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“I Believe I’ll Go Back Home”: Blindness in Blues and Gospel Race Records

Bagnato, John (2018) “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home”: Blindness in Blues and Gospel Race Records. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation analyzes the contributions and reception of blind African American musicians who produced phonograph recordings between 1926 and 1938. Their records were central in transforming Black popular music. The "downhome" aesthetic they popularized was a significant stylistic departure from previous Race records. The prevalent notion that downhome expression was an always already foundational Black expression complicates its association with blindness and the moment of its popularity in 1926. The downhome became a liminal space on records featuring performances by blind musicians for audiences affected by institutional racism as well as increased acts of racial terror. Relegating blindness to the downhome was extremely popular, and was also a disabling and inaccurate representation. While the musicians presented an aesthetic that suggested an authentic downhomeness, they were participating in a Black modernity as recording artists and performers in cosmopolitan urban centers during their era, far from downhome. The musicians were associated with a past during a period vital to the construction of African American collective memory. Their records functioned as auditory mnemonics through the downhome and the effect of phonographic reproduction. By 1938, at least fifty "Blind" monikers were credited to musicians on recordings marketed to African American consumers. Sight as a marker of modernity contributed to the industry's promotion of a "Blind" downhome expression. The musicians could not "see" the modernity their audiences were navigating, they also could not "see" themselves as a result of their social invisibility. Their recorded expression imposed a break from a present state of modernity, validating a post-agrarian position. Blindness functioned as an authenticating marker of this break. Drawing on public health documents related to African American communities from the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, recordings, lyrics, interviews, films, and the Black Press, this dissertation shows how blind musicians became the most popular producers of Black popular music during the late 1920s.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairHelbig, Adrianaanh59@pitt.eduanh59
Committee MemberRosenblum, Mathewrosenblu@pitt.edurosenblu
Committee MemberHeller, Michaelmichael.heller@pitt.edumichael.heller
Committee MemberGlasco, Laurencelarry.glasco@pitt.edularry.glasco
Committee MemberRandall,
Date: 26 September 2018
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 10 April 2018
Approval Date: 26 September 2018
Submission Date: 8 August 2018
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 250
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Music
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: blindness, blues, race records, black popular music, disability, race, popular music.
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2018 19:43
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2018 19:43

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