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Front Porch

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 1-6 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0010

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In "The New Masters of Eloquence: Southernness, Senegal, and Transatlantic Hip-Hop Mobilities," Ali Colleen Neff reveals how the sounds of the Dirty South and West Africa continue to evolve in tandem. Sister Anta (here) is a member of GOTAL, an all-woman Senegalese music group that draws inspiration from Akon and other famous Dirty South artists. Photograph by Ali Colleen Neff.

For more than a century, non-southerners have headed South on a series of musical quests and pilgrimages. At the core of their motivations sat a paradox: they sought music that was quintessentially southern, forged in a particular place—with all its intrinsic meaning—and carrying the essence of the South within its reverberations. Yet, at the same time, they were searching for the threads of connection, lineages, pipelines of influence, and trails of sonic breadcrumbs that led out of the South and back to other, faraway sourcepools as a way of explaining southern music. In many instances, they came with well-formed notions of what they thought they would find, and throughout its chameleon appeal and mystical ability to tantalize its seekers, southern music did not disappoint: it yielded both a deep-rooted portrait of the region and a tapestry of global connections, sometimes simultaneously. The musical pilgrims, in turn, found and heard what they came to hear.

Those ideas—that a listener's engagement with southern music involves a great deal of reflexivity, and that the compulsion of southern music lies in part in its multiplicity of meanings—are at the core of this collection of writings, in which we explore music and the global South. Music that could claim to be of or from the South has long carried a cachet of authenticity in many different settings: southern Soul stood as a foil against the pop sheen of (northern) Motown; Kansas City jazz injected new life into the slick (northern) big bands; honky-tonk singers claimed twang as a southern birthright denied to (northern) transplants. In line with those notions of regional roots, record producers in the 1920s sought African American performers, whose repertory represented the outsider's ideas about what country blues sounded like, and white performers whose repertory represented old-time tradition, even if the material was in fact newly composed on the models of pop songwriting. These producers knew what they wanted the region's music to sound like, and the music obliged.

On the other hand, musicians and writers alike have also occupied themselves for decades with tracing lines of transmission that challenge the native grounding of this same music. In the early twentieth century, song collectors descended on Appalachia in search of preserved specimens of ballads from the British Isles. Although they had to wade through versions of pop songs and radio hits that had been absorbed into the oral tradition, they managed to find what they were looking for. A few decades later, blues scholars expounded on the African connections in blues and R&B traditions and located the sonic evidence to bolster their interpretive claims. In each of these cases and many more, the lines of influence fit into larger narratives of meaning that the writers were advancing, narratives that gained significant traction by locating the sources of southern musical identity far beyond the region's borders.

The writers in this special issue all connect to the paradoxes that characterize southern music within a global lens: the relationship between southern music's perceived native identity and narratives of its far-flung origins. But what trumps these ideas in many instances is the mystique of its performance: how southern music puts on a show for its audiences, entertains their imaginations, and feeds them what they want or need to hear with spectacle and illusion. It is no small coincidence that two of our essays highlight lyrics about payday, a musician's reward for the performance that satisfies the audience. These three ideas—the music's southern roots, its global connections, and its performative nature—form the nodes around which all our authors write.


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In "Steelin' the Slide: Hawai'i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar," John W. Troutman chronicles Hawaiian...



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