You are here

Listening to the Wind: Alum Dr. Jeff Todd Titon

The pioneering ethnomusicologist on English studies and the lure of sound
December 12, 2017

Dr. Jeff Todd Titon with old friend Papa John Kolstad

Dr. Jeff Todd Titon with old friend Papa John Kolstad
Dr. Jeff Todd Titon (left) with his old friend, the musician Papa John Kolstad, with whom he played in the 1960s

When trailblazing ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon (MA 1970) arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1965 for graduate study, he knew he wanted to be a college professor. What research area would be his focus was still a mystery. His advisor at Amherst, early eco-critic Leo Marx, had been one of a core of Minnesota English professors who established a pioneering American Studies program here in the 1940s and '50s; it was on Marx's advice that Titon applied to the U.

Titon, who was honored with the U's Outstanding Achievement Award at an October ceremony at McNamara Center, discovered his future not in a classroom or in a book but in bars and coffeehouses in Dinkytown and the West Bank. A guitarist, he began performing folk and blues music soon after arriving in Minneapolis, an activity he thought of as separate from his academic studies. There was a sound there that he had to follow: and he did, by joining the band of Chicago expatriate blues pianist, Lazy Bill Lucas, interviewing Lucas and his musician friends about their lives and music for British magazines, and recording Lucas (in a School of Music practice room!) for two albums released in Europe.

When in 1966 Titon took his first class with the U's first ethnomusicologist Alan Kagan, then a new faculty arrival in Music, he discovered that what he had been doing with his interviews was fieldwork: but a new sort, "not as an investigative reporter or scientist the way we were being asked to be in those days," he recalls. "That might well be the place where I first came to think about doing field research as talking and being with people as friends." Eventually the practice became his signature method, and a field-changing one.

University Regent David McMillan presents award to Jeff Todd Titon
University Regent David McMillan presenting the Outstanding Achievement award

Writing about the blues

But we’re jumping ahead. In 1969, Titon heard folklorist Archie Green give a lecture on early blues record advertisements. "I said to myself, 'My goodness, there's a possibility in this area for academic research,'" remembers Titon. His American Studies graduate advisor, Professor Mary Turpie (English PhD 1942), was less excited about the then obscure subject, blues, which she felt mainstream academic hiring committees might not understand or value. In addition, Titon didn't want to teach in a Music department among a small minority of scholars. Because he envisioned teaching in an English department within an American Studies program, Turpie advised him to add an MA in English to his American Studies PhD.

In his acceptance speech at McNamara, Titon thanked English professors Jack Levinson and Sam Monk, Art Geffen and Marty Roth. When Turpie made her suggestion, "I had already accumulated almost enough English courses for the degree," he says. "Besides, I'd been a TA in English for several years. I loved my English courses here, and my professors." When Titon discovered that Geffen and Roth shared his interest in folklore, they decided to propose a team-taught course, the first English course on the topic here. In the end, the class didn't happen, but the preparation was formative: "It was almost like taking a course in folklore. I felt like that was an area that I very much wanted to explore further."

After completing his dissertation in 1971, Titon did start teaching in an English department, at Tufts University, where he would go on to create that course in folklore and eventually co-found their American Studies department; he was tenured in 1977 in a joint appointment in English and music. (Titon was hired as the director of the Brown University ethnomusicology doctoral program in 1986, retiring in 2013.) His dissertation evolved into a 1977 book, Early Downhome Blues, now considered a classic ethnomusicology text, followed by a string of similarly innovative volumes including Worlds of Music (six editions since 1984); Powerhouse for God (a 1988 book, record, and documentary film—the book to be updated in a new edition next year); and The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology (Oxford University Press, 2015).

"Sound gives us one way
of thinking that all beings
in the world are related to
each other." - Dr. Titon

Titon's engaged scholarship with musicians has resulted in a striking pattern of extracurricular cultural support: he has written grants to sustain musical traditions, envisioned policy at the National Endowment for the Arts, produced further records, promoted concerts, and connected artists to record labels. (Hooking up the guitarist Leo Kottke with John Fahey and his Takoma label in 1969 was not his last such effort.)

Transformative sound

He followed his musical interests into folk religious traditions, from the "lining out" call and response singing of Old Regular Baptists of the southern Appalachians and African American congregations to the musical preaching (or "whooping") of black ministers. What led him there? "It's the transformation of voice," he describes, "from a speaking mode to heightened speech to a more musical form that signals a more powerful mode of discourse." Titon has been working on a website about the Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father, whom he got to know during a year in Detroit on an National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. (Titon edited Franklin's book Give Me This Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons.)

Recently, too, Titon has been thinking about climate change. A continuing interest in environmentalism and ecology inspired him to think and talk about musical and cultural sustainability, which again thrust him, in the early 2000s, to the forefront of his field. (While in Minneapolis this fall, he delivered the Yoder Lecture, on "Eco-Justice and Folklife," at the American Folklore Society conference.)

When he and Florida State musicologist Denise Von Glahn were preparing for a 2015 "Music in a Changing Climate" event here at the University of Minnesota, Von Glahn posed a question: "What does climate change sound like?" Titon was energized. "I told her, 'I want to think about that.'"

Says Titon, "When you get to be as old as I am, you can impose a pattern on your life that you never understood when you were going through it. What interested me about blues and black musical preaching and Old Regular Baptist singing, when I look back on it now, it's the sound of it. There's something about sound that just attracts me enormously."

A few months after his conversation with Von Glahn, Titon was on the coast of Maine, where he lives in retirement. "We were having a terrible rain and wind storm," he recounts. "The rain turned to sleet and soon a heavy, wet snow filled up the branches of the white spruce trees. I had gone out to the porch to take it all in. The branches were waving in the howling wind, and the trees looked like so many Shivas waving their arms about. Then they started snapping and breaking off. Some whole trees went over; the ground was still wet and soft. And I heard it, I heard the sounds of climate change.

"And I said to myself, 'I must follow this.'" Sound, he realized, connects beings to one another, viscerally by means of vibration. "Sound connects in ways that other ways of being in the world do not," he says. "Sound gives us one way of thinking that all beings in the world are related to each other. All beings are our kin. And so what kinds of communities, what kinds of economies, what kind of a sound ecology might follow from understanding sound experience?" In his current project, theorizing a sound ecology, he hopes to offer an answer.