Archive for November, 2008

Origins 1901

Monday, November 10th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

Generation X, which just came of Presidential age on November 4th, is perhaps the most archaeological generation in American history. From the perspective of a personal narrative, I’ve been exploring the thesis of Punk Archaeology (see other postings under this heading). Leaving aside the solipsism of my own decade (80s), I would like to note a chapter in American history that prefigures rock ‘n roll altogether. I think I’ve discovered the earliest intersection between archaeology and American popular music, namely Charles Peabody’s excavations in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1901. Peabody developed an interest on the music of his workmen. Three decades before the ground-breaking musicological fieldwork of John and Alan Lomax, the Delta blues were discovered in the collaborative toils of excavation.

Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody arrived at Coahoma County on May 11, 1901 and conducted a seven-week excavation season at the Dorr Plantation in Clarksdale and the Edwards Plantation in Oliver. The excavations focused on mounds of the Choctaw people. The work was made strenuous by the damp black soil of the Mississippi River. The team of hired workers, (a group of 9-15 people) motivated their labor by song. Their repetitive and mesmerizing chants caught the director’s attention. Peabody was transformed by what he had heard. Before even processing his own excavation finds, he published “Notes on Negro Music,” in the Journal of American Folk Lore 16 (July-September 1903), pp. 148-152. He was the first academic to discover the blues, hoping for their “future study and classification.” The archaeological publication appeared later, “Exploration of Mounds, Coahoma County, Mississippi,” Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology vol. 2, no. 2 (Cambridge, Mass, June 1904).

Those readers who have an appreciation of the excavation processes will enjoy Peabody’s description of vertical descent and musical stratigraphy: “On their beginning a trench at the surface the woods for a day would echo their yelling with faithfulness. The next day or two these artists, being, like the Bayreuth orchestra, sunk out of sight, there would arise from behind the dump heap a not unwholesome μυγμός as of the quiescent Furies.” (p. 148)

It is noteworthy also to note how Peabody perceived his work as different from the establishment of classical archaeology. If we browse through a 1905 issue of theAmerican Journal of Archaeology, we find articles on Eleusinian inscriptions, on a signed amphora at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, on a terra-cotta figurine at the Cincinnati Art Museum, on the gates of Dimytrias and on stoas in Ancient Corinth. Within this overwhelmingly classical setting, Charles Peabody summarized archaeological activities in North America (including his own project in Mississippi). His implicit defensiveness against classical archaeology is suggested in the opening paragraph and helps us comprehend his receptiveness of the blues.

“A striking difference in the importance of archaeology in relation to other sciences is to be seen on comparing work undertaken in its name in the so-called classical lands with that in America. In the former case archaeology is a more or less independent study… In the western hemisphere, however, archaeology is but one of the sciences grouped under anthropology: ethnology, ethnograpy, folk-lore, and somatology are all nearly equally with archaeology considered in research and report while geology, paleontology, and even meteorology are drawn upon in corroborating or limiting suggestions.” Charles Peabody, “American Archaeology during the Years 1900-1905: A Summary,” AJA 9:2 (April-June 1905), pp. 182-196. An open-ended discipline was, thus, necessary to appreciate the music of its laborers. A classical archaeologist would have never received the blues.

I became aware of Charles Peabody while reading a new book, Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music(New York, 2008), pp. 20-22. It was reviewed in the Economist (of all places) and I checked it out (most fittingly) from the public library. A few weeks ago, Bill Caraher got me thinking about the blues from his series on Archaeological Dreams, seeBlindness, Dreams and Relics, (Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, Oct. 29, 2008). On the guitar playing front, I’ve been enduring a hiatus thanks to a slight tendonitis on the left hand (home improvement injury). But the right hand is still good, so I’m thinking about focusing on some finger-picking techniques. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I’m tempted by the Merle Travis finger style. Mark D. Hanson’s The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking seems to be highly recommended.

Getting back on the topic of Punk Archaeology, I have one more comment to make. If one were to write a book about this subject, Charles Peabody would clearly be the first chapter. For a second chapter, I think one would have to look into the 1930s and WPA excavations. One interesting figure might be John B. Elliott working in Kentucky. Did he intersect with bluegrass? I should also divulge the knowledge that my own mentor, Cecil L. Striker, was a devoted scholar of bluegrass before turning his attention to medieval archaeology. Few people know that Striker was a highly accomplished professional jazz guitarist at Oberlin College.

Lots of new books have appeared on the New Deal. Nick Taylor’s, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (New York, 2008) includes a chapter on Kentucky archaeology. There’s also a new biography of Roosevelt with a wonderful title, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York, 2008) by H. W. Brands. Given the economic downturns and the election of Barack Obama, books on Roosevelt (and Lincoln) will abound in 2009. See, for instance, Paul Krugman editorial “Franklin Delano Obama?” New York Times (Nov. 10, 2008). Isn’t it amazing that Krugman won a Nobel prize this year?