Despite being a professor in American Studies at SUNY-Buffalo for most of his academic life, Charles (Charlie) Keil’s (b. 1939) career was dominated by an interest in music and music education. His scholarly contributions took many forms, such as ethnographic fieldwork that resulted in wide-ranging books (Urban Blues, Tiv Song: The Sociology of Art in a Classless Society, Polka Happiness, My Music, Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia, Music Grooves), many essays and papers on music and music education, and efforts in promoting music education in the Buffalo area through his organization, M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Superior Education). As an amateur musician with advanced training in American Studies (studying with, among others, David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, and Alan Merriam), Keil brought a keen eye, ear, and mind, along with his rigorous academic training, to the study of how people engaged with music, how they learned music, and the value music holds in the lives of people and their communities. As an example, the first chapter of Tiv Song reminds us that Keil is one of those rare individuals able to summon enormous intellectual resources—from classical Greek philosophy to linguistics, anthropology, ecology, economics, and everything in between—to bear on the problem of music and culture.
When we learned, serendipitously, that Keil had donated 60 boxes worth of material to the archives at our university, we jumped at the chance to dig in and learn more about Keil and his work. Having spent close to 40 hours in the archives—enough time but to begin to appreciate the enormity of Keil’s significance—we contacted him for an interview to get a better sense of his ideas and his reflections on music, education, and his life’s work. We were subsequently struck by the salience of his thoughts relative to the recent report of the CMS Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Curriculum. In this article we share excerpts from this interview, along with some additional commentary, in the hope that Keil’s contributions to music learning, teaching, and scholarship might inspire further thought on the post-secondary training and education of musicians and teachers.
Keil the person
Are author and person one and the same? In reviewing the Keil Collection at the archive center it became clear that Keil’s personal commitments to social causes were not just empty words for show. Long before issues of social justice became fashionable, Keil was a devoted pacifist, environmentalist, equal-rights crusader, Green Party mobilizer, and defender of those without advantage. Along with musical motivations, Keil’s social commitments contributed to his interest in studying the Tiv of Nigeria. Tiv Song, the book (his dissertation) based on his fieldwork of the period, is a tour de force of scholarship, but also reveals insights into experiences that may have contributed to his worldview. In the introduction, for example, Keil describes leaving Nigeria prematurely due to the bloodshed, he and his wife Angeliki “counting the disemboweled and bloated corpses along the roadside, crying from the smell and from the shame.” The experience, he writes, “was numbing and demoralizing” (p. 3).
Viewed in this light, Keil’s personal convictions are certainly understandable. He has never been an armchair activist; he walks the walk. While he may be faulted by some for what might be considered unrealistic idealism, we were thoroughly impressed by his unbridled dedication to a practical vision of American society emulating what he described as the world’s “classless societies”:
With Colin Turnbull’s version of the Mbuti or with Bob Dentan’s version of the Semai or with anybody who’s gone out there and celebrated the harmless people, the forest people, the peaceful people—you could say the romanticization of classless society that anthropologists at their best have done—is my deep reference point for what could happen in Lakeville, Salisbury, Canaan, Connecticut, my nearby environs. 1
Asked about what he would do to foster such a vision, he replied:
I really want to restore that sense of a bopi [i.e., playground] where kids are autonomous and unsupervised and can mimic their elders in drumming and singing and dancing and not be interfered with. That to me is a little Eden that classless societies help to create for their children and that we don’t have. It’s just disappeared. We don’t have a clue to how that could work anymore. Keeping that lone flame alive is, to me, crucial.
Back in the 1980s, Keil described his grassroots publishing company, 12/8 Path Publishers, as not just non-profit, but “anti-profit and devoted to the fusion of matter-energy-spirit in directions of diversity and equality,” further evidence of Keil’s complete fidelity to his social values. Not surprisingly, his newsletters of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Echology and the Muse Letter, were always printed on “Minimum Impact 100% recycled paper.”2 In his personal life, Keil has refused to pay federal income taxes since 2008. His objection to wars and drones has, he says, “made me want to take every bit of income that I have and put it into 501c3s, charitable organizations, anything that I can find that is trying to affirm the principles of children’s liberation, family liberation.”
