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Abstract

“Underground Sounds” examines the roles played by folklore collecting, sound recording, and popular song in twentieth-century American poetry. What was it about the age of mechanical reproducibility in sound, this study asks, that drew poets to the world of folklore, oral tradition, and vernacular song? In recent decades, influential studies of modern poetry and modern media have emphasized experiments with the graphical and graphemic dimensions of language—whether it be the verbal plasticity of poetic texts or the sound patterning of poetry performances—as the sine qua non of modernism. This study, however, highlights a subterranean tradition of collaboration and exchange between American poets and folklorists that contributed to a very different kind of modernism predicated on explorations into the cultural and technological substrata of poetic expression as such. Folklore scholarship in the twentieth century appealed to American poets, I argue, because its theories about cultural identity and cohesion put tools in the hands of poets as the makers of song to address problems of social conflict and anomie. After the First World War, the most salient of these problems for poets and folklorists fell along lines of race and class. The advent of phonography in folklore collecting only deepened poets’ interest in the field, as the medium’s acoustic amplitude and affective resonance seemed to give an aura to song that exceeded the communicative powers of language itself to produce the various forms of cohesion that folklorists upheld as cultural ideals.,Since the late nineteenth century, American folklorists found a matrix for theories about cultural identity and cohesion in the ballad. Through readings of Carl Sandburg, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, Carolyn Rodgers, and others, this study shows how poets in the twentieth century urged folklorists to consider genres of song beyond the ballad—the folksong, the blues, and soul—as cultural concepts with similarly deep social and political stakes. Like the ballad, these genres also served folklorists and poets alike as models for the democratic political processes that they thought were capable of solving problems of social conflict and anomie. This study challenges a prevailing view in the current field of ballad studies, however, that sees vernacular song in general as a canon of artifacts expropriated from non-elite cultures and used as vehicles to further elite political ends. In demediating vernacular song from the forms of textual artifactuality in which such reduction could occur, I argue, phonography introduced a new kind of abstraction—acousmatic and imitable voices proliferating throughout recording culture—that also expanded vernacular song’s social and political horizons beyond mere ideology. This study builds on a growing body of scholarship on American literature and popular song by focusing on the ways poets and folklorists made vernacular song a crucible for the politics of racial segregation during Jim Crow, of racial backlash after the Civil Rights Movement, and of class conflict in the postindustrial era.,This study makes the case that folklore scholarship was central to the making of modern American poetry. It tells a story of collaboration and exchange between poets and folklorists that is part and parcel of an overarching narrative about the cultural politics of American pluralism and the fate of folk culture in particular as a vehicle in its quest for social and economic equality. This story of modern American poetry begins in Chicago in 1917, where Carl Sandburg debated John Lomax about the status of folksong as a model of cultural hybridization rather than homogeneity. It then explores the folklore-oriented Chicago phase of the Negro Renaissance and finds in Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright a theory of the blues as an expression of critical race consciousness. The story then concentrates on a post-Eurocentric moment in the postwar countercultural avant-garde, when the Black Arts Movement and a new anthropological turn in folklore scholarship used the dual musical and lifestyle concept of soul to put black culture at the center of American ethnic pluralism. The story closes with the poet and folklorist Jonathan Williams, who died in 2008 after turning the cultural politics of folklore back on the kinds of class conflict that this year in American economic history would bring to the fore.

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