Pneumatic Memory: Listening to Listening in The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” a Record Album Interpretation

In 1964, incarcerated men in a segregated Texas state prison gathered before an ethnographer’s field recorder and sang work songs, toasted, and told tales known intimately to them. Bruce Jackson, a Junior Fellow at Harvard, listened and recorded the various corners of the DOC. The men sounded into an unknown and not-yet constituted public. They had likely never recorded their voices before. In one of many photos taken by Jackson, a group of men stand in the field, looking down, as if listening to something we cannot see. Just out of frame sits a tape recorder that plays back their voices to them. They do not see me, though I listen. They do not see nor imagine the possibility that three performers, Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore, would transmit their songs half a century later as The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” a Record Album Interpretation, in The Performing Garage, home to the Wooster Group (recently reprised at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn). In singing, toasting, preaching to the recorder, they were opening a space for the possibility of listening. Two spaces touch.

Berryman, a young man of thirty, comes to the foot of the stage and introduces himself. The audience is loosely constituted by his direct address: he stands before “us” as himself, not as an actor. He is dressed in a t-shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers. Behind him, we see a video image of his apartment in Harlem: his bed, records, and a window bearing a dream-catcher, each marking our distance from the penal space and a superimposition. The image inserts a cut or note bene in the theater, such that the threshold of the room, the one in which we sit listening, surpasses its tentative boundaries and four walls.

He tells the story of an unexpected first introduction to The B-Side director and Wooster Group cofounder, Kate Valk, in the New York City tea shop where he was apprenticing. Berryman had overheard her talking about theater. They began to chat and he realized that he had just seen Valk in her directorial debut, the Wooster Group’s interpretation of a recording of early Shaker spirituals. He told her about Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons (recorded, edited, and annotated by Jackson) and about how, although he hadn’t known her, he had hoped to be in touch. At the time, Berryman was twenty-seven years old, the same age Jackson was when he took his recording trip funded by the Harvard fellowship, the prestige of which garnered him access to segregated prisons to document their communities. Fifty years later, Berryman was listening to the tracks Jackson recorded, but as mp3s and on an old copy of the record that was missing liner notes and lyrics. He was replaying them over and over again on his computer in an effort to transcribe them. After a few waylaid emails that Jackson never received, Berryman finally reached Jackson and learned that he had already transcribed the tracks. The two formed a fast friendship premised upon reciprocity, a shared love of talking and listening.

The rest is history. Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons now exists as the “B-side” to the Shaker spirituals. The Shakers called their practice “labor” and their songs “gifts.” These two albums and bodies of song exist unknown to each other, but as two inextricable sonics and gifts of chance and American history bound in a resonant and utopian embrace.

The lights fade just after Berryman holds up his copy of the record and tells us it’s from his personal collection. Standing on stage before the phonograph and the image of his apartment, he tells us what is about to occur: he will play the record, which will be transmitted to him, Moore, and McGruder through in-ear receivers. They will “transmit” the recording to us. He does not tell us anything about how we are to listen. But there is a pedagogical clue in The B-Side that teaches us how to listen, that marks the space and cuts it into two. Berryman does not move the tone arm to begin playing the record until reading aloud the names of the men on the album sleeve: the voices of the dead. Names have an uncanny power to conjure. It is a citation and incantation, a genesis and calling. His attention turns to the record player and the surface of the record, the practice of cleaning it, and the needle. This ritual of care for the artifact is a preparation for its resounding.

We are before the record, what Valk calls “the relic.” As Berryman moves the tone arm, we hear the recording for a moment in the house speakers just before the transmission to the in-ear receivers dissolves the house sound and the men before us begin to sing. Berryman, a tenor, leads McGruder and Moore in the work songs, just as the tenor would have in the field. They sing as they are listening; re-sounding the recording and listening to the recording are simultaneous acts. Just off stage sit television monitors visible only to the performers. The monitors play archival footage of Mississippian storytellers whose gestures, postures, and fits of laugher are at times stitched into the scene by the performers to maintain their senses within the present. We see the phonograph on a table, which is returned to with each new track, the tone arm moved. The relic never leaves the stage and maintains its split status, both declarative and enlivened.

