Monday, April 7, 2014

The Problem(s) of Hearing the Past

Today I'm lecturing on revivalism and reform movements in the 1820s-1840s. In preparation for today's discussion, my students read this text by C.G. Finney.

We will also be looking at revival hymns -- which means we should probably listen to at least one.

I am tempted to play this version of "Rock of Ages":


I mean, if they're going to listen to something, they might as well hear something.

But to play any audio clip introduces some problems.

First, there's the problem of anachronism. In a way, it's no more anachronistic to play Ella Fitzgerald singing this hymn than it would be to play a Victrola version from 1910 (if I could find one).  Clearly, any recording I play of "Rock of Ages" is not going to give my students access to early 19th century hymnody, but to some aspect of its lingering cultural legacy, its aesthetic after-effect.  Even if I could find that early gramophone recording, that's not going to be anything close to what a revival hymn would have sounded like in its antebellum settings -- the camp meeting, the packed-out lecture hall, the church-house lit by whale-oil lamps.

There's also, I guess, the possibility of a Sacred Harp version, which would (one supposes) preserve or pass down an older style of singing that at least would have a claim to representing some conventions of congregational music from the 1830s or 1840s.  But shaped-note singing from Appalachia was not the style of revival music in the burned-over district around Rochester, I'm pretty sure.

I did find this version of the melody, which I might use -- it's a "sing-along" video, with a highlighted "cursor" moving across the hymnal page in time with the electronic piano accompaniment.  (Note: there will be no actual singing involved.)

The above recording would at least give the students an ear for the melody written by Thomas Hastings, who was C.G. Finney's music director.  This melody, "Toplady," named after the hymn's lyricist, was popularized and propagated by the revivalists and has been a part of the hymnic repertoire of evangelical Christianity in America ever since, in white and Black churches.  Theoretically, you can still hear this hymn -- these words, to this music -- in churches today.  Indeed, perhaps some of my students have heard this hymn before in a religious or a secular setting.  However, as a matter of respect for their richly diverse backgrounds and as a matter of general pedagogical practice, I would never assume their familiarity with the song.

And even if some of them might be familiar with this tune from their own experience, my task is to make the familiar strange. Among other things, I need to convey to my students the ubiquity and popularity and profusion of revivalist music, the use of music in a way that was innovative and calculated -- music carefully calibrated with message to encourage conversions in a milieu of participatory theatricality. But the thing with this kind of singing is that it carried over way beyond the theatrical setting of the revival meeting -- maybe carrying that setting within it in some ways, but also becoming more generally part of the cultural milieu, an important genre within the shared repertoire of American popular expression.  

Anyhow, I think it would be frustrating to try to tell them about a genre of music without providing them with some sense of it, some sound of it.  But whatever I play for them does not come unmediated.  They won't be hearing the 19th century revivals, whether I play footage of an old-timey hymn sing, Ella Fitzgerald, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  They -- and I -- are listening in and from the present.  Even the most "faithful" re-creation of 19th-century hymn singing would sound and signify differently for me and my students, with our aesthetic and social sensibilities shaped by our current cultural moment.

The problem with teaching history -- this history, or any other -- is that we must proceed via broken analogies.  Nineteenth century songs, recorded on 20th century technology, played in a 21st century classroom -- how is that process giving them access to a  "then" that is distant or different from "now"?  How do we help students understand the otherness of the past, how do we give them a sense of it?  How do we give ourselves a sense of it?  And how do we develop a sensibility about the past that does not depend at some level on an appeal to our senses?

That last question is the most important one.  To my knowledge, I do not presently have any differently-abled students in my class, and this circumstance could allow me to rather carelessly assume that airing an audio clip would be a useful addition to the lecture, that listening to a song together would be a useful exercise.  And I think it can be a useful exercise -- I'll do my best to make it so.  But the idea that imaginative access to the milieu and meaning of the past might depend on some sensory experience -- hearing something, seeing something, handling some artifact -- is probably not so useful.  It may be the case that my knowledge or assumptions about my own abilities and the abilities of my students are getting in the way of my teaching and their learning.

There is nothing unproblematic about trying to understand the past from the vantage point of the present, and there's certainly nothing unproblematic about teaching others to attempt to do likewise.  Playing an audio clip of an old revival hymn won't solve any of these problems.  But it might provide an opportunity to think about some of these problems, including the problems of underproblematized assumptions about and experiences of ability and accessibility.

At this point, when it comes to teaching (and many other things), I have more questions than answers.  So I would very much appreciate any insights, any corrections, any critiques of the ideas I am struggling to articulate and contend with here.


  1. Great post Lora! I can't help plugging the great website assembled by Lone Star Kingwood. It's a great resource for finding American historical music and interpretive essays.

    I'd like to particularly highlight this 1867 Atlantic Monthly article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson that highlights his experience listening to spirituals in contraband camps.

  2. Thanks -- so much -- for this! I will definitely pull from this site.

    When I taught the second half of the survey, I would frequently play audio clips or video clips that could in fact "count" as primary texts. But in those classes, too, I did not have any differently-abled students, and so I never really thought through my own assumptions about accessibility -- the accessibility my students and I have to these kinds of resources, or the accessibility we have through them to the past.

    So the fact that any audio for the early 19th century cannot *ever* be a primary text -- that there is an "accessibility issue" here -- kind of jogged my awareness about assumptions about (in)accessibility as a problem that connects pedagogy to epistemology (if that makes any sense).

  3. I enjoyed this post, particularly since I've done a lot of researching and writing about 19th century music, and because I use music often in class. I think you're right that there will never be an unmediated, experiential access to 19th century music. But that seems true of any "text" we use: written, oral, and so on. Even if someone had bothered to record a Moody/Sankey revival, that would still be "mediated" because of what was chosen to record, who was singing that day, and so on and so on. I find it useful to remind students that recordings we hear are mediated in different ways, but then to also just let them have fun and hear the music. No, it's not perfect, but it seems that the alternative is to just not play music at all. And I have had students sing along to songs if they could, and they enjoy it. So give it a try! Students are incredibly tuned in (pardon the pun) to music, and they are often very interested to learn about new (old) styles they have never encountered.

  4. Thanks for this insight and encouragement. You are correct indeed -- any media mediates. It's in the name! I guess I am hesitant to play recordings "from" the pre-recording era for the same reason I would be hesitant to show a film portraying that era. I've never used film clips in my class except as primary sources -- e.g., clips from Birth of a Nation as a window into Lost Cause ideology and racist representations in the 1910s. I know a lot of folks who teach the first half of the survey use "Black Robe," and I have seen some historians use "Amistad" in teaching. I understand the rationale, especially in the survey, which is introductory, and which is likely to be the last history class most of the students will take. But it's not my approach.

    However, I did end up showing a youtube clip of a hymn sing featuring "Rock of Ages." I selected this one because it is not a polished production, not musically sophisticated, but a participatory congregational exercise. There was an unrehearsed sincerity about it that might be somewhat analogous to how congregations attending revival meetings entered into the singing. (Of course, there was nothing unrehearsed or unplanned about the hymn selection at revival meetings, something we discussed in class as well.)

    Anyway, here's the link if you want to take a look: Rock of Ages