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Disciplinary Movements, the Civil Rights Movement, and Charles Keil's Urban Blues

Sakakeeny, Matt

Charles Keil was in his midtwenties when he published his first book, Urban
Blues (1966a), based on his master's thesis in anthropology at the University
of Chicago. In many ways, it was the summation of his experiences and
encounters up to that point: a childhood in rural Connecticut where his
grandfather raised pigs; a love of jazz that began with drum lessons from
his uncle (an example of what colleague Steven Feld described as "white
male bonding through black music" [Keil and Feld 1994:2]); undergraduate
schooling at Yale that included travel to the West Indies and Nigeria;
1960s countercultural activism intensified by a relationship with Malcolm
X; a tumultuous graduate school experience under the tutelage of Clifford
Geertz, David Schneider, and Marshall Sahlins in anthropology, Leonard
Meyer in musicology, and Alan Merriam in ethnomusicology; and finally
fieldwork in the theaters, nightclubs, radio stations, recording studios, and
tour buses connected to the bustling blues scene in Chicago.
The appearance of Urban Blues was not revolutionary because it came
from the hand of a humanist prodigy, but because Keil approached a modern,
urban African American musical style with such rigor. In the current
disciplinary climate of critical musicology, ethnomusicology, anthropology,
and Black Studies, it is difficult to grasp that Urban Blues was not only one of
the first scholarly texts based on fieldwork in urban Afro-America, but was
also one of the first ethnographic monographs dedicated to an American
popular music form, and was the first to eschew transcription and detailed
musical-structural analysis in favor of a sociocultural approach.

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Title
Current Musicology

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Academic Units
Music
Publisher
Columbia University
Published Here
October 29, 2014