Gospel & Soul

African-American music has retained a level of meaning that is quite seriously supernatural, and for this it is envied and sought after by three generations of post-war white youth. Very many African-American musicians have their roots in the electrified, sanctified churches which, until recently, have been no-go areas for white congregations. And during a period when post-war Europe has experienced wave after wave of atheistic subcultures - existentialism, alienation and postmodernism - the black gospel movement has remained true to a fervent and committed system of belief which is evident in the pop outpourings of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and almost all African-American stars of the 1970s. Contemporary pop audiences in the west, steeped in postmodern cynicism, have come to revere the simple directness of statement, the honesty of black musical expression of this period. Here, meaning is not hidden behind layers of parody and artifice, but simply stated and straight from the heart. African-American culture has remained constant to a limited number of basic frames of reference, which, if not actually Christian, pertain to a Christian world view. And this is not surprising if it is remembered that nearly all the artists of this period grew up in the gospel churches of the larger American cities.

But if Motown and Soul have roots which are tangibly Christian, they are also unreformedly romantic. African-American churches have hardly been affected by the various secularisms which have rumbled across Europe in the twentieth century. The forms of belief, and the mechanisms of faith seem to have remained time-locked at about 1890. Ira Sankey’s hymnal of the 1890s is still a source of contemporary material for the contemporary generation, and whilst it is true that the most recent composers like Andrae Crouch, the Hawkins Family and the Wynans have injected a new corpus of material into the repertoire, the inspiration for this new material has generally come from the generation immediately before them, and especially from Stevie Wonder, and not from external sources. What is more important though, is the realisation that the music is only convincing in a romantic way. The method by which the music assists in the induction of religious awe and ecstasy a romantic one, powerfully fuelled by belief and emotion.

To understand, therefore, how this music operates, it has to be seen within the contexts of the Grand Narratives of Christianity and Romanticism. Although, in Europe from the late nineteenth century onward, religion has ceased to be the ideological cement that held society together, and under the assault of science began to be less effective at engaging with society’s deep seated fears and a-rational needs, curiously, the music of the African-American church tradition seems to have retained much of this psychic function, both in its ideology, and in its music. Of the ways that this has been achieved, the most obvious and remarkable are the uses of the choral voice, the awareness of drama and surprise, a richness and chromatic tendency within harmony, a vocabulary of musical devices that ennoble a mythic past, and a total confidence when engaged in sentimental and emotionally manipulative performance. All of these qualities can be understood to be typical of a late romantic world outlook and performance praxis.


The myth that, before the intervention of the white man, Africans lived in a state of bliss, akin to the biblical Eden is satisfying in many ways. First, it massages the pain of guilt sensed by white America because it feels culpable for the Negro holocaust. The inescapable hurt is lessened slightly by the implication that the black races are essentially blameless for their condition, and at the same time it accords with the Calvinist thread that permeates much of white American religiosity to go ahead and admit the grievous sins of past generations. They’re not around now to argue. Second, from the perspective of the African-American community, it helps to explain a lot about subsequent history that would otherwise be hard to take. Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’, which transfixed audiences in the 70s through its television adaptation, fuelled the myth, but it was already well established through years of Hollywood depictions of black people in films like ‘Saunders of the River’, from which Paul Robeson understandably wanted to distance himself, and all the ‘Tarzan’ mythology. However, something even more sinister was current in European society, which was the elision of the concepts of colour and sin, and by extension, of whiteness and salvation. Paul Brown’s paper ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, examines how, in Elizabethan England, this idea already had currency, as evidenced in the attitude of Queen Elizabeth I’s confrontation with an ‘Hombre Salvagio’ at Kenilworth in 1575, and similarly in the public perception of John Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, an ‘unbeleeving creature’. These ideologies underpin the essential plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which, in Paul Brown’s analysis construes Prospero at the apex of a triangular relationship, the currency of which is power, control, the virtues of civilisation, and the suppression of libido.
The island itself is and ‘uninhabited spot’, a tabula rasa peopled fortuitously by the shipwrecked. Two children, Miranda and Caliban, have been nurtured upon it. Prospero’s narrative operates to produce in them the binary division of the other, into the malleable and the irreformable, that I have show to be the major strategy of colonial discourse. There is Miranda, miraculous courtly lady, virgin prospect (cf. Virginia itself) and there is Caliban, scrambled ‘cannibal’, savage incarnate. Presiding over them is the cabalist Prospero, whose function it is to divide and demarcate these potentialities, arrogating to the male all that is debased and rapacious, to the female all that is cultured and needs protection.

