What is song? we often say or write or even sing the word, but seldom pause to consider the divergent but overlapping uses we make of it. At least three different meanings compete in everyday discourse, as in dictionaries that attempt to codify them: 1) the act or art of articulating words or sounds to musical inflections of the voice; 2) a poem or other formal composition, usually in rhyme and a recognizable verse-structure; 3) a sequence of musical tones, with or without words; a tune. In the first definition voice and music fuse with words (or wordlike sounds, at least, as in magical incantation or scat-singing), but the other two split these components apart, one of them privileging the verbal, textual, or poetic, and the other placing emphasis instead on the musical. This semantic fissure suggests the importance of exploring the probably inexhaustible topic of song from both literary-critical and musicological perspectives, bringing together, as in this special issue, the divergent outlooks and protocols of these and other disciplinary approaches, including anthropology, film studies, and gender studies.
This issue of New Literary History investigates song in some of its splendid temporal and geographic variety, from twelfth- and thirteenth-century Occitan and Chinese songs and early modern Italian castrati, to nineteenth-century German art songs and English poems, to twentieth- and twenty-first-century American folk, blues, rock, ballads, and pop, to Senegalese rap and transgender Americana and Bollywood song sequences. Inevitably, our sampling has left out much more than it lets in: the songs of prehistoric cave dwellers and choruses from Attic Greece can’t be heard here, nor can Tuvan throat singing, the voice-cracking arpeggios of Persian tahrir, or Jamaican mento, ska, and reggae. A full list of our unsung omissions would go on for pages. But we hope that our contributors’ approaches to, and insights about, song will shed light on the immense variety of song styles across the globe and since the dawn of speech—that prehistoric event which song may have antedated, if the students of voice are right who suppose that our ancestors sang together before they spoke. While the contributions here amply validate [End Page vii] the methodological practice, across several disciplines, of rooting inquiry in the conditioning particulars from which given instances of song arise, it nevertheless remains surprising that so rich and multifarious a topic has seldom been explored across cultures and epochs.
Studies that pursue this neglected direction include, among others noted here and there in the following essays, A History of Song, ed. Denis Stevens (1961); John Potter’s Cambridge Companion to Singing; and, with Neil Sorrell, his History of Singing (both 2012). Bolder precedents greet us in the rich tradition of poetry committed to the topic of—and the rivalry posed by—song as such. Robert Pinsky’s poem “The Uncreation” hymns the variousness of song, ranging from ceremonially masked Native American dancers to machines that “may chant or jingle.” As a printed text, his lyric can only partly convey the synthesis of words, music, and voice that it celebrates, but it’s worth quoting from to suggest the vastness of the subject and thus the impossibility of analytically encompassing what Pinsky calls “the great excess of song that coats the world”:
The crowd at the ballpark sing, the cantor singsKol Nidre, and the equipment in our carsFills them with singing voices while we drive.
When the warlord hears his enemy is dead,He sings his praises. The old men sang a songAnd we protesters sang a song against them,
Like teams of children in a singing game;And at the great convention all they didThey punctuated with a song: our breath
Which is an element and so a quarterOf all creation, heated and thrown outWith all the body’s force to shake our ears.
By beginning with baseball and the Jewish high holidays, Pinsky’s poem suggests that song doesn’t dissolve differences between the sometimes contending social practices it accompanies: ballplayers like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg famously found themselves trapped between their duties to secular sports ritual...