Michael J. Kramer works at the intersection of historical scholarship, the arts, digital technology, and cultural criticism. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback, 2017). For more information, visit michaeljkramer.net.
Michael J. Kramer works at the intersection of historical scholarship, the arts, digital technology, and cultural criticism. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback, 2017). His current research explores the relationship between technology and tradition in the US folk music revival from the early twentieth century to the present; it includes a multimodal digital history project about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually on the University of California-Berkeley campus between 1958 and 1970, as well as more technical research on image sonification for historical interpretation, machine-learning sound analysis software, and the design of the digital essay. Future research focuses on the history of arts criticism in the United States, an intellectual history of the anarchist imagination in America, a short history of the service worker in the US, and a biography of Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel. He teaches history and American studies at Middlebury College, where he is Associate Director of the Digital Liberal Arts. He has previously taught at Northwestern University, where he co-founded NUDHL, the Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory. He also freelances as a dance dramaturg and an editorial consultant. He writes about history, the arts, politics, digital humanities, and other topics for numerous publications and blogs at michaeljkramer.net.
Michael J. Kramer works at the interdisciplinary intersection of historical scholarship, the arts, digital technology, and cultural criticism. His book The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback, 2017) draws on new archival sources and oral history interviews to explore late sixties and early seventies music and politics in two key locations: San Francisco and Vietnam. Tracking a vibrant engagement with questions of civics and citizenship within new logics of cooptation— “hip capitalism” in the Bay Area and a strange kind of “hip militarism” developed by the US Armed Forces in Southeast Asia—Kramer uncovers how the genre of countercultural rock music became a resource for everyday people to grapple with the nature of democracy under the rule of American power both domestically and globally. His new research investigates the relationship between technology and tradition in the US folk music revival. Typically understood as a Luddite movement, the folk revival in fact included diverse and deep interests in how technology could capture, preserve, and even enhance intangible cultural heritage. This study offers an alternative history to the contemporary rhetoric of “digital disruption,” in which technology interrupts the past; instead, it provides a record of problematically complex efforts to combine tradition with progress. This inquiry into technology and tradition in the US folk music movement also includes a public digital history collaboration with the Northwestern University Library to explore the history the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually on the University of California-Berkeley campus between 1958 and 1970. The collaboration will result in a fully searchable digitized database of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection’s 30,000-plus artifacts; a curated, interactive website that tells the history of the Festival; a series of podcasts inspired by the Berkeley event; a traveling exhibition that features many remarkable, unpublished photographs from the archive; and an illustrated catalogue with essays and more about the Festival. As a digital historian, Kramer is also engaged in more technical research on machine-learning sound analysis software, image sonification for historical interpretation, an interactive, data-rich, digitized version of Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, and the future of the digital essay. He serves on the editorial board for the international project Trans@tlantic Cultures: Digital Transatlantic Cultural History, 1700-Present and also as a digital consultant for Dancing on the Third Coast: The Chicago Dance History Project. Other work beyond academia includes serving as dramaturg and historian-in-residence for The Seldoms, an award-winning contemporary dance company based in Chicago. In the past, he has worked in journalism and publishing as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the website of the New York Times. Future research focuses on the history of arts criticism in the United States, an intellectual history of the anarchist imagination in America, a short history of the service worker in the US, and a biography of Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel. Kramer teaches history and American studies at Middlebury College, where he is Associate Director of the Digital Liberal Arts. He previously taught at Northwestern University, where he co-founded NUDHL, the Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory. He writes for numerous publications and blogs at michaeljkramer.net.
Book — The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture
By Michael J. Kramer (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback, 2017)
In his 1967 megahit “San Francisco,” Scott McKenzie sang of “people in motion” coming from all across the country to San Francisco, the white-hot center of rock music and anti-war protests. At the same time, another large group of young Americans was also in motion, less eagerly, heading for the jungles of Vietnam. Now, in The Republic of Rock, Michael Kramer draws on new archival sources and interviews to explore sixties music and politics through the lens of these two generation-changing places–San Francisco and Vietnam. From the Acid Tests of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to hippie disc jockeys on strike, the military’s use of rock music to “boost morale” in Vietnam, and the forgotten tale of a South Vietnamese rock band, The Republic of Rock shows how the musical connections between the City of the Summer of Love and war-torn Southeast Asia were crucial to the making of the sixties counterculture. The book also illustrates how and why the legacy of rock music in the sixties continues to matter to the meaning of citizenship in a global society today. Going beyond clichéd narratives about sixties music, Kramer argues that rock became a way for participants in the counterculture to think about what it meant to be an American citizen, a world citizen, a citizen-consumer, or a citizen-soldier. The music became a resource for grappling with the nature of democracy in larger systems of American power both domestically and globally. For anyone interested in the 1960s, popular music, and American culture and counterculture, The Republic of Rock offers new insight into the many ways rock music has shaped our ideas of individual freedom and collective belonging.
“This Machine Kills Fascists”: Technology and Tradition in the US Folk Music Revival
This book investigates the relationship between technology and tradition in the US folk music revival. Typically understood as a Luddite movement, the folk revival in fact included diverse interests in how technology could preserve—and even advance—the making and understanding of intangible cultural heritage.