Paul Brown: ‘This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine’, in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, (Manchester U.P. 1985) p62.

The significance of these historic understandings about the nature of blackness cannot be overestimated when translating the two worlds of ‘Touch Me in the Morning’ and ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’. In them we have the oppositional dualities of the sanctified, westernised woman, essentially vulnerable, and the demonised ‘Papa’, who is in every sense ‘originally sinful’, a danger to society and beyond salvation. Of course, The Tempest is a white construction, a cornerstone of European culture and thought. It must be remembered that when Robert Johnson felt himself to be beyond salvation, he felt that the blues that he played was part-and-parcel of his sinfulness. These world-outlooks become very entangled, and politically sensitive. The dilemma disappeared with the arrival of hip-hop and rap, which proclaim a new confidence in blackness that owed nothing to images and understandings of white civilisation. This was achieved in part with the espousal of a political consciousness and a religious leaning (in Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam) distinctly away from eurocentricity. After this the aspirations of many urban African-American young people changed permanently, away from the traditional view that held the Christian church as the home of essential goodness, social acceptability and middle-class aspiration.


The noun ‘funk’ and the adjective ‘funky’ seem to have had a series of related popular meanings. There are bona fide Flemish origins for the word, (Flemish: fonck) which survive in the sense of ‘cowardice’ and ‘shrinking from fear’. Other frequently cited definitions relate to smell, either specifically that of tobacco smoke, or any smell of a fetid or decaying sort. This latter meaning had particular currency in African American slang in the pre-war period.

The ‘unofficial rap dictionary’ - an on-line document at http://www.sci.kun.nl/thalia/rapdict/ maintained by Patrick Atoon at Nijmegen Katholieke Universteit, defines funk as:

1) (adj) Malodorous.

2) (n) The essence of being, as in faking the funk.

Thomas Dolby’s understanding of ‘funk’ seems to suggest ‘flunking’, or failing, or dropping out in some way:

At the tender age of three I was put to a machine
Just to keep my mouth from spouting junk (ha!)
Must’ve took me for a fool ‘cos they chucked me out of school
‘Cos the teacher knew I had the funk

Thomas Dolby: Hyperactive (Parlophone Odeon R6065)

This ‘anti-school’ sentiment is mirrored in W.H.Auden’s remark about his life at a Scottish prep school:

"I teach rugger. Every day I rush about in shorts telling people not to funk."

W.H.Auden. Recounted in Davenport-Hines, R., ‘Auden’, (Minerva 1995) p119.

At the beginning of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, the voice-over, by Vincent Price, refers to:
" ... the funk of 40,000 years..."
... which could refer to smell, again, but also to ‘funk’ as something reaching back into history, ancient, lost in time, like H.P.Lovecraft’s un-dead. Such an interpretation touches on the unofficial rap dictionary’s understanding ‘the essence of being’. Such a universal, ontological understanding permeates other uses of ‘funk’, especially where the sense of life is combined with ‘rhythm-as-life’. This somewhat African meaning puts ‘funk’ at odds with Western world outlooks, and defines it as essentially counter-cultural.

For example:

"... when we hear funk we hear beats ..."

Massive Attack, Karmacoma, ‘Protection’ (Wild Bunch WBRX 6)

" ... go for yer funk ...", and

"... gettin' down just for the funk of it ..."