Our motivation for writing this article derived from our interest in Keil’s ideas about music, culture, and being. While we knew a little about Keil’s work and his background from his published work, our time in the archives helped to paint an even richer picture of the person behind the scholarship. We were reminded during our interview with him of the genuineness of his resolve to foster forms of harmonious living from childhood through adulthood, stemming from his deep-seated resolve that society needed to be saved from its imminent demise.
All the bad stuff is moving with integrated momentum in the wrong direction. And here we sit, are we going to go for sainthood or not? Are we going to try to be as helpful as possible to little kids as they get born or are we just going to let it slide? So to me, it’s a crusade or a religious mission to get the word out. Pass the word with a capital W. Can we get the word out in time to save humanity? Save the planet? Roll back the capitalist nastiness that seems to be guiding policy and guiding people toward more war, more nationalism? We’re the antidote to that. We’re the cure for that. That’s my hope and that’s been a pretty constant thing in my life since I was a teenager and got into conscience objection to war.
Keil’s values help, in part, to explain his approach to music learning and teaching, which he has described not as music education, but as “applied sociomusicology.” Both Echology and the Muse Letter contain editorial commentary revealing the concerns that have animated his work:
How can we get more participatory practices into our own lives and the lives around us? What problems are we solving (or stumbling over) in making live music, life-affirming music? What problems are we solving in assisting children toward fully expressive lives? How can we further empower all people musically?
A (non-traditional) academic career in music
RM/LH: Your academic positions have been in American Studies. Can you talk about how you came to your interest in music?
CK: I think when I look back, my life as a kid was about finding music, finding people to play with, bands to be in, and heroes to model myself on. There was a local tenor sax player in Stamford, Connecticut, Harry “Ducky” Edwards. He looked like a duck when he played the tenor saxophone and was Hot Lips Page’s saxophone player for two tours of Europe and knew a lot about jazz, had been in the Benny Carter Big Band for a couple of years, on tour with Ray Charles and a blues band I can’t recall the name of right now. He was a model for me of how to be in society, in action, in the party at the honky-tonks, as a real live person and valuing that above just about everything else. The only reason I went into academia, into anthropology, and in particular, ethnography and participant observation as a methodology, was to try to capture those childhood magical moments at twelve or thirteen—meeting Harold Edwards and figuring out how to get a groove going with a bass player and a piano player on the drum set. I give my mother a lot of credit for being a stride piano player. The piano was in my bedroom and I got to hear it every day. That kind of enculturation or socialization set me up for a lifelong quest to be in the moment—to be in the musical moment. It’s always a dance moment, as far as I’m concerned.
RM/LH: It sounds as though participant observation is in your blood.
CK: Yes. The participant observation learned in an anthropology graduate school is a mode of being. And it can be moment-to-moment, daily life, wake up in the morning—where’s the action? What is it that’s going to make a difference today, not just long-term but in the moment? What am I going to do with the next kid I meet who’s having trouble drumming? So the very practical questions are preoccupying me more and more as I get into my [old age]: How we might transform the world one child at a time, one group of children at a time? And the impulse toward getting, finding, welcoming a child from the womb to full participation now, it is always pushing me to younger and younger children as to what is missing.
RM/LH: In the beginning of your career you seemed to be studying what one might call “the exotic”—Tiv Song, for example—and then you seemed to shift to the “everyday”—Polka Happiness, My Music, and so on—and then you turned your attention increasingly toward music education with MUSE, Born to Groove, and your more pedagogical work. Can you talk a little bit about the arc of your career trajectory?
CK: I have no reservations whatsoever about what you just said there, but it’s not like I’ve left my earlier interests behind. Wherever I’ve gone, even if it’s just for a few weeks or a couple of months to China, there are different fieldworks that I’ve done that I’ve never really reported. For me, the question always is about the children, the transmission. What is the tradition? What’s the live core? Where is the spirit manifesting in this society, this neighborhood, this person that I’m talking to? So I see it as a continuing quest from childhood to the present. I think of it as trying to frame it in volumes that are about me engaging the world.
