Sonnet Retman

Sonnet Retman teaches African American literature and culture at the University of Washington and she is the author of Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression (Duke 2011).



"Muddy the Waters: Other Stories of Love and Theft in the Making of the Delta Blues"

This presentation begins with simple question: while Alan Lomax, the white folklorist who collected the blues and so many other folk genres may be a well-known figure to many fans of folk music, what do we know of his black collaborators such as the musicologist John Wesley Work III and sociologist Lewis Jones with whom Lomax traveled to document the black folk culture of the Mississippi Delta from 1941-2? We might turn to the following history: Lomax’s project with Work and Jones was jointly sponsored by Fisk University and the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folksong, and it was meant to culminate in the publication of a large field study that never saw print in their lifetimes. Two recently published texts return us to the scene of their collaboration: Lomax’s memoir of that period, The Land Where the Blues Began, published belatedly in 1993, and Bruce Nemerov and Robert Gordon’s assembled and edited version of the actual field study, Lost Delta Found, published in 2005.

In turning to these works, I am interested in more than mere recovery. From one angle, this history tells a familiar story of love and theft--of racialized cultural appropriation, with or without attribution--where, to paraphrase Daphne Brooks, white collectors consume and cannibalize “the (always) black (most often) men that they admire and desire.” Yet, when we foreground Work’s contributions to the Delta study, shifting our attention to his encounters with performers and their music, how is this dynamic transformed? In these exchanges between city collector and country performer, issues of power, authority and difference arise but within a divergent intraracial context. Such encounters complicate prevailing insider/outsider paradigms of the day, including folklore’s notion of the field inhabited by the folk and visited by the collector, racial segregation’s white center and black periphery and uneven modernity’s urban and rural divide.

In the cultural collision between Fisk University and the Library of Congress; Nashville, D.C. and the Mississippi Delta; John Work, Lewis Jones, Alan Lomax, and Muddy Waters, Son House and Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards, what untold narratives of love and theft come to light? And how might they provide us with other analytics through which to understand the blues and larger histories of popular music and performance?

My Speakers Sessions

Sunday, March 25

2:15pm EDT