Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived’: popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture. 

That relationship, an uneasy one between traditional beliefs and the dominant popular culture, suffuses Wirrinyga Band’s music with both a pathos and a search for joy. In one sense, then, native Australian Aboriginal bands protest the cultural hegemony of mainstream Australian culture and its attempts to “integrate” (read, “re-educate) Aboriginal groups to be “regular Australians.”  In another way the music celebrates the Aboriginal mythos and promotes its survival. That the Australian government has been supportive of these efforts is commendable, as is Australia’s serious commitment to support for artists. That the Australian government created the conditions that  led to the need to support Aboriginal groups in maintaining their linguistic and cultural heritage is – well, the history of colonialism, isn’t it?

This leads naturally to the second essay in this discussion, Stephen A. King’s look at reggae as protest music, “Protest music as ‘ego-enhancement’: reggae music, the Rastafarian movement and the re-examination of race and identity in Jamaica.” King argues that the Rastafarian movement’s desire to pose dissent to colonial hegemony (and post-colonial racism) achieves its highest expression in reggae music. In fact, King claims, although ska and rocksteady music are equally valid (and at times powerful) music genres from Jamaica, it is reggae’s role as the most public communication of Rastafarian beliefs and values – beliefs and values opposed to colonialism and the oppression of former slaves – that made it not only a Jamaican but worldwide phenomenon.

Of all the music discussed thus far in this series, reggae probably is most easily recognized by even casual listeners as music of protest. The struggle Rastafarians believe they are engaged in against “Babylon” (both the colonial and postcolonial governments of Jamaica) who is seeking to, by both force (ghettoization, police brutality, and denial of economic opportunity) and guile (educational indoctrination and distraction by, for example, sports), keep the “Rastafari” subdued is clearly presented in the music of Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and the most successful of reggae artists, Bob Marley. The desire for liberation, often expressed as a desire to return to their ancestral homes in Africa, permeates reggae. The smoking of ganja (marijuana), a practice of one sect of Rastafarianism, the Dreadlocks, has, for better or worse, become probably too much the public perception of reggae music’s most well known artists. King notes this, as well as noting that Bob Marley’s enormous popularity was largely responsible for this perception. But King argues that Marley’s messages of protest in songs such as “No Woman, No Cry” and “I Shot the Sheriff” are as potent as those of lesser known reggae musicians. Still, King concludes that primarily (among Rastafarians anyway) reggae music serves less as a protest aimed at outside audiences than it serves as a rallying force for Rastafarians and a celebration and group building tool.

This brings us to Ian Peddie’s essay on England’s industrial/coal mining country and the music it has produced, “The bleak country? The Black Country and the rhetoric of escape.” The history of England’s Midlands is a history of mining, industrialization and the pollution, social oppression of workers, and protest, sometimes violent, always loud. Peddie focuses his discussion of Black Country music on two artists whom he draws parallels between even though they practice seemingly completely dissimilar musical genres: rockers Led Zeppelin and drum and bass/Jungle music dance music maestro Goldie.

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin

Peddie argues that Zeppelin’s turn toward the mythic and its thundering sound can be traced to its two members who are natives of the Black Country: lead singer/lyricist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. Of Plant, Peddie claims that Zeppelin’s power comes from its hard hitting realism – a strange claim given Plant’s seemingly Tolkien inspired (and sometimes slightly silly lyrics. But Peddie points at something else: Led Zeppelin, unlike many of their contemporaries in the glory days of arena rock, adopted a no nonsense realistic image in their stage performances that reflected the “down to earth” working class ideals of Plant and Bonham. The playfulness and whimsy of a number of Zeppelin’s songs, however, suggests that Plant, especially, was not the typical Black Country factory worker. Peddie’s suggestion, “complicated fellow that Robert Plant,” is offered as both explanation for Led Zeppelin’s success and for Plant’s need to escape the “Black Country life” and find his way through music. Led Zeppelin’s image, Peddie argues then, is Plant and Bonham’s combined protest against the bleakness and grinding harshness of their Black Country: loud and lyrical; thundering and whimsical.

Goldie is another matter altogether. He represents both the penetration of British Empire emigrants into even the “heart” of England (bringing with them their native musical forms and interests) as well as a profound shift in economic and class perceptions. He also represents the shifting demographics of England: even as England has become a more colorful country racially and ethnically, Goldie’s music, Peddie claims, is a protest against categorization. The heavy beat of Goldie’s music differs significantly from the equally heavy beat of Led Zeppelin in this way: Zeppelin’s music might be seen as a reflection of Plant and Bonham stomping their way out of the Black Country; Goldie’s tricked out dance beats and wild amalgamations of sound might be heard as a “new Englishman” stomping his way into, not just the Black Country, but the entire nation. In his wickedly clever and subversive way Goldie, Peddie suggests, might be saying, “All of England is becoming Black Country.”

Whether it is cultural preservation, as in the case of Aboriginal music, protest against social/cultural unfairness, as in reggae, or the attempt to, in Led Zeppelin’s case, escape one’s roots, or in Goldie’s case, establish new roots, the music of all these artists seems to address issues of place with strong statements both of protest against perceived social issues and protest for inclusion and acceptance. Kudos to Dunbar-Hall, King, and Peddie for three excellent essays on how music serves the process of self-identification in wide ranging ways.

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