On Heroes and Literature Review

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When Doug Harrington was teaching a tag to the assembled delegates at LABBS Harmony College back in April, he passed on some advice* that he’d been given by Jim Cline, a long-time barbershopper who had shared a good deal of wisdom and craft with the young Harrington brothers to help them on their way. It got me thinking about how and why we cite our heroes, and the ways that this functions within musical traditions in much the same way that citations and references function within academic writing.

When we choose communicate an idea we have learned from someone else, and to include in that communication where we learned it, we are doing several things at once.

First, we are giving credit where credit is due. If you’ve ever had your work passed off by someone else as their own, you’ll know how it feels to have recognition you have earned appropriated by someone who hasn’t earned it. You feel aggrieved - anything from a bit miffed to outraged, depending how egregious the passing-off is. We give credit to others not just so they don’t have to feel like that (quite often they are not in the room with you so wouldn’t know you’d just stolen their idea), but also to signal that we are the kind of people who like be honourable about such things. We do the right thing because everybody feels better when we do so.

But it’s not all generosity and honour. We also cite others by name in order to gain authority. Referencing is a form of academic name-dropping: look which books I’ve been hanging out with recently. It is a particularly useful strategy when you are in a position of juniority in a particular field. It signals, ‘This isn’t just some nobody telling you this, it comes from somebody you have heard of an already respect’. It also says, ‘You may not know who I am, but I do Know Stuff’. The act of claiming authority serves to gain and hold people’s attention, and it also serves to reassure them.

And it’s interesting which kinds of authority we claim in which circumstances. I quote David Wright a lot when I’m hanging out with barbershoppers, not just because he is eminently quotable, but because they already know who he is. When I’m hanging out with choral folk I’m more likely to quote James Jordan or Abraham Kaplan or John Bertalot. (Mike Brewer used to be a go-to quotable name-drop; not so much now ) There’s a whole different set to draw on when I have my musicology hat on - you can check these out in the bibliographies to my books.

Which points out that the main difference between quoting your heroes and footnoting is that the latter is systematic and verifiable. The reader can go and check the reference to see if the person you cite really said that, and whether they meant by saying it what you are using the quote to support. I have, when examining PhDs, picked people up on what appeared to be misrepresentations of other writers, but in social situations that is not only generally not possible, but would also get irritating quite quickly. (It’s probably irritating when examining PhDs too, but then it’s your job to be irritating like that!) But other than this the basic dynamic of the discourse is similar in both formal and informal circumstances.

Two other things occur to me in context. First is how you deal with it when you want to cite an idea, but the people you’re addressing may not know who the person you are quoting is. Then you can’t just reference a common body of knowledge, but have to give a bit more explanation. References, that is, start to turn into literature review. I do this quite a lot when I want to cite findings from studies by Geoff Luck and Teresa Marrin Nakra to conductors. Both used interesting experimental designs that yielded some results directly helpful to the craft of conducting, but as their names aren’t immediately known within the musical communities I’m working with, I always need to fill in some background of what they did and why we should care about it.

Second, all the contexts I’ve considered so far are quite niche, and involve citing heroes/experts for their authority within that niche. But we also do this in more general life circumstances too. We quote those who influenced us as children: maybe a particularly striking school teacher, or our parents or grandparents. Or we quote the Bible or Shakespeare. (I say ‘we’, but for general life wisdom I’m actually more likely to quote Victoria Wood.)

The point about which authorities we draw on leads onto the final major thing we do with citations: we create communities. When we quote someone we have in common with our addressee, we create a bond: look we belong to the same world. When we introduce them to someone they’ve not previously heard of, we create a different kind of bond: welcome into this part of my world. And this is exactly parallel in conversational and academic contexts. When I pick up an academic book on a subject I know something about I will dive straight into the bibliography to figure out how much I already know in common with the author, and how much they belong to a different part of the disciplinary landscape.

(Also, when I was still in the essay-marking business, I used to look at the bibliography first to see whether to look forward to reading the essay or not. Number of sources, type of sources (general vs specialist, type of publication), age of sources, and competence of presentation between them pretty much predicted the quality of the content and reading experience to follow.)

I used to find name-dropping annoying. And it still can be if it’s done not just to claim authority, but also to claim status. If you’re quoting someone to show how clever or important you are, you’ll come over as a bit of a PITA whatever the context. But as a way to both signal and maintain the communities you have come from and which you contribute to, it is a friendly, cohesive act. We all belong to multiple social groups,** some in person (family, choir, neighbourhood), some more virtually (bodies of knowledge, Facebook groups) and we experience our membership not just through direct contacts, but by sharing what we’ve learned from those we admire.


* ‘Always try and get your part on the first hearing’
** Anthony Giddens calls these ‘lifestyle sectors’

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