues into their rock music, offering songs about early morning walks through the 9th Ward and the Katrina experience. Silent Cinema draws on the semi-improvisational second line tradition to accompany lyrics describing everyday New Orleanian experiences and Jim O.'s humorous lyrics often depict some of the more amusing scenes found across the city. While these bands are neither seen nor heard in popular media, academic publications, cultural archives, or in our libraries, these bands and hundreds of others existing on the periphery are firmly ensconced in an active local underground culture symbolizing, celebrating, and perpetuating a very specific New Orleans way of life. This peripheral music exists beyond recorded memory, beyond the historical record, well outside the legitimating pillars of popular media and academia.

For many collecting sound recordings is a matter of passion: passion for intellectual content, passion for a given physical medium, and passion for a specific form of technology. We collect sound recordings to satisfy our own passions and share the contents of our collections with researchers, friends, and others equally passionate about this work. In fulfilling this passion, however, lies the opportunity to make a much larger contribution to society, culture, and history--one of incredible significance that each collector must take into account. Namely, by collecting and preserving sound, collectors in essence define what will become an integral part of the historical record which future researchers, historians, cultural anthropologists, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, will all turn to in the process of writing an authoritative, legitimated history. This is no insignificant detail, for our very preferences of genre and performers, even the physical medium of the recording, have explicit inclusions and exclusions. Prone to our unavoidable personal preferences and cultural, social, and political biases, sound collectors, as do archivists and historians, open the potentiality for culturally significant yet popularly underrepresented cross-sections of musical society to be effectively forgotten to history. Drawing from the work of ethnomusicologists, philosophers, archivists, and historians, this paper examines how archival and collecting practices influence history-writing and the related cultural implications. This discussion is followed by an exploration of the philosophy of the self-described "activist archivist," relating their methodology to that of the sound collector. …

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