Power and Transformation: Behind the Scenes


“Over the course of my fifty- year career, I have witnessed creation of the field of black music research and its shift from a positivistic approach to one that embraces critical theories, all the while casting its ideologies against the backdrop of an ever- evolving modernity.”

Samuel A. Floyd Jr., “Epilogue,” The Transformation of Black Music (2017)

The Transformation of Black Music represents the culmination of ideas that had been percolating in the mind of Samuel A. Floyd Jr. since his graduate school days in the 1960s. After publishing The Power of Black Music in 1995, Sam decided to begin writing a philosophical history of black musics–one that would consider modalities of black cultural expression against the backdrop of the Diaspora’s formation.

By 2006, however, the intellectual climate had changed–due, in part, to the ways in which the digital age had made information and various resources more available to researchers.  In November of that year, Sam reflected on the current state of his work:

Since the mid-1990s, I’ve been trying to find the time to complete work on a book that is substantially overdue to my publisher.  Contracted by the Oxford University Press immediately following the publication of The Power of Black Music (1995) the manuscript, such as it is, has undergone several stages of change—until it has reached a breadth and a depth that was originally unforeseen.

The reason for this expansion is what I see as an obligation to the profession and to the young people who would probably otherwise not become aware of the content that my book represents for many years to come, certainly not in the particular context in which I present it.

The book has an extraordinarily broad geographical range and an extraordinarily lengthy chronological one, for its field.  With the working title of “A World History of Black Music,” it is a survey that spans more than ten centuries and seven of the world’s eight continents. I address three black slaves who were among the moors in Spain and influenced the Spanish music of that era and beyond; the 16th century, when a composer of African descent taught, composed, and performed music in the Vatican, wrote and published two treatises and a book of motets; the 18th century, when more than 105 composers of sacred music were active in the Minas Gerais area of Brazil, and so on and so on.

What meaning does this and other neglected music and these neglected musicians and what implications does this and other information like it have for the profession?  Most particularly, what meaning does it have for the education not only of Americans, but for this shrinking world of ours?

Recently I was in Italy, at the University of Lecce, where I encountered two linguistics, one of whom is conducting a project entitled “Regional Dialect in Italian Rap Music,” applying linguistic analysis to traditional folk expression.  What’s missing from that study was any emphasis on phonology, and prosody in musical composition, which might reveal some interesting results for the study of the genre not only for linguistic purposes but also for musical analysis.

There is so much work to be done and many cutting edges to discover, which are not being pursued, that what could revolutionize American musical scholarship, that I view the state of musical learning in our nation to be in an almost tragic state—so much excellent theoretical work and very little work of discovery and teaching of what the world knows and we do not.

At the University of Vienna last year, I browsed that august institution’s library shelves and discovered numerous books on black music that written in the author’s native languages, two of whom were with me as I browsed, giving me a lesson of what in those books that had not appeared in English language publications.  Some of this I’d already known, of course, having heard a lot from my Italian colleagues who have been exploring and studying what’s they’re calling a Mediterranean Black Music Diaspora.  Such study is being undertaken by scholars in the Italian Institute for Afro-American Musicology, at the University of Lecce, the University of Padua, and the University of Verona.  Work, both similar and relatedly different, is taking place England, Germany, and other locations abroad.  All of this (and I could say much more) is to say that . . . and to ask that . . .

My comments about the youth of our nation are driven by the facts that they are not learning much that is important about the musical world in which we live and how it related historically and chronologically to their own and higher education must bear a lot of the blame for this—for two reasons:

  • Academic music’s snub of music education and
  • music education’s self-segregation for scholarly trends within the profession.

It’s time that a wedding takes place.

We all know about the social ills and political decisions that have ruined arts education of all kinds in our public schools and in many private ones.  We also know that school teachers are so busy these days, and some are so threatened bodily that little real teaching can take place.  These serious and severe problems are not, however, the subject of my remarks today.

As far as the blame I assign to music education is concerned, that profession seems to be mired into a tradition that is perpetuated by a need to satisfy National Standards that are designed to serve the needs of the practicalities of the marketplace, and that marketplace is higher education, which ultimately receives the products of the students that are taught by the teachers we snub.

