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Making Artistic Popular Music: The Goal of True Folk

Author(s): John Blacking


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Popular Music, Vol. 1, Folk or Popular? Distinctions, Influences, Continuities (1981),
pp. 9-14
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/853240 .
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Makingartisticpopularmusic:
the goal of truefolk
by JOHN BLACKING

Thereis good evidencethatforoverninety-nine


per centofhuman
and forninety-seven
percentofthetimesincetheemergence
history,
of our own species (homosapienssapiens)approximately70,000 years

ago, allmusicwas popular,inso faras itwas sharedand enjoyedbyall


of stylewithina
membersof a society.If therewere distinctions
as
were
of
functional
or social
accepted signs
society'smusic,they
to mutualcommunication.
Disratherthanas barriers
differentiation
tinctions
betweensacredand secularmusic,betweenmusicforyoung
drawnwithinthestyleof
and old ormenand women,weregenerally
a memberofone group
each musicculture,and, at leastin principle,
and appreciatethemusicofanothergroupin thesame
couldperform
society.
ofpopular
Thereis, of course,no directevidenceof theantiquity
societies
music:we inferit fromthemusicalpracticesofnon-literate
and
thathavebeen studiedbyfolklorists,
ethnomusianthropologists
cologists.Moreover,itwouldbe quitewrongtoregardanycontemporor horticulturalists
as a survivalof
ary societyof hunter-gatherers
or
neolithic
times:
more
than
io,ooo
palaeolithic early
yearsofhistory
and constantsocial changeseparatethe Aurignaciansand Magdaleniansofprehistoric
EuropefromtheSan oftheKalaharidesertorthe
ArandaofCentralAustralia,even as theyweredescribeda hundred
in small-scale,
yearsago. Neverthelessthe studyof music-making
non-literate
societieshas made possiblecertaingeneralisations
about
the musicalprocess(see Blacking1973)whichcan be appliedto all
societies,past and present.
First,all membersofthespeciesarebasicallyas capableofdancing,
singingand makingmusic,as theyareofspeakinga naturallanguage.
Thereis even evidencethatearlyhumanspecieswereable to dance
and singseveralthousandyearsbeforehomosapienssapiensemerged
withthecapacityforspeechas we nowknowit(see Livingstone
1973,
Blacking 1976).

Second,performing
music,likespeakinga verballanguage,is part
oftheprocessofknowingand understanding
it.Performance
does not
and activelistening
is essentially
a
requirea specialsetofcapabilities,
9

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10

JohnBlacking

in whicha personre-invents
mentalrehearsalof performance,
'the
betweencreator,
and
are
the
text'.Thusdistinctions
listener
performer
of
social
roles.
consequence assigned
can inprinciple
be assignedalmost
Third,musicand music-making
or
and
treated
likeany other
any social,political religiousmeaning,
butthesymbolsthatareinvokedalsoinvolvethebody
socialactivities,
insucha waythattheysometimes
acquirea forceoftheirown.Musical
and
evoke
can
sensuousexperiences
thatcanbe,
performance express
ofaction,*
and oftenare,relatedtofeelings.Thusmusic,as a category
of
the
social:
itcanbe a
neednotalwaysbe a reflective
epiphenomenon
of
and
musical
can
imagination
primarymodellingsystem thought,
in
to
action
social
fields
which
its
sensuous
code
does
not
off
trigger
of
the
that
the
because
effects
refer,
bodilyexperiencesmay
directly
anddecision-making
commitment
haveon consciousness,
motivation,
(see Blacking 1981).