" ... who the funk do you think you are?"

George Clinton, Parliament (Essential ESSCD 185)

and Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove, (Warner Bros K 17246)

The obvious assonance, ‘fuck’/ ‘funk’ cannot be ignored. The map of meaning for ‘funk’, in its contemporary pop sense, is therefore wide-ranging. The word has become a shibboleth, a pass-word to hip credibility, through the combinations of its various meanings, which are associated as follows:
fear shitting with fear: (from Flemish fonck)
smell social unacceptability

shit-hot (as an intensifier) - ‘badass’ - 70’s Blaxploitation byword

rhythm hot rhythm (as in ‘makes you dance’)

dance - ‘boogie’ - ‘boogie all night long’- hence energy, life

essence of life: creation


fuck individual reason for being
universal justification for action


Terms like ‘G-funk’, ‘Funky Music’, allude to points on this chain of associated meanings, at once creating new understandings and transformations of the basic signifier ‘funk’, with its general and common function as an adjectival noun meaning ‘life giving, rhythmic and subcultural’. Although primarily associated with African-American culture, it has significantly migrated, and is generally used in white and black youth cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the essence of ‘funk’ retains its blackness, which accounts for the specific denomination ‘white funk’ (of groups like the Average White Band), and the Wild Cherry hit ‘Play that Funky Music’ ( ... white boy ), (Epic EPC 4593)

It is clear that the meaning of the word ‘funk’ as it applies to a musical style, has changed since its widespread use in the mid 70s to mean a particular style of disco beat. Groups like Sly and the Family Stone, or Earth, Wind and Fire were definitively American funk bands. Their ‘funkiness’ lay in the particularly athletic bass lines which, when combined with a style a drumming derived from instrumental bands like the Crusaders, produced an idiosyncratic disco style that dominated the decade. The word ‘funk’ dropped out of use in the eighties, to re-appear with a significantly different meaning in the nineties. The British acid-jazz movement, marked as it was by an almost crippling awareness of the significance of black style, adopted the word to mean ‘street-credible’, that is, music or style that was denoted ‘funky’ was approved of in the circles of acid-jazz enthusiasts and this implied something almost tangibly derived from black American consciousness. This new definition could be more loosely applied than the former use of the word - it no longer specifically meant a style of disco music - and its re-birth figured alongside the re-birth of awareness of mainstream jazz, and of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in particular. ‘Funk’, then, in this British sense, is a state of awareness, and might conceivably be a projection of ‘essence of being’ above. The sense in which it figures in rap retains its black consciousness. Its former, musical meaning having now disappeared altogether, ‘funk’ in the context of rap music continues to be understood as a sense of awareness that is specifically black, and opposed to the prevailing dominant culture.

Tonal Centres and Affect:

Modal music and affect
The term ‘mode’ refers to the ordering of tones and semitones within the octave scale. In Plato’s "The Republic" book three, there is a discussion about the various modes and their possible qualities.
'Tell me then – you are a musician – which are the modes suitable for dirges?’

‘The Mixed Lydian and the Extreme Lydian and similar modes’.

‘Then we can reject them,’ I said: ‘even women, if they are respectable, have no use for them, let alone men.’

‘Quite right’

‘But drunkenness, softness, or idleness are also qualities most unsuitable in a Guardian?’

‘Of course’

‘What, then, are the relaxing modes and the ones we use for drinking songs?’

‘The Ionian and certain Lydian modes, commonly described as "languid".’

‘Will they then,’ I asked, ‘be of any use for training soldiers?’

‘None at all,’ he replied. ‘You seem to be left with the Dorian and the Phrygian’.

