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Who Governs the Musical Canon? The Case of Bob Dylan’s Great American Songbook Recordings

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Carini, Jaime
Conference: Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop 6
Location: Indiana University, Bloomington
Conf. Date: June 19-21, 2019
Date: 2019
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/10519
Sector: New Commons
Abstract: "The process of creating the Great American Songbook, an unofficial collection of the greatest American standards from the twentieth century, is rich and complex. Many actors—in particular, authorities (critics) and contributors/interpreters (composers, lyricists, and performers)—engage in various types of activities to create, sustain, and reinvigorate the Songbook. When various contributors compose and then perform and record covers of certain songs over a long period of time, they (the collective performers) form a canon through the dynamic process of musical borrowing and reworking. Through musical borrowing and reworking, a concept illuminated by J. Peter Burkholder, performers create networks with each other as they cover the songs in the Songbook. Bob Dylan participated in this process with his triad of albums devoted to covers of the American standards, which were released between 2015 and 2017. Believing himself to be a necessary agent for the revival of these standards, Dylan introduces tension into the narrative about how musical canons are formed as he establishes himself as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. To understand the dynamics that Dylan introduces into the Songbook canon with his remarks, we can turn to Vincent and Elinor Ostrom’s theories of (1) polycentricity, (2) frameworks, theories, and models, and (3) voluntary association. Polycentricity and voluntary association are useful for elucidating the relationships that form as diverse actors, including Bob Dylan, work together towards the common goal of maintaining the Great American Songbook. Canonization, as a complex process, challenges us to create theories that are appropriately multi-layered so that we can properly deal with the realities of canon formation. By bringing the Ostroms’ insights into the music scholarship on canon formation and the Great American Songbook, we are following Vincent’s exhortation to extend polycentricity to other aspects of human affairs."

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