Resort Communities and Lomax Field Recordings

I’m back from a recent roadtrip through the South Atlantic with my Kate (focusing on the coast from Williamsburg, VA to Savannah, GA). I couldn’t help but think about Alan Lomax’s Sea Island recordings on this trip, including the below:

Bessie Jones & The Georgia Sea Island Singers “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (St. Simons Island, GA; 1960)

Though I unfortunately was unable to visit St. Simons Island on this trip, I did find myself in some of the more popular vacation islands such as Hilton Head, SC and Tybee Island, GA. Amidst the private gated-communities and luxury motels, it’s difficult to imagine these places as the site of such recordings. On Hilton Head Island in particular the island’s cultural history is hidden from view. The historic location of Fort Mitchel is accessible to the public only by procuring a visitor’s pass at the gatehouse to the Hilton Head Plantation private community. More importantly to our discussion, the location of Mitchelville, the freedman’s town established during the civil war by Gen. Mitchel to address the large number of contraband slaves, is referenced by a single historic marker that is not advertised by any signs along the main highway of Hilton Head, and does not appear on local tourist maps, unlike Ft. Mitchel. An important site in the development of black rights and the maintenance of Gullah culture, Mitchelville has been gently erased from Hilton Head’s self-image. (Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, a Gullah museum is under construction on Hilton Head, and the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn Plantation offers Gullah-related tours. Nonetheless, the physical site of Mitchelville represents a lacuna.) The islands have over the years been whitewashed into what Conrad’s Marlowe would no longer call “the dark places of the earth,” or rather for our purposes, an area of creative discourse and subjective intereaction. Is it possible then, with the continuous encroachment of interstates and chain restaurants for regional cultures to survive?

This is not to say of course, that places such as Hilton Head, SC are not locations of discourse and exchange that surpass the level of interaction allowed through the façades of vacation spectacle. This was disproved by the lively debate in the Hilton Head laundromat following the president’s speech of June 29, 2011 regarding the debt ceiling and corporate tax breaks, a debate that crossed both racial and class boundaries. In this case, discourse and creativity does not disappear from an area, fleeing from shopping malls and outlets stores, but rather remains likely where it always has: in the margins between disparate identities and ideas of the world, hidden from the view of tourist capital.

This is also not to say there is no value in the deterritorialization of regional cultures. One need look no further than the, what I like to call, Lomax-rock of bands such as Bruce Peninsula, who rework source material from Lomax’s field recordings into powerful indie rock, such as the below transformation of the tune “Satisfied.”

Florence Stamp & Group of Girls, from Land Where the Blues Began (2001)

Bruce Peninsula, “Satisfied” from A Mountain is a Mouth (2009)

A further instance of reworked field recordings, Duke University recently presented a concert series in which Megafaun and other artists covered songs from Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South collection. In this case, creative discourse is expanded through the in-roads provided by interstates, creating a larger region of discourse with perhaps far greater potentiality.

A third, and powerful, option is that regional cultures and identities re-entrench, perhaps in a somewhat modified form, in reaction to the encroachment of an outside power. As an example of this, my first trip through the South took my friend CW and myself through the backroads of Alabama and Mississippi, and we were quite surprised to have spotted only a single rebel flag. On my most recent trip, through popular tourist destinations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the Confederate Battle Flag seemed to adorn every possible surface, from trucks to beach towels. Perhaps this seeming error in my judgement is merely a fault of my ignorance. (In which case, the appropriate question would become “Why did I expect to see more Confederate flags in rural Mississippi and Alabama?” One must consider, of course that South Carolina was, after all, the first state to secede and saw the first battle of the war.) I will be the first to admit to this possibility. The other option is that in an area where a Southern identity is relatively unthreatened such as rural Alabama, the necessity to exaggerate ties to the South’s unique identity, which is quite often linked to the rebel flag, does not exist.

A further point is raised by the film The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009). The ‘outlaw’ White family, who are the subjects of this documentary, display images of Confederate flags at a couple points in the film. Though not to my knowledge a popular tourist destination, Boone County, West Virginia is a site of coal production, another form of employment that, like tourism, tends to involve outside capital. In this example, and the previous, we can see an entrenchment of regional difference in areas where outside capital threatens local autonomy.

As such, the we have at least three possible results from the supposed loss of regional identity prompted by the incursion of a homogenized international consumer culture. One, discourse and hybridity continue in the ‘dark’ spaces behind the gleaming façades of luxury resorts. Two, increased points of contact allow for a greater creative potential across a deterritorialized plane of communication. Or three, encroachments of outside capital and influence merely create a drive to strengthen regional identities in a reactionary manner. Thoughts?

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2 Comments

Filed under Blues, Field Recordings, Folk, Lomax, Music, Post-War Blues

2 responses to “Resort Communities and Lomax Field Recordings

  1. chriis W

    The lack of flags in Mississippi has periodically haunted me as well. I’d like to take another trip through one day and see if our snapshot was an accurate one (also see if Nawlins has been rebuilt yet). I like the idea of cultural bounderies where identity is and is not threatened percipitating a need to emblazon it upon every surface in such a bravdo way as the confederate flag. The other idea that i had been leaning towards is that the deep south is much more impoverished than places like SC. I also recall there being far fewer American flags in Mississippi and Alabama, especially in contrast with the afluent suburbs of the north-west which i have now been exposed to. Do you think maybe its a money/luxery item thing? The southern poor cannot afford to $50 novelty flags and the somewhat better of folks of Carolina can?

    And the first part of your story just breaks my heart. It’s one thing to deal with the selective shaping of history at a theoretical level…but to see it actually happening; to see parts of history get glosed over and made to tell a more flatering story. It should be a crime.

    • zk.

      I’ve been reading Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, which covers US history from 1815 through 1848, and from reading it, I suppose one of the things that deserves to be expanded on is South Carolina’s history. While I did mention that SC was the first state to secede, this action was not without precedent. Even throughout John Quincy Adams’ and Andrew Jackson’s presidencies South Carolina remained the most vocal proslavery/states’ rights advocate, going so far as to suggest that states had the right to nullify federal amendments within their borders, leading to The Nullification Crisis of 1832. Obviously, the difference in frequency of Confederate flags has a myriad of causes, of which your economic reasoning seems sound; however, South Carolina’s history as a centre of Southern dissidence shouldn’t be overlooked.

      I was certainly dissappointed when I could not find the location of Mitchellville on Hilton Head, as this site was one of my primary motivations for travelling to Hilton Head. Regardless, as you say, it was both enlightening and disappointing to see selective history in actuality.

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