avatar for Sophie Abramowitz

Sophie Abramowitz

Sophie Abramowitz is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, “Harlem Songbook,” is a cultural history that seeks to understand the ways that unexplored exchanges between song collecting, songwriting, and performance can expand our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance. She is currently collaborating on a digital Charlottesville Syllabus project and on two historical blues album releases. 

“A Sweet, Separate Intimacy:” The Ballad of the Female Song Collector"
While the work of folklorists consolidated within the academic disciplines of literature and anthropology from roughly the 1880s into the 1920s and groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers did similar work by collecting, arranging, and performing black spirituals, a group of predominantly white middle- and upper-class womenoften English teachers and social reformers, were entering black and Native American communities to record their songs. This paper investigates these colonialist figures, focusing on the ways they used transcriptions and recording technology to borrow from the language of romanticism, transcendentalism, and sentimentalism and interpolate their folkloric subjects. Narrating and recording black and Native American performers in forms meant to justify and metastasize their relationships to their subjects, folklorists like Natalie Curtis Burlin, Abbey Holmes Christensen, and Alice Fletcher used rhetoric and technology to construct their gender their whiteness in order to affect a collapse between their own subjectivities and those of their subjects.  
Interrogating the ways these white women performed their gender in their attempts to dissemble racial barriers for their own gain, this paper concludes with a different kind of performance. The startling record of Zora Neale Hurston’s presence in her 1935 field recording session of musicians in her hometown of Eatonville, FLreimagines the possibilities of folkloric contact through the lens of dramatic rehearsal on what I call Hurston’s “collecting stage.”