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This is part of an authorized online posting of Harvey Reid's important book, "The Troubadour Chronicles," published in May 2020. It is available in paperback from this web site or from Amazon.com.

troubadour book cover

“There’s been a lot of people, and they’ve had a lot to say. But this time, I’m going to tell it my way.” [Guitarist Roy Buchanan, from ‘The Messiah Will Come Again’ (1972)]

Chapter One: A Troubadour Manifesto

It’s a safe bet that you have seen someone sing a song while accompanying themselves with a guitar or some other instrument, without anyone else assisting or playing along. It’s also nearly certain that you didn’t think there was anything unusual or remarkable about it, nor anything particularly low-class, vulgar or unrespectable. This means there has been considerable progress since the time a few centuries ago when this sort of musician was widely scorned, shunned by the wealthy and educated, and sometimes even severely punished. But if you think about it, have you ever in your lifetime heard a solo, self-accompanied song on commercial radio, wafting through a shopping mall or blaring at a ball game or skating rink? It would be remarkable if you even have one song like this on a personal music playlist or mixtape, and very unlikely that you own, have listened to, or could even name a prominent album or a popular song recorded in the last 50 years that fits this description. It is possible that you have never even thought about individual music as being a discrete art form, or that you should make an effort to discover and listen to its masters. Even the idea that this is a real issue, or something worth discussing at any length, is apparently not a common one. Welcome to the “Troubadour Chronicles,” a tale of an eternal but invisible music.

The idea of a single person delivering a song might be the oldest and most common form of human music, with countless millions of people doing it in every civilization on every continent– yet here we are in the Age of Information, and a fundamental and ordinary human musical activity doesn’t have a name, genre or a Grammy category, and commands little respect as a valid form of music or a profession. Its finest practitioners are little-celebrated, its skills and history misunderstood, and even after all this time there is no designated place, type of school or teacher you can reliably go to learn to do it. It might not have even occurred to you that this personal activity, where someone plays a self-accompanied rhythmic rhyming song to create a connection or a pathway to other people, might be among the deepest and most communicative forms of art, with the ability to express and evoke vital things that other music cannot.

What Kind of Music Do You Play? What Band Are You In?
I am reminded of humorist Dave Barry’s observation that people who study weather are called “meteorologists,” which distinguishes them from people who study meteors, who are known as “people who study meteors.” We freely name diseases, dinosaurs, tools and every imaginable part of a sailboat or a church, so we certainly ought to be able to agree on what to call music made by self-accompanied singers who play their own form of personal music. I have struggled for fifty years now to answer the innocent and obvious question, “What kind of music do you play?” It seems to be the natural first thing to ask, right up there with “Where are you from?” When I traveled regularly on airplanes with my guitar and my very long hair, people would also ask, “What band are you in?” The second question inevitably would be about the type of music I play. If I just played country, jazz or blues or a particular genre, the answer would be easy. So I would sometimes say, “I play my own music,” or “art music,” or I became fond of laughing and saying, “unpopular music.” Sometimes I answered, “I play guitar and sing–whatever I can get away with,” which would seem to send them off in a nice way, though I could see them trying to process my slightly flippant answer. Those of us who can sing a song without anyone else’s help, while accompanying ourselves with an instrument, don’t have a universal name yet and it’s way past time we did. I have practiced this art form my entire adult life, and I confess that I have long felt like an Olympic athlete who couldn’t tell people the name of their sport.

In his very popular and Pulitzer-winning book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” geographer/historian/anthropologist Jared Diamond began with the simple question of why European white civilization dominated the others and not the reverse. It is tempting to frame what I want to talk about here in reference to that innocent but unanswerable question, “What kind of music do you play?” A second innocent question further outlines the trajectory of this book: Self-accompanied human musical performances have always been a fundamental part of music. In ancient times and again in the early years of recording and radio individual musicians were very popular, but it has now been almost a hundred years since there was a major hit recording that was just a person playing a song. The skills involved have never been part of any organized music learning curriculum. What caused that to happen and why? It’s almost as if the general public has not been allowed to hear that kind of performance, as though it were illegal, shameful or unworthy. We love our solo comedians; performing comedy groups are not common. Radio DJs usually work alone, though high-energy versions are sometimes in pairs, as are television anchors. Some set of forces, circumstances, coincidences or attitudes caused individual musicians to appear briefly and then vanish from the higher rungs of success and visibility. These prohibitions or barriers, or whatever they are, have stubbornly remained in place, though over my lifetime the overall cultural position of the self-accompanied solitary musician has steadily improved, and shows no sign of regressing. As I lay out the evidence and tell the complicated story of this basic type of music, I think you’ll be surprised, and hopefully share my amazement at how something so old, universal and fundamental became marginalized, misunderstood and invisible.

