Music: A Subversive History
(Basic Books, October 2019)
Songs about fucking and killing—that would have also been an appropriate subtitle for this scintillating new book from Ted Gioia. He’s already written three valuable books about the place of music in society and human experience, Healing Songs (2006), Works Songs (2006), and Love Songs: The Hidden history (2015). Music: A Subversive History builds on those by digging down into the fundamental nature of music, how it is made and how it affects us.
The focus is on songs, the most immediate means to tell the story, but this is a book about all music, digging into prehistory and following the course of music’s evolution as it produces everything from Western classical music to EDM. And it is subversive in that Gioia tells the story from the ground up, describing the continuing cycle of music made by societies’ underclasses as they challenge musical (and social and political) establishments, then to be co-opted in sanitized and denatured form by that same establishment, repeat and recycle. Music history, as Gioia points out, has been written by the establishments from the point of view of the status quo, limited by the implicit need to preserve their place and power. He writes, “When we celebrate the songs of previous eras, the respectable music of cultural elites gets almost all the attention, while the subversive efforts of outsiders and rebels falls from view. The history books downplay or hide essential elements of music that are considered disreputable or irrational—for example, its deep connections to sexuality, magic, trance and alternative mind states, healing, social control, generational conflict, political unrest, even violence and murder.”
Elsewhere, he says, “The accumulated evidence of the 150 years since [Darwin] makes it hard to comprehend the evolution of songs without constant reference to magic, sex, fertility, and ritual.” In writing about how music has moved down through time, Gioia is writing about evolution and magic—this is a music history that synthesizes both Darwin and Frazer, and, at least in terms of writing for a general audience, is the first to do so.
We need this story. The language of music comes from Pythagoras (who in his time was seen as a social and political threat), who made the first study, at least that survives, of tone and tuning. His subdivision of a plucked string into ratios of the whole (or fundamental pitch to which the string is tuned) meant that music could be written about in terms of numbers, which could then be read from the page and understood in a way that removed the actual sound and its affect. All so very rational.
But music is irrational. Heard and made as a group, it produces oxytocin in performers and listeners, and creates and cements social bonds that have no special morality or ethics, that can be used for social and political control, and even violence. Despite Groucho Marx’s joke that “military justice is to justice what military music is to music,” music has been essential to motivating soldiers and directing them in battle since the dawn of organized fighting formations. That’s why there’s a massive vehicle with drummers and an electric guitarist slashing out metal chords in the chases and battles in Mad Max: Fury Road (2018). And if you think things are different in the high-tech 21st century, read Nico Walker’s Cherry (2018), and how at the end of every army ceremony, “They played the Toby Keith song.”
Gioia starts with prehistory, “The songs of the hunters who assembled before [cave paintings] might well be considered work songs—solicitations for magical powers that would assist them in their pursuit of prey.” This is not an invented scene; Gioia points out not only that pre-Neolithic man made instruments out of the bones of animals, but that scholarship indicates that cave paintings are situated in the most acoustically resonant parts of the chambers. And there is absolutely no doubt that cave paintings were featured in ceremonies and rituals. (One of the most subversive things about the book, and what will surely infuriate a lot of academics, is that Gioia not only uses scholarship outside the mainstream—and outside of music—but puts as much weight of meaning and veracity on oral traditions and basic reasoning as he does on documentation. History is memory, and not all memory is on paper, particularly in the case of music where, as he points out, ancient information, from stories to geography, has been cached for millennia in songs, because singing something is an incredibly powerful way to remember it.)
Music’s powers of enchantment and transformation hit in the body and the brain. Music is touch at a distance and we react to it unlike any other art form. Not only is it visceral but again, it connects people in a way that no other art form can. That non-rational, or pre-rational, quality is a threat to any institution that seeks to exert control over people. When the crowd at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca (1942) sings “La Marseillaise” they are fighting back against the Nazis. It’s not live when we see it, but those dead, two-dimensional figures on the screen stir us nonetheless. Gioia points out, repeatedly, about how important it is to see how this power is not inherently benevolent—the Nazi’s had their own anthem, the Brownshirt’s “Horst-Wessel-Lied,” which has been banned in Germany and Austria since WWII.
The idea of music being banned may be tough to grasp in the United States, but organized societies have been banning music since they began. And here, the irrational public spectacle of burning records by Elvis or The Beatles, even Disco Demolition Night, have society’s sanction, if not the government’s. There are other means short of banning, especially those that came from the church, like interpreting the eroticism out of “Song of Songs,” or admitting in certain styles of plainchant and polyphony while fighting against the kind of songs ordinary people liked to sing to celebrate rituals of spring with drinking and dancing.
Gioia points out that musical innovation has always come from outsiders, “The slave … refugee … and the displaced.” In the Hellenistic and pre-Mohammed worlds, that meant slaves, who sang and made music because that was seen as disreputable (the Lydian and Phrygian modes are named after two groups of slaves the Greeks used as musicians). This is especially true in port cities, like New Orleans, where people from different countries and of different races mixed and mingled, drank together and often had sex, both of those accompanied by music making.
That leads to America: “… American music in the nineteenth century desperately needed what only Black music could offer. It’s hard to convey the banality and repression of mainstream white America’s popular songs from that era …. The rise of the blues may offer the most powerful test case we could devise for assessing a key thesis of this book … that musical innovations comes from the underclass.”
The blues rose, of course, with a vengeance. Though general listeners these days may be out of touch with the blues, or else just nod at the acceptable bourgeois cleansing W.C. Handy gave it, it is the bedrock on which modern music stands. The blues begat rock, funk, jazz, and even touched on country music. Gioia devotes an eye-opening and fascinating chapter to country, connecting it directly to Neolithic civilization. He hears the music, which includes yodeling, as a pastoral music for a pastoral people, songs about keeping close to home to mind the fields and the hearth, songs to soothe the beasts in the pasture, songs to celebrate the value of constancy. Country music is for the shepherd, the rancher, the farmer, while the blues is for the cowboy, the soldier, the adventurer.
And the drunkard and philanderer and devil worshipper and murderer. “When I tell people that music is closely connected to violence … they often reject the notion out of hand—perhaps because such a linkage seems to taint their own intimate relationship with favorite songs. Or perhaps they sense their own vulnerability to the persuasion of the melodies,” Gioia remarks. But the blues as captured in the earliest recordings is full of violence, sex, drugs, murder. If blues didn’t invent those things, they are part of the human experience. And folk music—not the Pete Seeger kind but the songs that have been around for hundreds of years—is replete with savage violence; that’s where the murder ballad comes from.
The other controversial point Gioia makes is that the subject matter of songs—sex, home, ecstasy, violence, etc—is the same the world over and through the eons. The current cultural/academic one features a confused and contradictory movement to place rigid walls between what are defined as different cultures while also elevating them to a (separate but) equal status. But in musical culture, we’ve been singing the same songs about the same things since humans first had a voice. We always will, and we can’t be stopped. Fucking and killing are universal.