My blue epiphany

I had a kind of epiphany as I was looking over my students’ posts after our blues unit. I teach an online world music class and part of the students’ participation grade is to post weekly thoughts, questions, ideas, etc. on our discussion board. I couldn’t help but notice how many times they wrote: “the blacks’ music”; “their music”; and so on in reference to the blues. The blues is so essential to American popular music, but my students still see it as something separate, as something other.

Several of them commented that they didn’t really like the blues before our section on it; afterwards, they felt they had gained a better understanding of what the music meant, where it came from, and what it meant to the people who created and performed it. This was highly encouraging, but also no different from their responses to the Sioux’s Grass Dance in our Native American unit. It seemed strange to me that my students were responding in the exact same way to music they’d never heard before (Sioux Grass Dance) and the blues, which is so fundamental to every kind of music they claim to enjoy personally.

To me, the blues always seemed an interesting case when it comes to music textbooks. There’s a chapter on the blues in nearly every world music textbook I’ve seen (I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t seen them all…yet). In Music of the Peoples of the World (William Alves), it’s sandwiched between chapters on Latin America and Central Asia; in Worlds of Music (Jeff Todd Titon et al), it’s between chapters on Africa and Central/Southeastern Europe; in World Music: A Global Journey (Terry Miller and Andrew Shahriari) it comes right after Central and South America; in Excursions in World Music (Nettl et al), it’s situated right after Native American music. There could be arguments made for the blues’ connection to each of these chapters, but there’s no real continuity as to where the blues goes.

Blues music is also discussed in music appreciation textbooks that normally present an introduction to Western music theory and an abbreviated, chronological history of Western European and American classical music. The blues typically comes near the end of the book, in chapters about 20th/21st century music or popular American music. Textbooks such as Understanding Music (Jeremy Yudkin), Listening to Music (Craig Wright), Listen (Kerman and Tomlinson), and The Enjoyment of Music (Forney and Machlis) all feature chapters which include the blues to varying degrees. There is much to the argument that the blues shares a deep connection to classical and modern Western music.

This got me thinking about the blues’ inclusion in so many different music textbooks. This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered this and, in itself, the quandary has made for some great discussion questions, namely: why is a music that was created in the Western world in a world music textbook (which emphasizes non-Western music) right next to the music of China and the music of Indonesia? Is this an exoticization or an “other-ization” of the blues? If we consider that the West is in fact part of the world, why do so few world music textbooks mention Western classical music? Is this a way of scrutinizing a music that should be very familiar in ways that let us see how ethnomusicology can be applied to all musics? This kind of connects up with my last post in that many contemporary ethnomusicologists are starting to study musics that would previously have been considered outside the field’s scope. Katherine Meizel, for example, writes about the American Idol phenomenon. At the 2013 SEM meeting in Indianapolis, one scholar presented at on Southern US auctioneer calls. I remember at one SEM meeting several years ago a scholar presenting on African orchestras and their identification with Beethoven’s music.

I think all of this has caused a potentially fundamental shift in how I will approach teaching world music in the future. And many may argue (in the comments and nicely, please) that this shift of mine was slow in coming. But it’s not that the blues is the odd man out of world music textbooks, or that the blues represents a concession of music appreciation textbooks to American popular music. It’s that the blues reminded me that all musics truly belong to the world, in the sense that “world music” as a term should not only refer to non-Western music. The artificial boundaries between ethnomusicology and musicology may remain for some time, but if these fields are methodologies, there’s no reason why an ethnomusicologist shouldn’t study Mozart and a musicologist shouldn’t study gamelan. And everybody should learn the blues.



– Heather


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