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Exploring the World of Music

The Transformative Power of Music

Music can inspire religious devotion, prepare individuals for war, motivate work, enrich play, and stimulate the passions. The musical healing ceremonies of the Kung people in Namibia and Botswana, Epirote music in traditional Greek weddings, and modern rock, gospel, and folk musics all reveal music's power to transform lives.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program #2 “The Transformative Power of Music” Transcript

 

NARRATOR:

There’s something inexplicable about the powerful role music plays all around the world. From worship to work, from politics to play, it mobilizes, it tranquilizes, it heals and transforms.

 

PETE SEEGER:

Boswell is supposed to have said to Dr. Johnson, I’m greatly affected by music, some music will make me weep, some music will make me will feel so brave I could march into the thick of a battle and not be scared of anything. Johnson says, dryly, “if anything could make me act so foolish I would not have anything to do with it.”

 

ERNEST D. BROWN:

Music has got an incredible power, presence. You know sound is something that you can’t escape when you’re in its presence. With music there’s no looking away. That is part of the power of music. When your near it, there’s no escape. It can focus your attention on a particular ceremony for example. It can act as a kind of social glue that helps a ceremony to go on over the course of several days. It keeps peoples’ attention focused. Music can be used in a work situation. You can find examples of that in Africa where people are working in a field. Let’s say that they are planting millet or they’re threshing. Any kind of situation where you’ve got large numbers of people, you need to coordinate their efforts, you can use music to do that.

 

JOHN COHEN:

Music is something that people can dance to. It can move them out of one frame of mind into another. It move them from being separate people to being one group of people. It can remind them of who they are. It also can get them out of the state that they’re in now into some other state. It transforms them.

 

MARK SLOBIN:

Why it’s powerful we can’t say. We just know that music moves people. In the middle of a church service, somebody will fall out and a lot of that has to do with the build up that’s been achieved through the music. There are many ways in which it’s powerful. It’s not necessarily powerful in a good way. Hitler used music brilliantly to organize  people to do the wrong things. So the power of music is not exactly something we can put our finger on scientifically. But we can observe it and  we can talk to people and have them tell you what it feels like to be in a music situation that does something important.

 

NARRATOR:

Music plays a strong role in ceremonies and rituals of all kinds. In southern Africa, the medicine dance of the Kung is a ceremony that is usually held once a week to heal the sick and ward off evil.

 

ERNEST D. BROWN:

Among the Kung, music itself is a medicine which heals people physically.  It heals their ailments and that is testament to the power of music.  The  Kung are also known as Bushmen.  They are a people  who live  Namibia and Botswana, in Southern  Africa.  They live in a semi-arid  or desert region. It’s a very tough environment in which to survive. And they are hunter/gatherers, they are people who live off the land.  People  survive really on the margins in that environment.  It’s very easy  to go across  the line and to get into real trouble through sickness. So the alleviation of sickness and suffering is a regular need that has to be addressed.  The Healing ceremonies that the Kung perform are one way of addressing those needs of restoring balance  and harmony  and health.  The sound of  the music itself is a healing sound. The music comes to people on a subconscious level, it gets right to the core.   And it has a way of transforming you. One of the most interesting things about the healing ceremonies of the Kung is that there aren’t any  words.  There’s  no text  at all. Yet that music is very powerful, very moving, very very emotional music. And how does that work? You know, you hear people singing and they’re yodeling. You hear  this  wonderful  melody,  little fragments  sung by one person put together  with little fragments  sung by  another  person and together you get a kind of composite melody that’s not sung by any one person. It needs a community. There is no audience who is sitting and watching. Everybody is performing some role. You can be involved by singing, you can be involved by clapping your hands. You can be involved by dancing. But the important thing is that everybody is connected in the musical experience. There’s a close connection between music and trance. Among the Kung the men in particular, at some point in there lives, usually become healers and become capable of entering into trance. The state of trance is something that is brought about in part by the music and in part by the whole social occasion that is going on. And in that state of consciousness a human being leaves his own body or his consciousness leaves his body and another consciousness comes into that body and is able to heal in that state. So the music helps the human being to bridge the gap between the natural world and the supernatural world. That’s why  the music itself has power. The music itself is medicine.

