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I was there!

Just coming up for air now, 4 months after the birth of our stunning baby girl, Maggie Mai, I think my brain needs a bit of a workout. I happily get the odd email from MA students about projects and experiences. It is so nice because I had almost forgotten who I am outside of being a mother, which I could do forever but it won’t always be so consuming and in an area such as community music you have to be in the loop and loose the work. Anyway, I have been chatting to the lovely and talented Ruti Lachs about bits and bobs when I was reminded  of a  methodology that, I feel, suits the community musician struggling to apply their own knowledge and experience, ‘legitimately’. Do approach with caution though!

A couple of years ago I was invited to give a lecture on Community Music and deliver some basic skills that performance students could use when touring. No problem at all I responded and went about putting together a lecture based in the development of community music in the UK as an introduction, no better place to start I thought to myself, with all this fresh published material to back me up, what could go wrong. Based on perspectives offered by Lee Higgins, Tim Joss, Anthony Everitt and George McKay as well as being a member of Sound Sense whose quarterly journals reports on community music activity in the UK, I felt I was well positioned to offer somewhat of a historical perspective on community music in the UK. So, off I went and I began to notice that the more I say the more a mature student from England seems to becoming increasingly irate and visibly red. Foolishly, and naively, in typical all inclusive community music lets include everyone fashion, I ask, ‘Is there anything anyone would like to add or say at this point? The student in question dismisses my solid scholarly references in one swoop saying, ‘thats not what happened, I was a playing all over the UK during the 70s and that is not what happened, I know because I was there and community musicians were just crap musicians who needed to make money somehow.’  I was silenced, what could I say? Not only was I being accused of giving a false rendition of past events I was also being told in one way or another that I was a failed performing musician. The student was there and knew what their experience had been and the class listened the the back and forth comments between us. It was getting heated, an adamant, disgruntled student; what did I know? A 30 year old whipper snapper tutor, claiming to know what happened in their country during their time as a struggling musician seeing all these ‘crap musicians’ getting money from the Arts Council that they wanted, the student was furious and it seemed to be all my fault. The second half of the class was skills based and as you can imagine they were only too delighted to find a space in the room that he felt comfortable in and let their voice be heard, mingling with the voices of those around the area. I can honestly say that this student threw me dagger looks for the next 9 months of their time in UL. A simple slide caused all this distress and upset, I had not meant to and smiled widely every time our paths crossed thereafter, I think it made things worse. A lesson learned for me, in future a quick  scan around the room before including such historical perspectives, which at the best of times can be, as Benedict (2009) cautioned; hierarchical, one-dimensional and misconstrued.

I remembered this class while reading through papers suggested to me by my supervisor, a referenced paper by Andy Medhurst caught my attention who gives the following account –

 When you teach, as I do, university courses which look at the history of popular

culture, there is one kind of student you learn to dread. This is the student who

knows exactly what it was like during a particular aspect of a particular period of that

history because they took part in it, because ‘I was there’. Such a claim is a pre-

emptive strike that seeks to dismiss all the claims of retrospective thinking, all the

writers and theorists who have subsequently put forward interpretations of cultural

events, in favour of the apparently unchallengeable testimony of first-hand

experience. ‘I was there’ is a badge proclaiming the authoritativeness of 

autobiographical authenticity, and it’s a difficult badge to dislodge. Eventually,

however, the student-who-was-there can usually be persuaded to recognise that

critical hindsight may have some value, that simply inhabiting a moment is no

guarantee of fully comprehending it, and that personal recollection is but one

discourse among many. Knowing this as well as I do, it is very disconcerting when

I read academic accounts of 1970s punk, because all of my intellectual convictions

shrivel and wither under the onslaught of more emotive and irrational imperatives.

Reason and distance arc subsumed by the urge to shout—no, I know more about this

than you, because I was there.’ (Sabin, 1999, p. 219)

In a 3-hour session that attempted to cover the history of community music in the UK and to learn some workshop skills it was not possible for me to ‘dislodge’ the ‘authoritativeness of autobiographical authenticity’ that I so clearly did not have and that the aforementioned student did. All the smiles and ‘how you doings’ in the world could not remove the self-righteousness of the person who knew it all, because that person was there. Now I begin to see myself in this student in terms of community music and what it is, those who are not community musicians do not understand this pathway. How could they? They simply do not get it. This attitude must be removed and put aside during any research because it will, as it did with the all-knowing student, taint and cloud any autoethnographic narrative that I offer.

So it is with these cautionary tales and reminders that I set about looking deeper into the notion of using this widely criticized and celebrated method, sometime in the future, maybe after Maggie does ‘the Leaving’!