From the beginning, the Wooster Group has practiced forms of exact recitation of archival footage. Ron Vawter, one company founder with Elizabeth LeCompte, once remarked to Tim Etchells that their work involves “going back over the tapes of the twentieth century to see what had happened, to see what had gone wrong” (102). The performers become hosts for what they call “the source.” The source is infinite in its capacity to yield gestic and sonic details. The source can never be fully absorbed or overcome; it is absolute in its capacity to produce difference. Their work, Valk suggested to me in interview, “is an act of transduction.” “The past comes through us,” she continued, “…comes through our being….We put ourselves with the artifact.” The artifact is, in some precise sense, a resonator. The object vibrates in its artifactual existence.

Joining Berryman, the Wooster Group now takes up something far less contained than in previous works. They resound four hundred years of the black Atlantic, making the theater a transducer of a condensed yet ongoing history of black sound. In the Texas prisons where the album was recorded, the men worked on former plantations, the songs bearing a direct lineage to slavery. Such “musical production is the in-between,” writes Shana Redmond, “the both/and of intimacy and labor” (151).

It is imperative for the Wooster Group that there be no fictional elements in The B-Side. The performers do not attempt to look like the men in the recording, nor are there metonyms that would remind us of prison space. Despite the ghosts in the room, we are always reminded of the artifactual existence of the recording, its singularity and staunch resistance to subsumption. The performers have not internalized the record because, as source, it cannot be fully absorbed, possessed, or known. Being singular, the source is infinite. Performing maintains itself and finds itself in listening, an act of receiving. In Berryman’s phrase, he is not singing along to a voice, he is “in the voice.” But even in that inwardness, there is an unbroachable distance or threshold. Valk remarked, “you are thinking, I know this…but you have to go back always to listen….We go back together, collectively. You perform and then you come back, come back to the source.”

The B-Side asks us to be present to listening, to listen to listening, and to listen to a non-expressive and non-interpretative act of cultural and existential transmission. In certain moments, the audience hears dimly the original recording fade in and out of the mix, but we never lose the sense that it is there because the imprisoned men are not. We never lose the sense of their captured life through the metonym of the phonographic rendering which, as capture, sits mutely before us in the room.

And yet, there is a transmission. Speaking of the numerous compositions of Blind Tom, a blind piano virtuoso born into slavery, Daphne Brooks describes the “black captive as a recorder,” not simply an object to be recorded. His piano works, culled from a nearly boundless capacity to take in and to listen, are “transmissions of listening.” We think of the phonograph as a purely reproductive device and the radio as a transmissive one. But here, in the space of The B-Side, reproduction and transmission are collapsed into one. Something of the radiophonic, as a vibration across distance, redefines what it means to replay recorded music. Anyone who has lived through recorded music knows this to be true. The captive men were listening to each other, and the performers are listening to themselves listen. Traversing the in-ear receiver, listening folds the sounds outward from the interiority of reception. The sound is their reception, but also ours; the reception is the sound, the ongoing work of listening twinned by sounding.

It is through the gift of contingency that The B-Side began in chance encounter and is propelled. Contingency is part of any sound. Contingency is the acoustical space of the event—the way a singer swallows, the way a breath is inhaled or exhaled, the click of tongue between words. The exactitude of recitation yields in The B-Side an ongoing, collective transduction. At times the sonic exactitude achieved in The B-Side demands a physical gesture to be vocally rendered by performers. In these moments, the gesture is grounded in the sound’s desire to be expelled. The sound does what it needs to make itself audible.

In “Rattler,” a track that communicates knowledge about how to avoid an infamous prison dog, we hear the outdoors, the faint sound of birds just beyond the corner of the DOC where Jackson recorded (he did not yet own a portable recorder, so the men were not singing in the field, but rather anywhere were Jackson could set up his device, including the prison dentist’s office). At this moment in “Rattler,” the original recording is brought back up into the house mix, the room where we are listening. The B-Side, as collective transduction, refuses to diminish the situation of the recording’s event. The performance is not only voicing and re-voicing, it is situating and resituating.

The fundamental situation of sounds—incarceration and penal labor—remains inaudible and invisible except through these resonant contingencies. Through the continued presence of the screen on stage, the entire performance remains an acousmatic event, a sound whose source is unseen. McGruder and Moore had been seated when Berryman first began singing. With their backs to us, we see shots of them on screen in live video.