 

NARRATOR:

Lifecycle rights and rituals mark important moments of transition  in people’s lives. Music often plays a vital role in elevating these events from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

 

JOHN COHEN:

I did a film in Greece and in Astoria Queens about this terrific community of Epirot musicians. Every time they have one of their celebrations,  it could be a wedding or it could be a feast day, they have to have music.

You can’t have that ritual unless you have that good music. And the best musicians are up there in the mountains of Greece  and they’ll fly into Athens for that one festival. The issue of money isn’t important. That he’s there. You know most places when you want to get excited you go faster,  but somehow in the Epirots they go slower when they want to show how intense they are and expressions of agony and pain and ecstasy, slow  moving exotic things… it’s crazy. And they dance and they kind of out do each other. And they lead each other around doing these slow, slow, slow things. It’s very elegant. Well by the time you get involved in that everybody’s sweating and pouring on the energy and slowing down.

They’re no longer where they were when they came into the room. It’s a different place. And I think it’s magic.

 

NARRATOR:

The power of music itself can be the force that draws people together. At rock and roll concerts world wide, musical  performance  often facilitates the creation of community. Large concerts such as those by the Pittsburgh based band Rusted Root are highly interactive and transformative events that bring participants together in ways that often transcend  the performance itself.

 

JIM DiSPIRITO:

I think the question of what is powerful about music or musical experience is very interesting, because I think it goes beyond the scales that are being performed or the particular  rhythms or even necessarily  the execution  of it. I think that the environment that’s created between the band and the audience provides some sort emotional venue in which many magical moments happen. From the stage to the audience  you can see how the sound pulls people together into a collective because they’re all moving to the same pulse. The music is providing something for them to move to and they’re in agreement with us on stage and somehow, some way we’re all in this together.

 

JIM DONOVAN:

They’ll come and watch the show and they’ll dance together and afterwards they’ll go outside and get their drums out their  trunks and  play  drums in the parking lot. It’s a way to bring people  together in an age where  it’s really hard to do that because in this society it’s increasingly not set up that way.

 

JIM DiSPIRITO:

I think the performance of music is very cathartic even for the people performing it. I know that I get into a very meditative space myself when I’m performing. You get lost in the music.

 

NARRATOR:

Music plays a fundamental role in religious expression around the world. American Gospel music is a uniquely African- American musical genre. During the service music acts as a catalyst that draws the whole congregation together in active participation.

 

REV. DR. HENRY T. SIMMONS:

The word Gospel actually means good news.  It comes from the word evangel and the evangel is the spirit of good news.  And so when we speak  of evangelism in the New Testament we’re speaking about the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

 

“All who are able us stand to your feet and let us call ourselves together for worship and celebration.”

 

Technically what happens with the music in our service is, it begins with a prelude, and from that point on music is almost analogous to the old steam engine. It starts rather slow but as it builds up speed it increases its energy. We call our service of worship a service of celebration and jubilation.

Primarily because of the good news. When you hear good news, you are celebrative. But I also recognize that on any Sunday gathered in the pews of this sanctuary are persons who have not had a great deal to celebrate during the week. And so music serves not only as a rallying point, but it also serves as a therapeutic means.

 

RANDOLPH SCOTT-McLAUGHLIN:

This music has one message.  You’ve got to feel something.   You leave here, you should feel better then when you came in the door. Tom Dorsey was the god-father, if you will, of Gospel Music… Who was he? The blues musician, jazz musician, playing in the Honky Tonks and all that. And then one day, according to Tom Dorsey, God spoke to him and  said  “No,  no, no. You’re going to stop  playing  this  music.  We’re going  to bring  this into the Church.” Now, at that time, I mean gospel music was resisted.

Who are these people bringing this Boogey-Woogey music into the church? There was a lot of opposition to it. But slowly over time, you know cream rises to the top.  And  you couldn’t hold back this avalanche,  this feeling, this desire. Because it does speak to the people in a way that, you know, no other music form in our church really speaks to us.

