Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Christopher Smith on creolization, minstrelsy, late-stage empire

Christopher J. Smith is an associate professor and chair of musicology/ethnomusicology and the director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music. Bio on Texas Tech faculty website.

Just out last fall: The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (U of I Press, 2013). Some pretty informative Q&A in the promo material. Including this:

Q: Were there any common misconceptions of “creolization” that you examined in your research for the book?

Smith: I wouldn’t necessarily say there were “misconceptions,” so much as gaps in the record. The book certainly argues that creolization—the process by which two languages, or rhythmic vocabularies, or music & dance idioms, collide and create a shared dialect—was much more widespread in a much wider array of locations, and much earlier, than previous scholarship has perhaps understood. The argument would be that contact between disparate groups—black/white, African/European, slave/free, working-class/middle-class—would have yielded this exchange, whether participants intended or even recognized that it was happening. People heard other people’s music and they learned to move and experience sound differently, and in this new, shared dialect. I think, in fact, that this phenomenon—maybe we could call it “a creolization of bodily experience”—happens everywhere disparate populations come into close proximity with one another. I think it’s at the core of where urban culture arises.

Expands on "body experience," i.e. African American dance moves, lower Manhattan as a site for creolization, etc. … seeks to develop "a set of analytical tools (particularly rhythmic and iconographic) which let us 'see' creole or Afro-Caribbean characteristics—rhythms, body postures, body movements—in tunes or scenes which, on the surface, seem to be 'simply depicting' idealized Anglo-Celtic culture."

Smith has a blog, Coyotebanjo, w/ this the most recent post (Sunday, March 2) "Holding back the tide in a late-stage Empire" at

As a middle-aged, middle-class, relatively privileged (white, educated, male, heterosexual, tenured) college professor, engaged in teaching music, cultural history, and critical thinking, in a late-stage Empire whose particular addictions--specifically to leisure, material possessions, and the cheap energy which fossil fuels make possible--is rapidly destroying both subaltern societies and the planet's own ecosystem, I sometimes imagine I know what it must have felt like to be a lector or ludus literatus in one of the frontier provinces of late-stage Rome: Valentia (Wales and NW England), say, or Brittaniae (Cornwall). In such a biography, you're a very long way from the centers of power, you can feel and observe (as someone trained and teaching historical consciousness and a degree of cultural analysis) the way in which the larger society, the vast superstructure of privilege, is creaking, groaning, and breaking down. ...

And so on. He concludes:

What would you do? Well, in your small distant corner of the world, very far from the centers of power, with nearly no voice and absolutely no influence in the public discourse of the day, you might just keep doing what you do ...

In Smith's case, that's teaching. Maybe, he says, a new civilization will arise someday on the ruins of the old, and someone will care again about the kinds of things you taught. Besides, he adds, you just do it: "Because what else is there to do? Despair may be inevitable--but it is also irrelevant."


Christopher Smith said...

Hey: I'm the author, and a follower of your Hogfiddle blog. Thanksfor posting!

Pete said...

Appreciate your interest!

I'm researching a project on a Swedish-American hymnal of the 1920s, and so far the idea of creolization is helping me sort through some of the issues of assimilation, language, etc.

Anyway, I liked what I saw yesterday in the Q&A, and I ordered your book from Amazon.

Christopher Smith said...