by Landry Chiles, BU English Major

At 10:00 on September 19th, in the Janet Ayers Academic Center, our three guest speakers met for a discussion panel. Dr. Gregory Hansen opened the  panel by telling us of his background. He is a Professor of Folklore Studies at Arkansas State University. He has worked in academia and the public sector. His interest in folklore first began as he observed “contemporary manifestations of folklore,” including urban legends such as “believing in rats at Kentucky Fried Chicken.” His interest would later shift to studying “contemporary forms of traditional culture” and “accounts of living history.”

historians
L to R: Dr. Gregory Hansen, Dr. Martha Norkunas, and Dr. Gregory N. Reish

Dr. Norkunas is a Director of the Oral History Concentration in the Public History Department at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). She has a background in folklore as well and is an author of several books about oral, gender and race history. She read prepared comments which raised the question: what do we know about the past by listening to the individual life story?

Dr. Reish is the Director of Popular Music at MTSU. He is a musicologist; in which he dedicates his studies in the genre of bluegrass from an anthropologic perspective.

After the introductory panel ended, their discussion began. The first topic discussed was, “How does music and landscape function to maintain a scene of culture?” Dr. Hansen answered this question first, bringing up the purpose of a music venue, which functions as a cultural backdrop of a specific era or genre. Furthermore, he said that the most historically common venue was a home, where people at house parties would “roll the carpet up and put on some music to square-dance.” He also mentioned that the venue is analogous to a body representing music history; to extend this metaphor, then music itself would be the voice. Dr. Hansen’s final remark raised the idea of an experience created by a venue: “As you would walk through these venues or buildings of the past, you would essentially be walking in an enclosed museum that captures artifacts and anachronisms from another era.”

Dr. Norkunas raised a different aspect of landscape by first asking the question, “what do people mark as a sight or memory in the life of a community? Which of the things that are marked from the organic, cultural, and vibrant memory of a group’s oral tradition ultimately die?” She states that whenever we are alive, we are not actively marking details of these events or places into stone. She goes on to say that this is the same with culture groups, that when the life of a vibrant memory begins to disappear from a community, then we need to start marking the landscapes of where these memories occurred.

Dr. Reish then mentioned a struggle that his colleague is currently having. This colleague of his is attempting to find a photo of the facade of a venue on Jefferson Street in Nashville. This place, fifty years ago, was once a popular nightlife stop; he has hundreds of photos that have been taken inside the building. Dr. Reish claims that this is because nobody at the time was concerned with the importance of what the outside looked like, they merely cared for the shows going on inside. Despite the fact that this venue no longer exists, it was once a booming stop, but remembering and archiving buildings such as this one is problematic once the oral tradition tends to disappear.

This is a general thematic problem is one that historians face whenever attempting to catalog the past. Dr. Norkunas made the final comment for the event, telling the audience to be wary of commercial history. She said that in our capitalist past, are the only things that sold well the ones that will be remembered? She continues, “So if it sells, is it considered important? Also what constitutes events or locations from the past as worth noting? In the Tennessee State History Museum, women are notably left out, aside from the suffrage movement, but women have been so much more involved in history than just that.” The entire history of immigration to Nashville, ethnicities from dozens of other regions in the world, have been omitted, as well. She claims that this is problematic because since these groups have been left out of our museum, the questions of who they were, where they came from, and why they chose Nashville specifically are not asked. She then reminded us to always question, and ask, “Where am I in this history?”

The audience thanked our wonderful guests by applauding!