The music appreciation circuits in our society are calibrated primarily for styles of music or types of instruments, and you could tell someone you saw a classical pianist, a barbershop quartet or a blues band, or perhaps a choir of school children or an organist, and they would feel like they understood what you saw. You might also say you heard Handel’s Messiah or the works of a songwriter or composer, or maybe music from an era or a region. People sometimes discuss the music of a nation or ethnic group, or the purpose of a song; it might be a lullaby or for a wedding, funeral or dance. In English we use old, non-English nouns for groups of musicians: duo, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, octet and even strange, barely-existent words like nonet for a nine-piece, decet (or dectet) for ten-piece and hendectet (also undectet) and dodectet for eleven or twelve-piece ensembles that my spellchecker doesn’t like. But we have no word for an individual performer other than the utterly undescriptive and unspecific term “musician.” The words “guitarist,” “fiddler” or “harpist” don’t preclude them having a band or playing more than one instrument, nor do they specify that the musician is also a singer or performer.

The Italians seem to have a name for everything, and have provided us with literally hundreds of words used widely in every aspect of music terminology, including terms for castrated male singers (castrato and castrati) or for bouncing a bow on the violin strings (spiccato). Yet they have nothing for us except the imprecise word “solo.” Oddly, neither it nor the derived word “soloist” means someone who performs alone; they most often imply but do not require that there is an accompanist– all the more reason we need another word. Paradoxically, there seem to be single words for almost everything but a single musician, putting it in the self-contradiction category with the long word “abbreviation,” which means “shortened.” Accompanists have their own word in the dictionary, which specifies that they play an instrument while someone else sings or plays, but there are no such words as “autoaccompanist” or “selfaccompanist” which might have offered a clumsy but possible solution to our problem. Terms like “bluesman,” “songwriter” and “folksinger” are partially useful, but you can easily see how those words don’t quite work. Nor do the clumsy term “self-accompanied singer” or the double-hyphenated “self-accompanied singer-songwriter.” We can say that we saw almost any other kind of performing artist or artisan– a comedian, dancer, contortionist, juggler, acrobat, magician, novelist, impressionist or a mime, cobbler, sculptor, blacksmith, plasterer, stonemason, woodcarver, tailor, seamstress or what have you– but I come up empty-handed searching for a simple, unhyphenated way to say that someone is playing a musical instrument and singing, especially music they had a hand in creating or personalizing. I think you know exactly what I am referring to, and you might agree that it is odd that we have no convenient English word.

Self-accompanied singers are long overdue and in great need of a word for their art form, and I currently can’t find a better one than the old French word “troubadour,” though it has never officially been defined to refer to anyone born in the last 700 years. Many people are aware that in the Middle Ages this was a type of musician who created and performed personal songs in a way that is essentially the same as what their modern counterparts do today, though we picture them dressed differently and playing antiquated instruments like the lute, the viol or the gittern. There remains a whiff of mystery and romance in the old word “troubadour” that is a good thing for us now, and it is quite healthy and useful for modern singers, guitar strummers and songwriters to envision themselves as offspring of the old medieval troubadours. Solo musicians who don’t get to identify as members of a group will benefit from being aware of their own places in the long chain of unorganized musicians who have flourished and proliferated throughout human history, and especially to identify with musicians from a time when individual, personal music was in favor even with heads of state and the rich and powerful. I have used the word throughout this book in hopes that it will be adopted generally, at least until we can jump-start more public awareness and discussion. Someday this might even yield us a shiny, brand-new, pronounceable, spellable word with a single clear meaning. People who make dictionaries have given themselves a name, but possibly the most common and most fundamental type of musician still doesn’t have one. One of our first tasks will be to rally musicians and public opinion to formally free our word from those lexicographers who have held it captive for much too long. We’ll return to this in Chapter 4.

The Troubadour Problem
I sometimes call this multiple negative situation “The Troubadour Problem,” and the fact that the solo troubadour is so ubiquitous, yet strangely unnamed, invisible, unrespected and undiscussed as an art form is a sign that there is a great deal of unfinished work to be done. I remain convinced that there is something special about the music we can do unassisted, and I find it glaringly apparent and improper that individual music is not honored or even singled out as a complete and distinct art form, and especially not as an advanced or higher form of anything. I can easily imagine a brilliant and charismatic young troubadour who might emerge at any time into pop culture– and remind the world once again how powerful, compelling and relevant this ancient art form can be, even as we make plans for humans to visit Mars. Histories and discussions of music focus on every other conceivable qualifier such as style, genre, gender, social class, nationality, race or instrument, and lines have been drawn between folk and commercial, religious and secular music, trying to discern the purposes of various musics, and even odd theories of whether a people or a community created or preserved music while behaving like some kind of socio-organism. But there are effectively zero public discussions about individual musicians being something valuable or distinct.