From college and graduate school through the written word, you can see me moving steadily toward the music education issues and their deepest sense of how do we transmit, acculturate, socialize children for full expression. From the 1980’s on, that becomes ever more the question. Out of the fieldwork, out of the diverse experiences, what do we do here at home, in the neighborhood, at the childcare center?
RM/LH: As you say, from about 1980 onwards you started going into the Buffalo schools and formed MUSE. That seemed like a pretty concerted effort to “make a difference.” Instead of studying something academically, it was now about you trying to affect something on the ground. Is that a fair assessment?
CK: A lot of wonderful things happened in the first seven to eight years of MUSE, and then it all dissipated because of national reasons but also not being able to get that mentoring piece to happen or to get the school to really own the tradition, value it, urge kids to get into it and so on and so forth…[The goal was for it] to be a self-perpetuating thing, where the older kids could teach the younger and they’d have this continuing ensemble; it would evolve. That was my dream: to have it be a sub-culture, a little ongoing thing that didn’t need after a while, didn’t need constant inputs from expert instructors, a great dancer, and a great drummer inspiring them to do it. They would inspire each other and they would take turns inventing choreography and so on and so forth. I can see how that could all happen, but we couldn’t get it to happen and it was very frustrating at the moment of truth in a couple schools…
We had incredibly good instructors who could achieve results in 8 weeks and have kids leaping up and landing like a cat and doing stuff that had parents and teachers weeping in the audience. “I didn’t know that pain-in-the-ass kid… look at him! He’s leaping, dancing, drumming…” We’d see these tears in people’s eyes, recognition that every one of these kids had amazing potential, that some of the worst behavior problem guys were flourishing in the drumming/dancing ensemble. But then we’d get to the mentoring issue and they’d say “Two of these girls that you want to go down and have teach kindergarten/first grade—their math performance is terrible, they need the study halls. We can’t take them out of study halls and send them down to mentor because their grades are not good. Your program is not working well enough for your best dancers to be liberated from study hall to go and do the tradition.” So our best dancers got the stick of study hall instead of the carrot of learning how to teach or coach something that they have learned to do well.
Music as Culture and as Identity
What becomes clear in reading Keil’s books and essays is his overriding concern with how “working class” music and dance—musics “of the people”—help to create senses of community and belonging. His studies of Tiv song, urban blues, and polka all share this probing interest in wanting to “get to the core” of how and why everyday people engage with music. One inconsistency in his thought, in our reading at least, lies in the intersection of vernacular music making and popular culture. Keil’s egalitarian commitments seem at times to butt up against the commercial interests of popular musics, which he views as a product of capitalist society. We challenged Keil on this point:
RM/LH: Does the form of participation matter? If students want to do their rock trio thing, is that in any way better, worse, less desirable, more desirable, than doing tunes in different grooves and what not? That question of agency and control in terms of who gets to pick the tunes and the form of participation is a major deal, right? And again, given that you had a book based on a project called “My Music,” this seems incompatible, no? Can you speak to this?
CK: Well, I’ll speak first to the anarchistic principles that I think probably underlie most of what I do. I’m not conscious of it a lot of the time, but then I read literature like Paul Goodman and say, “Oh yeah, Paul and those guys have already figured this out.” And I’m just doing the musical version of that.
I would say whatever these kids want to do that is continually their joy in music-making, that’s crucial. You hope that they don’t bruise each other’s ego or lose interest, but anything that springs from something that we’re doing that is self-generated, that is coming from the kids themselves, that’s success. We’ve done it! They’re on their own musical journey and they’re going to find comrades or not. We’ve done our job. They’re out there seeking ways to be with other people, making music for whatever purposes. I’m delighted. I’m not going to worry about them anymore; I’m going to worry about the kids that don’t want to participate—that one little girl who’s crying on the sidelines rather than being part of the 3-ring circus.
