Which Project Should Mike do?

Hello, fellow historians and the history-minded!

I made a longish post about digital publishing and peer review, and now I have to put up or shut up. I want to want to conduct a research project equal in “mass” to a journal article, and post it online as I go. I’ll have to rethink the format, the use of media, etc., but I want it to contain original research and stand up to peer review. The “peers” will be the larger set of history-minded people who use the internet, rather than 3-6 professors chosen by an editor. Will it work? I don’t know, but my University isn’t giving raises anyway, so I have nothing to lose.

I have two projects I’ve been kicking around for a while now. Which should I do?

Music, Creolization, and Segregation

Ralph Ellison famously observed that American popular culture was far more integrated than American politics. I want to look at the musical careers of two early 20th century contemporaries, Eddie Lang and John Powell. Lang was born Salvatore Massaro to an Italian immigrant family in Philadelphia. He was possibly the most recorded musician of the 1920s: playing guitar on everything from classical to blues to jazz to country at a time when those genres were being established. Lang often worked under assumed names to preserve the illusion of segregation: he recorded blues music as “Blind Willie Dunn” and “country” music as one of “the Georgia Crackers.”

Powell, from Richmond VA, was classically trained in Europe. His most famous work, titled Negro Rhapsodie, drew self consciously from African American sources. He eventually became a highly influential folklorist. But Powell also ended up a hard core eugenicist and racist, helping co-author VA’s “Racial lntegrity Act” in 1924. He wrote essays on the “folk” in music under false names. I want to know about the daily practice of music in the two men’s very different American lives, and what might have led one to embrace “creolization” and the other to flee it in favor of hard-core racism.

The Strange Career of Mr. Zip

Many years ago the late Roy Rosenzweig and I started work on a history of the zip code. We wanted to see how it went from a simple tool of administrative efficiency to a marker of cultural and social identity, as in the old TV show “Beverly Hills 90210.” The key player in the transition seems to have been an early pioneer in computers and demographics employed by Johnson’s “Great Society” in “the war on poverty.” Jonathan Robbin figured out how to link census data with zip codes, and realized that zip codes reflected “lifestyle” choices. He then set out to make this data available to marketers, which only intensified people’s tendency to “cluster.” We were interested in the relationship of government and commerce and particularly in the way private enterprise gained more surveillance over, and knowledge of, individuals as “big government” declined.

As is often the case, I’m not sure where either project will lead, or if I have anything at all original to say. Which should I do?