Current Research in Digital History


Michael J. Kramer

Glitching History
Using Image Deformance to Rethink Agency and Authenticity in the 1960s American Folk Music Revival

from volume 1 (2018), https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2018.08

Abstract

Tactics of glitching and deformance, which alter existing digital data into new outputs through the manipulation of underlying code, offer untapped possibilities for historical inquiry. A photograph of musicians Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and Sam Hinton at the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival serves as a case study for discovering how glitching and deformance reveal previously undetected aspects of the historical record: when glitched, the photograph sparks a heightened awareness of how Hurt and Watson, forced to be carriers of a limiting racial and regional authenticity, also found ways to expand their freedom and agency within the constraints of early 1960s consensus liberalism in the United States. While most histories of the folk revival focus on its primarily white, middle-class audiences, if even to critique their actions, the glitched image aids us in accessing the experiences of Hurt and Watson more robustly. In this way, a digital distortion of a photograph paradoxically produces a more accurate interpretation of the history it captures, enabling a compelling intervention in historiographic debates about the folk revival and its post-World War II American context.

The photograph from the Berkeley Folk Music Revival presents a Mount Rushmore of the 1960s folk revival: Delta songster “Mississippi” John Hurt and Appalachian mountain music virtuoso Arthel “Doc” Watson stand on each side of the professorial folk interpreter Sam Hinton, who served as master of ceremonies for the annual festival that took place on the University of California’s flagship campus from 1958 to 1970 (figure 1).1 The image, a seemingly candid portrait taken by Festival staff photographer Kelly Hart on a sunny summer afternoon in 1964, possesses an iconic quality. It proposes that these three men form some kind of symbolic American string band trio, one that has reordered race and region in the United States into a harmonious ensemble: the long-running antagonisms between black and white in the South, as represented by Hurt and Watson, have been allayed as they assemble way out West around the middle-class, cosmopolitan core of the folk revival audience, as represented by the figure of Hinton. It is an image of the radical hopes for transformation found within the problematic limitations of the postwar liberal consensus:2 Delta black folk hero and Appalachian white one come together around their interlocutor, as if to claim that roots music might help root out the legacies of Jim Crow segregation, slavery, and other social ills in America; yet here, even in this reformist milieu, everything still revolves around the white elites, who remain at the center.

A photograph showing "Mississippi" John Hurt holding a guitar, Sam Hinton, and Arthel "Doc" Watson holding a banjo at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, 1964
Figure 1. ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt, Sam Hinton, and Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, 1964. Photograph: Kelly Hart.

Might digital techniques help us not merely reproduce this underlying, structuring logic of postwar American culture, but instead enhance our capacity to “brush history against the grain,” as Walter Benjamin famously put it, when we develop historical narratives?3 Can the qualities of the digital medium help us to perceive the full range of meanings and implications in our source materials, and do so more critically, dynamically, and compellingly? How do we not only see what is on the surface of our sources, but also grasp the less obvious dimensions of the past that they capture but do not present explicitly? What, in other words, are the new pathways for cultural history when wrought in binary code?

Much of the hype about digital history pertains to a renewed interest in cliometrics, since unprecedented computational power makes it possible to analyze large amounts of data statistically in search of the overarching structures of the longue durée; however, an underdeveloped dimension of digital analysis for historical inquiry can also be found in tactics of glitching and deformance.4 More popular in the art world, New Media Studies, and more adventurous corners of digital literary studies, glitching and deformance have something to offer digital history as well: if used strategically and creatively, they foster new insights into the agency of individuals navigating the larger structural forces that techniques such as cliometrics have the potential to bring to light.

