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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.

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“Not one word about the magical power of ancient music is improbable to me when a simple song seizes hold of me.” [Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]

Chapter 22: Troubadours, Magic and Shamanism

A famous illustration appears to many people to be two women’s faces looking at each other, while others see it as a picture of a lamp. When I look at the world of troubadours, so far it feels like I am the only one who sees one of the images, while everyone else seems to see the other. It’s frustrating when your perceptions are invisible to others, though from my lonely observatory I now feel like I understand and can accept things on Planet Troubadour that have remained mysterious all my life. Fortunately I am finding some published academic literature that supports my views, though they are not yet mainstream and are too dense for most readers. That could help convince skeptics, though I am not just looking for rational clarity amid a thoroughly irrational subject, and the struggle to sway skeptical people is hard work and generally not much fun. So I will float some ideas here that lie outside the realm of reproducible scientific experiments and measurable data, and that are not even part of the fringes of “normal” music topics. What I say here may make you think I need what songwriter Kinky Friedman calls a “check-up from the neck up”– though I am not wearing robes or eating psychedelic mushrooms, and I make no claims to be anything but a curious musician. Popular culture gets regular infusions of scientific discussions about the workings of music, and seems determined to demystify or bottle it and make it into something explainable. My intent is to “remystify” things instead, and to take back some turf from the neuroscientists who have long been striving to quantify and explain music.

I have a sizable bookshelf full of guitar, banjo, mandolin, folk, celtic, blues, jazz, classical and bluegrass instruction materials that I have been collecting for 45 years, and I don’t think there is as much as a single sentence in any of them that presents the idea that a musician or someone who wants to learn to be one should cultivate any special thoughts, states of consciousness, or even emotions as part of their music training. It’s essentially 100% “paint by numbers” stuff, implying though without ever even saying it that if you tune the instrument precisely, put your fingers in certain places and certain times, and hold yourself and your plectrum, fingers or bow in the correct positions, executing the proper motor skills according to the prescribed regimen– the music will somehow do the rest all by itself. The implication is that the desired results will occur, without any investment of thought, feelings or beliefs. I want to kick at this mindset a bit.

The Measurable vs. the Unmeasurable
Western science and rationalism have been in a sword fight with other ways of looking at the world for a long time, and there is no shortage of examples of what we could call disagreements and differing perspectives, without counting the big ones like religion or evolution. Even within the world of science and measurement it is not easy to introduce a new idea or some new data. A growing number of academic papers attempt to address the relationship between music and spirituality, primarily either primitive or modern pop and electronic dance music, but their purely intellectual viewpoint automatically skews the mission, and they commonly bog down trying to define music and even spirituality.

The massive “Forbidden Archeology: Hidden History of the Human Race” is 960 small-print pages that detail countless pieces of evidence and purported discoveries dating back centuries that support a wealth of alternative theories of the origins of human beings. Are all those people crazy, wrong or delusional, who either found or claim to have found this mountain of alternative evidence? All of it has been deemed worthless because it is not consistent with the handful of prehistoric bones of “Lucy” that Donald Johanson found in Ethiopia in 1974, that supposedly “prove” the “official” accepted story of the origins of humans. I have a 1977 first printing of a very thick and delightful book by William Corliss called “Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena,” that is a collection of hundreds of news clippings, reports and even scientific papers all detailing unusual and anomalous things that people have witnessed and carefully described. Its chapters on atmospheric lights, sounds, waves, cloud formations, remarkable rainfall events, even numerous examples of waterspouts raining fish or frogs– all come from the pre-cellphone era, and some date back centuries. Often from military personnel, retired science professionals or from other bystanders or highly credible witnesses, and they all represent faithful, non-crazy attempts by observers to tell us about unusual and un-reproducible events. It’s not one of the most amazing entries in the book, but for some reason I remember the guy with a professional rain gauge in his backyard not far from here in Greenfield, New Hampshire who on August 9, 1966 measured “point rainfall” of 5.75 inches on his property, with no wind or lightning, while no one else, even very nearby, experienced or measured any rainfall. Something unusual seems to have happened; someone witnessed, measured and documented it, yet we are inclined to deny its truth because it was out of the ordinary and not repeatable. There is no incentive or motive to fictionalize an event like that, so maybe it did rain that unusually, though maybe a neighbor kid pranked him by filling his rain gauge with a hose or bucket. Now that so many people have cell phones it is vastly easier for witnesses of unusual things to provide evidence or “proof,” though cell phones don’t yet measure rainfall and we are entering the era of near-perfect fake videos. How do you get people to take you seriously when you are outside the mainstream? Corliss’ chapter on unusual lightning is a good example of the “fringes” of human observation, especially because it contains dozens of accounts of what has come to be called “ball lightning.” This phenomenon has been reported since antiquity, but remains something that cannot be created, explained or predicted, putting it in a special category of things that both science and non-science agree exists, but neither can explain or can claim resides only in their realm. And these books are only about science, where the deepest feeling or occult view that scientists are allowed to have is the famous “intuition” or “hunch.” Imagine if we started discussing publicly or in music schools the trances, visions, euphoria, elation or despondency that various musicians engage with and try to manipulate as they create and perform their musical magic. It is possible that the best thing any of us who practice music can do is to embrace and explore the non-rational aspects of music.

In Daniel Levitin’s 2006 bestselling “This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,” he never went anywhere near the troubadour persona or skill set that is so central to my perspective, only discussing popular bands, well-known iconic recordings or hallowed classical composers as examples. He kept his “science hat” on except for page 207 of his 261 pages, where he was imagining what the measurers could do if they could put performing musicians into MRI machines to see what we could “learn,” quantify or document from their brain scans. Thus far, the subjects have to be immobile, so the best they can do is put headphones on various people, pipe music into their ears, and watch on their screens to see what areas of the brain are lighting up and try to guess what the results mean. This might just be gadgetry masquerading as science, and even if they could strap good musicians into the scanners, they might get patterns and pictures, but there would likely be no true understanding other than perhaps a sense of agreement among people who are comforted by scientific processes, especially when they involve gee-whiz technology. But Levitin said lucidly, and boldly for him:
“In understanding the neurobehavioral basis of musical expertise and why some people become better performers than others, we need to consider that musical expertise takes many forms, sometimes technical (involving dexterity) and sometimes emotional. The ability to draw us into a performance so that we forget about everything else is also a special kind of ability. Many performers have a personal magnetism, or charisma, that is independent of other abilities that they may or may not have. When Sting is singing, we can’t take our ears off him. When Miles Davis is playing the trumpet, or Eric Clapton the guitar, an invisible force seems to draw us toward him. This doesn’t have to do with the actual notes they’re singing or playing– any number of good musicians can sing or play those notes, perhaps with even better technical facility. Rather, it is what record executives call ‘star quality’.”
Since his scientific mindset couldn’t go any farther, Levitin stopped there, and moved immediately to discussing types of musical memory. In summary at the end of the chapter, he grouped this intangible star-power thing he called “charisma” with opportunity and luck, and never revisited the subject. But he let a big cat out of his bag, and opened a door in the scientific pursuit of music that reminds me of the acceptance by the Mayo Clinic a few years ago that herbalists, shamans and “alternative” healers quite often can solve certain medical problems better than the Western doctors with scalpels and pills. This magnetic, emotional, spiritual energy that sometimes manifests itself as part of musical performance is exactly what I want to talk about. Though Levitin has been immersed in music his whole life, he is apparently unable or unwilling to follow that thread or go further.

Magic, Spells and Music
Many of the most powerful and influential people in society are the ones who use words and language skillfully and effectively in their pursuit of sales, advertising, entertainment, politics, religion or even legal arguments. Some say it is not a coincidence that we use the same word “spell” to describe words and to refer to the “spells” that witches and magicians cast. Words are almost always a part of magic, and they have always been known to possess a mysterious power of their own. Have you ever seen a silent magician? (Good luck researching that, because there is now a popular game with that name.) Many people think it is no accident that the English words “musician” and “magician” are so similar, and that they evolved from a common linguistic ancestor. Our “magicians” have now been demystified to the point that we think of them as merely tricksters or illusionists. If we or Penn & Teller only knew the secret or gimmick of their tricks, then we could empirically understand how their magic worked and not have to admit that real magic exists. Who doesn’t watch a magician with a mindset of skepticism? Yet if you examine a world-class magician like David Blaine more closely, they speak of the thresholds and weaknesses of human cognition and perception as being among the primary tools of their craft, not merely special decks of cards or clever and expensive props.