Fourth,althoughmusicalcodes can expressand evokefeelingsas


well as new sound experiences,and humanemotionsare broadly
similarthroughoutthe world,music is not a universallanguage.
Attemptsto tracethe evolutionof the musicalart fromsimpleto
scale,and tofitallthemusicof
complex,fromone-tonetotwelve-tone
forexample,theSan
theworldintothescheme,haveprovedfruitless:
havesimple
oftheKalahariand theso-calledPygmiesoftheIturiforest
and
Bushman
Music
but
also
Music),
(see
Pygmy
polyphony
technologies
whose inventionwas supposed to have been the prerogativeof
advancedEuropeansocieties.Musicalcodesarederivedneitherfrom
someuniversalemotionallanguagenorfromstagesintheevolutionof
a musicalart:theyare sociallyacceptedpatternsofsound thathave
inthecontext
individuals
beeninventedand developedbyinteracting
socialand culturalsystems.
of different
These and other generalisationsabout music-makingcan be
summedup and developedas follows:musicis a social fact,and
foritsexistence;
areas necessary
as performers
listeners
discriminating
allnormalhumanbeingsarecapableofmakingmusic;roledistinctions
in musicalstyles,
variations
and listener,
betweencreator,performer
in theapparentmusicalabilityofcomposersand perforand contrasts
mers,are consequencesof the divisionof labourin society,of the
ofindiofgroupsand ofthecommitment
functional
interrelationship
as a socialactivity.
vidualsto music-making
in whichsenButmusicis also a specialkindofsymbolicactivity,
* Anotherissue raised
by the study of musical systemsin non-literatesocieties is that
many peoples lack a word for'music'. I use the concepts of 'music' and 'musical' as
ideal types,or gloss terms,fora categoryof human actionthatis widely accepted but
not yet fullyunderstood.

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music:thegoaloftruefolk
popular
Makingartistic

11

and transformations
suousexperience
ofconsciousness
areoftenmore
highlyvalued thanimmediatepracticalsocial consequences.When
ofmusic,theysuspend
people becomeinvolvedin theperformance
otherkindsofdecision-making.
Thus thenatureoftheactivity,
and
thewaysin whichpeoplerelateto theorganisation
and perception
of
arethemostinteresttones,theessentialsymbolsofa musicalsystem,
featuresofmusic-making.
ing and problematic
It is not, therefore,
surprisingthatso much musicwritingand
musicologicalresearchhave been concernedwithvalues and with
effectiveness
ofmusicalsymbols,and thatstylesofmusichave been
labelledand assignedcategoriesofvalue.Artmusicwas supposedto
be thatwhichdisplayedexceptional
skillincreation
and was generally
writtendown, as distinctfromfolkmusic,whichwas of popular
origin.Classicalmusicwas a branchofartmusic,initially
opposedto
romantic,folk,modern,or popular music;but as modernmusic
becamecontemporary
and
music,so itbecamelinkedwithromantic
classicalmusic,and labelledas seriousmusic.
Popularmusicwas musicthatdid notseek 'to appeal to refinedor
classicaltaste'(Oxford
and was generally
to
English
Dictionary)
thought
includefolksongs.Butas researchintoand preservation
offolkmusic
grew,so theelitismof thelabellerswas extended:justas addictsof
seriousmusichad regardedpopularmusicwithdistasteordisgust,so
and scholarsfrequently
folk-music
viewedpopularmusic
performers
withdisdain.Therewas 'good', 'pure'popularmusic,whichwas the
authenticmusicofthepeople,and couldbe called'folk',or perhaps
'contaminated'
music
'traditional',
music;and therewas 'bastardised',
of the people, whichwas dismissedby derogatory
termssuch as
or even 'urban'(see Blacking1978,pp. 7-9).
'popular','commercial',
Such extremeattitudesare no longercommonamongstwritersand
but theypersistin the attitudesof manyorganisersof
researchers,
folklorefestivalsand performers
of folkmusic.Forexample,I have
encountered
severalIrishtraditional
musicianswhoweakentheircase
the
of
elitism
Irish
institutions
and ofindividualsdevotedto
against
elitistattitudetowardswhat they
'art' music,by takinga similarly
of Irishmusic,and indeedtoregardas 'unauthentic'
performances
wardsthetraditional
musicofAfrica,Asia, Americaand Oceania in
general.
Classifications
ofmusicinto'folk','art'or'popular'reflect
a concern
withmusicalproducts,
rather
thanwiththedynamicprocessofmusicmaking.Thelabelshavecometoidentify
weaponsinthebattlesofthe
recordcompanies,whoseultimate
aimis surelytosubstitute
packaged
forthelive,genuinelypopularmusic-making
ofordinary
recordings
humanbeings,whichstillexistsin some societiesand was almost

