Thursday, March 10, 2011

Odetta's laugh


Ah, check out this lovely piece about Odetta, catch her discussion of  “theft”  where she schools her interviewer on inappropriate application of property arguments to musicking in the tradition she is a part of.
Seriously. Watch it first, it's a lovely 20 minutes, and then I will take you through her amazing smackdown of her interviewer.


At 13:48, he asks her about Dylan, about how he “took something deep from" her. She pushes back, says he was "influenced" by her, but that he did his own thing with it. 

He than says that Dylan listened to the same songs as her, recordings of sharecroppers, workers and slaves, and “stole" from them. She says, immediately,  (at 14:15) “no no no no no"
"no no no no no"
" we call it folk music we don’t call it stealing.” And this look, while she says it
"we don't call it stealing"
And then as she is trying to choose the right word ("what do we call it?" she asks herself, clearly), the interviewer offers "Appropriation?" 

And Odetta says: “well we could but we don’t” and looks back again at him for emphasis.

"but we don't"
Odetta will have none of this property language, even though her discussion of the music is rooted in a sense of ownership in a way, ownership of her self and her experiences and her perspectives.  First, she roots what Dylan did in a social practice, She says we call it “passing on the folk tradition.

But then, she laughs. I love the long long long laugh she gives after defending Dylan. She connects him to the tradition, but then she gives this drawn-out, deep, rather dark sounding (to me) heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh (24, I counted) at 14:31..
In it, I hear a lot of things going on. But starting with the fact that she begins by looking him in the eye while she laughs:

"passing on the folk tradition"
she’s tossing back at him words used by music-writers, scholars, ethnomusicologists --people who also, for the most part, are implicated in different but maybe equally hierarchical institutions.

But the laugh continues. There's more in there, I think. The most obvious, is the one maybe hinted at in the interviewer’s “theft” language used by : focusing on the different people involved in the tradition. Dylan, a white guy, and black sharecroppers in the south. 

And she keeps laughing

She is not only adamant that theft is not really the right word, she earlier describes the folk scene, the “bohemians” as a home for her, and I don’t think that scene was all black sharecroppers. But there's a lot in that long, long laugh. I wonder if there's something broader than the story of Dylan and his relationship to the music personally.  Because she talks about tradition, she shows how aware she is of social institutions bigger than individuals. Maybe that laugh has in it the rueful acknowledgment of how Dylan was able to make something of that folk tradition that catapulted him into a kind of fame not reachable by the people with whom he was in creative dialogue, not because of his talent, but because of his position – although an outsider, he’s not as much of an outsider as sharecroppers in the south. Even through genuine participation in the tradition, he ends up with something quite different, because he has access to institutional power by virtue of things that are partly beyond his or anyone’s control.

But, ironically, given the whole piece is about her, the interviewer doesn’t seem to be really listening to Odetta and the points she make. Even when she fixes him with a lazer-like look

"It ain't what you say it's the way you say it"
saying “it’s ain’t what you say it’s the way you say it” (14:37)
how can he miss that look? How much more explicit can she be, that the language you apply to musicking matters, that words like "stealing" do violence to the social realities of music?

But he can’t let go of the morally-inflected language, keeps harping on the word "steal." So then she changes tactics and says  "we professionals have stolen an awful lot from amateurs!"

 Undercutting and complicating his simplistic approach. She said those guys making those songs didn't get paid for them .. "but us professional people got at'em, and learned from'em..."
SO AMAZING. She implicates herself in this system of power - she doesn't claim ownership as a bohemian, a folkie or a black person. Instead she recognizes her specific status, someone who gets paid within a larger system. Not in a guilty way, but not in denial about the realities of music-making, even alongside the potential for communication, mobilization and healing.

Preach it, Odetta!


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Cops kicked my class out of the building (rare non-music post)

The same questions I ask about the claims over "intellectual property" have always been worth asking about physical property. By what right do people claim the right to exclude? What rights do people who labor and create have to define access and share what they have?

Those of you who tried to come on Thursday, I apologize - the police let several of us in and we were inside the building until police came and told us the chancellor was closing the building at which point we had to leave.
A question this course should lead you to ask is: by what right does the chancellor get to close Wheeler Hall? Whose property is it?

Know that this university exists because the land was donated by the state to the university in exchange for it providing free education to the citizens of California. In terms of labor theories of value, if the labor of teachers is part of the educational mission, at what point do teachers get to decide what happens on school property? If you believe, as I do, that students labor is also part of education - helping create what is learned by all in the classroom, what right do students have to make use of the spaces that were given as sites of education? If there is disagreement or diversity of opinion, who or what should arbitrate these rights?

I later got an email from the chancellor saying there was a "health and safety issue" in Wheeler which necessitated closing it. This seems odd to me.  I also heard from a friend who was stopping by Wheeler (a volunteer medic) that police had pepper-sprayed and beaten protesters with batons while attempting to remove them from the area. (was that the health and safety issue? if so, I can think of a few ways short of closing the building that could have protected people)

I encourage you to think about the primacy of property rights in what happened at Wheeler Hall. Property rights in objects were supreme over rights over people's own bodies. The rights to bodily integrity of the students were not as important as the rights of the chancellor to control what happens in Wheeler Hall. Its true there may have been a concern about damage to the building - but during the first occupation a police officer smashed the hand (and nearly took off the finger) of a student who was participating in the protests (nonviolently and not causing property damage), and yet police are still allowed on campus. The costs and the harm of  batons and pepper spray are not as much concern to the university as the right of the university to control property.
Whose rights are being protected by this? (note that we were carrying on our section without a problem until this happened, it was the police who were limiting access).

Of course there is the question of students right to pursue an education without protest. As above, who should be the arbiter between those different opinions about educational priorities in situations where protesters ARE disrupting classes?

But also, what happens if you include the rights of the students and former students, and also the janitors (speaking of keeping the building in good shape) who are no longer on campus because of the policies like fee hikes and the layoffs dictated by Operational Excellence? Did they have any rights? Milton Friedman (whom we read this week) would say no. But what about the founders of the UC system and its mission?

Also, the rights of nonprotesting students to pursue an education are affected anyway, because even despite the massive fee increases the resulting funds have not gone to education: class sizes are increasing, labs are cut, teaching resources are cut, class sessions are cut ( this course has four fewer classes than usual because of the cuts), libraries are closed, construction disrupts the campus as much as protests..

I hope this is food for thought and future discussion!