Society has accepted the idea that an athlete might enter some kind of a “zone” or special state of consciousness at crucial times in their contests, but we don’t yet have the language or a proper platform to publicly approach the idea that musicians might regularly do something similar. It seems rather obvious that many musical performers sometimes display a command of invisible forces that seem to connect emotionally and spiritually to listeners via sound waves. If someone announced that they had found a particle, a mechanism or even a machine that could allow us to measure or document these forces or even control them, few would be surprised. Watching a video of Janis Joplin in concert is a very different experience from being in the audience, and being right on the stage or in the band would put you even closer to the flames. If you have ever been to a good concert, and moved from the back of the audience to the front, you know it can be a dramatically different experience. A common reaction from a listener is to be drawn in, to imagine themselves actually being the performer, and it is possible that really good performers make that possible in ways that less-skilled performers do not. Some performers seem to deal in hotter or higher-energy forms of musical power than others, and different performers exhibit different depths of connection and varying abilities to manage and deploy the spiritual, emotional and musical forces.

Could musicians be sometimes working a type of magic on human perceptions that involve the auditory senses rather than visual? Of course they could, though it may not rely on sensory trickery. Could musicians be sometimes communicating with their listeners in invisible and unmeasurable spiritual, emotional and perhaps religious ways? Who can say yes or no with any authority? Obviously all music doesn’t do that, but could some pieces of music, performances or performers at certain times have crossed into this realm, into a place that is not purely rational and measurable? Who can say yes or no with any authority? I would like to see someone like Oprah Winfrey devote a TV program to this, and lead a discussion among a group of believers and non-believers who are comfortable explaining and defending their positions. I would very much like to hear an eloquent non-believer try to defend the idea that there has never been and could never be anything in any music that qualified as anything but measurable physics or cause and effect. Science attempts to explain music, but does not have any tools to measure the emotional and spiritual content of music, even when it is embedded in plastic discs or radio broadcasts that use AM and FM carrier waves to transmit their content. Pythagoras himself, the godfather of rationality and mathematics, created the Cult of Pythagoras and the Essene Mystery Schools, where he and his followers practiced something now referred to as Orphism. Thousands of years ago, together with a man named Philolaus, he did all sorts of oddball “new-age” things, including musical healing and “soul adjustments.” He claimed to purify the mind and even heal the body, using certain harmonic ratios and specially-tuned musical instruments. Music using the ratio as 256:243 was the leimma or limma, and 2187:2048 was the apotome or the Pythagorean chromatic semitone. Who can say whether Pythagoras was into deep things or nonsense? It is paradoxical that the man with a reputation for being a founder of mathematics and rational thought, who figured out the Earth was round and coined the terms philosophy and cosmos, apparently put a good deal of effort into what most people today would call irrational, which often involved music.

Music and Shamanism
Writer-musician Tristan Gulliford wrote nicely in a blog: “Due to the ubiquitous nature of music and the influence of the corporate recording industry, much popular music today is crass and unsubstantial: created, marketed, and sold to a mainstream audience. Yet in older, pre-industrialized cultures, music was more renowned for its sacred and supernatural power to captivate the audience and manifest emotion. Because of these qualities, music has often been used in conjunction with religious ceremonies across the world.” I maintain that there are and always have been significant numbers of musical events happening that are fundamentally unpredictable, non-reproducible and unmeasurable. Creating them may even be the primary job of a musician. These contain something that bridges a divide between measurable things and the realm of human perception and imagination, connecting the “normal physical world” with something else. I have chosen to use the word “shamanism” to apply to one set of these unscientific musical things, though I am aware that the word has come to mean different things to different people, and might cause an immediate knee-jerk reaction either against or in favor of what I am hoping to say. There are parallels and patterns that are unmistakable.
When I looked at definitions of shamanism, surprisingly I found substantial agreement, though I can’t find any on how to pronounce the word. (Is it shay-man and shay-manism or shah-man and shah-manism? Shuh-manic seems to somehow automatically win the adjective pronunciation.) Though shamans do not all have the same practices, goals or results, the basic idea of shamanism seems to be simply that certain individuals who are known as shamans possess or cultivate an ability to connect to something we can call a “spirit world,” and that they can bring something back or deliver to non-shaman observers or participants something meaningful via that connection. With a relaxed definition like that in hand, I feel more comfortable proceeding. The fact that the word shaman specifically refers to a person who becomes a conduit or channel to connect someone other than the shaman to an invisible energy source is exactly why I want to use this word and not merely refer to music as being variously mystical, magical, cosmic or spiritual. Shamans learn a craft, and have appeared all through human history. They have become increasingly accepted as a genuine part of human culture, and are not just strange, random or regional examples of something unusual.

For many people the word “shaman” is synonymous with “healer,” “medicine man,” “sorcerer,” or “medium,” while others connect it primarily with primitive or ancient religions or even animism. Until the mid-1900s shamanism was often considered in Western society to be a delusion or form of mental illness far more than a religious or medicinal activity, and it has only rather recently gained popular credibility and visibility. The primary argument in favor of the existence and veracity of the idea and practices of shamanism stems from the startling similarities in the activities of isolated primitive people all over the world, including Asia, the Far East, North and South America, Oceania and Europe, who all seem to do very similar inexplicable things. Scholars of shamanism believe it to be fundamental to the human experience, and something vestigial that was likely known to all of archaic humanity.
Nearly all of the discussions I can find of shamanic activities only seem to consider music, usually drumming, as a tool of shamanism, and merely something that participates in and facilitates the rituals and other deeper spiritual connections the shamans are making. Denita Benyshek said in her massive Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between art and shamanism in 2012 that “In popular culture, the association of rock musicians with shamans is persistent, wide ranging, and generally unsupported by research literature on shamanism.” Though she is clearly is part of a growing movement of academic researchers in shamanism who are investigating its possible parallels with art, she doesn’t appear to know much about music, and unfortunately references mostly iconic rock stars like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, who were known to have been taking large quantities of drugs as much as practicing shamanism. She also had no personal contact with the musicians. Lumping writers, musicians and visual artists together and discussing their mutual connections to mysticism might make sense and might not, especially since there are important distinctions that should be made between creative art and performance art. Only musicians, actors, comedians and some dancers commonly do both, and I think it could be an error to combine them with sculptors, metal-workers, basket-weavers or even painters, none of whom normally communicate with an audience in real time.

Religious historian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), in his widely-respected and ground-breaking six hundred page text “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy” (1951) broke open the 20th century field of shamanism. He seems to have been the one who convinced the rationalist Western world that shamanism is not nonsense or fairy tales. He unfortunately does not address my concerns, but on page 253 he made a passing assertion that the Chukchee people, an arctic Russian tribe, who he said were losing touch with their ancestral shamanism, practiced a kind of “family shamanism” and that they, “on winter evenings, set themselves to drumming and singing, and sometimes even attain a parashamanic ecstasy.” On page 398 he reported that the Swedish scholar H. S. Nyberg had documented that followers of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) induced ecstatic experiences by singing ritual songs in an enclosed, consecrated space. Eliade also tells us that forms of shamanic ecstasy assisted by music and hemp smoke were known in ancient Iran and Scythia in Central Asia. Influential ethnobotanist Terence McKenna has argued more recently that the Greek Oracle of Delphi and the Eleusinian Mystery rituals involved trances and ecstatic states that were brought on by hallucinogens and assisted by music.
Eliade further contends that the Greek legends of Orpheus, Hermes and Abaris The Hyperborean also bear the hallmarks of shamanism, and suggests that Western Europe did not retain its primitive shamanism like other parts of the world, instead rejecting it as being archaic. He tantalizingly points out there seem to be vestigial shamanic elements embedded in old Norse religions and even in the unusual mysticism of some of the Catholic saints, but he did not suggest that Western Europe’s comparable rejection of its primitive folk music might have followed a very similar pattern to how they treated their indigenous shamanism. He says that certain yogic practices in India involve “mystical sounds,” though this rather obvious idea is not an element of any description of either shamanism or normal musical teaching I can find, and thus perhaps needs a different name. That idea is now mostly talked about only within the realm of “New Age” music, though it would seem to be inherently a part of almost any music. Eliade conspicuously does not address African shamanism or the griot tradition, though the scope of his book is so wide that it seems unfair to fault him for any omission. His thorough recounting of shamanic practices as well as the ecstatic or euphoric experiences of fakirs, fire-walkers, exorcists, lamas, alchemists, sorcerers, and Taoists disappointingly never led him to suggest that musicians might also commonly operate outside the rational world without going to the extreme levels he describes for “full-blown” shamans.