 

REV. DR. HENRY T. SIMMONS:

The lyrics of Gospel music being scripturally based do give a message of hope. But Gospel music in and of itself has its power from also the musical accompaniment. There  is a beat, there is a cadence,  a  rhythm.  So the music must connect with people’s interior.

 

ELFRIDA SCOTT-McLAUGHLIN:

When you walk into a service, you may feel down, you may feel troubled, you may be distraught. But then the music begins and it’s soothing and it’s uplifting and then you begin to feel you have strength. You know you’ve come home.

 

RANDOLPH SCOTT-McLAUGHLIN:

I’m a kid of the sixties, so for me I came to this Gospel music not through church, but really through the movement. I mean, whenever we were in demonstration or I’d see demonstrations, there was always music being played.

 

NARRATOR:

Music has the power to unite people in common cause. It is often able to convey a political message in stronger and more emotional ways then speech. In the nineteen-sixties during the civil rights and anti-war movements, music became a driving force in the struggle for social change.

PETE SEEGER:

 

There wasn’t a single meeting that didn’t have singing. “We Shall Overcome” was the most famous song, but there were hundreds of others. They’d change over a Gospel song, put new words to it. Very common technique. It’s been done for centuries. “We Shall Overcome” was originally a fast song (sings)… When you sing “We Shall Overcome” your shoulders are touching because you’re crossing your arms in front of you. And swaying across from right to left. Well a month after the founding of SNCC this song was throughout the whole south. It was the song, it wasn’t a song, it was the song. In it’s own quiet way it was taking confidence.

You can kill me, you can beat me, but I know we shall overcome.

 

RANDOLPH SCOTT-McLAUGHLIN:

In the prisons they would sing songs. When they we’re being beaten by the dogs, they would sing songs. And you’d have to ask your self  what  was this thing about, why were they singing these songs as they’re being beaten? And the reason why they sang the songs was just like when the priest chanted Gregorian chants or when a Buddhist has a mantra. Or when you say, “Hail Mary Mother of God” in the Catholic religion. It was a means of going inside of yourself to find the strength within to deal with the outside world. One of my mentors was Bill Kunseler.  There was one  scene he told me about when he was in Birmingham where he was representing Dr. Martin Luther King. And they had come from a demonstration or rally and King had been told that there were men looking to kill him that night.  And they drove up to a house and Bill and King  were staying in the house together with a group of other people. And Bill told the story that people were petrified that night. I mean, they thought  that the house was going to be bombed and they darkened the house so there were no lights at all. And he was afraid for his life. And King must have sensed this fear in the room. And he walked over to a piano and

started to play “This Little Light of Mine,” and the whole group just started to sing this song and they sang songs all through the night. And Bill said at the end of this time it was like there was nothing to be afraid  of.  I  mean, he himself, a non-religious person, was moved by this music and himself strengthened by it.

 

PETE SEEGER:

Plato was supposed to have said, it’s very dangerous for the wrong kind of music to be allowed in the Republic. There’s an old Arab proverb,  when the King puts the poet on his payroll he cuts off the tongue of the poet and when people ask me. Can songs really change people’s minds and I say I can’t prove a darn thing all I know that the people in power think so ’cause they keep songs off the radio and off the television that they think are dangerous for the people to hear. Especially during the Vietnam War, my song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy…” (sings)

 

It didn’t mention  President Johnson  by name, it didn’t mention  Vietnam, but everybody knew what I was singing about… (sings)    It was a song which was inspired by seeing a photograph showing American troops wading through, waist deep in the water of the Mekong Delta probably… I was asked to be on the Smothers Brothers program and the first time I sang it, it was scissored out of the tape, in October of 1967. But the Smothers Brothers took to the print media and said “Hey, CBS is censoring our best jokes, it censored Seegar’s  best song. What’s  going on here?”  And finally in January of 1968, CBS said okay, okay, he can sing the song. (sings) A friend of mine was working in the distribution office for Columbia  records in Denver, Colorado. He says, Pete you know  my boss took one listen to this record  and exploded.  He says, “Those people in New York must be nuts to think I could  promote a record like this.”  He said, “Pete,  your record did not leave the shelf.” So as I say, I can’t prove that songs do anything, but people in control of the country think they do.

 

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