American Musicological Society, Inc.

Teaching Vernacular Music Traditions of the Southeastern United States

Vernacular music traditions are increasingly embraced by music departments, not only as objects of academic inquiry but as musical practices in which to immerse and train our students. While jazz has become nearly ubiquitous in higher education, other vernacular traditions are finding a place, including many that trace their roots to the Southeastern United States (e.g. gospel, bluegrass, old-time) and others that flourish there today (e.g. mariachi, hip-hop, West African drumming).

This symposium is not concerned with teaching students about vernacular traditions, but rather teaching them to think, vocalize, play, and create within vernacular traditions. It will address both music-making practices that have already been incorporated into college and advanced high school curricula and those that should be.

The integration of vernacular music-making into music programs offers numerous advantages. Students gain experience with oral transmission, engage with participatory values, build community, explore new professional avenues, and develop respect for vernacular ways of musicking. They are also likely to encounter unfamiliar cultures, learn crucial histories, and expand their notions of what music can be and do. When institutions embrace vernacular traditions, they can communicate to students that these traditions are worthy of respect.

At the same time, the integration of vernacular practices into education carries risk. Vernacular music-making is often sidelined, presented to students as something “extra” that might be added to the study of Western art music, but that cannot substitute for it. The values of Western art music—concerning, for example, transmission, rehearsal, and presentation—can be imposed on vernacular traditions in ways that are not appropriate, and that subjugate the values of tradition bearers. Finally, the institutionalization of vernacular music-making can do harm to the communities of musicians who carry those traditions, and to the traditions themselves, by shifting power into centers of higher education, reducing stylistic diversity, and displacing traditional practices.

This symposium will bring together teacher-scholars who have extensive experience sharing vernacular traditions with students in the context of higher education. They will discuss triumphs and pitfalls, reflect on their methods, and offer suggestions for the best way forward as more programs seek to expand their offerings and prepare students to engage with diverse musical cultures.

This symposium will take place on Saturday, March 18, online, beginning around noon and concluding in the evening. It will consist of individual presentations and panel discussions, in which presenters will enter into conversation with one another and with other participants. It will be fully virtual, and both presenters and attendees are welcome to join via Zoom. The symposium will be recorded and published online. Co-organized with Esther Morgan-Ellis, President of the AMS South-Central chapter.



Session 1: Vernacular Music Programs
Session Chair: Esther Morgan-Ellis (University of North Georgia)

1:00pm: “Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music at ETSU,” Nate Olson, Eastern Tennessee State University
In this presentation I will consider the history, curriculum, and philosophical approach of the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies Program at East Tennessee State University. Providing students with a sense of the musical landscape that they are a part of, and seeking to immerse them in a culture of the music, are at the heart of the curriculum. The 50 majors in the program take a three course sequence in Roots Music History, a four-course music theory sequence tailored to the peculiarities of these genres, private lessons with top-level performers, and perform in one of 20+ bands. I will describe the program and detail how it arrived at this point through several iterations: 18 years in the department of music, the tensions that eventually led to relocating to the Department of Appalachian Studies, and the following 20 years of sustained growth in that department.

1:30pm: “Crooked Tunes as Curriculum: Building a Traditional Music Program at Warren Wilson College,” Kevin Kehrberg, Warren Wilson College
At Warren Wilson College in Western North Carolina, a cornerstone of the music curriculum is a concentration in Traditional Music that emphasizes the multicultural roots, influences, and varieties of vernacular music within Southern Appalachia. Embracing change and innovation while celebrating the many artistic lifeways and expressions of previous generations, it strives to foster an inclusive, intergenerational artistic community where students acquire a shared musical language and develop their own unique voice. A degree program established in 2018 stresses regional and cultural contexts through a methodological hybrid of music theory and performance, Appalachian studies, cultural studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology, offering a case study around developing such curriculum at a small liberal arts college in the region.

