Psychogeography and song


According to Anthony Hutchison: “Country music is a genre defined by a sense of place. From its inception, however, the ethnomusicology and academic treatment of ‘roots’ music was more informed by temporal than spatial ideas.” (p.268) Describing the spatial aspect of John and Alan Lomax’s seminal work in the field, Hutchison observes that “There were, nevertheless, a number of tentative spatial dimensions to [Alan] Lomax’s analyses and theorizations that ran alongside the more historically oriented elements. In ‘America Sings the Saga of America,’ […] for instance, Lomax details what he describes as a number of ‘dangerous potentialities’ that folklore movements must reckon with. Among these are the processes of industrialization and urbanization that have radically altered much of the spatial context for American folk music: [-p.269]
[‘]Rural folklore can be, falsely, opposed to city folklore, thus creating or widening the split between city and country populations. We are coming to find, however, that oral literature exists in the factories and slums, as another aspect of the rural folklore.[‘]
As well as noting the significance of the city as a site of American folklore, Lomax is also alert here to heterogeneous spatial elements at a national level that might account for regional patterns in the origins and geographical spread of the various forms of roots music. This extends to questions of taste and preference as well as others of genre and style as ways in which the relationship between musical forms and specific cities, states, or regions might be determined. These were issues that were undoubtedly pressing given the new technologies of recording reproduction and dissemination that drove the ‘nationalization’ of roots music in the postwar period. The fact that such forms had once been largely confined, in terms of both their production and reception, to relatively circumscribed geographical zones of origin undoubtedly gave this music much of what was regarded as its cultural integrity; it also nonetheless ensured an immense degree of variation across regions. This variation, however, could only be widely recognized once the technologies became available to bring it to wider attention. As Lomax notes in his introduction to Folk Songs of North America, ‘the map’ sings.” (pp.268-269)

“[By the 1970s, i]t was time, according to the cultural geographers, for American folk music to be subjected to “a locational analysis [that seeks] to understand why various phenomena are where they are.” The first edition of The Sounds of People and Places, a landmark work in this field edited by George O. Carney, appeared in 1978, and was the culmination of an enormously fruitful first wave of scholarship. Despite a subsequent slowdown, by 1993 a network of more than fifty of those interested in the sub-discipline had been established and, in 2003, Sounds itself moved into a fourth edition. In recounting the various experiences he acquired in a career given over to this topic, Carney has also usefully tabulated a number of “conceptual subdivisions” that have helped him to organize Sounds, such as “spatial variation” and “culture hearth” (which denote musical taste preferences and origins as they relate to region or locale). Yet just as Lomax identified possible concerns that would later be taken up by more spatially [-p.270] oriented musicologists and folklorists, so too has Carney pinpointed potential areas of study for those who might wish to permeate the boundaries of his own geomusicological research. It is the subdivision of “psychological and symbolic elements” more commonly negotiated by cultural critics that perhaps offers the most potential among the possible new fields identified by Carney. Such psychological and symbolic factors inherent within musical forms, Carney believes, can effectively reconstruct the spatial environment out of which they emerge; that is, they can enrich or perhaps even reconceptualize what we take to be the actual “character of a place.” The example he invokes for illustrative purposes is that of “surfin’ rock” as a crucial cultural component in shaping perceptions of Southern California (16).” (pp.269-270)

The term “psychogeography” first appears in Guy Debord’s 1955 essay “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography” where it is defined as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” For Debord, the need for a form of critical inquiry premised on the relationship between geography and human consciousness arises out of the novel conditions of postwar urban existence. Crucial to this postwar transformation of urban life is the rise of the automobile and the refashioning of cities such as Paris in response to what Debord describes as the demand for “the smooth circulation of [automobiles’] rapidly increasing quantity” (5).” (p.270)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in bold blue, mine) Anthony Hutchison ‘Following the Ghost’: The Psychogeography of Alternative Country, pp.268-281 in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

Reference is to: George Carney, The Sounds of people and places: a geography of American Folk and Popular Music (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), 2

Guy  Debord ‘Introduction to a critique of urban Geography’ reprinted in ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkely: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 5


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