- If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture by Robert Cantwell
Although official biographies list Robert Cantwell as a professor of American Studies, his real ability lies in alchemy, the ancient art of transmutation of base matter into gold. Perhaps it is unfitting to reference the vast array of historical events, cultural theorists, roots musicians, literary works, seminal recordings, and other social effluvia that Cantwell draws upon in his work as base. But unto themselves, they are lesser than the desired result of their combination in the essays that make up the collection If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture.
In all these works, we find a broad spectrum of references that the author weaves together, sometimes with great success. For example, both essays “White City Elegy: Modern and Postmodern at the World’s Fair” and “Feasts of Unnaming: Folk Festivals and the Representation of Folklife” present nuance and valuable analysis of seminal cultural events that should be required reading for those who wish to fathom the myriad perspectives and complexities involved in public exhibition.
The first concerns Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, and Cantwell offers a reckoning of the imposing physical spaces designed for the fair. Drawing heavily upon written accounts by those who witnessed the spectacle, the author often focuses on their feeling of being overwhelmed by the gigantic buildings that replicated the grandeur of Europe’s greatest architectural marvels even as they were engineered to last only a fleeting moment, their true nature transitory even as they symbolically stood for America’s growing industrial might. Over the course of this piece, Cantwell allows these viewers’ comments to dominate, but he lets his own observations drift in, mixing the history and the analysis together so that they well balance, the event set in the amber of the past but unearthed and polished so that it exhibits the reality/unreality of the giant set pieces created to impress the world. He presents the fair as the forefather of Disney World, a place of control, entertainment, and sensory overload that had both no true substance as it was an artificial space, yet much meaning for those who wandered slackjawed within buildings that could enfold entire towns.
The other essay noted above, focusing on the many negotiations underpinning any folk festival or exhibition, also receives a historical treatment, presenting the complexities and prejudices involved in the representation of the American folk from the early nineteenth century to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in its 1967 inception to its incarnations in the late 1980s. Along the way, Cantwell references Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Franklin Roosevelt’s White House concerts, Disney’s Davy Crockett, and a variety of other cultural signifiers that support his position that the public representation of the folk depends more on the presenters than the presented. Context always rules in his estimation.
Unfortunately, Cantwell does not revisit this essay, which appeared well over a decade earlier in Public Folklore (Robert Baron and Nicholas R. Spitzer, eds., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992). As a result, his own analysis here comes across as somewhat dusty history, leaving a reader to wonder why he would not update the piece so that it discusses the Smithsonian’s festival in its current form, especially its efforts to address the difficulties of folk representation that this very essay critiques. This criticism brings me to a larger one—all the essays assembled here seem dated, not surprising in that half of the twelve total pieces that inhabit this book have been published before, either in journals or other collections, and very few changes have been made to any of them.
Some of the included pieces also seem dated in that they come across as not having made the final cut of two of Cantwell’s earlier books. [End Page 106] In particular, both the introduction (or to be precise, half of it) and the final essay, “Habitus, Ethnomimesis: A Note on The Logic of Practice,” focus on a topic...