What are glitching and deformance, exactly? Glitching is a digital tactic that produces new iterations of a digital file by introducing or removing strands of code, either at random or through some kind of logical “chance operation.”5 It causes a digital file not to render as originally intended, and privileges mistakes as, ironically, revealing deeper accuracies about a digital file’s form and content.6 The related concept of deformance involves similar acts of alteration in service of interpretive revelation. Mark Sample defines the term as “a portmanteau that combines the words performance and deform into an interpretative concept premised upon deliberately misreading a text, for example, reading a poem backwards line-by-line.”7 Originally developed as a concept by literary scholars Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, deformance intensifies distortions of source materials; changes are made in service of discovering buried meanings within the seemingly self-evident—but in fact highly structured—mediations of an artifact.8

Glitching and deformance are, admittedly, unlikely candidates for historical inquiry. Usually historians emphasize the stability of their sources and privilege the proximity of an artifact or document to its moment in time. In a seminar I teach, however, we deploy glitching and deformance to think more carefully and precisely about the past. Misrepresenting our artifacts allows us to consider the full range of their representations. This is revisionist history in the best sense, in that we are revising the original look of sources to access their deeper levels. We begin with an exercise adapted from the librarian and digital theorist Trevor Owens.9 Owens suggests that to combat what he calls “screen essentialism”—the idea that a Graphical User Interface (a GUI) is transparently presenting text, images, or anything else when we use a computer—we might dig into the code below and mess with it. Manipulating the code, even at random, and then re-rendering the file as an image makes it possible to glimpse, through glitching, the difference between what appears on screen to human eyes and what a computer processes at the level of machine-readable code. So too, it helps us become more cognizant not only of screen essentialism, but also of historical essentialism. By making us more aware of the details and meanings—the component parts—within artifactual sources, glitching and deformance prevent the assumption that sources provide transparent windows on the past. Rather than merely reproducing what artifacts contain, glitching and deformance help us see through their mediations more vividly. Altering the source through strategic acts of randomization opens up all that the source compresses. It unveils the roiling “deep contingency,” as Ed Ayers calls it, below the overdetermined surface of historical artifacts.10 Messing things up helps us see them more accurately.

Take the case of the photograph with which I began this essay. Once the print photograph was digitized, one of my seminar students, Nathan Anderson, drew upon Owens’s “screen essentialism” assignment to open the JPEG file as a text file, pull out some code at random, and reproduce the file as a new JPEG image. When he did so, suddenly Mississippi John Hurt’s head had moved from margin to center (figure 2). Nathan, to be clear, was not Stalin airbrushing purged Soviet officials out of official photographs; rather, he (Nathan not Stalin) created a remix that raises new questions about the meanings lurking in the artifact. Moving the artifact away from its original form brings us closer to the stakes up for grabs in its originating historical moment: revising the “text” helped us better access the context.

A glitched photograph showing from left to right, Arthel "Doc" Watson, "Mississippi" John Hurt and Sam Hinton.
Figure 2. Student Nathan Anderson’s 2013 glitch experiment with Kelly Hart’s photograph of Hurt, Hinton, and Watson.

With Nathan’s particular glitch, we can ask what happens if we place John Hurt at the heart of the 1960s folk music revival narrative rather than the middle-class, white, urban audience that typically dominates historical recountings.11 Even in historical studies that are critical of that audience, its members remain the protagonists of the story.12 To make Hurt the central subject and a historical agent is to explore more probingly what the folk revival might have meant to a man born in 1892 in the Jim Crow South to parents who were emancipated slaves, and, more crucially, how Hurt actively navigated the 1960s folk revival for his own purposes. Nathan’s glitch, an accident, alerts us to how Hurt pursued his own agency within the 1960s folk revival milieu.

Recording a series of obscure tracks for the OKeh label in the late 1920s, Hurt disappeared into obscurity during the 1930s until a few of his original recordings resurfaced on the influential Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, curated by avant-garde artist, bohemian, and collector Harry Smith and released in 1952. Most listeners figured Hurt was long dead by the 1960s, but he had, in fact, been working as a farmhand near his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi. In 1963, a young white blues fan from Washington, DC, Tom Hoskins, found him and invited Hurt to perform and record again.13 Typically put in the role of avuncular inspirer of the revival, supposedly trapped into having to play the authentic folk musician, Hurt also, as Nathan’s glitch suggests, made the most of being thrust to stage center of the folk revival.14 Hoskins and other revivalists forced Hurt into performing the role of authentic folk hero from days gone by; Hurt, in turn, used the revival to transcend the limitations of Jim Crow, to travel, make a living, meet new people, and garner new experiences.

