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Chapter 7 - The Sound Came from Everywhere and Nowhere

African American Song as Lyric Work

from Part II - The Songs of Slavery

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 October 2021

Andrea Brady
Affiliation:
Queen Mary University of London
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Summary

This chapter turns to the sorrow songs, beginning with the famous passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies. It focuses on the ethnography of African American song traditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period of professionalisation of folklore studies in the American academy. White folklorists claimed the songs were irrational, primitive, childlike, unmediated expressions of feeling; other qualities were discovered by African American ethnographers, including Zora Neale Hurston. The songs were also forms of exploitative labour. The chapter includes a reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘A Corn Song’. Dunbar’s shifts between African American vernacular and ‘standard’ English illuminate the tendency of white folklorists to call attention to the failure of the printed and disembodied textual transcription to transmit the real power of the performed lyric. The chapter considers the attempt to secure an ‘authentic’ Black sound through recordings in prisons and labour camps. It also challenges the notion of authenticity through a reading of Olio by Tyehimba Jess, a work that seeks to recover – through a form of poetic ventriloquy – the thoughts and feelings of the artists whose work was appropriated by white critics, scholars and producers in this period.

Type
Chapter
Information
Poetry and Bondage
A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint
, pp. 209 - 245
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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