Ideology and Aurality in the Vernacular Traditions of African-American Music (Ca. 1890-1950)

By Brothers, Thomas | Black Music Research Journal, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Ideology and Aurality in the Vernacular Traditions of African-American Music (Ca. 1890-1950)


Brothers, Thomas, Black Music Research Journal


   ... nothing more clearly affirms one's "class," nothing more infallibly
   classifies, than tastes in music.

      Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 18)

It is often difficult to identify precisely the impact of social history on music history; for the history of African-American music, especially, this problem is a central one. This study explores that aspect of social history involving relations between African Americans and European Americans. A useful way to approach the social-musical nexus is through the concept of ideology. And it would seem to be the case that, very often, the same structural relationships that give rise to ideology also bring into collision two paradigms for learning and transmitting music--paradigms, that is, of aurality and literacy. I am interested in exploring the benefits of working with these two broad topics together, especially as they are relevant to music from the first half of this century, the period of Scott Joplin, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Parker. Simply to make such a list of musicians is enough to draw attention to the tremendous diversity of style that marks this period and to suggest that this stylistic diversity owes a good deal to diversity in social experience. The entangled diversity of the vernacular traditions demands methodological flexibility in analysis. It demands an ability to respond to nuance and to varied combinations of musical codes, and for this I find a semiotic framework to be useful. The essay is organized in three parts. First is a sketch of general methodology. This is followed by reflections on practice, as organized around two different social orientations--first, the vocal styles of blues and gospel that, for the first half of this century, tended to stay mainly within the African-American community; and, second, the dance-based idioms of ragtime, jazz, and bebop that participated more routinely in a tradition of European-American patronage.

I

Of the main elements in my title, "African-American music" is perhaps least in need of definition. But to avoid confusion, I should explain that I am working with music made by people in the United States who trace their ancestry, at least partially, back to Africa through slavery.

The idea of "vernacular" music arises through the time-honored analogy between music and language. One historical reference for the linguistic concept is comparison between Latin and the vernacular languages of Europe. Two distinctions built into this usage of the term vernacular will be useful here: there is a distinction in social class, between an elite idiom and a common idiom; and there is a distinction involving transmission, one language being associated with writing and the other having evolved mainly through aural practice. These two distinctions provide a straightforward basis for the analogy between vernacular language and vernacular music. A vernacular idiom may find its way into the concert hall, but it has not evolved there. It has been sustained by diverse and well-distributed popular patronage--or, indeed, by day-to-day practice that does not depend on patronage--rather than by topdown, elite patronage. Independence from writing is of great importance, though, again, the matter is not absolute. Vernacular music may be written down at any time, for one purpose or another, and one genre or another may even give rise to a tradition that is conceived and disseminated in writing. But, substantially, vernacular music evolves independently of notation.

If a particular kind of music seems to stretch the umbrella concept of vernacular, then this is a tension that may be lived with and, one hopes, fruitfully exposed. Scott Joplin and Charlie Parker both worked with an awareness of European high-art music, and both moved away from the basic arena of the vernacular, though in different ways. It is not that we must place their music in one category or the other. …

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