An interview with Ted Gioia on Music: A Subversive History

This fall Syncopated Times reporter Steve Provizer met with Ted Gioia, author of many important jazz histories, to discuss his latest project Music: A Subversive History.

Steve Provizer: Do you remember when you got the germ of the idea for this book?

Ted Gioia: I can tell from my journals that I started the research that led to Music: A Subversive History back in 1991. That’s scary for me to contemplate—that it can take more than a quarter of a century to put together all the pieces you need for an ambitious project. But the scope required it. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever tackled.


Even so, my starting point was a simple one. I had a hunch that if I looked at the history of music from an upside down perspective, it would reveal new insights. Almost all music history focuses on elites—the composers hired by kings and popes and the respectable songs embraced by ruling institutions. I thought that there might be a whole different musical life flourishing in the private lives of individuals outside the power structure. This alternative approach yielded extraordinary results, but only after many years of digging into details left out of conventional music history books.

Music a Subversive History Ted Gioia[S.P.] What was the thing that you discovered that lifted the veil on the musical “cycle of subversion,” if I may call it that?

[T.G.] I uncovered many surprising things, and in the end had to revise almost all of my notions about music and its role in society. But perhaps the biggest surprise was how frequently major innovations in music first took place in hidden parts of society—often among outsiders, renegades and slaves—decades or centuries before they were acknowledged by the mainstream accounts. As a result, key innovators are left out of the history books and our whole understanding of how new styles of music originate needs to be revised.

[S.P.] Can you give me an example of this?

[T.G.] Take for example the most basic building blocks of music, our musical modes. These simple scales are usually the first thing students are taught when they study the theory of Western music. And each mode has a name. So students learn about the Lydian mode or the Phrygian mode, but no one ever tells them that the Lydians and Phrygians were the slaves who performed music in ancient Greece. These enslaved outsiders came up with the most exciting and disturbing sounds—so much so that the Greeks became very concerned about controlling which modes people were allowed to hear.


The whole story is very similar to the rise of black music in the United States, where the elites recognized at a very early stage the expressive power of the songs of the African-American populace, and were torn between their desire to repress it and their even deeper desire to listen to it. In fact, this same phenomenon occurs at almost every crucial moment of innovation in the history of music—you can find in ancient Rome, China, the Islamic world, and in many other settings.

[S.P.] Throughout the book, you argue that music is closely linked to love and uplifting feelings, but also is related to violence? Those seem like opposite things. How can music be responsible for both?

[T.G.] When you dig into the inner workings of music, you encounter this paradox everywhere. For example, Darwin believed that human music is all about sex. He thought that the mating songs of birds tell us the real purpose of music—songs are supposed to lead to copulation. But scientists later showed that bird songs are also used for aggressive purposes. If you deprive birds of the ability to sing, they can no longer defend their territories. So the same song can lead to love or war, depending on the context.

The very same paradox recurs in the history of human music-making, and I show some surprising connections in my book. But only in the last decade have we started to understand the biological reasons for this. We now know that when we experience music in a group setting, our bodies produce the hormone oxytocin, which is the reason for these paradoxical situations. First and foremost, oxytocin makes us more trusting of people around us. We bond together with them. This is why we go to hear music on romantic dates. The songs actually bring couples close together.

But oxytocin also leads people to bond together in more violent pursuits. The songs bring together soldiers in warfare—that’s why generals actually send drummers and buglers out on the battlefield. And in a very dark chapter of history, killing gangs always have their theme songs. That was true of our hunter ancestors in prehistoric days and in modern times with many different kinds of criminal groups. Recall how Charles Manson relied on the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” as an anthem or the Weather Underground took their name from a Bob Dylan song. I would wager that a sociologist who studied urban youth gangs today would find that every one of them has its theme songs.

[S.P.] At a certain point, the idea of musician as anti-hero became part of our modern mythology. When and why do you think that happened?

[T.G.] If you look at the Wikipedia entry on anti-hero, you will find that it doesn’t even mention musicians. You are led to believe that the anti-hero was invented by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett or actors like James Dean and Paul Newman. But the antihero actually came out of songs. If you study the traditional British ballads, for example, you will find that the most popular subject was Robin Hood—he shows up in forty different Child ballads. His mission of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor could almost be the definition of the antihero. A persistent scholar could trace a very long history of the antihero in music going back centuries before Paul Newman ever arrived on the scene.

But here’s the most interesting part of the story. Somehow in recent decades, musicians themselves turned into anti-heroes. They were embraced by fans not only for their music, but also for their personal qualities as gnarly opponents to the establishment and the status quo. By any reasonable definition, Miles Davis is an anti-hero—if you saw the recent movie about him Miles Ahead, the filmmakers actually put a gun in his hand and send him off on antihero escapades. And here are some other antiheroes: Robert Johnson, Tupac Shakur, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Johnny Cash, and many others. This is a fascinating aspect of contemporary music, yet it’s a topic almost no one has examined in any detail.

[S.P.] The idea of “slumming” is fascinating to me. Can you talk more about this?