Eliade does not really pursue the idea of the musical para-shamanism or proto-shamanism that I want to discuss, though in the final paragraph of his massive book he unexpectedly asserts Herder’s idea that the origins of lyric poetry itself are in the ecstatic language of shamanism, after barely mentioning art or music anywhere. All accounts I can find that describe shamanic practices exhibit what Eliade called magico-religious content, most of which goes far beyond what modern musicians seem to do. The anecdotes and discussions of primitive shamanism in his and other texts usually involve vastly more dramatic activities, including trances, visions, healing, visits to spirit worlds, and even communications with invisible or deceased entities. Anyone reading this who has ever been in a good church choir or a rock band that could really rock knows that you don’t need foreign scholars describing obscure events in the distant past to find examples of ecstatic or para-shamanic music. It’s everywhere, though there is plenty of unecstatic and un-shamanic music around also. If “true” shamans access mystical states and deal with serpent spirits, perhaps many musicians are learning to access their internal “music plane,” that they can enter and connect their listeners to, just as shamans are said to do with their spirit worlds.

Though he was only one person writing seventy years ago, and though his work was inspirational and very influential, it doesn’t mean Eliade understood or saw everything involving shamanism in the modern world. Who knows what kind of music he encountered or didn’t encounter in the intellectual community of Bucharest, Romania in the 1930s where he did his work? Perhaps it was all sight-reading, and perhaps whatever musical training he experienced in churches or schools didn’t involve the same kinds of musical energy that showed up so powerfully in other forms of “peasant music” elsewhere. Maybe if he had been familiar with a shamanic Romanian musician, owned a 1948 John Lee Hooker record, or seen the Reverend C. L. Franklin preach he might have seen the parallels. In 1951 there was no widespread understanding of “world music,” nor were there barely more than a trickle of public discussions anywhere of the depth and value of any folk music. So it is understandable though unfortunate that Eliade, for all his exhaustive study of religion, mysticism and the occult barely hinted at any shamanic components in music, even as he built the framework for most academic discussions of shamanism.

In his thorough 2009 paper in the Ethnomusicology Review titled “Parallels of Psycho-Physiological and Musical Affect in Trance Ritual and Butoh Performance” Michael Sakamoto of the University of California went right to what I want to talk about when he said beautifully, “From ancient times to the present, religious and cultural rituals involving trance, ecstatic states, spirit possession, shamanic journeying, and myriad forms of music and sound have gripped societies large and small the world over. Millions of participants throughout history have directly experienced the affects and effects of such practices. However, due to the inherently ineffable nature of what we might refer to as the realm of spirit or universal energies, there has remained from time immemorial a tenuous relationship between these pursuits and intellectual analysis and understanding of them.” Unfortunately, he only applies this thinking to an exotic form of Japanese dancing called butoh, though he mentions the work of Gilbert Rouget, who tried to show similarities with Araucan tribal shamans, Tungu apprentices, Candomblé neophytes, and Ammasalik Eskimos. Neither of them, nor their fellow intellectuals seem willing to admit that all sorts of performing musicians, including the teenager next door writing songs, might also sometimes engage in trance-inducing musical behavior that is similar in many ways to the now academically-accepted practices of primitive shamanism. E. Taylor wrote in “Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America” that in the context of alternative psychotherapy, “drumming, singing, and dancing, have also emerged as popular psychotherapeutic tools for inducing what are believed to be healing states of ecstatic trance,” but like everybody else who talks about shamanism– didn’t mention other musical instruments. Why should a drum be uniquely involved with such activities, but not a rhythmic and resonant autoharp, banjo, fiddle or guitar?

Music as “Low-Level” Shamanism
I want to suggest strongly here that music, especially when it involves rhythm and words, might have its own stand-alone spiritual significance, and perhaps itself be a specialized or low-level shamanic activity. It may have survived into modern times by invisibly and harmlessly achieving some of the same results of connecting the listener to something valuable that they cannot connect to otherwise. The pattern of its continued presence in folk and home-made music around the world certainly resembles in many ways the “archaic survival” of the deeper types of shamanism and other folklore. A haunting or hypnotic traditional melody or song seems to be an example of how some kind of magic can take a permanent form and carry its message to a listener, even when the performer is an amateur or merely some electrons or grooves in a round piece of plastic. This greatly helps explain why solo troubadours have been feared and ostracized more so than other musicians, since shamans almost invariably act alone, going inward to do their work. There are many similarities– shamans are also said to learn their skills gradually, commonly through apprenticeship, and there are techniques, procedures and rituals to follow just as there are in music. Accessing this kind of ‘para-shamanic’ musical state might be something that is self-taught or learned by a musical version of the apprenticeship training that shamans receive, far more than it might be taught in a class at a college of music, written in a workbook or even presented on a YouTube video.

Chroniclers of shamanism discuss “white” and “black” (and even “black-white”) shamans, and make other distinctions between “warriors” and “healers,” indicating that there are a number of different levels and categories and considerable diversity among shamanic practitioners. They also repeatedly say that isolated cultures that have no direct connections to each other employ nearly identical shamanic techniques. This implies that the concepts and mechanisms involved apply to or are available to all humans, just as are whatever special states musicians can access. We have brought up the idea that Western society has completely accepted and embraced almost to excess the idea of “genius,” especially in the realm of music, and that it shares with shamanism involvements with individual achievement, creativity and mystery. I want to put the idea on the table that at least some musicians have always practiced a type of shamanic activity, and that solo performers might wield the most potent and focused form of this magic. It is certainly no secret that music can have some inherent mystery and magic without involving direct connections to strange beings or fantastic spirit worlds, and there is a more than reasonable but also unprovable case to be made in favor of accepting the idea that musicians often do something of this sort and always have.

Applying the terms “magic” or “shamanism” to music and musicians is not a new idea, and it seems to do a better job of what a science person would call “fitting the data points” than other theories, or the lack thereof. Since antiquity, eloquent people have talked about this sort of thing, and it would be extremely interesting to find out what percentage of people feel like they have personally experienced it. In my world of music, we sometimes don animal skins (leather or wool most often) and attempt to “drive evil spirits away” or indirectly help people heal via music, but no musician I ever met made any claims of the supernatural or of doing hard-core primitive shaman things like animal sacrifice, ascending to the sky, curing diseases, passing through cosmic planes of being and consciousness, flying through the air, swimming through the Earth, visiting the underworld or communicating with the dead. Nevertheless, my guess is that nearly all the musicians and the majority of the music lovers who read this will know exactly what I am talking about, and will have themselves experienced at least intermittent feelings of being part of a connection via musical pathways to something mysterious, unscientific, invisible and powerful. I would also guess that those who have had those experiences and feelings are not comfortable speaking about them publicly for fear of being ridiculed or appearing to be deluded amid our rationalist-dominated culture. Author Graham Hancock reports in “Supernatural” that nearly two thirds of people world-wide claim to believe in the existence of invisible beings such as ghosts, angels, spirits, aliens, fairies or leprechauns, so I suspect that musicians and people in general everywhere might be quite receptive to the idea that musical performers could sometimes be manipulating “special forces.”

This is obviously not a purely rational discussion, though quite a number of brilliant, knowledgeable and highly-respected intellectual people have weighed in concerning the intersections of science, mysticism and music, greasing my rails at least indirectly in terms of swaying rational people’s views about music. (It makes me cringe to imagine a carefully-worded questionnaire seeking to pinpoint and log observances of shamanic music energy experiences.) What the highest-level science people like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Stephen Hawking, Henri Poincaré and others have had to say about science itself also tends to be much more vague, cryptic and mystical-sounding that you would expect. Einstein made a number of interesting comments about music, including, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” Though we didn’t need Einstein to clarify that, it is helpful to have such a respected and intelligent person weigh in on the side of music being fundamentally mystical and unscientific as well as valuable.
In “The Secret Power of Music,” David Tame said that it is easy for “modern man…, permeated with the philosophy of materialism and reductionism, to fall into the trap of regarding music to be a non-essential and even peripheral aspect of human life.” He also asserts that in the distant past, people believed that music had immense power to affect our thoughts and emotions and even our character, and that very ancient civilizations routinely associated music with spirituality and mysticism, though it is unclear how he is certain of this. He reports that Confucius warned against people listening to foreign music for fear of it changing the way they behaved and thought. Since all we can know about the music of the distant past is what was written down on paper or what remains embedded in newer music, the more distant it is from us in time and culture the less certainty we have about whatever the surviving evidence tells us about those lost sounds we can never hear. Once the technologies of sound recording and broadcasting arrived, they allowed us to examine the power of music like never before, but they also immediately became deeply entangled with fame and commercialism.