There is no beaten path here or footprints to follow, no established literature or classic textbook; there are no accepted theories or a role for radical new approaches. I have been anxiously searching the vast literature about American culture and Western music to find information, ideas and kindred spirits in Troubadourland. As I stick my neck out, make statements and observations and point fingers, I confess to feeling nervous that I will find myself embarrassingly unaware of someone’s important work. We troubadours are off the radar. Underground. Guerrilla fighters. We are a guitar army with no uniforms, no generals and no battle plan. There is no National Association of Troubadours, no Institute For Troubadour Studies or chair of a troubadour department anywhere. There is no hit sitcom on TV where a group of songwriters live together and show up at each other’s gigs and have adventures while the public falls in love with us and learns our ways. I can’t go to a troubadour festival (though I did perform at one with a star-studded line-up in 1993 at UCLA stadium), attend a meeting of my local chapter of Troubadours of America, or read the latest issue of Troubadour magazine. Why not? Should there be all these things? We troubadours share our stages and bookings at music venues and the tiny amounts of non-commercial radio airplay out there with fiddle bands, gospel groups, bluegrass artists, and innumerable other types of performers. Since what has come to be called “world music” has become established, self-accompanied singers also compete for bookings or attention at folk festivals or talent contests with jugglers and magicians, every kind of musical group from any culture, including Mongolian throat singers, African or Asian singers or ensembles, Finnish rock bands, Japanese drummers and anything else you could imagine. But we are not hidden. We are everywhere. Look on stage at the Country Music Association (CMA) awards or at any open mike anywhere. Everyone has a guitar around their neck, and it is rare these days for a popular singer or bandleader to not be a troubadour, though it is strangely understood that higher-level or more famous troubadours will commonly play only the first few seconds of their hit song before the band or “hired gun” session musicians take over.

I should make sure to stress here that I don’t want to be negative toward classical and written music, though I will constantly question its supposed supremacy. I will make the claim repeatedly that “untrained” folk and peasant troubadours who learn and perform without musical notation are part of a type of music learning that is different but not inferior to established pedagogy, which has long been based on the printed page. The perceived superiority and cultural dominance of written music is perhaps even a form of injustice or musical bullying that is very connected to the troubadour story, and needs to be examined more closely. I’ll address those difficult topics head-on in later chapters, and I want to make clear up front that my intention is only to uphold and celebrate individual music, and not to disparage all the fine music people make in groups.

You can’t get a college degree in singing with a guitar or a piano, even at a place that has the words “School of Music” in its name. Even if you could, it might be pointless, because there aren’t companies advertising jobs for those kinds of graduates. Why is the solo self-accompanied musician eternally viewed as the runt of the litter, the ugly duckling– instead of the hallowed and revered practitioner of a highly valued art form? In ninety years there has not been a song on top of the American popular music charts that was just a recording of a person playing a song. Yet the first time nearly all of those hit songs was performed by its creator on the day it was written, it was probably done by an individual, and countless solo musicians learn those hit songs and are commonly expected to perform them unassisted. It’s absurd to imagine a method or some series of experiments or measurements that could be done, but most likely a high percentage of the musicians who played and sang most of the beloved or popular songs in my entire lifetime were completely comfortable playing an instrument and singing alone at the same time– they just never seem to do it on a recording, and very rarely at big events.

We seem to be dealing with an invisible “glass ceiling” that keeps solo performances from showing up on the pop charts. Has there been some conspiracy, plan or habit within the music business to make sure that as few people as possible ever get to hear a popular musician perform alone, or did everyone just forget to do it or chicken out? Even before multi-track audio and over-dubbing became the norm around 1960, the solo individual performance had already vanished from the pop music landscape. Was it partly because it was hard to mix, edit or fix studio mistakes, or get the vocal to sound “up front” and personal when the singer was also playing an instrument? Yet the handful of solo performances that have showed up on mega-selling albums have been extremely well-received by listeners, and the emotional and spiritual highlight of a pop-star concert is often the few songs they perform without their band. When an exciting troubadour breaks into the limelight, connecting with and electrifying audiences with their solo skills and energy, their days as a solo artist seem numbered, and due to a confluence of forces, they start recording, touring and performing on television with a band as soon as they join forces with multi-national entertainment corporations, producers and managers. Bob Dylan was a perfect example between 1963 and 1965, so were Shawn Colvin and Ani DiFranco twenty years later, and Ed Sheeran, Gregory Alan Isakov and Tyler Childers more recently. Even Grace VanderWaal, who in 2016 won America’s Got Talent at age 12, singing by herself with her ukulele, almost immediately stopped producing solo songs, even though it was abundantly clear that her unadorned personal troubadour energy was the essence of her appeal.

