Music of the Common Tongue
Survival and Celebration in African American Music
Publication Year: 1998
Published by: Wesleyan University Press
Series: Music Culture
Preface to the 1998 Edition
Music of the Common Tongue remains my favorite of my three children, and to see it take its place alongside the other two in this Music/Culture series is a source of great joy to me. It was my second book (always the hardest to write), and it took me six years' hard and often despairing slog, not a minute of which do I now regret. It went out into the world...
I have been prompted to write this book by two impulses, one public and general and the other personal and specific, which are inextricably intertwined with each other. The first is a conviction that the time has come, if it is not well overdue, for a recognition, a celebration even, of the central contribution which Africans and people of African descent...
1 Africans, Europeans and the Making of Music
The first thing we must understand about the Africans who were taken into slavery in the Americas is that they were by no means members of a primitive society. The societies of the Western Sudan, which, at least up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, was the principal source of black slaves, may have been technologically simple by...
2 On the Ritual Performance
In a highly critical article on modern American painting, the journalist Tom Wolfe once wrote: 'Frankly, these days without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting'.1 He was right in a more general sense than perhaps he knew, since each of us brings to the processes of both artistic creation and the contemplation of art works a number of notions which, although it might be dignifying...
3 Rituals for Survival I: An Extatic Delight in Psalmody
A musical performance, then, can be seen as a ritual in which the identity and the values of the members of a social group are explored, affirmed and celebrated. I shall now look at the way in which the musicking of black Americans developed in its religious dimension, keeping in mind that the division of identity into 'sacred' and 'secular' is far from absolute, whether in everyday living...
4 On Cultures and Their Fusion
There are in most societies legends and theories concerning the origin of music, of which western 'scientific' theories are in the main the least interesting or illuminating. T.H. Huxley, for example, suggested that music might be a factor in sexual selection, in which the ability to make sweet sounds helps in obtaining a mate; this banal conjecture may look at first sight attractive in view of the proverbial...
5 Styles of Encounter I: A Need in White Culture
We have seen something of the ways in which the black people who were thrust so abruptly into slavery in North America responded creatively to the new environment in which they found themselves. We have also seen that a response occurred in turn from those white people who encountered the musicking of the blacks at the great camp meetings of the early nineteenth century and took from them...
6 On Value and Values
The social status enjoyed by a musical culture is inseparably linked to the status of the social group whose world view it incarnates and whose values it celebrates. The account I have given so far of the encounter that occurred in North America between the two great musical traditions will have made it clear that it occurred principally, and in its most fruitful...
7 Rituals for Survival II: The Sheer Power of Song
It has been said that if gospel is the present-day paradigm of Afro-American religious musicking, so blues is of secular. It would be more true to say that blues and gospel are twin modern aspects of that ritual of survival which is the musical act, and that they have not only interpenetrated but also proved an inexhaustible source of inspiration to several generations of musicians...
8 On Literacy and Nonliteracy
Let us now consider further a matter which has already made some appearances in this book: the question of literacy and what it means to be literate — and, indeed, what it means not to be literate. It is a topic which is beset by any number of unexamined assumptions, not least concerning the automatic and unqualified benefits conferred by the ability to read and to write; I believe, and shall argue, that,...
9 Styles of Encounter II: Adjusting to White Culture
In all musical performances in which notation has been available to aid memory, musicians have always been as literate as they have felt they needed to be. As we have seen, notation is not automatically of use to a musician; it depends on what he wants to play and how he wants to play it. We have seen, too, how while high-status European classical musicians have become completely dependent...
10 On Improvisation
I have remarked on the dependence of the modern classical performer on written or printed texts. Virtually never will concert performers of our time attempt in public anything other than the realization of a score which has been rehearsed as thoroughly as time will allow. It is not only that the training of musicians has almost certainly left them unequipped...
11 Styles of Encounter III: A Lot of Loving Going On
Of all the styles of Afro-American music, in so far as they can be separated out from one another, that which is known as jazz is the one with which white intellectuals and classical musicians today feel most at ease. They manage to assimilate the values and the aesthetic of jazz to those with which they were brought up, and they feel able to accord to its artists...
12 On the Decline of a Music
We have now reached the point where we need to confront directly what has so far been looked at only obliquely and indirectly: the condition of the classical-music tradition in Europe and America today. Classical music in the present century has exhibited a decline in creative energy, in openness to fertilizing outside influences, and, above all, in usefulness for the social and individual...
13 Styles and Rituals: Wanting to be Part of That Music
The eruption of rock'n'roll into popular music in the mid- 1950s took most white people by surprise; it seemed as if this extraordinary raucous but exciting music had suddenly come from nowhere to displace the familiar strains to which they had been accustomed as a background for social events and for decorous dancing. That it was in fact a product of the long evolution which I have been describing...
14 On Records and Rewards
I suggested in the preceding chapter that to judge modern popular music solely from recordings is to gain a very partial and even distorted view of it. Records, and the recording industry, have clearly had a profound influence on the history of all western musical performance in this century, and the Afro-American tradition is no exception, but...
15 Styles of Encounter IV: A Very Satisfactory Black-Music Circle
In writing this book I have been obliged to keep reminding myself of what I intend it to be, and, just as importantly, what I do not intend it to be, since books, like their readers, define themselves as much by what they are not as by what they are. I do not intend it as a complete survey of Afro-American styles of musicking; such a task would be quite beyond...
16 Confronting the Rational God
It is common among white people, not only among those who admit to being racist, to think of black people as somehow simpler, 'closer to nature', more instinctively musical (especially when it comes to rhythm), and certainly less 'serious' than people of entirely European descent. The liberal may explain those qualities as not of black people's making (after all, the terrible system of slavery brutalized them and destroyed...