Shamanism, Music and Religion in Western Society
Performers and audiences are often well-acquainted with something that when it happens could be called magic. No musician or music lover can be harmed by an open mind, and I feel sorry for someone who has never felt that they have participated either as a performer or a listener in something that could be called a magical musical event. Because I am neither a science guy or a new-age person, but have been a musical performer for fifty years, maybe I can initiate or mediate a discussion here, or propose some ideas that won’t set off anybody’s “wacko” alarms. I am trying to call attention to some things that may be as real as a brick we might pick up in our hands, but at the same time be completely ephemeral, invisible and unmeasurable, like ball lightning. I personally think that this thing I am referring to as musical shamanism might be its own little tributary of the music-magic stream, though Francis Bebey said authoritatively about African music that “some griots do dabble in witchcraft” and that it was common in parts of Africa for griot musicians, especially harp-lute players, to also be healers. As I delve gingerly into shamanism, and find out that people claim to experience hidden realms with terrifying serpent gods, alien entities and visitations, alternate realities, talking animals and profound psychedelic experiences, it certainly doesn’t sound like the place we guitar players (or the ones that I know) usually go, even when we are really playing well. I’m reluctant to speculate at any length on this, and I’m not sure who should.

If you begin to learn about the history and practice of shamanism even a little bit, you encounter two basic ideas. The first is that something we can call shamanism has been observed in nearly every society everywhere on Earth, and that it seems to be a universal human thing and not just the work of one region, tribe or people who take a particular drug or engage in a drug-like practice. The other thing you learn is that discussions of shamanism often tend towards one-sided situations where non-believers work very hard to demonstrate that shamanism is phony, and not what it claims to be. Those who claim to be shamans do not seem to be as emphatic in their need to offer counter-arguments, so unfortunately a great deal of what we hear about shamanic practice comes from the “debunkers” rather than participants. Arguments in support of the value and meaning of shamanism come from supporters and believers who tell about the experiences they have, but we hear by far the least from the shamans themselves, especially in the way of rational “scientific” arguments or rebuttals to counter their critics. Since shamans don’t really operate in the rational world, they might feel no need to engage in intellectual debate with those who do, perhaps sensing the futility of such arguments.

Discovering Shamanism
The Western rationalist world first began to learn about and try to make sense of the subject of shamanism on a global scale in the 18th century, after dealing with scattered reports for a long time, and after brutally trying to stamp out practices like witchcraft, divination and herbalism in Christian European countries. This reckoning arrived on the heels of the blossoming of science and rationalism, which began bumping up against the vast colonialism that put European countries in military and economic control of a huge part of the “uncivilized” world. A steady stream of reports came back to Europe about the unusual practices of shamans in far-flung places like South America, Africa, and Asia, but oddly, the Western rationalists had first encountered the idea among Nordic and Baltic people. Public interest was piqued by travelers’ account of finding similar practices among the gypsy, Finns, Eskimo, Lapp, Scythian, Bashkir, Buryat, Tatar, Muscovite and Celtic societies. The word “shaman” that has come to be the common English language term for a type of mystic person is actually of Siberian origin, since it was the Siberian Tungus shamans who first caught the imagination of what we might call “educated Europeans.”

The most common Western reaction to shamanism was to try to discredit the activity, to reveal its fraudulence, and to detail the gullibility of the believers who took the shaman’s activities seriously. Debunking and demystifying became the standard Western Christian reactions to shamanism encountered by the explorers who filled Western Europe with their popular travel books and ideas about distant and primitive cultures. Shamanism was seen as an archaic form of religious belief and little else, and the explorers commonly referred to the shamanic practices as those of charlatans and quacks. John Bell wrote in 1763, “nothing is more evident than that these shamans are a parcel of jugglers, who impose upon the ignorant and credulous vulgar.” Gloria Flaherty, a professor at Wilmington College, wrote in “Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century” that “information about shamanism continued to inundate Western Europe in such massive waves that intellectuals had no alternative but to come to terms with it…” Then she said that “The arrogance of eurocentric male Christendom was evident in most early accounts of shamanism. Their authors unabashedly referred to native peoples as stupid brutes who believed in evil spirits and worshipped heathen idols because they had no sense of the true god.”
The published definition of shamanism from the landmark seventeen-volume 1751 “Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts et des Métiers” Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, [usually called “Diderot’s Encyclopedia” or just “Encyclopédie”] minced no words:
“Shamans is the name that inhabitants of Siberia give to impostors who perform the functions of priests, jugglers, sorcerers and medicine men. These shamans purport to have an influence over the Devil, whom they consult to predict the future, to heal illnesses, and to do tricks that seem supernatural to an ignorant and superstitious people. For this they use drums, which they beat vigorously while dancing and spinning at extraordinary speed; it is when they are disoriented from these contortions and fatigue that they pretend the Devil manifests himself to them, if he is in the proper mood. Sometimes the ceremony ends with what appears to be the stab of a knife, which increases the astonishment and reverence among the simple-minded spectators. These contortions are ordinarily preceded by the sacrifice of a dog or a horse, which they eat while swilling brandy. And the whole comedy ends with the audience giving money to the shaman, who at this point prides himself on his show of indifference comparable to other impostors of the same kind.”

As you might imagine, the fear among Christians of witchcraft and of being accused of it was apparently so great that what we now call shamanism quickly became secret and remained underground in Western society until about the second half of the 20th century, when it became safe to talk about it without being punished or killed. Shamans learned to conceal themselves, and to resist the onslaught of Christianity and Western rationalist thinking. I am certainly not the first person to suggest that musicians might have long dealt in at least a type of shamanism, and the European rationalists tolerated a little bit of mysticism, mostly in regards to artists rather than religious people. Flaherty wrote (p.47) that “It is quite significant that Bell, like so many Europeans who dealt with this subject, chose to use the word ‘juggler.’ Magicians, diviners and tricksters as well as minstrels and musicians were often so described.” Then she said (p.365), “since the 1970s, literature and media increasingly have begun to use shamanism to refer to musicians, artists, writers, and poets who in their creative pursuits go beyond the conventional limits established by contemporary European and American societies.” Thank you, Professor Flaherty, for some corroboration from academia.
It is completely believable that European intellectualism, coupled with instinctive Christian rejection of anything in the realm of the occult, encountered the ideas and practices of shamanism long ago, and simply chose to marginalize and suppress rather than celebrate them. Since I feel something shamanic underneath the troubadour energy that I understand viscerally, it was comforting to find Flaherty explain (p.214) that Western rationalists, “seem to have secularized the shaman completely and absorbed him into their concept of the artist as bohemian, thereby permitting his eccentric behavior in exchange for momentary glimpses into the world of make-believe created onstage, in the orchestra hall, or in the gallery. It was with the middle class that the star system began to emerge, producing the kind of popular being around which a subgroup could rally…. Much still needs to be studied about the line of descent from the primordial shaman to the Roman mime and then to the medieval minstrel, the eighteenth-century performer, the nineteenth-century star, and the celebrity superstar of today.”

Here we should again mention the once-mighty work of German pastor, theologian and polymath Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), often credited as the founder of ethno-musicology, who long ago declared artists to be the shamans of Western civilization. He believed that language was a vital channel for the poet and the shaman, and was appalled by the widespread attacks on the credibility of shamanism by explorers. Herder even suggested that shamanism was a crucial factor in the formation of all human societies, responsible for magic, music, medicine, writing and even social codes and laws. He identified some of the ancient Greeks as examples: “Tyrtaeus’s war songs are Greek ballads, and when Arion, Orpheus and Amphion lived, they were noble Greek shamans.” Along with Justus Moser, Herder also defended superstition as being crucial to society, even as the growing number of rationalists became increasingly frustrated at how it remained unreasonable and illogical though stubbornly present. Yet despite the voices like Herder’s who urged them in the other direction, the overall Western “educated” musical appreciation of occult components of music tilted steadily away from the mystical and shamanic side of music, toward a mainstream mindset of rationality, science and craftsmanship. Concepts of skill, learning and practice have long dominated the European-influenced parts of our music landscape, pushing aside imagination, genius, improvisation, trance and creativity as being too unmanageable, fleeting and unteachable. This gestalt has been embedded in Western music education for a long time now, and spiritual, shamanic or unscientific ideas still don’t hold much sway in institutional music pedagogy. Everyone knows, though, that those elements lie at the heart of the best music, and we all accept the widely-admired idea that “musical genius” is real, magically giving us, without witchcraft or sorcery, much of the great music we all enjoy while also bypassing mere craft, technique and rational processes.

