Literary Records: Vinyl Records in the Research of Contemporary Poetry

LOUISA OLUFSEN LAYNE

 

Photo courtesy Jan Olufsen

Photo courtesy Jan Olufsen

I grew up in a home with almost no books. But this is not the introduction to a miserable story of cultural and intellectual deprivation growing up. Because though not surrounded by a conventional archive of knowledge, I was exposed to another, more unconventional one: a large collection of vinyl records.

From before I was born, my father collected vinyl records, with a special interest in original reggae 7” singles released in Jamaica and England in the 1960s and 1970s. Our living room floor is covered with records that reflect his musical interests: from punk and new wave ones that he bought in the late seventies, to several boxes of ska, rocksteady, roots, and dub that he has accumulated throughout his life. Most of the LPs and 12”singles are stocked in shelves, while the 7” singles are placed in boxes on the floor. The record collection is not particularly organised, but it functions as a chaotic archive that reflects my father’s interests and that became the soundtrack of my own childhood. It charts the evolution of various subcultures and periods of popular music, and especially Jamaican music, over the past 50 years. In many ways, the collection is an archive of something that is simultaneously both private and public. Each record captures a specific story about the sights and sounds of moments in recent history, whilst the combination and juxtaposition of these records tell a personal story about an individual process of cultural, intellectual, and affective formation.

It has always been an implied truth in my childhood home that a record collection is an important source of knowledge and education that should be preserved for the future. Being exposed to this worldview has made me ask what Bildung is in a contemporary context, and it has made me aware of the many diverse forms in which the process of self-cultivation takes place today. People receive their cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic education from popular music, television series, films, video games, documentaries, blogs and many other sources that are not books: knowledge of the classic canon is increasingly becoming just one ingredient of people’s cultural education. My father’s record collection was a central part of mine.

The distinct physicality of the vinyl format allows the records to carry the imprint of not only the recorded sound, but also the historical and cultural context the music comes from and how it continues to circulate as a material object. Those who do not see the value of vinyl often argue that our focus should be on the quality of the “music itself” and not on the medium or other “vanities” extrinsic to the music. However, the appeal of vinyl is exactly that it does not isolate music from its context. The warmth and depth of the dynamic vinyl sound does make the music sound excellent, which is why many DJs across different genres still prefer it. In addition, the format, design, label, and the general culture surrounding vinyl, also communicate music as something more than audio, and as something deeply rooted in history, style, community, and identity.

There have been a number of occasions when my exposure to this unconventional archive has provided me with valuable resources to aid me in both my personal and professional life. The challenge has been to conceptualise the nature of these resources and to turn the often tacit and unarticulated knowledge into something that could be acknowledged and valued in conventional academic contexts. After completing a MA in Comparative Literature, I started to reflect more upon what I had learned from the academic study of literature, and even more importantly, what it had not been able to teach me. This led me to realise that important sources of my cultural formation came not only from literature but from art forms outside of the discipline. What kind of knowledge had the record collection offered me, and how had it influenced my approach to literature? How could a record collection supplement the knowledge I gained from conventional academic books?

It was the work of the Jamaican-born British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson that revealed the ways in which my experience of extensive record collecting might help, an even enhance, my academic literary research. I had learned more about Jamaican culture and social life through reggae music than I ever could by merely reading books. Johnson was an instrumental figure in the creation of the genre of “dub poetry” and his poetry was influenced by a Jamaican reggae aesthetic. In an article entitled‘Jamaican Rebel Music’from 1975, Johnson writes that “the dub lyricist is the DJ turned poet”, documenting several dub-lyricist-turned-poets including “Big Youth, I Roy, U Roy, Dillinger, Shorty the President, Prince Jazzbo and others”. It is an intimate familiarity with an archive of reggae music, as well as other forms of popular music, that allows one to capture the full meaning of such a powerful statement about the relationship between music and poetry. The sentiment informing Johnson’s statement is however far from a unique one. As many poets before him, and plenty since, have tried to do, Johnson was striving to expand our definition of poetry. He sought to create new canons, and in so doing make new archives visible to us. The study of contemporary poetry that expands our definition of poetry and cultural value challenges us to read more than books.

 

Hugh Roy (later U Roy), Treasure Isle. U Roy was to become an important influence on Johnson's poetry. (photo courtesy Jan Olufsen)

Hugh Roy (later U Roy), Treasure Isle. U Roy was to become an important influence on Johnson’s poetry. (photo courtesy Jan Olufsen)

Louisa Olufsen Layne is a DPhil Candidate in English at the University of Oxford.