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Reclaiming the Lore: A Critical Reading of the Archives and Practices of Collectors of African American Folk Music in the American South, 1900-1950.

Armon Azoulay, Ellie (2021) Reclaiming the Lore: A Critical Reading of the Archives and Practices of Collectors of African American Folk Music in the American South, 1900-1950. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.89033) (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:89033)

Language: English

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This dissertation explores different approaches to collecting African American music in the United States elaborated by African American collectors as part of what I call 'Reclaiming the Lore'. The departure point of the dissertation is that white collectors' practices of collecting African American folk music are embedded in slavery and its legacy and they reinforce structures of white supremacy and power. The study explores the key role of national institutions such as the Library of Congress in securing white collectors' monopoly during the New Deal era and in shaping the history of the field. It challenges the category of the white expert collector who was assumed to be specialised in the culture(s) of the historically disempowered people (who were mostly denied opportunities to inhabit such positions) while enjoying access and accolades.

At the heart of this dissertation is the project of reclamation developed and practised by generations of Black people across the diaspora. The reclamation project and its importance is reconstructed from scrutiny of the work and passionate commitment of African American collectors and the individuals and communities who performed the songs. The dissertation traces various forms of refusal to comply with structures of white supremacy and subjugation, applying theories of fugitivity as well as community building and empowerment. Focusing on the American South from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, the study uses underexamined material from local archives to explore the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Willis Laurence James and John W. Work I, II and III and highlights their extensive collaboration and exchange with wide networks of people committed to recording, performing and enlivening African American folk music. The dissertation inverts the racial dynamic in the field of collecting: by shifting white collectors to the background and putting African American collectors at the centre, it offers a different mapping of the field of collecting which seeks to decentralise, diversify and decolonise that field via an interdisciplinary study of musical recordings, archival documents, letters and photographs. This endeavour is committed to challenging and overturning the power structures behind the commonly held picture of the field predicated on the exclusion of African American performers and collectors. Chapter I examines how the practices of white collectors such as Ruby Pickens Tartt, John and Alan Lomax justified and reinforced inequalities and the systemic lack of access and progress for Black performers and collectors and promoted a deference culture among them. Chapter II offers a close reading (and listening) of a recording session by Zora Neale Hurston, an employee of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). Challenging her inscription in the national archive as only a performer, the chapter spotlights Hurston's commitment to 'collect' despite overt gender and race discrimination. Chapter III reintegrates the radical practice of Willis Laurence James, which was part of his pedagogy and dedication to community building in the Rural South. Chapter IV explores the music making and collecting carried on by three generations of the Work family who were active in Nashville from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, studying their methods for protecting and passing-on musical inheritance. Building on these ideas, the dissertation foregrounds the physical and symbolic removal of Black cultural expressions from their creators in order to furnish white archives and institutions, and traces the resistance and reclamation by Black collectors as part of an overall project of empowerment. By prioritising the work of these Black collectors and reconstructing the lives of the performers, Reclaiming the Lore puts the human stories back into the history of collecting. It listens to how those Black musicians and collectors understood their practice, let their voices be heard, and sought to restore the tradition of folk songs.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Collins, Michael
Thesis advisor: Stirrup, David
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.89033
Uncontrolled keywords: African American folk music ; Collections; Archives; Photography; American South
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 05 Jul 2021 14:10 UTC
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2022 14:15 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Armon Azoulay, Ellie.

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