Musical Magicians?
Musicians have long been known to commune with some kind of spirits, and to bring listeners in with them; though it’s often awkward to talk about these things. William Bartram heard some Native Americans playing music at a campfire, and wrote about it in 1791 in “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy.” He wrote:
“The tambour and the rattle, accompanied by their low, sweet voices, produced a pathetic harmony, keeping exact time together, and the countenance of the musician, at proper times seems to express the solemn elevated state of the mind: at that time there seems not only a harmony between him and his instrument, but it instantly touches the feelings of the attentive audience, as the influence of an active and powerful spirit; there is then a united universal sensation of delight and peaceful union of souls throughout the assembly.”
Any of us who have experienced this kind of musical performance knows how real it is, and therefore should perhaps be alarmed at how such an ancient and precious thing seems to be anything but commonplace in our busy modern world. What Bartram described could have been any of hundreds of concert or music festival performances I have seen. Many kinds of musicians everywhere do something like this, not just indigenous people around a campfire long ago or far away.

If we agree that perhaps something we could call “musical magic” has happened and might happen again, the next cautious step we might take is to ask if certain individuals could have been born with or have learned to cultivate skills that allow them to create or access these “magical” experiences regularly rather than randomly or accidentally. If so, what kinds of conditions could facilitate this magic? We all know the stereotypes about musicians using drugs and alcohol. Could certain musical instruments, voices, scales, tones or rhythms also be tools or pathways that allow a musician to alter their consciousness somehow, or perhaps enter into a “state” that isn’t the same as other everyday moments? Who can say yes or no with any authority? Elvis Presley, not known for being abstract, once said about performing that “It’s like a surge of electricity going through you. It’s almost like making love but it’s stronger than that.” This is where I want to bring in the scientific idea of “fitting data points.” If we assume that some musicians at least sometimes go to some place or traffic in some kind of genuine mysticism, does that help us understand or accept those special pieces of music, magical recordings, compositions or concerts we have experienced or heard about? Does it help us fathom this eternal connection between artists and insanity? Does it help us understand why so many musicians take drugs and drink? Does it explain a little bit of why so many people prefer singing or playing an instrument in a very resonant room or with electronic reverb added? Are our brains wired to enjoy and find meaning in echoes, perhaps dating back to our ancestry in caves? Are churches built to be so reverberant because that adds an ancient and innate element of mystery to whatever words are spoken or music is made there? Does this kind of thinking help explain those things we all know exist in art like inspiration, imagination, improvisation, creativity, or even genius itself? Why is the word “genius” so similar to the word “genie”? Why does the word “imagination” contains the root of the word “magic”?

A number of mysteries I have identified in my long troubadour saga come flashing across my windshield here, demanding some airtime. Rhythm, emotion, words, music and usually dancing or some type of performance are very typically involved in shamanism, and they are all common components of troubadour music. Could solo troubadours, who by themselves generate rhythms, tones, resonances, melody, and harmony as they sing their songs and sometimes sway and dance– have long been exploring the same kinds of human mystical pathways that “primitive” shamans have been observed doing with their words, songs, dances, drugs and drumming? Could that explain why troubadours have long been shunned, adored, feared and even outlawed, or perhaps even why musicians have the reputation of being able to captivate, woo or seduce others with their songs? Who can say with any certainty? Could both the Islamic religion and the Christian church have had such difficulty through the centuries with troubadours because some of these musicians were able to do things that felt somewhat religious but were clearly not part of scripture or dogma? Were troubadours and their music perceived as a threat to Christianity and Islam, or merely something they instinctively kept at arm’s length or felt to be “unholy”? Unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions seem to abound, and each of us might need to ponder and perhaps investigate this on our own.

Blues Shamans in Mississippi?
What if those Mississippi blues musicians who got their hands on those guitars in 1910 had found a way to escape from the oppressive world they were born into by creating a transcendent and shamanic music, and then sharing it with their oppressed fellows? Go look at those photographs of the shacks that plantation and timber workers lived in, or the cages they locked the men in the chain gangs up in at night. Today you might get arrested if you even put a dog in one of those. Go learn about some lynchings or beatings, especially around the peak year 1930, or the ways that blacks in the South were cheated out of land, voting rights, water, education or almost anything you can think of. Ask yourself if you too wouldn’t want to quietly transcend that world if you found out you could do it with a $5 guitar and some time on your hands, without being arrested or whipped? Or go look at the life of a white Southern mill worker, subsistence farmer or coal miner who also found a way to musically escape from a hard life, that at least offered some pleasure in this world and not just the endless promises of a better afterlife to believers who behaved.

The “roots music” that so often appeared in socially and economically deprived communities perhaps all grew invisibly from a home-made skill set and a set of conditions that enabled people to explore their own kinds of personal musical mysticism, starting with a mixture of rhythm with words and vibrating objects. It’s not hard to imagine or discern a form of personal mysticism in folk musicians who led lives of hardship, though I have barely found a sentence about this idea anywhere, or about what might have happened once that mystic energy took a physical form in the grooves of a piece of shellac. I have focused often in my troubadour narrative about the appearance of American sound recordings in the 1920s. Those recordings that defined and propagated so many troubadour ideas were instantly embedded in a capitalist society and an entertainment business that was all about monetizing and marketing music rather than enabling magic. Ask yourself what would happen to one of these shamanic rural musicians whose personal magic instantly became a consumer product that was bought and sold. Alan Lomax wrote in 1959 that “the blues might have flowered so much more fully and richly if these men had not been forced to market themselves.” The songs of the rural blues musicians were not treated as the precious glimpses into the human psyche the way record collectors now perceive them; they were sold as songs you’ll love to hear and play for your friends. The 1928 Paramount Records print ad for Lemon Jefferson’s “Cannon Ball Moan” said, “Here’s a red hot one– so hot it smokes! Blind Lemon Jefferson can always be depended on for good records, but here is one that is going over with a roar…” I find it very hard to believe that the white businessmen who signed blues artists to contracts and gave them money and whiskey to make the recordings understood or cared that they were asking people who were used to being exploited and sometimes imprisoned or whipped by white men to make some kind of magic or connect to a spirit world when the red recording light came on. As a performing musician my entire life, I can hardly imagine that publicists, managers, booking agents or promoters made any efforts to facilitate those artists’ musical shamanic experiences. Vast numbers of performers have traveled endlessly and endured everything in hopes of being able to take audiences with them on their own personal music journeys for a few hours a week, facing far more obstacles than assistance in those quests.

In his book of essays “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life” guitarist John Fahey (1939-2001) tells a remarkable story of working with old-time bluesman Roosevelt Sykes (1906-1983) at a folk festival when the promoter was being very difficult, and Fahey was getting angry and confrontational. Backstage, Sykes told him a story from the days of Jim Crow, where he claimed that black Southerners developed a technique that Sykes called “thinking about honey” to deal with difficult situations. Honey was something simple, sweet and pleasant, and Sykes recommended using it almost as a mantra, even just thinking about it rather than saying the word. Fahey quotes Sykes:
“I don’t care very much about how these people treat me…. If I run into someone who doesn’t treat me with respect, I just figure he is ignorant…. We’re talking about feelings mostly and how to keep feeling good and on top of things. The bad guy can make you do things. He can make you do things you don’t want to do. But if you turn it into a situation where it looks and feels to both of you like you are doing the guy a big favor– if he can’t control the way you feel, but you can– then you are the one who really wins…. Even if the other guy doesn’t know it…. It doesn’t really matter what somebody does to your body, or what they make you do with your body. That isn’t important because… you aren’t your body, are you? The real you is not your body….as long as you can think about honey, then you can always control how you feel.... That’s how you win the game…. And the important thing about honey is that it enables you to keep feeling good regardless about what the other guy says or does…. And that way you can change the balance of power.”

A culture that could devise a technique like that to deal with brutal oppression could easily have also quietly learned to embed similar shamanic and meditative elements into their repetitive, rhythmic music. Natalie Curtis wrote in 1919 as part of her deep fascination and investigations into African-American culture, referring to it as coming from, “naïve, unselfconscious people among whom psychic phenomena are recognized as regular occurrences and important matters of life, [who] might reward scientific investigation with a new angle of light on the obscurer problems of the human spirit.”

