Dr. Michael D. Swartz
It was said of the great Bible scholar Harry Orlinsky that equal to any of the areas of his vast erudition was his knowledge of baseball. While I lay no claim to his level of beqi‘ut in any matter, I have spent an inordinate amount of time accumulating trivia about popular music. My favorite airplane reading is music biography and history, from Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise to Al Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards.
Every once in a while one of these books changes the way I think about my research. The latest one to do so is Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald looks at Robert Johnson, one of the most beloved figures in the history of the blues—at least to modern rock and blues fans—to reexamine our image of blues singers in the context of the pre-war American South. On one level, Wald seeks to dispel the romantic image of the blues singer pouring out his soul to a downtrodden population. But on another level, he employs a wide variety of sources to place Johnson and his fellow performers in a social and economic context as sophisticated professionals practicing their craft. Paying careful attention to such sources as record company catalogues, lists of titles in jukeboxes, and interviews often overlooked by scholars, Wald shows that the artists we think of as blues singers were versatile entertainers who could just as easily play the latest hit by Duke Ellington or Gene Autry as “Love in Vain” or “Hell Hound on My Trail.” Their audience wanted to hear—and especially dance to—a variety of types of music. These gifted musicians were not only glad to oblige but proud of their virtuosity. The genre of Blues as a separate category from Pop or Country music was essentially the invention of the record companies, who booked rural African-American singers for their “race” catalogues. Later, when folklorists in the 1940s and revivalists in the 1960s rediscovered those singers, they romanticized and reified the blues as the most authentic expression of African American culture in the Deep South.
Several of the categories of ancient Jewish literature that I study, such as incantation texts, divination, and piyyut, were likewise written by virtuosos who no doubt were compensated for their craft. So I especially appreciate the methods that Wald and the generation of historians he draws on are using in two ways. The first is to find ostensibly mundane sources to examine the daily lives of these performers—we might compare the jukebox catalogues to booklists and business letters from the Genizah that tell us what scribes and ḥazanim were actually producing. The second is to see their economic and social lives as fully bound up with their cultural lives and personal expression. We who study religion in late antiquity sometimes envy our colleagues in other fields who have the kind of archival materials that can yield the kind of results that Wald and his colleagues in musicology can achieve. But we can tune our ears to the sorts of day-to-day concerns that animated our ritual and literary professionals and their modern-day students.
Dr. Michael D. Swartz is Professor of Judaism in late antiquity at Ohio State University.
Dr. Michael Satlow
Some years back I read Isaiah Berlin's delightful essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." This well-known essay argues that there are two kinds of historians, those who know many things (but not particularly well, "foxes") and those who know one thing very well ("hedgehogs"). While Berlin - a fox if there ever was one - surveyed a gamut of thinkers from antiquity to the present in this essay, he spent a good deal of time discussing Tolstoy's War and Peace. I had found Berlin's essay so intellectually productive that I finally decided, now well into my career, that it was finally time to bite the bullet and read Tolstoy.
War and Peace is not the butt of jokes for nothing. It took me a long time to get through, most of which was spent pleasurably. Among many other things, War and Peace is a meditation on the issues of historical causation and narration. How do we really know how one event "causes" another? And how and for what purpose do we write about it? Previously I had read much in the philosophy of history - Hayden White stands out among them - but no writer had previously driven home to me as Tolstoy did the foundational issues and problems at the heart of what we do. This thinking led me to structure my last book, How the Bible Became Holy, as I did, as a historical narrative that foregrounds the issue of causation and that deals frankly with the speculation inherent in the study of ancient history. I continue, though, to wrestle with these questions, which both energize and haunt me.
Michael L. Satlow is Professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University.