Music, Race, and Resistance

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History and the Western History Association

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Intellectual; Music; Popular Culture; Race; Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban

Papers Presented

Bop Apocalypse, Freedom Now! Sex, Race, and Politics in the Cold War Urban Underground

The more we know about the 1950s, the more we recognize it as an era of change: beneath the decade’s mythical benign surface roiled social and cultural movements that would soon burst into view. Shining a spotlight on urban underground nightlife during the early Cold War reveals subterranean nightspots in New York and San Francisco as social, cultural, and political hothouses that nurtured seeds of social consciousness. After World War II, as outspoken cultural producers ranging from the Beats, Michael Harrington, and James Baldwin to Mort Sahl, Charles Mingus, and Susan Sontag gravitated to Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach, bars and nightclubs became important nodal points in postwar underground social networks. The result was a new sociopolitical sensibility that blended bebop jazz’s embrace of free expression with progressive and expansive visions of American liberty.

The origins of the underground 1950s style spanned from the fin de siècle cabarets of Paris and Berlin, through the left-wing “Cultural Front” of the depression era, and into the bebop sounds of Harlem, Beat literature, controversial “brick wall” stand-up comedy, and the socio-sexual aesthetics of “camp.” Small, smoky, bohemian bars and clubs offered not just entertainment but also progressive—even radical—political ideas that found new proponents, providing psychological and material support to the budding gay rights, feminist, civil rights movements. An exploration of night spots ranging from New York’s Village Vanguard to San Francisco’s Coffee Gallery and Tin Angel provides a deeper view of 1950s America, not simply as the black-and-white precursor to the Technicolor flamboyance of the sixties, but as a rich period of artistic expression and identity formation that blended cultural production and politics.

Presented By
Stephen Riley Duncan, Bronx Community College, City University of New York

Masks of Dialogue: Mikhail Bakhtin and African American Blues Protest Songs

Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin stated that the language of poets and
politicians were masks and no language could claim to be an authentic incontestable face. In
the postbellum American South African American blues musicians employed an alternative
voice that would counter the language of a racially segregated nation. This paper exposes the
carnivalesque response of American blues musicians with the dialogic relationship of American
social norms, forming a narrative bridge between societal norms and a subaltern voice of
protest. The Bakhtinian carnivalesque expression can be seen in blues songs by Blind Lemon
Jefferson and the more satirical songs by Lead Belly and Nina Simone. The many language
masks of American society are a cohabitation of various periods of socio-ideological
life. While the official unitary voice of the American state as a whole would seek to
disfranchise African Americans, the music of the blues demanded an
audience to lament their injustices. By juxtaposing American blues lyrics and performance of
the early 20 th century to the state narrative, the carnivalesque link of change and rebirth can be
exposed. Like the spirituals the blues were rooted in, the malleability of carnival music is in the
ongoing chain of statements and responses. Carnival became a way for the musician to speak
candidly about society without repercussions. This paper argues African American blues songs
were a mask of dialogue that can be analyzed to better understand southern black
American culture. While Bakhtin never turned his eye toward American culture, let alone that
of bluesmen’s lyrics, his theories offer an alternative story of black history, despite its clever
camouflage, that can be used as a historical tool.

Presented By
Jonathan Scott Lower, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

“Redneck Chic”: Racial Paradox in 1970s Country Music

Throughout the 1970s, news outlets continually reported on a growing trend: “redneck chic.” In 1977 an entire book was published on the craze, stating: “Redneck chic has arrived…City slickers from north, south, east and west are climbing on the buckboard. From New York City to Los Angeles, and from Minneapolis to Miami, it’s chic to be hick.” In cities around the country, white urbanites increasingly adopted signifiers of rural fashion and culture, wearing cowboy boots, Levi’s denim jackets, and, of course, listening to country music. But as one article questioned, “Where does all of this love of rural music come from among people who have never lived in the country and whose fathers and mothers were born in Brooklyn?” By 1980, this trend exploded into the “urban cowboy” craze that made country music more popular than ever before.
My paper considers why and how it became increasingly fashionable for urban Americans with middle-to-upper class incomes to embrace the cultural markers of a mythic rural life-style in the 1970s. I am particularly interested in the role these listeners played in cementing the genre’s whiteness at a time of unprecedented racial diversity among country music’s artists (both African American and Mexican American artists found mainstream success in country music during this period). By 1979, two-thirds of country music listeners resided in urban and suburban areas and a similar amount earned either middle or high incomes. The country music industry capitalized on the buying power of these demographics and sold them on a version of country music that paradoxically drew influence from disco—a genre that celebrated racial and sexual diversity—while maintaining the optics and gender norms of white rusticity. My paper will explore the unequal contradiction of why these advantaged Americans without discernible rural roots were embraced by the music industry as country music consumers, and nonwhite, rural-born artists were ostracized from the genre by the end of the decade.
I situate “Redneck Chic” within a number of historical factors, including the white ethnic movement, a widespread interest in genealogy and ancestral heritage among Americans, the 1976 bicentennial celebration, and the election of Jimmy Carter. At a time of heightened awareness about one’s roots, I argue that country music was invoked as mythic but accepted evidence of a purely white American heritage and emerged as a cornerstone of Reagan-era conservatism.

Presented By
Amanda Marie Martinez, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Victoria W. Wolcott, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Presenter: Stephen Riley Duncan, Bronx Community College, City University of New York
Stephen R. Duncan is an assistant professor of intellectual and cultural history at Bronx Community College-CUNY. He is the author of The Rebel Café: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America’s Nightclub Underground (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) and other works that examine American culture and politics.

Presenter: Jonathan Scott Lower, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Jonathan Lower’s research focus is on US popular culture in the 20th century, merging multiple academic disciplines for a comparative approach to history and pop culture. Jonathan is currently a PhD Candidate working on his doctoral dissertation investigating the intersections of Race, Music and Disability in early 20th century Blues Musicians. He focuses on rural southern African Americans living in the United States during the early 1900s, particularly the social context of rural musicians during the Great Migration, as well as the role popular music played in shaping American society that still resonates today. While working on his dissertation, Jonathan is currently a visiting scholar at Case Western Reserve and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives and adjunct professor at Columbus State Community College.

Presenter: Amanda Marie Martinez, University of California, Los Angeles
Amanda Martinez is a PhD candidate at The University of California, Los Angeles. Her dissertation analyzes the social, economic, and political gains white, urban, and affluent Americans received from adopting the cultural signifiers of a rural identity between 1964 and 1994.