Photo by Bruce Jackson, courtesy of the Wooster Group

They face him, but they also face us through a projected image. This image is a memento mori. It also has a multiplying effect: the three becoming the many, the community. There are two spaces, but each is split or multiplied within itself. One space is free and the other is captive. Each of the performers is doubled, Valk described to me, such that the three men are both themselves and, through projection, a visible sign of the missing others. In the final track of the first side, McGruder and Moore rise from their seats to join Berryman.

Photo by Bruce Jackson, courtesy of the Wooster Group

They gather around the phonograph, hands placed on the table. Below the table sits a bare relic of a stage, a small fragment, just enough to create a minor distance through which theater occurs. The performers are there, singing before us, but we do not forget the men we can’t see. Yet, even the incarcerated space, as captured by Jackson, bears a natal space, a space of appearance, as Hannah Arendt might say. It is the space that opens each time storytellers and actors face each other and begin anew.

Beginning with the anecdote of the chance encounter that made this event possible, we never forget that Valk and Berryman encountered each other so freely just before moving into the space-time of the recorded artifact itself, the sounds made possible by captive life. The recorded music is there, just below our awareness, but at times becomes more audible to generate a dynamic event of synchronization, desynchronization, and doubling. These techniques of doubling—audible in Jamaican dub and also in the Yoruba trickster figure—are given new meaning in The B-Side as a black diasporic art. The power of the mix, double exposure, and echo is to inflect dialogically one reality with another other across time and space. The phonographic device ceases to be premised on the nineteenth-century imperial desire for preservation. This desire, Jonathan Sterne has argued, entangled the phonograph with the technology of canning and embalming. These practices do not let the dead be dead; they resist death. In The B-Side, finitude and infinitude touch. The dead being dead yields an unbroachable distance that is the production of difference.

Nearing the second side of the record, Berryman moves the tone arm again. He begins to sing “See How They Done My Lord,” a spiritual meditating on death and resurrection with Houston Page on lead. Berryman’s vocal apparatus is now taken up by Page, an older man who hears a bit flat and who cannot sing as well, but who also sings remarkably in quarter tones. He sounds as if he sings to himself. Berryman even reproduces this man’s struggling mouth sounds just before he becomes again our narrator and MC, sliding into a masterful and youthful vocality. (Berryman is trained in Lessac, a vocal method.) The ghost flits away just after having so completely overtaken him. Berryman names the next track. He acts as a talking book.

When The B-Side began with the tale of beginnings, Berryman had already marked a rift in himself, where he appears to be on loan to another voice. Aren’t the tie and the rift between subject and object also constitutive of the act of listening? The tie that rifts is what we mean when we say, “I am listening.” In this natal space of opening, history is never far. What the space gives was already there long before “we,” gathered around the phonograph record, arrived on the scene. A “scene,” in a psychoanalytic lexicon, makes itself felt through repetition, but we also cannot get inside of it. From the moment it is unfolding, we are partly on the outside, watching and listening to the otherness of what is transpiring. We have to come back later in memory to understand it.

When the record draws to a close, the last track, “Forty-Four Hammers,” plays only from a small on-stage speaker. It was performed by the younger men of the DOC, and it bears traces of their modernity, their experience with AM radio and its modes of presentation. Moore and McGruder leave the stage and the house lights go down. Berryman sits, his back to the audience, to watch a final and fleeting moment of cinema, a shard of archival footage of the men laboring in the field shot by Jackson and Pete Seeger. It is the only image of penal space in the performance. We see their bodies swinging axes (“hammers”) in unison. We see Berryman’s face projected onto the same screen through the live video camera pointed at him. We watch him watching, thinking, and listening as the sound of their axes, now filling the room, resounds so completely that it is as if the theater is an echo chamber. Something of the past recedes back across its threshold just before lights out.

The B-Side makes palpable the origins of the voice in history and alterity. We are brought to the record album that compelled Berryman and haunted him. But what circulates in The B-Side is the part of the self that is not itself at all. The song issues not from the inward, but from the outward, which owes itself to others through gift. The song, as the Shakers say, is a gift. Through transduction, the artifact maintains its being as gift. The spiral groove disappears into the center and returns to its source.

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Julie Beth Napolin

Julie Beth Napolin is an assistant professor of digital humanities in the programs in literary studies and culture and media at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts. In 2018-2019, she will be a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is developing a project titled “The Sound of Yoknapatawpha: An Acoustic Ecology.” She is also a musician and radio producer. www.juliebethnapolin.com.