By shifting Hurt to the center of the story in the glitched photo, we see more clearly how he negotiated the folk revival on his terms, drawing upon deep continuities and powerful resources in his own life—his love of music, his deep religiosity that did not preclude an earthy embrace of the profane—to transcode himself into the shifting contours of region, race, and cultural context during the 1960s. Watching Hurt glitch himself and his music into the opportunities presented by the 1960s folk revival, one is struck at how adept he was at capitalizing on what must, at times, have sometimes felt like random, chance encounters such as Hoskins’s arrival at his door in 1963. Glitching takes us more clearly toward how Hurt explored the radical potential for self and collective freedom coiled up within the constraints of the liberal consensus context. The revival seemed to pin Hurt in place as a bearer of the authentic Southern African-American past, but he turned around the beat and instead used the intense interest in his music and persona to roar into the future.

Glitching artifacts such as this photograph helps us better see the agency of participants such as Hurt, caught up in the revival’s representations and their underlying ideological motivations. We can shift out of the obsessive focus on how white, middle-class audiences imposed authenticity on figures such as Hurt and catch how seemingly marginalized actors and participants such as the guitarist exerted agency too.15 To examine Nathan’s glitch illuminates other things as well: we notice how Hurt’s face now sits above Watson’s banjo, a reminder of the surprising travels of this instrument, originally from West Africa, into white Appalachian life. Watson’s head, meanwhile, now sits above Hinton’s thin “mod” striped tie, as if to point out how Watson’s own story had its glitchy surprises when it comes to the traditional and the modern: Watson in fact began his career as an electric rockabilly guitarist in North Carolina before folklorist Ralph Rinzler “discovered” him and urged him to return to his family and region’s musical roots.16 Watson, like Hurt, made the most of the opportunities that the folk revival as part of consensus liberalism afforded him. He too glitched tradition. By moving Hurt closer to Watson, the glitch also reminds us how much the African American Mississippi delta blues songster loved white country music made by figures such as Jimmie Rodgers.17 Rewriting songs such as “Waiting for a Train” into his own compositions, he enacted his own subversive deformances, complicating racialized sonic boundaries through the folk process.18 Indeed, manager Dick Waterman notes that Hurt spent the summer just before his death in 1966 avidly listening to recordings by none other than…Doc Watson.19

These two Southern musicians were far less apart in their tastes than the positioning of them on either side of Hinton might at first suggest. Glitching warns us, nonetheless, to pay attention to the persistence of racialized difference in the liberal folk revival. While Hurt has moved to the center in Nathan’s glitched photograph, the deformation of the image has also caused Hinton and Watson’s blazers to merge: as much as we might see into the potential in the folk revival for radical reconfigurations of culture, we cannot fully ignore or forget the persistence of race in shaping even sincere and heartfelt postwar liberal efforts to undo white supremacy. The boundaries between who was white and who was black did not ever come close to disappearing.

Overall, in heightening our awareness of details and what they suggest about interpretations of the past, glitching and deformance make it possible for us to brush history against the grain by, in a certain sense, changing the patterns of the grain itself. Digitally remediated, the source’s representational layers become more alive. Distortions to artifacts caused by these tactics ironically generate more accurate considerations of the traces of the past embedded in them. And because they tweak—even destabilize—sources, glitching and deformance do not merely reproduce the dominant ideologies that get lodged in supposedly objective data such as photographs.20 Instead, glitching and deformance syncopate our source materials. They allow us to hear the fretwork of history’s complex chordal arrangements with more acumen. And they help us see more clearly how people in the past such as Hurt and Watson creatively navigated the pulsing rhythm of history’s alternating bass lines—between continuity and change, structure and agency, tradition and revision, authenticity and innovation—with pluck, dexterity, and virtuosity.


