On the Divine Origins & Soul of Music: An Interview With Ted Gioia

On the Divine Origins & Soul of Music: An Interview With Ted Gioia May 27, 2015

Mary with the fiddle (Pinturicchio, Music, 1493; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).
Mary with the fiddle (Pinturicchio, Music, 1493; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and contemporary culture. He is the author of 9 books, including The History of Jazz and Delta Blues, both selected as notable books of the year by the New York Times. His most recent book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, which completes Gioia’s trilogy on music as a source of enchantment in day-to-day life. The two previous books in this series, Work Songs and Healing Songs, were both honored with the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. Gioia holds degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.


Artur Rosman: What are the religious roots of what has become popular music?

Ted Gioia: The religious roots of popular music run very deep. Anyone who digs into the history of this music learns this, but other narratives are much more fashionable. I’m working on an essay right now with the provocative title: “Jazz Wasn’t Invented in a Whorehouse!” The evidence on this matter is very clear-cut. Early jazz musicians got more inspiration in church than at the brothel, but the connection to sex is more sensationalistic and a better fit with prevailing narratives. One of the cable networks is currently working on a TV series about the birth of jazz in the New Orleans red-light district. Try suggesting to the cable bosses that they do a show about jazz musicians going to church, and see how much interest that generates

And look at other styles of music. Soul music wouldn’t exist without the sanctified church — religion is where the concept of ‘soul’ comes from. That’s stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. I heard ministers during my childhood days, long before the rise of hip-hop, who were preaching with vocal cadences that nowadays would be called rapping. Blues music, of course, is packed to the brim with religious references.

In my recent book on the history of the love song, I trace this connection all the way back to the beginning. Go back a thousand years and you find troubadours combining spirituality and religion with their love songs. At the juncture, the love song is a type of devotional lyric, with comparisons to religious devotion always lurking behind the scenes. Go back another 1500 years, and Sappho was creating the first Greek love lyrics — but they were embedded in a worldview that gave primacy to worship and ritual observances. Go back another 1500 years and you find love songs flourishing as part of Mesopotamian fertility rituals, and these too always come with invocations to divine forces.

If you remove the spiritual and metaphysical aspects from the history of song, there isn’t much left. But this aspect of the history of music is rarely told . . .

. . .  Rosman: What are some books that have influenced your writing on music?

Gioia: I think your readers might be very interested in George Steiner’s book Real Presences, which presents a powerful critique of the current state of culture drawing on a metaphysics that is very congruent with Thomistic ontology. Steiner is not a Catholic, but Catholics concerned about aesthetics should pay close attention to this work. Jose Ortega y Gassett has exerted a strong influence on my thinking, notably in his works The Dehumanization of Art and The Revolt of the Masses — he probably predicted the current state of culture better than any other thinker of the early 20th century. I also need to acknowledge my admiration for Isaiah Berlin, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, Johan Huizinga, Elias Canetti, Arnold Hauser — at some point his work The Social History of Art will come back into fashion — and Mircea Eliade. I gave up on the structuralists and deconstructionists a long time ago, but I must admit that Foucault still influences how I write about the history of music. I disagree with his worldview, but I embrace his methodology. More recently I’ve studied with great interest Harvard professor Michael Witzel’s 2012 book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, a breakthrough work that has tremendous implications for music historians, although they seem blissfully unaware of it. None of the authors mentioned here specialize in music, but I’ve learned from all of them.


You can read this interview in its entirety on Friday. It will appear on Ethika Politika’s Rabelaisian Catholicism channel.

Below is a sample of what Greek music sounded like courtesy of Gardzienice Theater. Can you feel the power?

See also:
A) theists don’t have no songs?
B) B King and a Catholic poet’s blues
C) ultivating transformative practices of Silence.

Please remember to donate through the paypal button on the upper right hand corner of this blog’s homepage. Blogging is not a lucrative enterprise despite all of its indubitable glamor and accolades.

Browse Our Archives