Christine Kelly, a PhD candidate in History, recently published an article titled “Folk as the Sound of Self-Liberation: The Career and Performance Identity of Odetta,” based on her dissertation research. Christine shared with us the abstract for the article:
Odetta Felious Gordon Holmes – commonly known by her stage name, “Odetta” – played an instrumental role in the rise of American folk music as a mouthpiece for dissent during the social movements of the post-war era. She abandoned a life she planned in opera and oratorio for a career as an interpreter of African American slave songs and spirituals, material originally recorded by song collectors John and Alan Lomax in travels through the Mississippi Delta region. Odetta has claimed that while a life in oratorio would have enriched her vocally, its musical lineage had “nothing to do” with her experience. In contrast, a new repertoire of songs she gathered – songs derived from slave laborers, prison chain gangs, longshoremen, and church congregations – allowed her to shape her identity as a performing artist in crucial ways throughout her fifty year career. As a folk singer, Odetta co-constructed a cultural movement which drew inspiration from song writers of the past – composers of “freedom hymns” – to seek liberation in the present. For Odetta, such liberation was, at first, primarily for herself. As an African American woman who suffered the indignities of segregation, she felt she carried a “dragon” inside, one that hated herself and others. With a broad, black body of which she was ashamed, on stage Odetta tried to conceal and neutralize herself as a racial and gendered subject as she donned long, dark clothing, and threw herself fully into the material she performed. Through an act of self-abnegation, she performed the music, often of black men, who insisted on affirming their existence, the validity of their subjectivity, despite the oppressions that came with circumstances they faced involving humiliation and forced confinement. As an arbiter of the folk tradition, Odetta offered her body as bridge to connect a new generation of listeners with marginalized experiences of the past. As such, Odetta became a cultural broker of a folk tradition of dissent. She relied on a common method among performing artists – benefit concerts – to raise substantial funds for civil rights causes. Odetta’s life in music became a site of self-emancipation as she transformed from a suffering artist who often behaved subserviently to one who invented an identity which insisted on her own personal dignity. Furthermore, the exposure she gave her listeners to a nearly forgotten black cultural heritage enabled them to empathize with the experience of past singer-songwriters, seeing injustice in the present as more pressing than before. Odetta’s appeal to the idiom of folk and the benefit concerts she held directly supported the civil rights movement and related social mobilizations through the 1960s and 1970s as she helped to inspire not only political and legal change, but freedom in the arena of culture and emotion.
Winners of the 2015 Loomie Prize: Rachel Podd (left) and Christine Kelly (right)
Each year the History department awards its highest honor for excellence in graduate scholarship, the Loomie Prize. The Loomie prize is awarded to the best seminar paper produced during the previous academic year. All M.A. and Ph.D. students who have taken the proseminar/seminar sequence or a research tutorial are eligible. The prize for 2015 was awarded to Rachel Podd and Christine Kelly.
Rachel Podd‘s paper “Interrogating the Guaridoras: Women, Medicine and Magic in Catalonia before the Plague” was written under supervision of Alex Novikoff. The Loomie judges noted that it was based on rich source material, and offered a convincing argument about why and how these sources could be useful to scholars beyond those who specialize in 14th century Catalonia. Rachel wrote that “these documents offer a window… into a vibrant and dynamic world. Within them, one may find Saracens and Christians, men and women, as well as spells and incantations for the health of people and of animals. Through close reading and contextualization, they can elucidate the lives of individuals performing curative activities outside of the major civic centers of Catalonia before the arrival of the plague – what types of diseases did they treat, and how? If caught, what punishment could they expect from the ecclesiastical judicial structure?” Hence, Rachel demonstrated how these records sit at the juncture of vernacular medicine, episcopal control, and inquisition.
Christine Kelly‘s paper “Gender, the Popular Front, and the Folksong Revival through Sing Out! Magazine, 1950 – 1968″ written under supervision of Kirsten Swinth. Her essay is an outstanding example of cultural analysis built from the gritty work of data collecting. By categorizing hundreds of articles in the folk music periodical, Sing Out!, Christine developed a highly original thesis about the discourse of gender in the 1960s folk music revival. She overturned a conventional division between the leftist cultural movements of the 1930s, and those of the 1960s, showing that folk revivalists in the 1960s resurrected familiar tropes and narratives of gender from the 1930s. These were ultimately highly traditionalist, premising an anti-capitalist utopia on an idealized view of the American past where women remained tied to “traditional domestic and reproductive spaces” and “men were more responsible for carrying out the daily operations of political thought and cultural innovation that constituted the engine [of the] folk song revival.”
We reached out to Rachel and Christine for details about their work and how they developed the ideas and research for their papers.
We’ve posted here before about the wonderful opportunities provided to Fordham graduate students and faculty by the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth. PhD Candidate Christine Kelly sent us these reflections of her time at the institute– her training as a cultural historian gives her a unique perspective on the value of these interdisciplinary gatherings. Continue reading
The History Department will be hosting two panels that highlight graduate student research at Fordham GSA’s Inaugural Graduate Conference, Investigating Inequalities. The conference will be hosted at the McGinley Center on April 5th. Registration is free and a preliminary program is online. Continue reading
PhD Student Christine Kelly
Congratulations to PhD student Christine Kelly on her acceptance to the 2014 summer session of the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. For six weeks, Christine will be attending seminars covering a wide variety of interdisciplinary, critical, and theoretical topics, including ethics and democracy, urban ecology, post-capitalism, black popular culture, and anthropological, legal, and social theories regarding gift-giving and similar forms of social exchange. Continue reading