The tentacles of the troubadour problem are deeper than just pop stars who don’t perform or record alone. Legions of quite un-famous folk, country, “indie,” Americana and other singer-songwriters, most of whom write and perform their material by themselves, fill their so-called “independent” recordings with harmonies, bands and overdubs to the point that scarcely a song can be found on any of them that is just a pure troubadour performance. It is such a large, diverse and scattered group of musicians that it might not even be possible to really determine if they are reluctant to do that for some personal reason, or just assuming that overdubbed and produced recordings are their best hope or only option to climb the ladders of musical success, gain wider exposure, or “qualify” for commercial radio airplay.

YouTube videos are helping immensely by focusing on individuals, and viewers are enjoying large numbers of living, breathing solo performances, though those are still not showing up on commercial recordings other than the shockingly small number that have appeared on best-selling albums. Possibly the highest-profile such recording was a solo acoustic guitar-vocal performance of “Redemption Song” by Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley. Confusingly, the song first appeared as a full band song on his ninth and final studio album “Uprising” in 1980. Marley died in 1981, but in 1984, a solo acoustic guitar/vocal version that had been an out-take was put on the greatest hits “Legend” collection by the record company, and it subsequently became one of the best-selling albums of all time. Both versions of “Redemption Song” are on current versions of the “Uprising” album.

A Connection to the Distant Past
I invite both listeners and musicians to join me on a tour down the long, misty, dusty and meandering trail of the troubadours and minstrels, from the distant past to our vantage point in the present. Men and women in significant numbers were known to be singing rhyming, rhythmic songs with stringed instruments in Arabic cultures over 1200 years ago, and similarly in Spain about 200 years after that. There was also a blossoming of singing poets, troubadours and trouvères in Southern France and Italy between the 11th and 13th centuries, followed by some minnesingers (minnesangers) in Germany, and a lingering tradition of singer-lutenists and bards in Western Europe after that. We have no idea what any of them sounded like, but there is evidence that makes it clear that some players along the timeline have been virtuoso players as well as amateurs and everything in-between. On the heels of the migration of Arabic ideas of rhythm, romantic poetry, rhyming and stringed-instrument playing from the Middle East into Europe, troubadour music became a part of the Renaissance, joining with other better-known components of the awakening of Europe from the so-called “Dark Ages.” These new musical ideas especially came into Europe from Spain, which came under Muslim control in the 8th century. The idea of a person singing a rhyming, rhythmic song while accompanying themselves with a portable stringed instrument with a fingerboard, so commonplace now, was actually not documented in other parts of Europe before that time. These new ideas spread rapidly across Europe and took a number of forms on the continent before they somehow spawned their newer American descendants much later. A critical thread of our long and complex story is the idea that the guitar and its music might have needed an infusion of African musical energy to give it “escape velocity,” fueling the incendiary spread of guitar-based troubadour music that the 20th century brought upon us.

The story of troubadour music is much longer and a lot more interesting than I could have realized when I first learned my first chords– I think it was on Marta Porcel’s guitar at a party at Gail Liebman’s house in Hyattsville, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. As I was drawn to strum across its strings in the summer of 1968, why were there already so many songs in my head that I wanted to learn to play? Why were there millions of guitars being manufactured and flooding the stores, including my first one, a barely playable $30 painted plywood model that my mother bought in a department store and never herself learned to play? What was all that music that was pouring out of record players and radio speakers in nearly every building or automobile owned by an American? I did not have the slightest idea that I was going to become a musician when I first started to entertain myself with that borrowed cheap guitar, and certainly neither I nor anyone else had any idea what would be the repercussions, future directions and offspring of the American music that exploded around me during my childhood. I am only able to tell the story from my angle, though I confess to wondering if my thoughts would make sense to a chapei (or chapey) player from Cambodia, or if they would have any interest in my music. To an alien space traveler, the chapei player and I would look very similar, though my skin is lighter, my chordophone has more strings and the chapei neck is much longer. I wonder if the space traveler would perceive the music we each make as similar or different.

