The tales of a culture are encoded in its music

Each new star is an amalgam of all who came before; each song a single snapshot in time. But more than that, music is a reflection of us.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Jackie Venson performs at the 2019 Austin City Limits Music Festival late night show at Stubbs Waller Creek Amphitheater in Austin, Texas.

When the pandemic ground everything to a halt, much of the world retreated inward. Lockdowns drove people into isolation, but something beckoned them onto porches and into courtyards: the call of music.

Videos of Italians singing opera together from their balconies began to sweep social media. And before long socially distant singalongs were popping up around the world.

Those moments became much more than entertaining diversions. They were opportunities to come together and breathe collective voice into our hopes, to rejoice in defiance of our fears. What’s more, they reminded us all that beauty, creativity, and joy can, in fact, endure.

When viewed within the gossipy flurry of entertainment news and Top 40 charts, songs, artists, even entire genres seem to rise and fall overnight, mere flashes in the dark. But take a step back and music becomes transcendent. Each new star is an amalgam of all who came before; each song a single snapshot in time. 

But more than that, music is a reflection of us. 

In our cover story this week the Monitor’s chief culture writer, Stephen Humphries, traces the evolution of a uniquely American strain of music: the blues. Musicians around the world have latched onto the emotion of blues music, which was born in the American South. And in the early days, it was decidedly female. In a tale that runs parallel to many threads of American society, the women who pioneered the sound were soon pushed out in favor of men. But as U.S. society has evolved, so too has the blues. And the scene that Stephen encounters is rich with a new generation of female artists.  

Throughout history, the tales of a culture are encoded in its music. It is an imperfect record because music influences thought as much as it documents society. It has fortified revolutions and brought hope – and secret messages – to enslaved people. That’s how great the promise and power of music are: It can be whatever we need it to be.

So this week, I invite you to reconnect with your inner music lover. Whatever your favorite genre, take some time to simply listen. Whether you seek respite, invigoration, or comfort, chances are it’s waiting for you in the melody.

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