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12

JohnBlacking

thewaythatall musicwas madeforninety-seven


certainly
percentof
ofthehumanspecies.As descriptions
thehistory
ofdifferent
kindsof
socialgroups,the
music,or even ofthemusicalculturesofdifferent
and invariably
labelsaremeaningless
Theyarealso valuemisleading.
of underlying
laden termsthatare oftenused withoutspecification
assumptions.Forexample,popularmusicand folkmusichave been
of artmusic:just as the popular
widelyregardedas degenerations
ofBlackSouthAfrican
Churcheswas said
hymn-singing
Independent
to be a consequenceof members'inability
to singEuropeanhymns
ofpeasantsinBosnia
(Blacking1981),so thegangapart-songs
correctly
and Herzegovinaweresaid tobe crudeattempts
toreproduceharmonies thathad been heard in the sophisticatedmusic of the cities
(Petrovic 1977).

researchhas remindedus thatmusic-making


Ethnomusicological
mustalwaysbe regardedas intentional
action,and thatthe actors'
reasonsforwhattheydo mustbe takenintoaccount.Artdoes not
consistofproducts,butoftheprocessesbywhichpeoplemakesense
and experience.Musicis available-for-use
ofcertainkindsofactivity
and
musical
valueresidesnotin anypieceorstyleof
(see Jones1971),
tolistening
and
music,butinthewaysthatpeopleaddressthemselves
Supposingthatpopularmusicweremusicthatdoes not
performance.
seek'to appeal torefinedtaste'(OED), thiswouldnotmakeartmusic
refinedand popularmusicunrefined.Refinement
is a qualitythat
evoke
or
to
people
throughperforming listening music;and just as
so others'
manypeople's attitudesto artmusicmaylackrefinement,
attitudesand responsesto popularmusicmaybe refined.
Similarly,musicalskillsare not requiredany less for'folk'and
'popular' musicthan for'art' music,just as WilliamByrd'schoral
musicis noteasierthanHandel'sorVerdi'sorBritten's.
Pop musicians
aboutrehearsalthansymphony
and
areno lessmeticulous
orchestras;
in defining
thesoundsthatthey
iftheymayseema littleinarticulate
to
conductors
want,one onlyhas tolistentothelanguageoforchestral
are
in
much
also
how
they
disadvantagedby working a
appreciate
non-verbalmedium.
Althoughmusicis 'the resultof certainattitudes,certainspecific
about the
ways of thinkingabout the world,and only ultimately
"ways" in which musiccan be made' (Jones1963,p. 153),theeffective-

to theorganisation
ness of musicdependson people's relationships
and perceptionofthemusicalsymbols,ratherthanthenon-musical
attitudesexpressedtowardsthemor in companywiththem.Thus
althoughmusicalvalueis tobe measuredbythewaysinwhichpeople

make sense of music, the relevanttermsin which the sense is made


must be musical. If people value music because it is political,or is

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music:thegoaloftruefolk
popular
Makingartistic

