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Wednesday, September 16, 11:45am-12:30pm (Panel)

Negotiating Race in Midcentury Music

  • Can I Get a Witness: Historicizing Mexican American contributions in Minnesota Rock n’ Roll and Youth Culture (1950-70), Rodolfo Aguilar (Kennesaw State U)
  • With a Child’s Heart: The Restrictive Nature of Stevie Wonder’s Mediated Innocence, John Vilanova (Lehigh U)
  • “Fine snoots is what we got!” On the road with Big Joe Williams and Michael Bloomfield, RJ Smith (writer)

 

Presentation Descriptions

 

Can I Get a Witness: Historicizing Mexican American contributions in Minnesota Rock n’ Roll and Youth Culture (1950-70), Rodolfo Aguilar (Kennesaw State U)

Mexican migration to the Midwest emerged as early as the first half of the twentieth century. Seasonal employment lured many migrants to the region, while the Mexican revolution triggered intense emigration northward. Over time, Mexican American communities took shape on the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota with a thriving cultural presence and a growing permanently-established Mexican American cohort. These pioneer immigrant communities lacked political representation in local government and lived in dilapidated housing throughout St. Paul. Despite experiencing significant neglect by city officials, Mexican Americans fought in several U.S. wars, and joined advocacy groups throughout Minnesota in hopes of securing a successful assimilation into American culture. Mexican American youth would also immerse themselves into local youth cultures including Rock n’ Roll during the postwar period. While California-born Ritchie Valens captured the national music charts as the first successful Chicano Rock n’ Roll musician, groups including the Augie Garcia Quintet and the Jay Mars dominated Minnesota Rock n’ Roll with their music pressed on local labels. Amidst Mexican Americans’ quest for greater acceptance and the period’s anti-Mexican sentiment culminating with Operation Wetback, I argue Mexican American youth gained positive visibility throughout St. Paul with their participation in local Rock n’ Roll bands between 1950-1970. Their incorporation into local Minnesota youth culture narrates a contradictory history where Mexican participation in the area’s music scene was in high demand, while their attainment to local positions of power had yet to emerge on the West side of St. Paul.

 

With a Child’s Heart: The Restrictive Nature of Stevie Wonder’s Mediated Innocence, John Vilanova (Lehigh U)

Signed to Motown’s Tamla Records at the age of eleven in 1962, “Little” Stevie Wonder was a youthful symbol onto whom various constituencies wrote narratives for their own purposes. He was a curiosity—a “special attraction” for touring Motown roadshows. He was a preternatural talent, whose “genius” was untrained and unconventional due to the early childhood illness that had left him blind. And he was a herald of integration, teaching white surfers how to dance in the Beach Party films, flirting innocently with white female fans, and hugging First Lady Pat Nixon in 1969 in front of a hostile, majority-black crowd in Washington, D.C. Wonder’s early career narrative was one in which his teenage years had specific racial, gendered, and ableist utilities for him and for various powerbrokers around him.

Using content and discourse analysis of almost seven thousand newspaper and magazine articles covering the first fifteen years of Wonder’s career, this presentation illustrates the way youth, musicality, and artistry were concurrently mediated to Wonder’s benefit and detriment. It explores problematic, long-held rhetorics around the nature of black music—as quotidian cultural formation rather than auteurist art—and how Motown’s calculations around performing youthfulness made purchase upon (and ultimately perhaps buttressed) those racist ideas. It situates Wonder in an integrating music industry infrastructure where discourses around his youth delimited his artistic credibility. And it unpacks how he systematically claimed his own adulthood and what came as a result: a linking of artistic and personal maturity and autonomy in which Motown became a scapegoat intent on keeping Stevie “little;” critical reconsideration in the nascent rock press; and a period of releases that would garner near-universal acclaim as statements of a fully-formed artist. Ultimately, it reveals the various intersectional work “youth” did in a particular historical moment for a major figure.

 

“Fine snoots is what we got!” On the road with Big Joe Williams and Michael Bloomfield, RJ Smith (writer)

In possibly 1964 (he never really nailed it down), Michael Bloomfield was a 21 year-old white, well-off son of a pie-case and can-opener magnate, a fledgling Chicago blues guitar player who gave a ride to an established player. Mississippi-born African American Big Joe Williams was four decades older than Bloomfield, a freight-hopper who wrote “Baby Please Don’t Go” and mentored Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards and others. He played a guitar with nine strings. The story Bloomfield published recounting the trip was a surreal picaresque, a tale of racial mentorship coded as a story of a young man and an old man connecting across the age barrier through the power of music. Bloomfield was on the way to becoming one of the most famous guitar players of his day; he’d soon be playing with Dylan and Paul Butterfield. Williams was on his way to nowhere in particular. The book Bloomfield published via small press in 1980, Me and Big Joe, is a small story-telling masterpiece.

Me and Big Joe fits into an established narrative of the privileged white innocent seeking the help of the experienced black mentor to obtain essential truths (Huck & Jim; Bill Monroe & Arnold Schultz; Morgan Freeman and…). In recent years, writers have focused attention on how to read the blues musician’s narrative, the first-person account presented as fact yet absorbed as myth, suspected to be fiction yet understood to be loaded with authenticity. What did Bloomfield want us to see, and what do we in fact learn about him from the way he describes a seminal moment in his life? Everything ends in East St. Louis. Where does that leave the white man, the black man, and us?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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