As he summarized his investigation of the blues art form in “The Blues Fell This Morning,” Paul Oliver (p.283) admitted not understanding quite what it was: “the blues was more than a form of folk song… the reason why Blacks sang the blues and listened to the blues is still not wholly explained…. It was not solely a physical, nor a mental state. It was not solely the endurance of suffering or a declaration of hopelessness; nor was it solely a means of ridding oneself of a mood.” On page 247 of his deep and thorough “Delta Blues,” Ted Gioia says about John Lee Hooker, one of the most obviously shamanic blues players, “Like those shamans of the non-Western world whose magical rhythms caused altered states of mind and a pathway to a higher realm of consciousness, Hooker seemingly channeled at will some cosmic force, a primal boogie, that never let him down.” In “Boogie Man,” the thick biography of Hooker, I waded through endless anecdotes, interviews, discussions of record contracts and factual information from biographer Charles Shaar Murray. He finally called Hooker a troubadour on page 219, then on page 340 went deeper: “Blues is art… blues is entertainment… but above all, blues is an eminently practical and functional set of methods and processes for dealing with the most painful aspects of life. Like meditation or yoga in Buddhist or Hindu societies, it is a discipline, a structure, for the focusing of self.” Murray at last gave me what I wanted on page 369, as he continued to describe John Lee Hooker and his music. “Hooker is thus not only a human exemplar of the most venerable tradition of the blues, but also of a mystical and spiritual tradition that is older still; far older than the blues, far older than African-American Christianity. He is a shaman.” He then stopped abruptly there, and there were no more discussions of musical mysticism; he ended the long book with a lovely description of Hooker’s funeral, and the glowing tributes by the pop stars who attended. For some set of reasons it is difficult for Western culture, especially its intellectuals, who were trained and steeped in rationalism, to embrace the idea of the congruence of musicians and shamans.

David Evans has delved as deeply as anyone into the Delta blues, and his “Big Road Blues” is one of the classic texts on the subject. He devoted entire chapters to carefully examining the illogical nature and irregular structure of blues songs, and pondered at length why blues songs seem to just consist of random verses pulled from a “pool” of common lines that appear widely in the song form, and why the singers would improvise verses or scramble their order even when they create confusing results or situations. He suggests that these practices had roots in work songs of slaves, and engages in a laundry list of intellectual constructs like separating “popular blues” on recordings from “folk blues” that happen more casually, or sorting blues by “rural vs. urban” or “acoustic vs. electric.” He even tries to say that “regional” or “local” blues are somehow different from “national” blues, and especially that the Mississippi style belongs in a different bin than Texas or Piedmont. We then get the rationalist’s dream term, “non-thematic,” for blues songs that don’t make logical sense or tell a coherent story. Yet Evans never even comes close to suggesting in almost 400 pages of speculation and analysis of this simple art form that blues musicians are perhaps using the rhythms, melody and language to do something internal and perhaps shamanic, and that other than a basic starting point there was never any real need for the musicians to be logical or rational or adhere to any forms or musical structures. On page 114 Evans came the closest: “For a performer like Robert Pete Williams, the blues seem to exist as an almost spiritual force that enters and possesses the singer.” Blues writers often speculate that perhaps musicians playing for a dance might want to add verses and increase the length of a song to accommodate the needs of the dancers, yet I can’t find anywhere a suggestion that perhaps the musicians (or the dancers themselves) are trying to get into a mood or a trance, and might need some extra time to get there, or rearrange their thoughts. Nor do I find any suggestion that maybe a simple, repetitive yet both rhythmic and syncopated song form like the blues might be a very convenient and effective vehicle for a single person with an inexpensive musical instrument to effectively go inward and upward. It is quite possible, as my fellow modern troubadours and I have found for ourselves, that by establishing a fundamental beat, creating rhythmic, droning and constantly mutating accompaniments with our hands on a fretted instrument, and then singing words against that, while also constantly spreading both the guitar accompaniments and the sung lyrics variously across the bar lines rhythmically– is and perhaps always has been a reliable vehicle for a certain type of self-hypnotic and perhaps somewhat shamanic experience. When I read descriptions in blues books or observe what blues performers do in their performances, I see this sort of thing, where the performers linger for different lengths of times, skip over or add verses or measures, while also constantly adding and subtracting nuances, spoken comments, words, guitar figures and rhythmic elements, as if in pursuit of a mindset, feeling or a brainwave pattern. My personal observation is that instrumental music (though I am known for it) may not be as emotional or as capable of taking me as deep as I want to go sometimes, and that only with the addition of words and singing is the musical matrix strong enough to support what I often want to do. I am reminded of a quote from a Lady Eastlake who wrote tellingly in the late 1800s that “Music is not pure to the pure only, she is pure to all; it is only by a marriage with words that she can become a minister of evil.” Maybe she saw this very thing, but could not frame it any other way other than her revulsion to or fear of the added power that words could give to music.
Writer Peter Guralnick, in “Feel Like Going Home,” a portrait of eleven important American music icons, made the observation that “Most blues, however, consist of a series of unrelated verses strung together at random, and for most blues singers, the words are only of secondary importance. Skip James, for example, as intimate and personal a singer as he is, fails to put a distinctive stamp on most of the blues lyrics that he sings. Singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and even Muddy Waters seem to care scarcely at all for the words they are singing. What meaning there is they convey not through words but through feeling and intonation. Elmore James sounds constantly on the edge of hysteria…. It’s not that what they sing is trivial exactly. It’s just that it does not entirely reflect what they are singing about…. What is blues, then? It is for the most part self-accompanied…”

I waited for Guralnick to venture the idea that the blues was perhaps something transcendental, an unconscious but deliberate pathway to some kind of an inner spirit world. Instead he dropped the thread and spent the rest of the chapter and the remaining 200 pages of the book dealing with facts and biography, fame and business. Halfway through, he quoted a lengthy interview David Evans did with Robert Pete Williams, coming teasingly close again, where Williams said, “The sound of the atmosphere, the weather changed my style. But I could hear, with me being an air-music man. The air came in different, with a different sound of music. Well, the atmosphere, when the wind blows carrying music along. I don’t know if it affect you or not, but it’s a sounding that’s in the air, you see? And I don’t know where it comes from– it could come from the airplanes or the moaning of automobiles, but anyhow it leaves an air current in the air, you see. That gets in the wind, makes a sounding, you know? And that sounding works up to a blues.” Those are some pretty “cosmic” and unusual comments from an illiterate, rural self-employed Louisiana laborer, carpenter and scrap-metal dealer who milked cows and even sold their bones. Williams spent ten interminable years from 1949-1959 in Angola Prison for a murder that he said was clearly self-defense, and five more years in near-prison parole bondage that even kept him from performing at folk festivals. What kind of music did this guy play? Listen to “Texas Blues” or “Cane Cut Man.” Williams seems to be a shaman of some sort, or could be trained in a few minutes how to complete his apprenticeship if he’s not there yet. Yet he likely had no idea his entire life what a shaman was, but he instinctively knew, or perhaps learned in a hellhole of a prison, like so many great “uneducated” musicians, how to connect to his own “spirit world” and also how to bring something back to share with listeners in the physical plane.

Guralnick is among the most flamboyant of the American music writers, and one of the few who really thinks out loud while kicking up a sizable cloud of dust as he tries to assimilate and digest what he has learned about the music. In his Skip James chapter, he quoted James saying to him, “Why’d I quit? I was so disappointed. Wouldn’t you be disappointed, man? I cut twenty-six sides for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin. I didn’t get paid but forty dollars. That’s not doing very good. Wouldn’t you be disappointed?” Then at the end of “Feel Like Going Home” Guralnick reflects that “every singer I met, with the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, considered himself a failure. Each one was marked to some degree, white as well as black, by the brutalization of an industry and a society that care very little for his gifts. It was saddening to confront each artist’s disappointment with himself and his career, but it was exhilarating at the same time to meet them on their own grounds and to see the source for some of the energy and genius that went into the make-up of the music.” I guess this is the way American culture has long treated our shamans, those musical canaries who help us know what is going on in some of our coal mines. We commodify, package, vend and consume their disembodied magic to feed ourselves something nourishing and healing, which strange smiths have pulled from the air surrounding the magicians and formed into grooves in shellac, shiny magnetic particles, and invisible electrons that turn invisible switches in the phantom universe of digital music. Why in our capitalist world, where the desire and need for money motivates and justifies nearly everything, do we always enslave and often kill the geese who lay those golden musical eggs? Did hunter-gatherer or simple agrarian societies also wring their shamans dry to get what they could of their mysterious elixirs, or is this just a bad habit of capitalism? The questions again start flowing.