13

orhasa socialmessage,theyarenotbeingaffected
religious,
primarily
as distinct
frompopularsentibythemusicalsymbols.Popularmusic,
whenpeoplelikea tune,a sonority
ora wholepiece
ment,is identified
ofmusic,withoutemphasisingitsnon-musical
and tryto
attributes,
relatethemselvesto theorganisation
ofrhythms,
tonesand timbres
thattheyperceive.
In this sense, 'popularmusic'is a categoryof value thatcan be
appliedto all stylesofmusic:*itis musicthatis likedor admiredby
people in general,and itincludesBach,Beethoven,theBeatles,Ravi
Air'.Farfrom
Shankar,Sousa's marchesand the'Londonderry
beinga
or derogatory
musicthathas
term,itdescribespositively
patronising
succeededin itsbasic aim to communicate
as music.The musicthat
mostpeoplevaluemostis popularmusic;butwhatthatmusicis,varies
ofcomposers,performers
accordingto thesocialclassand experience
and listeners.
Since I arguethatlabels such as 'folk','art'and 'popular'tellus
aboutdifferent
nothingsubstantive
stylesofmusic;thatas categories
ofvaluetheycanbe appliedtoanymusic;and thatthemostpressing
tasksaretounderstand
themusicalprocessand ensurethatno human
are
of
their
beings deprived
righttomakemusic,itmaywellbe asked
how I can serveon theEditorial
Boardand contribute
toa publication
thatis calledPopularMusic.
inpopularmusicas definedbythe
First,I amnotspeciallyinterested
Editorsabove(p. i), butI amverymuchinterested
inpopularmusicas
a categoryofvalue. I regardmusic-making
at
least
some 'artistic'
(or
an
as
essential
of
activity)
qualification becomingfullyhuman,so that
failureto practiceit meansleavingsome innatecapabilitiesand resourcesuntapped.Music-making
mustbe an essentialactivity
forallin
a healthy,developingsociety;practiceof music,and of the artsin
general,mustbe partoftheprocessofeducatingthefeelingsand the
intellect.The lesson ofethnomusicological
researchis that,farfrom
a
for
the
future
in
industrial
societies,thissituation
being pious hope
has existedin themajority
ofhumansocietiesforthegreaterpartof
humanhistory.
As EricGillsaid,'itisn'tthatartists
arespecialkindsof
It's
that
are
of
kinds
artists.'
people.
people
special
ofpopularmusic,inthesensedefinedbythe
Second,theemergence
Editors,as a phenomenonof industrialisedand industrialising
societies,is one ofthemoststriking
examplesofthepowerofmusical
and
musical
and searchfor
of
symbols,
people's general
creativity
in
life.
it
to
define
as
was
and
Just
necessary
analyseclass in
quality
orderto dissolveit,so itis perhapsnecessarytodefineand analysea
* 'Folk music' and 'art music' can also be treatedas categoriesof value ratherthan as
types of music, but the argumentneed not be taken furtherhere.

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14

JohnBlacking

new typeofmusic,and give ita name thatexpressesa pious hope ifnot


an accurate fact,in orderto restoremusical consciousness and practice
to theircentralplace in human life.
Karl Marx looked forwardto a societyin which 'theartist'as a special
categoryof person would be redundant, and in which all men and
women could cultivatetheirartisticcapabilities,so thatthe distinction
between producer and consumer of art would abolish itselfand Art
and Lifewould become one. Similarly,distinctionsbetween 'art','folk'
and 'popular' music should dissolve, as human beings achieve the
most importantgoal of ownership of the senses.
The serious study of popular music will serve a useful purpose ifit
helps to extend the practiceof music and eliminateelitismas quite
contraryto the spiritof music-making.
References
Blacking,John,How Musical is Man? (Seattle, 1973, and London, 1976).

inthearchaeological
and production
record',in
'Dance,conceptualthought
ed. G. de G. Sieveking,
andSocialArchaeology,
in Economic
Problems
I. H.
Longworthand K. E. Wilson (London, 1976), pp. 1-13.

'Some problemsof theoryand methodin the studyof musicalchange',


FolkMusicCouncil,
Yearbook
9 (1978),pp. 1-26.
oftheInternational
'Politicaland musicalfreedomin the musicof some BlackSouthAfrican
Churches',in TheStructure
ofFolkModels,ed. L. Holyand M. Stuchlik,
no. 20 (London,1981),
ofSocialAnthropologists
Association
monograph
pp. 35-62.

MusicandPygmy
Bushman
issued,withnotesand transcripMusic,recording
tions,by theMusee de l'Hommeand thePeabodyMuseum.

Jones,Leroi, Blues People(New York, 1963).

TheBritish
Journal
of
Jones,Peter,'Worksofartand theiravailability-for-use',
Aesthetics,11:2

(1971),

PP.

115-22.

Frank,'Did theAustralopithecines
Anthropology,
sing?',Current
Livingstone,
14 (1973), PP. 25-9.

ruralsinginginYugoslavia'(The
Ankica,'Ganga,a formoftraditional
Petrovic,
of
Belfast,
Queen's University
unpublishedPhD thesis1977).

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