‘I’m no expert on modes,’ said I; ‘but leave me one that will represent appropriately the voice and accent of a brave man on military service or any dangerous undertaking, who faces misfortune, be it injury or death, or any other calamity, with the same steadfast endurance. And I want another modes to represent him in the voluntary non-violent occupations of peace-time: for instance, persuading someone to grant a request, praying to God or instructing or admonishing his neighbour, or again submitting himself to the requests of others and acting as he decides, and in all showing no conceit, but moderation and common sense and willingness to accept the outcome. Give me these two modes, one stern , one pleasant, which will best represent sound courage and moderation in good fortune or in bad.’

‘The two modes you are asking for,’ he rejoined, ‘are the two I have just mentioned.’

Plato: The Republic: tr. Desmond Lee: Penguin Edition

In our present century the associated meaning of modes seems to be much less specific than in first century Rome. However, since quite clearly each of the modes did indeed have associated meanings that are lost to contemporary ears, it seems much more likely that any association of meaning of affect is cultural rather than absolute. Leonard Meyer’s discussion of the ‘affective power’ of the minor mode seems redundant to contemporary thinking:

‘The theoretical attempts to solve the enigma of the minor mode have ranged all the way from Reimann’s theory, which contends that the minor triad is built upon the inverted overtone structure of the major triad, to that of a psychologist who considers that since the minor triad is a "lowering" of the major one it clearly represents a castration complex and hence arouses feelings of anxiety. Theorists with an acoustical bias have attempted to show that the minor triad is more dissonant than the major. Leonard B. Meyer: Emotion and Meaning in Music, p222

Eric Chafe gives us some insight into the tonal perceptions of the sixteenth century:

‘Thus the Lydian Mode was sometimes characterised as "soft" and related to the soft hexachord by virtue of the B flat; its upper species of fourth, fa/ut, was called mollar and considered to be characteristic of the soft hexachord. Likewise, the Phrygian mode was called "hard" and related to the cantus durus through its lower dural species of fourth, mi/la, that characterised the hard hexachord. [ … ] Such tonal perceptions are not, perhaps, fundamental to Renaissance theory. They do indicate however that the tonal perceptions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a good deal of tradition behind them [ … ] .

Eric Chafe: Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S.Bach, p70/1

Whilst all of this discussion might seem out-of-place in a site devoted to popular music, it is worth remembering that whilst modes seem to have lost their spectrum of meanings somewhere on the way from Plato to the present day (by way of the Renaissance) as far as the classical tradition is concerned, jazz players have always had an instinctive understanding of the different ‘colours’ of meaning associated with particular modes. Every jazz player will be able to play not only in all the favourite jazz keys, but also in the different modes associated with the keys. This kind of knowledge has in recent years been codified and incorporated in jazz courses in Higher Education.

In pop music, the most easily recognisable "mode" is the Dorian, related as it is to both the blues scale and the classical minor. It also has associations of folksiness because of its association with folk music and the ubiquitous pentatonic that characterises folk music throughout the world. The bass line of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ can be called in some sense Dorian, even though its flattened seventh and flat third is a legacy of the blues rather than the European minor.

The Lydian Mode:

The Lydian mode represents a special case for consideration. The Lydian mode, in the key of C, contains a sharpened fourth (F#). Musical analysts are normally too wary to make concrete claims for the qualities of this mode, or to launch into a subjective account of any "meaning" that the Lydian mode might possess. Indeed, the fear of being shown to be too subjective has paralysed musical analysts into silence, even when everybody else out there simply ‘consuming’ the music has a fairly clear idea of what the Lydian mode means even though they might not possess any vocabulary to articulate what they know.

We hear the Lydian fourth (a raised fourth in the context of a major tonality) in the famous first phrase of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. We hear a Lydian fourth in the accompaniment of the opening song ‘Bonjour’ from Alan Menken’s score for the Walt Disney production of Beauty and the Beast. We hear Lydian formulations cascading through the lush orchestrations that accompany the closing credits in John Williams’ score for E.T. . There is a kind of false leading note built-in to the character of the Lydian fourth – it aspires toward the dominant in just the same way that the traditional concept of a leading note aspires toward the tonic. The Lydian contains an element of aspiration, yearning almost, within its structure. It has come to be associated with innocence (Maria, Beauty and E.T.), coupled with fervent desire, as in the yearnings of children. To demonstrate this, takes any of the examples cited above, and play them on a keyboard with the Lydian fourths lowered, so that the scale resembles a traditional major scale. It will be sensed that the peculiar quality of innocence, yearning and naiveté that the Lydian fourth brings to the music will at once disappear.