An unorthodox though completely reasonable perspective is to envision solo self-accompanied singers past and present as a single “species” of musician– the troubadours. Never part of an organized group, we have carried our musical torches through every corner of every society and every culture, and every era of history right into the present. It may be very healthy for songwriters and other troubadours in the age of the cell phone to envision themselves on this timeline, and to understand that this is the first time in centuries that we have been tolerated and celebrated. During some eras and in some places along the way we have been honored and revered, but for a large part of this long journey we have been nearly invisible– feared, ignored, drowned out by much louder bands and orchestras, and even shunned or outright outlawed. We’ll take a closer look at that in Chapter 13.

In this bigger picture, troubadours are men, women, gender-neutrals and children of all races, nationalities and eras, who can all be put under one big tent, united by their participation, past or present, in an activity that might be far more important than we realize, and that might actually be somehow hard-wired into us. Medieval troubadours with their lutes and theorbos were one version– all those cowboys, prisoners, mothers singing lullabies, agricultural and mill workers, sailors, soldiers, students, beggars, pop stars and every other form of human you can think of who felt compelled to make their own home-made music were other comparable forms. Anthropologists have claimed for some time that physically and emotionally we humans have not changed much in tens of thousands of years, though that kind of thinking hasn’t been applied to the music we make. We 20th and 21st century rhyming guitar players and all of our peers are ourselves just another section of this big conveyor belt of musical history. We all sing, write and learn songs, dance, rhyme, play tunes, rap, tell jokes, and from everything we’ve been able to learn about the past, and so did our prehistoric, medieval and various brethren and sistren from all eras of the past. (Yes, that is the female equivalent of brethren, though I am not aware that there is a gender-neutral word other than “comrades,” which doesn’t feel like a good choice of word either.) The idea that individuals who have made and performed their own troubadour music all through history belong under a common grouping is one of the fundamental premises of this book. There have been many kinds of troubadours in every culture, playing all sorts of music on every imaginable instrument. If we snap this lens into our viewfinder, it allows us to see that the African kora players and one-string fiddle players who sing their songs are all fundamentally doing the same thing as the Arabic oud players, Elizabethan lutenists, Chilean revolutionaries, cowboy singers, Delta bluesmen, punk rockers, celtic ballad singers and everybody else who has put music and words together in personal ways. It’s a basic and important human musical activity, and not something that only lives on one instrument, in one country, culture or gender, or in one time or place in history.

Unleashed: Hillbillies and Bluesmen as Troubadours
Part III of this book focuses on the compelling narrative of how a diverse group of musical Americans contributed special new ingredients to the famous “melting pot” of music, leading to the birth and evolution of blues, jazz, gospel, funk, country, folk, bluegrass, rap and rock music. Driven by sound recordings and radio broadcasts in the 1920s, improvised and memorized music broke free from the printed page, injecting new life into music nearly everywhere. Long ignored and trivialized by academia and established systems of music pedagogy, American peasant music overflowed its containers and overran the barriers via the brand-new media industries. What happened profoundly affected the musical landscape of the modern world, and just as the internet and electronic media are reshaping the 21st century, the new communications technologies a hundred years ago and those of centuries before that also changed music and how it was learned, sold and disseminated. The most celebrated and lucrative wing of that assault came when rock & roll emerged, thirty years after the first troubadour soldiers started hurling musical cannonballs at the walls of the music establishment fortress, and it is well-documented how a fireball meteor of blues-rooted music sparked change and excitement like never before in the music world. Taking a wide variety of new musical forms, the populist takeover shifted into overdrive, allowing troubadours and self-educated musicians to seize considerable territory from the orchestras, conductors and “trained” musicians, like slang terms forcing their way into common language and dictionaries.

It is not possible to overstate the importance of the recording and broadcasting technologies in the early 20th century that both captured and propagated a huge body of music that previously had taken no fixed physical form. What is significant and unusual is that a large number of mostly nameless, primarily rural, uneducated troubadours had grabbed hold of instruments they found around them and used them imaginatively to express themselves, pass the time, and to create and play the soundtracks to their own lives. The things that black, white, Hispanic, Native and Polynesian American troubadours were found to be doing with their guitars, pianos and banjos and rhyming lyrics were the same basic idea as what the previous incarnations of troubadours had done before, though it is unlikely there was any unbroken chain of knowledge passed down as some secret legacy like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. Each culture the guitar became embedded in has contributed new and unique things to it, with often only the thinnest of obvious connections to the preceding ones, though there is the tantalizing possibility that gypsies or lower-class people in Europe were playing some kinds of amazing but totally undocumented troubadour guitar music that helped inspire American blues. The instrument-making skills and the guitar construction techniques have been passed down and improved, and each generation of players has worked with the same geometry of the shapes of the chords and scales in the standard guitar tuning that appeared and became dominant in the 1700s. The traditions of ivory, rosewood and ebony components of instrument building tell of long-ago craftsmanship, probably North African and primarily Muslim. Another thread of our story is how the guitar evolved and defeated the oud, the lute, the theorbo, the cittern and all the other stringed instruments with fingerboards and vibrating bodies, and how each generation of players on all the continents developed and learned their playing skills. The guitar and its music are still evolving and are showing no signs of stopping, though if the troubadours abandon it they will almost certainly replace it with something else and continue with their rhythmic, rhymed songs.