Your question about “My Music”—I should say that we skewed the whole process toward individualism…When we get to the Bruce Springsteen question, do we go left or right? Do we say what’s valuable about loving Bruce or do we start challenging, bringing critical consciousness to bear, arguing with somebody about their loyalty to Bruce or not? [One of the graduate students] watched us doing the “My Music” thing – graduate students editing the undergraduate interviews and so on and so forth. And he’d read the interviews and say “Boy, you’re not paying any attention to the fact these people are all swamped with media. That even the live music performers are taught mainly in their median music experiences, being their music.” He says, “These people are trapped. They’re not proud of their musicianship, they’re not stressing their lived experience as musicians, they’re talking about their mediated music as expressing who they are and their identities. This is terrible news, Charlie, isn’t it?” He was kind of on the outside of the project looking in and saying “I want to describe all the ways in which these people are very much like each other and being dependent on mediated music of their satisfaction.” …These very distorted, weird stories that barely come through in the book [My Music], somehow this skeptical grad student kept goading me and said, “You should write a sequel to this thing about just how technologically mediated people’s life experiences with music are nowadays.”
So My Music has a sequel there somewhere that is more negative than the positive spin that we put on the fact that everybody had their own musical world, mostly mediated and they were picking… [E]ach performer was performing some kind of a vicarious thing for that. “I listened to so and so, Bette Midler for her heart and her mind, that’s my soul music. But I would go to a concert by, the one that my granddaughter loves…” Anyway, the people were identifying with Bruce Springsteen or this one or that one and not really identifying with themselves.
RM/LH: Right. We’re relieved to hear you describe the whole project in that way, because one of things that we took away from My Music was not just the mediated part, but how noncommunal it was. “Fandom” is fine, but this seems entirely different from the collective act of participation, which we take to be at least one of your central ideas. It seems like listening and music making were in tension with one another to the extent that you had this individualized, somewhat removed thing in My Music [i.e., the earbud phenomenon: this is my music] which was not, for us, the same thing as joining in with other people.
CK: Right, for me, that’s the crucial distinction. And because the distinction for me had bent over backwards not to impose that on that project because Dan Cavicchi and I disagreed about a lot of things like what is listening about. He hears listening as the way most people hear about it. And I hear about it as many people listen only with their cortex and associate colors and moods and so on and so forth and they never finger pop, they never head bob, they never participate in the music the way musicians do. So musicians, I argue, listen completely differently from people who are just listening for the cortical excitement and emotions and the narratives and the seasons passing and changing your Pink Floyd tapes with the seasons. That’s the main issue for you.
Music Education: Paideia con Salsa
As he explained to us, Keil felt his 1984 essay, “Paideia con Salsa,” was the best summary of his beliefs about how music needed to reclaim its connection with dance. In brief, Keil posits that coupling the ancient, pre-Platonic conception of paideia with New York Afro-Cuban dance musics is the best way of overcoming the loss of rhythm and harmony in our lives, and of reviving classical conception of education as music and movement (embodied in the “3 M’s” of music, motion, morality). 3 As he stated in our interview:
Physical education and musical education was all of education for those ancient Greek kids that gave us Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and all the famous names in sculpture and in tragedy and so on and so forth. They were all brought up on sports competition, recitation of poetry, music lessons on the kithara and the aulos.4 All that stuff was crucial for that little city of Athens. Thirty thousand people produced an awful lot of geniuses per capita with nothing but sports and music education!
In reading Keil’s books and essays, what it unmistakable is not just his commitment to music and dance, peace and harmony, but the rigorous grounding in all his work. Keil truly embodies the ideal of the musician-teacher-scholar. This got us to wondering why he never got more involved with the formal structures and communities in music education.
RM/LH: Your position is a little bit different than most music educators—coming from this anthropological background and your career in American Studies. Have you ever had any desire to operate within or among more traditional structures, such as NAfME [National Association for Music Education]?
CK: I’ve always felt alienated from all of that. That it would be a big struggle to work with NAfME or the official music education world that I would be having this… I don’t know, my relationships with the music department at SUNY Buffalo and with just about any music department anywhere, have always been so strange that it felt like “Oh, my God,” I keep getting all caught up. It felt like a tar baby situation. If I would slap it this way, whoops, I’ve got that hand stuck. If I slap it this way, now both hands are stuck. Can’t kick the thing! Now I’ve only got one leg to work with. It felt like you could get all wrapped up in antagonisms over “should written music be taught at all or not?”