Deryck Cooke:

Deryck Cooke’s highly influential book ‘The Language of Music’, (Oxford 1959), seemed at the time its publication to offer real insight into the way that music appears to mean specific things, and went some way to building up a vocabulary of musical devices, themes and orderings of notes with accompanying verbal ‘explanations’. Cooke also provided his own explanation of the phenomenon of musical meaning. Some of his thinking prefigures Philip Tagg. Tagg’s categorisations of anaphones (Tagg: Trento: 1991) - small fragments of musical material - into ‘sonic’, ‘kinetic’ and ‘tactile’ anaphones seem partly prefigured by Cooke’s distinctions between music that directly imitates something that makes a definite pitch, music which is an approximate imitation of something which emits a sound of indefinite pitch, and music which is a suggestion or symbolization of a purely visual thing (Cooke: 1959 p2). Where most contemporary theorists would disagree with Cooke, however, is his view that music, and particularly western art music, essentially encodes meaning. That is to imply that the meanings that are somehow associated with western art music apply universally, for all of humankind, regardless of cultural heritage. Cooke asserts that the interval of the major third somehow ‘means’ a condition of happiness based on our western understanding of the word. Cooke writes:
Hence we may say that such diverse bodies as the medieval ecclesiastics, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aristocrats, the nineteenth century composers, the contemporary avant-garde composers, the modern masses, the average concert-going public, and the official Soviet musical theorists - whatever their differences of opinion - all concur in the principle of equating the major triad with pleasure.

(Cooke: 1959, p55)

A more contemporary view is succinctly expressed by Susan McClary:
Like an social discourse, music is meaningful precisely insofar as at aleast some people believe that it is an act in accordance with that belief. Meaning is not inherent in music, but neither is it in language: both are activities that are kept afloat only because communities of people invest in them, agree collectively that their signs are valid currency.

(Susan McClary: ‘Feminine Endings’, Minnesota 1991 p21)

Cooke continues then, to make an extraordinary claim.
It suffices to say that, wherever Western European civilization has penetrated another culture, and set people’s thoughts along the road to material happiness, the tonal music of Western Europe has begun to oust the music of that culture from people’s affections.

(Cooke: 1959, p55)

This phenomenon, which is certainly happening in some parts of the world, is often described now by the term ‘cultural imperialism’. Cooke describes the process in fairly positive terms, however, many governments, particularly Islamic ones, are now keen to protect the indigenous musical culture from western influence. Peter Martin ( ‘Sounds and Society’: Manchester University Press, 1995) makes a robust and sustained attack on Cooke (pages 34 - 43), but misses an important dimension of the book as a whole. Certainly, by modern standards, Cooke’s bourgeois eurocentricity identifies him as old-fashioned. It is possible, however, to ignore most of Cooke’s opinionated theorising and simply to use the remainder of his book as a useful assemblage of western musical practice. It is enlightening, and therefore useful to know that a particular musical pattern has been used before, and it is instructive to realise the circumstances in which it was used. Cooke’s tables and lists provide such information.

The present study is not so much about music itself, but the way that music is heard. Most musicologists think that music cannot encode a meaning essentially, as if by nature, and instead believe that meaning is culturally acquired. Analysts like Tagg study the complex patterns of this acquisition of meaning, and acknowledge that much of the meaning in popular music stems from a cultural inheritance of classical and western art music. Cooke’s book has value because it exists as an extensive reference work in tabulating how particular musical devices have been utilised within the sphere of western art music.


