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Music and Civic Life in America

Monday, May 6th, 2013

img-sheetmusicshutterstock_082529642097.jpg_item_largeIn our latest policy brief, Ashbrook Center fellow David Tucker and musician Nathan Tucker consider the place of music in our civic culture. The authors note how American civic music has changed over time, becoming less religious, less programmatic, and more sentimental. In describing the evolution of American music, they touch on a range of styles and genres, from jazz to the American musical to Aaron Copland’s civic music to the folk music of the Sixties to the gangster rap of Tupac Shakur. A sample:

Civic life is the life we live in dealing with problems of common concern. It is our public life, as opposed to our private life. In a liberal democracy, civic life is all-embracing in the sense that it is open to all. Yet in such a regime, civic life may also be a small part of life, since liberal democracy assumes the priority of private life.

Correspondingly, the music we share in our civic lives will occupy a smaller place than the music of our private lives. Music may be more private than many other activities: it is not verbal, and through its rhythmic component, affects us bodily—that is, most privately, despite the ability of groups of people to move in unison to a beat. Speeches mark our public life more than music; we have no musical equivalent of the Gettysburg Address.

Being nonverbal, music may communicate more universally than any given language, and yet what is universal is not necessarily civic. Music is thus both above and below civic life, both more private and more shared. The naturally tenuous connection between music and civic life has been particularly evident in America, and the connection has grown more tenuous or ambiguous over time. Yet, as we hope to show, American music remains perhaps the best expression of what America is.

Read the whole thing.