Musical Identity

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review

reinventingdixieIn the light of barbershop’s current debates about the role of Dixie songs in its repertoire, I was interested to hear of a book published a couple of years ago about exactly this corpus of songs. Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South sounded exactly like the kind of thing I should be reading!

I have not yet worked out whether I would recommend it in turn, for reasons that I aim to tease out in the next blog post or two (there may be more to talk about than will fit in just one). Overall I’d say it is more informative than explanatory – it told me lots of stuff that I didn’t otherwise know, but the analysis is weak, in places embarrassingly uncritical.

Constructing the Identity of a Feminist Musicologist: Mainstream or Margins?

I won’t be posting during December, so I’ll leave you with a longer piece to be getting on with. This was my keynote address at the Musique et Genre conference in Paris in December 2015.

Wishing you all a vibrantly feminist holiday season, and see you in the New Year


Individuals construct their sense of self through autobiography. We each maintain an internal narrative, using the discourses our culture provides, to make sense of our experiences and thus understand who we are, what we have done, and what we might yet do. We also do this in groups, where shared stories bind people together into cohorts. We tell the stories to newcomers to make them ‘one of us’. We re-tell the stories amongst ourselves to re-live shared experience, and update our understanding of what that experience means. In academia, we call this process ‘literature review’. We create our identities as scholars through the search terms we choose to build our bibliographies.

Moving on From Dixie Songs: the Negotiation Process

So, it’s a few months since Joey Minshall captured the feeling of a moment with her #donewithdixie post. In the time since, the hard work has started of negotiating with individual ensembles about why these songs, once so central to barbershop repertoire, are no longer being received quite so enthusiastically in all quarters as they once were.

You can understand singers who have put a lot of time and love into polishing performances feeling reluctant to let go of that investment, and they will often bring out arguments as to why they should continue singing these songs. This post takes a few of the frequently-heard points to consider outside of the context of any one conversation. Just so we can get our heads round them in a place where nobody has to take it personally right here right now.

On the Fear of Improvement

I have often quipped over the years that many people find increasing their skill levels to be an experience like the old song, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’ – as in, everyone wants to get better, but nobody wants to change. But I have been reflecting recently on a phenomenon that lies behind this inertia: some people seem actively to fear getting better.

Phrase it like that, and it sounds bonkers. Why would anyone shy away from being more competent and assured at doing the thing they love? But it is an observable phenomenon, and one which I need to understand if I am to succeed in my life’s aim of helping people make music with more confidence, skill and joy.

You have to look quite carefully to make the observation, of course. People don’t come straight out and say that they’re not going to use a technique that will improve their breath control or range or expressive power because they’re scared of it. Rather, it emerges in various forms of blocking behaviour: self-sabotage, distraction, attacking the legitimacy of the technique or the person who’s teaching it, picking a fight over something completely unrelated.

Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

The Moral Hazard of Dixie Nostalgia

Moral hazard. Noun. Economics.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by insurance.

I looked up the term moral hazard as I thought it might make a catchy pun for my title in relation to a topic that’s going to turn up a bit later in this post. On checking the definition, my first thought was: well, maybe not – it’s quite specific to its context. But as I reflected, I realised that actually it works better than I first thought as a metaphor in cultural spheres outside economics.

Moral hazard. Noun. Real Life.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by white privilege.

Inclusiveness Versus Diversity

‘Versus?!’ I hear you cry. It’s true that we usually use these two words interchangeably when we talk about opening up our choirs (or our schools or our boardrooms) to attract people from a wider range of demographics than hitherto. But the two words approach the same project from interestingly distinct angles, and once you start thinking through the differences it can affect how you go about that project.

The immediate context for this is the Barbershop Harmony Society’s new strategic vision, which I both praised and critiqued a few weeks back. The topicality is far wider than this, of course, but it was this set of debates that had me thinking about this in a more focused fashion, and coming to the conclusion that, if you want to get ‘Everyone in Harmony’, inclusiveness is a more useful term to focus on than diversity.

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