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Urban Blues: A study of the relationship between African American popular music and notions of space in the American City

Part 1 Dissertation 2005
Natasha Peskin
University of Nottingham | UK
Culture and the built environment exist intrinsically and should thus be examined in order to understand their future in partnership. This dissertation, therefore, observes the built environment through the productions of African-American culture as they migrated from the southern plantations to the northern townships during the 1930’s. It begins to consider why and how the city and ghetto became so influential on, and important to, the African-American popular music, which then goes on to explore the way that music and space affect each other. Close examination of both interior typologies and exterior spaces reveals how they were redefined and described by African American music. Their music culture deliberately exploited the ambiguity of both ownership and function in particular exterior and public spaces. The music allowed spaces to evolve so that a street performance changed the city from architecture as an object, to architecture as a backdrop for the events of everyday life. This exploration thus approaches various ideas of theatricality and city space, relating sound and lyric to certain settings. Examining the principal interior and formal typologies (such as the Juke Joint or black Church) that housed African-American music further exposes strong relationships that were forged between music and space. Music often changed the function of the building and indeed changed the way that people operated within it. Analysing the spatial practices of African Americans in the North vis-à-vis those associated with the vernacular architecture of the South, also reveals the spaces that evolved out of their music were unique. By then concentrating on particular blues lyrics it further exposes a new understanding of the city and a new way of portraying the built environment. Here space is imagined through the psyche and is metaphysical rather then physical. Never before had music within post-war America conjured up such vivid architectural images. This dissertation thus hopes to demonstrate that the music and spatial practices of African-American culture transcended above the limitations and boundaries of segregation to create entirely new cities in both the urban imagination and the physical realm of the built environment.
Natasha Peskin

Peskin has embarked on a highly original study on Blues of the 1930- 60s, and looked at how it has informed American notions of space through its representation in language and music. Vernacular spatial practices are investigated and are revealed as the basis for street slang of the decades straddling WWII, which in turn inform how spaces are seen, conceived and appropriated for use. This study contributes to our understanding of African American perspectives of the Modern City and its spatiality. It reveals the city’s rich capacity for spatial and human metaphor, and the possibility for sedimentation of symbolic meaning.

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