Solo Performance As the Pinnacle of Something
A bedrock idea in the manifesto I present here is that solo, individual troubadour music is a special and fundamental type that deserves recognition and respect as a worthy art form unto itself. It is not just a starting point, prototype or sketch of the real thing; nor is it a novelty, something incomplete or a musical activity happening at a reduced level or in some kind of “kiddie pool.” When it is done right, troubadour music is all either the musician or the listener need to have a complete and meaningful musical experience of the highest order. I want to hammer home the idea that we solo musicians are not just a curiosity or an unimportant species of animal that wants a name and some attention–but instead that what we do is actually the most human and the most basic kind of music. When a musician performs alone, what appears at first glance to be the absence of many things is possibly the pinnacle of many others. We should not interpret one person playing a song as the lack of a band or something that would automatically be improved by adding more musicians. There might be analogies to experiences we have with our other senses, though the situation could be unique to music. When we taste a fresh and perfect peach or a ripe raspberry, a bite of warm bread or some other food of our liking, should we immediately wish it were combined with other flavors? Do we really want each successive bite to add another flavor, like commercial recordings that begin with the voice and piano, and then add bass, drums, more guitars, strings, harmony vocals, horns, mandolins or whatever the producer decides to pile onto the song? Would an apple be better if each bite added other textures or flavors like chocolate, almonds, blueberry, cherry, or barbecue? If we are fine just eating an apple, why can’t we just listen to someone play a song?

I am also suggesting that we look at the solo troubadour– the self-accompanied singer– not only as a practitioner of a distinct type of music that is worthy of admiration as much as any other, but also one that requires its own training and skills. Individual music is vitally important and even fundamental to all music, and not to be taken for granted, trivialized or automatically superseded by the larger, louder and perhaps more complex music made by groups of people. The music made by one person appears to be quieter and simpler than the music made by a band, but it might actually have a deeper molecular or spiritual structure, by virtue of the fact that it is all coming from one human source. Apparently I’m not the only one who cherishes individual artistic performances, since no one has yet spent millions of dollars for a painting that was done by five people who collaborated on it or took turns adding to it. Aren’t we glad that Van Gogh didn’t get a friend to add something to all of his paintings? When I hear a great troubadour recording covered up by studio overdubs I feel the same way. It’s fine to sing when someone else is playing an instrument, but if you do both at the same time, you can possibly go deeper into the matrix, to a musical place that is somehow higher and richer. No one can say if this is true or not, since we have no tools to measure these kinds of experiences, but this is not a science book. No equations, experiments or science lectures will ever penetrate the mysteries of music any better than the musicians are already doing. The enormity of the troubadour art form is hiding in plain sight, especially in the realm of organized music education, where its skills and practices have not made many inroads.

If I am getting repetitious, it might be that I am singing the refrain of a song that says that the music of a single performer might be bigger, more pure and more basic to the human experience than most of us realize. The depth and complexity of what a solo troubadour can do might actually be the closest that either a musician or a listener can get to the Source, to the Muses, even to the inner spirituality of music and its relationship to humans. Troubadours traffic in the essence of what happens when humans and music connect at their foundational level. A self-accompanied singer, who often creates the music itself as well as performs it, generates the rhythm, pulse and dynamic elements of the music along with the melodic, chordal and harmonic content, while occupying the ancient, mysterious and sacred place where words and language intersect with music and rhythm. Working in this musical hyperspace can allow musicians to uniquely inhabit their own emotions and spirituality on multiple levels, while also transmitting them to listeners. Individual musicians might be our most effective bridges between the music and the listeners who receive it. Troubadour music can and should stand alone and thrive on the biggest stages and in the brightest spotlights all by itself, and it lies at the vital core of a vast amount of the larger and louder music that has overwhelmed and overshadowed the individuals since the beginning of history.

