How we researched How Belfast Got the Blues
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
By McLaughlin & Braniff
Interdisciplinarity was a big word in university life at one point in time. But being interdisciplinary in approach is harder to achieve.
On one level, one risks being a ‘jack of all trades’, trying to cover too many areas, thus pleasing nobody and risking being regarded as an interloper in disciplines that are not ‘home’.
On another, breaking out of academic specialisms is a challenge, when time is a factor, markets have to be met and research evaluation frameworks need to be fulfilled.
On a primary level, we were inspired by Joni Mitchell’s observation that capitalism had succeeded primarily in producing a society of specialists, and shared her suspicion. Therefore, such an approach was not only a risk worth taking, in our case it was fundamental to realising such a book.
The most important aspect in this mix was, undoubtedly, original archival research and the prioritisation of analysis of public record. To this end, we are very grateful for the existence of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland’s newspaper library; the UK universities library system; and to more dedicated music archives, such as the UK Jazz Archive in Loughton, Essex. These institutions, alongside the British Library, are necessary practical enablers. Without them it would be impossible to question and to counter official discourses - leaving a counter history as a grand idea, and rendering it difficult to provide evidence in support of such claims.
We are also indebted to a third level Media Studies and Cultural Studies education: to post-colonial criticism; text-based approaches and their concern with the politics of representation, and to work analysing the culture industries and to how working practices shape cultural forms.
Hence, and by necessity, the book draws variously on film and television studies, discourse analysis, various approaches to popular music and popular culture, journalism studies, popular musicology, as well as studies of the built environment, and the more specialist field of analysis of city scenes in popular music studies. We could, no doubt, go on.
However, the overarching point is simply one signalling the challenges, and the importance of striving to find the right tool for the right job. In this way, original archive material was of value when analysing the music press. While we deploy the tools of a ‘literary criticism’ approach, this also has limitations. If we had been content, say, to consult a site such as Rock’s Back Pages, we’d have missed the other connections (which would prove vital when analysing Belfast’s City Week and its relationship to music management and the industry). In this context, journalistic copy had an important relationship to both the surrounding advertisements and to the accompanying editorial that a ‘lit crit’ approach would have missed.
Alongside archival materials, informed secondary sources were of immense importance. The existing political histories of Northern Ireland in the decade were invaluable.
Nonetheless, we came to these deliberately late. We wanted to test ourselves with our own readings of archive materials. This was necessary in building our own understanding of the politics of the decade. Once we’d trawled this forensically - doggedly going through the decade year by year, paper by paper - only then could we immerse ourselves in the existing informed histories.
Of particular value was the relatively slender body of work on film and popular culture. It served to give a sense of the battle for hearts and minds, and an insight into the machinations of the state’s propaganda machine, in a way that the more conventional political histories did not. In these there was little sense of the ‘structure of feeling’, of how politics translated into culture as lived experience.
On top of this, if you can’t treat archive sources as a given - and that one has to read, contextualise and interpret said material - this is even more the case when it comes to heritage industry retrospectives, and material that actively seeks to construct a version of the past for commercial purposes. This necessitated engaging with stardom, the popularity and authority of the rock biography, and exploring how the past has been constructed by such loud and privileged voices. Existing work on other city’s music scenes was an inspiration here; even if the culture and history of Belfast would add a few conundrums other city analysts did not have to consider.
The final important aspect here is being cognisant of the realities of culture, identity and economics at the time. It would be inaccurate to write a cultural history of Belfast as a city, as it were, ‘by itself’; an imagined village artificially separated from the rest of the world. Therefore, the interdisciplinary approach was pressed into the service of giving a rounded sense of the city’s connectedness, economically, politically, musically, imaginatively - and in business - not only to the UK, but to the rest of the world, but especially the US. Amidst this not inconsiderable task, was how to maintain focus, to tell what is, hopefully, an engaging story.
Internet sources are, of course, important. However, we needed to be cautious. Not just because of inaccuracies, but also due to repetition by rote, where official sources were frequently repeated by a blogger - even state sanctioned examples - as ‘their’ story and the truth. Having said that, the internet affords access to many previously unavailable materials and facilitates the making of connections, which can be later tested more thoroughly.
Finally, if, as the adage has it, ‘there is no such thing as writing, only rewriting’, the same can be said for research. It is never finished. In this spirit, a book, however conscientiously one tries to execute it, can never be the last word. We hope you will find value in its pages, in the myriad ways we try to explore politics, history and music across the Atlantic to the west and the US, and in the latter stages of the book, to Europe and Paris especially, to popular music’s relationship to politics, both official and more underground.
Photo caption: The Newspaper Library in Belfast is the best place to access the 'first draft' of history when memory is contentious.