Session 2: Music of the Mexican Diaspora
Session Chair: Stephen Turner (University of Georgia)

2:30pm: “Traditional Music Transmission and Community in Mexico at the Turn of the 21st Century,” Raquel Paraiso, Xalapa, Mexico
Since the mid 1980s, researchers, musicians, and cultural promoters have organized music festivals and cultural educational projects as vehicles for the sharing and revitalization of Mexico’s traditional music cultures. These initiatives respond to a perceived scarcity of traditional cultural expression resulting from the deterioration of social spaces for traditional music in Mexico’s cities and countryside alike. Many young musicians have thus turned to traditional musical forms, such as Mexican son, as a way of exploring their own identities and cultivating a sense of belonging. Today, vibrant music scenes, cultural centers, and festivals of son flourish across Mexico, its various cultural regions. Many of these events and institutions are led by and for young musicians and community organizers. For them, learning/teaching traditional music and musicking mean community building. The sonic and affective landscapes of son open up a new sense of identity and inclusion that transverses time, place, and geopolitical borders. I explore these issues across Mexican Huasteco, Jarocho and Tierra Caliente regions and consider the role of revival movements in perpetuating and transforming the cultural knowledge held within traditional musical practice.

3:00pm: “Reasserting Latino Sounds in American Spaces,” Dan Margolies, Virginia Wesleyan University
This talk will describe a variety of initiatives designed to expand and diversify the aperture of sound studies and vernacular music studies in university classes and also in public facing applied ethnomusicology efforts to include the sounds of the Mexican diaspora as a central component of music and soundscape in the United States. This talk will include consideration of interdisciplinary university course conception and design, community-based instrument instruction, and festival presentation with a focus on genres like son huasteco and Tejano Conjunto music.


Session 3: Gospel & Blues
Session Chair: Peter Lamothe (Belmont University)

4:00pm: “’Someone Asked a Question, ‘Why Do We Sing?’: (Re)Constructing Gospel Music on College Campuses,” Emmanuel Joshua Stokes, Berea College
Gospel music exists at the nexus of secular and sacred Black musics. It is both a religious soundscape and a popular genre. And on college campuses, it is removed from its traditional environment and placed into an academic schema where practitioners are often new to the repertoire, the texts behind it, and/or the culture that created it. How is this complex existence possible? This session will investigate the situations, setbacks, set-ups, and successes of teaching, practicing, performing gospel music within non-traditional, academic spaces and ask the pedagogical question, as the song lyric says, “why do we sing?” to institutional gospel music participants.

4:30pm: “Teaching Memphis Music in Memphis,” Tyler Fritts, Rhodes College
Memphis, TN has a long, troublesome, and equally spectacular tradition of music making and thriving music communities. Yet this music and these music communities are very rarely topics for discourse at Memphis’s colleges and universities, and especially so within the music department. In this presentation, Dr. Fritts, a Memphis-based ethnomusicologist, will discuss some of the many rewards, challenges, and unexpected surprises he’s experienced in studying and teaching local folk and popular music. Dr. Fritts has a PhD in Musicology/Southern Regional Studies from the University of Memphis and has taught at Rhodes College and Memphis College of Art (both in Memphis, TN) as well as at Paderborn Universität in Germany.

Session 4: Bluegrass & Old-Time
Session Chair: Taylor Ackley (Brandeis University)

5:30pm: “Building Inclusive Spaces in Higher Education Bluegrass and Old-Time Programs,” Travis Stimeling, West Virginia University
Bluegrass and old-time music might seem like strange places to build cultures of inclusivity in a school of music, given these traditions’ deep and, at times, overdetermined links to Eurocentrism, white supremacy, hypermasculinity, and homophobia. Without focused and intentional interventions, in fact, it seems not only possible, but likely that bluegrass and old-time ensembles could reinforce the exclusive foundations of music in higher education, albeit with a rural twang. In this talk, I consider some of tools that I have used to create an environment in which students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and disabled students could thrive musically and socially, as well as some of the potential challenges and opportunities that might arise in the process of implementing these practices. Rather than offering a set of one-size-fits-most best practices, however, this talk explores the guiding questions that have led to the creation of practices that work for the students I teach in the hope that participants will use them to develop tools that work for their own situations.

6:00pm: “Taking Cues from the Tradition: Learning and Teaching in Old-Time Music,” Emily Schaad, Clemson University
As we work traditional music into spaces long held for conservatory-style training, some risk might be mitigated by a return to the roots of our music. To what extent can, or should, the processes and musical contexts that define a tradition be retained when it is incorporated into a department of music? Transmission processes and social settings in old-time music hold values that challenge a single, or “universal” standard of musicianship that biases gatekeeping, benchmarks for achievement, and curricula.