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After over ten years of research, writing and editing, Dr. Revell Carr of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s Department of Music Studies has published his first book, Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels.” The book, which is published by the University of Illinois Press, one of the most prestigious publishers of books on music, is the first in that publisher’s venerable series “Music in American Life” to discuss Hawaiian music. The study of Hawaiian music is often marginalized, perhaps since Hawai‘i is seen as outside the mainstream of American society, but Hawaiian music has had a major influence on all areas of American popular music, especially jazz, the blues, and country music. Dr. Carr’s book discusses the influence of cosmopolitan sailors on the music of Hawaiians, and also uncovers numerous, never-before-told stories of Native Hawaiians performing on American stages in the 19th century. Dr. Carr has also recorded a selection of songs that are discussed in the book, which are available for streaming online through the University of Illinois Press. Recorded with UNCG students, and alums, The Zinc Kings, all of whom have worked with Dr. Carr in the UNCG Old Time Ensemble, the recordings include 19th century sea chanteys, sailor ballads, music hall songs, and songs sung in Hawaiian, which tell the story of Hawaiians‘ relationship with American seafarers. This is not only the first book on Hawaiian music in the 40-year history of the “Music in American Life” series, it is also the first time the press has made recordings by the author part of an online supplement. Dr. Carr recently performed some of these songs at the Festival of the Sea in San Francisco, and this summer he will be giving lecture/recitals at several museums and historical societies in the Northeast. Dr. Carr was invited last Spring to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Liverpool, UK called “Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns,” where he spoke about sailor songs as a type of prototypical “world music.” While in Liverpool he also performed a set of sea chanteys at a 300-year old sailors’ pub, and sat in with the house band at the Cavern Club, where the Beatles got their start. Currently, Dr. Carr is a finalist for a Fulbright Fellowship which would allow him to spend a semester studying the multicultural music of the port city of Liverpool as it was during the nineteenth century. On March 25th, Dr. Carr presented his work, focusing on 19th century multiculturalism, as a part of the UNCG Black Faculty and Staff’s “Author’s Spotlight on Inclusive Excellence” series.

Dr. Carr was able to answer a few questions for us regarding his work in ethnomusicology and on this recent publication:

1. Why ethnomusicology? What is the draw for you in the field? 

The long answer to this question would be my entire life  story, but I’ll try to express it in a nutshell. I grew up playing  music, starting with piano lessons when I was five, but I knew from an early age that I was more interested in “vernacular”  music than classical music, so my musical life before grad  school was filled with playing guitar and singing in rock bands, singing and dancing in musical theatre, and performing folk music. I discovered the field of ethnomusicology while I was getting my master’s degree in folklore, and I realized that the folklore I was most interested in studying was folk music, so I decided to pursue ethnomusicology. To me, ethnomusicology represents the most inclusive way to study music. We see our field as encompassing all of the world’s people and all the many varieties of music people make, not just the music of elite performers or famous composers, but music that is made by regular people in their homes and communities. As someone who is interested in genres like work songs, occupational ballads, the music of Pacific Islanders, Jamaican music, Indonesian music, Hawaiian music, as well as American old time, country, blues, and rock and roll, I have found that ethnomusicology allows me to study all these things and more. Also, most ethnomusicologists learn to play the music they study, not necessarily to become professional performers of it, though a few do, but to learn about other ways of thinking, other ways of conceiving of music and creating music, so that we can better understand the people who make that music, so I enjoy that “applied” aspect of the discipline. Most importantly, I feel like in today’s world, where boundaries between musical genres are falling apart and everyone is borrowing from everyone else, I think the world needs ethnomusicologists to educate us, not just about the world’s music, but about the world’s people and what their music means to them. 

2. How important is this particular publication to the study and performance of American music?
I think my book is important in a number of ways. First of all, I think that Hawaiian music is vastly under-appreciated and under-represented in American music scholarship. American music would not have developed as it did if it wasn’t for the influence of Hawaiian music in the pre-jazz era–the sliding sound of the steel guitar, the yodeling falsetto vocals, the rhythmic pulse of the music–all shaped the sound of modern country, blues, jazz, and even rock and roll (the first solid body electric guitar was created to play Hawaiian music). Hawaiian music gets left out of most music history textbooks, and until now, no one had really written a book about the changes that happened to Hawaiian music during the nineteenth century. The scholarship that did exist focused exclusively on the influence of Christian missionaries, giving them the credit (or the blame) for changing Hawaiian music. My book complicates that story greatly by considering the powerful influence of American sailors, who introduced American and British folk songs, African-American banjo and fiddle tunes, sailor’s work songs, and nineteenth century American popular music. I show that Hawaiians were actively adapting their music, and actively performing in North America, many decades earlier than most scholars had thought, so I hope my book will revolutionize the way we think about and study Hawaiian music.
I think my work has already been influential on American music scholarship in that instead of focusing on a particular place or a particular culture, I look at the mobility of people in maritime trades, and how their travels opened up networks of connections between musicians and audiences all over the world. When I started this research I was one of the only people in the field looking at port cities and maritime trade routes as conduits for musical culture, but at the last national meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology I counted over a dozen papers that were focused on the unique music culture of port cities and maritime trade routes, so I feel like I’ve helped open up a new way of looking at musical globalization in the era before electronic communication.
As for the question about performance, for almost 30 years I have been part of a small niche in the folk music community called the “Sea Music Revival,” which is basically people who love to sing the sailors’ sea chanteys, nautical ballads, and other songs of the sea, mostly from the 19th century. For a long time, most of the people who perform that music have played it in a distinctly Irish/Scots/British style, but my book shows that the music of sailors in the 19th century was very diverse and cosmopolitan, and was influenced by Pacific Islanders, Caribbean Islanders, African-Americans, and many others. So, I and a couple of other friends of mine who are scholar/performers of this music, are trying to find ways to encourage people to perform sea music in a way that honors those influences, primarily by emphasizing rhythm, particularly syncopation, and the kind of sliding “blue notes” that were favored by Hawaiians and African Americans in the 19th century.

3. What advice do you have for aspiring academic writers?
One is take the time to really do thorough research. Earlier scholars have, of course, done great work, but you cannot always depend on their interpretation of the materials, so seek out the primary sources if at all possible. Sadly, many archives and libraries lack financial support, so valuable resources are rapidly being lost through age and neglect, or have simply become inaccessible. But scholars need to fight for these resources, and the best way for us to show how important those historic cultural materials are is to use those resources and then publish that research. Second, don’t give up. When I started this project in earnest over ten years ago I was told by countless scholars and librarians that I wouldn’t find anything, that I was looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. But through persistence and creative problem solving I found far more information than I could even fit in my book. When someone tells me that I won’t find anything it just inspires me to look in places that other people might not have thought of. No one had considered researching the history of Hawaiian music by using sailors’ journals and diaries, but I knew that those journals were an untapped gold mine. The research was grueling at times (reading 19th century handwriting written aboard a ship at sea can be very difficult), but absolutely worth it. My last bit of advice is to take a class or two in creative writing. So much academic writing is dry and dense and, frankly, incomprehensible. I was a creative writing major as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, and I have always valued what I learned about making writing compelling: tell a good story, make it clear, don’t talk down to your audience, but don’t talk over their heads either, most of all, be imaginative. Good scholarly writing is as much about creativity and imagination as it is about strong research and ideas.