Alan Lomax and the Politics of African American Tradition

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Black Studies 63/History 89 William Walker

M 2:00-4:30 (Barrett 105) Spring 2008

Contact information:


Office: Black Studies Reading Room (Cooper House)

Office Hours: M 9-11 (and by appt.)

Alan Lomax and the Politics of African American Tradition
Alan Lomax was the twentieth-century’s most famous collector of African American music. Lomax “discovered” such legendary performers as Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) and played a crucial role in popularizing African American folk songs. Working under the auspices of the Library of Congress, Lomax traversed the back roads of the South with a recording machine and accumulated an invaluable record of African American traditional culture. His legacy is complex. Lomax was a collector, a promoter, a scholar, and an activist. Through the lens of the life and work of this “songcatcher,” students will explore the relationship between folk music and radical politics, the construction of racial identities in popular culture, the commodification of tradition, the uses and abuses of concepts of authenticity, the romanticization of folk culture, the dynamics of fieldwork, and the tension between tradition and modernity in twentieth-century American thought and culture. In addition, students will be encouraged to view the musicians Lomax recorded in the broader context of African American folk traditions.
Copies of the following required texts are available for purchase in the Jeffery Amherst College Store. The books and recordings are also available on reserve at the library (Frost). Students must purchase a copy of the Course Reader, which is available in the Black Studies Department office in Cooper 108.
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism

Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men

Leroi Jones, Blues People

Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness

Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll

Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man

Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery
General Requirements
+ Students are expected to attend class regularly and contribute constructively to class discussions. Poor attendance will lower your final grade substantially.

+ It is your responsibility to check your e-mail regularly for updates regarding assignments, discussion questions, and course meetings.

+ Students are expected to adhere to the university’s policy on academic honesty. I take this policy seriously. Plagiarism will not be tolerated and will result in a failing grade for the course.
Paper 1 (6-8 pages)

+ Each student will write a review of a book or set of websites relevant to the course themes and subject matter. A list of books and websites from which to choose will be distributed early in the semester.

In-class Presentation

+ Each student will also offer an in-class presentation of 10-15 minutes on the book or websites they have reviewed. Students are encouraged to use supplementary materials (i.e. recordings, film clips, primary sources, and websites). Papers are due on the day of the presentation.

Paper 2 (12-14 pages)

+ Each student will write a primary source research essay on a topic pertinent to African American traditions. A research proposal and bibliography must be submitted by the date indicated on the syllabus. Papers are due at the final class meeting.

Discussion questions

+ Students are required to submit paragraph-length discussion questions before each class meeting. Questions should be posted to Blackboard no later than noon on the day of class.

You must complete all assignments to receive a passing grade. All papers are due at the start of class. A penalty of one-half letter grade per class meeting will be assessed for any late papers.
Class participation (including discussion questions and in-class presentation): 30%

Paper 1: 30%

Paper 2: 40%
If you are a student with a documented disability on record at Amherst and wish to have a reasonable accommodation made for you in this class, please see me immediately.

Course Schedule
Jan 28 – Introductions
Feb 4 – The Sounds of Slavery

*Sign up for reviews/presentations*

Reading: White and White, The Sounds of Slavery

Listening: Attached CD, all tracks
Feb 11 – From Slavery to Freedom

Reading: Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Chaps. 3-4

W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of the Sorrow Songs” (handout)

Listening: Paul Robeson, “Go Down Moses” (YouTube)

Feb 18 – The Songcatchers

Reading: Filene: Romancing the Folk, Introduction and Chaps. 1-2, 4

Listening: “Three Songs by Leadbelly” (YouTube)
Feb 25 – Songcatchers, cont’d.

Reading: From Lomax, Selected Writings, Part I: 1934-1950: The Early Collecting Years (Course Reader)

- “‘Sinful’ Songs of the Southern Negro” (9-31)

- “Music in Your Own Back Yard” (47-55)

- “Preface: Our Singing Country” (59-66)

- “Reels and Work Songs” (69-76)

- “Mister Ledford and the TVA” (77-85)

Listening: Alan Lomax CD in Selected Writings on reserve, tracks 1-5, 11

Mar 3 – The Real John Henry

Reading: Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man

Listening: “John Henry” (various versions available on YouTube)
Mar 10 – African American Songcatchers

*Research proposals due*

Reading: Hurston, Mules and Men, Part I Folk Tales

Spring Recess
Mar 24 – Lomax on Lomax

Reading: Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, Preface, Chaps. 1-5

Mar 31 – African American Songcatchers, cont’d.

Reading: Lomax, Land Where the Blues Began, Chaps. 6-10

From Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (Course Reader)

- “Introduction: John Wesley Work III” (xv-26)

- “John Work’s Untitled Manuscript” (51-67)

Apr 7 – Jelly Roll Morton

Reading: Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll

Listening: Various Jelly Roll Morton tracks (YouTube)
Apr 14 – The Folk Revival

*Optional rough draft of final paper due*

Reading: Filene, Romancing the Folk, Chaps. 3, 5

From Lomax, Selected Writings, Part III: The Folk Revival (1960s) (Course Reader)

- “The ‘Folkniks’—and the Songs They Sing” (195-197)

- “The Good and the Beautiful in Folksong” (214-231)

- “Appeal for Cultural Equity” (285-299)

Apr 21 – Blues People

Reading: Jones (Baraka), Blues People

Apr 28 – Women of the Blues

Reading: Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism

May 5 – Conclusions

Discuss research

Film: “P.O.V. Lomax: The Songhunter”

*Final paper due*

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