Tuesday, 07 June 2016 19:47

Music and Marxism

Written by
in Music
Music and Marxism

In the second part of his series, Mark Abel asks how Marxists should judge music.

In the first part of this series of articles, I argued that critique was at the heart of any application of Marxist theory, and that therefore a Marxist musicology must be a critical, rather than a disinterested (or complacent) activity. But this immediately raises the question of what kind of judgments can be made about music, and on what basis. Where is the meaning in music and how might it be revealed?

Perhaps the most obvious and most common way that Marxists (in general) make judgments about any kind of cultural text, whether literary, dramatic, or visual, is on the basis of its discernible, or overt, political meaning. But since, arguably, music as such does not have a discernible political meaning, the focus of this method of attributing value in the case of songs tends to fall on their lyrical content. The immediate effect of this approach is to regard the music as no more than the accompaniment to the sung words, an enhancement of what is held to be really important in the song – the words.

On this basis, a strong trend in the history of Marxist approaches to music involved the valorisation of forms of music which prioritise the clear delivery of lyrics and downplay the importance of instruments. The ease with which judgments could be made on the basis of the political values expressed in the lyrics was one of the reasons why much of the Left in the mid-20th century became particularly associated with folk music. The other was that this kind of music proved to be well-suited to mass, amateur participation at political events. The protest songs of singers like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger drew on a variety of sources, like this American union song, ‘Which Side Are You On?’



The value being attached to the music itself, in this relationship between the Left and folk music, relates to the tunes’ simplicity, even unobtrusiveness, in relation to the message carried by the words.

To the extent that the actual musical content was a factor in making political judgments about folk music, it was an instance of the use of another kind of criterion – the supposed class basis of the music. Here we have a judgment based on a concept of popular authenticity: the idea that some forms of music are part of a folk culture which is the authentic expression of a people, that is, of ordinary, poor, oppressed or exploited people. This quality is held to set such music apart from ‘bourgeois’ art or highbrow music.

The authenticity criterion was applied at around the same time to another music – jazz – whose progressive nature was held to derive from its connection with an oppressed section of society, as well as its resulting difference from both the classical concert tradition and commercial popular music. The logic of this latter criterion meant that when jazz began to develop in both directions – an artistic one with bebop and a commercial one with the big bands – there was a need for a new focus. That need found fulfillment in the Dixieland Revival, which was essentially the celebration of early, ‘traditional’ (‘trad’) jazz as the authentic, popular and democratic original form of the music. Much of the soundtrack of leftwing political events in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and elsewhere comprises both folk-like singing and marching jazzbands. This is footage of the 1959 Aldermaston march: 


Although politically interesting things can be said about the musical procedures of jazz compared to other forms of music-making, part of its attraction for progressives was the perceived ‘outsider’ status of its original New Orleans protagonists. The British trad-jazz revival of the 1950s was an echo of a similar American revival led by New Deal progressives in the 1930s and celebrated the apparent purity of a music produced by an oppressed community in another part of the world.

If Billy Bragg might be regarded as a descendant of the folk-protest tradition, the late twentieth century fashion for ‘world music’ was a descendant of the trad jazz revival. Far flung parts of the globe were scoured for sounds to satisfy a demand amongst Western progressives for authentic popular expression which had not (yet) been poisoned by the values of capitalism. This was, however, a pale, somewhat compromised, echo of the earlier movements in that whereas both the folk and the trad jazz scenes were built around performances by idealistic musicians dedicated to keeping a form of music alive, those doing the scouring for world music represented the very forces that threatened this music’s integrity – multinational record companies. Listen to these tracks from Ken Colyer’s Crane River Jazzband, which performed at many political events, to hear the quality of the recreation of the New Orleans sound by 1950s British musicians:



What is common to all these cases is that the political judgment is being made largely on non-musical, or extra-musical, grounds: this music is politically sound because of who makes it, or where it comes from. This is also true of the parallel tendency of valorising art-music composers for their supposed commitment to Marxism, socialism or progressive politics. On this basis, composers such as Alan Bush and Michael Tippett were celebrated by sections of the British Left, their political stance evidenced partly by their anti-elitist involvement with non-professional music-making, such as choral societies, but mainly by the themes of their works, particularly operas (thereby relying on overt verbal meanings). This is part of Bush’s opera about nineteenth century Northumbrian miners, Men of Blackmoor:



And this is Tippet’s oratorio Child of Our Time, which incorporates arrangements of African American spirituals, thereby combining in one work all the criteria for progressive approval discussed so far.



What is left out of such judgments is the musical success or otherwise of the outcomes of these efforts, as though good intentions are enough. In addition, this approach suffers from the ‘intentional fallacy’ of believing that art is simply the product of the execution of an intention on the part of its creator. This holds that an artist is solely responsible for the art she produces, and this will be socialist art if the artist holds socialist beliefs and principles.

In fact, this is a form of idealism which has nothing to do with Marxism. Marx initiated an approach which understood art, by virtue of its social roots, as expressing something beyond the intention of its individual creator, perhaps even at odds with its creator’s personal views. For example, he thought that the novelist Balzac had succeeded in cutting through bourgeois ideology to show the truth of social life despite his own conservative politics.

It is a cornerstone of Marxist approaches to culture that works of art are social products. Indeed, more than that, the very language available for the creation of artistic expression, whether literary, visual or musical, is socially and historically determined. This means that musical judgments based on the intentions of the composer can never be the whole story. But it also means that simply pointing to the social roots of a particular music is not enough either.

Both are ways of avoiding tackling the difficult issue of the meaning involved in the music itself, a meaning which is not stable but will mutate as circumstances change. For example, as time went on, the post-war British trad jazz bands arguably became a staid parody of the raw, innovative music they sought faithfully to emulate.

Exposing how those meanings inhere in the very language of music is the central task of a Marxist musicology.
Read 696 times Last modified on Tuesday, 07 June 2016 20:36
Mark Abel

Mark Abel is a musician and a trade union activist. He teaches history and philosophy at University of Brighton.

Related items