House Music: A Historian's Perspective
A historian friend recently questioned me about my post on yellow journalism. While he agreed with some of the points in the piece, his interpretation and answers to some of the questions I posited made my grounding in ethnomusicology and music sociology very blatant. He suggested that a historian would have dealt with the material very differently. So I offered him the chance to share his thoughts. Just how do we make informed decisions about historical sources?
House Music: A Historian's Perspective
In June, The Foundations of House published a blog post titled ‘Print the Legend: House and Yellow Journalism’ in which questions about sources and creating a truthful history arose. The blog grapples with the sensationalisation and misrepresentation of important figures and places in house music. Although this post will not be able to provide concrete answers to some of these questions, it will hopefully be able to add a new perspective to the methodology of how best to interpret the different sources available to attempt to create a more coherent history of house. This methodology will address questions about how we can trust the legitimacy of sources we know to be sensationalised, as well as develop a framework for creating a coherent, nuanced history that the Foundations of House has made apparent is lacking.
Addressing the Legitimacy of Sources
The Foundations of House has noted that many of the documentaries, books, and even individual interviews conducted are problematic. Documentaries and books oversimplify the history, only focussing on one or two main figures and places, while completely ignoring the context and true importance of the greater community at work. Individual interviews are also difficult to navigate as many of the main figures in House have overstated their role in the creation of the genre. To the Foundations of House, one of the biggest culprits in distortion of the history of House music is Yellow Journalism, which include exaggerations of news events, scandal mongering, and sensationalism. To begin to create a history of House using difficult sources, John Tosh’s, The Pursuit of History (2010) offers some advice. Tosh offers that even biased sources can prove to be valuable in making history. The bias we encounter in the documentaries and interviews in House music can be historically significant (Tosh 2010, 130).
How do we make sense of biased accounts of the history of House? As The Foundations of House’s Yellow Journalism touched on, “Don’t trust any one source”. In my opinion, the blog takes a pessimistic view of the difficult sources. Instead of not trusting the sources, a historian should view difficult sources as pieces of a puzzle. Each problematic perspective is an individual piece, and it is up to us to put the pieces together to create the picture. It is not that we shouldn’t trust the sources, but that they aren’t complete on their own. It is doubtful that Frankie Knuckles set out to overstate his role in becoming the public face of the beginning of house. What we as historians need to is take his account and contextualise it within the accounts of other ‘founding fathers’ and media sources. By gaining a wide range of historical accounts, we are not saying that certain testimonies are false, but we can begin to form an idea of how the movement began.
Towards a Framework for a Coherent History of House
As a word of advice for anyone reading this: If you come across a book, article, interview, documentary, or any other source that has ‘THE HISTORY OF…’ in the title, put it down or turn it off immediately. The idea that we can present a definitive history of any topic is a fantasy and brings along a host of potential bias problematic rhetoric. We will never be able to definitively create THE HISTORY of House. What we can do, is critically assess the range of sources to create the most coherent idea of a history of House to date. By starting with the understanding that we will never know for sure what actually happened, we can move forward to address the difficult sources by contextualising them within their framework to attempt to create a general picture of the history. As stated before, we know that Frankie Knuckles’ work at Warehouse has become the prominent public narrative for the beginning of House music, but what happens if we take that narrative and place it within the context of the accounts of some of the other major figures such as Ron Hardy, Chip E and Jesse Saunders? By challenging the most popular narrative of the history through bringing a stronger voice to those previously silenced, we can begin to paint a clearer picture of the significance of each figure and their interpretations of the history of House.
Dan Miller and John Schofield aptly state in their article, “The ‘Toilet Circuit’: Cultural production, Fandom and Heritage in England’s Small Music Venues” that, ‘Popular music, its production, marketing and distribution is closely aligned to a drive for nostalgia’ (Miller and Schofield 2017, 138). This nostalgia is certainly prevalent in the accounts of the beginnings of House music and should be accounted for in the interpretation of its history. Although we cannot present THE real history of House, we can use the difficult and problematic narratives available to create a coherent and nuanced context for the inception of this genre that has taken the world by storm. Through the use of historical methodologies with a museological context, a deeper and more accurate understanding of the history of House is easily achievable.
— Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson is a PhD student in Public History at the University of York. His research is on public understandings of poverty and punishment in British Prison Museums. In addition to crime history, Dan has interests in urban and architectural history, and social history in America and the United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_Johnson19