The Continuum of Troubadour Music
If we accept that there is a similarity in troubadour music from different people, places and times in history, we should then ask the unanswerable but inviting question of whether there is any direct connection or link between its diverse forms, or even a built-in, root level primal tendency toward troubadouring. Musicians have played instruments to accompany their singing since the beginning of history, and this type of performance has likely formed a sizable percentage of the total amount of music that has ever been played. Yet troubadour-type music has barely ever showed up in written or recorded music archives or on popular music charts, and does not seem to be formally encouraged, celebrated or taught in schools. It has remained a submerged, hidden form of folk knowledge, a “lesser art,” in the same sort of category as magic tricks and secret recipes. Poetry, dance, melody, rhythm and shamanism have emerged and evolved in all places and among all people, so it is not unreasonable to conjecture that we are somehow predisposed to want to create and perform some kind of troubadour music by combining all those elements within ourselves. Does this sort of music spontaneously emerge in human experience? Is the urge to rhythmically twang on a vibrating string or hit a drum and sing something nearly innate in our species? The idea can be handed down, imitated and learned, but it does seem to have sprouted independently in multiple places– though the extent to which ancient people traveled and communicated is constantly being re-evaluated. If you stare at that headless body holding the earliest depicted stringed instrument in the 3,300-year-old stone carving of a Hittite musician somewhere in Turkey playing their stringed chordophone, or the ancient clay plaque that shows the Babylonian picker with braided hair urgently involved in their troubadour music, with very graceful and adept hand positions– you wonder what they were feeling and channeling. Was it similar to what happened when all those other channelers throughout history played on their chordophones, including what you or I might feel when our fingers wander across our own strings?

Now that we no longer live in the Middle Ages, when heretics were burned at the stake for even hinting at questioning church doctrine, it might be finally safe to talk publicly about the idea that musicians could be connecting with some kind of musical other-consciousness or divinity when they go deep into their art. Playing music by ourselves could possibly be the most effective way any of us can connect with the essence and holiness of music itself. Perhaps a remnant of the shamanism of so-called “primitive cultures” is bubbling beneath the surface in the realm of “un-academic” music, which might offer an explanation of why music, which has been used in all kinds of religious worship, has sometimes been feared and forbidden. Why has the fiddle been so vilified throughout history? Why were the Christians who founded America so opposed to certain music? Why have some Islamic societies encouraged and supported some kinds of music, while banning others as a gateway to Satan? Did society outlaw the fiddle because of the screeching sound of the bad fiddlers, or because the really good ones went somewhere or did something that threatened religious doctrine or the underpinnings of our belief systems? Was it the rhythm that scared them? Fiddles can make people yell out loud and jump up and dance, and even though most cultures have embraced at least some types of dancing, they have often shunned others.

I’m not suggesting that merely singing a song can make all of us into shamans, but music can create a portal where something like that can happen, and I want to float this idea early in our discussions of troubadours. Even beginners strumming their first chords on a guitar can experience a feeling of flight or prayer that happens when the words and the melody are sung over a rhythmic accompaniment. A listener can connect meaningfully with those feelings by being present when it happens, even if the music is being made by a novice and not a master. Cultural anthropologists have done some startling research into the possible involvement of consciousness-altering plants and chemicals in the origins of language and religion. Trances, visions, revelations and other states of “higher consciousness,” whatever they are, have always been associated with human religion, and a number of leading thinkers in this controversial field have concluded that athletic and rhythmic activities such as ritual dancing have long been used as much as psychotropic plants to induce psychedelic states. I have never seen any attempts to include musical shamanism, rhythmic guitar or hypnotic banjo playing in these discussions, but some of you may know what I am referring to if you have been around music that celebrates very old and traditional music or trance-inducing electronic dance music. We’re still in overview mode here, and will look more closely at these ideas in Chapter 22.

Language researcher Stephen Pinker, in his important book “The Language Instinct,” claims that you cannot stop humans from creating and using language, and says that if you don’t give children a language they will invent one. It is not lunacy to suggest that rhythm, music and maybe even the love of vibrating strings are also imprinted inside us in some way. Could our profound, ground-level human connection to language mean that when it is added to music and rhythm something mysterious, vital and sacred can happen, that might be the fuel rods at the core of the troubadour arts themselves? Could a mysterious, instinctive yet widespread universal spirituality underlie troubadour music from all times and places? Is that why troubadour music has been so shunned and feared? Who can say with any authority? Can these kinds of things be measured or observed? There is a great deal of both emotion and spirituality involved when any music is done well, and huge amounts of territory in the world of art lies outside the scientific and rationalist ideas of “measurability” and “reproducible experiments.” It immediately resembles the debating of religious ideas when we try to talk about these kinds of foundations in troubadour music, but does that mean we cannot or should not speculate? Even if we cannot answer these questions, we should at least be free to ask them without being ridiculed.

