The Scarred Faces of Music

He lifted his boot from the ground, towards the center of the circle, letting everyone know that this was the last time. As usual, the final chord was cut short. This is not a place to savor a ringing chord, its about getting lost in dance of the tune. Everyone nods in appreciation. “Good tune.” I said, “What’s it called?” “Well, I know it as ‘Mule in a Field’ [I made that up, can’t recall the actual title]” the fiddler said, and after a moment he sheepishly added, “…but it used be called ‘N-word in a Field.'” Most tunes have alternate titles, and part of the fun of each jam session is listening to the seasoned regulars hash out the lineage and aliases of each tune. This was just the first time that the alternate title banter raised this particularly worrying specter. We spent a few minutes talking about this, not in any deep sense, but the group must have sensed my discomfort. They named a number of tunes that were renamed in pursuit of political correctness, a brief glimpse of what we might see as the problematic roots of Old Time. “It was a different time,” the fiddler concluded, “people thought differently.” We launch into a new tune, the issue closed for the moment. It was a good night, and I had a blast trying out a couple of new tunes that I had been trying to learn. But walking out into the night I couldn’t help but wonder, what do we do with these troublesome roots of the musics we love?

Music education wrestles with similar issues. I have never run across a piece in a band library with a racial slur in its title, but I have certainly seen settings of Stephen Foster songs, songs whose lyrics, if written today, would never make it through a legal department of a publishing house. Lyrics that now can only serve as a cautionary tale and as fodder for difficult conversation. Bands especially come under fire for their roots in the military, in authoritarian methods of instruction, in their focus on competition, for their lack of creativity, and denial of student agency. What do we do with the past? Do we cast a musical practice aside because of its misguided or even hateful roots? Do we attempt bracket out the problems? Or can we actively learn from them and keep them in the open? These issues are the scars on our collective musical face. They tell our story, we should not efface them, or mask them with make-up. We should learn to live with them, exposing them to the elements, to soften them with smile lines and the wrinkles that come with a life well-lived. An alternate title can help a tune make it into a jam, or onto a festival program, but it should not plaster over the dark spots in its history.  Culture bearers should not make apologies for the past, but should share the good with the bad. Program notes should be honest and forthright about the piece’s history, and why we still think it worthy of being played. Maybe the tune/piece is great music in its own right. Chances are its even more valuable for the conversation it can start. There’s certainly another side to this story. There are those who would rather we do away with musical traditions with checkered pasts. I’d rather believe that rehabilitation is possible. You can learn a lot from a scarred, weathered face. Especially if you take the time to listen, to hear its story.

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