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Eric Weisbard

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Eric Weisbard
is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, organizer of the Pop Conference, editor of three MoPOP (formerly EMP Museum) anthologies (This Is Pop,Listen Again, and Pop When the World Falls Apart) and the Spin Alternative Record Guide, and author of Use Your Illusion in the 33 1/3 series and Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, which won the IASPM-US Woody Guthrie Prize for best book.

“Anthems and Angularity: Sentimental/Vernacular Divides In Music Writing”

Stresses on sentimental politics and vernacular remove have long tangled in our music literature: consider Lucy McKim, the teenage feminist who went south during the Civil War, publishing Roll, Jordan Roll and Slave Songs of the United States. McKim wrote her best girlfriend: “Kneeling in that poor cabin with those who suffered scourgings at our hands, & listening to that child-like old preacher calling down blessings on their new friends who had come ‘so far, ‘way from de beautiful Norf’ to deliver them, instead of cursing every Anglo-Saxon, as he had cause & right to do—I vowed that if I ever forgot them, so might Heaven forget me!” For Dwight’s she was musicological: “odd turns made in the throat; and that curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals.”


Drawing on research for my current book, an intellectual history of American popular music, I will explore how many classic texts balance these two impulses. Examples might include John Lomax's Cowboy Songs, Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn, Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues, Bill Malone's Country Music USA, and Charles Hamm's Yesterdays. Arguably, the sentimental framing often connects to politics and advocacy of the work itself, where vernacular framing, driven by more individualistic experience and impulses, disrupts the benevolence. Conceptions alternately divide folk, subcultural, and subaltern communities from mass or pop publics. And there is a visible arc, historically: the steady rise of vernacular perspectives throughout the twentieth century, peaking with rock, soul, and country in the 1970s, and subsequently a sentimental backlash of sorts, looking to recuperate everything that hipsters, edgy writers, and blues people left behind.