Perhaps most famously, and contradictorily, Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists,” on his acoustic guitar during World War II, borrowing the slogan from industrial union workers to articulate his version of a folk music politics. His friend the folklorist Alan Lomax developed a computer-based Cantometrics project in the late 1950s, using punchcards and mainframes for cross-cultural musical and social comparisons; it culminated in Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity and his Global Jukebox digital soundmap of musical cultures around the world. Lomax had been influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, who made pioneering use of film for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s, herself in response to the filmic work of her teacher, anthropologist Franz Boas. Frances Densmore recorded indigenous musicians using wax cylinders at the turn of the twentieth century, her work serving as a kind of ground zero for American field recording endeavors. A few decades later, Charles Seeger (father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right) developed a “melograph” machine for electronic notation of non-Western musics. Carl Sandburg, the poet, responded to debates about capturing oral ballad traditions in print by imagining the concept of the “songbag,” one of a number of visions of turning ballad traditions into living information systems. Decades later, a less famous folk participant, computer programmer Guthrie Meade, was among the first to create computer databases of folksongs, in this case variations on fiddle tunes.
Others who are not typically included in the folk revival, but perhaps could be, provide additional perspectives on the intersections of technology and tradition. Eccentric composer Harry Partch built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system. The bandleader Sun Ra arose within the jazz milieu to forge an Afrofuturist vision of music and culture, blending Egyptian and mystical folk resources from the past with futuristic space travel ideas, iconographies, and sounds; other Afrofuturists followed, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament Funkadelic.
Today, a robust transmission of folk music culture occurs over platforms such as YouTube, which sustains instrument lessons and song exchanges in ways that criss-cross the personal and the technological. At the same time, activities such as the 78 Project find younger folk enthusiasts recording musicians using the outmoded 78 disc, now embracing antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage!
Overall, in place of contemporary rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” of all existing custom and practice, this history suggests alternative configurations, both promising and problematic, of Americans seeking to bring together cutting-edge technologies with intangible cultural heritage in efforts to balance progress with the past.
As a digital public history dimension of “This Machine Kills Fascists,” I am working with the Northwestern University Library to create a multimodal project around the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually on the flagship campus of the University of California from 1958 to 1970. Overshadowed by the Newport Folk Festival, Berkeley in fact partly inspired that event with the model of combining concerts with workshops. The 30,000-plus artifacts in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection will redefine the history of the US folk revival by shifting attention from the East to the West Coast during the post-World War II decades, just as California was emerging as a center of American and global history as a whole. The Berkeley project will consist of a robustly searchable digital database, a curated website narrative history of the festival, an audio podcast series inspired by aspects of the archival collection, a traveling exhibition featuring the remarkable photographs of the Festival (many never before seen), and a richly illustrated coffeetable book that tells the history of the Festival and its significance.
In addition to a book manuscript and digital public history project, this folk music research includes a set of technical, specialized digital humanities experiments related to the fields of cultural history, US history, American studies, music history, sound studies, data visualization, digital mapping, and multimedia narrative. These include an exploration of machine-learning sound analysis software, an investigation of image sonification for historical interpretation, and an interactive, data-rich, digitized version of Humbead’s Revised Map of the World.
The History of American Arts Criticism: A Review. There are many histories of cultural and social criticism in the United States, but no study that investigates how writing about the arts developed as a key space in which discussion and debates about the nature of American identity, politics, culture, and society took shape. From writing about the visual and performing arts to the emergence of criticism about popular forms of culture such as film, radio, television, and other forms of media to inquiries into artistic life more broadly, this study contends that arts criticism helped to shape what the United States stood for, both domestically and around the world.
Freethinkers: The Anarchist Imagination in America. The recent turn in the historical field toward studying conservatism, including libertarianism, has masked a more subversive but less well-documented radical anarchist sensibility in American life. Typically feared in the United States as a sign of chaos and social breakdown, anarchy also has a deep and rich intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural lineage in the country. From Emma Goldman to the African-American anarchist thinking of Lucy Parsons and Hubert Harrison to mid-twentieth century anarchists such as Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth, and Grace Paley to the deep ecology anarchism of Murray Bookchin to the impact of Anglo punk culture in the US to more recent anarchist thought and culture found in the work of Ursula La Guin, Rebecca Solnit, and among cyberpunk writers and early Internet enthusiasts, even on a recent television show such as the motorcycle gang melodrama Sons of Anarchy, anarchy lives at once on the margins of American culture, but also, perhaps, in less articulated but compelling ways, close to the nation’s ideological core.
The Service Worker: A Cultural History. A short history of an increasingly crucial mode of labor in the American and global economies. What is the service worker? How does she relate to other categories of work: the industrial worker, the professional, the clerk, the careworker, the craftsperson, the entrepreneur? How does he relate to notions of class: the working class or middle class? In treating the service worker as both a figure in labor and cultural history, this project makes an intervention in how we understand American social history as a whole and how we might consider work and labor in relationship to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, region, age, and contemporary politics.
Ann Barzel: Dance Critic on the Third Coast. A biography of this little-known but important dance critic, based in Chicago for much of the twentieth century.
Culture Rover – Promiscuous Cultural Criticism
Culture Rover is…wanderings through the pop ether…dives into the subterranean ooze…fragments from a life…gazes and glimpses…exclamation points and question marks…musings and meanderings…shards of crackpottery…occasional reports from a subject in the kingdom.
Also part of Culture Rover:
Issues in Digital History
Issues in Digital History explores the developing field of digital history, serving as a place for reflections, links, and other critical investigations of what digital history is and what it might become. With special focus on vernacular music, digital sonification studies, digital archive studies, theories and practices of “data,” and digital history pedagogy.
Culture Rover and other online materials by Michael J. Kramer are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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