The Troubadour Arts Heading Onward
Another key idea I’d like to put forward is that instead of being living fossils, or some kind of surviving version of an archaic or outmoded thing, we 21st century troubadours are actually coming into our power now like never before, into possibly an unprecedented role of popularity, usefulness and even leadership in modern society. Humanity may face a difficult and extended battle for its soul in the near future, as science, robots, databases and technology increasingly continue to marginalize us, erode our dignity and subject us to dehumanizing experiences and lives. Our most intangible attributes, including our beliefs, our art, our stories, our creativity, and our sense of identity and purpose may turn out to be vital tools and even weapons in what could be a pitched battle for meaning. Troubadours, especially the ones with highly-developed charisma and communication skills, will surely be in the thick of that battle, and likely be far more effective and valuable than orchestras, choirs, or software programs that generate musical sounds and electronic drumbeats. Musicians will not face a downhill slope– they will need to hone and sharpen their skills, and focus themselves like freedom fighters, so that their individual performances sizzle and communicate.

Finally, in this quick summary of the ongoing role and development of troubadour music, I want to advance the cause of what could be termed “troubadour awareness,” to encourage and request more understanding, pride and perceived value for our form of art. I would like to promote better appreciation of troubadour music, and especially to encourage an advocacy of issues, goals and methods of troubadour education. Troubadour music, or even learning “by ear” has not been taught, featured or endorsed by schools or churches anywhere in our visible history. In parts of Europe eight centuries ago there were actually better systems in place to teach troubadour music skills than there are today. The current marketplace of guitar instruction materials is overflowing with books, videos, and products, but nowhere, public or private, have I ever seen a “troubadour instruction” advertisement or curriculum, only products that claim to teach either guitar or songwriting. It’s as if there’s a giant secret. You can buy lessons or products on the internet or at a music store or from a private teacher on songwriting, chord theory, scales, tunings or fingerpicking, but not on how to become a modern troubadour. American public and private music schools don’t teach troubadour creative or performance skills in their music curricula and never have, though via private teaching, mass media and especially internet videos, the skills are being passed on and are actually spreading like never before. Troubadours typically play an instrument and sing at the same time. Unbelievably, that doesn’t happen at the hallowed Julliard School of Music or its fellow academies. It doesn’t happen at a symphony concert and essentially never has, even though many of the most beloved, successful and influential musicians in the world are fundamentally troubadours. At Julliard, Eastman, Peabody, The Royal Academy of Music, Curtis Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory and other highly-respected music schools, you may choose to study guitar or piano, or you can be a voice or composition major, but there is no place for self-accompanied music. To systematically exclude all the musicians who feel that their deepest calling is to sing their own songs while they accompany themselves hardly seems like the path to greatness in a music school or a musical system, and should cause us all to question the relevance, validity and even the integrity of any musical curriculum that excludes this urgent, ancient and ever-popular art form. I challenge the so-called supremacy of a music academy that wouldn’t accept musicians like Ray Charles, Doc Watson, Ed Sheeran, Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, Nina Simone or Stevie Wonder, or allow them to pursue their troubadour music as part of some program of “formal” and supposedly superior musical training.

I very much want to share with you some of my favorite troubadours and troubadour recordings, since most of the very best ones I am aware of are far from the mainstream, but I plan to share those on a web site rather than list them here. At www.woodpecker.com/troubadours I will post names, pictures, sound files, YouTube links and playlists of interesting or great troubadour performances.

This way I will have the freedom to update things and add new discoveries, especially after readers share some of their favorites with me.
Most of the intersecting issues I will address here are themselves worthy of entire books. They are things that many people feel strongly about, and I certainly don’t wish to stir up controversy that might weaken our already disjointed community. My primary hope is to help unite troubadours and music fans in appreciation of the art form, while increasing our exposure and respect outside our community. It is long past time for useful discussion and discourse, and to shine some light where there hasn’t been enough. We troubadours have been playing our music since the beginnings of humanity, and we will likely be there in some form at the end. As machines and software take over more and more territory and activities from humans, those of us who are the most human might ultimately stand the tallest. Troubadours may have been out on the streetcorner singing for spare change when civilization built its grandest buildings, and we might also be standing there singing when they come crashing down, though regrettably we have typically not been invited inside.

Read Chapter 2

I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... I want people to find this in web searches and to read it.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,