Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies

By Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies


Floyd, Samuel A., Jr., Black Music Research Journal


My aim in this paper is to draw attention to ways of writing American music history and to draw from its narrative approaches implications for black music research. In the process, I touch upon three subjects: narrative strategies for writing American music history, an impediment to the writing of a complete history of American music, and an idea for the construction of a model for the latter by combining musical practice with a diasporal approach to black music history.

In an article entitled "Defining American Music," the British musicologist and Keele University professor David Nicholls asked the question, "What do we mean by American music?" His description suggests that it is classical music written by American composers who live, or have lived, in the United States. He touts as "profoundly American," for example "Lou Harrison, Peter Garland, La Monte Young, Terry Riley," and, "arguably," he says, John Cage. (Nicholls 1999). He sees the question "What is American music?" as one plagued by the "continuing dominance" of Eurocentric folk nationalism, with George Gershwin and his compositions as examples (Nicholls 1999, 4). Joseph Horowitz, in his book Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (2005) takes the position that most classical music composed in the United States is "European," and not "American," except that which makes use of identifiable and non-abstract folk music. He draws on Dvorak's musings on the future of American classical music, which the latter hoped would be based on the country's indigenous music. Then there is the strictly vernacular notion of American music, which excludes all that is "classical" from its boundaries and makes a.claim for folk music and its sacred and popular derivatives as the only musical expressions that can be considered as American--that is, expressions ranging from the Negro spirituals to contemporary rock and popular music of all kinds. Finally, there is the conception that all music made in the United States by Americans is grist for the American-music mill.

None of these definitions take into account music outside the United States of America. Ultimately, however, American music might be defined, I hope, to embrace any music in the Western hemisphere that reached its maturity, in the form of new genres or in substantial modification, in the Americas, a notion to which I will return later in this article.

Each of these ways of viewing, discussing, and otherwise considering music in the United States has determined, and continues to determine, what their proponents include, emphasize, and exclude in their research and teaching and, ultimately, how much we know and choose to know about the field of American music. But these definitional influences are not alone; the perspectives from which our histories emanate are several, and they have deeper impacts on how we variously function in the profession.

In his forthcoming book Stories We Could Tell: Putting Words to American Popular Music, David Sanjek identifies eight strategies that constitute typical approaches to writing about, and even making, American popular music. The first strategy is what he calls instinctual. The proponents of this strategy sometimes write "from the hip," so to speak, with aggressive zeal, and are dismissive of competing points of view. The second, which he refers to as the Darwinian, conceives of popular music as having "a fixed body of characteristics," the core of which resists change (Sanjek, n.d., 4). (This narrative is similar to that which governs the canon of European music; in other words, what's here is here to stay, and none other shall enter.)

In the third, the heroic narrative, certain musicians are considered to be geniuses who command "rapt imagination" from admirers and devotees. (This narrative is, again, similar the canon of European music, which places on pedestals figures such as Mozart, Strauss, Schoenberg, and the like, and it also applies to jazz, which sets forth Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, and a host of others as heroic. …

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Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies
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