Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger, and Musicology

seeger_1

Charles, Mike, Ruth, and Peggy Seeger circa 1937( Library of Congress)

I am not well-read in musicology; in fact right now I can only claim to have dipped a toe or two into its vast pool. Even so, I find certain things that grab my attention. One is the heavy involvement of the Seeger family in the tectonic shift that broke Ethnomusicology off into a different field. Another is the similar tensions that currently exist around Sociomusicology, which is still considered a discipline of musicology.

I spent my childhood listening to Pete Seeger and wondering what made him the kind of musician he was. Was he just born with this amazing interest and ability that enabled him to assimilate songs from almost any culture into his performing repertoire? He was a world musician before the term “world music” had even been coined. In one concert he would effortlessly and seamlessly move from Latin America to Africa to Israel…how did he do it? And why?

It was years later that I came across the fact that his father, Charles Seeger was a musicologist, and that the entire family was involved with field collection of folk music. As a result of this heavy exposure to folk music, especially Appalachian folk music, three of the Seeger Children became well-known professional folk musicians: Pete, Michael, and Peggy. In the next generation, their nephew Anthony took up the musicology torch once again.

The tectonic shift that established ethnomusicology as its own discipline happened in the 1950’s as a result of the realization that its predecessor (comparative musicology) was so entrenched in a Western-centered view of the world that it had a skewed perception of anything that was not western art music. [1] From the very start Charles Seeger was uncomfortable with the naming of the new field, and felt that  since ethnomusicology was defined as the study of all musics (even western art music), what was really called for was a redefining of musicology itself, away from the center of western art music.[2]

From today’s point of view, when the dominance of western music has been severely destabilized by the plurality of our society, the musics we listen to, the availability of different musical choices, and the variety of choices even within 20th and 21st century classical music[3], his concerns make sense. The need to create a brand new field grew from musicology’s tendency to compare everything else to the ethno-centric standard of western art music.

In the shift that established ethnomusicology as a field, many concepts and methods were taken from Anthropology, and there was a high degree of collaboration between Anthropologists and Ethnomusicologists in establishing the new field. [4]  I think the fact that sociomusicology is undergoing a similar dialogue about whether the sociology of music and the social history of music are really two different disciplines[5]is due to the fact that musicology has maintained its western-centric approach. To study western art music in its social context is simply to treat it the way any other type of music is treated in Ethnomusicology; the distinctions start to seem kind of silly. We don’t have a separate field of Ethnoanthropology or Ethnosociology; those are handled by disciplines within the field. I lean towards agreeing with Charles Seeger that it is all musicology, and that the ethnocentric biases of musicology are what cause the problems.

Another way that Charles Seeger was involved in the early establishment of Ethnomusicology as a field was in the wrangling about the language of the new field. [6] While to some it may have seemed like time would have been better spent in field research, it showed that Seeger understood how important language would be in defining the field and its approach. This careful process of defining set up a philosophy of “Canonic reflexivity” within the field, which established a tradition of questioning and redefining that has served the field extremely well, paving the way for open minded thinking and freedom to question assumptions that we see in works like Gary Tomlinson’s “Cultural Dialogistics and Jazz: a White historian signifies”, suggesting that the African-American tradition of signifying can be a useful tool for reframing the musical discussion.[7]

-Flora Newberry

[1][1] Philip V. Bohlman, “Ethnomusicology’s Challenge to the Canon; the Canon’s Challenge to Ethnomusicology” in Disciplining Music, ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1992),  120.

[2] Ibid, 125

[3] Robert P. Morgan, “Re-thinking Musical Culture, Canonic Reformations in a Post-Tonal Age”, Disciplining Music,

Ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1992), 56-57.

[4] Philip V. Bohlman, “Ethnomusicology’s Challenge to the Canon; the Canon’s Challenge to Ethnomusicology” in Disciplining Music, ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1992),  121-122.

[5] Vincent Duckles, et al. “Musicology.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/46710.

[6] Philip V. Bohlman, “Ethnomusicology’s Challenge to the Canon; the Canon’s Challenge to Ethnomusicology” in Disciplining Music, ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1992),  124.

[7] Gary Tomlinson, “Cultural Dialogics and jazz:A White Historian Signifies” in Disciplining Music, ed. Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman (University of Chicago Press:Chicago, 1992), 64.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s