Universal musical genres

Musicologist Susan McClary writes about how the blues was adopted by white British middle class men in the early 1960s, e.g., by Eric Clapton, and turned into rock:

Thus the priorities of the genre [i.e., the genre of blues music] changed when it was adopted by British rockers — as they had, for that matter, when the blues had passed from Bessie Smith to Robert Johnson. That the principal interests of the British differed from those of the African American musicians they initially idolized became clear when musicians and critics alike announced that they were ready to leave their black mentors behind and move forward into art rock. As Motown historian Dave Morse complained in 1971: “Black musicians are now implicitly regarded as precursors who, having taught the white men all they know, must gradually recede into the distance” ….

When middle-class kids and British art students “universalized” blues by making it the vehicle for their own alienation, many black musicians chose to develop other modes of expression. For some of them, in any case, the blues had come to recall times of rural poverty and victimization — the genealogy sedimented into the blues had moved to the foreground for them, drowning out other registers of meaning. Thus it is no coincidence that rap musicians have worked to construct a different heritage, tracing their roots through sampling and quotation back not to the blues per se but to James Brown and soul — a genre of black music that emerged during the decade when white rockers arrogated the blues unto themselves. For African Americans the blues was always just one particular manifestation of a number of deeper elements that live on in other genres. It was never a fetish, but simply a vehicle for expression. When historical conditions changed, when it became reified, it could be left behind.

Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, pp. 58-59.

I read this as a healthy reminder that the genre of rock is not somehow universal — and therefore rock can not become the be-all and end-all of liturgical music; indeed, no musical genre can serve as some kind of a universal liturgical expression.

4 thoughts on “Universal musical genres”

  1. I think that the most beautiful thing about being a UU is the diversity of sources we have… for readings, music, everything. I personally want to hear new readings and hymns as well as traditional ones. There is comfort and continuity in the traditional and growth and challenge in the new. I think we are most successful when we strive towards balance: new and traditional, spiritual and intellectual…

  2. Love your conclusion. And love any push back I can get on UUs making “contemporary” praise band worship the new thing—even though it’s 40+ years old now.

  3. It seems hard to take the idea that there might be a universal liturgical expression very seriously. It requires a pretty blindly ahistorical view of the world. That’s not to say that some things don’t resonate–clearly rhythm moves people–but it seems like narrowing it down so tightly is to observe commonalities within a time and place, within a class and a congregation, and to mistake them for universal truths.

    By the same token, to treat “white rockers” or “rap musicians” as monoliths seems a little reductive.

  4. Keara @ 1 — Me, too. If economics allowed it, I’d love to have an in-house jazz ensemble, an organist, a gospel choir, and a rap crew.

    Chance @ 2 — Yeah, praise bands are pretty old school now, aren’t they?

    Jason @ 3 — You write: “It seems hard to take the idea that there might be a universal liturgical expression very seriously.”

    Yes. But lots of people think there is one “best” liturgical music. Personally, I’m all for eclecticism.

    You also write: “By the same token, to treat “white rockers” or “rap musicians” as monoliths seems a little reductive.”

    Yup. But I’m giving you just a snippet of a longer essay. Within the context of the snippet, “white rockers” refers to a historical moment during and just after the British Invasion of the 1960s. Also within the context of the essay, to say that rap musicians trace their roots back to James Brown and soul rather than the blues, while an overly broad generalization, is still pretty accurate — especially considering the first decade or so of rap music (which is where the essay focuses its attention).

    Musicologists have a tough task — trying to make some kind of historical sense out of a bewildering variety of music. One of McClary’s basic contentions is that there is far more diversity in music than most musicologists allow for; at the same time, she has to make some generalizations if she’s going to make a coherent argument. So while we have to read her arguments critically, we also have to recognize the limitations (and strengths) of musicological method.

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