Black music plays in academia

Growing up in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Guthrie Ramsey played the music, wrote the music, danced to the music, lived the music.

Now here he is, an assistant professor of music at Penn, where he dissects the music, analyzes the music, explains the music, theorizes about the music.

So, Dr. Ramsey: Do you ever ask yourself, “How did I get here from there?”

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

“Like any youngish academic, I have moments when I think ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’” he said. “But I don’t think about it in a paralyzing way. I like to think that [my background] brings something distinctive to the table of cultural criticism.”

And in his work in progress, “Race Music: Post-World War II Black Musical Style from Be-bop to Hip-Hop,” Ramsey brings his personal experience as a musician to bear on his cultural analysis of the recent history of black music.

In doing so, Ramsey is attempting something that relatively few scholars manage to do well: publish a work that is intellectually rigorous yet accessible to the general reader.

He acknowledges that this is a difficult balancing act. “As I began to put pen to paper, I realized that one audience might not appreciate some things that the other audience would,” he said, adding that blending these multiple approaches will let him explain the subject more effectively.

Ramsey’s main point is that the history of modern black music is closely tied to issues of race, class, gender and culture, and that the interactions among these are as complex as his own journey.

Take Motown, for instance. Berry Gordy consciously groomed his performers and their music to appeal to a wide (i.e., white and middle-class) audience. Yet, as Ramsey notes, “Motown was wildly popular among blacks.”

Ramsey also finds the social commentary in black music worth examining. For example, two songs written five decades apart, “Romance Without Finance” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent,” both emphasize the need for a good man to have steady work.” While the social scientists were descending on the neighborhoods in search of new data,” he said, “the musicians were carrying on a public discourse on the subject.”

Ramsey made the transition from musician to musicologist almost by chance. He was teaching music in Chicago’s public schools when he decided to enroll in a master’s program at the University of Michigan “mainly to change pay lanes.” But while working on a research project in that program, he became engrossed in the scholarly articles about the music he loved.

This in turn led to an encounter with Samuel Floyd, founder and head of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Floyd encouraged Ramsey to focus his efforts on scholarship, advice Ramsey ultimately took, continuing on to earn a Ph.D. from Michigan in 1994.

He doesn’t regret having done so, either. “I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be,” he said, than in one of the country’s best music departments, helping young scholars research legends such as Sarah Vaughn while advancing our own understanding of black music.

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Originally published on September 30, 1999