Juan B. Rael interviewing Manuela “Mela” Martínez, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1930.
This is the third student showcase of digital history audio podcast projects completed by students in the 2016 edition of my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University. These projects are explorations in how scholarly history might take on new, multimedia forms. In this case, students probed the possibilities and challenges of the audio documentary format for historical interpretation. Collectively, we learned a lot from working on these projects (sometimes as much through how they do not quite work as how they did!).
Tanner Howard’s “Traversing the Borderlands: The New Mexican Alabado and Twentieth Century Americanization” explores how folk music and folkloric conceptualizations of folk music have figured in the contested cultural politics of the American Southwest’s borderlands region. Howard won the 2016 Jeff and Kathy Zukerman Prize for Best Digital Humanities Project from the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities for his work.
To me, this is a project that incorporates secondary literature and primary sources in a promising combination. Tanner’s research took off when he discovered recently digitized field recordings made by folklorist Juan B. Rael for the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center) in 1940. Rael had recorded alabados, or religious songs, from Hispano Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. A fascinating and understudied linguist and folklorist born in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, to an ethnically Spanish family, Rael received his doctorate from Stanford University in 1937, then returned to the Southwest to study language and culture.
Rael’s fieldwork brought him into contact with folk revival figures such as Alan Lomax, but for Tanner the more important story that emerged from his research was how Rael’s ethnographic work—and the alabados as a cultural form—fit into the history of the Borderlands themselves. To make sense of this history, Tanner surveys what historians such as Sarah Deutsch, David J. Weber, and others have to say about the region. Out of this consideration of the existing historical literature, Tanner is then able to characterize the alabados as an example of how syncretization arose culturally within the political and economic struggles among Spanish, Mexican, United States, and indigenous peoples in the region. And from there, he then argues that the ritualistic song form of the alabados, shaped by cultural contestation among competing forces, did not fit well into conceptualizations of preservation dominating folklore scholarship in the 1930s and 40s. The alabados were not in danger of disappearing; they were more enduring and powerful than that. As Rael put it in a 1942 essay, “New Mexican Spanish Feasts,” that Tanner quotes:
…there are certain practices which, though seemingly an anachronism in the changing life environment of New Mexicans, arc so deeply rooted in the lives of the people and have so great an appeal to the popular fancy that they continue to be as popular as ever.
Here, in the Borderlands, we glimpse the shift from salvage anthropology to newer notions of folk music as popular culture, the music of the people, in the 1940s.
One aspect of Tanner’s project that I have grown to admire is how he keeps the production simple in order to move through his historiographical and primary sources with care and precision. The audio format allows us to hear the field recordings of the alabados themselves as well as audio from the related 1937 film Lash of the Penitentes, but mostly the project consists of spoken narrative. Tanner and I discussed fancier production tactics that might enhance the endeavor given more time to work on the project (remember the seminar took place in one 10-week quarter at Northwestern), but ultimately I think the value here is the content: a sophisticated work of historical scholarship and research presented with curiosity and clarity.
Here is the script for the audio podcast: