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Researching the Background to Your Music

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Regular readers may remember how earlier this year Elizabeth Davies raised the ante for the project of relegating racist repertoire from the barbershop stage to the history books in her articulation of the Power of Boo. This prompted me into becoming more proactive into trying to ensure I never need to enact this power.

So, I’ve had an article about the problems with these old songs come out in both Harmony Express and VoiceBox over the summer, and on Monday night I taught a session on Researching the Background to Your Music for the LABBS eOnline programme as a follow-up to that article. I figured that if I’d drawn attention to a problem, it would be helpful to offer ways for people to solve it.

As I’ve noted from my own experience, the biggest hurdle that non-American barbershoppers face in this is a lack of cultural reference. Several participants talked about they had understood Dixie as a romanticised place without any real inkling of the way that mythology was racialised in specific ways. Racism in the UK has its own set of discourses, inherited from a different history, and intersect only intermittently with the clichés of Tin Pan Alley.

The first things I noticed when preparing this session is how different it is teaching research skills now compared to 25 years ago when I first started lecturing in HE. Then it was all about where and how to find material, back before Google. And, indeed, before there was anything very much online. Now that everyone has the internet in their pocket, it’s much more about what questions we need to ask, and assessing the quality/reliability of the answers we find.

And of course the fact that we all have the internet in our pockets these days not only makes researching our music easier, it makes it more imperative. I shared with the group an experience from this January, when the Venus Effect were deciding which song they wanted to commission an arrangement of with their Jenny Mills Award.

One possibility they identified was a fabulous jazz tune from the 1940s – sparkling, sophisticated, it would have suited them really well musically. But there was an odd bit of lyric in the middle that turned out to be referencing Japanese prisoner of war camps in WWII. One option would have been to miss that bit out of course, but any audience member who thought, ‘Hey great tune, I want to know more about it!’ was only two clicks away from, ‘Eww, not nice’. We picked a different song, without any skeletons in the closet.

Three things rose to the top for me through preparing the session, and in the discussions within it. First, was how important we do this research before we commit to a song. It is much easier to decide not to perform a barbershop standard that you discover was originally written and marketed as a ‘coon song’ when you’ve not invested any money on music or time on rehearsal.

Second, was how this is research we should be doing anyway. Much of the 15 years I spent teaching music degrees was precisely on these kinds of contextual studies: it is the norm in other forms of music that you should know something about where your music came from and what it meant to its original audiences, to inform how you make sense of it for yours. Barbershoppers are increasingly good at understanding the history of their own performance tradition, but still often forget to ask about the life of their songs before they were adopted into the barbershop canon. We have Youtube and Spotify now, we can learn far more about the performance (or, at least, the recording) history of our music than was imaginable 20 years ago.

Third – rather to my surprise – I found myself putting these thoughts together and thinking about how, back when I was teaching music students how to do this, I should probably have made the first point to them: to do at least the initial groundwork of research into a piece before deciding whether to work on it. Canons invite laziness, and classical musicians are as inclined to pick up a piece of music just because everyone else has learned it as barbershoppers are.

Before spending hours tackling the technical and artistic challenges a piece presents, isn’t it worth spending a while asking: Whose voice(s) am I amplifying by peforming this piece? What values am I representing? Who amongst my potential audiences will feel affirmed or excluded by my choices? The point about reaching back into our music’s past is to make our performances in the present more vital and meaningful to our listeners.

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