In this Q&A, he talks about his recently released book, Love Songs: The Hidden History. I'm confident that what he says will inspire many of you to pick up a copy of this fascinating book.
SP: In your introduction, you link the word “cantare” and the word “incantation.” As a reader, I had the sense that your search is not just for a hidden history, but for a hidden linkage between the song and the power of the song.
TG: As a music writer, I am forced to deal with songs as a product of the entertainment industry. But for many years, I’ve been dissatisfied with this narrow way of viewing music. In one of my favorite passages, Aristotle describes the various capabilities of song. He mentions that it refreshes us, strengthens our soul, builds our characters, enlivens the toils of everyday life, and then he mentions—almost as an afterthought—that it also provides entertainment. Nowadays society has forgotten everything except that last item on his list. As a result, our musical culture is weak and shallow.
I would like to use my work as a music historian to call attention to the power of song in transforming and enchanting our lives. Music is more than a diversion or entertainment, it is also a change agent, with more power than we realize. We all feel this almost instinctively, yet the history of music, as it is commonly told, tends to ignore these deeper powers of song.
In the 1990s, I began work on an alternative way of telling the history of music—developing a theory and practice that would focus attention on these deeper capabilities of song. I published the first results of this research almost a decade ago, in two volumes called Work Songs and Healing Songs. But I promised at the time to follow up with a book on the history of the love song. This has proven to be a difficult endeavor, since most of our songs are about love. But completing this project was essential to my goal of charting this hidden, alternative history of music. It is with some relief that I finally finished my research, and was able to publish Love Songs: The Hidden History. I’ve been writing about music for more than thirty years, but this has been the most challenging project I’ve ever attempted.
SP: I would say that this phrase from your book is at the core of your approach to the love song: “We feel compelled to sing about love but are deeply embarrassed by this compulsion. We need the outsider to extricate us from our shame. That’s just as true today as two thousand years ago” (p.201). What did you find that supported this idea?
TG: The historical records are fairly clear on this account. Among the ancient Romans, love songs were considered shameful and unmanly. But the outsider—in this instance, the slave entertainer—was allowed to perform them. In an uncanny echoing of this process, innovations in love songs in the United States also came from the marginalized, namely the African-American population. And the very same thing happened in the medieval era, when female slave singers from the Islamic world anticipated the troubadour revolution.
In fact, at almost every stage in history, we have turned to outsiders—usually from the poorest classes of society—to teach us new ways of singing about love song. In the 1960s, it was lads from Liverpool. In the 1980s, it was rappers in the inner city. Who knows where the next breakthrough in love songs will come from? But I am confident that it won’t be invented by the ruling class or social elites.
We need the outsider, because our love lives are always circumscribed by tradition, ritual and strict moral injunctions. A new way of singing about love almost always involves breaking the rules and regulations that control our romantic yearnings. The outsider, who by definition does not follow the rules, is typically the best person to show us how this is done.
TG: Most people see the love song as soft and sentimental. It is considered wimpy music. Even I thought this was true before I embarked upon the research for my book.
At first I was puzzled when I encountered all the examples of repression and social unrest caused by love songs. Why would lovey-dovey music create such consternation, and sometimes even lead to bloodshed? I only gradually realized that the love song has served throughout history as a force for expanding personal autonomy, individual freedom and human rights.
When we think of basic liberties we tend to think of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other elements in the Bill of Rights. But what about freedom to control our own love life? This has never been taken for granted in society. The younger generation has always had to battle with parents, church leaders and patriarchal institutions in order to achieve freedom of romance. The love song has inevitably been a vehicle in this battle. That is why it has been feared by parents and other authority figures, but embraced by the young and disenfranchised.
By the way, my research shows the love song always wins in the end. It is more powerful than kings and legal bodies. It represents a kind of soft revolution.
SP: One of the consistent themes here is of religion trying to infuse the love song with “the divine.” To what degree would you say this was also about power? To what degree did it reflect other, more personal struggles to rectify romance with spirituality?
TG: Church leaders tried to eradicate the love song from Western society during the first one thousand years of Christianity. When this attempt failed, after the rise of the troubadours, the Church pursued a very clever alternate strategy. They decided to allow the love song, but aimed to purify it first—taking out the dirty parts, so to speak. They believed that they could turn the love song into a type of spiritual music. If I can borrow the words of John Coltrane, they aimed to focus the music of romance on a “love supreme.”
This obviously was a battle for power over the hearts and minds—but especially the hearts—of the populace. But it also reflected the belief, among religious leaders, that Christianity had special expertise in the matter of love. After all, when Jesus was asked which were the most important commandments, he replied that the first rule was to love God, and the second rule was to love your neighbor. Given this precedent, the Church felt that it had every right to define the essence of love, even within the context of a love song.
