Soap Box: Whose Music?

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soapboxSome months ago I attended a short workshop for choral leaders which started with a warm-up using the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. It was an efficient and musically interesting warm-up and gave me ideas for workshop activities of my own (which I am sure was the point). But one thing bothered me at the time, and I have continued to mull over it since: the lyric was secularised to remove the reference to Jesus. (Actually, this was nicely done too – after teaching the replacement words, simply a parenthetical comment of, ‘We’re leaving Jesus out of this; he’s got enough troubles of his own.’)

Now, I get the reluctance to promote a dominant religion in a general community context where there may be people from a bunch of different religions present. Religious differences get all muddled up with cultural politics and race and all those other messy by-products of populations with different origins and histories learning to live together. So maybe it’s a good idea not to have Jesus showing up as a potential point of contention.

But I’m bothered by the bowdlerisation.

It seems disrespectful to the music, and to the culture that produced it. A passing point in my second book is the way the that the musics of the African diaspora get appropriated as a kind of ‘everyman’s’ music. In one sense this is a compliment to those traditions – imitation being the sincerest form of flattery – but it can also appear to flatten the traditions out into an undifferentiated and simplistic fund of quite basic musical materials in a way that ignores the identities of the cultures who produced the music. Classical musicians would disapprove if the western art tradition were treated in this way – they would see it as belittling their music if, for example, you changed the words to the Missa Solemnis.

Now it may be that it is the anonymity of authorship of oral traditions that makes it seem acceptable to bowdlerise a spiritual. There isn’t the sense of a single originating creator who has the moral right to be acknowledged as the author (to use the words of copyright notices), and who would therefore be specifically offended if you mucked about with it without asking. But if we are scrupulous on behalf of individuals (this is a ‘moral right’, not simply legal ownership), there is certainly an argument for having a similar care over the cultural products of whole communities.

And whichever way you look at it, ‘Nobody Knows’ is clearly and specifically a religious song. Indeed, there are those who are argue that you cannot erase its religious associations simply by secularising the words – there was a discussion on ChoralNet back before Christmas about the prohibition in a school concert of an instrumental piece that originated as a religious song. (For British readers - American publicly-funded schools avoid religious music as a matter of principle; for American readers – there is generally less sensitivity about religious music in schools in the UK. For readers from the rest of the world – there are all sorts of interesting contradictions implicit in these different attitudes to religion that are too tangled up to get into right now, but feel free to boggle at us all.)

My preferred solution to the conundrums of cultural/religious difference is to err on the side of the multi-cultural. So, if a song from a religious tradition is good enough that you want to sing it – sing it as it comes. The way to avoid that becoming a dominant worldview is also to sing songs from other religious traditions. That is, create balance by adding more rather than taking away. One of the points of singing is as a means to empathise with the subjective world of a song. As I’ve said in other contexts, you don’t have to share the faith of the music you sing, any more than you actually need to kill yourself to play the part of Madame Butterfly, but you do need to enter into its emotional and imaginative world. Eviscerating a song of its emotional origins not only does a disservice to the experience of its creators but also impoverishes the emotional experience of the people who sing it today.

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