What if the early recording technology had allowed songs that were longer than three minutes? A ten-inch 78rpm record, and also the 7-inch 45rpm single that followed it, could only hold a little over three minutes of music, and pop songs have remained near that length for 90 years. For about the second half of that time period there has been no technical limitation causing it, though artists and radio DJs have dealt with comparable time limitations throughout the entire history of the record industry. How many of those legendary early recording artists ever played a three-minute song in their entire performing lives before they went to make a record? That is a very short time to expect any musician to go into a proper “zone,” and to connect with the things they like to connect with, especially when it was happening with unfamiliar white men and strange machines surrounding them. (An electric light would come on near the three-minute time so the performers knew to end their songs, though blind recording artists had difficulty knowing when to stop and sometimes were tapped on the shoulder.) My favorite recording of the Indian violinist Shankar, the track “Ragam: Sankarabharanam” is over 28 minutes long, recorded during a concert, during which he builds an impressive trance atmosphere, rooted in an ancient culture that seems to understand that musicians can take a while to make the proper connections to the sacred places they go. When it’s over I usually want to hear it again.

I like to imagine that Henry Sloan or Charley Patton did extended and hypnotic things like that with their guitars, in a shack by the smoky light of a cheap kerosene lamp or a pine-pitch torch at the Dockery Plantation deep in the Mississippi delta, before electricity, motors and modern distractions. What would John Lee Hooker have done in 1948 in the makeshift recording studio in Detroit when he recorded “Boogie Chillen” if there had never had been such a thing as a 78rpm record, and he could have had the full 20-minute side of a micro-groove LP to work with as he wove his trademark spell of droning guitar, voice and foot percussion. Anyone who has been to a good folk festival jam session has seen an old-time string band play the same simple 16-bar, two-chord dance tune for ten or fifteen minutes, as they slowly merge their consciousness and levitate themselves a little, late at night when nobody is watching a clock or being anywhere but in the moment. Folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon’s attempts in the 1920s were notable in his New York Times Sunday Magazine articles, when he tried to describe the “primitive” Appalachian old-time fiddle music he observed in his fieldwork. He mentioned the simple, repetitive and rhythmic tunes, inane lyrics, lack of coherence or narratives– indicating that he did not have the slightest idea that the real function of that music might have been the lovely, low-level, lotus-flower shamanism that old-time musicians still practice. This was from the man who founded the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song, who maybe never saw any deeper into what he saw as charming but simple folk art.

Genie in a Bottle?
The entire idea of recorded music says something profound about the nature of music itself, and we could enter into nearly endless discussions of whether the magic that can be transmitted by a recording is as valuable or urgent as that delivered in person, or if it was contained in other physical or electronic forms. Now that so much popular music typically consists of sounds that have never been or could never be played by human musicians, this also brings up issues about the nature of music. Is the music made by human performers fundamentally different, better, less reliable or more powerful than machine-made sounds? Is there more involved than just sound waves and vibrations, or are those vibrations doing more than we realize? If music can contain magic of some sort, or is connected to a type of shamanism, how can those things be embedded in plastic or in the sound waves that fly through the air into our car speakers? How do they hold up in the transfers of music to analog, digital, mp3 or streaming formats? Sound recording captures vastly more than do verbal descriptions or musical notation, and video captures much more of what is happening than just audio. The number of speakers in the world that are pouring billions of sounds into every situation on the planet must be having an effect on the world, and the time prior to 150 years ago where there was almost no mechanical music must have been dramatically different. Musicians must have been perceived as having a very different value then, and questions abound about whether we are losing something vital as we gain something else, and perhaps trading older kinds of human magic for technological ones. Or maybe we have reached an ideal place where we can choose what kinds of music and musical experiences we want. It must have been limiting if you grew up in a remote village and only had your culture’s food and music, especially in the light of today’s gourmet mindset where we are encouraged to sample things from as many cultures as possible. The choices and access we have now to distant musical ideas and sounds are quite incredible, and that change has largely come from machine-made, recorded and transmitted music. Whether the quality or ingredients of those long-distance musical experiences are adequate is a big question; are they the sonic equivalents of mass-produced, packaged and frozen food? We have certainly reached a point in the culinary world where people are exerting huge effort and resources to connect us to food that is grown, prepared and served locally and personally by skilled and caring people, and increasing numbers of people clearly feel that effort and expense are not wasted. Would we be better off if we perceived something comparable in our music, and are we going to pursue and value such distinctions? When you listen to even an mp3 version of a 1930s recording of blues singer/guitarist Son House it’s hard to feel like you are getting a watered-down or diluted version of anything, but maybe we are. Perhaps if any of us had been in the room when it happened, it might have been a “bucket list” experience. Don Law (1902-1982), who produced all of Robert Johnson’s legendary recordings, never said a word about Johnson’s music or personal power, just that he was shy, slender and was a nice-looking boy with “beautiful hands.”

Musical Bio-Feedback
When I was learning to play guitar, there was a good deal of what felt like “space travel” for me. I dimly remember long periods of not remembering anything, while hours evaporated as I played guitar endlessly, sometimes 12 hours a day. It was 45 years ago, as a street musician, that I first discovered tangible evidence of this mysterious property of music I’m struggling to talk about. When you play music for a crowd of people who are sitting, standing, eating or milling around, it is impossible to know for sure who is listening or liking what you are doing. Facial expressions, body language, and of course applause are your best clues. If someone gets up and leaves, you assume they are probably not captivated with you, though there might be a personal emergency you don’t know about. Performing seems to often involve the intangible issue of you connecting to them or not, and you can of course also learn it or fail to learn in a noisy bar or another “non-listening” venue. On a busy sidewalk, though, it becomes a “bio-feedback” experiment, because the ones who are interested actually stop walking and stand in front of you until they lose interest. You can see their feet, and you don’t even have to look them in the face to know they are watching and listening, and you can tell how many there are. Anyone who has played street music knows how hard it is to get the first person to stop, and how it gets easier as you build a crowd after you attract a few listeners and new people stop to see what others are watching. You also learn quickly how easy it is to lose your crowd, when for equally mysterious reasons they sometimes all walk away, as if the spell is broken or a bubble pops. Sometimes the best way to get people’s attention is to completely ignore them and go inward, toward whatever your version of the musical spirit world is. If you succeed, you may be surprised to find a crowd around you on the sidewalk, or people applauding and listening who were recently ignoring you or talking. Holding people’s attention is not a static thing you just do or don’t do or learn once and never need to learn again. It’s an elusive animal that must always be hunted cunningly. The Pulitzer prize-winning article that Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten wrote in 2007 about classical violin virtuoso Joshua Bell’s experiment playing his Stradivarius in the subway never approaches those issues. He never suggests that Bell’s failure to engage more than just a handful of the thousands of people who walked past him stemmed from his lack of experience in these skills, and not from his inability to play Bach’s “Chaconne” correctly, or from the ignorance or lack of perception by the commuters who walked by.

Mysticism and Songwriting
I’ve mostly been talking about the types of connections that musicians make while practicing or during performances, but creators of music are also invoking and participating in another non-rational activity. All creators and even mathematicians and scientists traffic in some forms of the unconscious, but a songwriter who is generating words, melody along with a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment is working in a more complex system than a lyricist, speechwriter or visual artist. Writing new words to a hymn or Christmas carol is a much more linear and rational process than conjuring an impressionistic song. It is nearly impossible for a non-songwriter to envision the vague but real process where musicians become antennas, connect to hidden sources of ideas and create elusive but very real spiritual or neural pathways. Rhythmic, lyric and melodic ideas are almost floating around, waiting to be brought into the physical world as parts of songs. The phrase “writing music” creates a mental image of someone with a musical instrument and paper, and certainly for those countless thousands or probably millions of pieces of sheet music, we might imagine a composer writing each note in a linear way, from left to right, from beginning to end. People who call themselves “singer-songwriters” typically do something quite different, and it would not be that difficult to collect a large number of anecdotes or accounts of the songwriting art to support the idea that this process of creating is known and widespread. It is not clear how anyone would go about investigating how songwriting works; there would be only anecdotes and no data, and it might resemble our attempts to understand what dreaming is. Strapping an immobilized songwriter into an MRI machine and asking them to write a song isn’t going to yield much. Video historian Ken Burns, not given to speculation or mysticism, even felt the need to bring it up in his powerful and thorough “Country Music” series, where he said simply that “Songwriting is the most mysterious of all the trades. It cannot be explained.”
Paul Simon was unusually forthcoming when he wrote about his creative process in the introduction to his “Songs of Paul Simon” (p.X): “I just sit down with a guitar, pick a key, and play…. I sing any words that come into my head without trying to make any sense out of them. I tend to sing easy words with a concentration on ‘oos’ and ‘ah’ sounds, which are musically pleasing to me. I also like words beginning with ‘g’s’ and ‘l’s’ and words that have ‘t’s’ and ‘k’s’ in them. Sometimes during this stream of consciousness singing, a phrase will develop that has a naturalness and a meaning, in which case I keep it and start to build a song around it. I almost always complete the melody before the lyric. Nevertheless, I think the best songs are those where words and music really come simultaneously….”