[T.G.] Slumming is the term used to describe elites who go into poor neighborhoods to sample the cultural life of the “real” people. Slumming usually involves music, sex and booze. The term was first used in the 1880s, and describes a very important cultural phenomenon. As you recall, I mentioned earlier the ancient world’s fascination with “dangerous’ music of outsiders and slaves. Slumming is the modern equivalent. Elites fear the underclass, but also want to hear its music. If you don’t understand this process you can’t comprehend how musical innovation happens—or why it’s so hard to uncover the real history of music after these disreputable songs are cleaned up and enter the mainstream.

There are so many examples. A few music historians are perhaps aware of what actually took place at the Maple Leaf Club where Scott Joplin launched his ragtime revolution—white patrons apparently showed up as customers to enjoy not only the music, but also some of the illegal offerings available there—or the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington rose to fame as a performer for affluent whites slumming in Harlem. But there are many similar situations I write about in my book which have been almost completely erased from the historical record.

[S.P.] You mention that labor unions were once able to use multilingual versions of songs to bring their constituency together. There is no body of music now associated with unions, which are in great decline. Is there a connection between those two facts?

[T.G.] Successful social movements need songs. Todd Gitlin once suggested that communism never recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall because it didn’t have any good melodies. Just look at how much leverage the Bolsheviks got out of “The Internationale” or the French revolutionaries out of the “Marseillaise.” When labor unions relied on songs they grew in strength.

By the way, check out how many of the upheavals happening right now involve songs—sometimes in surprising ways. In Hong Kong protesters have taken a song from a Broadway musical Les Misérables, and are using it as a political anthem. Believe it or not, protesters in Lebanon are actually using the “Baby Shark” song to mobilize support. People assume that songs of this sort are just diversion or entertainment, but history tells another story. In fact, the daily newspaper tells a different story. Almost every week I read about some musician in some part of the world getting into trouble over a song.

The best part of this story is how governments have no clue how to respond to musical protests. Vladimir Putin recently announced that he was going to take charge of hip-hop music in Russia. People simply laughed at this impossible claim. In Thailand, the government was so shaken by a rap protest song that it released its own rap song. As you can imagine, this too was widely ridiculed.

Gioia, Ted (Dave Shafer) 2018[S.P.] You say that port cities-New Orleans, New York, Liverpool, have always played a big part in developing new music. Why?

[T.G.] I came to learn during the course of my research that port cities are the breeding grounds for musical innovation. They are first place where outsiders show up in our midst—and they always bring new ways of making music with them. This was true with the birth of jazz in New Orleans, which was a huge trading hub on the Mississippi and the most diverse US city of its day. And it was true 500 years ago with Venice, which was both the gateway to Europe and also the home of opera and the madrigal. And if you go back to the very origins of Western lyric song with Sappho, you will find that her home island of Lesbos was the entry point into the Western world back in those days. It’s no coincidence that Lesbos was in the news again recently as the first place Syrian refugees arrived on their journey to Europe—thousands of them, sometimes arriving on the beach every day in ramshackle boats. If you don’t understand the social dynamic that takes place in these port cities, you can never really comprehend the origins of innovative musical styles.

[S.P.] One of the main themes in the book is the unheralded role that women played in creating new forms of music. Apart from the historically second-class status of women in so many cultures, why was such a strong effort made to vilify their contributions?

[T.G.] The ancients feared the music of women. It was seen as dangerous—too closely linked to powerful emotions and sexual impulses—and thus must be controlled or suppressed. Of course, this was an impossible task, although the effort continued for more than a thousand years. In the medieval world, the songs of women were most closely associated with two groups: nuns and prostitutes. This is revealing. It tells us that authorities felt that women’s music either needed to be locked up in a convent, or was an invitation to sin.


This effort was destined to failure from the very start. As we have seen in other settings, audiences want to hear dangerous and disruptive music. The end result is a familiar theme in my book: the dangerous music is cleaned up and mainstreamed. Then, the cycle beings all over again. One of the side effects of this cycle is that musical innovations that come from women are falsely attributed to men, and usually to powerful men such as King Solomon or Confucius or the nobles of troubadour era. The real innovators, again, are deliberately hidden from view.

[S.P.] Your book outlines an ancient cycle of music rising up and then being subsumed into the general culture. Do you think that technology has become so pervasive and influential that the cycle has completed its final rotation?

[T.G.] We are told that we are entering a peaceful period when tech companies like Apple and Spotify will curate our musical lives, and provide the perfect song for every moment and lifestyle choice. Artificial intelligence will even compose new songs we want to hear, and renegade outsiders will no longer rule our musical lives.

But the lessons of history tell us this simply will not happen. Music will remain subversive, and for a very good reason. People crave disruptive songs. Whenever we arrive at a period like today, where everything in music seems so perfectly managed and predictable, it’s usually a sign that new disruption is just around the corner.

People ask me what this new disruptive music will sound like. That’s always impossible to predict in advance. But I have a hunch that it will involve using the new music technologies in subversive ways that their inventors never envisioned, the way turntables were repurposed for sampling and “scratching.”

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Read our Review: Music: A Subversive History, by Ted Gioia


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