Local music: does it matter?


Trevor Locke asks if local music really matters

If you watch the television you might choose to watch a programme about rock music in the 70s or 80s. If music is your thing, there is no shortage of programmes in which famous musicians are interviewed and clips of bands and singers playing songs of the time are shown. These programmes are very interesting and informative but they are all about the big bands that made it into the charts.

What is largely neglected by both the media and by historians is music at the local level. It is assumed, most probably, that anything about live music in one town or city will be of interest only those who live there. Unless of course it is about Liverpool and the Beatles or possibly even Sheffield and the Arctic Monkeys or Manchester during the days of the Hacienda. These are subjects worthy of programmes or books because, in the opinion of their producers and authors, they have had an impact and influence on the national music scene.

I want to argue that music at the local level is both fascinating and important, in its own right. I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I have spent over ten years of my life writing about the music of Leicester for the magazine I created and now am compiling all that work into one enormous book on the subject.

Given that I am engaged in writing about local history, why is it that historians largely ignore music when they analyse and discuss the life of local communities? Local history has established itself as being an area of study that is credible and interesting, as much as the history of the nation as a whole. Local history of any kind is not just of interest to people who live in the area; those who research and write about local history like to consult works by others who are engaged in similar projects. Local history is a legitimate branch of learning in its own right. The life of any nation is not just about kings, politicians and battles. No understanding of a nation is possible without an awareness of the culture and life of people whose daily lives creates that nation. We cannot understand England without understanding the ordinary common folk who comprise it.

People who write about local history often focus on the areas of human activity that have been established in the accounts of the nation as a whole: commerce, industry and economics, politics, transport (trains and roads), women, race, battles and armies, etc. You do sometimes get studies of art or culture at the local level and that, by and large, concerns itself with pictorial art and sculpture. That stance on local history is often bolstered by the view that something at local level is of national importance. That take on history pivots around the assumption that something must have that magical national significance to justify it and give it credibility. Who arbitrates what is of national significance?

My interest is in music; my two great passions in life are music and history. So, writing about the history of music would be completely natural for me. The shelves of libraries are well stocked with books about periods of musical history, accounts of specific bands, studies of specific genres and so on. If, like me, you want to read about music in a town or city, you will have to search extensively to find anything. The shibboleth about local needing to be national haunts music and art history as much as anything other aspect of life at the level of street and town.

This situation needs to change. Historians and musicologists alike need to recognise that music has always been an important part of the life of any local community. If you want to understand what daily life was like in the past, as now, you have to look at the music that the people in a community were listening to. Art is about painting and statues, but it is also about music – and not just classical music. There are endless books about the great classical composers but almost nothing about the work of the countless men and women who have made music, composed and invented it throughout the ages at the local level. History is organised around notoriety. It is the legacy of how academia has been organised since Greek and Roman times that only the great artists and composers are worthy of study because they have defined the cultural landscape of The West, Europe, England … well of course that is true but I want to see credibility given to the study of the art and culture of common people, everyday country folk, the people, the masses, what ever you want to call them – the people whose lives come and go but leave little behind them. Historians tend to work with what is stored on library shelves. What gets on to library shelves is arbitrated by the shibboleth of national significance.

Archaeologists however are much more likely to unearth the remains of everyday life. Modern approaches to history are becoming increasingly concerned to reveal what life was like in the streets of a village, town or city. We can have a fairly detailed view of what happened in the streets of a Roman town, how food was produced and distributed, how people were housed, the tools they worked with, what people ate, how they dressed and cooked, how they were entertained and, to my mind, what music they listened to.

Delving into the history of music can be very difficult; the further back we go the harder it becomes to find remains because music just happens and unless people at the time wrote about it, nothing survives from music-making, apart from a few instruments or fragments of them that happened to be preserved in the earth. Such investigations become easier in recorded history when we can find manuscripts, writings, music scores, accounts of concerts or festivals to give us an idea of what people listened to. With the advent of film, recordings and the Internet, there is now a huge amount of material to work with if we want to write accounts of the musical culture of today or recent times.

At the local level however material about music is ephemeral and volatile. Vast quantities of videos, tracks and gig flyers flood through the pages of social media but few people see all this as being grist to the mill of historical research. Like many with an interest in music, I spend many hours of every day on Facebook, Twitter or websites watching what is going on, mainly in my own locality but also at national level. As a music journalist, my task is to watch, record and annotate musical culture in my local area.

The present is what is happening now. What happened yesterday is history.

Music, in my view, is an integral part of local history, just as much as food, buildings, clothing, work, politics, trade or anything else that forms an understanding of the life and experience of a community. This is not a perspective that I see in the output of the majority of local historians. Local history, I would argue, is the poorer for its lack of recognition of the significance of music to accounts of what happened at the local level in the lives of everyday people.

Anthropologists, who went out to study and research the life of tribes, cultures and peoples in foreign countries often recorded and noted the music that they made. They, like archaeologists, got down to the nitty gritty of everyday life and they found music in every social group they visited. Anywhere in the world. Whether it was part of religion or ritual, part of social gatherings or the transmission of culture and collective memory, or the expression of collective identity, musical activity was found everywhere that anthropologists went. From the Trobriand Islands to the high mountains of the Incas, anthropologists went to see people living their ordinary everyday lives and to record what they saw, whatever it was, and they all saw music being made.

Academically, local history shares many interests and sources with anthropology and archaeology. It is therefore somewhat odd that local historians have neglected music as much as they have in their understandings of the life of local peoples. Researching the history of music in an area can be challenging and difficult because of the dearth of source material with which to work. The further back in time that one wishes to go the less there is to work with and the harder it is to unearth. Yet, the more fascinating and informative it becomes. Music is an activity that tells us a lot about the people who make it and those that listened to it or took part in it, through religion, ritual, dance, social gatherings or just plain old entertainment. Music is a key definer of social identity; what music you like marks you out as a person. The gigs you go to are part of your social identity. The kind of music that is found in a community defines much about its culture, belief systems and cohesive tissues. The lyrics of songs are capsules of what people believe, celebrate and remember. The status given to music makers tell us something about the way a community is organised. This is as true at the local level as it is at that of the nation state.

Even when not focussing specifically on music, local history is incomplete unless it has tried to account for the everyday life of a community and that must, I argue, include how people were entertained, fed, clothed, educated and how they socialised. Music should be a topic that is always included in accounts of life at the local level. Without an account of a people’s music, the picture is inherently incomplete.

Trevor Locke

9th August 2014.

 

About this article

It might appear that I have assumed that no one has ever written about local music. I know that not to be the case because I have found studies in my own area of Leicester and have searched for and read material relating to other towns and cities in the UK, both in the form of books and articles on the Internet. The present article forms a précis for a more substantial article that I have planned. I offer it at this stage to see if I can evoke some comments or even make contact with like-minded individuals who share both my agenda and my interest in this topic.