By the way, the idea that religion might try to control the love lyric seems oppressive to most of us. But this very attempt to mix spirituality and romance spurred the masterworks of Dante, Rumi and other visionary artists.
SP: Purveyors of love songs were often cut a great deal of moral slack because of the acceptance of the “artistic temperament.” This seems to me scape-goating turned on its head (to the benefit of the artist). Why did this happen? What relationship does it have to other aspects of our relationship to love songs?
TG: In studying the history of prohibitions and censorship, I am struck by the inconsistent rules applied to love songs. Some people are allowed to sing love songs, while others are threatened with punishments and excommunication. But the rules constantly change over times, and are filled with loopholes and exceptions. In medieval times, nobles had much more freedom than commoners. But in the early twentieth century, the opposite happened. African-American musicians were allowed to sing about erotic subjects, but performers addressing the mainstream white market were discouraged from doing the same.
If you look at sheet music from the turn-of-the-century, you see visual proof of the hypocrisy. Any song that hinted at sexual matters would have a picture of a black person or a blackface entertainer on the cover. You see this with hit songs such as “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” and “Frankie and Johnny.” A few years later, Cole Porter found that critics of his sexually-charged song “Love for Sale” were satisfied after he reassigned the piece to a black singer. Even in the 1950s, broadcasters refused to play Dean Martin’s “Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am!” on the radio, but much more explicit fare was acceptable on R&B records targeted at black audiences.
SP: In talking about songs of love in 20th century America, you say that music caused attitudes toward romance to shift. Why do you think that music was responsible for the shift and was not simply responding to broader and/or deeper cultural movements?
TG: This is the classic chicken-and-egg question. Do our songs merely reflect changes that have already taken place in our love lives? Or does music actually alter our romantic practices?
I’m forced to conclude that the songs have much more power than most commentators realize. You simply need to look closely at how people practice courtship and romance to grasp this. At every stage of history, music is enlisted as a tool of romance. This was true in Jane Austen’s day, when people met their future spouses at dances, and parents trained daughters to play the piano to help them snag a husband. This was true in my father’s day, when he always took his girlfriends to the ballroom to dance to his favorite jazz bands. And it’s true in the present day, when people agonize over what mood music to play when bringing a hot date back to the apartment.
By the way, just consider the importance of the automobile radio on the history of modern romance. The car is the most frequent place for marriage proposals in the United States, and I suspect that a romantic song on the radio played a key role in many of those relationships. Many of us wouldn’t be here today if our parents hadn’t had access to the right love song to seal the deal.
This relates to my earlier point about music as entertainment. The corporate world wants to turn us into passive consumers of music. But in the real world, people take an active role in constructing the soundtrack of their lives. They use songs to achieve very specific goals. Music is an active ingredient at every stage in our courtship, from the first date to the wedding celebrations.
TG: Music was the first sphere of integration in American public life. Long before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line in baseball, black and white musicians were making records together. Long before the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in schools, jazz bandleaders had already ruled against it on the bandstand. Music, on its own, couldn’t change centuries of entrenched bias and institutional privilege, but it served as an invaluable role model. When jazz became the popular music of the younger generation, back during the Swing Era, it helped pave the way for a host of social changes during the 1950s and 1960s.
As you note, jazz no longer has the same degree of influence or popularity nowadays. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the public’s musical tastes change over the decades. New styles come and go. But I must admit that I am still shocked when I hear young listeners describe jazz as old-fashioned, or treat it like a museum piece. As someone who listens to lots of new music in all genres—I spend 2-3 hours every day listening to new releases—I feel compelled to tell them that some of the freshest and most innovative music in the current day is coming from the jazz world. Why isn’t this better known? Maybe those of us who love jazz need to do a better job of letting the world know about all the great new artists and albums out there. Of course, it would help if the mainstream media gave us a platform for doing this.
Let me put this differently. The jazz world faces a challenge over who gets to frame the narrative. Just like politics, no? Right now, vested interests are trying to redefine jazz in a way that allows them to maximize their income. A jazz festival makes more money if it hires a rock or pop act, so it has a financial interest in changing the definition of jazz. Or take the case of the famous jazz record label that now wants to switch its focus to R&B albums, because they sell better than hard bop. But they pretend that they are upholding their jazz heritage, even as they chase the big bucks. Meanwhile some of the jazz insiders who are best situated to respond to this land grab are ambivalent about the term ‘jazz’. Although they have the best intentions, they contribute to a quietism that allows outsiders to reshape the jazz narrative to suit dubious corporate goals. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that many listeners have little idea of what is actually happening in the jazz idiom.