The Ramonat Seminar #5: Music, Tradition, and Culture

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” – Jimmy Hendrix

Now, I’m not sure how much BrainyQuote is to be believed when it comes to the validity of these quotes being said by the supposed author, but I do believe it beautifully illustrates what I’m trying to get at in this post about music’s role in shaping tradition, and therefore, broader culture.

I’m sad that I wasn’t able to see Mick Moloney and Jimmy Keane’s performance last Thursday. I am happy to report that I didn’t blow off the questions their show being put into the seminar raises, however. What is the role of music in history? Why is it important to examine?

At its heart, music is storytelling at it’s finest. One doesn’t need to know the ins-n-outs of chord progression to know if something moves them in a certain way. Music plays a significant role in shaping a nations when it comes to national songs and celebrations of wars, it leaves a lasting memory of the past, and can reflect the concerns of an age, the zeitgeist to use unnecessary German terms.

Cultural scripts are the ways in which a society or and a local community decides what they will project onto the world, and how they will make those in their community follow suit. Music, why it is produced, by who, and for what purpose is one of the most wide-spread cultural scripts out there. Much like the saying “you are what you eat”, what you listen to informs the ideas you shape from a very young age.

While the source and context impacts how one understands a song in question (if it’s lyrics versus an audio version, how the musician performs it, if it was written during or for a certain period in history, and so on), music offers a fairly reliable example of a larger historical moment.

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Songs can embody a national identity. Yankee Doodle, for instance, has had a lasting power almost equivalent to the American national anthem, though most of the jokes its referencing have no bearing on the present. Similarly, tunes from other nations like the French national anthem (for example) can affect nations and people far beyond it’s doors.

Taking in account religion, which I strongly believe the lack of or the prevalence distinguishes a cultural, music is also key. One can’t imagine a Baptist church, or at least a black one, without its choir. The featured image in this post is that of a Catholic priest delivering mass during the Civil War. Christian hymns were often sung during this pivotal time in American history from various groups, and reflect a lot of the moods of that time.

But, with the positive comes the negative, the biggest being that many tunes hold with them a propagandist stance. It is meant to envision something that might not be real on the ground, or can be taken out of context and spun to mean something else (look to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA for example). Patriotism and propaganda often go hand in hand, and this correlation is no different, even exaggerated in times of war.

While all music isn’t produced in war-time obviously, or with a religious message, for the purposes of this blog, I do think the idea that no music can be totally neutral (maybe not inherently political, but caring some type of message) can apply to all music produced over time. It can hold outdated modes of thought and potentially harmful ideas, or be about something that effected a small group of people in the end. Regardless, music is said to also be timeless, and even if the modes of communicating it or what it conveys changes, I don’t think it’s influence on tradition and culture will ever truly fade. That’s why it’s import for historians to factor it in to discussions about the past to inform the present.

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