Oct 05 2008

What in the World: Reading Rory Gallagher’s Blues

Published by at 10:30 am under articles

Simon Frith’s 1992 essay “The Cultural Study of Popular Music” is frequently cited by scholars who have written on popular music. Frith points out that whereas in the U.S., popular music is approached from the angle of cultural studies, in the U.K. it is more usually researched and written about from the perspective of social anthropology and sociology, and he notes that his own research owes much to the work of Kick Hebdige and Raymond Williams. British scholars are more concerned with band culture, social class, race, and gender issues than with the music itself. this is not to say that these issues are not important but to indicate the often tangential value of the music itself in such analysis. Frith notes that the “academic myth of popular culture is still haunted by, even determined by, terms drawn from high cultural theory. Writing on popular music, in particular, still rests on the way in which the high cultural distinction between “seriousness” (the aesthetic) and “fun” (the hedonistic) is read as a distinction between mind and body” (180). Therefore, if the rules of the game preclude the scholar from writing about such a frivolous subject as pop music with high seriousness, he or she is let to shuffle around with the various phenomena surrounding it. Martin Scorcese’s otherwise splendid No Direction Home demonstrates how “serious” looks at popular music shy away from the music itself. The documentary pays little attention to the forms, structures, and aesthetics of Dylan’s songs and instead focuses on how they have been received and perceived because of their cultural and Iconic significance, thus proving the truth of Frith’s contention that even the most sympathetic interpreter of popular music is hamstrung by a received, and ultimately negative, backhanded world view. Of course, theory does provide somewhat dubious entry points for the scholar where by music can be engaged on the scholar’s and not the musician’s terms.

One cannot assume that for bedside reading Bertie Ahern turns to works on critical theory. What his remarks to the IMRO may indicate is a desire to see that barrier-breaking — in north-south relations, Ireland-U.K. relations, labor-management relations — be part of a continuum that spreads into all fields of enterprise, including the arts. The Taoiseach collapses the artificial barrier Frith finds between the “aesthetic” and the “hedonistic.” Gerry Smyth reminds us in Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music that “Ahern’s speech should be considered in the context of the revival of economic fortunes during the 1990s, and the concomitant recognition of music’s role in, and contribution to, that revival” (3). He notes:

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “What in the World: Reading Rory Gallagher’s Blues”

  1. kathleenon 01 Apr 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Hmmm. Thank you for this, which I’ve just discovered.

    Your comments are astonishingly astute, intelligent, and very well informed.

    One of the (alleged) quotations from an interview with Rory in his last days is something like: “The checked shirt has become stigmata to me.”

    That, if true, says so much — frankly, for someone like me, who is of Irish descent and Roman Catholic childhood — and says pretty much everything. It’s uncomfortable, but revealing.

    I do wish that someone (and the most likely person is Donal) would write, or at least authorize, the definitive biography of Rory.

    Greetings from The States.


  2. Richard Day Goreon 01 Aug 2012 at 6:38 am


    I’ve been waiting for years for Rory to be examined at an academic level. He’s so much more than a guitarist or songwriter or uniquely lovable bluesman: he’s culturally important in a way that deserves serious, serious consideration.

    I’m sure many fans will read this piece and say “WTF” because of its dry academic-speak, but Rory’s music being part of an academic conference is a huge achievement! Even the intellectuals are waking up to the fact that Rory was, is, and will always be, relevant.

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