Freedom in Song?

Paul Harvey

Several posts ago John Turner referenced my review in Books & Culture of Scott Gac's excellent work Singing for Freedom, The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Antebellum Reform. My review has now been posted here.

The review is nicely juxtaposed with Michael Linton's "Off Key: Making Too Much of Music," a review of a book called Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom In the World of Music.

Gac's work tends to emphasize the importance of music in abolitionism, in a manner akin to any number of works on music and the civil rights movement. As summarized in my review,

It's not hard to imagine the music's power, though. As a religious newspaper noted of their early singing at antislavery conventions in 1843, "The music of the Hutchinsons carries all before it … . Speechifying, even of the better sort, did less to interest, purify and subdue minds, than this irresistible anti-slavery music," garnering interest in the movement as well as followers for the Liberty and, later, Free Soil political parties. Here, one immediately leaps to the freedom songs of the civil rights era, with the SNCC Freedom Singers serving as the analogue to the Hutchinsons. The way powerful music can embolden a social movement comes across clearly, from the 1840s to the 1960s.

And yet, and yet . . . .

even the most sublime music harnessed to the most righteous purposes cannot bring about the millennium. The Hutchinsons learned the lesson of another musical sensation from a much later era: you can't always get what you want. Like many other utopian reformers, the Hutchinsons had condemned slavery as the root of all evils, and considered its extirpation a means to the millennium. Eventually, and to their sorrow, Gac writes, they saw that the end of slavery had "removed a foundational evil from American society without bringing about the apocalyptic change that the Hutchinsons and many of their antislavery friends had once predicted." The end of slavery did not bring justice for African Americans, and the antislavery cohort "downsized their vision of emancipation," still recognizing it as "part of a national story of progress, but no longer a story of eternal salvation."

Linton carries forward this last point with far more global skepticism than I evinced in my review. He writes, in a critical review of Resounding Truth--and, more generally, of the "Theology and the Arts" movement:

Begbie's thought largely grows out of two areas: his understanding of the role music plays in contemporary life, and the notion of a divinely ordained "cosmic order"—a notion combining the Pythagorean/Platonic "Great Tradition" and the acoustic phenomenon of the overtone series. But his analyses in both areas are problematic. Take this passage, for example:

Few doubt that music can call forth the deepest things of the human spirit and
affect behavior at the most profound levels. Anyone who has parented a teenager
will not need to be told this—study after study has shown that music often plays
a pivotal part in the formation of young people's identity, self-image, and
patterns of behavior.

Well, no. Not really, or not quite. Music's proven effect upon behavior isn't profound; it's actually pretty trivial. The tempo of particular kinds of music played in particular kinds of grocery stores can affect the speed in which shoppers will generally move through the aisles (but it isn't particularly good at selling individual products: funny animated critters are better—think of that lizard selling car insurance). And like the Chippendale furniture and brass sconces in the law office that suggest sober stability, music can be used as décor. As décor it can do all the things that décor can do: set mood, play upon cultural memory, suggest appropriate behavior—but music cannot dictate behavior any more than the furniture can get you to sign a contract if you don't want to. . . .

. . . Begbie argues against the position that understands music as "essentially a human construction and human expression, earthed in nothing bigger than the ideology of a culture, a social group, or the desires of the individual." But I think Begbie is wrong. Like grass huts and Coca Cola bottles, music is something we humans construct out of our environment. And what is and what is not considered to be a musical sound, a kind of sound that is found in a piece of music and distinguishes it from noise, is a cultural function.

Contra the "Great Tradition," music isn't a privileged form of communication that unlocks mysteries nothing else will reveal. Certainly music is a powerful medium of emotional self-discovery and expression, but so too are poetry and storytelling. And the Chinese have an ancient and sophisticated tradition of porcelain appreciation.

How much does music, ultimately, move the soul? These books suggest that it does, in a religious sense, but both books also provide fodder for skepticism, if not outright refutation. Your thoughts?


rjc said…
Just a little bit more on the Hutchinson Family Singers (for those interested) -- Catherine L. Albanese introduces her book on Nature Religion in America with several pages on them (1-11) as a way to get at her conception of "nature religion":

"I suggest that the Hutchinsons offer one prominent example of a way of organizing reality and relating to it that is consistent and encompassing. Moreover, I call this way of organizing reality and of relating to it a _religion_, and I identify it further as _nature religion_."
Linton's understanding of cultural construction doesn't allow for much wiggle room. If grass huts, Coke bottles, or music are just part of a culture zero-sum game where you put in ingredients here and get out a product there, then sure, Begbie's fascination with music's power seems naive and "blinkered."

You don't need to buy the idea that the music we hear descended from some ideal form to think that music's effect on our lives is more than "trivial." As you point out about the Hutchinsons, sometimes our commitments to the arts we produce can get us all het up and carried away, leading to disappointment. For me this is proof enough that music, or other constructs, can do things to us that seem to point beyond us, maybe even changing us.
Commenting on old blog posts is kind of like writing notes to one's self, but here goes. Just wanted to note that in the current Books and Culture, Begbie writes a letter in reply to Linton's review.

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