I’ve had wonderful talks with people, the music education people at Buffalo. [Ed] Gordon was there for a while and I remember him coming before a committee that I was sitting on and he had a Ph.D. in music education design that was about a seven-year course. You had to become a composer, you had to become a multi-instrumentalist; it was as if in order for music education to gain legitimacy you would have to be a great composer, know the history of western music inside and out, be a theorist of the first caliber, and then people might take music education seriously as a graduate program. And I said “you’ve got 180 hours here and most PhDs are 80-100… I said, “this is crazy. This is nuts. You’re over qualifying people when you should be making so simple for the great surdu player in a samba ensemble to be an MA and out there doing it.” [Ed and I] had a non-meeting of the minds and I thought, I’ll let Chris Small go and do the sociology in music talks. I’ve never been eager to go to NAfME and try to make waves, so I’m so glad that you want to make me look legitimate as an heir to John Blacking or a guy who would like to be helpful to music education.
RM/LH: Patricia Shehan Campbell is somebody in music education it seems you’ve connected with.
CK: Yes. I have never had any problem connecting with Pat Campbell5, or with Jon Roar Bjorkvold. That was a meeting of the minds! I talked to him in Norway once. His Muse Within I see as the bridge between Edith Cobb’s great book and everything that’s followed that seems positive to me.6 Bjorkvold’s Muse Within is a classic book, just a great book. And he has the same vision of trying to make one community at a time come back to life as a music-dance transmission system.
RM/LH: One of our goals is to bring some of your key concepts to wider attention in the College Music Society. One that leaps out as a real conceptual core for you is this notion of “groovology.” Can you talk about this?
CK: I’m still at a loss as to what is the key concept. I focused on groovology because that’s where I came from. Rhythm sections—my joy in music is very much a jazz-centered joy. And I know from the world’s music that a lot of it is not jazzy but it’s still got a groove and it’s still got a “pull.” Often it’s the sheer sound, the quality of the timbres and the tones of the instruments that pull people in into a Shinto drum ensemble. You know, it’s not the grooviest music in the world, but it’s got a sound. It’s magnetic in some way and usually it’s always about dancing—getting the dragon to move a certain way and the stances you take to get Shinto shrine music doing what it can for little kids: to be it a dragon, to be it a maiden, to put on a mask and become that energy.
I think that if you put musical education and physical education together for the littlest kids and you’ve got what I think is needed. We start with bodies in motion. There’s that wonderful book by Rodalfo Llinás, I of the Vortex, in which he argues, as a senior and very influential neuroscientist, that mind is one hundred percent movement: anticipating movement, moving from another predator—movement is what mind is about. If you’re about to move and move in reciprocity or relation to somebody else’s movement, this is what mindness or mindfulness is, it’s all about movement. And movement is physical education and music education and dance education. So music, dance, and physical education together would seem to me to be a very powerful move. And again, NAfME is sitting there talking about music, music, music, music, music, music education. What about merging physical education and music education through dance into something that breaks the mold? Let’s get back to the general goal of liberating these children to be fully expressive.
RM/LH: If you were on a task force that was given the job to look and really design or reimagine a 4-year undergraduate music curriculum, what would be some of the key things based on your experiences and your ideas that you would like to see in there, would be vital to have in there?
CK: I was sitting here this morning thinking what you might do is look at the participatory principles of music education, keeping every child in some kind of a loop of making music, participation, et cetera. It takes you back to Pestalozzi and to all the foundational texts. How did music education get started? What would have been the goals and aims of the big names: Dalcroze, Kodaly, Orff, et cetera—what William James or what other people call the “perennial religion,” the religion that’s underneath. What is underneath all the different schools of thought [of people like Dalcroze, Kodaly, Orff, etc.] is a perennial music education. How does that happen for any kid anywhere—that they get caught up in music, dance, song, expression? What pulls them in? What grabs them?
During my time in academia there was always this issue of what I wanted to see happen for undergraduates in music. What would be the freshman-sophomore-junior-senior “track” that somebody might follow to be maximally useful at childcare centers, kindergartens, enabling kids to be fully expressive? What I’d like to have is a freshman seminar in which we do groovology across the disciplines. How do you [do] stand up comedy with timing tricks and pauses like Jack Benny or what’s the groovology of comedy? What’s the groovology of game playing? What is it about failures and successes and making mistakes and correcting them and so on and so forth? Can we get that being taught in a freshman seminar? And then we could have a sophomore practicum: the drum circle, and how you do a brass band, and so on. And by the time somebody gets to be a senior, they’ll graduate with this incredible breadth of artistic expression at their fingertips, knowing that they’re never be a cartoonist but that they’ll know how to cartoon on the blackboard and how to get grimaces, facial expressions captured in a few strokes of chalk or a pencil or a pen.
