Daphne Brooks

“Engines of Modernity: Black Sonic Women & the Open Road”

Abstract: This paper explores the politics of race, gender, sexuality, region and automobility in popular music culture, and it explores the work of three drastically different black sonic women from the previous century: Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Lou Williams and Etta James. The talk will examine the ways that each of these artists drew on concepts of automotive technologies to craft their respective sound aesthetics as well as a radical politics of black womanhood that perpetually and imaginatively disrupted the constraints of Jim Crow patriarchy.

Hurston emerges as a surprising early figure in histories of black women’s sonic automotivity. My paper reveals the ways Hurston deployed song, sound recordings and live performance as a means to archiving the musicality of “the black folk” on her automotive expeditions. Her own musical recordings showcase the ways that she drew on new technologies to shape a publicsphere black woman’s voice that moves against the grain of conventional racial, gender and class formations.
Alongside Hurston, avant-garde pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams took to the open road as a transient and fiercely independent artist who played through the changes in jazz culture from the swing era on into bebop and orchestral, concert-hall compositions. Williams was a “rolling stone” in 1940s Manhattan on the move, and my work builds on Griffin’s to examine the ways that Williams’ Melody Maker narratives about her time in the car between gigs, riding along interstate back roads with her mother-in-law in tow and heroically assuming the role of the mechanic to keep their journey afloat, informs the technical and compositional complexity of Williams’ swinging style (on songs like “Nightlife” and “Drag ‘Em”) as well as her intrepid bebop experimentalism that manipulates the trope of shifting gears.

The final section of the paper rides into the era of rock and roll with the rebel original riot grrrl Etta James as she came of age running up and down the I-5 in 1950s California. If the romance of early rock and roll is bound up with notions of the fast and furious velocity of emerging teen culture and mythical New Frontier freedom of movement supplied by the sounds of next generation Great Migration black folks riding their own new transitions, James’ Rage to Survive memoir encapsulates all of that turbulence and suggests to us the ways that she translated the volatility of mid-century American social life into euphoric sound.

Bio: Daphne A. Brooks recently joined the faculty in African American Studies, Theater, and American Studies at Yale University. Previously, she was professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University where she taught courses on African-American literature and culture, performance studies, critical gender studies, and popular music culture. She is the author of two books: Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), winner of The Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship on African American Performance from the American Society for Theater Research, and Jeff Buckley’s Grace (New York: Continuum, 2005). Brooks is currently working on a new book entitled Subterranean Blues: Black Women Sound Modernity (Harvard University Press, forthcoming). She is the author of numerous articles on race, gender, performance and popular music culture such as “Nina Simone’s Triple Play” in Callaloo; “This Voice Which Is Not One: Amy Winehouse Sings the Ballad of Sonic Blue(s)face Culture” in Women and Performance; “The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism” in Women and Music; and “‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: Surrogation & Black Female Soul Singing in the Age of Catastrophe” in Meridians. Brooks is also the author of the liner notes for The Complete Tammi Terrell (Universal A&R, 2010), winner of the 2011 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing, and Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia (Sony, 2011).