Rock legend and songwriter John Fogerty said in his autobiography about the experience of writing his blockbuster song “Proud Mary.” “You’re looking at this shadowy, cloudy shape, you start to go in a direction and whump! The veil is lifted and suddenly there’s a song, a great song. It was like being struck by God. I was sitting there quaking with this paper in my hand.” Floyd Tillman wrote about how he wrote his hit country song “I Love You So Much It Hurts” in 1948: “I was fooling around with my guitar, alone, happy to be free. My fingers lay flat across the last four strings. I strummed and the four notes said ‘I love you so…’ and then I improvised almost unconsciously ‘much it hurts me.’ I suppose if any song ever came to me like automatic writing this one did.”
In 1905 a Pima Indian chief was asked how his people wrote their songs. “We dreamed them,” he replied. Shortly after 1900 in South Dakota, Sioux Indians Huhuseca-ska (White Bone), Zintkala Maza (Iron Bird), and Hato-Naiin (Standing-Bear) described how their songs came from the all-powerful spirit Wakan-Tanka:
“Two are the kinds of songs: songs made by man, and songs that come in dreams or in visions through the spirits from Wakan-Tanka. Of the first kind there are songs made by the mind of man to please the ear…. Songs of the second kind come from Wakan-Tanka and are...holy, apart. No man has the right to sing such a song save him to whom the song came in dream or in vision. But this man may teach the song to others and give to them the right to sing it. All songs that are holy, that belong to sacred rites and ceremonies, that have power to work wonders, that go with healing, are of this kind: for holy rites, wisdom, and healing are from Wakan-Tanka. Spirits come to man in dreams and in waking visions…. When the spirit comes to man in a dream, it may be thus: a song is heard on the air, then a form appears…. When the spirit comes in waking vision, it may be in this way: A man wants to gain some power, or to learn some holy practice. Into the wilderness he goes alone…, seeks the mountain-top... and cries for power to come to him…. Thus the spirits come to man in solitude.”

Discussions of mysticism or shamanism are interesting, and though it is probably pointless to try to describe or discuss something that is so personal, intangible and unrepeatable, the troubadour songwriting process lies at the heart of a multi-billion dollar business. Like the old folktale, songwriters are geese that lay golden eggs. Teenagers who learn a few guitar chords sometimes write songs that enchant millions of people. Even the biggest-sounding dance hits and heavily produced pop songs most likely began as something vague and invisible, floating above or inside the head of a musician who was in a near-trance state, almost unconsciously pulling the song in like a big fish on a small line, or tuning in to a distant radio station– humming and singing, tinkering with their instruments, rhythms or electronic musical tools. Software, novels, movie scripts and other types of creative writing are far more intellectual and linear pursuits, and songwriting may be one of the most gossamer and elusive of all types of commercialized creativity. It also may give one of best glimpses into a type of artistic activity that comes as close to being “astral” or “shamanic” as anything we can discuss comfortably. Not that all songs are written this way, nor are all songwriters shamans, but this is one of the hottest-burning, crucial yet elusive parts of what I want to talk about. It is unfortunately as difficult to describe and discuss this as it is to talk about religion, emotions, beliefs, fears, taboos or other spiritual and deeply human subjects.

I see troubadours everywhere I look in music, among both performers and creators. Where do all those songs come from? How do all those songwriters put up their antennas and transmitters and pull their songs out of the thin air? They don’t just do it in chain gangs and prison cells. They conjure songs in dormitories, bedrooms, basement apartments, trailer parks, and by the pool in luxurious mansions. I know more than most music journalists or biographers, because I have written songs since I was 14, and hundreds of my friends and colleagues also write songs. Songs often do come from some mysterious or inexplicable place; at least the best ones do. Many of us can craft a song for a birthday party or a special occasion, but the moments when we can put a groove together and pull some words out of the wind even as they attach themselves to a melody are not explainable. But music creators know this skill exists, and it is the basis of the large and very valuable industry of musical intellectual property. The songwriting process is not tangible or predictable, like sawing a board, sweeping a floor or pouring cement. There are fragile moments; nuances, little spells of magic, musical soap bubbles that stretch, float and pop. This sort of language and thinking makes sense to me, and I am certain would make sense to any songwriter, yet it seems to be conspicuously absent from the body of most historical, popular and scholarly writing that I can find about musical creativity or discussions of the craft of being a musician. It is somewhat of a religious problem, since you don’t want to claim that you are connecting to God or your ancestors or an animal spirit, though for a while it was acceptable in Christian Europe to pretend to channel Orpheus and the Greek gods, or at least emulate those long-ago Greeks who told us about those gods. As both a lifelong performer and creator, listener and observer, I clearly see a shamanic element especially present in both the performance and the creative aspects of personal troubadour music, yet there are at best only fleeting references to this perspective in the immense body of writing and observations about music in Western society.

These avenues of thinking can perhaps help us understand why so many young artists and performers who discover that they have some abilities or powers that let them into a musical spirit word, so often falter, especially once their art becomes a commodity and something they are asked to reproduce constantly. It is poignant and almost paradoxical that we celebrate and commodify young musicians, who have had the least time to learn to handle their powers, and few chances to grapple with how to overcome the difficulties of conjuring on demand. Creating magic night after night at a precise time and place is difficult even for the experienced, in front of crowds of people who likely are not consciously aware that they are participating in a kind of mass-marketed shamanism, centered around sounds and words made by a hyper-celebrated person or group. Nothing of what I say here should shock you, except for that fact that it is odd that something that seems to make sense to most of us, and that most people have probably personally observed, is essentially never discussed publicly, or viewed as anything other than a mystery. In a workshop at a folk festival I might even be ridiculed if I said that many of the best musicians in my world are doing things that could reasonably be referred to as shamanism, and my fellow musicians might never stop teasing me about it.

Being tremendously outnumbered and out-gunned by rationalists, I suppose I should admit in advance some kind of defeat, especially since my theories are illogical, and introduce “crackpot” notions and thoroughly unscientific things like shamanism. Luckily I am writing my own book and not trying to convince the editor of an academic journal that my ideas have peer-reviewable, publishable merit. Yet it seems totally clear to me as I try to understand not only the music I have played since my childhood but also the forces that led me to devote so much of my life to learning and doing it, that I see some kind of pursuit of a state of mind or “magico-religious” content as a central issue in both the creation and performance of good music. I’ll rest my case here, and let you do your own deeper research and thinking if you choose. If you require evidence, it appears to abound, at least to show that there are any number of educated and aware scholars and musicians who in the past and present have understood that there is a connection between music and something we can reasonably call magic or shamanism. Admittedly, as I look around me, this idea is not getting much traction, but I am not the only lunatic making the claim. Lester King wrote presciently in “Philosophy of Medicine: The Early Eighteenth Century” that “The relations of magic, animism, mysticism and advanced religious thought, and the stages of naïve, mature and sophisticated science are all intertwined.”

So gentle reader, and especially gentle musician, go thou and think more about yourself, and about music, and about all those who make and hear music. Explore your instincts and your feelings as much as you explore the muscles in your hands or the words on your paper. Pay attention to and nurture the divine spirit of music in yourself, and in others– more so than the location of your fingers or the chord being played. Do not pull back from thoughts that might lead you to conclude that music and magic are often intertwined. Above all, do not forget that it is entirely possible that the closest that any of us can go toward the intersection of musical sound and human consciousness might happen when a single musician builds the scaffolding and the altar with their own rhythms, melodies, words and harmony, using their own voices, bodies, souls and emotions.

Read Chapter 1

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,