I think would be great to turn some of those people loose in pre-K, kindergarten, first grade—to do as much music, dance, sports, games as possible. What would happen if we had teachers where little kids got as much performative joy as they could possibly get and screaming for more? “Do we have to go sit in a corner and read? I want to just dance all day.” I think at a certain point they’d say, “Can we please look at a book? I’m exhausted.” [chuckles]
A more detailed description of Keil’s ideas about music and about music learning and teaching can be found in his many books and published articles. Another excellent resource for those interested in learning more about Keil’s work, especially his ideas about “groovology,” is the website, borntogroove.org. Although the site is now somewhat dated, it contains a wealth of information, including 62 essays, 8 appendices, audio lessons, and more.
Keil’s high personal ethical standards may be difficult for some of us to emulate (though he might counter that we just aren’t trying hard enough), but his scholarly contributions deserve serious (re)consideration. In the face of viral neoliberal market rationality that continues to threaten so many facets of our lives, including, for CMS members, our commitment to creating a more musical society, Keil’s idealistic conception of music, dance, and education may not provide a cure, but it might help to alleviate some of the symptoms, helping us to live happier, healthier lives along the way.
1.See, for example, Robert K. Dentan, The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968). Colin Turnbull published numerous works on the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire. Keil suggests that both authors were highly regarded by John Blacking. Keil takes issue with those who claim that classless societies are a myth, and submits that examples of nonviolent, “gentle” peoples should serve as models for how to live, not as examples of naïve primitivism. Such examples, for Keil, demonstrate that it is possible to educate young people differently.
2.This information was printed on the inside cover of every issue of Echology and the Muse Letter.
3.Paideia was a reference to both the practical and academic education of the aristocratic members of ancient Greek society. As a concept, paideia points toward the shaping of the Greek character, a socialization of individuals that embraced intellectual, moral and physical refinements; this included music and movement. See Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideas of Greek Culture: Volume 1: Archaic Greek: The Mind of Athens (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). In his essay, Keil acknowledges the problematic aspects of slavery and patriarchy, but suggests that paideia could still serve as an ideal. He distinguishes between what paideia eventually became in the age of Plato and Aristotle and that of the century prior: “My old Greece is filled with Hesiod’s advice to his brother and Pythagoras’ [sic] wholistic health rites. It is the Greece that valued ethical qualities more than intellectual ones, oral poetry more than written prose, and where musical and athletic competitions were all of education for some generations.”
4.The kithara was a two-stringed lyre. The aulos or double aulos was a double reed instrument. As Keil joked with us, “Plato disliked the aulos; too Dionysian, especially in the Phrygian mode, and hated the John Coltrane of the day, Timotheus of Miletus, for his ‘shrill squealings in the uppermost tetrachord’” (Keil, personal communication).
5.Patricia Campbell was a major collaborator on Keil’s Born to Groove project. Keil glosses over his long-standing relationship with Campbell here, likely because he knew that we were already familiar with it.
6.Jon Roar Bjorkvold, The Muse Within: Creativity and Communication, Song and Play from Childhood Through Maturity (New York: Harper Collins, 1992). Edith Cobb, The Ecology Imagination in Childhood (Spring, 1958/1998).
Crafts, S. D., Cavicchi, D., Keil, C. (1993). My music. Hanover [N.H.]: University Press of New England.
Keil, C. (1966). Urban blues. Chicago,: University of Chicago Press.
Keil, C. (1979). Tiv song: The sociology of art in a classless society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Keil, C., & Keil, A. V. (1992). Polka happiness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Keil, C., & Feld, S. (1994). Music grooves: essays and dialogues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Keil, C., Blau, D., Keil, A. V., & Feld, S. (2002). Bright Balkan morning : Romani lives & the power of music in Greek Macedonia. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.