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American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 303-313
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Music, Memory, and Cultural Identity in the Jazz Age
DEBATES OVER MODERNITY "HAVE LARGELY IGNORED MUSIC," AS PAUL GILROY wrote ten years ago, and yet African-American vernacular musics have signified cultural opposition for modern intellectuals since W. E. B. Du Bois's essay on the sorrow songs staked out "black music as the central sign of black cultural value, integrity, and autonomy." 1 One could easily make the same claim for Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and (especially) Toni Morrison, who claims to "reconstruct the texture of . . . writing" to reflect the repetition, "profound simplicity," and aesthetic (and emotional) immediacy of black vernacular musics. 2 Literary scholars who directly address the influence of music on African-American literature have recently suggested the existence of an "Orphic mode" of self-affirmation and self-validation in "the agency of [End Page 303] sound" itself, where the orphic "represents . . . the basic human urge for quest for self, and for innovation." These studies usually take the Harlem Renaissance as a jumping-off point, since in the 1920s vernacular musics which had emerged as collective forms—spirituals, blues, and jazz—suddenly produced breakthrough individual artists with national reputations who defied Euro-American aesthetic traditions (e.g., Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Roland Hayes). Like Euro-American intellectuals, but for very different reasons, African-American intellectuals of the 1920s began to argue about how to construct a usable past. 3
In Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought, Paul Allen Anderson locates this debate around the symbiosis of vernacular music and social memory. For Anderson, these musics were (and still are) "sites of contestation" in divergent strategies of cultural leadership, racial identity, authenticity, aesthetics, and ethnic representation. Deep River provides an overview of the culture wars within the Harlem Renaissance and synthesizes them within "debates about global processes of modernization, local processes of cultural diffusion and transformation, and the particular burdens and opportunities of the African-American artist" (110). Anderson rounds up the usual suspects, pitting Du Bois's art-as-propaganda move and Alain Locke's formalism against Langston Hughes's "blues advocacy" (9) and Zora Neale Hurston's folk-preservations, with Jean Toomer splitting the difference in yoking "modernist disenchantment and racial reinscription" (111). But this is a work of intellectual history not of ethnomusicology; there areuseful sketches of musical forms but little analysis of musical artists or individual songs. Anderson instead focuses on canonical literary texts—Toomer's "Kabnis," Du Bois's "The Coming of John," Hughes's "The Blues I'm Crying," and Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression"—to illuminate these writers' positions as translators of southern vernacular culture for the talented tenth.
Anderson unites these intellectuals through their common investment in the synergy of folk romanticism and cultural nationalism during the black migration.This is basically Anderson's thesis (and it is a good one), but he disowns it, preferring simply to produce "a critical genealogy" that will "reconstruct and juxtapose" familiar perspectives to help "refram[e] fundamental questions" (269). This strategy works best when he stakes out these intellectuals' conflicting objectives regarding the function of the spirituals. Since Du Bois met his artistic [End Page 304] sublime in Beethoven's symphonies and Wagner's Ring Cycle while studying in Germany, he hoped African-American composers would adapt this music of the folk peasantry "as seed material for national cultural expression and icons of organic communal creativity" (22). Similarly, Locke thought there was a Herderian "universal mode" in music that proceeded from folk motifs to symphonic grandeur, and the concert spirituals...