Sound, Voice, and Spirit: Teaching in the Black Music Vernacular
Keyes, Cheryl L., Black Music Research Journal
The study of African-American music and culture flourished during the twentieth century. Its varied approaches and perspectives earned its inclusion as a vibrant area of interest in the study of American music as well as its respectability in the academy. Prior to the 1960s, the bulk of studies on black music focused on field recording collections ranging from worksongs and spirituals to the ruralblues and addressed questions regarding its continued connections to an African past. (1) As such, scholars often characterized African-American music in terms of selected features that were, by varying degrees, present or absent in Western European music. For example, syncopation, a term derived from the discussion of European classical music, was most commonly used by music educators to underscore a salient feature of black music characterized by a preponderance of "off beat" feels or the layering/juxtaposition of various melorhythmic pulses in comparison to Western-derived music.
By the 1960s, a cadre of scholars emerged, who unlike their predecessors, incorporated a sociocultural perspective that revealed the lived experiences and voices of the African-American community. They were, for the most part, native scholars or cultural insiders, ranging in profession from artists to music historians, who led the way for a "broader and more objective interpretation to the study of African-American history and culture" (Burnim and Maultsby with Oehler 2006, 19). These scholars included Black Arts Movement literary giant Leroi Jones (also known as Amiri Baraka) and his work Blues People (1963), music historian Eileen Southern and her work The Music of Black Americans: A History ( 1997), and composer-vernacular music theorist Olly Wilson (1974, 1983), whose writings proved germane to the discussion of this article, teaching in the black music vernacular. While it still remained that scholars defined African-American music in quantitative terms, Wilson (1983) presented a rereading of black music in terms of its "conceptual approaches to music making" in lieu of a list of its overarching musical traits. Of importance to a pedagogical model for teaching in the black music vernacular that I propose is one of Wilson's characterizations of African-American music practice: its "heterogeneous sound ideal." Unlike the discussion of this concept as an approach by which sound consists of a juxtaposition of musical timbres, I contend that a "heterogeneous sound ideal" is not merely viewed as a conceptual approach to music making but rather it is foundational to a philosophy of music making among black musicians in general as will be discussed in this article.
While scholars of black music do find that the presence of call and response and the use of the AAB song form are ubiquitous to African-American music, the mere absence of either has led some to erroneous assertions that a song may not be, for instance, a blues. An example of this allegation is Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," which many critics have argued is not a blues in the formal sense due to its lack of an AAB song structure, an issue to which I will return later in the article. But using a black music vernacular approach in defining African-derived music undoubtedly eschews conventional understanding of musical sound, form, structure, and written note interpretation, as well as related pedagogies. As one scholar of black history and music points out, black vernacular music, for example, American jazz, regardless of a music score, is a "performer's art" rather than a "composer's art" (Levine 1989, 8). When jazz pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams was asked how she learned black music vernacular styles like ragtime and jazz in general, she further supported the importance of the oral tradition over privileging the written note or composer's voice:
My mother taught me all that. The spiritual and ragtime that I play, she taught me. Much different than the ragtime that [Scott] Joplin wrote. See he studied European music that kind of changed it. The ragtime that I played was the "Real McCoy" that was created in America ... because it wasn't taught out of a book. Joplin studied and jazz cannot be taught out of a book. (Mary Lou Williams 1990)
Hence, the source of the African-American music tradition undoubtedly flows out of an oral tradition. Moreover, knowledge of and interpretation of a black music vernacular emanates from its culture bearers, whom I identify here as "sage philosophers."
This article seeks to introduce to some and reacquaint others with what I have teased out of musical renderings from "the sages" in ascertaining a way to teach via a black music vernacular. As such, it introduces a philosophy by which to comprehend the interdependent relationship of sound, voice, and spirit as a pedagogical model for comprehending the black music vernacular. But first, I will briefly discuss two incidents that led me to (re) consider the importance of a black music vernacular approach.
Several years ago, a prominent critic of African-American cultural productions presented a lecture at my university on the blues, probing what is and is not a blues. As I listened to his talk, I closely followed his discussion of the blues as AAB--a form codified in the written tradition by W. C. Handy (1912)--and how, according to his analysis, "Crazy Blues" as performed by Mamie Smith was not a blues. During the question-and-answer segment of his presentation, a friend and colleague of mine, Charles E. Moore, queried the speaker, "what do you mean that 'Crazy Blues' is not technically a blues?" The prominent scholar responded, "because it is not in the AAB form. It is really a vaudeville-type song." Of course, Moore continued to probe the cultural critic about his determination that "Crazy Blues" is not a blues simply based on the absence of the AAB form in spite of the manner in which …
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Publication information: Article title: Sound, Voice, and Spirit: Teaching in the Black Music Vernacular. Contributors: Keyes, Cheryl L. - Author. Journal title: Black Music Research Journal. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 11+. © 2008 Center For Black Music Research. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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