FRETTING ABOUT MEANING

AN ANTHROPOLOGIST WINDS UP DIGGING GUITARS.

In 1989 the life of fortysomething anthropologist Rebecca McSwain was changed by MTV.

"The video of `Dr. Feelgood' by Motley Crue really struck me," she says, laughing at the absurdity of her confession. "All the cliches were there--the fire, the cars, the long hair--but it was all new to me. I had pretty much stopped paying attention to music after Sgt. Pepper's and I hadn't watched television for about five years, so it really struck me."

Soon McSwain was hooked. Inspired by "Dr. Feelgood," she began reacquainting herself with the world of popular music, and before long, she had dived into a first-of-its-kind anthropological investigation of the electric guitar. And even though she's spent three years immersed in rock and roll, jazz and blues in preparation for a book she plans to write on the subjects, she hasn't shed the mantle of academia: The Louisville resident describes her study as "an examination of the sociocultural milieu in which guitarists function, and the meaning of the instrument in those milieus and to those individuals."

A quick glance at McSwain's resume explains her familiarity with polysyllabic words, but not her newfound interest in killer riffs and power chords. A Chicago native, she earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Colorado College in 1968, a master's in anthropology from the University of Arizona at Tucson in 1980 and an anthropology doctorate from the same institution in 1989. In the interim, she was a member of teams surveying excavations in Arizona and New Mexico, and she developed an expertise in the field of Mayan lithics--particularly the study of stone tools discovered at a massive site in Cuello, Belize, that she revisited this past spring. She had a handful of articles on lithics published in academic journals, presented papers at symposiums in Texas and Mexico and taught anthropology classes at Oregon's Portland Community College. In short, the only rock in her background is the kind she dug out of the ground.

No longer. Last October McSwain presented a treatise titled "The Power of the Electric Guitar" at the 1993 annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Arlington, Virginia, that included praise for guitarists ranging from blues legend Robert Johnson to rocker Jimi Hendrix. Her work, however, goes far beyond her own musical tastes to a consideration of the guitar itself, what it symbolizes and how the exploration of its meaning can help researchers understand the culture in general. "You could do a similar study with almost any object," McSwain says. "I'm sitting here holding a pen--you could probably do a study on it. But the reason I was drawn to the electric guitar was passion. Sheer lust."

In Spain during the 1500s, when the guitar was invented, McSwain says, sexuality wasn't necessarily part of the equation; because of a guitar's wood construction and the stretching of its strings from one end to the other, many artists and philosophers likened it to Christ on the cross. In later years, levels of meaning accrued. In Goya paintings from the nineteenth century, the guitar symbolized passion, human frailty and longing, she says, while Picasso, during his cubist period, saw it as representative of mankind as a whole.

The invention of the electric guitar (which McSwain credits in large part to Lloyd Loar, an obscure technician who worked for the Gibson guitar company during the 1920s) gave these ideas a jolt. By combining the meanings ascribed to electricity--emblematic of mental power, psychological energy and sexual attraction--and those associated with the guitar, with its womanly curves and phallic neck, McSwain feels that the makers of this instrument created a device that should be viewed as one of the most important artifacts of our time. "Studying the guitar can teach us about gender issues, issues of community and communication--and considering where all the different parts of guitars are made, even about world exchange and questions of economics," McSwain enthuses. "I've just started to scratch the surface of what it can tell us."

At present McSwain is continuing to interview musicians and ethnomusicologists as research for a book, tentatively titled The Blue Guitar and the American Dream, that she hopes to complete next year. She's also preparing a paper for submission to the American Anthropological Association at its upcoming meeting next November in Atlanta. McSwain, who makes ends meet by working as a medical transcriptionist, presently is unaffiliated with a university, but she's submitting her work to area institutions in the hope that such an association will lead to grants to help her complete the book. "I'd love to have somebody helping me with interviews," she says. "My husband is very understanding, but I don't know how he'd feel if I disappeared three nights a week to hang out with rock bands."

Likewise, McSwain's born-again anthropological enthusiasm for the electric guitar has yet to infect her nine-year-old son. "I've been playing him hard-rock music for the past three years and he just won't listen to it," she says. "He'd rather listen to the Beach Boys."

Apparently he hasn't been watching enough

 
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