Bibliography

Armitage, David and Jo Guldi. The History Manifesto. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Ayers, Edward L. “Turning toward Place, Space, and Time.” In Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, edited by David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, 1–13. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, 253–264. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1968.

Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project. http://www.bfmf.net.

Betancourt, Michael. Glitch Art in Theory and Practice: Critical Failures and Post-Digital Aesthetics. New York: Focal Press, 2016.

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Grundell, Vendela. Flow And Friction: On The Tactical Potential Of Interfacing With Glitch Art. Stockholm: Art And Theory Publishing, 2016.

Gustavson, Kent. Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson. New York: Blooming Twig Books, 2012.

Hagstrom Miller, Karl. Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955.

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Hodgson, Godfrey. America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon—What Happened and Why. 1976. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Hurt, Mississippi John. The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings. Columbia Legacy 64986, released 1996.

Hurt, Mississippi John. “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me,” Last Sessions. Vanguard VSD-79327, recorded 1966, released 1972.

Gerstle, Gary. “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus.” Journal of American History 82, 2 (1995): 579–86.

Kramer, Michael J. “Distorting History (To Make It More Accurate).” Issues in Digital History 3 (April 2016). http://www.michaeljkramer.net/distorting-history-to-make-it-more-accurate/.

Kramer, Michael J. “‘A Foreign Sound to Your Ear’: Digital Image Sonification For Historical Interpretation.” In Provoke! Digital Sound Studies, edited by Mary Caton Lingold, Darren Mueller, and Whitney Anne Trettien, 178–214. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

McGann, Jerome and Lisa Samuels. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30, 1 (1999): 25–56.

Menkman, Rosa. “Glitch Studies Manifesto (2011).” In Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube, edited by Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers-Miles, 336–347. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011.

Owens, Trevor. “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps.” The Signal: Library of Congress Blog, November 5, 2012.

Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 1995.

Ratcliffe, Philip R. Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

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Notes

  1. For more on the festival, see Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project website. 

  2. The formative studies of the liberal consensus—as much shaping it as historicizing it—remain Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center and Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America. See, also, John Higham, “The Cult of the ‘American Consensus’”; Hodgson, America in Our Time, 67–98; and Gerstle, “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus.” 

  3. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 257. 

  4. On the call for a digital turn back to cliometrics, see Armitage and Guldi, History Manifesto

  5. On “chance operations,” see Cage, Silence. 

  6. Glitching has a long-running history in the visual arts in the work of Naim Juk Paik, among others, but it came of age in the 1990s and 2000s; see Grundell, Flow And Friction; Betancourt, Glitch Art in Theory and Practice; and Menkman, “Glitch Studies Manifesto (2011).” 

  7. Sample, “Notes towards a Deformed Humanities.” 

  8. McGann and Samuels, “Deformance and Interpretation.” 

  9. Owens offers this exercise to challenge what he calls “screen essentialism”; see Owens, “Glitching Files for Understanding.” The glitching experiments by my students can be viewed at Kramer, “Distorting History (To Make It More Accurate).” 

  10. Ayers, “Turning toward Place, Space, and Time.” 

  11. Cantwell, When We Were Good; Cohen, Rainbow Quest

  12. Hale, A Nation of Outsiders

  13. Hurt, The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings; Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music

  14. There is not space here to provide the important details of Hurt’s biography, but for more on his life, see Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt. For the Mississippi context in which Hurt came of age, see Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom

  15. For more on authenticity in the folk revival builds, see Filene, Romancing the Folk

  16. Gustavson, Blind But Now I See

  17. For background on how racial binaries shaped—we might even say distorted—genre categories in American music, see Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound

  18. Rodgers, Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues) / Waiting For A Train; Mississippi John Hurt, “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me.” For more on understanding folk music as “a process, not a static existence,” see Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger

  19. Waterman, “John Hurt; Patriarch Hippie.” 

  20. For more on this approach, see Kramer, “‘A Foreign Sound to Your Ear.’” 


Author

Michael J. Kramer, Digital Liberal Arts Initiative, Middlebury College, michaelk@middlebury.edu, ORC ID logo0000-0002-4522-0547