The Idea of the Postmodern: a History, Hans Berthens, Routledge 1995

The conclusion to Berthens book summarises some of the insecurities that are commonly experienced when confronting postmodernism. But even here, after admitting that the whole idea of the postmodern is unsettling, baffling and challenging, he chooses not to make concrete or final statements.


In the American novelist Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star (1976), fourteen-year-old genius Billy Twillig, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for mathematics, is flown out to a research centre somewhere in the desert to join an international effort to decode a numerical message that has come in from the outer darkness of the cosmos.
The enigmatic code, which might even contain the mathematical key to the universe itself, has so far baffled all attempts at solving it and has apparently driven the famous mathematician Endor over the edge and into the desert, where he has dug a hole for himself and spends his days meditating, eating worms, and solemnly saying
mysterious things to those who visit him. Billy does indeed succeed in cracking the code, but the result is not exactly glorious: the numbers in the code would simply seem to indicate a time. At this point Billy's findings can be connected with the theories of a fantastic scientist, a certain Mohole, who claims to have discovered zones in the cosmos where the supposedly universal laws of theoretical physics do no apply. As Mohole, who in all modesty has named these zones after himself, points out 'The essence of my brand of relativity - that in a mohole the laws of physics vary from one observer to another - is at odds with every notion of the universe that  displays a faith in nature' (DeLillo 1980: 185). It turns out that the time indicated in the message pinpoints the moment when the planet Earth will enter a mohole. Apparently the message has been sent out from the Earth itself, by an enormously sophisticated human civilisation that aeons ago has been destroyed by a mohole and, using something out in the cosmos as a reflector, desperately and in what with reason may be called a long shot, has tried to warn a possible future generation against a similar fate. 

When Billy has arrived at these startling conclusions the indicated time is near. The novel ends with Billy and his fellow scientists at the research centre scrambling in all directions to avoid the impending catastrophe, which is heralded by a theoretically impossible and thus totally unforeseen total eclipse of the sun. Billy himself heads toward Endor's hole, realising that Endor must have deciphered the code long before he did and had withdrawn into his mystic visions precisely for that reason. The last scene finds Billy moving across the desert on a tricycle - he is only fourteen and it is the only vehicle he can grab - when he is overtaken by the eclipse.  When the Earth enters the mohole, all forms of representation, even those offered by that flagship of the sciences, theoretical physics, come abruptly to an end. A good many theoretizations of the postmodern suggest that for some time now we have been finding ourselves in the middle of a moral, political, and cognitive mohole and, indeed, may never get out on the other side. At the surface, there is much to support that proposition. As in DeLillo's novel, the end of representation - the postmodern mohole - has sent us scrambling in various directions. Baudrillard suggests that as the ultimate defensive strategy we metamorphose ourselves into objects; Jameson offers homeopathic measures as a last-ditch effort at resistance; Hassan counsels the comforts of American pragmatism. Others seek a New Age-like spiritual unity beyond the current malaise. Peter Fuller has suggested 'a Post-Modern  renewal of our imaginative and spiritual relationship to the world of nature', while Colin Falck tells us that a 'true post-modernism can now be defined only in terms of a head-on rejection of the nihilism which would reduce literature to the status of a game with itself, or with language' (Falck 1989: 151) and predicts that a 'true post-modernist literature' will move beyond the self-reflexivity of modernism 'to the actual finding of revelatory fictions' . All truth, Falck declares, 'is carnal, and that Energy is from the Body is the true meaning of the Word made flesh' . In fact, the whole New Age movement itself is a response to our representational crisis, just as are the various forms of fundamentalism, which, from being out of sync with the times, as Jameson thinks, are perfectly in tune with them: in the West as a reaction to the current, accelerated phase of modernisation, elsewhere as a furious act of resistance against both its earlier stages and the current information phase. Finally, there are those, like Lyotard, who actively seek to contribute to the demise of representation and for whom the mohole is a form of the sublime with emancipatory potential. 

Contact Patrick at info@patrickdailly.f9.co.uk
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