Going Boldly into Musicology Where I Haven’t Been Before. Or, Pushing My Academic Comfort Zone

Trigger Warning: Contains pictures of 1980’s fashion

I am sure that at some point in my academic career I must  have said I was a Victorianist.  I know I have attended some Victorian conferences. I have given many papers on brass bands in the Victorian era. Indeed, my PhD thesis was dripping with the long nineteenth century. I was even known as ‘that brass band historian.’

I have published some articles about brass bands, leisure and identity in the nineteenth century and that’s good. I hope they add to the scholarship. Bands have served me well, and I do like them. Yet, am I more than the sum of my PhD? Am I a musicologist and social historian that, in these ‘early career’ years, can move beyond my comfort zone?

The first negative point is that I am no longer associated with a university and as such  I no longer have free access to online sources such as the British Library Newspapers or British Periodicals. These were important sources and it’s a nuisance not to have them. So it’s back to hand trawling on a microfilm machine and getting dusty in the archives. This, however, is very satisfying. I  believe that many local studies libraries have undiscovered resources that can illuminate the way people lived in the past. The online sources are good, and, in spite of the rise of digital humanities, in my opinion, nothing beats a good root around a shelf.

The use of local studies libraries was advocated from the 1960s onwards. The Society for the Study of Labour History (founded in 1960) investigated how trade unions and the Labour movement became a representation of influence in British society. Asa Briggs, and other contributors to Chartist Studies, changed modern study into the movement arguing that Chartism could only be understood fully through local studies, in an attempt to record the activities of the movement’s rank and file members.

This is a  view that I believe. Local history, and the local studies libraries, do hold material that is often new to the record. These examples were not what I expected to find because the material I wanted from the 1920s had gone missing. This illustrates a point that you should be  prepared for archival disappointment and then be led by what is there.

Musicology and social history have now become close bedfellows. A lot closer than when, in 1979, William Weber saw that musicologists and social historians had similar interests. Weber saw musicologists as scholars who tried to find meaning in musical scores, and social historians as researchers who tried to find historical significance in social groups. The link between music and the development of social networks had not yet been fully formed. Weber wrote:

I see strong similarities between recent interests of musicologists and the search among social historians for a clearer historical vocabulary. Just as musicologists are trying to arrive at a more accurate sense of how scores used to be played, so social historians are struggling to define what social groups meant to people in the past. Even if unanimity is in short supply in both fields, we all respect the past and ask that it be heard and seen in its own terms.[1]

To cut a long historiography short, musicology is now an interdisciplinary discipline that embraces as many schools as social history.

The following examples come from a number of local magazines and newspapers.

Example 1

From Valley News, 1986. I found it surprising that disco sensation Odyssey would be featured in a local magazine from the Rossendale Valley, let alone be playing at a snooker club – called Chalker’s – in Burnley. Just an advert, but so many questions need to be answered. Why were they booked? Who went to see them and why? What does this say about Burnley night life in 1986? What does it say about the musical and social taste of people in the Rossendale Valley, a Northern industrial town. Were this band part of an underground soul/disco scene? To my mind this is musicology that is challenging and way out of my historical period. (Not out of my dancing period, though)


Example 2

This example is a bit of a nemesis. I didn’t get on with punk as a youth, but in my dotage I have come appreciate its musicological value. I decided to engage with it because – surprisingly again – there was so much of it in this area. Rule 1, in my opinion, is that you must be led where the archives take you.  The two punks below attended a music festival in the valley in 1980. This festival divided the community. Police were involved, evictions sought after and councils in disarray.  What did that say about people’s attitudes in the valley in 1980, a time when the traditional industries were in decline, if not dead already. Why had they come to the festival? A place that was just a moorland field, cold and muddy at that?  Were they local? What did the local youth make of punk, etc?

Two Punks

In the end, then, these archives from recent history are challenging my training and my musicology. I am, at heart, a Victorianist, but if the archives provide material then it has to be engaged with and that is the  way to move forward as an academic. It does mean moving out of my comfort zone and that’s something we should all do as researchers.

[1] William Weber, ‘The Muddle of the Middle Classes’, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November, 1979), p. 185.


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