Music History and The Case Method: Minstrelsy

September 25, 2009 at 2:56 pm

I have often gotten the impression that the teaching of undergraduate music history and the case method have made uneasy bedfellows. This probably has its roots in my own experience as an undergraduate at a Big 10 research university. Almost all of my classes were run with two hours of lecture for every one hour of discussion. This served me well, but it wasn’t always clear what the purposes of the section meetings were for music history, which, in the context of a lecture, often has the sheen of a closed book, a body of facts awaiting memorization.

There is a deeper discomfort I had with the case method, though, once I learned more about it. It lay primarily with the fact that students were expected to “do” something – to take a particular action in order to solve a problem. This is a highly effective technique for action-oriented disciplines: law, public policy, design. But where does it leave music history, or indeed, the humanities as a whole? Stanley Fish (among others) takes an extreme position when he declares that the virtues of a liberal education may lie in their inutility, but it is far from clear that the goal of studying music history is to be able to “do” something or “solve” a “real-life problem” in the sense that those words are often used in higher education.

Despite my misgivings, though, I was still compelled by the case method because of its elegance, its ability to excavate large themes from short texts (musical or otherwise), and, more than anything, the fact that it places the construction of meaning in the hands of the learner, rather than the teacher.  So I’ve been experimenting with it some in my teaching, and have found that, with appropriate modifications, it can be used effectively in a music history class.

This past summer, I taught a class that met for 3.5 hours twice a week. This seemed to me an ideal environment for testing the case method, because it gave ample time to read, explore, and study more deeply during the actual class time; in shorter classes, even 90 minute ones, there is often not enough room for the ideas to breathe in the way a teacher might want them to.

I used the case method in my class on blackface minstrelsy, because I feel like the subject matter lends itself to the style of teaching. For one thing, “minstrelsy” is a century long tradition, and has many twists and turns that allow for the gradual introduction of new concepts and wrinkles to the fold. For another, it is fairly easy to locate students’ expectations for a genre like this, and then, over the course of an afternoon, destabilize them systematically.

Minstrelsy is obviously highly racially charged, one of the most racially charged topics in an American music class. But I wanted my students to see that minstrelsy was a dynamic cultural practice, full of contradictions; I didn’t want to simply leave it, as it sometimes is, as a racist appropriation by whites of black styles. So prior to class, I sought out a diversity of voices from the 19th century to introduce students to the issues: E.P. Christy’s introduction to Plantation Melodies suggested that the issue of authenticity was central to the way he was presenting his music; J. Kennard’s article “Who are Our National Poets?” suggested that minstrelsy was a necessary outcome of an environment where the “true” American music were slave songs, but necessarily had to be filtered through minstrel performances in order to be heard; and finally Frederick Douglass’s excerpts on slave singing in My Bondage and My Freedom provided students with a way of seeing behind the apparently cheerful façade of some slave songs.

So I asked students to prepare by reading those, and then began the class by asking them if they could think of any repertoires where authenticity played a large role in their experience. Not surprisingly, Hip Hop came up soon, and with it, the specter of representing race through music.

With that image in mind, I wanted to start to pick apart our understanding of race in music through a discussion of minstrelsy. For one thing, blackface seems quite obviously racist, until we arrive at all-black troupes performing in blackface in the later 19th century. That was one additional dimension that the students were surprised to learn about, and, I hope, made it messier than mere appropriation.

I also wanted to fold in a discussion of sentimentality (and its cousin, paternalism), because it complicates our understanding of race relations in the mid 19th century (or, more accurately, abolitionist views of blacks). I used Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” as an example of a song that, for Foster, was a fulcrum between his “sentimental” songs and his “Ethiopian” ones; the well know letter that he wrote to Christy rendered that clear for the students. What I really wanted them to see is that, in some respects, our present understanding of race relations in America is anachronistic, and it requires an intellectual effort, and a fair degree of historical imagining, to understand the racial dynamics that lay behind blackface minstrelsy; it is intellectually lazy simply to assign it to the racist dustbin.

Through the gradual introduction of short texts and recordings over the course of the session, I think I may have helped some students to see how, first of all, race was deliberately constructed in these performances, and, secondly, how some of these performers had a romanticized view of black America. Some purists in the case study method may have been dissatisfied, because my students did not learn how to “do” anything by the end of the afternoon. But if my students were able to see that, at some level, racial representation in music is more complicated than we often allow it to be in our minds, and minstrelsy is a particularly clear example of that, then I accomplished what I set out to do.

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