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This Land is Our Land: Gender, Place, and Social Action in Folk Song

"Our Singing Country" collected and compiled by John and Alan Lomax

“Our Singing Country” collected and compiled by John and Alan Lomax

The fall 2015 semester afforded the opportunity to imagine and (re)articulate a digital humanities (DH) project for the certificate I am pursuing in DH alongside my doctorate in English at Northeastern. Over the next two semesters I will be developing and writing about the project tentatively entitled “This Land is Our Land: Gender, Place, and Social Action in Folk Song” and I wanted to provide description, background, and rationale–perhaps others embarking on a DH project will find this project narrative beneficial. This project challenges notions that folk songs are “traditional” instead of “rhetorical” by examining the song compilation Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads (Parente 162). Collected and arranged by John and Alan Lomax, with assistance from WPA contributors, the songs were recorded for the Library of Congress in the late 1930s – early 1940s, and were transcribed for this collection. There are approximately 200 songs in the collection, which includes identifying information about who contributed each song and where the songs were collected. The songs are organized by type (e.g., “Religious Songs,” Social Songs,” “Men at Work,” “Outlaws,” “Hollers and Blues,” “Negro Gang Songs”) and further classified by singing persona (e.g., “Negro Spirituals,” “White Religious Songs,” “Soldiers and Sailors”). The Lomaxes arranged the songs, provided a brief description of contributors they deemed exceptional, and included reminiscences (usually as direct quotations) from their contributors.

I came across this source in a brief mentioned in the Woody Guthrie – Alan Lomax correspondence I was researching for my master’s thesis about literacy sponsorship. It was also in this research that I came across the personage of Aunt Molly Jackson. Aunt Molly Jackson was a midwife (hence the “aunt”) and she was an Appalachian folksinger with close ties to the coal-mining community. She recorded more than Guthrie did for Lomax and the Library of Congress, but I did not see much in Lomax’s letters about her. Yet, she figures quite prominently in Our Singing Country.

A glimpse of the table with songs, contributors, and glosses that helped me  select the songs for Phase 1.

A glimpse of the table with songs, contributors, and glosses that helped me select the songs for Phase 1.

I am interested in creating a project about everyday people in an effort to increase diversity and inclusion in digital humanities projects. Specifically, my project aims for a participatory digital archive, or what Alexis Ramsey-Tobienne refers to as “Archives 2.0.” Along with creating a shared space, this project intersects with a drive for social justice (see Nieves). In order to reach those goals, the digital archive must “animate” that which it represents in order to reveal limitations to our knowledge and story-telling—without dismissing those stories in the first place (Klein 665). Lauren Klein advocates to make use of the digital archive to reframe and show that archive as non-static and to do so without trying to resolve, or “identify” or “recover” (665). Responding to Klein’s formulation about what the digital archive can do, I want to share Aunt Molly Jackson and female folksingers. To make this project more than a recovery project, I likewise heed Bernadette M. Calafell’s advice for “understanding the communities in which these texts are situated” by examining the discourses in which Jackson and folksingers participated as they performed (117).

A glimpse of the first TEI encoding I attempted.

A glimpse of the first TEI encoding I attempted.

I am using the TEI to encode a corpus of songs to create a digital archive. My methodology is influenced by feminist rhetoric, rhetorical genre studies, cultural geography, and rhetorics of space and place. I draw primarily on theorizations by Krista Ratcliffe, Carolyn Miller, Anne Freadman, and Nedra Reynolds to shape my encoding protocols. To narrow my corpus of songs, I reviewed songs by the top contributors looking for ones by and/or about women. I stored these songs and quotations by Jackson in a table and glossed the songs to select nine songs mostly by women for Phase 1. Phase 1 encompasses encoding the nine songs and creating the digital archive, and I plan for this phase to be completed by the end of the academic year. This semester, I attended the TEI workshop hosted by the Women Writers’ Project and encoded one song, which reminded me that (1) I still need to identify a mentor who can guide my encoding and possibly help me develop a dedicated schema, and (2) I need to develop documentation for my encoding. This semester, besides working on my proposal and encoding, I transcribed the entire corpus of songs and quotations for Phase 1. In later phases, this project may explore text analysis, data visualization, and deep mapping.

For this digital project, rather than asking “Did the Lomaxes really collect a representative sample of songs from a representative sample of individuals?” I am considering questions explicitly from rhetorical genre studies: what sort of rhetorical situations do the contributors imagine their songs responding to and what is the social action; how are they and their contexts functions of the genre; and what could the song be an uptake of and what is the corresponding uptake (see Miller, Bawarshi, and Freadman)? At the heart of these questions is a desire to find what happens to women in these songs: what do they sing about and how do men sing about them? I noticed that sometimes a woman would sing when she was being forced to marry despite her disinclination to do so; I also noticed that men sometimes sing when they want to get their womenfolk in line (whatever that might mean). I want to see what kind of “spaces” are created about/by/for women with these songs and what happens in those spaces.

I have a related set of meta-questions connecting new media theory with rhetorical genre studies. I wonder how do songs travel and what’s at stake when they are stabilized? The folk song, which circulates as an oral tradition, was re-mediated by the Lomaxes into a textual form, and my project will again re-mediate the songs. I wonder how artifacts carry with them traces of previous media forms and what might the affordances and limitations of such transformations be? With time, I may be able to speculate answers to these questions, which are important to keep in mind because of they sensitize me to the feedback loop connecting the artifacts, hybrid methodology, and methods to the project’s goals.

Works Cited

Bawarshi, Anis. “The Genre Function.” College English 62.3 (2000): 335-360. Print.

Calafell, Bernadette M. “Rhetorics of Possibility: Challenging Textual Bias Through the Theory of the Flesh.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies. Eds. Eileen E. Schell and Kelly Jacob Rawson. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. 104-117.

Freadman, Anne. “Anyone for Tennis?” Genre and the New Rhetoric (Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education). Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor & Francis, 1995. 43-66. Print.

—-. “Uptake.” The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change. Ed. Richard Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2002. 39-53. Print.

Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1941, 2000. Print.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-67. Print.

Nieves, Angel David. “Places of Pain as Tools for Social Justice in the ‘New’ South Africa: Black Heritage Preservation in the ‘Rainbow’ Nation’s Townships.” Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing With Difficult Heritage. Eds. William Logan and Keir Reeves. London: Routledge, 2009. 198-214. Print.

Klein, Lauren F. “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.” American Literature 85.4 (2013): 661-688. EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.

Parente, Cassandra. “Traditional Form, Subversive Function: Aunt Molly Jackson’s Labor Struggles.” Women and Rhetoric Between the Wars. Ed. Ann George, M. Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2013. 159-174. Print.

Ramsey-Tobienne, Alexis. “Archives 2.0: Digital Archives and the Formation of New Research Methods.” Peitho 15.1 (2012): 4-28. Web. 20 April 2014.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

One Thought on “This Land is Our Land: Gender, Place, and Social Action in Folk Song

  1. Pingback: This Land is Our Land: Gender, Place, and Social Action in Folk Song | Texts, Maps, Networks: Digital Literary Studies

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