I hasten to add that I have nothing against our National Standards; we all, I’m sure, regard them as indispensable.  I believe that music education is so focused on the “how” of teaching elements and the “what” of forms and culture, that music as a broad discipline of important relevance, and an intellectual challenge is nowhere on the radar screens of its charges.

If this is the case, how can we remedy the situation?  My  belief is that music in higher education is so specialized that it rendered all but the brightest so focused on its imperatives that student  have to pick that they want to know, rather than knowing that something about it all is important.  Most of us eventually become broadly knowledgeable through our colleagues form other disciplines and though conferences and colloquia, and through our post-doctoral reading.

But this kind of education and orientation should take place in one’s student years in programs that integrate knowledge and differing populations of students.  Such programs already exist in a few institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia, where knowledge and method meld in student’s pursuit and refinement of knowledge, method, and ideas.

Even so, the unfortunate rush to tenure nowadays, I believe, is much too accelerated and is having a deleterious effect on cutting-edge scholarship, except for cultural and critical theory, but musical exploration suffers because of it, siphoning off many of the best minds from broad exploratory projects while they are at the prime of their intellectual powers, especially when promotion is the next step.

Showing promise in this regard is the MayDay Group, with its web site theme touting “Action for Change in Music Education,” and its refereed ejournal, Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, calling for and supporting “professional unity,” “a sound philosophical process,” “systematically examined” schools, and that the maintenance of “contact” and interaction “with the ideas and people from other disciplines.”[1]

Founded in 1993 by Thomas A. Regelski and J. Terry Gates, the signatories of the group’s mission represents the U.S., Austria, Australia, Canada, and England.  Thus, somewhat semi-cosmopolitan makeup, together with the academic disciplines of its members, make it a potentially effective vehicle with which to address the broad scope of knowledge necessary for the wide and deep explorations that are now needed for the advancement of scholarship in music education in the 21st century.

The group’s focus is on ideas, the pursuit of which will be fueled by philosophical and aesthetic thought, notwithstanding the virtual disappearance of such thinking in with the academy with the  arrival and rise of cultural and critical theory in the academy over the past several decades.  Music and the other expressive art are not alone in this regard, however, since they also became passé, or perhaps moribund, in the discipline of philosophy itself.

Meetings of scholars from like-minded scholars and educators can be important ground for the exploration of the kind of knowledge, and its integration into the academic mainstream.  From my own experience and development—a journey in which I’ve had almost daily to make use of methods that span musicology, ethnomusicology, music education, music theory, and philosophical aesthetics—I can attest its effectiveness in one small, but very broad, field of musical inquiry.

The notion that this cannot be done without sacrificing the learning of discipline specific knowledge, is no longer viable, with evidence to the contrary seen in many established scholars and the students that have been produced by several institutions across the country.

What is the rationale for such study?  Problems abound!  And we all know what they are, or some of them at least.

How about the nature of music, the nature of teaching, and their various compatibilities one to the other?  How about the very nature of the teaching experience in its various guises and its relationship to the listening and performance of music.

Just these two questions raise questions about whether, absent knowledge and familiar with answers to those questions, about the effectiveness of how effective we are, as a profession, in our classrooms.

Why are teachers in the teaching profession is another important question, and it’s accompanied by one that asks, What are our obligations to teaching, no matter what are reasons are for doing it? Is it because I want to teach the music I love?  If so, what are some of the implications of this statement?

Is it because:

We who teach and those who might and those who a primarily learners might ask ourself the following questions:

Does mention of “the canon” engender feelings of respect, disappointment, or simply toleration?  What other feeling might such mention engender?

In what ways is the answer, or answers to this question based on ideology, training, ideas, or social station, and what are the implications of each of the answers given?

Are the National Standards a sufficient tool for the teaching of music in K-12?  Why, or why not?  How are the answers to these questions related to your philosophical position or your view of the canon?

[1] http://www.maydaygroup.org/