Doing Digital History, Thoughts On Sound and Public History

As part of our discussion today, we learned how to pull looped sound into Audacity and to lay down tracks for a podcast. (AKA: The “promiscuous and lazy” way to make music.) Mike O’Malley, who was our residential instructor for the day, noted that there was a minstrel show-like element to some of the tracks. Indeed, as I looked through a sound archive, I found beats with racialized names like “ghetto taunt.” When juxtaposed with archival mp3 files like a clip of one of FDR’s Fireside Chat, the resulting sound file is loaded with (as O’Malley noted) implications about race and class.

During class today, we were asked to consider mp3 as cultural artifact. And more generally, how sound can be a cultural artifact. It made me think about the Race and Ethnicity course I teach from time to time, and also about my Issues in Public History class. Part of my professional goals from this institute is not only to enhance my DH skills generally, but also to think about how I can bring digital methods into mainstream classes. In my public history class this past spring, I brought in Beyonce’s Formation video as a means of discussing pop culture in history. Anyone who follows social media knows that the video was a big topic of conversation from the controversial sampling of Messy Mya, the implications of “creole” and colorism, the reference to Vodou loa Maman Brigitte, and the police shootings of African-Americans. More broadly, Formation and Lemonade have provoked lively discussions about black womanhood.

That sound and music more specifically can be a tool of discussion about race is not new to me. Yet, O’Malley’s focus on acoustics, the creation of sound, and encouragement to think about sound as a cultural artifact does suggest new ways of teaching about race and cultural appropriation. Having students think more specifically about layers of sound, as they might closely read documents, and maybe even getting their heads dirty as we did today would undoubtedly push them to think more critically about sound as a historical source.

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