Singing the blues: Transcending essentialist readings of culture

Year: 1994

Author: Vinz, Ruth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In this presentation the author examines how multiple readings of the blues illustrate one example of the potential for works of art to unsettle essentialist readings of culture. If culture is represented through an art form as dynamic, fluid, and slippery, it becomes a site for the examination of contested versions of alliances, of what Bakhtim refers to as multiple and interacting consciousness. Such consciousness can be shown to exist across historical, political, aesthetic, critical and ideological occasions. Hence, the presentation of the dialogic within an art form can lead to a transcendent reading, using transcendence in the Aristotelian sense to mean the process of moving beyond fixed boundaries into spaces that exhibit permeability.

Following one group of prospective teachers through their study of the blues as part of a larger study on issues of multiculturalism, the author illustrates how the group learned strategies of reading that helped them resist essentialist versions. An overview of the implications from four of their multiple readings is presented: Roots of the Blues, The Life Divided, On Men and Women, and Your Blues Ain't Like Mine. Through an investigation of contradiction, multiplicity, and difference, exemplified in both the lyrics and musical form of blues, the prospective teachers came to recognise, with varying degrees of success, the embedded ideologies they bring to their readings as well as the dynamic within the blues that resists normalising it as an art form. Throughout, she suggests that multiculturalism is not an end but a process of dialogism, and that Bakhtin's conception of the dialogics of culture has implications for our future interrogations into multicultural education in both design and purpose.