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David Gilbert

David Gilbert teaches African American and U.S. history at Mars Hill University, just outside of Asheville, NC. He has recently published his first book, The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, through UNC Press, and is currently researching the racialization of Appalachian music, dance, and culture.

“The Myriad Voices of a Sideman: Marc Ribot’s Guitars and Aesthetic Identities”
Instrument players have long described their mastery of their instruments as a search for a singular artistic voice, but many of the most successful instrumentalists are defined by their ability to successfully collaborate with a wide range of artists. Through their work, these musicians reimagine the larger connections between different musical styles and artistic identities. Guitarist Marc Ribot is a perfect example of this process. A consummate backup musician, Ribot has been hired to perform and record with a startlingly diverse roster of popular (and “art”) musicians. He’s played with songwriters like Elvis Costello and Norah Jones, jazz singers like Cassandra Wilson and Madeline Peyroux, pop and hip-hop artists such as Cibo Matto and Chocolate Genius, and avant-garde composers John Zorn, John Lurie, and Cyro Baptista, among dozens of others. He played a huge role in Allison Krauss and Robert Plant’s 2009 Grammy-winning (and genre-bending) album Raising Sand, and has added a defining sound to Tom Waits’ recordings for 20 years. Ribot manufactures a distinctive voice that is immediately recognizable, regardless of his settings, while also dissolving genre lines and their attendant racial, ethnic, or national connotations. 

Throughout his career, Ribot—a Jewish American from New Jersey—has aided and abetted the formation of distinct racial and ethnic subjectivities among his artists, while also demonstrating their malleability. Coming to us as a "white" guitarist for the legendary African American jazz organist Jack McDuff, Ribot has centered this tension throughout his career. Just as his guitar playing indicates his own clear musical identity while remaining in the background, Ribot helps women and men singers represent themselves as ethnics while also allowing them to transcend such labels and sing themselves into popular culture. A study of Ribot’s contributions allows for new ways to think about musical voices, their identities, and their social meanings.

“Vocalizing Race and Religion”
Musical voices have played a crucial and contested role in the historical construction of American identity. The belief in clear sonic markers of things like “Blackness,” “Southern-ness” or “American-ness” has been central to the notion that such categories are fixed and even natural. At the same time, musicians have consistently resisted this essentialism and—through their work –have blurred and transgressed these seemingly discrete categories and their broader social implications. This panel will focus on the disruptions, spotlighting three contemporary musicians—each using a different musical “voice” (accordion, guitar, and vocals) and each based in a different region—who offer alternative visions. Tyina Steptoe will discuss Tejano accordion player Mingo Saldivar, whose musical hybridity illuminates the racial and ethnic complexity of the “western South.” David Gilbert will explore how session musicians like acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot create “aesthetic identities” that reconstruct musical history and re-envision its cultural meaning even as they mostly work behind the scenes. Finally, Charles L. Hughes will look at how the singing of Brittany Howard—leader of Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch—offers a “disruptive” vision of musical Black Southern-ness. Through close listening and interdisciplinary analysis, the panelists will use their subjects to offer larger comments on the close and shifting relationship between musical voice and American identities in the past, present, and future.

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