Critical Methods: Soundtracking
To our critical toolkit we can add another method, soundtracking. Let’s think of the latter part of that term, tracking, not only as background music or the noises generated by human activity, the natural world and the movement of machinery but as the activity of tracking, as in the way a hunter might track her quarry. For the period of the 1930s, then, soundtracking becomes the critical method of following the development of social sounds: from Delta Blues and lefty folk to the pop of tear gas canisters fired at strikers, the thrum of turbines generating electricity, the scratch of chaff blown across the dustbowl wasteland or the tintinnabulations of the city. The trail of California—and more generally, American—culture provides us with clues about how we arrived at the future that is our present.
A secondary valence of ‘tracking’ might relate to the idea of a track as the determined trajectory of cultural practices and social changes. Think of railcars clacking along: they move through time and across space, but barring derailment there’s very little leeway. This sense of the word brings us to a confrontation with historical necessity. In a way, history isn’t what happened; it’s what had to have happened in order for us to be here to talk about it.
This weekend, research some of the sounds of the Depression on the internet. Youtube might be useful, particularly in terms of popular music of the period. In class I mentioned Woody Guthrie, Son House and Robert Johnson but there is a cacophony of notes, noises and voices to consider: Swing, Dixieland, James Cagney’s gangster snarl, the syncopated beat of apples raining into a wooden bin.