Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How we say it, how we sing it

This week, I’m talking with ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox, who directs the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, about his work on the language and sound of country music. His book, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, like our conversation, is both concrete and theoretical, getting at how people talk and sing and why it matters.

Aaron Fox has a good gig. For his book, he spent several years observing, interviewing, and even playing music in a honky-tonk bar outside of Austin, TX. These days, he’s spending time in Barrow, Alaska, working with the native Inupiat people, young and old, to return a collection of interviews, song performances, and documents that have been in the Columbia University archive. While that work involves very long flights from New York to Alaska, it’s also hands-on ethnomusicology, and that’s what seems to inspire Fox.

What I like best about Fox’s work is the idea that popular music matters. We listen to certain music, in certain ways, because of what it does for us. Music can express who we are, and it can shape our relationships with others. It can comment on everyday life or on politics, or both. I also appreciate how Fox links music with conversation, viewing both as ways that we use voice. He reminds us that it’s not just what we say that matters, but how we say it.

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