In praise of common culture [1]

Welcome to my 250th Blog and a merry Christmas to you. Thank you for reading.

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers in the Sportsman Inn on the western edge of Sheffield whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified by the cultural edicts of Michael Gove, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!

Notes:

[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’ https://wordpress.com/post/jfin107.wordpress.com/1038

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

See http://www.localcarols.org.uk/ for what’s happening this Christmas 2016.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See http://www.fpce.up.pt/ciie/revistaesc/ESC32/ESC32_Arquivo.pdf I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

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2 thoughts on “In praise of common culture [1]

  1. Dear John,
    I have found this particular article very helpful indeed over the past two years. Thank you for writing it.
    I noticed after reading it that in the song “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” the lyrics say “maybe we’ll do some carolling” (or at least I think that’s what it says). I noticed that “doing some carolling” is different from “singing a carol” somehow. Your blog helps me to think of carolling as a thing we do – right here, right now, and in the hope of figgy pudding.
    So today after a little concert we “did some carolling” (unannounced) and had a Ding-Dong-Merrily lung-strength-athon. My hope is to build from this into having roving carollers appearing at the windows of the classrooms on the relaxed last day of term. If I manage to get there, I shall think of Hardy. Merry Christmas.

  2. Dear LJ, a merry Christmas to you and your kin of carollers. I hope they sing well and encourage others to. You have reminded me of schools somehwhere on the continent and connected to a progressive school movement of the early 19th century where songs were sung routinely as children moved around the school. And now we do have singing playgrounds. All giving music a social function for the here and now.

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